The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Algiers (1938)

24 08 2011

Disembodied Floating Heads -- The Movie

Unlike most kids born after the advent of color TV, I had a fascination with black and white movies, the older the better. I went through a protracted phase during which my sole criterion in choosing late night viewing was the age of the film. The oldest ones gave me a vaguely trippy sense of hurtling back through time — a sensation enhanced by the combination of being half-asleep and sitting thisclose to the TV, so I could see each individual pixel and hear the dialogue over the hiss that old movies acquire as the film stock decays.

There are a few special favorites that still have a bit of that time-tunnel quality for me: Dracula (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Captain Blood (1935), and today’s film —  Algiers (1938). Based on a French film called Pepe Le Moko, it tells the story of a suave and dashing French thief named…(wait for it)…Pepe le Moko. Pepe  is played by Charles Boyer, one of those homely-ish French dudes that still managed to pull legendary tail due to his sheer, overpowering, musky Frenchness. Pepe is the unofficial king of the Casbah district of Algiers (charmingly referred to as ‘the native quarter’ in the opening crawl).

See?

Our story begins with Commissioner Janvier (Paul Harvey), newly arrived from Paris on the trail of Pepe le Moko, insisting that the local yokels don’t know nothin’ about catchin’ no criminals.  The local yokels attempt to explain that the Casbah is very different from Paris, and requires a different approach to nabbing criminal masterminds. Janvier responds with, “Casbah? What’s that? Some kind of nut?” This — along with his big, blustery American accent — helpfully establishes him as the Stupid Authority Figure of this motion picture presentation. (The local yokels have British or European-ish accents, indicating their intellectual superiority to Janvier. Everyone’s supposed to be French-ish, though.)

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The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Double Indemnity (1944)

26 07 2011

When I was just a wee girl I used to check the TV listings for the local stations that played movies all night long. If I found an intriguing title (anything with ‘damned’ or ‘blood’ in it was a surefire winner) or a cool old horror story or space opera that would be playing on the late late movie, I’d set my alarm and creep downstairs to watch it — usually sitting about two feet from the TV with the sound low so I wouldn’t wake my parents. The Movies That Made Me Weird(er) is a look back at the films that populated my childhood dreamscape.


Classic Film Noir is such a weird thing. Hollywood would option films based on sexy, blood-soaked novels full of perversion and existential bleakness, but then scriptwriters and directors had to tone down the sex and violence and change gay characters into straight characters and make sure the bad people get punished, etc. because no major studio was willing to release a movie that didn’t get a seal of approval from the Hays Office. That meant the movies had to communicate a lot of stuff through subtext — ESPECIALLY sexual stuff — which was a thing that mostly flew way over my head when I was a kid. It was the ’70s; according to the popular entertainment I’d checked out thus far, if people in a movie or TV show liked each other, they slept together.  I was used to seeing characters kiss for a while, then cut to them in bed with the sheets pulled up under their armpits smoking a cigarette, being groovy and digging each other’s rap, or whatever. So these weirdly chaste movies that were supposed to be about sex confused the hell out of me.

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The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Love at First Bite (1979)

1 07 2011

A metric shitload of awesome comedies came out between 1979 and 1982: Life of Brian, The Jerk, Caddyshack, Airplane, Melvin and Howard, My Favorite Year, The Muppet Movie, History of the World Part I, Victor/Victoria, Night Shift, Stripes—that’s just what I could think of off the top of my head. You can utilize the Googles to find a lot more, if you’re interested.

’79 through ’82 were pretty much my junior high years, and our family moved a few times before settling in Texas for a while, making the universally unpleasant experience of pre-adolescence even more sucky for me. I coped by voraciously consuming comedy–when I wasn’t reading and re-reading the Hitchhiker’s  trilogy or watching stand-up specials on HBO while babysitting, I was sneaking into movies my parents had deemed too risque for my tender sensibilities (Parental Calculus: Violence = OK;   Boobs and/or Dick Jokes = Heavens to Murgatroyd, get the kids out of here!) I’ve grown out of my tween angst, but I will never outgrow my love of dick jokes.

Love at First Bite (1979; trailer here) was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. When the movie came out I was firmly in the grip of a juvenile obsession with vampire movies. Yes, I was one of those young girls obsessed with vampires. Also horses.

But not vampire horses.

Mainly I loved the the old black and white movies (Tod Browning’s Dracula is still a favorite, despite how slow and stagy it becomes after the awesomely atmospheric opening third) but I was also partial to Blacula, which I had discovered on the local all night Monster Chiller Horror Theater (and which sparked a lifelong love of Blaxploitation movies that will likely get discussed in some future post.)

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The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): These Are the Damned (1963)

9 06 2011

The Fifties were a much stranger decade than the Sixties.

I mean, the Sixties were interesting and exciting and whatever. I just think it would have been stranger if the Sixties had not been witness to an all-out culture war.

The Cold War was ramping up throughout the strange and scary Fifties. To many, nuclear war was inevitable and imminent–and despite the bomb shelters and the hide-under-the-desk school drills, few actually believed it was survivable, especially toward the end of the decade. People were marrying and buying homes and going to the movies and working and having kids and planning for a future many didn’t expect to ever happen.

Communism was spreading: by 1955 both Korea and Vietnam had been divided into communist north and democratic south, and Eisenhower had outlined the ‘domino theory’ as a model for the further spread of communism. The fact that he was talking about conditions specific to Southeast Asia at the time, and in no way intended to apply that same theory worldwide, didn’t stop anyone from grabbing the concept and using it to pump up the ‘Commies are hiding under the bed!’ fearmongering of the day.

And there are vegetables hiding in the Jello!

In the US, fear of a communist takeover led to the rise of McCarthyism and the creation of the Hollywood Blacklist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not having a rabid, frothing at the mouth hatred of Communism could lead to accusations that you yourself were a dirty Commie.  That could mean losing your friends, your social standing, or even your job–and nobody wanted to hire a dirty Commie, so you were pretty much screwed if that happened…unless you decided to turn someone else in, instead.

I don’t want to make it sound like Hollywood Communism was the only UnAmerican activity that interested the Committee–they also investigated the WWII Japanese internment camps (which they deemed a sufficiently American activity) and the KKK (also considered sufficiently American until 1965 or so.) But Communism was a thing that was definitely UnAmerican. Also, given their focus on the entertainment industry, it seems clear that at least some members of the Committee didn’t consider Jews, homosexuals, and other dangerous liberal types to be sufficiently American.

But this...THIS is American?

So: conservatives were afraid of commies, liberals were afraid of conservatives, and everyone was scared of The Bomb. If you ask me, that’s a set up for strange times.

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The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Last Man on Earth (1964)

3 06 2011

For me, there are only three people who can properly read ‘The Raven.’

First, there’s my dad, who used to read it to me and my sisters when I was little. He is AWESOME at ‘The Raven.’ The thing is, he used the same voice for everything he ever read to us. This is why I thought ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ was supposed to be a ghost story the first time I heard it, and why I was disappointed when it turned out to just be Santa on the roof.

Then there’s Christopher Walken.  I listen to this one pretty much every Halloween.

The third is Vincent Price. I loved Vincent Price SO MUCH when I was little. I knew he was supposed to be this scary macabre dude with an evil laugh and all that (for a while I thought he was the guy who played Dracula) but I only knew that because when he was on the Muppets they put him in ‘scary’ stuff. He just seemed so gentle and urbane and fun.

So the first time I saw him be scary, I hated it. One afternoon the local UHF station’s MonsterChillerHorrorTheater was playing The Conqueror Worm. “Hmm,” I thought. “Conqueror plus Worm. That sounds promising.” Two hours later I was traumatized. There are several reasons for this, the most prominent being that (even with television edits) this movie was in no way appropriate for an 8 or 9 year old, which I was at the time. It’s super bleak and messed up and my beloved Vincent Price was horrible. I don’t mean horrible as in a bad actor. I mean he played a horrible person–Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General–so well it hurt me in my feelings. It was very upsetting. Then I went outside to play and pretty much got over it.

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The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Prince of Darkness

29 05 2011

When I was just a wee girl I used to check the TV listings for the local stations that played movies all night long. If I found an intriguing title (anything with ‘damned’ or ‘blood’ in it was a surefire winner) or a cool old horror story or space opera that would be playing on the late late movie, I’d set my alarm and creep downstairs to watch it–usually sitting about two feet from the TV with the sound low so I wouldn’t wake my parents. The Movies That Made Me Weird(er) is a look back at the films that populated my childhood dreamscape.

Any one of John Carpenter’s early films could qualify as a childhood favorite of mine: Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing…and those are just the ones I watched over and over. Starman and Assault on Precinct 13 are also pretty fuckin’ sweet. Then, of course, there is THE GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME–which, you guys, I seriously don’t think I could even write about it because I love it SO MUCH.  I am not even exaggerating a little bit.

So Prince of Darkness (1987) might seem an odd choice to cover here. I graduated from high school the year before it was released, which means I wasn’t exactly a kid when I saw it for the first time. And it’s far from my favorite Carpenter film. But it belongs here because of its thematic similarity to our previous Movie That Made Me Weird. (It’s also noteworthy because it has a scary bit that is SO SCARY that I’ve never watched it all the way through.)

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The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Five Million Years To Earth

25 05 2011

When I was just a wee girl I used to check the TV listings for the local stations that played movies all night long. If I found an intriguing title (anything with ‘damned’ or ‘blood’ in it was a surefire winner) or a cool old horror story or space opera that would be playing on the late late movie, I’d set my alarm and creep downstairs to watch it–usually sitting about two feet from the TV with the sound low so I wouldn’t wake my parents. The Movies That Made Me Weird(er) is a look back at the films that populated my childhood dreamscape.

When this movie was released in the UK (under its original title, Quatermass and the Pit) it received an X-certificate because of all the hardcore anal penetration due to scenes of violence and rioting, and an image of the Devil. There was also concern that the sound of the alien ship might have a deleterious effect on the viewer.

Oh, 1967, how quaint you were.

Anyway, by today’s standards, the violence is tame and bloodless–and the big scary Devil apparition is, quite frankly, hilarious. But Five Million Years To Earth is an arresting, intelligent SF story that’s full of big, interesting ideas and solid performances that eventually overshadow some pretty cheesy visual FX.

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