October 18, 2014
David Kalat
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I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords

So, in case you haven’t heard, there’s this movie called Phase IV. It’s a 1970s apocalyptic sci-fi thriller about killer super-intelligent ants, and it was directed by Saul Bass of all people. And instead of special effects, the killer ants are played by real ants, filmed in close-up by National Geographic photographer Ken Middleham.

Either that is enough to make you drop everything and go see it (or go see it again) immediately, or you’re one of those people whose tastes make no sense to me.

But the thing is, as deliriously entertaining as Phase IV is, it’s a singular creation that could only have existed when it did, and couldn’t be (re)made today. And therein lies this week’s story…


KEYWORDS: Phase IV, Saul Bass

Page to Screen with Soylent Green


Harry Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! in 1965. It was published a year later and in 1973 was turned into the feature film Soylent Green by Richard Fleischer, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison was clearly influenced by Malthusian theory, a stance that might be summed up by the 18th-century British cleric and scholar in one concise sentence: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Over the years, critics of Thomas Robert Malthus have found plenty of fodder with which to reject his dire premise, mainly because the models used by Malthus didn’t account for the many ways in which human ingenuity would make many resources more readily available, and at lower prices, to the growing number of people inhabiting the planet. Malthusian critics might also point to the divide between Harrison’s scenario, which envisioned life in the Big Apple circa 1999 as being multiplied by a factor of five, going from seven million people in the sixties to 35 million by 1999. That didn’t happen, not in NYC at least (Tokyo, on the other hand, has now surpassed that number). Today, the population of of NYC hovers under the nine million mark, perhaps held in check by the exorbitant price of a martini, not to mention the going rate for monthly rent. Fleischer, working in the 70s, decided to hedge his bets by extending the date for Soylent Green out to the year 2022. He also contributed powerful imagery not found in the book of people being scooped up by garbage trucks, which also made for a very compelling poster. [...MORE]

It’s Not Too Late to Start Again (Virus 1980)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were lousy with disaster flicks, a sub-genre to which Virus unquestionably belongs.  Apocalypse thrillers have always been in vogue, but they do tend to shift in tone with the cultural zeitgeist. But there was something about the Cold War era that gave rise to some wonderful end-of-the-world movies the likes of which we don’t really encounter anymore.  The bizarre illogic of the Cold War was somehow more conducive to nightmare poetry: two superpowers armed with enough firepower to destroy life on Earth countless times over, where in order to preserve the peace they each must threaten total war.  The only thing keeping those nukes in their holsters was the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction (quite appropriately, MAD).  Edward Albee couldn’t have thunk up any better.

And Virus, mind you, is the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s a rip-snorting good movie that packs in not just one apocalypse, but two.



It’s the End of the World and I Feel Fine

If you are reading this, then the world didn’t end. I never put any stock in that whole Mayan calendar silliness–if I had, I wouldn’t have spent any time writing this. And so it is with absolute confidence in the continuation of the world that I am writing this, marking the non-pocalypse by paying tribute to some of my favorite end-of-the-world movies.

Let’s start by noting that in most cases, what we really mean by end of the world movies are not movies about the literal destruction of the planet. Every once in a while you get a Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where the world is actually blown to smithereens, but those are the exceptions. The real point is to explore the end of the world as we know it, that is, the end of civilization.

In my mind, you can divide these movies into three sub-categories, and I’ll offer an example of each.



I don’t have a clever title for this one, it’s about King Kong

The late 1970s was a period in film comparable to the present day: Hollywood developed a fixation on geek culture, turning out comic book movies and remakes of older sci-fi productions, while Lucas and Spielberg created new versions of well-worn pulp forms. Part of the leading edge of this trend was Dino DeLaurentiis’ 1976 King Kong.

Time Magazine cover [...MORE]

The Night the World Exploded (Then and Now)

Sci-fi films of the 1950s and 60s tended to envision an apocalyptically awful future.  Thank heaven, the world they predicted never came to pass.  Nuclear radiation didn’t engender giant monsters; we weren’t conquered by invading armies of space monsters; scientists experimenting with medical technology didn’t turn injured people into monsters; the advancements in computer science haven’t produced a sentient digital monster. . . basically, no monsters of any kind.  But there was a film—a low-budget disaster flick from 1957 mostly forgotten today—that had an unusually prescient idea: a massive earthquake so catastrophic that the Earth itself was shifted on its axis.

The thing about THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED, though, is that now that this very thing has come to pass, we can see that even the most nightmarish vision of sci-fi has fallen far short of real-life horror.


Buggin’ Out

TCM’s spotlight on Hammer Horror this month gives me the opportunity to give a special shout-out to one of my personal favorites: Five Million Years to Earth (aka: Quatermass and the Pit, 1967). It screens later this month on TCM (Friday evening, October 22nd). I first saw it as a kid back in the seventies in a creaky and dilapidated auditorium that was constructed in the late 1800′s atop a steep hill adjacent the mountains – a favorite spot for star-gazing and hopeful U.F.O. sightings. Inside the auditorium the uncomfortable wooden chairs were falling apart and there was no air-conditioning or cooling system to grant us a reprieve from the lingering summer heat. The cavernous ceiling was so porous that pigeons and bats could be heard and seen flying about the rafters. Adding to all this awesomeness was the fact that I was watching a 35mm print of a film that was about the scare the pants off of me and create a long-lasting impression.  [...MORE]

Highlights from the Telluride Film Festival

A scene from THE ROAD.Last week I talked about the exceptional Red Riding trilogy the debuted at the 36th annual Telluride Film Festival. Now that the festival can be seen receding in my rear view mirror, it’s time to reflect on some of the other films that were also screened there. Let’s start with The Road[...MORE]

The Duke vs. The Dust Bowl

A 1930s Dust Storm

Above: A WPA image of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s

A certain influential Mr. Turner–no–not the estimable Ted, but Frederick Jackson Turner the American historian, once pointed out that “the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.” That was at the end of the 19th century, just as the American Western frontier was closing, but the impact of that view of America still has resonance today.

Watching the distinctly different Three Faces West (1940-Bernard Vorhaus) as part of the John Wayne Day for Summer Under the Stars celebration on TCM, the scholarly Turner’s sometimes controversial ideas came back to me out of the blur of my increasingly distant undergraduate days (or is it daze?). This Republic studios movie is among the least known of Wayne‘s movies, but one of the more interesting–since it came at a time when he was just beginning his ascent to a plane somewhere between a movie star and a force of nature. It incorporates ideas old and new, some of them still contentious, in the course of a brief 79 minute story that effectively portrays the savagery of that wilderness as it affected the lives of Midwesterners in the Depression era.

Cecil Hepworth: The Mogul in the Cottage on the Thames

Hepworth Studio LogoMy eyes were misting over at the sight of Robert Donat, that most “beautiful loser” in the cut-throat world of moviemaking, as I watched the end of The Magic Box (1951) on TCM earlier this month. That actor could break this sap’s heart with a change in the inflection of his voice, but the somewhat romanticized portrayal of cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene in the all star John Boulting-directed film was very well done. Still, it made me think about another pioneer in British movie history, Cecil M. Hepworth (1875-1953).

In Kevin Brownlow and David Gill‘s documentary series on early film pioneers across the pond, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995), the film historians called their chapter on the British film industry, “Opportunity Lost”. Unlike the flourishing Swedish, Italian and French cinemas of the early years of the 20th century, English movies struggled from inception, with little government protection from foreign filmmakers, and constant copyright violations occurring  among the hardscrabble film companies. This outpost of the British cinema was little more than “a cottage industry”, based in the 8 room house of the of Cecil Hepworth in Walton-on-Thames. Hepworth‘s movies may have had their hand-crafted limitations, but they were also innovative, had charm, and definitely had an off-hand, singular British humor. And their creator was one of the most influential figures in movies internationally–if one of the most obscure today. Since many of this filmmaker’s few existing, brief movies are in the public domain, I hoped it might be interesting to gather many of them together here for readers who might enjoy these, as I have. None of the movies here are any more than a few minutes long.

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