“I think, therefore you are.”
—Sutter Cane (Do you read Sutter Cane?)
John Carpenter’s career couldn’t have taken a sharper turn than to go from the impersonal director-for-hire Memoirs of an Invisible Man, targeted toward a mainstream date-night audience, to In the Mouth of Madness, a highly personal film aimed at the narrowest and most specific audience of horror lovers possible. Of course, In the Mouth of Madness was a financial failure — the biggest at that point in Carpenter’s career. And, in a familiar pattern, it’s now revered and widely considered John Carpenter’s last great film. (I hope this turns out to be false, because Carpenter is still alive and I want him to direct again. Still, the odds of him turning out something better at this point … yeah, wouldn’t take that bet.)
I analyzed In the Mouth of Madness for Black Gate in 2014 for its debut on Blu-ray. As cosmic fate would have it, this next entry in my John Carpenter retrospective falls right at the release of a new special edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, giving me an opportunity to make a few new observations. Not that I might run out of things to talk about when it comes to a layered, strange, cerebral, and unapologetically nerdy flick like In the Mouth of Madness. This one will drive you absolutely mad!
Giant monsters are a part of my extended family. They’ve been around since I was a kid, and even if I didn’t see much of them during my years at college, they’d always come back into my life to provide support and wellness. Yeah, some are not that great and maybe I’d rather visit with them again, but the best of them will always be there for me.
Rampage is now a favorite second cousin. It’s no classic Godzilla flick (a godfather figure) or King Kong (a beloved sibling), but I look forward to hanging out with it at the next family gathering, ‘cuz it’s a real cut-up. And since Rampage arrived on home video and VOD platforms this week, I can now kick back with it whenever I need a pick-me-up.
And no one is as surprised at this new addition to my kaiju family as me. When 2018 started, I pegged my giant monster hopes on Pacific Rim: Uprising. The first Pacific Rim was a blast, and even if this sequel lacked the guiding hand of Guillermo del Toro, it still had the strong support of the original’s world-building. Rampage, an adaptation of a video game — rarely a positive sign — from the director of the dreadful San Andreas, didn’t have such promise. Dwayne Johnson was adding his welcome presence, but Dwayne Johnson was also in San Andreas and ended up helping that not a bit. I held out shaky hope that Rampage might be “okay” and looked forward to Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Read More Read More
I don’t normally put up spoiler warnings for a movie of this vintage, but The Great Silence hasn’t been widely available in North America until recently, so few viewers outside of Europe and Japan have had the chance to experience it. Since it’s almost impossible to discuss the movie in any depth without talking about its ending, this is your spoiler warning from here onward. If you’d rather experience the film first, it’s now available on streaming platforms (Amazon, iTunes, Vudu) and a stunning new Blu-ray from a 2K remaster.
The term “Spaghetti Western” or “Italian Western” conjures images roasted under a relentless sun. A cyclorama of the barren lands of Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico, as played by Spanish locations. A thinly populated dryland of cracked mud and twisted cacti, dying towns clustered about decaying Catholic churches, and vultures on hanging trees. Heat suffuses and twists everything. Sweat and grime stain every character’s face.
Read More Read More
The most recent Japanese Godzilla film, 2016’s Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla: Resurgence), is about to stomp into North America on Blu-ray. Shin Godzilla received an extremely limited one-week run in U.S. theaters in October 2016 — the theater where I watched it ran it once each on Saturday and Sunday morning — so this home video release is the first opportunity most people in Region A will have to see it. (I’ve reached a point where I no longer consider the world in terms of nations but of Blu-ray region coding. “What part of the world are you from?” “Region A.”)
As prep for examining Shin Godzilla, I’m warping back to 1984 and the film in the series with which it has the most in common, i.e. the last time Godzilla went solo, with no other monster in sight: The Return of Godzilla. The home video timing works out well, since The Return of Godzilla only recently had its own digital video debut in North America on a Blu-ray from Kraken Releasing. In fact, the film hasn’t been available here on home video in any format since the late 1990s.
It’s also the first time the original version of the film has been legally available in the United States. When The Return of Godzilla first reached American theaters, it was as a grotesque Dr. Pepper-fueled mutant hybrid called Godzilla 1985. This Americanized version has been heavily slagged for decades for good reasons, but the original isn’t a hidden gem like the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Don’t expect a kaiju epiphany on your first viewing of The Return of Godzilla.
The Reboot of Godzilla
Known in Japan simply as Gojira, The Return of Godzilla was a reboot of the series long before that term for franchise reimagination became popular. It ignited the “Heisei” series of Godzilla films that lasted until 1996 and brought the legendary monster to a second height of fame and quality. Which is strange, since The Return of Godzilla doesn’t look as if it could ignite anything bigger than a tealight candle.
Read More Read More
During my years of writing for Black Gate, I’ve repeatedly pointed out certain films aren’t available on Blu-ray or DVD … only to discover after I post the article that said films are already scheduled for a release. This happened again three weeks ago when I mentioned that the only Ray Harryhausen film still unreleased on the Hi-Def format was The Valley of Gwangi. I dug myself in deeper by predicting we wouldn’t see one for years because of how slowly Warner Bros. moves with its catalogue titles.
Yet here I am in possession of a Blu-ray from Warner Archive of The Valley of Gwangi and writing about it. Maybe I should start making gloomy declarations about the Blu-ray chances of other favorite movies, just to invoke the intervention of the muse who controls home video releases. (Melpomene, I believe.)
Everyone who loves movies probably has a specific film that seems as if it were made just for them. A Ray Harryhausen stop-motion giant monster in a Western? That’s what I call Ryan Harvey Niche Marketing. The only way The Valley of Gwangi could be more targeted to me is if 1) the monster was Godzilla, 2) Peter Cushing was one of the stars, and 3) Sergio Leone directed it. However, if such an event actually occurred, the shockwaves would’ve knocked Earth from its axial tilt and annihilated civilization. Perhaps it’s for the best we stopped at “Ray Harryhausen giant monster Western.”
Although The Valley of Gwangi has some of the flaws found in other Ray Harryhausen-Charles H. Schneer films (workmanlike direction, some stilted performances), it’s still one of the greatest dinosaur movies ever made, in the same league as One Million Years B.C. and Jurassic Park. Is Jurassic Park overall a superior movie? Yes, but in terms of creative dinosaur action, The Valley of Gwangi competes. The only dinosaur movie that ranks higher than these is the original King Kong.
Read More Read More
One Million Years B.C. was released this week on Region A (North America) Blu-ray for the first time, drawing us one step closer to a complete set of Ray Harryhausen movies on Hi-Def. We still need The Valley of Gwangi, which Warner Bros. owns — and they’re stingy about catalogue titles, especially if they’ve already released them as part of the Warner Archive MOD series. (Edit: Warner Archive is releasing a Blu-ray that will be out in a few weeks! So never mind. Thanks to Joe H. in the comments for pointing this out. Yes, there will be a review on March 18.)
But no more of that. I’m here to celebrate the stop-motion dinosaurs of 1966’s One Million Years B.C., which is a crossover of two of my main movie loves: special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and Britain’s Hammer Film Productions.
Hammer and Harryhausen
I once read a customer review on Amazon for the One Million Years B.C. DVD that remarked at the end, “If you’re buying this, you’re buying it for Raquel.” I wonder if the reviewer nodded off during stretches of the film and somehow failed to notice that there are dinosaurs all over it? Dinosaurs created by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen!
I’m not casting aspersions on the appeal of Raquel Welch; she has a enough screen presence to fill in a rock quarry and was a massive part of the movie’s marketing and initial global success. She adds a tremendous amount to the film and helps hold up the human action between stop-motion sequences. Yes, she is stunningly gorgeous on screen to the point that she almost seems unreal. But Raquel Welch has never been as popular as dinosaurs. Sorry, there’s no contest.
Let’s be honest: if One Million Years B.C. had no stop-motion Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs, it would be remembered today for the famous Raquel Welch image and that’s it. People wouldn’t still be watching the film or buying new releases of it more than fifty years later. The film itself would be a side-note, something discussed in terms of Welch’s career and popular 1960s sex symbols, but not anything viewers today would sit down to enjoy in full. Harryhausen’s effects make One Million Years B.C. a perennial.
Read More Read More
This Godzilla film benefits from historical context, so here it be:
In the early 1970s, Japan faced a crisis from increasing pollution due to a massive, unregulated boom in industry across the nation during the previous decade. Poisoning from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide created a spike in cases of asthma and bronchitis, and respiratory problems in general took a steep rise. The sulfur dioxide poisoning in the city of Yoakkaichi, from refineries built during the 1960s, was so pronounced that it coined a new disease name, Yokkaichi asthma. This caused a ten- to twenty-fold increase in mortality rates among asthma sufferers and led to a 1970 class action lawsuit. Children went to school wearing cotton facemasks, and in the larger cities oxygen tanks were available on the streets for emergency use. In the seas, poor waste management led to a drop in the fishing industry, one of the backbones of the Japanese economy—and fishing rates have continued to drop ever since. A country that once had nuclear power at the forefront of its fears was overwhelmed with a new horror of toxic waste contaminating the air and sea.
Read More Read More
The Japanese giant monster world of the 1960s and early ‘70s was about more than Godzilla. It was also about the Frankenstein Monster, dueling Frankenstein Monsters (a.k.a. “Gargantuas”), wrathful stone idols, burrowing Boston Terrier lizards, alien saucer-headed chicken thingies, King Kong, a robot King Kong, huge squids and crabs, Atlantean dragon-gods, and a gratuitous giant walrus.
Mixed up in there was a flying turtle who was the friend to all children, Gamera. This airborne Chelonia somehow managed to sustain a seven-film franchise during the Golden Age (plus a strange one-off in 1980), making it the most successful monster after Godzilla, and the only giant monster from a studio other than Toho to make a large impression on audiences outside its home country.
Gamera is Godzilla’s poor stepchild/competitor, but the spinning turtle has leaped into the Blu-ray ring right along with the recent influx of Godzilla films as part of the release of the U.S. Godzilla. Reaching North American shelves a month before Godzilla stormed onto screens, all eight of the Gamera films from 1965–80 are available courtesy of Mill Creek on two separate releases, presented in their original Japanese language soundtracks. Now people with little acquaintance with Gamera, outside of memories of watching the AIP television versions in the late ‘70s and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing episodes, can witness all the full weirdness of this uniquely strange/wonderful/awful region of kaiju cinema.
Read More Read More
After a few years fighting battles among the cities of Japan and facing the hapless measures of the Japanese Self-Defense force, Godzilla got to go on a tropical island vacation and enjoy broiled seafood. The results were an entertaining variation on the classic Godzilla formula known as Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. Or maybe Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. It depends on how strict you are about Toho Studio’s official English titles.
The arrival of the new US Godzilla triggered a flood of Japanese Godzilla films to Blu-ray, with eleven hitting hi-def on the same day, spread across seven releases. The oldest film on the slate is 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, arriving courtesy of small label Kraken Releasing, a successor to ADV Films. You may know Ebirah better under its original U.S. television broadcast title, Godzilla versus the Sea Monster, with “vs.” spelled out for reasons best left mysterious. This Blu-ray is the first stateside release to have the official English title on the cover, although the movie’s title card reads Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, no longer spelling out “vs.” Reasons more mysterious.
A brief backdrop to this odd G-film: In 1965, Toho Studios made a deal with U.S. animation company Rankin/Bass to co-finance a live-action movie featuring the return of Toho’s version of King Kong. The show would tie into a Rankin/Bass Saturday morning animated series, The King Kong Show. Toho’s writers created a script titled Operation Robinson Crusoe, but Rankin/Bass passed on the idea. The King Kong film eventually emerged in 1967 as King Kong Escapes. But Toho chose to recycle the Operation Robinson Crusoe script as a Godzilla project.
Toho also decided to make it a lower budgeted Godzilla film than the previous entries and placed a different creative team on it. Crime movie director Jun Fukuda replaced Toho’s A-list monster and science-fiction specialist Ishiro Honda. Although Toho Special Effects Department head Eiji Tsubaraya received credit for the VFX direction, his assistant Teisho Arikawa handled most of the hands-on work. Regular Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube was also absent, although his replacement, Masuro Sato, certainly was no B-lister; he was director Akira Kurosawa’s favorite composer and previously scored the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again (1955). Nonetheless, going with Sato — along with Fukuda and Arikawa — definitely gives the sense that Toho viewed Ebirah as a scaled-down production compared to the Honda-Tsubaraya-Ifukube epics of the previous years.
Read More Read More
“Believe me, the sooner we’re off the planet, the better.”
— John Trent (Sam Neill) in In the Mouth of Madness
John Carpenter is a master filmmaker, one of the most influential genre directors to emerge from the cloudburst of creativity of the 1970s. You’d be hard-pressed to find a science-fiction or horror fan who doesn’t have one of Carpenter’s movies in his or her list of Top [Fill in Number] Films list.
But Carpenter’s popularity has created the illusion that his films achieved greater financial success when first released than they did. The unfortunate truth is Carpenter has had only a few outright hits: Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween are the most notable. Halloween throws off the curve: Carpenter’s third feature, it grossed $65 million during its initial domestic run against a budget of $325,000 — and it continues to generate revenue to this day. Halloween also influenced genre movies immediately, igniting the massive “slasher boom.”
But many of Carpenter’s finest and most beloved movies did middling-to-flop business when they premiered. The Thing, rightfully considered his masterpiece, was a financial disappointment for Universal in the summer of 1982. Big Trouble in Little China was an outright box-office disaster. And through the ‘90s, Carpenter could not catch a break with anything. After 2001’s Ghosts of Mars did a spectacular belly flop (a worldwide — yes, worldwide — gross of $14 million against a $28 million budget), Carpenter went into semi-retirement to play video games and watch the Lakers. He has only returned to directing for two episodes of Masters of Horror on Showtime and the barely released and very uninteresting feature The Ward in 2011.
However, the march of appreciation for his movies in their post-premiere years continues. I believe we can now safely deposit one of his 1990s movies in the vault of John Carpenter Classics: In the Mouth of Madness, which debuted on Blu-ray last week. [Update 2018: Now we have a special edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.] Carpenter fans have often dubbed it the director’s last great movie, and although I hope that’s incorrect and he still has a surprise waiting for us, the title seems apt. I certainly haven’t seen anything Carpenter has done since that remotely approaches it in quality.
Read More Read More