The Gorgon, The Witch’s Mirror and the Monstrous Feminine

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The representation of women in horror is a thorny issue. Typically they’re either victims or monsters. Since it seems to me that the whole women as victims thing is pretty self-evident as to its meaning, I’m going to be addressing what I think is far more interesting: The female as monster. Even in the most negative, sexist ways, the female monster can be a symbol of a woman’s power and the ways it is misunderstood or embraced.

 

Misunderstood is why I’m starting with Hammer Film’s The Gorgon.

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As a refresher, The Gorgon is about a series of murders that have taken place in the city-state of Vandorf. Each victim, killed at the full moon, was turned to stone. Namaroff, doctor of the city’s hospital (played by my boo Peter Cushing), and Inspector Kanof, head police officer in the area (played by future second Doctor Patrick Troughton), have conspired to cover up the murders:   Kanof because he knows how five years worth of unsolved murders will look for him, Namaroff because he knows more about them than he’s telling anyone. When the Heitz family starts falling victim – first son Bruno, then father Jules – the remaining son Paul (Richard Pasco) won’t be dissuaded from finding out what happened, even as he falls in love with confusing nurse Carla Hoffman (the ethereal Barbara Shelley, who, because of this movie was my Hammer Glamour love until I discovered Ingrid Pitt). The answer to the whole puzzle leads Paul and friend Professor Meister (the delightfully bellicose Christopher Lee whose voice tends to enter most scenes he’s in a few seconds before he himself does) down a road that leads to the Greece of 2,000 years ago and heartbreak all around.

 

If there is any thread I would say unites Hammer’s horror output, it’s conservatism. Now, before you all shout at me about any Hammer film in the 70’s (and The Vampire Lovers in particular) I will point out that the hotter the chick, the more thoroughly evil she was and the more she needed to be killed by whatever old white guy was in that particular movie. The Quatermass and Dracula films are magnum opuses of xenophobia and the Frankenstein films do their damndest to warn us against academic curiosity (and, in one case, transvestism).

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It should come as no surprise that The Gorgon is, on the surface, an ode to keeping the little woman under control because she is irrational and dangerous. A woman can’t prosper if she doesn’t have a man who will take her by the hand and tame her and who is willing to risk their lives to do it.

 

I do not deny that all this is true and probably on some level the intention of the movie. But that’s not what I see when I watch The Gorgon. The surprising depth the story achieves is the reason it’s my favorite Hammer film.

 

Bluntly put, when I watch The Gorgon, I see two men actively taking away one woman’s right to personal autonomy. They perceive it to be for the right reasons. It may even actually be for the right reasons; Carla does freaking kill people once a month. Setting aside the moral issues here, we have two men who are actively keeping a woman from learning about how her body functions because they think it will protect her. Namaroff knows she transforms and Paul just thinks her head is in a weird place before discovering she transforms. Neither of them include her in the decisions they make about her.

 

One of the reasons I think this is one of the best of Hammer films is that, aside from Lee’s Professor Meister, the characters in this movie are all shades of gray. Everyone is doing the wrong thing for the right reason – or what they perceive to be the right reason – and everything goes to Hell because of it.

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It’s of ultimate importance that when Megaera takes over, Carla faffs off and does whatever she wants.   Take the train to Leipzig? Nah, I’m gonna go hang out at the abandoned castle.   Stay locked in my room because Namaroff says so? Nah, gonna go see my boyfriend.

 

There are a couple points where Carla begs Namaroff to explain to her what he obviously knows about her and he flat refuses. She realizes something is wrong and everyone but her knows it but none of them will tell her so she begins to get erratic and lash out.

 

Paradoxically, the more agitated Carla gets, the closer she gets to being under the sway of Magaera and the more calm and in control she is. This is exemplified by the scene in which Paul enters Castle Borsky in the early morning for a planned rendezvous with Carla. He enters and finds her on a raised dais, sitting on a throne, cape spread over the whole chair, hands on both arms, chin tilted up so that she is looking down on Paul in every respect. She is taking up more space than is necessary, making herself look bigger (it put me in mind of ancient Egyptian art, where you always know Pharaoh because he is in the middle of a wide stride, taking up twice as much space as the other figures). She is calm and her tone is direct and imperious. Megaera is the one ruling here. She tells Paul if they leave now she’ll go with him. Paul refuses and she tells him it’ll be too late if they wait.   Carla regains control long enough to run.

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She can’t say why it will be too late because the men who know why haven’t bothered to explain it to her. Had they talked to her they might have come up with a solution that didn’t involve, you know, everyone dying.

 

The Gorgon gives us the images of Carla, who is pushed to conform in order to be granted the love she wants, and Megaera who fits every stereotype of a woman with power:   Terrifying, murderous, irrational and deceptively beautiful so that men suffer for her whims. She must be stripped of her power (or have the knowledge that she can wield it actively blocked) because she will just use it to kill people. Power in the hands of a woman only leads to death and suffering.

 

But Megaera also tried to pull Carla away from the men attempting to control her (I don’t think it was merely plot convenience that drove Megaera to go after Paul at the first sign of affection between he and Carla – though there was some plot convenience) and give her an excuse to control her own actions. It’s simply assumed that a woman’s actions when she is left on her own are sinister and destructive.

 

So, we see a case where a woman’s self-autonomy it ugly and can destroy everyone around her. Can it ever help people?

 

The Witch’s Mirror gives a resounding yes.

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The Witch’s Mirror (El Espejo de la Bruja) is something of a puzzle at first glance.   The movies starts with an opening narration describing the Satan worshipping practices of witches and occultists, the most devout of which are women, and how they eat babies and do all sorts of evil, nasty shit.

 

Cut to Elena (Dina de Marco, who did mostly television) and her godmother Sara (Isabela Corona) standing before a mirror that is not reflecting the room around them. Sara pronounces that the omens say Elena will be murdered by her husband Eduardo (Armando Calvo, who was also in Hell Of Frankenstein) and that another woman will be indirectly involved.

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Right from the beginning, we know Sara is a witch. She invokes the spirits of Hell and uses a flaming pentagram in the first scene.   When the panicked Elena begs for help, Sara promises she’ll do what she can. Sara, in turn, begs the evil spirits to help and they refuse.   Elena’s death is destined and if Sara interferes, she will be punished and nothing will change. Sara is forced to stand by as her goddaughter is poisoned then bides her time until Eduardo brings home his new wife, Deborah (Rosita Arenas, familiar to fans of The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy), the woman Sara saw in the mirror the night Elena died, and the woman whom Eduardo killed his wife to marry. Sara decides her time has come and she begins her revenge.

 

This is a Mexican film and it seems weird to have a bunch of people from a Catholic country invoking Satan’s generals the way another person would invoke saints.

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But then I remembered the Onryou, the revenge ghost of Japanese lore (most commonly known to us in America as your girl with the hair in her face from The Ring). Most Onryou were women because, in a society as traditionally restrictive as Japan, the only way for a woman to fight back is to die and, therefore, be able to work outside the rigid system.

 

In a similar way, Catholicism traditionally hasn’t been the best at protecting and supporting women, especially from their husbands, so the fact that Elena has to die, and Sara has to call on Satan for assistance makes sense.

 

Elena’s death scene is very uncomfortable to watch. Eduardo brings her poisoned milk, and her hesitation in drinking it shows she knows exactly what he’s doing. But she’s the obedient wife who is marked by fate. In other words, she has no control over her life, which she acknowledges by drinking the milk and demanding to know why her husband poisoned her before she drops dead.

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It’s interesting to note that Sara is Elena’s godmother. Traditionally, the godparents don’t look after a child’s life – that is what the parents are for – they look after the child’s soul and make sure they stay on the religious path. On that level, it makes perfect sense that Sara can do nothing to save Elena’s life, but as soon as Elena has passed, Sara can guide Elena’s soul to fuck up all the shit it wants to.

 

It is also of note that this woman, who does some very monstrous things and would be considered a monster by people of a certain temperament, does not appear monstrous.   She is a dignified, authoritative woman.

 

As is the case with the Onryou, this ghost’s revenge is not a straight line. It starts with Deborah, Eduardo’s new wife. There’s a discussion that tells us she didn’t have anything directly to do with Elena’s murder, so the revenge that comes her way is actually unfair – another example of a woman with power being irrational (though the filmmakers do ease our guilt by making Deborah one of the nastiest, most selfish, insensitive people ever. There were points when I was thinking she should have been the wife in a William Castle movie she was such a raging bitch).

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But Sara did admit the point of the exercise was to force Eduardo to dig his own grave. She could never prove that Elena had been murdered.   Uselessly stealing dead bodies and cutting the hands off women who had been buried alive to fix his disfigured wife who wasn’t really disfigured could be proven.

 

With the help of Satan and his minions, Sara and Elena got justice and Sara dissolved into the night, her work complete. For her, there are no consequences to her evil magic, because she was using her evil magic to correct an injustice.

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The Gorgon gives us a conservative picture of the traditional place of women and what happens when men can’t reign them in.

 

El Espejo de la Bruja gives us a realistic picture of what a woman’s traditional place can cost her and the sometimes unsavory avenues of escape available to her.

 

The Gorgon says outside power is destructive and dangerous. El Espejo de la Bruja says outside power is the only alternative of the oppressed and, in the right hands, can be a weapon for justice.

 

Neither portrayal is clear-cut. Megaera only wants the chance to live her life her own way, not be tied to anyone. She longs for Sara’s freedom. But Sara destroys an unnecessarily large number of lives just so Eduardo can keep damning himself, mirroring Megaera’s irrational killing spree.

 

The point of these characters may not be to represent a nuanced approach to female power, but they unintentionally do. A fresh pair of eyes reveals that these characters mark the progress of women’s struggle for justice autonomy, and the sometimes unconventional routes we have to take to get there. Embracing and exploring the monster can lead to new understandings of ourselves and our world, and, in that respect, women are no different than men.

A Labor Of Love: The Giant Of Marathon

It’s been awhile, but don’t for a second think my Bava obsession has waned!

The next movie on the list of my epic Bava-inspired gown was kind of a weird one and actually proved a bit of an unexpected struggle: La Battaglia di Maratona, released in the US as The Giant of Marathon.

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This movie is pretty basic sword and sandal fare, and anyone who has seen more than one of those movies will recognize everything. It even has Steve Reeves, though he doesn’t have a beard in this movie and for some reason that REALLY weirds me out. Also present is Daniela Rocca, whom The Maestro also directed in Caltiki.

The movie goes like this: It starts in Olympia in 490 BCE, where the games are being held and Phillippides (our man Steve) wins everything because he’s freakishly strong. Now, in this movie, he’s just freakishly strong. There’s no real reason, he’s not the child of a god or anything. There’s no supernatural presence in this movie at all. Upon returning to Athens, the city-state he was representing, he is named Captain of the Sacred Guard, which is the elite guard of the city.

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Now, going on behind all this is some political intrigue, some guy who used to rule Athens that everyone hates named Hippias is planning to return and seize control of the city. The problem is, when they kicked him out of Athens he ran to Persia and got on the good side of the king there.

I’m gonna make an aside here for something I love talking about: Darayavaus I. He’s typically known by the Latin version of his name, Darius. He was the third (maybe fourth depending on whose version of the story you side with) king of the Achaemenid Dynastry founded by Kurus II (Cyrus the Great). Basically, he had no right to the throne of Persia and at 30 years old, he stole it and spent years successfully putting down rebellions before expanding the Persian Empire to the biggest it would go. In short, he was a stud monkey.

Gratuitous stone relief of Darayavaus!

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And he was a stud monkey who set his sights on Greece when they helped part of his empire unsuccessfully rebel. He gathered up his navy and sailed for Greece, where his forces, who were better prepared, better trained and should have won by any reasonable measurement were defeated by the Greeks. Darayavaus ended up so bitter and hateful toward the Greeks afterward that the story goes he had a servant whose sole job it was, until the great king died, to bend over and whisper in his ear, “my lord, remember the Athenians” at intervals.

Darayavaus does make a few appearances in the film (played by Daniele Vargas), but the movie is mostly about the Greek jerks who sided with him. And make no mistake, the Greeks in this movie who would go against their city-state are earnestly portrayed as the worst sort of scum on the earth.

There’s a really strong, pro-democracy strain in this movie that actually it reminiscent of Frank Miller’s 300. The Greeks are right-thinking people who value freedom and democracy whereas those nasty Persians want to rule the world with an iron fist.

The political aspects of this film center around Theocritus (played by Sergio Fantoni), who is manipulating Creuso (Ivo Garrani), an elder member of the senate, and his daughter Andromeda (Mylene Demongeot). In the mix is Charis (Daniela Rocca) who is said to be Theocritus’s servant, but the implication that she’s a prostitute in his employ is pretty clear. Theocritus forces Charis to try to seduce Phillippedes but she fails as Phillippedes has already fallen in love with Andromeda. Theocritus uses this to his own advantage by convincing Phillippedes that Androdema is a traitor to Athens. Phillippedes leaves Athens in disillusionment, leaving the moral of the Sacred Guard in tatters. A plea from a fellow soldier draws Phillipedes back to organize the effort to fight off the Persians. The movie does include Phillipedes’s legendary run to Sparta, though it lacks Pan so it doesn’t quite have the flavor it could.

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The American title, I think, comes from a speech on of the soldiers gives before the senate about how any man will be a giant when he’s depending his homeland.

This film was a French/Italian co-production and, when it began was being directed by the wonderful Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur didn’t like the film and didn’t want to do it, but he was under contract. Partway through the movie, his contract ran out and he just left. Galatea Film then turned to the man who had proven himself adept at cleaning up other people’s messes, Mario Bava.

This leads to a very weird quandry. This film was directed by two people who are quite well known for their visual style. But this movie is quite bland and ordinary to look at. There’s one scene where I can confidently say, “yeah, The Maestro did that” and no scenes at all where I can tell Tourneur did it.

This led me to a crafting quandry as well. In making my piece for I Vampiri, I had to work a little bit to find the image I wanted to go with. No image grabbed me, but I was able to find something I liked and expand on it.

In this movie, there are no striking images. There were a couple nice pieces of jewelry, but they didn’t really hit me and, frankly, working them in would have taken up accessory space I had in mind for other movies that were visually strong and that I enjoyed so much more.

I figure, this is a military movie, so what can I work with that was in the battle scenes? Then I notice the shoulder armor they’re wearing.

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Okay, I can work with this.

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I have some leather cuffs I bought at a Renaissance Faire ages ago. They’re suede, and the shoulder armor doesn’t look suede, but there is a contrast between the inset squares and the outer edges, so if I stick with the suede and find a smooth faux leather for the inset squares, I’ll get a similar look. I cut the squares of smooth pleather out, but quickly discovered that, with the shape of the cuff, squares wasn’t happening. So I settled with rectangles.

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I think, by this point, anyone reading realizes that I wasn’t that into it when I was making this piece. I thought of gluing the smooth rectangles to the suede, but I haven’t had good luck with glue and suede in the past, so I decided to use some cross stitch thread to sew the rectangles to the cuffs. I had some DMC Satin cross stitch floss that was a brilliant blue laying around, so I thought I’d use that.  By the way, leather thimbles are GREAT.

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THAT was a mistake. That stuff is terrible. It knots like you would not believe, and it actually frays as you’re working. As soon as I was done sewing the squares on, I had to go over it with the micro-tip scissors and cut off all the little fly-aways. I have a deep seated hatred of that stuff now. But the blue popped, and given how closely I associated blue and The Maestro I’ll leave it be.

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At this point, the whole thing looked pretty plain. It needed a little pizazz. I remembered in the movie they had the Persians catapulting skulls into Athens as a fright tactic. I raised an eyebrow when I saw this and I don’t remember hearing that the Persians ever did this (it was an Assyrian thing), but, hey, skulls! I’ll always add skulls to things!

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I found some iron on skull studs at the craft store and decided that super glue would serve me better than setting up the iron. I sewed the x’s in the middle of the rectangles (And managed to get them completely not centered), then glued the little skulls to the center.

I looked at the bottom now and realized I had the chance to fix the one thing about the cuffs I really hated, and the thing that kept me from wearing them. The ties. I don’t like jewelry that requires another person to put on you. Too much effort.

What I did have was some left over snaps and a whole bunch of ribbon that was the same color blue as the thread I used. So I sewed the snaps to the ends of some chunks of ribbon. This was done almost entirely while I was wearing the cuff. The way the cuff fits is that the edges are closer at the wrist because your wrist is smaller than the rest of your arm. So the ribbon at each pair of grommets had to be fitted to where it sat on my arm, and the only way to make sure it wasn’t too tight or too loose and to not have to remake it a bajillion times was to measure it while it was on.

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This was an annoying process, but a lot shorter in the long run, and now I know the the cuff fits properly.

Then to cover up the ugly stitches required to sew the snaps to the ribbon, I glued on little skulls (MORE SKULLS!!!).

I let the piece sit overnight to make sure the glue dried uninterrupted.

The next day I put it on and wore it all day to make sure stuff wouldn’t pop off and it didn’t, so we call it good.

Frankly, I’m pretty ambivilent about the piece. It doesn’t suck. It’s not very good either. Kinda blah and ordinary. But I also think that’s a pretty good summation of the movie. So, it works? Maybe?

For me and my Bava gown enterprise, this movie is the calm before the storm. As much as I wasn’t into this project, and as simple and easy as it turned out to be, the next piece of the gown is going to be that difficult and I am dreading it a bit.

Tying up Tourneur’s loose ends with The Giant of Marathon meant that Galatea trusted Bava enough to let him write his own ticket for his next movie.  And the movie The Maestro wanted to make was a horror movie based on a story by Nikolai Gogol.

A little movie called La Maschera del Demonio. It would arrive on US shores with the title Black Sunday. This is where the cult of Mario Bava would really begin.

Next up: Black Sunday.

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Riding Coattails: The Haunting Of Hill House and the Issue Re-Imaginings

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When I heard Netflix had done a series based on The Haunting of Hill House, I was happy.   Hill House is undoubtedly a high watermark in horror. Some would say one of the highest and I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.

Usually, I’m the person who watches things ten years after everyone else does, but for whatever reason I jumped on the bandwagon with this one. I watched. And I got hooked. And I fell in love. And then it all slipped away. And then I got angry because it was happening again.

Hill House, that venerable grand dame of the horror genre, had just been re-imagined.

The first time I became aware of re-imaginings was with Battlestar Galactica. I’d barely seen the original but for some reason I decided to try the new one. I got through two seasons before I lost interest. I remember thinking that it was nothing like the original. Then I got annoyed when the realization set in:   These writers had had their own original ideas, slapped “Galactica,” “Cyclon,” and “Starbuck” on it and manipulated the existing fan base for their own profit.

Call me an artiste (who barely gets published and has to work minimum wage jobs, I admit), but that seems skeezy. Why wouldn’t you have enough faith in your own ideas to give them their own name?

Remakes are one thing.   At their core their makers aren’t trying anything new. They may be expanding on the concepts or highlighting different aspects of the story (or running the story in the ground for profit). Franchises are another thing. Different stories within the same world can be fun (though some franchises need to stop at a certain point). But neither of these strategies pretends the work is something it isn’t.

Penny Dreadful was where I noticed it next. Except that the makers of Penny Dreadful stole from several authors. I didn’t make it past the second episode. Why did Dracula have to be in that show?   Why not another vampire? Your own vampire? Why did Frankenstein have to be your science guy? You couldn’t have made him any scientific rivals?

As I said, I didn’t get past the second episode, so I can’t tell if the writers actually kept those characters as the original writers had created them – which means they were lazy and couldn’t be bothered to populate the world they had created – or they put the names on their own creations for the recognition. Either way, I’m not a fan.

I actually think what bugs me even more is that if someone bases their characters too closely off the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein but call them something else, they get written off as derivative. Turns out if you use the name, you can do whatever you want! It makes me think of The Black Lizard, the villain of Edogawa Rampo’s novel of the same name. There’s a great line where she talks about how, if you want to get away with something, you do it in broad daylight with your head held high, then everyone will believe you’re supposed to be doing it and let you.

But we’re here to talk about The Haunting of Hill House.

I’m a fan of both Absentia and Oculus so I had faith in Mike Flanagan’s abilities. And the show started with that line of lines “whatever walks in that house walked alone.” I thought I’d be able to forgive it anything from there.

Turns out, I couldn’t.

The group of investigators of the novel becomes a family led by real estate dealer parents that moves into Hill House intending to flip it. They share names with the characters in the book and a few perfunctory traits. Nell is frail and the house focuses on her. Luke is the bad boy. Theo has some psychic abilities. What unfolds is a lovely story about a dysfunctional family unable to face a shared trauma and nearly destroyed by grief.

It has some good things going for it. It’s the type of story I would expect Flanagan to tell and tell well. There’s a lot to be mined here and it almost works (Flanagan and crew probably shouldn’t have been given ten episodes.   Forcing them to keep it more compact probably would have helped the proceedings a lot).

The end of episode 6, where Nell as the Broken Neck Lady is standing next to her own coffin after watching her family argue all night, and the voice of herself as a child says over and over, “I was right here the whole time and you couldn’t see me” left me a sobbing wreck for about 20 minutes.

I’m not against family drama in horror. What I am against is claiming Hill House destroyed these people’s lives and then have largely nothing to do with the building. In her novel, Jackson is extremely careful not to reveal whether what the investigator’s experience is caused by the house or by the mental state of the people in it. Flanagan seems almost to be trying to do this and maybe that’s why they stayed away from the house so much. There’s just one little problem with them taking that avenue: This Hill House is haunted beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Now, for my part, I don’t think the Hill House of the novel is haunted. I think the house is sentient. But it can be interpreted as haunted and I don’t mind someone running with that at all. The Hill House of the show is haunted. By a shit ton of ghosts. I’m okay with this for two reasons. First, my natural inclination. Yay ghosts!   MORE GHOSTS!!! Second, the sheer number of ghosts they put in the house fits nicely into my belief that Hill House is one of the best, most calculating and dangerous baddies the horror genre has ever produced.

The problem comes in when you realize that they’ve created all these beautiful ghosts (who really are magnificently designed) and we never find out who they are or why they are. As far as I’m concerned, that is a crime. Ghosts are as much characters as anyone else in your story. They deserve development and attention as much as any living character does.

Episode 9 actually bugged me a little. It was amazing! I love Poppy! And that seduction and the mental breaking of Olivia is what the book was all about! But why didn’t it happen six or seven episodes ago?

Then I watched episode 10 and the whole house of cards came crashing down and I realized I let this suck me in. This is my own fault. I saw this for the re-imagining it was from the beginning but I allowed it in instead of flipping it the finger and walking away like I should have.

I can’t compare this show to the novel because it has nothing to do with the novel and it never did.   This is a story that Mike Flanagan wanted to tell but somewhere along the way, someone decided to slap the name “Hill House” on it to make it easier to market.

Remember, writers, your idea is useless unless you can shoehorn it into something that has already been extensively marketed!

I can judge the show on its own merits and it falls in line with the rest of the re-imaginings: a few bright spots in an otherwise sloppy, half-assed, manipulative and melodramatic pile of trash that almost manages to convince you it’s something it’s not.

I have to admit, I can’t quite be as high and mighty about this as I’m being. I enjoyed the hell out of Sleepy Hollow and the Resident Evil franchise. But while Sleepy Hollow is a re-imagining, it was also a great screaming train wreck that the creators never took seriously and they basically stood and pointed the whole time going, “look what we did to American history! Isn’t this stupid?!” The Resident Evil Franchise likewise didn’t aim very high, but it also had zombies with rocket launchers and chainsaws. I really will forgive anything if you have zombies with rocket launchers and chainsaws. If The Haunting of Hill House had had zombies with rocket launchers and chainsaws, this would be a very different post.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by great works. I’d be the first to admit that about 3/4 of everything I write is inspired by Ju-On. There’s nothing wrong with that (I mean, besides the fact that I could think of something else every once in awhile). But I also don’t call everything I write Ju-On and expect Shimizu fans to support me because they supported him.

So here’s to the day when writers will no longer be expected to ride the coat tails of those who came before. They’ll be allowed to believe in their work and let it shine on its own.

Until that time…

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Vincent Price Tag

Sometimes knowing a bunch of Monster Kids has its benefits. Like when they ask you to talk copiously about Vincent Price! A few weeks ago, Derek Koch of Monster Kid Radio got me in on the game of Vincent Price tag going around, so here goes.

There are 10 questions to answer about Vincent Price and these questions have no wrong answers, just personal opinions.

1.) What is your favorite Vincent Price horror film?

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House Of Wax.   Have you ever seen people talk about The Princess Bride, and they get this far away look in the eyes, maybe tear up a little, and their voice will get very soft and they’ll say how much they love that movie? And you can tell it just hits something really deep in them that they can’t quite identify? Yeah, that’s me and House of Wax. Now, there is a concrete reason. I have a deep, deep affection for horror films about art and artists and period horror.   Also, wax museums are just inherently creepy as fuck. But I also think this is one of Vincent Price’s best performances. He pretty much has to play every type of character in this movie: A nice guy, a raging deformed psychopath, and a psychopath pretending to be a nice guy. It’s also shows the consequences of the artistic equivalent of revoking a scientist’s funding. This movie has so much to recommend it – including really well staged 3D set pieces if you get the chance to see it in 3D – that I had to choose it.

2.) What is your favorite Vincent Price non-horror film?

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The 1948 version of The Three Musketeers. I had to admit, there’s a lot I adore about this film that doesn’t involve Vincent Price, so him being in it is just icing on the cake. Gene Kelly is ridiculously charming as D’Artagnan even though he was really too old to play the character. Lana Turner is perfection as M’Lady (I mean, Dumas basically wrote that character for Turner, even though he may not have realized it), and a drop dead GORGEOUS Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne. Everything about this movie is great and Vincent looks perfectly at home plotting in the halls of Versailles.

3.) Who would win in a fight between Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee?

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Now, even though I said above there’s no wrong answers, this question does have an objectively right answer: Christopher Lee. First of all, it would never be Peter Cushing because he was such a gentle soul that I don’t even think you could get him to fight.   I mean, the only thing it really seems would have made him mad would be to insult his wife and I still can’t imagine he would have fought anybody over it. I’m sure Vincent could hold his own but Sir Christopher spent at least 4 years hunting and killing Nazi’s in World War II. The borderline disturbing story of how Sir Christopher put a foley artist in his place during the shooting of Lord of the Rings is reason enough to proclaim him the winner for me.

4.) What was the better Vincent Price contribution to a musical album – his work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller or his participation on Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare?

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As much as I love Alice Cooper, Thriller has a special place in my heart. When I was little, my parents worked at a video store and they had Thriller there to rent. The tape had the video and the making of. Well, I rented that thing constantly. The weird thing? I couldn’t watch the video. It scared me too bad. I watched the making of featurette obsessively. Over and over. Watching people making up the zombies wasn’t scary, and for some reason it didn’t make the video itself less scary. But I HAD TO WATCH IT! Despite being part of a family of Alice Cooper fans, I didn’t start to appreciate Welcome To My Nightmare until I was older.

5.) If you could replace one actor in any horror film with Vincent Price, which role would you choose?

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I’m gonna go off the beaten path on this one. In 1949, Orson Welles starred as the infamous Count Cagliostro in a film called Black Magic. This film isn’t strictly horror, I suppose, but as a woman it is deeply disturbing to watch a film with guys running around hypnotizing women into slavery. That said, I think Price as Cagliostro would have rocked this film sooooo hard. He shares a great deal of that mesmeric charm with Welles, and I did enjoy Welles in this movie, but I think Price hamming it up and making the performance of such a flamboyant showman so grandiose would have benefited the movie a lot.

6.) If you met Vincent Price in a movie, he would probably kill you. How would you want to be killed by Vincent Price?

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PHIBES DEATH! I want a Phibes murder. Preferably something along the lines of getting impaled on a catapulted unicorn head and having to be unscrewed down, or being inexplicably shoved inside a giant glass bottle. But I’ll let the Doctor decide. He knows what he’s doing. I’m not gonna tell an artist how to do his job.

7.) Vincent Price guest-starred in several classic TV shows.   What is your favorite appearance?

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Egg-Head from Batman. First of all, Batman. I’m always gonna say Batman (unless Peter Cushing is also an acceptable answer), but you can also just tell Vincent is enjoying himself when he’s playing Egg-Head.

8.) Vincent Price starred in 8 films with the word “house” included in the title. Which one of those in your favorite?

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House of Wax.   See my answer to #1.

9.) If Vincent Price would read you a bedtime story, which one would it be?

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“The Cat Who Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling. I think that story would suit his voice and cadence perfectly. And I just love that story.

10.) Vincent Price lent his voice to several animated shows and films. Which voice over is your favorite?

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The Great Mouse Detective. This movie is the first time I “met” Vincent Price. I saw it in the theater with my aunt and uncle when I was 6. I actually didn’t care for the movie that much at the time, except I did think Ratigan was cool. Revisiting the movie when I was older showed me why I didn’t appreciate it when I was little: Even though it’s an animated Disney feature, it really isn’t a kid’s movie. It’s a pretty straight Sherlock Holmes story (highlighted with a cameo by Basil Rathbone), which is over the average little kid’s head anyway. The music is the stand out, being composed by the great Henry Mancini. This also means it goes over the kid’s head because the music is more sophisticated. It’s pleasant, isn’t catchy and peppy in a typical Disney way. All this is highlighted by the scene with a dancer mouse, taking her clothes off in a dive bar along the Thames while singing “let me be good to you.” Now, this is a great song. I actually have it on my iPod and I listen to it all the time, but in a kid’s movie? Ehhh, not so much. Also, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind,” the villain song for this movie, definitely does not get credit as being one of the best villain songs Disney made for a movie.

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The Hard Truth – A Discussion of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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One of the things that makes George Romero’s zombie films great is that each one adapts to the age in which it was made.  Romero had the ability to understand the issues facing each generation and make a film that dealt with them.

The last place I expected to see that happen again was in a Jurassic Park movie.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the latest installment in the saga of misguided dinosaur related activities, has been released to mixed reviews.  To be sure, it’s not a perfect movie.  It may not actually be a good movie.  But it is a damn near perfect reboot of the series and it is a movie that reflects our times.  Like the Resident Evil franchise before it, it is deceptively powerful and realistic.

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Fallen Kingdom starts some time after Jurassic World ended.  There’s an island full of dinosaurs, but the volcano on that island is suddenly about to explode.  There’s a beautifully shot scene where a bunch of impossibly shady people are in the park hunting for the remains of Indominus Rex, the big bad dino from the last movie. After some people get eaten, we shift gears.

The U.S. government is scrambling to figure out what to do about the dinosaurs on the island that is about to destroy itself.  Do we leave it alone?  Do we move them?  Whose responsibility is it?  Whose problem is it?  These animals are endangered and we have to protect endangered species.  But this endangered species was created by us, and not any higher power, so do we owe them anything?  Doesn’t that make it okay to let them die?  They’re unnatural.  Besides, they would completely up-end the balance of the world and destroy humanity!

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Right from the get-go, Fallen Kingdom is heavy.  Jurassic Park was a movie made at a time when things could be as simple as black and white, good and bad, playing God wrong!

Fallen Kingdom was made now when we have to deal with a new concept:  Nuance.  This movie starts after the deed is done.  Dinosaurs have been made, whether that’s right or wrong is immaterial.  We now have to deal with the consequences.  And it’s a thorny issue.  These are living creatures that represent real progress in many fields of science.  There is no easy, quick fix.  Any answer is going to require soul searching and quite a bit of discomfort.

Any American reading this can relate to all of that.  The deed is done.  All that remains is to determine what we’re going to do about it.

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Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has switched gears from uptight, driven-to-a-fault business woman to dinosaur rights activist, using all the charm and business acumen she gained to get government officials on their side to help save the dinosaurs somehow.  She thinks she’s making headway when news comes in:  The U.S. government is washing its hands of whole affair and will let the dinosaurs die.

But Claire gets her chance when she receives a call from Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the business representative of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell).  Lockwood, who was a colleague of the first film’s John Hammond, believes the dinosaurs should be saved and has a location for what is essentially a nature preserve all planned out, where the dinosaurs will live and no tourists will be allowed.  All the technology to track the dinosaurs to save them is still on the island and can be activated by someone who worked there, like Claire.  Mills also seems quite keen on making sure that one particular dinosaur makes it off the island: Blue, the velociraptor that is pretty much everyone’s favorite character from Jurassic World.

This necessitates bringing in the required-in-an-action-movie douche bag with a heart of gold, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).  Grady has decided to move out into the middle of nowhere and build himself a cabin and when Claire approaches him to help, he doesn’t seem keen on saving the dinosaurs.  Nature just needs to play itself out here.  The world wasn’t ready for them then and they’re still not now.  But Claire plays on Grady’s attachment to Blue to get him to come along.

Also in the mix is Zia Rodriquez (Daniella Pineda) as a paleo-veterinarian, which makes sense would be a thing if you live in a world where dinosaurs exist and probably the character in the movie with the biggest cajones.  There’s also our computer guy, Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), who is mainly there for plot convenience and comic relief. That’s not to say he doesn’t do a good job of it, he is very funny.

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We get to the island to find out that several species have already been captured by a group that has clearly been on the island for a while, despite what Lockwood and Mills said.  The group is headed by Ken Wheatley (played with nasty relish by Ted Levine), a guy that is so clearly the archetypal White Hunter that not only do you think it when you see him for the first time, Grady actually comments on it.

Dearing and Webb manage to get the tracking system back on-line and Grady goes out to find Blue.   He finds the dinosaur (yay! I mean, we knew he was going to find her because of the advertisements but I was still happy to see her), but they get ambushed by Wheatley, who grievously wounds Blue and leaves Grady for dead (lucky they have a paleo-veterinarian along!).

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Grady, Dearing and Webb reunite and run for the boat that is taking the animals off the island. Of course they make it because they’re the heroes and we’re only half way through the run time, but then something happens:   The movie gets horribly bleak.

Our heroes are savoring their escape when they look back and see a brontosaurus on the dock calling after the boat. Even the illegal animal hunters stop and see lava envelope the animal. The camera barely looks away as we watch through the smoke as the animal falls into the lava and dies.

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I’m not gonna lie, I started sobbing so hard it freaked out the kid sitting next to me.

This is where we see the vast difference a few decades can make. In the first movie, “life finds a way.” The dinosaurs were triumphant and if they died because of our neglect, it was off screen and lamented wistfully by wise but misguided people who really meant the best.

These days, these things we created are dying because of our deliberate and determined neglect.   There’s no looking away. You face the consequences of the decisions you make. You look at what you’ve done. Our decisions hurt living beings that had no say in the situation they’re in. And facing up to that is the only way to fix it.

I also think that it’s no small coincidence that the people who witness this destruction, the hunters, are the ones who profit the most off it and who are not the people who would actually be touched by it, as is really what has happened to pretty much every animal that is going extinct right now.

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Rodriguez manages to save Blue’s life after an incident with a T-Rex that is actually pretty funny and when the dinosaurs come ashore, the movie takes a weird, seemingly nonsensical turn: The animals are taken to Lockwood’s oddly and purposely Gothic estate and put in an underground lab.

There’s a lot of “WTF?!” in the movie shifting to that location, but tone wise it does make sense for the movie. The way the movie until this point has a definite horror vibe. The use of light and dark and the creeping dread that surrounds the appearance of many of the dinosaurs (as opposed to the action style “oh there’s a noise! AH!   THE DINOSAUR JUST JUMPED OUT AND IS EATING MY FACE!”) is exquisite, and the emphasis on the decay of the surroundings on the island is masterful. It’s a horror cliché, the moment when Lockwood’s granddaughter Maisie is walking around the lab she just discovered, turns her back on the bars blocking a big black space from which emerge claws that slowly glide forward and brush her ponytail.

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It starts to make sense when we see the return of Dr. Wu (I LOVE B.D. WONG SO MUCH!) and that he and Mills have engineered the creation of a hybrid of the dead Indominus Rex and Blue, who had shown extraordinary levels of intelligence and the ability to bond with people and obey commands and that’s why Wu and Mills wanted her specifically. Mills intends to sell this creature, along with all the other dinosaurs he saved, on the weapon’s black market. Lockwood is livid when he finds out and when he tries to put a stop to it, Mills murders him.

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A lot of people started rolling their eyes at this point. Selling dinosaurs as weapons. It’s stupid. And it’s lazy writing. And it’s unfeasible. That wouldn’t happen if dinosaurs were real.

*pauses to pull out the soap box she used when talking about the Resident Evil franchise*

Hate to break it to you folks, but this part of the movie is 1000% accurate. If dinosaurs existed, this is exactly what we would be happening with them. They would be created by corporations to be weaponized or pharmaceutical companies to create a new brand of snake oil.

PEOPLE SUCK AND THEY CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS BECAUSE THEY DESTORY THEM.

The thing I like about this film is that it has no illusions about people being good. Humans like to look at situations like the one in the movie and say, “that would never happen, people aren’t like that. I would step up and do something about it.”

That means you’re not paying attention to the world around you. It is happening. All of it.   Right now. We let it happen every day. The internet has been weaponized for crap’s sake. What would ever make you think something as awesome as dinosaurs wouldn’t be?

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This is why I particularly love the fact that they brought Old Dark House elements into this movie.   Fallen Kingdom basically turns into a 50’s sci-fi/horror hybrid (with better special effects) after we leave the island. Basement laboratories hold secrets, white hunters bring specimens, people’s best intentions are betrayed for the benefit of another, families have skeletons in their closets and the truth will come to light by the monsters we’ve created.

This brings the philosophical concepts of this movie, and this franchise, full circle. It makes the underpinnings timeless. Whether in a musty old mansion or in a near future where humans have achieved genetic mastery, people have always been greedy and manipulative and violent and selfish and callous. It was as true in the days of Bela Lugosi creating exploding spiders as it is in the days of millionaires destroying our environment for another million they won’t even realize they have.

The movie makes us face the consequences of this again when the ventilation system to the dinosaur holding area is contaminated with poison. The choice has to be made all over again: Do we let them die or save them? This time the choice falls to our heroes. The deaths of those animals will be on their hands, as will any people who die as a result of letting those dinosaurs out. It’s a no-win situation for a person with a good heart, and we feel every second of it as the camera focuses on the dinosaurs starting to suffocate to death and fighting desperately against the door holding them in.   Which do you choose?

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In this case, the question is resolved twice. Both answers, though opposites, are legitimate because, in the world we live in now, we have to accept that there are no easy answers and that seemingly directly opposed ideas both have merit.

Answers are not black and white. They’re as complex as the problems that created them and humans need to face that in order to move forward.   Otherwise we will be stuck in that Old Dark House, bedridden like Lockwood, stubbornly refusing to see our assistant twisting the beauty and wonder we create because it will make our lives hard.

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On the surface, the Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as Dr. Malcolm is gratuitous fan service, but listening to Malcolm’s testimony before the senate is to be given a dire warning that is as true in a world without dinosaurs as it is in a world with dinosaurs.

Dismiss this movie as pure, sloppily written popcorn fare all you like. It crushed my soul as only a movie that speaks to the world I live in can. I never thought a movie with dinosaurs would make me soul sick and I give the creators of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom more credit and admiration than I can articulate for doing just that.

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The Ingrid Pitt Files: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

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Welcome to another installment of The Ingrid Pitt Files! This week’s movie is a definite change of pace: 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

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One of the great things about working on this blog series is the sheer randomness of stuff I’ve been able to discover. Now, I admit, most of it I haven’t been fond of (see my Dr. Zhivago temper tantrum), but you still need to embrace learning something new.

I mention that because A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a movie I probably NEVER would have watched unless I had a reason. Well, I had a reason!

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The plot is pretty simple.   A family in ancient Rome lives next door to a whorehouse (like you do…), and the son falls in love with one of the women in said house. One of this family’s slaves promises to help the son get the girl if the son will grant him his freedom. The problem is, the slave is only mildly clever and the son is dumber than a box of sticks so wackiness ensues.

This movie is packed to the rafters with talent. Zero Mostel plays Pseudolus, the slave seeking his freedom. He reprised his role from Broadway and, while I’d never heard of him, I do know a lot of people think highly of him for one reason or another.   Michael Crawford plays the son, Hero.   On the British side of the pond he’s famous for the ridiculous amount of television he’s done. On the American side of the pond, and first and forever foremost in my heart, he was The Phantom in the first run of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera. I was also pleased to see Patricia Jessel, Domina the wife, who is known to genre fans as Mrs. Newless, the hotelkeeper in City of the Dead. We also have bit parts from the guy who played the cop in The House That Dripped Blood and, as always makes me happy, John Pertwee, known to me from The House That Dripped Blood, and known to the rest of the world as the Third Doctor.

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Of special note is Buster Keaton in his last film performance before he passed.

This is a musical composed by Stephen Sondheim, who also composed Into The Woods and Sweeney Todd. I hear a lot of people complaining that musicals are all schlocky romance stories written for women (they did an entire South Park episode about it!), but these people clearly are not familiar with the works of Sondheim. Despite being about fairy tales, Into The Woods is more about unrealistic attitudes toward romance and Sweeney Todd, a personal favorite of mine, is singing while people slit each other’s throats.

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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is the most direct proof that musicals aren’t just written for women. Because this musical was written for guys. The humor is exceptionally broad and mostly involves guys being horny while looking at hookers.

Honestly, the film is an hour and a half long Benny Hill skit, so it did not work for me. The only parts I really laughed were the Buster Keaton parts, in particular the soothsayer scene.

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The movie is something to look at, as it is heavy on spectacle. Even though they set it in the lower class areas of Roman life, it is still pretty sumptuous. I especially liked the inside of the whorehouse. The use of color was amazing.

I have to say, however, that as a musical it failed pretty miserably. Musicals were no longer in vogue when this came out so they pared down the amount of songs (which explains a lot because I was watching the movie thinking, “there have to be more songs then this”), but the songs they used were really awkwardly forced into the movie. None of them seemed to flow naturally from the situation as they should in a musical. In particular “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” was really egregiously shoe horned in to the point where it should have just been taken out. The director, Richard Lester, already had two Beatles movies under his belt so that makes the mishandling of the musical numbers really confusing to me.

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Ingrid was apparently one of the *ahem* courtesans in the movie, but I never saw her. I knew what to look for, since a picture of her in this movie is extremely easy to find and I figured it would be easy, but I just couldn’t find her.

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So, there’s that movie watched. Luckily I’m steadily moving into the period where I can actually SEE Ingrid in stuff.

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The Ingrid Pitt Files: Where Eagles Dare

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Welcome back to the Ingrid Pitt Files. Our movie this week is actually pretty well known to people who are not genre fans:   1968’s Where Eagles Dare.

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Now, this movie had two strikes against it for me before I even watched it. I like my history old, and I have no interest in World War II. Second, I really, really don’t like war movies. I can’t handle them. Horror movies aren’t real. Those things don’t happen. War movies may not always be based on true events, but they all have things that could feasibly have happened. I can’t handle that kind of suffering. I can’t even make it through a single episode of Band of Brothers or The Pacific without crying like a little girl with gum stuck in her hair. You’d probably never get me to leave the house again if I had to sit through Saving Private Ryan. (For the record, I actually did cry quite a bit during Wonder Woman.)

But I read the synopsis for this movie and I thought it might be okay. It didn’t seem like it was that heavy, so I watched it.

OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE IS GREAT!!!!

It leans much more toward the action/adventure side of things, and I am sucker for adventure movies, so I enjoyed it immensely.

I am going to limit spoilers for once, because if you have not seen this movie, you need to and I don’t want to ruin it for you. But the movie basically goes like this…

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A group of British soldiers, led by Major Smith (Richard Burton) and accompanied by a single American Ranger, Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood, young but already squinting and scowling stolidly), parachute into Bavaria in an attempt to save an American General who crash landed near Schloss Adler, a fortress that is damn near impossible to get into. The General was taken to the castle to be interrogated by German High Command, as he is responsible for making plans for the Western Front offensive.

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There’s a short break for exposition at the beginning, but really, the movie just starts right in on the action. It also starts right in on the twisty-turny plot. We’re not more than 15 minutes into a 2 1/2 hour movie when we’ve already encountered a couple events that make you realize that not everything is as it seems.

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The group makes it to the village at the base of Schloss Adler, and at the tavern Smith makes contact with Heidi, played by our girl, Ingrid Pitt, in the scene where she utters one of the most famous lines in the movie, “I bet you have a beautiful singing voice too.” Heidi is a spy that’s been in Bavaria for awhile and she is asked to help Mary Ellison (Mary Ure) get into the castle as a servant. Mary has been secretly brought into the mission by Smith for reasons we don’t quite know until the end.

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This movie is solid all around. The performances are good, the direction is good, the writing is sharp and witty in an almost James Bond kind of way. Burton is impossibly cool, despite this movie being during his downward slide. I really can’t imagine anyone else pulling off the role.   Anyone else staring at Ingrid’s chest for a really long moment before saying “and what a disguise,” and I would have sniffed and looked away. I guess I’m just a sucker for Burton because I laughed when he said it.   Really hard.

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If anything, it might be a bit too long. Some of the action sequences can drag, and for a movie that long, they needed more music.   The main motif popped up a little too often and got grating.

Of what I’ve seen so far, this is one of my favorite Ingrid performances, even though she’s not in it all that much. I wish she had had the chance to do more films like this. She is composed and cool and exudes being in control at all times.   If you watch her, even in the background, she has the eyes of hawk and Heidi is taking in every little thing going on around her, which is exactly what you’d expect from a spy.

Ingrid spent part of her childhood in a concentration camp and admitted having trouble with this role because of all the men in Nazi uniforms and that might have unintentionally helped her as Heidi because she was extremely weary the whole time.  Not all of it may have been acting, but all of it fit for her character.

And I really can’t get through this film without giggling when I remember that Ingrid once claimed she’d given Clint Eastwood the best night of his life during filming.

That’s Ingrid, ever the shy flower…

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This movie also gets some points for making baby steps toward being not sexist. I mean, it is still sexist (how many times did Mary and Smith boink? In just a couple minutes when they were supposed to be doing something for the mission? And it didn’t even make sense in the plot, there was just this moment of “we have to show that he’s a virile man so we’re gonna suggest they had sex and go back to blowing stuff up”), but the two women were also integral parts of the mission and (okay, I’m gonna spoil this) they were both above suspicion the entire movie, never once threatening to fall into femme fatale mode. Also, the extended sequence of Mary with the machine gun at the end basically makes up for the unnecessary boinking.

It’s actually that scene that makes me wish Ingrid and Mary had switched roles. Mary was quite good, but on the other hand, I feel like Ingrid with a machine gun is the feminist icon we need but never got.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen this movie, watch it. And don’t put it on in the background. You have to pay attention and you have to pay attention to the whole movie. All of it. Because it gets you right up until the end.

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