C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for October 2019


C What’s Good is the monthly follow-up piece to our C What’s On round-up of the Criterion Channel’s monthly programming. Leaping off of the hard work done by our own Hubert Vigilla, I hope to select a few favorites or interesting picks and convince you they’re worth your time!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Don Siegel

Here’s one often-referenced but, maybe, rarely seen by modern audiences? Fix that! While the 1978 Donald Sutherland (and Jeff Goldblum… and Leonard Nimoy… and a damn excellent ’70s cast!) remake is lauded as well, I’ve really always preferred Don Siegel’s original ’50s sci-fi masterpiece, and think it really holds up terrifically. 

Over the course of an extremely uncomfortable night, a small town doctor and some pals realize hey waitaminute, you’re not you! That’s right, an alien invasion is underway, with the extraterrestrial extremists killing and replacing humans down to their hairs on their chiny-chin-chins. The “pod people,” as pop culture has come to dub them, incubate in plantlike vegetation pods and mutant into identical replicas of the humans they absorb. Naturally this is a pretty bad situation.

Like the best sci-fi, Body Snatchers is all about the context of its time. Following World War II and in the early days of the Cold War us Americans were all paranoid about those crazy Soviets and their commie plans of unity and hard labor. McCarthyism making the rounds, you didn’t quite know who your neighbor was (at least, the paranoid delusionals given radio and TV time wanted you to think that way). Hollywood capitalized on this paranoia with a tense and speculative allegory about really not knowing who your neighbor was. Forget their politics–I’m more concerned they aren’t actually little grey men in a man-suit!

Isle of the Dead (1945) Mark Robson

In keeping with Body Snatchers’ paranoia, the brilliant Boris Karloff had one of my favorites of his career with Isle of the Dead, a sort of early horror film that twisted its victims and audience’s perception of the real and the supernatural, pushing us to the brink of rational belief while tantalizing with the mystique of the occult. 

On a Greek island during the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, Karloff plays a superstitious General, whose spooky encounter with his wife’s vandalized grave lights a fire under a small group of locals and others brought together by the war, fear and mistrust seeping in, as well as claims of curses and all sorts of damnable meddling.

Besides pushing its characters towards belief in the unreal due to fear of the unknown, Isle of the Dead fascinates me due to the relationship between horror and warfare. For the mid-’40s we of course aren’t getting the gratuitous or realistic horror that real warzones quickly descend into; there are no entrails flying or men crying in terror. But the isolation of the General and his troops, his rigor and unwavering discipline questioned by a bone-deep fear of death and the mysterious recall the all-too-human fears we all harbor, or at least dwell on from time to time. Death is the greatest curiosity there is.

And Karloff is, as always, a magnetic force of film magic. Truly, his gaunt demeanor and occasional scene-chewing are pure bliss for moviegoers, but really Isle is a great case for the legend’s chops as a true, no-makeup-needed actor. As General Pherides Karloff gets to shift from disciplinarian to jumpy scaredy cat (granted, a scaredy cat with military training); to see a man whose love for his deceased wife clouded by a fear of ghosts and witchcraft, those fears themselves spurred by any guilt or anxiety induced by war. It’s really terrific stuff, and one of my favorite films of the ’40s.

The Devils (1971) Ken Russell

*Available to stream October 18

Now this is a movie for October viewing if there ever were one. Ken Russell’s ode to decadence and institutional hypocrisy is a grisly, unsettling bit of artful pulp, and a source of famous controversy over the years. It was ridiculed by British censors, resulting in an edit and a death-sentence ‘X’ rating, which followed it overseas for its American release. Various snippets here and there have made the jump to VHS, to rerelease, and so on and so forth. The truth is, I’ve seen The Devils twice, once theatrically in its “British X” version, and once again on the Criterion Channel’s predecessor-service FilmStruck (RIP) in its “American X” cut. The fact is, this movie is terrific either way.

Russell certainly gives you a lot, with sexual deviancy and religious fervor intertwining in a filthy and quite visceral 17th century story that, beneath its exploitative threads, hammers at real social commentary and deconstruction of institutionalism and, as we sort of see a trend in this month’s films, paranoia.

And it’s a remarkably objective film at times, with Oliver Reed’s Father Grandier no saint in his priestly responsibilities. He is a man, after all, and the ways in which the young nuns of the convent swoon over his manliness can only keep the passions from colliding for so long. Reed is terrific, but really it’s Vanessa Redgrave who will stick with you long after The Devils stops rolling. Her hunchbacked, zealous Sister Jeanne admonishes her followers for their bodily lusts, yet harbors her own rampant desire. Redgrave gives us a woman being torn apart by her religious zeal and her carnal cravings, and it really floors you with how gutsy a role this is, and how unabashed Russell is in telling this story.

Besides its harrowing story, the entire production reeks of an authentically-grim Richelieu-era France. This is a world where the Church whispered in the ears of kings, and cobblestone cities were surrounded by the corpses of heretics, warning those who’d be tempted. Costumes and sets toe the line of theatrical to understated brilliantly, and Reed’s effective but in-excessive use of dream sequences keep us intertwined with the psyche of our damaged Sister Jeanne, whose lusts and whims fuel much of the film’s tonal shifts.

This is a tough film, and a tough film to track down at times. The Criterion Collection, starting with their FIlmStruck service, is seemingly a proponent of Russell’s much-maligned but now rediscovered ’70s classic, so an opportunity to catch it in a nice digital picture is one no film fan should miss.

Godzilla (1954) Ishiro Honda

It wouldn’t quite feel right if I left out Asian cinema of some kind in this spooky edition, and what would Sam every kid want to do on All Hallows’ Eve? Watch monster movies, of course. Big or small, bloody or goofy, you don’t get much more monstrous than the King of the Monsters himself.

It might seem like a no-brainer to say “you should really check out the original Godzilla” in 2019, where we’re 55 years removed from the titan’s colossal first impact on pop culture. But you should really check out the original Godzilla! Holding up remarkably well, Honda’s gargantuan first film still resonates deeply with a little context.

Japanese anxiety following the Second World War was at dangerous levels amidst the rubble of many of their cities. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular were humbling and mitigating incidents of tremendous loss and hope-sapping perspective. So many lives lost in an instant, with zero means of escape. As if the forces of nature snapped their collective fingers and decided “humanity, we can do without you.” Godzilla’s rampage across Tokyo is positioned as a man-made problem, with nuclear testing awakening him from deep slumber. Yet his slumber and presence has always been what stuck with me, beyond the allegoric implications of nuclear weapons being downright immoral. It’s Godzilla’s naturalness that is the exclamation mark; nature will always be there to kick humanity aside, whenever it wants. An there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.

Blood Feast (1963) Herschell Gordon Lewis

Alright, don’t watch Blood Feast. Or do. It’s your call.

Featuring cheap but truly stomach-churning gore and dismemberment, you could call Blood Feast an early predecessor to the slashers and gore-fueled schlock that would dominate horror filmmaking from the ’80s-on.

Its acting is laughable, and its story of a madman preparing a “blood feast” (ding-ding-ding-ding!) for a gruesome Egyptian ritual is ludicrous, but there’s something oddly compelling to Lewis’ viscera-focused B-movie.

In my experience, the production values all evoked late-’50s and ’60s television, with its pastel sets and standard framing of actors. Then to see such unhinged blood and gore splatter across the screen with no self-consciousness or restraint, it was sort of David Lynch-like for me; images of classic American wholesomeness tainted by the entrance of extreme brutality and darkness.

I would actually caution viewers with Blood Feast. Where some films feel constructed in their depictions of cruelty in such a way that gives the viewer the back-of-the-mind thought “okay, this is being made to make me feel a certain discomfort,” Blood Feast at times comes across as so horribly unaware of itself, in its depiction of violence against women and general, well, bloodiness, it might strike viewers in unexpected ways. Which, maybe that makes it an actually-brilliant horror movie?

Nah, it’s crap. Enjoy!

Whatever you do this spooky month of the year, whether you throw on a marathon of crappy gorefests and eat yourself into a sugary coma, or pour yourself a glass of red and throw on some blood-sucking classic, consider the Criterion Channel for your avenue of adventure as the leaves turn brown, the sky goes grey, and the chill on your collar might be the wind…

Or something else!