Annihilation, the film: A Fresh Review

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Natalie Portman in Annihilation (2018, Paramount-Pictures)

Scott Ashlin doesn’t pull punches. If he doesn’t like a movie, he will tell you, and he will tell you why. Ashlin, also known as El Santo, writes reviews at one of my favorite sites,  1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Even though he jokingly calls his site “aimed exppressly at wrong-thinking,” Ashlin actually excels at knowledgeable film criticism. That’s why I was so interested in his opinion of Annihilation (2018), based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, directed and co-written by Alex Garland. Many reviews of this film, both good and bad, seem to have agendas. S. T. Joshi, for example, hardly ever likes the most recent books of the weird or their movies, preferring the old, grizzled masters.  For example, he dismisses Stephen King and champions H. P. Lovecraft. It’s almost as though you can’t be that good if your book has been made into a blockbuster movie. Joshi is a great scholar of the weird, and I enjoy reading him, even if I don’t always agree with him.

But here is Scott Ashlin’s unsolicited opinion of Annihilation. He likes it:

 What I am certain of is that Annihilation is suffused throughout with something that’s been largely missing from mainstream science fiction movies for far too long, a sense of the vast and awesome strangeness of the universe that we inhabit. One of my favorite characteristics of the best and most ambitious sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s is that it reveled in the majesty of the unknown. . .

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First of the Fifties

destinationmoon Movie producer George Pal with Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis
Movie producer George Pal with Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis

 

Destination Moon produced by George Pal, is widely considered the first science fiction film to attempt a high level of accurate technical detail. Filmed in Technicolor, based on a book by Robert Heinlein, adapted for the screen by Alford Van Ronkel and James O’Hanlon, the film was released on June 27, 1950 in New York and on August 1, 1950 all over the United States. Background scenery and outer space scenes were created by Chesley Bonestell. Actually, the movie Rocketship X-M was released 25 days before Destination Moon. Because of the publicity buzz surrounding Destination Moon, with its budget of half a million dollars, Lippert Pictures saw an opportunity and rushed their relatively low budget ($94,000) Rocketship X-M into production, completing the entire film in only 18 days. These two movies were the start of something big. 

I enjoyed this review of the film by Scott Ashlin on his web site 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting:

“This is another one of those big, important movies that dorks like me are always going on about at the slightest excuse. Destination Moon’s importance stems from its being the first of the vast numbers of science fiction films that were produced during the 1950’s. Those were years of unprecedented visibility for science and technology, and the time was surely ripe for an equally unprecedented spike in the popularity of science fiction, provided the writers and filmmakers could find the right approach to tap into the zeitgeist.”

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And here is Scott Ashlin’s review of Rocketship X-M.

 

The First Horror Anthology?

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On his web site 1,000 Misspent Hours and Counting, Scott Ashlin begins his review of the 1919 silent film Weird Tales (also known as Eerie Tales) with, “Rarely does one have to wait long after finding what seems to be the first of something before an even earlier example comes to light, but that said, I have a hard time imagining that there are too many horror anthology movies out there predating Weird Tales. At the very least, an anthology requires something close to a modern feature-length running time, and movies much longer than an hour were still a fairly recent innovation in 1919. In any event, Weird Tales pushes back the temporal horizons of more than just the portmanteau fright film, for it features Conrad Veidt in the sort of role that would dominate his historical public image, yet it came out some months before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It also stands as an early example of an approach to casting that would recur among anthologies at least until the days of Trilogy of Terror— not only Veidt, but his two costars as well appear in all five tales, plus the interstitial framing sequences.”

     Read entire article

And here’s the movie:

Bill’s Bookshelf Number 3: The Ghouls

The Ghouls

Edited by Peter Haining

Published in 1971 by Stein and Day

They pulled out all the stops on this one: Introduction by Vincent Price, Afterword by Christopher Lee, Dedication to Boris Karloff, quote from Alfred Hitchcock leading into the Editor’s Foreword, all designed with the “classic horror movie fan” in mind.

The inside flap tells us that “Peter Haining has collected the stories on which eighteen of the very best horror films were based.”

This is only partly true. You would be hard-pressed, for example, to find anyone who considers Monster of Terror (1965, known in the United States as Die, Monster, Die) a good movie, much less a great movie. It’s based on a story called “The Colour Out of Space” by that paranoid old recluse H. P. Lovecraft. You can read more about the film at Scott Ashlin’s blog, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting.

Several films have been based on The Phantom of the Opera, some good, some terrible. Regarding the inclusion of The Phantom of the Opera in The Ghouls anthology, Mark Hodgson of Black Hole Reviews tells us, “At this point Haining cheats a little, presenting a specially abridged version of Gaston Leroux’ book. But this is a good way to enjoy the story and avoid the overlong sub-plots of opera house politics and romantic rivalry.” and “This condensed version seems to have been trimmed to give us the passages that were translated to the screen for Lon Chaney’s brilliant work.”

I’ve become a big fan of Nikolai Gogol, but I had forgotten that the classic Italian horror film Black Sunday (1960), starring Barbara Steele, was inspired by Gogol’s short story, The Viy. The movie, directed by Maria Bava, has almost nothing to do with Gogol’s story, but both film and story are classics in their own way. 

I didn’t like the beginning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Feathertop,” on which the movie Puritan Passions (1923) is based, because it starts out too cutesy, like a whimsical fairy tale, with a witch lighting her pipe by magic. But actually, there is a great scene later in the story. The witch has brought a scarecrow to life. The scarecrow, whose name is Feathertop, appears human to everyone who looks at him, but there is a scene in which he is courting a young lady, and he looks in the mirror and sees himself as he really is – a scarecrow – and I thought it was quite a chilling scene. I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know how the filmmakers handled it.

“The Magician” (1908), by Somerset Maugham, is one of my favorite stories in the book. It’s a simple story involving a young lady who meets a “dabbler in the Black Arts” named Oliver Haddo (the character was based on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley). The bulk of the story is filled with richly atmospheric hallucinatory imagery and I can see why Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to bring it to the silver screen in 1926. Unfortunately, this seems to be lost film. There is documentation that the movie was made, but no prints have been found.

At this point, I would like to turn the report over to Mark Hodgson of Black Hole Reviews. Enjoy.