Bad Movies

I watch bad movies so you don’t have to.  Maybe that’s my ticket to retirement (it certainly isn’t working the usual way).  In any case, my habit of trying to find something “free” on a network I already pay for often leads to films that keep me awake on a drowsy weekend afternoon, but really don’t offer much else.  Sometimes you learn something nevertheless.  I recently watched From a Whisper to a Scream.  It was free and got more than five stars out of ten, but I didn’t really work for me, even with Vincent Price.  A vignette movie, it presents four episodes from Oldfield, Tennessee, making the claim that it’s a place infected with evil.  The first involved necrophilia, with consequences.  The second—more in a moment—was about eternal life.  Lovecraft’s circus comes to town in the third, and the fourth is about the founding of the town during the Civil War.  Of course, the framing is a “bonus” mini-story as well.

The second episode, “On the Run,” has a wounded ne’er-do-well, shot by some southern rivals, falling into a swamp boat.  He’s rescued by an older African American who lives alone in said swamp.  Noticing him practicing hoo-doo (cue The Skeleton Key), the miscreant soon figures his rescuer has found the secret of staying alive forever (which he has).  Naturally greedy, the petty criminal “kills” the African American and ransacks his shack for the secret potion that keeps him alive.  Being horror, the dead come back and the owner of the shack returns to punish the white man who is trying to steal what he already has.  The Black man had given him the potion to bring him back to life.

There’s a bit of a parable quality to this particular story.  Each vignette predictably has the evil-doer punished, with the exception of “Lovecraft’s Traveling Amusements,” where the Black woman owns those who work her carnival.  And she gets away with it.  None of the characters, apart from the Black man in the swamp and the children in “Four Soldiers,” are really sympathetic.  Religion does also come in the Civil War segment since, drawing cues from Children of the Corn, the kids have created their own god.  So, a diverting film, if not a great (or even a good) one.  This was Vincent Price’s last true horror film, making it worth seeing for that reason alone.  His role is limited to the framing story which, as we might expect, becomes part of the collection of horrors from Oldfield.

Lovecraft’s Palace

So, to see Witchfinder General I had to buy a set of Vincent Price movies.  Complex copyright deals mean that not everything can be streamed—there’s a movie I’ve been waiting months to see because Amazon Prime says “not currently available in your area.”  That word “currently” tells you that it’s a rights issue.  In any case, that box of Price movies contained a few goodies I’d never seen and had wanted to.  And one that I hadn’t heard of: The Haunted Palace.  Legendary producer Roger Corman had Price star in a variety of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.  (Witchfinder General wasn’t one of them.)  Corman wanted to make an H. P. Lovecraft movie, but the studio insisted it stay within the identity of this Poe series.  This movie is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” but titled after a Poe poem, “The Haunted Palace.”

Suffice it to say, I knew little of this before I sat down to watch it.  I didn’t know, for example, that this was the first big-time movie based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.  I didn’t realize it would involve the Necronomicon and perhaps the first, blurry—to preserve the sanity of viewers—view of maybe Cthulhu.  The movie doesn’t specify which of the Old Gods is kept in this pit, so it could be Yog-Sothoth instead.  You see, as a child I watched some of the movies in this series.  They would’ve had to have been the ones showing on television, likely on Saturday afternoon.  The one that I clearly recall, and remember thinking “that’s not how it goes!” was The Raven.  And as a child I had never been exposed to H. P. Lovecraft.

Some of us have our own brand of cheap or free entertainment.  The small number of friends I had growing up didn’t care to read.  My family wasn’t literate, and most high school teachers couldn’t suggest much to a kid who’d somehow found Poe and liked what he read.  As I’ve said before, Goodwill was my bookstore.  I discovered Lovecraft on the internet during a lonely stretch of teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.  Like many visionaries, Lovecraft didn’t achieve fame in his lifetime, but is now considered a bizarre American treasure.  The Cthulhu mythos is everywhere.  Even my auto-suggest is quick to fill in his name as I type.  The Haunted Palace isn’t a great movie—this is Roger Corman—but it’s a pretty good movie.  And its history in the cinematography of Lovecraft makes it worth part of a Saturday afternoon.

Original Fly

Thinking about it made me do it, I suppose.  Watch The Fly, that is.  This is a movie I grew up knowing about.  I knew the basic plot but somehow was never in the right place at the right time to see it.  Until now.  For a movie from 1958 it remains strangely affecting.  I was wondering whether religion would enter into it, and indeed, in a moment drawn from Frankenstein, André Delambre expresses that he knows what it feels like to be God.  No thunder to drown it out this time.  A short while later his wife Hélène asks him what he’s doing as he is relaxing in the back yard.  He says he’s looking at the sky, or maybe looking at God.  In the light of other mad scientist movies this is a somewhat self-aware moment.

The Fly is one of those movies that had great influence on popular culture.  Although critics at the time thought of it as a gross-out (they obviously had no idea what David Cronenberg would do!) it nevertheless managed to find its way into dialogue with other movies.  The correlation to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teevee’s scene is remarkably close.  (Adult’s who’ve read Roald Dahl and who’ve paid attention to the movie know that this is kid-friendly horror.)  I’m also pretty sure some of the writers from The X-Files knew The Fly as well.  The Fly, coming during the atomic age, is clearly a warning about using technology that we don’t understand.  Although the movie made a great return on investment for the time, the message still hasn’t been received.

In many ways The Fly set Vincent Price’s trajectory toward being a horror star.  After all, just two years earlier he’d been in The Ten Commandments.  Isn’t he another connection between religion and horror?  Although not the lead in The Fly, as André’s brother François, Price has the most philosophical line: “The search for the truth is the most important work in the whole world and the most dangerous.”  Like the warning about technology, this is a bit of information that might have usefully been heeded.  The political events of 2016 to 2020 demonstrated just how important the search for truth is (and demonstrated religion and horror).  Even with a partial fly brain, André Delambre destroys his notes after making Hélène promise never to reveal what happened.  The truth gets out, of course, leading to the observation behind many mad scientists’ ravings: what is really being sought is the rush of knowing what it feels like to be God. 

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.


In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

Last Call

A believer in equality across media, I decided to balance out my recent viewing of The Last Woman on Earth with its chronological sequel, The Last Man on Earth. I have seen I Am Legend a time or two, but I have not yet read the Richard Matheson novel. Knowing that the first cinematic attempt at the story was the Vincent Price version, I was curious to see what the last man and the last woman had in common. Not surprisingly, it was a church. The story has been around long enough that spoiler alerts are superfluous, so here goes: basically, vampires have taken over the world. Somehow Robert Morgan has survived and spends his days hunting vampires and whiling the nights away with jazz and booze. As the opening sequence rolls, the camera lingers on a church where the marquee reads “The End of the World.” Of course, in a quasi-literalist sense this is true. Robert is the only non-infected person left. He is eventually located by the infected-but-inoculated crowd and chased down to be staked to death at the altar of a church. The culmination is strikingly similar to The Last Woman on Earth where the final scene also involves a death at the altar in a church.

The noticeable difference, however, revolves around gender. There is very little in the way of sexual suggestibility in The Last Man. Even the scenes of Robert with his wife are chaste and emotional distant. The appearance of Ruth does not even tempt him after three years alone. The Last Woman, however, revolved precisely around this axis—one woman, two men. The sexual tension is the fuel that moves this entire movie along. Of course, the 1960s became the decade of the sexual revolution, but even so the female is decidedly an object in Last Woman. Even in The Last Man, the woman leads to Robert’s death. She was sent to betray him, and although she changes her mind and attempts to save him, it is in vain. Robert dies in her arms. This fear of female power has never dissipated. How many women have been elected president since the 1960s?

While maybe not the heart of the matter, religious constructs may be the lungs or stomach of the situation. Although current religious thinking often insists on equality of the sexes, a tremendous cultural freight placing women in an inferior status continues to weigh heavily on our cultural mores. The largest Christian body in the world still denies women access to the priesthood. Even the idea of denying access underscores just how deeply this sentiment runs. The movies of the early 1960s had neither the budget nor the cultural support to suggest that things should change. Indeed, in both Last pictures the message was that the world had ended already—why bother trying to change anything at this late stage? The final shot, the stolid interior of a church, underscored the message: the status quo has the sanction of the divine.

Zongfu’s Ark

While riding the elevator up to work last week, I glanced at the little LCD screen that plays single-page news stories for those who only have the seconds in an elevator to catch up in what is happening outside the world of commerce. That’s where the really creative stuff occurs. The picture on the screen appeared to be a large, orange, smashed ping-pong ball. I caught the words “Noah’s Ark” in the caption before the busy screen flashed onto a new and more pertinent story, such as who is winning what in the Olympics. I remembered the odd image when I got home and tried an Internet search and discovered only a small bit of information. This ark is in China, which may account for the lack of full coverage. Here in God’s own America, stories that potentially validate biblical myths are sure to attract readers and/or watchers, so there must be more to the story than I can find.

The details I’ve been able to locate note that Yang Zongfu, a Chinese inventor, designed an improvement on Noah’s ark. His ark is a sphere and really doesn’t have much room for animals beyond the occasional tapeworm or wayward spider. “Noah’s Ark of China” is a six-ton ball that costs nearly a quarter of a million dollars to build. Five people can live for ten months inside, sheltered from heat, impact, and, of course, water. Like a latter day bomb shelter, this is the place you would go to survive a disaster. The odd number of survivors, however, made me wonder about the repopulating of the earth part. Even in the Bible God made sure that instead of any individuals the ark was populated with couples. The more I thought about attempting to survive in a world with only four other people, the more frightened I became.

This is old school ark building.

Our lives are intricately inter-connected. Most of you reading these words will never have met me, yet here we are, sharing the same cyber-head-space. Movies like I Am Legend make it seem that a single man, whether Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, or Will Smith, could survive for a great length of time alone. This is pure science fiction. With the exception of Vincent Price, I doubt that any of our omega men could have successfully planted and raised a garden, let alone survived more than a few weeks. We need each other. The picture of Yang Zongfu popping triumphantly from his ark fills my head with a strange vision. A post-apocalyptic world in which the toxic runoff of our irradiated rivers will have a jumble of orange balls at their deltas and a bunch of confused, somewhat nauseous millionaires inside. As I stare out over this valley of dry balls, I think to myself, Who’s winning ping-pong at the Olympics?