Friday, July 26, 2019

Worth Mentioning - Stick It Up Your Brain

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

High-flying horror, Batman, and good times gone wrong.


This movie from writer/director Larry Cohen is simply called Q in the on screen credits, but it's also known as Q: The Winged Serpent, which is the title I prefer to call it. Q: The Winged Serpent just sounds cool, and the subtitle helps let potential viewers know that this isn't a spin-off for the James Bond franchise character called Q. Or the Star Trek character called Q.

The Q in question here is Quetzalcoatl ("just call it Q, that's all you'll have time to say before it tears you apart!"), a plumed serpent Aztec god that has resurfaced in 1980s New York City - drawn there by worshipers that are willingly offering themselves up to the deity, being sacrificed and flayed. Now Q is nesting in the top of the Chrysler Building and flying around the city, snatching up people it finds up in its territory, like construction workers, rooftop sunbathers, and the window washer at the Empire State Building. And the window washer in this movie is played by the guy who actually worked as the Empire State Building window washer at the time.

NYPD detectives Shepard and Powell, played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree (Shaft!), respectively, are baffled by the case... and I'm baffled as to how it could take New Yorkers so long to realize that they're a giant, man-eating creature flying around in their city. Q isn't small, it's flying among skyscrapers, casting its monstrous shadows on buildings it passes. There are millions of people in this city, and none of them are looking up, or looking out windows? There are moments where blood and body parts rain down on pedestrians, but they don't notice the winged serpent dropping these things on them. Rumors of a "giant bird" start to float around, but there should be a whole lot of people seeing this thing and confirming its existence every time it leaves its nest. Cohen does put an explanation in here, saying Q flies in line with the sun so people are blinded when they look up at it, but it can't be in line with the sun from every angle. But just go with it, never mind the logic.

How about the fun? Q: The Winged Serpent is a really fun movie, with some great shots of the creature that were achieved through stop-motion effects courtesy of Randall William Cook and David Allen. I love the look of this thing - which Carradine's Shepard eventually takes on with a machine gun at its Chrysler Building nest.

Shepard is led to the nest by a junkie / pianist / criminal Jimmy Quinn (played by Michael Moriarty), who stumbles across the nest - with a large egg in it and human skeletons scattered around it - while on the run after a jewel heist gone wrong. Moriarty is very entertaining in this role, pretty much stealing the movie from Q as Quinn demands $1 million in cash and a "Nixon-like pardon" for his crimes in exchange for letting the authorities know where the nest is. In a standout scene, which was improvised by the actor, we also see Quinn giving a painful audition for a pianist gig in a bar. This was Cohen's first time collaborating with Moriarty, and it went so well that they worked on four more movies after this.

In the commentary he recorded for the DVD, Cohen mentions that he had crossed paths with Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy around the time he was making this movie and could have cast them as Shepard and Quinn. It's interesting to think of what this movie would have been like if it had starred Willis and Murphy, but things worked out perfectly with Carradine and Moriarty.

I can't remember how I first saw Q: The Winged Serpent, whether I rented it on VHS or if I didn't see it until its initial DVD release in 2003, but I do know that I was won over by the movie within the first 10 minutes, which already includes two monster attacks, quick glimpses of Q, and a rain of blood, and I have been a fan of it ever since.

BATMAN (1943)

"Wherever crime raises its ugly head to strike with the venom of a maddened rattlesnake, Batman and Robin strike also."

After Batman was introduced in the pages of Detective Comics in 1939, it only took four years for him to make his way to the big screen. His cinematic debut came in a fifteen chapter serial that was appropriately titled Batman, and it's interesting to note that the very first shot of him in this serial shows him suited up and sitting in his hidden lair, the "Bat's Cave" - and this shot was the introduction to the idea of Batman having a cave lair to hang out in. This serial is responsible for that major piece of Batman mythology.

It may have brought us the Batcave, but it didn't stick to the source material. Played by Lewis Wilson, this Batman isn't just a vigilante, he's a patriot working for the U.S. government in wartime, receiving official assignments in letters written with invisible ink. Batman goes on these assignments with his young ward Dick Grayson, who suits up as the hero Robin - and who, as played by Douglas Croft, gives off an odd vibe here. At times it felt like seeing Peter Bark from Burial Ground play Robin.

Batman's secret identity is wealthy Bruce Wayne, and Bruce's public persona is that of a shiftless layabout who can't be bothered to do anything with his time but play cards and take naps. Even his girlfriend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) sees him this way. When Linda's uncle is abducted by the villains of the story, she complains that Bruce is too lazy to help look for her missing loved one... But she still doesn't threaten to break up with him.

Batman and Robin are occasionally aided by Bruce's butler Alfred, played by William Austin. Austin was 6'1", thin, and sported a mustache, so this serial is also credited with changing the way the character is envisioned. Up to this point, the Alfred in the comics was quite overweight, but since the comics publisher didn't want people who might check out the comic book after seeing the serial to be confused over Alfred looking different on the page than he did on the screen, they changed the character's appearance. The overweight Alfred went on a diet, hit the gym, and goes from his established look to the William Austin look in the pages of one issue. It's a good thing Alfred didn't keep Austin's demeanor, though, because the version of the character here is a nervous nebbish.

This serial also sets a precedence, sort of, for Batman branding his symbol on criminals in Batman v. Superman. The Batman here sometimes stamps his symbol on the criminals he captures.

It had a lasting impact on the Batman property, but it's also a film firmly stuck in 1943. It would have aged a lot better if it had just told a story in which Batman went up against one or more villains from the comic book. The popular characters of The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face, they had all been introduced in the comic book before 1943. Unfortunately, the serial chose to create its own villain. J. Carrol Naish, a white American man, plays Japanese agent Daka, who is working to destroy the United States for his homeland. This serial began reaching theatres just a year and a half after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it shows its American patriotism by being deeply racist toward the Japanese, even openly applauding the U.S. government's decision to put Japanese citizens in internment camps. Because of this, the Batman serial isn't a simple bit of fun old time entertainment, it's also a discomforting view of a certain moment in time.

If you can take the serial for what it is and slog through the racism, it is amusingly dopey beyond all that. It's the standard serial in which the hero bounces from adventure to adventure in each episode, trying to thwart Daka and his army of henchmen again and again. Daka has an atom smasher gun that's powered by radium, have to get that away from him. He can turn people into mind-controlled zombies, have to stop him from doing that. He wants to dig into a mine to get radium to power his weapons, can't have that. Sabotage a prototype plane? Not on Batman's watch, even if Batman has to destroy the plane himself.

Batman and Robin get in physical altercations with Daka's lackeys again and again, and tend to be on the losing end of these altercations. Batman gets the hell knocked out of him in this show, and even gets lifted and tossed by regular goons on more than one occasion. They throw him off a building, throw him down an elevator shaft. He always has stuff falling on top of him. This is not the super-capable Batman fans know and love.

While Batman 1943 is frequently laughable and cringe-inducing, it serves as both an interesting look back at the early days of the title character and a look back at a dark time in world history.


College student Evan (Isaac W. Jay) clearly isn't happy that he's going to be spending his school break time with his hippie brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe) out in the desert of Joshua Tree, California, so it seems to be a lucky turn of events when a group of nine twenty-somethings see him during a hike and invite him to smoke some weed with them. Unfortunately, when the group decides to tell some scary stories around the campfire Evan checks the creepypasta website and discovers the existence of a creature called the Hisji.

Text on the screen at the beginning of Head Count warns us about this: "A Hisji is a vengeful thing, five times its name you never sing, with skin pale white and eyes of green, it's something you've already seen." Problem is, Evan already says "Hisji" out loud five times before he even starts reading the rhyme that tells you not to do that, so he has unleashed the evil force on this group of partiers.

Ten characters is a lot for a movie to deal with, and the story crafted by Michael Nader and Head Count director Elle Callahan plays into the fact that you can't really get to know these ten different people within a 90 minute running time. We join this group through the perspective of outsider Evan, and we never learn all that much about the people he's partying with. A couple of them have character traits that stand out, but for the most part they're interchangable and pretty much blank slates. So when the shapeshifting Hisji infiltrates the group and starts taking the form of different people, it's easy for the viewer to get just as mixed up as Evan. Is someone missing from the group? Wasn't that person in a different place a second ago?

There's a quite a bit of that sort of confusion, because Head Count takes the slow burn approach. We spend most of the movie just watching these people play games, smoke weed, drink alcohol, talk about 'shrooms. Evan embarks on a minor romance with the only single person in the group, Ashleigh Morghan as photography enthusiast Zoe. We know the Hisji is messing around here, but what's the goal? Just to perplex people? It will be eating in the kitchen while the person it stole its appearance from is outside, or playing a game with one group while the person it looks like is playing a game with someone else in a different room. But what's the point?

While the Hisji's antics make people go, "Hmm, that's odd," nothing outright scary happens to them for a long time, we're just stuck watching characters viewers aren't likely to care about. I didn't even like Evan, who is so bland and awkward that it was tough to see why Zoe was interested in him. As Head Count's characters play drinking games, viewers play the waiting game, and when a movie has a long build-up the pay-off has to be worth the wait. When things finally go completely haywire here, by which time the movie is almost over, it isn't very impressive.

I didn't find this to be a satisfying movie overall, it wasn't eventful and I didn't enjoy spending time with these characters, but I can't say it's a bad movie. It is well made, features an effective score composed by Hannah Parrott, and comes off as being a solid feature debut for Callahan. The actors do fine with the material they were given to work with. There's just not enough going on here, I didn't feel like the resolution was worth the time I had invested to get there.

The Head Count review originally appeared on


When I saw trailers for Hulu / Blumhouse horror anthology series Into the Dark, it was director Nacho Vigalondo's entry Pooka that provided the most intriguing imagery - shots of a creature that seemed to be some kind of creepy mascot or furry costume. What was that thing, and how was a horror story going to be built around it? Eventually I found out that thing is called Pooka.

In Celtic folklore, a pooka is a creature that can bring both good and bad fortune. In this 83 minute movie scripted by Gerald Olson, Pooka is the hottest toy of the Christmas season, a little thing that is always listening to what is being said around it, and will randomly choose words and phrases to repeat. It's also up to Pooka whether it repeats these things in a cute "nice" voice or in a demonic "naughty" voice.

Nyasha Hatendi plays Wilson Clowes, an actor who prepares a monologue to audition for what he thinks is going to be a straightforward acting gig. Instead, the casting director starts telling him to move his arms and body. "Raise your arms up, together like a triangle, out like an offering, fly like a plane." And that's how he gets to the job to wear the costume of the one and only Pooka.

From there, even though he has a steady job and strikes up a relationship with single mother Melanie (Latarsha Rose), Wilson's life becomes a nightmare. He becomes increasingly addicted to wearing the Pooka costume, he has terrifying visions of violence, and he gets to a point where he's not sure what's really happening around him and what he's hallucinating.

Since Wilson doesn't know what's going on, the viewer doesn't know what's going on either. Pooka just throws out a series of strange, mind-bending scenes and cool visuals. Those images glimpsed in the trailers were just as neat when seen in context... But as far as I'm concerned, cool visuals are all Pooka has to offer.

I seem to be in the minority on this, as Pooka apparently blew a lot of viewers away. Many of them name Pooka as their favorite movie of the series, and viewers who haven't enjoyed the series as a whole have said Pooka is the only entry they liked. And here I am, a viewer who has enjoyed most of the Into the Dark movies, and I didn't like Pooka very much. I'm just not into the type of movie that only consists of scene after scene of weird images running through a troubled mind. By the time they're over, I'm usually wondering why I bothered to spend the time watching them. There are rare instances where this approach works, but most of the time I don't feel like movies like this have told me a satisfying story. And when Pooka came to end, my reaction was something along the lines of, "So? Why did I have to see all that then?" Even if what I saw was often neat to look at.

But kudos to whoever put together the Pooka jingle, "Pooka see, Pooka do, Pooka me, Pooka you, you never know what Pooka will do. Pooka loves, Pooka fights, Pooka laughs, Pooka cries, you never know what Pooka will do." That thing has been stuck in my head ever since I watched Pooka with blog contributor Priscilla last December.

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