By George Goner (The Haunted Cabaret)
This week's Top 5 discusses a rare breed: Movies with bad special effects that are well worth watching. In other words, the filmmakers did the best they could with difficult circumstances or a limited budget. The movies have good acting, decent writing, and fine cinematography. The money just ran out before they got to the effects studio.
In no particular order:
1) It! The Terror From Beyond Space: The monster is from Mars, not beyond space, but I forgive the hyperbole in the case of this forerunner to Alien because of the overall quality. A bloodthirsty martian sneaks aboard an earth ship and murders the crew members one by one until the creature is finally killed by suffocation. The zipper down the back of the monster's rubber suit is visible more than once, and the mask doesn't allow for many facial expressions. Nevertheless, this '50s science fiction epic is well-written, well-acted, and suspenseful.
2) The Wizard of Oz: You know right away it's not really a lion acting cowardly, right? Or a scarecrow that's made out of straw, or a Tin Man that's made of metal. Even when you're five, you realize this. You also realize it doesn't matter one bit, because this film proves conclusively that effects-good, bad, or indifferent- don't make a movie. Imagination conquers all, with the help of great acting, songs, and plenty of greasepaint. Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch and those flying monkeys still cause nightmares for the sensitive.
3) Suspiria: The effects in question here involve blood and internal organs. Even space aliens don't have the same color blood that spews from the hanged and heart-stabbed female at the beginning of Dario Argento's horror masterpiece. But then the maggots rain from the ceiling, the blind guy crosses the plaza, the secret of the dance academy is revealed, and you realize you're watching something unique.
4) Jaws: Whenever the shark sticks its head out of the water, I cringe, but not with fear. The fake-looking mechanical beast seems to dare us to take the rest of the movie seriously. But we do, because of actors named Shaw, Scheider, and Dreyfus. The acting is excellent. So is the direction by Steven Spielberg. The screenplay manages the difficult task of keeping a perfect balance between humor and horror, causing each emotional response to enhance the other. (There is one annoying writer's error for trivia fans: in a movie about a killer shark, neither fishing boat captain Quint, or oceanographer Hooper, realize ORCA is the scientific name for a killer whale, not a great white shark. Oops.)
5.) Tarantula: Another '50s science fiction movie. The back-projected (obsolete fx technique) giant spider of the title has a way of just walking out of its scenes into nothingness, especially the ends of its legs. Watch this creepy science-run-amok thriller and you'll see right away what I mean! (Spiders are notorious for not following the director's instructions.) In addition, more than one writer has suggested the filmmakers accidentally used the negative of the tarantula footage, because throughout the movie the nutrient-enlarged critter is so dark it's impossible to see detail. On the plus side, this error lends an unintentional, H.P. Lovecraft-style atmosphere to several scenes. A night scene, where the giant tarantula attacks a ranch, is nightmarish. The acting of Leo G. Carroll as the mad scientist, and a jet fighter attack on the spider led by Clint Eastwood, are among the reasons this low-budget movie is much more fun than it should be.
Next time: Horror movies that are great without any special effects to speak of at all. (Just great acting, directing, and screenplays.)