From Film Comment Magazine, September/October 1996, with thanks to Anthony Thorne
John Carpenter's Guilty Pleasures
I wasn't raised a catholic, so guilt never played much of a role in my life. We methodists don't worry about guilt all that much. In terms of cinema, however, guilt has always been very important. In film school we studied all the classics - silents, German expressionism, Russian montage, Italian neorealism, you know the litany. I realised right way that with a few exceptions I didn't really enjoy or love any of the classic films. I mean, how can you really love Greed? Even the cutdown version is hard to take. So Let's talk about flops and trash. The Poor, The Awful, The Stupid - movies I dearly love and would much rather watch than classics. As a kid, I knew a lot of the movies I saw were hideous, but I didn't care, I loved them anyway. I forgave everything. Now when I see these same films, I still love and forgive. It's a case of arrested development. Only now I suppose there's more guilt associated with this love of trash because somehow I must know better. Well, I don't. As you will see.
The Green Berets (1968, directed by John Wayne and Ray Kellog). John Wayne's epic Vietnam war movie. Amazing extreme-right fantasy. Great siege on a firebase. Vietcong toasted on concertina wire like marshmallows. Wayne and the Green Berets sneak into a mansion, capture Vietcong bigshot and his concubine. Ricky-tick chop-suey score. John Wayne, David Janssen, Aldo Ray, Bruce Cabot, Kim Hutton, and the worst Asian child actor ever cast in a motion picture. Greatest final line in any film - Wayne to orphanised Vietnamese boy: "Son, you're what this war is all about." A must-see.
The Unconquered (1947, Cecil B. DeMille). It's the French and Indian war in glorious three-strip technicolour, and it's like watching a very expensive stage play. Paulette Goddard is a bond slave from England. Gary Cooper is an Indian fighter. DeMille is a director with a leaden, wooden-fisted style. The extras deliver expository dialogue. Boris Karloff plays an Indian Chief. Cooper rescues Goddard with a compass, escapes in a canoe, hangs on a branch under a waterfall. Cooper also rescues Fort Detroit. All the overacting is so much fun. Awesome.
The Giant Claw (1957, Fred F. Sears). Every monster movie lover's favourite bad movie. Absolutely brilliantly dumb. The silliest monster ever. Giant puppet chickenhawk made in Mexico. Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum and the entire earth shrink in terror from the squawking anti-matter chicken. It's got it all. Stock footage. Inane narration. Great fifties love scene aboard an airplane. Toy planes crashing. Toy helicopter landing. Toy train destroyed. Toy cities destroyed. The ultimate.
Viking Women and The Sea Serpent (1957, Roger Corman). A bevy of Viking babes in Bronson Caves. Abby Dalton, Susan Cabot and a troop of blondes in buckskin battle a rubber sea monster. Richard Devon leads the bad guys in a massive fur coat and hat. Lots of fight scenes. Lots of spear throwing. Some of the matte shots don't fit. The Viking women want their captured men back for obvious reasons. Corman broke his setup record on this one: over sixty-one camera setups in one day. Irresistible.
Blue Hawaii (1962, Norman Taurog). The first great Elvis Hawaii movie, and still the best. Angela Lansbury is Elvis's mother, who wants him to join the family business. Elvis wants to go his own way as a tour guide. I still get misty when he sings "I Can't Help Falling In Love." Elvis finally marries Joan Blackman in a pointless but ornate Hawaiian wedding. The King at his best.
Invisible Invaders (1959, Edward L. Cahn). Invisible moon monsters inhabit dead bodies to take over the Earth. Night Of The Living Dead nine years earlier. John Agar, Philip Tonge, Jean Byron, and Robert Hutton battle possessed corpse John Carradine and his army. So compelling in its nutball way I can't watch four seconds of this film without sitting down and staring at the whole thing. Stock footage. Clumsy narration. Cheap effects. The walking dead. A classic.
Ice Station Zebra (1968, John Sturges). Howard Hughes's favourite movie. Nuclear submarine cruises under the ice to the North Pole for a showdown with the Russians. Rock Hudson is the commander. Patrick MacGoohan is the British agent. Ernest Borgnine is a Russian spy. Jim Brown is cool. Phony snow set. Toy jets photographed against rear screen. (This is Cinerama?) Utterly incomprehensible Alistair MacLean plot. What is everyone after? Why is the audience laughing? Why do I love this movie so much?
From Hell It Came (1957, Dan Milner). The Tabonga, walking tree monster. Stunning. In the preview trailer, they call it Baranga. It walks three miles an hour towards its helpless victims. Todd Andrews leads the scientists. South Sea island natives dumber than rocks. Incredible.
Radio Ranch (1935, Otto Brewer, B. Reeves Easton). Cut-down feature version of Phantom Empire, a twelve chapter serial. Gene Autry, Frank Darro, Betsy King Ross and the Junior Thunder Riders battle gangsters and the futuristic underground kingdom of Murania. Autry always manages to make it back to the ranch just in time for his radio broadcast. Part of Murania was shot at the Griffiths Observatory. Completely insane and wonderful.
Motorcycle Gang (1957, Edward L. Cahn). Good guy teen Steve Terrel vs. cool bad guy teen John Ashley on motorcycles. Anne Neyland has some trouble deciding between them. Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer is the comic relief. Russ Bender tries to help testosterone-fuelled teens go straight and narrow. Very cool.
Invasion U.S.A. (1952, Alfred E. Green). Dan O'Herlihy hypnotises Gerald Mohr, Peggie Castle, and other bar patrons with a martini glass, spins a cautionary tale of Communists invading the U.S. The atomic bomb is dropped on New York. Boulder Dam explodes. It's all here. Peggie Castle leaps to her death rather than be raped by invading commie pigs. Superb Trash. Should be shown in every history class. For that matter, in every film class.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1968, Russ Meyer). An absolute masterpiece. Rock and roll. Beautiful naked babes. Gratuitous sex and violence. Dolly Read leads the Carrie Nations, and all-girl band, to top Hollywood Babylon. The fun never stops. The songs are great. The women are beautiful. The violence is outrageous. Total Russ Meyer satire that apparently went right over the heads of the audience and critics. Edy Williams in a Bentley is a sight to behold. As a 22-year-old I fell deeply in love with Cynthia Meyers. I'm still in love.
Sorority Girl (1957, Roger Corman). Troubled Susan Cabot makes life hell for a sorority house. Barboura Morris isn't pleased. Cabot tries to blackmail June Kenny, but Dick Miller didn't father Kenny's child and tape records the confession. Cabot is so arch and evil it's impossible not to love her. Spankings with a paddle. Babes on the beach. Kenny attempts suicide. Cabot walks off into the ocean at fadeout. Superlative teen exploitation.
Goliath And The Barbarians (1960, Carlo Campogalliani). Steve Reeves as Goliath (actually Hercules in the original Italian version) battles barbaric tribes that invade Italy. Beautiful Chelo Alonso plays the babe of his desires. Bruce Cabot is the heavy. Reeves kicks butt, woos Alonso, pretends to be a marauding monster with a mask and club. Great cheesy spectacle.
The Conqueror (1956, Dick Powell). John Wayne is Genghis Khan with a thin moustache and a heavy lust for Susan Hayward. Plus, there's Agnes Moorhead and Pedro Armendariz. Plus, the entire cast and crew might have been exposed to intense radiation in their desert location near an atomic testing sight. Plus, the whole thing is non-stop fun. Wayne is fantastic as Genghis Khan. Great battle scenes. Great horses. Great laughs.
Attack Of The Crab Monsters (1957, Roger Corman). Giant talking crabs with eyeballs and eyelids terrorise scientists on a Pacific atoll. Richard Garland and Pamela Duncan seem to be a couple but she starts falling for blue-collar Russel Johnson. Ed Nelson dies early. Beach Dickerson dies in a tent. Severed heads, severed hands, and the crabs disappear when you zap them with electricity. Several descents into the pit. Several earthquakes. A giant crab claw keeps leaping into frame and attacking people. Great fun. Something suspenseful happens in almost every scene. Dickerson and Nelson play the crab. A Corman classic.
War Of The Gargantuans (1966, Inoshiro Honda). The ultimate Japanese monster movie. Actually a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers The World. Russ Tamblyn and Kumi Mizuno battle two gigantic hairy monster brothers, one good and one evil. First they trash the countryside, then they trash the city. Airport night-club singer warbles "The Words Get Stuck In My Throat" just before the Gargantua kills here. Great battle scenes. Lots of phony miniatures destroyed. Tension mounts as the audience waits to see if Tamblyn and Mizuno get it on. They don't.
Of course, it is impossible for me to bring this list to an end. There are so many wonderful movies that have provided so many guilt pleasures over the years. So much affection, so much shame. But I must stop. I must will myself and end to this joy. Thus, I do.
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