I’m going to revisit—albeit briefly, since I don’t have a lot of time this week—one of my earliest (March 2008) “Screening Rooms,” which was called “In Praise of Trash.” (http://www.mountainx.com/movies/screening_room/2008/cranky_hankes_screening_room_in_praise_of_trash ) Why? Well, because I think there’s a lot to be said for “trash,” and because I was recently taken to task (I’d have rather been taken to Paris or London, frankly) for praising Drive Angry 3D. I was told I had “lost all credibility” with the reader, which actually suggests that the reader was not quite the regular follower of my reviews he claimed to be, since it was hardly the first time I’ve given an exploitation picture a good review. It doesn’t really matter, but what does matter to me is the idea that there is some etched-in-stone rule about what sort of movie can and can’t be liked. I don’t buy that.
The other evening while introducing a screening of The Gay Divorcee—a most acceptable classic film from 1934—I told the audience that the Asheville Film Society was working on a screening of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) with the film’s stunt coordinator and driver, Buddy Joe Hooker, to take place during the upcoming ActionFest Film Festival. I wanted to know if they were interested, since I assumed that they hadn’t given much thought to ActionFest. I noted that “not all of you are probably as jazzed as I am about seeing Rutger Hauer “delivering justice one shell at a time” in Hobo with a Shotgun.” They admitted—at least most of them—that the allure of Hobo escaped them, though they were interested in Harold and Maude. The point, however, is that no one was appalled by the fact that I was looking forward to the splattery exploitation shenanigans of Mr. Hauer.
This past week I watched three examples of low-rent exploitation movies and one super deluxe, high-toned, artistic production. (They weren’t the only things I saw, but they serve my point.) I sat through three Roger Corman B pictures—Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958)—more or less just for the hell of it. I also watched Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) starring Greta Garbo, primarily because it’s screening on April 5 and I haven’t seen it in a few years. I’m not going to pretend that three Corman movies are on the same level—or even in the same universe—as Mamoulian’s classic. That doesn’t, however, mean I didn’t enjoy them on their own merits for what they are. Why shouldn’t I?
The truth of the matter is that Not of This Earth is very nearly a good movie in the realm of sci-fi horror. The production values aren’t exactly high, but Corman makes the most of what he has (that might describe most of his movies). The acting is occasionally a little iffy, but not disastrously so. The effects? Well, let’s say it’s fortunate that they’re none too ambitious and adequate for what they are. But what sells the film is mood, atmosphere, and the fact that it takes its nonsense very seriously—something that’s possible only because the script by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna is surprisingly…well, literate seems a little strong, so let’s just say it isn’t an insult to your intelligence. (Corman must like the story, too, since he produced remakes of it in 1988 and 1997.)
Of course, there’s a limit as to how seriously a viewer—at least over the age of 11 or 12—is going to take a movie about an alien (Paul Birch) who’s come to earth to check it out as a potential blood bank for his dying planet. (Our fate is to be “pastured” and harvested.) But within those confines, the film manages to be pretty effective.
There’s even a greater limit to the degree of seriousness with which it’s possible to even approach a movie calling itself Attack of the Crab Monsters. After all, this really is movie about giant crabs that not only attack, but think and talk (telepathically) and have some blessedly never explained plans for world domination. Naturally, these monstrosities are the result of radiation from atomic and H-bomb testing (aren’t they always?), and, yes, it’s all very silly. One wonders why the human cast doesn’t go after them with drawn butter. And the crabs aren’t exactly convincing (though in 1950s sci-fi terms, they aren’t that bad). The cast, in fact, deserves some kind of award simply for keeping a straight face.
This isn’t the sort of thing that anyone is going to seriously. I don’t recall being in any way alarmed by it when I saw it around the age of seven, though I suspect I was pretty pleased that the movie actually had the promised crab monsters of the title. (A lot of the time in this 1950s stuff, the title promises things—like Corman’s own 1955 opus The Beast with a Million Eyes—the film doesn’t deliver.) What was a little surprising—seeing it for the first time since that original showing—was the script, which was again by Charles B. Griffith. The premise to one side, the script actually boasts credible dialogue and some fairly intriguing ideas (like the crabs’ molecular structure).
The least interesting of the three is War of the Satellites—probably because it’s the most ambitious and least trashy of three. Its ambitions are thwarted at nearly every turn by its budget. There’s an abundance of cardboard rockets and dubious matte paintings—not to mention the shot with the very visible string used to suspend a planet in the great void of outer space, or the film’s quaint notion of a rather economical assembly room at the U.N. All this would work better if the movie were—well, trashier. It’s actually just too sober-minded for its own good. This is exploitation junk stuff and, dammit, I want to see the gnarly alien that’s impersonating our lead scientist. Subtlety is all very fine and it has its place, but that place isn’t exploitation trash.
OK, so if I put these up against Queen Christina, they’re a pretty sorry lot. They have none of its depth of feeling or brilliance of form and style. There’s nothing iconic about a cheesy monster crab, especially when compared to the most wondrous use of Greta Garbo’s amazing face ever. But neither are the attempts the same and I fail to see any reason I shouldn’t like both, even if in very different ways. That’s rather like saying my appreciation of, say, Mahler’s Second Symphony is somehow diminished or lacking in credibility because I also like a two-and-half minute pop song like the Turtles’ “Elenore.” Frankly, the idea strikes me as utterly nonsensical.