Flickerbook: Movie Reviews with Michael Bacon

by Michael Bacon

As Groucho Marx himself once said, “Hello,” and welcome to the grand opening of the brand-new-old-curiosity-shop that is Flickerbook. If you are looking for up to the minute reviews of the latest slick Hollywood money-makers, then I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. But, if you are happy to meander aimlessly with me along the cluttered aisles of cinematic history, I may have a few curios to show you.

Flickerbook was born of my recent habit of watching, across a number of days, a sequence of films loosely connected by theme. In this regular write up I’ll be sharing with you my thoughts on what I watched, plus a smattering of whatever esoteric trivia recommends itself.  To kick things off this first instalment will be devoted to all things “beta.”

The second letter of the alphabet revisited

Tell me, dear friend, do you weep at the sight of the ghastly visitors not-of-this-Earth? And do you howl at the vile machinations of monsters from beyond the grave? Do you wet yourself when giant, mutated crabs deliver poorly written dialogue in bad French accents?

B-movies are fun, and not just because they’re funny. Aside from how truly bad some of them are, they also make a welcome break from mainstream cinema. B-movies are often forced to depart from Hollywood-dictated convention by their limited means. When they’re original, they’re a breath of fresh air; when they’re not, they’re often so over the top they border on pastiche – and if it worked for the A-Team why not for the silver screen?

This month’s line-up draws heavily from that staple of the low budget studios, horror. I’ll be kicking things off with the main features, before a few snapshots of the other flicks I watched this time.

Attack of the Crab Monsters

Something cardboard this way comes…

The plot of Attack of the Crab Monsters is the usual residue left behind after mixing up all the other monster films of the era and boiling off the originality. Naturally, this dependence on cliché is one of the film’s greatest strengths. By setting the story on an irradiated Pacific island where crabs have mutated into intelligent monsters the filmmakers neatly sidestep the need to credibly establish or develop any new conventions for the audience to get accustomed to, thus freeing them to take a headlong run at some brilliantly counter-intuitive leaps of logic.

The cast of characters holds few surprises. After the science expedition which preceded them duly disappears, the usual suspects roll up on the mystery island to investigate. Mandatory inclusions in the team are as follows: one all-American man of science, two phoney “European” profs, and a clutch of red-shirts to get bumped off one by one. Another mandatory is Martha, whose critical contribution to the story is that she has breasts. Backing up this role call of clichés comes the only vaguely well-known actor in the film, Russell Johnson (of Gilligan’s island), playing the everyman radio technician accompanying the scientists to the island. If his plot pigeonhole slot isn’t obvious at first it will be by the end.

During the course of the story it is revealed that giant, carnivorous crabs are eating people and absorbing their brains – not to mention gradually destroying the island on which the team are now trapped. The scientists must investigate; or stare pertly and vacantly into space while the men do the thinking, depending on whom we are talking about.

As far as the acting goes, it often doesn’t. Leading the action are Dr. Macho, Dr. Chest, and the guy who came to fix the radio. The trio compete to see who can do the best impression of a creaky wooden marionette until they are soundly trounced by the titular Crab Monster, which actually is one. Indeed, the most engaging of the nine American characters featured in the film is sadly killed within the first ten minutes (I mean of course the queerly poetic naval pilot, not the decapitated sailor). Fortunately, the uncharismatic posturing of the leads is upstaged by the antics of the far more watchable faux-European duo. Aside from the delightful battiness of their accents, the pair’s tendency to overcook all of their silly lines actually ends up lending the film some camp credibility.

The Euro-profs’ performances represent only one aspect of the film’s theatricality. The much lauded director, Roger “King of the B-movies” Corman, makes heavy use of theatrical convention by asking his audience to accept all of his characters’ bizarre pronouncements as fact, regardless of the evidence of our eyes. So when a chasm mysteriously opens up in the island, the calamitous event is revealed not by special effects but by cutting to a medium-long shot of a cliff-top and having one of the characters say words to the effect of, “Well, this wasn’t here yesterday!”

Indeed, at times Crab Monsters seems a lot like an exercise in seeing how much the audience is willing to take on faith. At various points we’re expected to believe that: there aren’t any birds, plants or bacteria whatsoever on the island; guns can talk; a ten foot wide crab can sneak up on a man in broad daylight without the aid of cover; and ,of course, that the reason said crabs are bullet-proof is because (naturally) they are made of liquid.

Believe it or not, this list does not include all of the film’s most hilarious pronouncements, most of which come in a fantastic twenty minute segment halfway through, when the team really gets to grips with the “theory” behind mutant crabs. I would hazard a guess that the institution which issued these bogus scientists and their diplomas is the same play school at which the papier-mâché crab monsters were assembled. The scriptwriter’s blasé towards science is a real highlight, and extends beyond the demented logic of the scientists’ conclusions to some impressive omissions. In the space of one scene the Scooby Gang electrocute a “leg” which is quite clearly a claw, while the alleged marine biologist, Martha, notes that the mutants look physically identical to sand crabs despite the fact that they have massive, lidded, disk-shaped eyes leering outwards from their shells (real crabs, dear Wide Island Viewer, do not).

But this is just what’s so enjoyable about the film; when it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief, it asks a lot of its audience. However, the fact is that Crab Monsters never once allows you to believe, and instead jumps around screaming “I am a film! This isn’t really real” at the top of its voice from start to finish.

At times, Crab Monsters is a little dry, most particularly the tired gender roles and inexplicable love triangle between the stars. Also frustrating are the moments when our heroes enter the “caves” for the umpteenth time and we are once again treated to a shot of the same obviously day-lit rock face we have seen for every other excursion below ground. But the film is also full of little moments that will make you smile (if, like me, you get a kick out of utter dross) and a few that will make you laugh out loud, and so I heartily recommend it to both lovers of the genre and the generally curious. Attack of the Crab Monsters is impossible to accept as anything other than camp cinema, but as a grown up, I find a little disbelief goes a long way.

Plan 9 from Outer Space

My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space? Unless you are petrified into cardiac arrest at the sight of a tin plate hanging from a piece of string, the answer is almost certainly going to be “yes.” If you are to receive medical treatment as a result of watching Plan 9 from Outer Space, I’m willing to speculate it won’t be the result of a terror-induced heart failure. You’re much more likely to either a) rupture a lung laughing, or b) need glass shards removed when you try to turn the TV off with your face. Plan 9, of course, is the cinemaphiles’ fabled “worst film ever made.”

Plan 9 is certainly a very bad film, but what’s more is that it is bad with a very different sort of badness. Rather than the admittedly naff giant insects and lizards which stomped their way around the screens of most low budget 50s flicks, the even lower-budget “monsters” terrorising middle America in Plan 9 look like a couple on their way to an Addams family-themed costume party and, well…a fat, bald man wearing face glitter. Whilst the prospect of a fat, bald man in face glitter chasing me around a graveyard in real life scares the crap out of me far more than giant ants do, I’m afraid that on the big screen even styrofoam ants would make for more credible horror.

The acting, while occasionally the rich, glazed ham which typifies the form, is more often at the level of a high school play. The protagonist’s wife in particular, and the policemen investigating the grave robbers in general, are so bad it’s amazing even the B studios would have them. The script isn’t the self-indulgent poetising which marks the best lines in other “so-bad-they’re-good” features; it’s just poorly written. In other “crap classics” the badness is something which swells at moments into a visceral force which rushes from the screen and grabs you. In their own unholy way these films have exactly the qualities their directors intended them to have – intensity, drama, tension. The fact they have attained them in completely the wrong way just adds to our enjoyment. But Plan 9 fails to attain even this accolade; it isn’t just terrible, it’s rubbish.

It might seem from the argument I’ve put forward so far that I couldn’t possibly recommend Plan 9 from Outer Space. On the contrary, though, I wholeheartedly do. It is undoubtedly a film some will find very, very funny. I do, however, wish to issue a warning to all bad cinema fans who have yet to watch. Most bad films are entertaining because they have something in common with the popular films of their day. They emulate the idiosyncrasies and foibles that better-made films can get away with (and thus they cast a humorous light on the form), but Plan 9 is more a master class in what-not-to-do than a shamefaced copy or amusing near miss. It is, without a doubt, the worst made thing I’ve ever seen. That said, there are plenty of better films I’ve liked less.

Tremors

Nobody likes me, everybody hates me…

Tremors (like Star Wars, Back to the Future, or The Godfather) is the kind of film you will get told off for not having seen, but rather than turn video Nazi, I just want to list here the reasons why you should watch Tremors. Contrary to what some reviewers claim, it is arguably neither a B-movie nor a spoof. Tremors does, however, definitely have enough in common with the style to bear comparison, especially the giant underground worm monsters which terrorise a sleepy valley.

Naturally, the higher production values make Tremors far slicker than its B-movie cousins, but what separates it from them more than anything else is that Tremors is actually a really good film. There is great chemistry between the incredibly charismatic Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon, and this is arguably Bacon’s best comic performance before he settled into more serious roles. The script gives the duo and solid supporting cast ammunition to spare, so quotable banter becomes the film’s forte. It’s fast, exciting, funny, slick, and pretty.

First and foremost, though, Tremors is fun. Yes, it won’t change your life, and there are surely films which are funnier or more original, but while it may not be sublime, Tremors certainly is flawless. It doesn’t set a single foot wrong, and the worst thing I can criticize is that the stop-motion “snakeoids” are a tad dated. That’s a really minor gripe, though, so just watch it! And if you’ve seen it already, watch it again.

Lobster Man from Mars

He’s deader than a son of a bitch!

Unlike Tremors, Lobster Man from Mars is undeniably a B-movie spoof. Starring Steed from the Avengers and a bunch of other people you’ll think you recognise it’s an endearing (if flawed) pastiche, complete with a nonsensical script (see tagline above), budget effects, and a ridiculous plot. Lobster Man from Mars is, on occasions, very, very funny.

Unfortunately, these occasions are a little spread out; the haunted house section of the tale, in particular, falls quite flat. What’s more, a lot of the humour depends on the audience having a genuine enthusiasm for film. For example, Englishman Anthony Hickox’s character spends the whole film playing off the stereotyped Brits of Hollywood antiquity, but viewers unfamiliar with the type might not even be aware of the joke.

Lobster Man is a film for film lovers. I can’t say I would recommend it for casual viewers, but I will say that when it hits the target it’s bang on.

The Crawling Eye

Aye, aye!

In comparison to Crab Monsters, The Crawling Eye (alias The Trollenberg Terror) is rather successful as a low-budget horror. Yes, it is still cheap and cliché-laden, but everything from the script to the European accents are of a higher calibre. This ought to be hardly surprising as it’s a Hammer film, and the little British studio is famous for being among the best of B. Maybe it’s best for aficionados rather than general viewers, but I liked it nonetheless. I must confess this is actually the first Hammer film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to watch more.