Weirdly, this craptastic film has a mini quiz you can play after the movie. Sort of like a comprehension test. The movie is horrible, but the multiple choice quiz almost makes it worth it.
Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.
Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.
I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”
Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.
The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.
Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.
Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.
The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.
Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).
One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.
As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.
What happens when med students LARP on the weekend? What happens when you surgically inject extreme rage directly into a baboon’s brain? What happens when Roddy McDowell needs a paycheck?
All these questions and not much more will be answered in Shakma (1990) directed by Tom Logan and Hugh Parks.
Since there’s really not much to say about this truly unyieldingly awesome film I shall keep it all rather brief.
Some research folks inject something that looks like urine into the brain of a baboon. Head scientist/doctor/professor, Sorenson (Roddy McDowell), then orders the tainted monkey to be put down. As night falls the students decide to play some sort of extra nerdy cross between Capture the Flag and Dungeons and Dragons in the facility. Weird set up, right? It’s really just an impetus to get the flat, young, nubile characters to wander the dark corridors of the the lab so they may be picked off one by one by the BABOON WHO ISN’T REALLY DEAD!
I’m not sure if Roddy McDowell (who I really do like as an actor) was personally seeking out movies with monkeys in them or maybe his agent was or maybe the filmmakers thought he’d be perfect because he was in all of the The Planet of the Apes movies. In any event I feel sorry for him. He gets jacked up too soon…but then he was too good for this movie.
The boring characters wander the halls only to stumble upon the mangled corpses of their friends. The handiwork of an enraged baboon perhaps? Most of the film consists of people walking through hallways, being surprised at the baboon, running and slamming doors shut, and finally the baboon (Shakma) banging his little body into the doors repeatedly. There is one pretty good kill in a bathroom stall (maybe more funny than good) and the ending is pretty decent, but other than that it’s a fairly bland and styleless “animal attacks” movie.
The sterile, unnatural hallways of the medical research facility (?) reminded me of After Last Season but slightly upgraded.
The real live animal performance is good I suppose. The baboon only has to be angry and slam into doors. The real hindrance that prevents the murder-baboon sub-genre of “animal attacks” movies from clicking is that the baboon is such a dim, dopey looking animal. He has blank, glassy eyes and his stature is not very formidable (about the size of a mid-sized dog). He does have the teeth and he can bounce off walls, but when I think baboon I don’t think terror. I will give it this though: killer baboon makes more sense than killer shrews or rabbits.
I only wish they killed the baboon my way—by donating it to Jeff Goldblum for his teleporter research. That might have been more satisfying.
Speaking of Jeff, there’s even a few schticks in this movie that Jurassic Park (1993) might have nabbed if I thought anybody actually watched this movie.
Basically Shakma is another run-of-the-mill brainless monster-kills-the-teens movie. It’s not particularly interesting or good. So why do I write about it then? Simply put, the name Shakma just demands to be repeated. Say it. Shakma. Yeah. You know it’s gonna bad but you kinda wanna see it.
For a forgettably dopey movie about a rampaging murder-baboon look up Shakma. Or at least say it a few times and get it out of your system.
Spoiler alert: everybody dies.
I really love bad movies sometimes. I feel like they get me. I love Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, Birdemic, Starcrash, The Room, Turkish Star Wars, Night of the Lepus, the whole Godzilla series, you name it. I genuinely like these guys. They get strange and seemingly inexplicable cult followings too. Naturally, I have a dedicated perimeter of friends who are always on the lookout for new potential entries into the pantheon of cinematic crapdom.
There is a new movie. It is the progeny of writer/director/producer/editor (always a dangerous sign) Rick Lancaster. It is The Abduction of Zack Butterfield (aka The Last Days of April) (2011). I saw this film with some friends and fellow Chroniclers on its first run at the Laemmle on Sunset Blvd. It was one of the few theaters we could find that would even screen it. Half of our party was fighting illness, but the trailer had so enticed us. We took a wrong turn getting off the 101 freeway and we were running late as it was, but we simply had to get there. We parked in the wrong structure too and so could not get our ticket validated. The fates bellowed and laughed, but we purchased our tickets anyway and marched into the darkened theater just as the opening credits started. We made it. Take that, fates.
It takes place in upstate New York (ah, me old stomping grounds). The film was the story of a 15 year old boy who gets kidnapped by former mercenary, April, with a sad (and boring) backstory that leads her into insanity. She wants to make the perfect man for herself so she can recapture her lost teen years. . . so get ‘em young, right? April has an explosive necklace attached to Zack so he won’t escape and then she forces him to do chores around the house in some truly nauseating tight bicycle shorts. There is NO need for a codpiece to be that accentuating. They bang a few times (which is extra gross because Zack looks like he’s about 10 years old), but he only does it to lull her into a false sense of security and plan his escape.
The police frequent Zack’s home to remind his parents that there is little hope they will find him. The tubby sheriff was my favorite character. I could almost picture his face after climbing a flight of stairs. You can even see the lav mic peeking around from behind his tie when he sits down. What else, what else…hmm…oh, the acting is terrible (naturally), the characters are laughable, and the dialogue is hilariously awkward. The plot is stupid and completely devoid of tension, suspense, atmosphere and there is little art in the setup of any shot or scene. I get that they’re trying to be edgy and Misery-esque, but nothing works. It’s wall-to-wall awful. I will say only this of Zack Butterfield, it’s definitely wretched and I laughed quite a bit, but I doubt it will have the cult following of some of the classic baddies. The filmmakers had to be either a group of prepubescent boys or else they were criminally irresponsible perverts. I can see a group of 12 year old boys thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if we like made a movie where there was like a hot chick who like kidnapped you and made you have sex with her? That would be cool, dude.” Anyone beyond puberty should be locked up for this garbage.
One more thing! The theater actually had at least one person who genuinely enjoyed the film as a serious dramatic psychosexual thriller. He mumbled every time we made a joke or laughed at this ludicrous, pedophilic trainwreck. I couldn’t believe someone would view this film un-ironically. Even if someone absent-mindedly wandered into the theater with no pretext you would still think they would eventually realize that what they were looking at was bad. Maybe not. Perhaps there is a real audience for this film and I’m just missing something.
Perhaps the film does have a certain weird realism to it. A lot of real people are this dumb and would probably act and react the way the characters do in this movie’s situations. No heightened drama and no super elaborate plan conjured by unbelievable (but enjoyable) intelligent people. This is real cinéma vérité, ladies and gentlemen! And it’s near unwatchable. To each his own, I suppose. I just don’t see it. You should watch the trailer anyway.
If you love great indie thrillers. . . look somewhere else. Somewhere very far.
I love Los Angeles.
For more Alternative Chronicle questionable movie reviews check out: C.H.U.D.S., The Beast of Yucca Flats, For Y’ur Height Only (although I really love this movie), Endhiran, the complete Planet of the Apes, and more.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 30, 2011.