My Progress So Far: Films #1-50

First time viewings: 14
Repeat viewings: 36
Vetoes: 0
Films still to watch: 673

Seeing as I’ve hit the first major milestone, it seemed a good time to consider the success (or failure) of Movie Lottery as a concept, and to briefly look back at some of the best – and the worst – films watched so far.

First: it is safe to say that Movie Lottery has been a success. Yes, there have been films picked that have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm (and there are many more to come), but I only have myself to blame – serves me right for being less discerning about what movies to add to my collection. This does make me wonder, however, whether others have experienced a similar situation: with films now available to buy brand new for only a few pounds (surely I’m not alone when I say there are probably only a handful of movies in my collection that I spent more than £6 on), it’s all too easy to translate previous rental standards to purchasing. I’d love to say that all the films covering my shelves were bought because they came with high recommendations, or because they had great reviews, or because they were guilty pleasures, but it’s not true. There are some that were bought simply because I had some spare coins in my pocket, and they were cheap and in front of me. Several films already watched fall into this category – A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Turn It Up, and Mr Ice-Cream Man were all impulse buys, and none made any particular impression on me (although the former’s title is still one of the best in my collection).

One of the things that has come to my attention through Movie Lottery is the difficulty in assigning star ratings to films. Actually, it’s not that challenging on an individual basis, but the results are slightly strange when viewed as a whole. For example, four stars have been allocated to a selection that includes Braindead, Thirteen, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and Scanners – films that, on the surface, share little in common. Similarly, low scorers range from low-budget drive-in teen pics (Horror of Party Beach) to contemporary genre failures (Children of the Living Dead) to pretentious art concepts (Waking Life), but although these films all garnered the same rating (2/5), my enjoyment of them varied wildly. Were I to attempt a rating specifically considering my personal appreciation for a film, the stars would be allocated as follows: Children of the Living Dead, 5/5; Horror of Party Beach, 4/5; Waking Life, 1/5. Instead, what my star ratings represent is a more evaluative judgement as to the success or failure of each individual film in its own terms – whether it achieves its goals. It’s because of this that a gorefest like Braindead sits so comfortably alongside the subtle, beautifully acted indie drama What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

So, my favourite films to date. I was pleasantly surprised by both The Omega Man and The Time Machine, two classic sci-fi adaptations that, while showing their age, capture some complex and intriguing concepts that more than stand up among contemporary examples of the genre. As guilty pleasures go, the Twiathalon has got to win hands down – although, as I argued in my review, why this series has become such a reviled and ridiculed franchise is problematic to say the least, and I will remind you right now that I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed of my enjoyment of these movies. Similarly, of all the films to be picked, I was perhaps most excited to re-watch High School Musical 3: Senior Year, and it didn’t disappoint.

While I’m on the subject of guilty pleasures, what has become clear to me – something I had not expected to emerge so quickly – is the seemingly disproportionate amount of genre films (particularly sci-fi and horror) that are in my collection. Rest assured, it’s not that I don’t have a bunch of Werner Herzog films, a reasonable collection of classical Hollywood movies from directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, big MGM musicals, silent films, and foreign language movies, because I do. They just haven’t been picked yet.

What has become clear during the last few months is that some of the most rewarding viewing experiences have come from films that, although I know received great reviews, would never have actually been watched were it not for the randomised selection. Films that are perhaps not the easiest to watch, like Waltz With Bashir, serious Oscar winners like A Beautiful Mind and Pan’s Labyrinth, or even daft little short animations like The Wrong Trousers were viewed only because they came out of the hat, and would have sat languishing on our shelves forever more were it not for Movie Lottery. All of these have been given some of the highest ratings, and it’s these films, more than the guilty pleasures, that remind me the value of this project. For every Slacker or Step Up, there’s a Donnie Darko, District 9, or a Looper to remind me that at least some of the movies in my collection have actual, bona fide merits. Now I just have to watch the rest…

Film #50: The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

film 50 the abominable dr phibes

Rating: 4/5

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

It’s taken far too long to get to this point, but here we are at the first milestone: fifty films watched! In the next post I’ll recap my thoughts on the process so far, but suffice to say now, I’m pleased to announce that the fiftieth pick was a good one. The Abominable Dr Phibes is one of American International’s best known films, starring the wonderfully theatrical Vincent Price in an unusually muted performance. Although dressed up with low-budget, yet still sumptuous, style, this is actually a fairly standard revenge thriller – in fact, it could be considered an early example of the formula adopted so successfully in The Crow (1994).

Dialogue is sparse for much of Robert Fuest’s film; the first ten minutes pass by without a word. Instead, we are introduced to Dr Phibes, draped in a black cloak, maniacally pounding away at a garish organ. His hand gestures seldom relate to the music emanating from the instrument, but it barely matters – Phibes is all about the visual impact (he doesn’t speak until half an hour has passed, and even then it’s brief and stilted, played through a gramophone and accompanied by some bulging eye motions by Price), and it’s a nightmarish, unsettling scene, complete with a robotic accompanying band, and a hypnotic, beautiful, silent accomplice (Virginia North). Here, in this chamber of Phibes’ home, theatricality is key; from North’s haute couture garments to the art deco-inspired surroundings, everything is carefully staged and attractively bizarre – much like his methods of revenge.

In terms of plot, The Abominable Dr Phibes is simple: a man, believed dead, seeks revenge for his wife’s death on an operating table some four years prior. Nine people are deemed responsible, most of whom die with barely so much as a whimper – as a man of many talents, and a theology scholar, Phibes concocts a series of punishments based upon the ten plagues of the Old Testament. So respectable surgeons, doctors, and nurses are quickly (or sometimes slowly) terminated by assorted bats, rats, freezing temperatures, blood-draining, suffocating frog masks, and catapulted unicorn heads, among others.

Inevitably the film takes on an episodic nature; Phibes eliminates one of his victims, the police arrive to investigate, they interview someone but learn little, and Phibes continues his master plan. As a result, there are a number of characters who pop up for a scene, and vanish from view for the remainder of the film – a housekeeper, a graveyard attendant, a metalworker. They all add a touch of well-conceived Britishness to the whole production; the police too are played with dry, wry humour. It’s a great combination of English understatement, harmless titillation, and some good old fashioned Gothic doomed romance.

Apparently The Abominable Dr Phibes was heavily rewritten and, having read some of the originally proposed ending ideas, the rewrites have not only benefited the film, but changed it quite substantially. It works because Phibes, despite his (perhaps misguided) cruelty, is a sympathetic character, and this is quite an accomplishment. His punishments are sadistic – in fact, the one saved for head surgeon Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) is straight out of a Saw movie – and he evidently takes pleasure in dolling them out; yet he is tortured himself. Physically scarred by an accident and emotionally ruined by his wife’s death, it is not a stretch to argue that this once brilliant man (as evidenced by his creations) has been irrevocably altered by the events in his life. He is not out to murder the innocent, only those he deems guilty. Price embodies this role with aplomb, managing to relate Phibes’ turmoil perfectly despite his heavily made-up white pallor and lack of dialogue. He provides a pathos to the character that would perhaps not be achieved were it performed by someone with a more subtle style. Interestingly, in both this and the previous pick, The Raven, the villains work precisely because of the actors’ exaggerated performances.

As with The Crow, The Abominable Dr Phibes ends in a rather poetic, even beautiful, way, and it seems a shame that the character was revived only one year later, attempting to resurrect his dead wife in Dr Phibes Rises Again. As that film is not part of our collection, I cannot comment on its success (or failure) any further, though I can say that, as much as I enjoyed this film, I have little desire to see its sequel. Dr Phibes carried out his revenge, and I am now happy for him to (finally) rest in peace.

Film #49: The Raven (1935)

film 49 the raven

Rating: 5/5

“Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hatred. Good! I can use your hate.”

Cultists and Tim Burton like to believe that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were arch-rivals. Lugosi, so the story goes, was Universal’s big star following Dracula (1931) but vanity resulted in the Hungarian actor rejecting the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the studio’s upcoming horror. He didn’t want to hide his face behind heavy make-up, or take a non-speaking role when his voice was so distinctive. The rest, as they say, is history – Karloff took the role, and transformed this mute beast into one of cinema’s most enduring, and endearing, characters.

The truth, of course, is slightly different. Yes, Lugosi was offered the role of the monster, but there are plenty of variations to the story from that point on. Some say he turned it down, others say he was removed from the project. He does eventually get to play the mute monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), but it proves he was never meant for the role; of his involvement in the Frankenstein franchise, he is best as demented hunchback Ygor (Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein). As to whether he and Karloff were truly enemies, well, it appears the opposite was more accurate; the two appear to be friends, who enjoyed some healthy acting rivalries.

I say all this in an effort to emphasise my next point: Lugosi is seldom better than when he is playing opposite Karloff. The pairing appears to bring out the best in Lugosi, whose theatrical flair acts as the perfect foil to Karloff’s more understated performance. The Raven follows the success of The Black Cat, Universal’s first attempt to bring Edgar Allen Poe’s works to the big screen. Both are loosely based on Poe’s original stories, with The Raven in particular becoming less a direct adaptation than a homage to the author himself – he is directly referenced, and it’s not the raven that is crucial to the story, but the various macabre torture devices that feature in his works, particularly the pit and the pendulum.

Lugosi is Dr Vollin, a brilliant, handsome but unhinged surgeon, obsessed with Poe’s stories, and concealing a ghastly labyrinth of torture chambers and secret laboratories in his vast Gothic mansion. Begrudgingly agreeing to operate on a young woman following a car accident, he develops an infatuation with her, much to the concern of her father. She is betrothed to a more suitable man, and Dr Vollin sees an opportunity to get his revenge when a fugitive, Bateman (Karloff), arrives at his home begging for a new face and, by default, a second chance. Poor Bateman is a tortured man; he wonders if his external ugliness has meant his miserable life was inevitable. It is this “profound” remark that leads Dr Vollin to commit a heinously sadistic act, disfiguring Bateman even further to ensure his compliance and subservience.

While Karloff incites almost instantaneous pathos through his subtle, pained performance, Lugosi is clearly having the time of his life. He’s been criticised in later roles for his hammy acting, but here he excels – his expressive face and exaggerated reactions serving to bring this charismatic lunatic to life. His disdain for the rest of humanity, his self-assured psychosis, and his sadism shine through his performance; I would go so far as to claim that Dr Vollin’s villainy and general nastiness is matched in Lugosi’s career only by Dr Orloff in 1939’s The Human Monster (also titled The Dark Eyes of London).

There’s much to enjoy in The Raven and, though its “monster” (whether that be the disfigured Bateman or Vollin himself) may not have become as iconic as Universal’s other horror characters in the same decade, it represents the studio at its peak. Vollin’s house (where most of the action takes place) is a wonderfully designed series of sets, featuring all the staples of a mad scientist’s lair, from its secret passageways and hatches, to its luxurious living spaces, to its wonderfully flamboyant torture chamber, complete with a room-elevator! No expense was spared for this big budget production, and it’s a joy to see Lugosi surrounded by something other than sparse sets and cobbled together props.

Evidently, of the two legendary actors, my preference lies with Lugosi, but this truly is his film. Despite getting second billing to Karloff (listed as just that in the credits, no first name necessary), he dominates throughout; Bateman may get the audience’s sympathy, but he fails to match the charisma and presence of Lugosi. Knowing the history of the two – Karloff’s continued success and Lugosi’s rapid decline and abandonment by the industry – it’s rather satisfying to see Lugosi’s suave, utterly deranged performance as Dr Vollin here, in contrast to the grubby, downtrodden Bateman. Of course, it all ends badly for Vollin (though, to be honest, he absolutely deserves it), ultimately this collaboration sees Lugosi well and truly the victor.

Film 48: God Bless America (2011)

film 48 god bless america

Rating: 4.5/5

“I wish I was a super-genius inventor and could come up with a way to make a telephone into an explosive device that was triggered by the American Superstarz voting number. The battery could explode and leave a mark on the face, so I could know who to avoid talking to before they even talked.”

Movie Lottery is back from its holiday, and I am so pleased to say that the latest movie is this, God Bless America. Written and directed by the wonderfully named Bobcat Goldthwait (the guy with the high-pitched voice in Police Academy), it’s a delightfully dark piece of satire that reveals itself to be not only a plea for kindness from its protagonist Frank (Joel Murray), but a way for Goldthwait himself to vent his frustrations at all the mean people in the world, those people whose seemingly small acts of cruelty and selfishness represent a society no longer concerned with just being decent. As Frank says, “why have a civilisation any more if we are no longer interested in being civilised?!”

The tone of God Bless America is set instantly, with one of the most shockingly hilarious opening scenes I can remember seeing. Poor Frank, plagued with headaches and inconsiderate neighbours, gets through his mundane life by fantasising about ending it all – not his own life, mind you, but the lives of all the people who thoroughly don’t deserve to have one. The television shows and adverts reflect how society’s crumbling, with its crass reality shows, spoiled rich kids, fart jokes and the public humiliation forum of American Superstarz, a thinly veiled dig at the countless talent shows littering our networks today. Goldthwait includes all the shows that have become embarrassingly popular precisely because they are “car crash tv” – shows that endorse the despicable and exploit the vulnerable – as well as featuring a selection of those who may be personal gripes and concerns: everyone from the Westboro Baptist Church, to Fox newsreaders, to perverts, to a man who knowingly parks across two spaces. The message is clear (and frequently reiterated by Frank in one of his numerous dry, disillusioned monologues): if you are mean, rude, selfish, or bigoted, you will feel the satirical wrath of Goldthwait, and be blasted to pieces by Frank.

Frank finally gets to live out his fantasies following a meeting with his doctor, who reveals his migraines are due to an inoperable brain tumour. It’s the final straw for the downtrodden man, who decides to make the world a better place by eliminating Chloe, a rich brat whose super sweet 16th birthday has recently aired on television. This spoiled child, cursing and screaming at her deluded parents, represents all that is wrong in the world, and she must be taken out. It’s a brilliantly slapstick murder, and one that enables Frank to meet Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a student at Chloe’s school who is inspired by Frank’s actions. Together they become moral vigilantes on an epic road trip across America in a stolen canary yellow Camaro, taking out the scum of society, and considering countless other possibilities along the way.

If there is a flaw in Goldthwait’s film, it is that, at times, the tone becomes slightly preachy. He adorns a movie theatre with posters for films he evidently considers to rise above the ignorance of mainstream television – documentaries like Man on Wire and the superb (and terrifying) Jesus Camp – and fills his movie with numerous other cinematic and cultural references that align him and his work with “higher” forms of art. More obviously, he allows Frank to air his frustrations at length to the brain-dead morons he’s surrounded by in work and at home. Yet arguably, all Frank really needs to do, if he is so depressed at the state of contemporary pop culture, is switch off his television. But he does not: he spends his time consuming all the shows he deplores so much. While this is briefly acknowledged early on, when a colleague comments on the fact that Frank claims to “not watch” American Superstarz but did see the previous night’s episode, it does mean that our antihero’s self-righteous mission is somewhat tainted by the knowledge that his pain is self-inflicted. Or perhaps Goldthwait’s screenplay is attempting to demonstrate that involvement is inevitable; that the constantly increasing degradation and decay of morality and taste is unavoidable. He’s not the only person to acknowledge the apparent decline of society; Southpark recently made its own plea for American culture to “raise the bar” in last year’s Honey Boo Boo-inspired episode.

God Bless America is the perfect movie for anyone who enjoys ranting about the injustices of fame and the rise of the reality “star”, for those people who get infuriated by the petty cruelties of the morons they have the miserable pleasure of sharing their lives with, for anyone who has ever wanted to actually act on their rage at the inconsiderate ignoramus talking during a film. Goldthwait demonstrates not only his biting wit and topical satire, but an impressive control over his film; it is glossy and sleek, satisfyingly graphic yet sufficiently comical. Soon, regardless of personal feelings about vigilante killings (surely most people would accept they’re probably not really the way to go), it’s difficult to not only root for Frank, but to gleefully await his latest moral judgement. Oh and, for the record, my hitlist would include: people who park in disabled spaces despite not being disabled (and there being a space just a few metres away); everyone who helped make The Only Way is Essex (and all its spin-off cash-ins) successful; and people who use text-speak in their every day language. LOL? Really? If it’s funny, why can’t you just laugh?