joe-up: day five

finally! day five doles out some of the glorious black and white that i crave with sidney hayers' burn, witch, burn (1962).

and not just any old film but one of my absolute favorite underrated blasts of psychological horror. known in the UK as night of the eagle, this film focuses on norman taylor, a very rational, very logical college professor and his wife tansy, who has been busying herself between bridge games with the black arts. he uncovers her witchery and will have nothing to do with her silly superstitious nonsense. he forces her to burn every artifact he can find in their house, no small number. apparently, she's been at it for quite a while and attributes her husband's academic success to her spells and potions. it has acted as a safeguard for them in the bitter, cutthroat world of campus politics. he writes it off as ridiculous but a strange thing happens as soon as all her enchantments are removed - norman's life starts to come off the rails. a scandal erupts when he is falsely accused of improprieties with a student and everything he has worked for begins to slip away before his very eyes. his wife seems to go mad and goes as far as attempting suicide, an act which is apparently only prevented by norman finally relinquishing his reason and participating in one of the rituals he previously scoffed at. driven by unseen forces, she later attempts to stab him to death but her movements give away who is actually pulling her strings and norman sets out to put an end to things. it is the last in a series of ineffectual moves he makes, since, as it turns out, all of this has been beyond his control since the very beginning. not to worry, the villain of the piece gets her comeuppance, and it comes with such a sudden, sickening finality that it knocks you back in your seat. evil vanquished with a thud, roll credits. it's fantastic. if you love the atmospheric tenseness of val lewton you will find yourself right at home here. it's fraught with those things that live in the corner of your eye, waiting to ambush you as soon as you let your guard slip. the helplessness of having to abandon everything rational is truly horrifying. is your mind playing tricks on you? is all of this just terrible coincidence? it's beautifully done. all you are left with is the queasy feeling that you are a fool to have ever thought that you are the master of your own destiny. and, in a real rarity for 1962, the women rule this film. they are the engine that drives the entire thing, silently going about their rituals, fortifying their homes, chipping away at each other's defenses, as the men go about their business, unwitting pawns in a game of "get the guests" that makes who's afraid of virginia woolf (1966) look like an ice cream social. highly recommended, my favorite thing i have seen all week.

and that isn't just because of things like mike hodges' flash gordon (1980).

new york jets football star, flash gordon, and intrepid girl-next-door reporter dale arden are hijacked by wacky scientist hans zarkov in a scheme to investigate a series of strange cosmic goings-on. on the other end of the interstellar mischief they find ming the merciless, tyrannical despot and outrageous dresser. in true saturday serial fashion, there are last-minute escapes, feats of derring do and colossal battles with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance. will flash save the universe?! of course he will. actually, i liked it more than i thought i would. it has a certain goofy, naive charm to it. joe made the argument earlier in the week that if everyone in g.i. joe: the rise of cobra (2009) had been on the same over-the-top wavelength as joseph gordon-levitt that joe could have been a camp classic for the ages. well, after seeing this, i tend to believe him, because everyone in this film knows what they've signed on for and they are going for it. they make no bones about it and it makes for pretty decent afternoon matinee fodder, which is all flash gordon ever wanted to be, be it 1980, 1936 or in the funny papers. it looks incredible. i don't know that i have ever seen a film less interested in convincing you that there's a shred of reality in what you're looking at, and i mean that as a compliment. it fares a lot better than streets of fire (1984) did yesterday in melding the old and the new simply because it doesn't waste a single second trying to be cool. therefore, it's cool. it doesn't try to update its message for a modern audience. this was a time before the term "reboot" existed in the movies. it stares you dead in the eye and delivers the goods with exactly the same good-natured, broad-shouldered, hearty handclasp that it learned from buster crabbe. brian blessed, who i already loved from i, claudius (1976), is absolutely on fire here as prince vultan, the leader of the hawkmen and max von sydow put the role of ming out of reach for any who dare try to follow him. as an added bonus, brian may's guitar on the soundtrack sounds capable of destroying planets all by itself. long story short, i can't say that i'd watch it again but i had a good time in spite of myself.

we close it down today with don bluth's directorial debut, the secret of NIMH (1982).

mrs. brisby is a widowed field mouse who finds herself in a jam. it is time to move her family's home to a new location because plowing time is soon approaching but her son is too ill to move. she appeals to the wise (obviously) old owl who recommends she speak to a colony of rats that live nearby. upon visiting the rats, she discovers a number of surprising facts - the rats possess a highly developed intelligence and have learned to use human technologies such as electricity and they owe their survival and prosperity to her late husband who was also part of the experiment that afforded them their powerful new intellect. they agree to help her based upon their mutual connection but danger is lurking around every turn in the form of farm cats and the nefarious forces of NIMH. eventually, evil is thwarted, mrs. brisby finds reserves of courage she never knew she had and everyone lives happily ever after. i loved this movie. there are instances when i am particularly glad that i missed a lot of these things the first time around. i appreciate being able to sit down without the baggage of nostalgia and take a good look at things like this. you know how you hear me preaching all the time about how it's alright to let these things go if it turns out they're not very good, if they don't hold up? well, this one holds up. it is beautifully drawn, with wonderful, colorful backgrounds and loving attention to detail. if it had been given a disney budget (especially for marketing) the average moviegoer might talk about this the way they do bambi (1942) or snow white and the seven dwarfs (1937). as it is, it ought to be discussed in those terms anyway. it is terribly exciting, a great deal of fun and runs you through an entire gamut of emotions, be you an adult or child. i think i may even prefer it over some of those other established classics, most probably because of an overall darkness. and i mean darkness in every sense. true, it doesn't hesitate to be properly frightening and wicked but it's also a significantly subterranean film. i love that about it. i love the cold and dark of being underground. it makes me feel comfortable. it makes me feel at home. it's also very sophisticated, for a kids film, in its treatment of ethics and politics. it is gentle and patient in tone, but never condescending. as a former smart kid, i always love it when a kids movie gives kids credit for being smart. this was a real delight.

well, that was a pretty great day. three for three, give or take. can we keep it going?

paul benjamin is a good start. come get cozy with us tomorrow.


  1. just wanted to point out that the actor Peter Wyngarde who is the lead in Burn Witch Burn is also Klytus, the evil Grand Vizier from Flash Gordon.

  2. i did notice that. there's also another i, claudius alum along for the ride. derek jacobi, claudius himself, provides a voice in the secret of nimh.