Movies I Have Never Seen #7: Suspiria (1977)

What is it: One of the grand touchstones of moody horror, Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This highly influential film is a surreal nightmare about a young ballet dancer who discovers her new school is not what it seems. Inspired by Italy’s giallo horror subgenre (but not, according to many, technically a giallo film itself), Suspiria is drenched in vivid colours and disturbing sounds, and a horror film like few before it. 

Why I never saw it: As I’ve mentioned before, while I love a good horror movie, I’m less of a slasher movie fan. Suspiria’s blood-soaked, intense reputation kind of scared me off for a long time, and for many years, pre-streaming, it was also kind of a difficult movie to find to actually watch it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Suspiria isn’t a movie you go to for plot – the “haunted house” storyline (well, haunted dance school) is as old as the movies itself. But where it soars is in creating a nightmare world all its own. Much of what makes a good horror movie work is mood. And Suspiria is almost all mood. The acting can be wooden and the story is a thin thread to drape the atmosphere around. Yet it all works, because Suspiria is about unsettling you. It’s that pounding iconic score by the band Goblin, which ramps up for the film’s gory set pieces to almost unbearable intensity. The gory scenes are brash and brutal, but the bulk of the movie basks in creating a more subtle unsettling dread. It’s seen in the film’s striking use of colours (it was the final film to use three-strip Technicolor), which make even the most gruesome of scenes oddly beautiful. In its own way, it uses colour as memorably as The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or Black Narcissus. It feels like an adult fairy tale, a Snow White without dwarves but plenty of witches. Argento’s chilly, removed storytelling gives Suspiria a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. It’s defiantly original and unforgettable. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the squeamish or easily rattled. As a sheer exercise in macabre, colourful style, it’s a cinematic milestone and perfect for the spooky season.  

Movies I Have Never Seen #6: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

What is it: The biggest box-office hit of 1984, it turned Eddie Murphy into a superstar. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop who goes to Beverly Hills to uncover the truth about a friend’s murder. Hijinks ensue. 

Why I never saw it: If you’d asked me, I would have thought I’d seen Beverly Hills Cop. After all, it was EVERYWHERE in 1984 when I was a wee tween. Yet when Mr. 16 and I decided to watch it the other day, I realised unless I’ve completely and utterly blanked it from my mind, I’d never actually seen one of the biggest hits of my childhood years. (I’m fairly sure I have seen Beverly Hills Cop II, which I think I confused with the first one.) I felt like I had seen it because it was simply in the air. It’s hard to state just how big Eddie was in 1984, the summer of Ghostbusters and Walter Mondale-mania. (Was that a thing?) My brother owned the soundtrack on cassette tape, but because BHC was R-rated, I, a mere sprat of 12, never saw it in theatres and missed out on videocassette, a medium by which I date myself horribly. Yet like every kid in 1984, I knew the plinky keyboards of Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F earworm, which pops up in the movie approximately every 30 seconds. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Eddie Murphy’s material is hit-or-miss for me. He’s full of charm, but a lot of his stand-up comedy has dated a lot worse than his idol Richard Pryor (the movies Raw and Delirious are unwatchable to me today, all preening ego and lots of rank homophobia and sexism). Yet in movies like 48 Hours and Coming To America he’s one of the great comic actors. He singlehandedly makes BHC worth watching with his ultra-confident, cocky cop who’s got an answer for everybody.

It’s also worth noting that it was by far the biggest blockbuster of 1984, and the first time a black actor headlined such a smash hit. BHC doesn’t make racism a dominating plot point, but there’s certainly an awful lot of subtext here (Axel Foley keeps getting arrested by cops, for instance). He’s the smartest guy in the room, outsmarting all the by-the-book white cops and crooks. Eddie’s Foley takes the proud black heroic figures from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s like Dolemite and Shaft and plugs them into a more mainstream action blockbuster. It was a winning combination. But seen 35 years on, BHC doesn’t seem quite so revolutionary – and it’s genuinely a bit baffling that the boilerplate script actually got an Academy Award nomination. The murder mystery at the centre of the plot lacks any tension, and most of the other actors are blown off the screen by Murphy. Strip Eddie out of the movie and replace him with Sylvester Stallone (who was originally set to star) and you’ve got Cobra. 

Worth seeing? It’s worth a watch, but I don’t consider it anywhere near as much of a classic as ’84’s other big hit comedy Ghostbusters is in my heart. (Then again, maybe if I’d seen it at the same age as I first saw Ghostbusters, I’d feel differently.) Beverly Hills Cop is an entertaining ride for a cop action-comedy, and it’s full of ‘80s fashion and excess, but to be honest, other than Murphy’s still-dazzling charisma, there’s nothing here that hasn’t really been done better elsewhere. 

Movies I have Never Seen #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

What is it: One of the most famous horror movies of all time, Tobe Hooper’s grim ’n gritty 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget smash, changing the horror genre forever and inspiring Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and a million other ‘slasher’ movies. It sets the template for countless gore-fests, with a small group of sexy young people running afoul of a house full of murderous redneck serial killers in rural Texas, notably the chainsaw-wielding maniac “Leatherface.” 

Why I never saw it: Look, I’m a big horror movie fan. Monster movies, Universal classics, John Carpenter, Evil Dead, Hammer horror, you name it… except I don’t really care for slasher movies. There have been some great “slasher” flicks I dig, like the original Halloween and the fantasy-tinged Nightmare on Elm Street series, but to be honest, I’ve never liked horror that leans too much into sadism (I know, a bit hypocritical). The whole “torture porn” genre of Saw and Hostel type movies that are direct descendants of Chainsaw Massacre are not my bag at all. So even though I’m keen to fill in the gaps in my movie watching ledger, there was something kind of offputting about Texas Chainsaw Massacre for me that took me a while to get to it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely. Chainsaw sets up its mood of intense wrongness from the opening scenes. It’s a movie where death and evil seems to lurk behind every tree. It takes a little while to “get going,” and there’s a fair bit of rather bad acting by the amateur cast until the carnage starts, but when it does, Chainsaw turns into a white-knuckle ride of sheer horror until the very final moments. The last 30 minutes or so, as lone survivor Sally flees for her life and escapes by the thinnest of margins, is unrelenting in its intensity. It doesn’t let up, and the viewer echoes the shocked, dazed trauma of Sally (Marilyn Burns) by the end. You feel pummeled, haunted by glimpses into an abyss. Chainsaw doesn’t attempt to explain its killers, to give them any motivation beyond sheer madness, and that’s scarier than anything else. 

How it’s different than I thought: Well, despite the carnage left in its wake, the original Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a terribly gory movie. The horror mostly comes from suggestion – we don’t actually see that chainsaw carving up kids, but what we do see is in some ways more terrible. It is a very scary, haunting movie, without a doubt, but it’s not wall-to-wall blood. 

Worth seeing? Yes, for its place in film history, its intense sense of mood and place, and for plunging deep into the depths of depravity – but I don’t really feel the urge to see it again any time soon. Once was enough to look into this darkness. Your mileage may vary.

Movies I Have Never Seen #4: Shock Treatment

What is it: Like most people who’ve found themselves somewhat against the grain in life, I dig The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s pretty much the definition of a cult classic, still playing in midnight shows around the world 44 years after its 1975 release. Seeing it in a vintage theatre in high school was one of my great cultural awakenings, and fittingly, I saw it again in a theatre just this past Halloween in a terrific benefit showing here in Auckland, complete with New Zealander creator, writer and co-star Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien in attendance. I don’t do the costumes – nobody wants to see me in fishnets – but there’s something truly wonderful about a Rocky Horror screening, with everyone flying their own personal freak flag and screaming crazy stuff at the screen for a bizarre little film that somehow sticks with you.

And then there’s Shock Treatment. Shock Treatment is the little-known 1981 quasi-sequel to Rocky Horror, again written by O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman. It’s loosely the tale of Brad and Janet (recast, woefully) taking part in a surreal TV game show experience and being “reinvented” into superstars. But in execution, it’s kind of a mess.

Why I never saw it: Even today, Shock Treatment is pretty obscure. My main vague memory of it was the cool, eye-catching poster design (above). You can find it with a bit of searching on YouTube, though. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Disappointingly, yes. Shock Treatment is a film that isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to say. You can’t really create a cult hit when you’re trying so hard to. Shock Treatment is a muddle of early ‘80s glam-pop, a satire of reality TV, and a tale of empowerment. Unfortunately, it’s a little too similar to Rocky Horror in that it’s again a tale of Brad and Janet finding their bliss. Unlike Rocky Horror’s smooth, straightforward plot, a mish-mash of horror movie cliches, Shock Treatment is maddeningly hard to follow.

A charismatic foil like Tim Curry is badly missed here, although O’Brien’s creepy Dr. Cosmo is one of the better things about the movie, but he’s not in it enough. Rocky Horror stars Patricia Quinn, Charles ‘No Neck’ Gray and Little Nell also show up in small roles. Recasting Brad and Janet was a bad idea (bizarrely, the events of Rocky Horror are never mentioned, leading you to wonder if it’s a reboot or a prequel or what). Jessica Harper is a very stiff Janet who only comes to life in the movie’s final act, while Cliff De Young’s Brad Majors is awful – his entire performance is lacking the wit and insight Barry Bostwick’s Brad brought to a single line in Rocky Horror: “It’s beyond me / Help me mommy.” 

All in all, Shock Treatment feels too much like hard work. Many of the songs are pretty enjoyable, but like most of the movie, they’re overproduced and chaotic. Rocky Horror is a strange beast of a film too, but it’s consistent and genuinely warm at times. Shock Treatment never invites you in, and you never feel like you want to shout back at the screen. 

How’s it different than I thought: While it’s wacky and strange, Shock Treatment is never as transgressive as Rocky Horror. It mocks lots of things, like Reagan’s America and TV game shows, but it never really bares its fangs. 

Worth seeing? If you’re a die-hard Rocky Horror fan, it’s worth checking out. Once. But nobody’s going to be throwing rice at the screen for this one. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #3: Master Of The Flying Guillotine

513wIAiRefLWhat is it: It’s not exactly a household name, but in certain circles, it’s the holy bible of cheesy kung-fu schlock. Master of the Flying Guillotine is a 1976 Taiwanese film written by, directed by and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, a sequel to his One-Armed Boxer (about… you guessed it). It’s one of the wackiest kung fu movies of the ‘70s, featuring an insane blind assassin and his fearsome “flying guillotine” (a bizarre weapon which resembles a bladed cap attached to a chain. You throw it and boom, instant haircut). The guillotine master has a mad-on for the famed one-armed boxer who killed his students, and the entire movie is basically an excuse for inventive, crazed kung fu revenge ultraviolence, leading to a fantastic showdown between a one-armed fighter and a blind guillotine wielder. 

Why I never saw it: Hell, I’d never even heard of it until recently, when I’ve been going on an extended martial arts movie binge, from the classic moves of Bruce Lee to the slapstick antics of Jackie Chan to the cool charms of Donnie Yen. 

MV5BMzgxMmMwODAtZTFjNC00OTlhLTlhMDgtZWE2OWRmMTkyZmVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_Does it measure up to its rep? This is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies and a clear influence on his “Kill Bill” series. It’s not slick, but its clunky moves (the ‘one-armed boxer’ moves about as smooth as I do on a Saturday morning), crazy krautrock-influenced soundtrack and bizarre characters make it unforgettable in a genre filled with wacky kung-fu killers. While Wang Yu is a kinda stiff leading man, Lung Kun Lee as the guillotine killer is fascinatingly over-the-top – with facial hair that makes him resemble a rabid woodchuck, a snarling theme song that announces his entrance, and a penchant for throwing explosives around every building he enters, he’s amazing. The entire movie stops dead at one point for a half-hour of so of a bloody, murder-filled martial arts tournament featuring crazily baroque fighters, which basically plays like “Mortal Kombat” invented 20 years earlier. There’s sheer energy to the way this revenge tale is framed that gives it a kick. Perhaps the best way to watch is it like I did, on a low-rent dubbed video which inexplicably switches back to Chinese 5-6 times during the middle of the movie for a few lines here and there. It’s like I was there in the grindhouse drive-in movie theatre parking lot of 1976 this movie was made for.  

34748.largeHow’s it different than I thought: Unlike the other “flying guillotine” movies out there in this sub-sub genre, this is pretty bloodless. In fact, a couple of the marquee decapitations in this flick are like watching an abandoned puppet go down, made funnier because in one scene you can clearly see the “headless man” is a man with his still-attached head stuffed into an extra-large shirt. And we won’t even talk about how the “one-armed boxer” is clearly hiding his arm in his tunic in almost every scene.

Worth seeing? Absolutely. It’s the kind of kung-fu insanity I dreamed about as a lad, and a hidden gem if you haven’t discovered its sloppy charms yet. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #2: The Exorcist

the-exorcist-2What is it: The world’s most famous demonic possession story, the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist” was a global smash, a taboo-breaking story that also ended up nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. 

Why I never saw it: I love horror movies, but I’m more of a monster-movie dude rather than slasher-horror or Satanic possessions kinda guy. I actually read the novel of “The Exorcist” yeaaarrrrrs ago (younger than I probably shoulda) and I think I built up in my head that the movie was far too creepy for a gentle fella like me. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Definitely. It’s hard watching ‘classics’ sometimes where they’ve been so influential on other movies that what were originally groundbreaking, influential moments can seem almost like a parody when you finally get around to seeing the original source. But “The Exorcist” is creepy and filled with a sense of pensive dread, highlighted by Linda Blair’s remarkable performance. The movie builds up slowly (like most older movies do when viewed from the vantage point of today), but it works because it convinces us of how normal the relationship between Regan and her mother is.

levitating-above-bed-740x400@2xIt makes what follows later that much more profane and shocking. And the movie’s most iconic moments – the possession of Regan and her gruesome actions – are still truly horrifying today. Every parent of a teenager has that moment of disconnection when your child suddenly seems like an alien to you, and “The Exorcist” dramatises that perfectly to terrible extremes. 

How was it different than I thought? Like I said, a bit slower to start, but that actually works to the picture’s benefit. I also expected Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin to be more of a main character and didn’t realise Father Karras would be more of a focus. It was definitely as gruesome and harrowing as I imagined, and unlike some horror movies viewed years later, you definitely didn’t want to laugh at the scary bits. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Just maybe leave the lights on. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #1: ‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip.