closing in on the gods

fantastic fest, the world's best genre film festival, is well underway and i finally had a day off to take in as much of it as i could. once again, it exceeded expectations.

i started the day at the alamo drafthouse and first on the agenda was an afternoon screening of roger corman's x: the man with the x-ray eyes (1963). this is one of my favorite mad scientist movies and, as corman goes, ranks just behind the poe adaptations he made with vincent price. actually, it's a bit unfair to refer to ray milland's character as mad. he is a visionary (zing!). dr. james xavier develops eyedrops which make your vision so acute that you can actually see through things. his noble aim is to use it to help mankind, beginning in the hospital where he works. as a diagnostic tool, it will make x-rays primitive, suitable for "witch doctors". as is often the case with those ahead of their time, his work is met with a mixture of misunderstanding and fear. he begins to experiment on himself with increasing frequency and a series of desperate acts/accidents forces him into hiding. he has become both mad scientist and his own misunderstood creation, simultaneously. it's as entertaining and thought-provoking a piece as corman ever came up with. ray milland, a heavyweight in decline, brings a certain gravitas to the picture that karloff or price, as much as i love them, couldn't have. don rickles shows up and turns in a rare and effective dramatic performance. the "spectarama" effects, which show you the point of view of our afflicted doctor, are a riot of color and light and the costly nature of vision weighs heavily on all concerned. just exactly how much is too much to see? it begins playfully enough, with a nice touch of exploitation humor that uncovers all the kids and colleagues at a party but by the end, when no amount of darkness is enough, there is nothing left for the man to do but pluck out the eye that offends him.

more than once, milland covers his stricken eyes in a telling pose that looks like nothing as much as grief. closing his eyes does no good. he finally suffers the worst fate that can befall a man of science, a desire to see no more. it is only then that he has truly gone mad. he has begun to see things we cannot comprehend. he is, as he said, "closing in on the gods".

then the man himself dropped by and entertained everyone with anecdotes and fielded questions from the audience. he talked about everything from the conundrum of having a hit versus having critical acclaim (and having both) to working with vincent price and ray milland to his festival experience so far. he was quite an engaging guy and after all this time he is still trying to make sure his audiences get their money's worth. mission accomplished today, roger.

next up was jorge michel grau's we are what we are (2010). this is a grim family drama from mexico which begins with the unexpected death of the patriarch, leaving three siblings and a mother who may be a bit unstable to fend for themselves. and did i mention they were cannibals?

the film follows this somewhat hapless bunch, adrift without their father/husband, as they attempt to round up food/a subject for the ritual they believe perpetuates them. the genre elements are downplayed in this, for the most part, and that works in the film's favor. i still didn't think, though, that it realized its full potential. it was good, not great. it was most effective when it started to edge into other taboo areas aside from the cannibalism. issues and intimations of sexuality, both within and without the home, provided the most interesting scenes for viewers to sink their teeth into but they weren't developed in a fashion that sustained any momentum. it is somewhat strange to say it, but i wish even more time had been spent on these thornier questions, possibly at the expense of the horror elements altogether. it could have been a much better horror film if the horror was left out.

the last film of my evening was a screening of snake in the eagle's shadow (1978) that was taking place at the paramount theater. this was part of of an evening of programming devoted to yuen woo-ping that also included a showing of true legend (2010) and a lifetime achievement award presented by none other than the RZA himself. i missed the first half of all that but got there in time for master yuen's q and a and the second feature. for those of you unfamiliar with yuen woo-ping, he has been one of the most revolutionary figures in hong kong action cinema for the last thirty years. his fight choreography is always dazzling and innovative. he is the bridge from the shaw brothers kung fu theater of the sixties and seventies to the visually arresting wire work extravaganzas that are prevalent now. snake in the eagle's shadow was his directorial debut and is every bit as fun today as it was in 1978. it doesn't stray far from the rival schools/betrayal mold of kung fu films, but it doesn't have to. it is personality plus. this is the film that took a young jackie chan (then billed as jacky) and set him on the path that would make him a household name. it jettisoned the "new bruce lee" thing he had been saddled with in favor a funnier, more acrobatic approach that has been his hallmark ever since and it changed the hong kong film industry in the process. master yuen's father, yuen siu tien, is perfectly cast as the master of the snake fist style who takes chan under his wing as they head toward a final showdown with the evil practitioners of the eagle claw style. their chemistry makes for a winning combination and it's a testament to their rapport that the most memorable piece of choreography in the entire film isn't a fight scene but, rather, their spirited game of keepaway with a rice bowl. description/photos won't do any of this justice. you have to see it in motion.

if you like martial arts films at all, i highly recommend you check out master yuen's body of work and this film is a fine, and fun, place to start.

all in all, a pretty great day. well done, fantastic fest. i think i'll get at least one more full day in on wednesday. talk to you then, if not sooner.


  1. Man that's the sort of movie going day dreams are made of.

    I've heard a story that X originally ended with Milland shrieking "I Can Still See." after ripping out his eyes. But was cut because even Corman thought it was too grim. I've never been able to substantiate it, but I always loved the idea. Anyone bring it up?

  2. i've heard the same. unfortunately, no one asked. it would have been nice to hear straight from the horse's mouth.