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The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Richard Matheson, from a novel by Dennis Wheatley

Hammer Films dominated horror in the 1960s, with their stylish Gothic approach and stable of charismatic actors. Their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises were particularly lucrative, and while it would be stretching things to say that they could do no wrong during this period, it’s reasonable to expect a certain high degree of quality. The stakes get raised when considering the creative team behind The Devil Rides Out.

The opening titles are a wash of swirling smoke and green symbols of the occult.

The opening titles are a wash of swirling smoke and green symbols of the occult.

Terence Fisher had directed several of Hammer’s hits, including The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Richard Matheson had helped turn his own book I Am Legend into the famed movie The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. He’d written the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Tales of Terror. Between them, Fisher and Matheson brought an impressive resume to the table.

Then there’s Dennis Wheatley, an English author whose writing influenced Ian Fleming. His first published novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933) featured the Duke de Richleau. The following year saw the release of both a movie version and the second in what would be an 11 book series of the Duke’s occult adventures, The Devil Rides Out. Still a best-selling author in the 1960s, it could be assumed that Wheatley’s works would have been familiar to British audiences for this adaptation.

"Please, this time -- just listen to what I'm telling you!"

“Please, this time — just listen to what I’m telling you!”

It’s clear that Matheson relied on this familiarity. Characters have relationships that are glossed over, as though unnecessary to explain. The Duke just happens to know everything about the occult, and his knowledge is explained with a terse comment about his studies. It feels like several scenes are missing, and in fact there are — an entire book’s worth! The result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s kind of realistic that we don’t get a lot of context. People are busy fighting Satan and don’t have the time to re-establish their relationships. Yet it distances the viewer a bit as well. There’s a tight central group of characters, and we’re on the outside. It’s frankly a little off-putting.

The Eatons, with young Peggy hanging on Uncle Rex. They also call de Richleau uncle, so who knows if they're even actually related to anybody?

The Eatons, with young Peggy hanging on Uncle Rex. They also call de Richleau uncle, so who knows if they’re even actually related to anybody?

Fortunately, the film stars Christopher Lee in the crucial role, here very slightly renamed as Duc de Richleau. Lee’s authoritative manner makes de Richleau seem more than capable of besting Lucifer at anything from magic to snooker, which somewhat mitigates the absence of back story. On the downside, he frequently leaves to conduct research, and nobody he knows can follow simple instructions. This allows the dastardly Mocata (played by the deliciously fiendish Charles Gray) to do pretty much anything he wants.

"I'm safe so long as I don't run into de Richleau -- or that damnable Bond!"

“I’m safe so long as I don’t run into de Richleau — or that damnable Bond!”

What Mocata wants is to add two members to his coven to bring their number up to the requisite 13. He’s accidentally selected Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who de Richleau and his close friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) have sworn to watch over. The other recruit turns out to be the fetching Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), with whom Van Ryn falls madly in love. Aron and Carlisle’s minds are already under Mocata’s control, so there’s nothing for it but that de Richleau and Mocata battle for their souls. It’s all very much like a serial, with the villains and heroes dashing after each other fruitlessly until the climax.

So how does a giant spider figure into this movie? Simon is placed under the protection of de Richleau and the Eatons (a nice couple, related to somebody) inside of a magic circle. If they can prevent Mocata from claiming Simon overnight, he’ll be safe. The first gambit Mocata tries is to send a giant tarantula to prowl the edge of the circle. When that somehow fails to make anyone leave the protection of the circle, young Peggy Eaton enters the room for the spider to menace.

Duc de Richleau was renowned for his creative party games.

Duc de Richleau was renowned for his creative party games.

The approach chosen was a mixture of filming a tarantula on a miniature set and matting it in when it needed to be seen with the actors. This is a difficult trick for color film, and the complicating factors of the lighting in the room do not work in the effect’s favor. Nonetheless, it’s largely effective. In most of the sequences, it works well. The worst lighting problems occur when interacting with Peggy, when suddenly the tarantula is too bright. It could have come off as a game attempt if not for the inclusion of footage of the spider “rearing”. While tarantulas will rear up, it’s generally because they feel threatened. This one seems to be merely testing the glass wall in front of it. Much like the ants climbing into the air in Empire of the Ants, it re-engages disbelief with a quickness.

In Hell, spider squishes you!

In Hell, spider squishes you!

Also quick is Mocata’s escalation of attacks, but that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say he jumps straight from “dare” to “triple-dog dare” in direct violation of the Queensbury rules. He’s sort of a jerk that way.

It’s a pretty neat movie. I understand why many people consider it to be one of Hammer’s best. Lee and Gray, though sharing only a few scenes, ground the film with the power of their palpably clashing wills. Although the effects are sometimes less than spectacular, the menace they serve to reflect is stronger than in most plots about Satanism. Partly, this is due to Mocata’s mental dominance over all but de Richleau, but really it’s how far Mocata is able and prepared to go for victory. I refer to the aforementioned untoward escalation. This isn’t your garden-variety cultist.

Even The Devil attends Mocata's parties.

Even The Devil attends Mocata’s parties.

The biggest problem I think the movie has is its ending. Without revealing anything, I’ll just say that it doesn’t make immediate sense. Just as with his script for the excellent The Legend of Hell House (based on his own novel Hell House), Matheson underplays the critical part of the reveal. One or two more sentences from the Duc de Richleau would put it all together, but while the explanation we get is reasonable, it isn’t until ruminating over it much later that I came to accept it as more than a flimsy cheat. Maybe I’m inordinately dense, but while the conclusion makes perfect in a 1930s adventure sort of way, it just doesn’t seem direct enough for the style of story it is.

The film as a whole is enjoyable, and I recommend it particularly to fans of Hammer or of old-fashioned adventure films. Just stay on your toes and repeat to yourself “it all makes sense” until you understand why. Or, you know, understand it the first time. Whatever works.

Lunatics: A Love Story (1991)

Directed by Josh Becker
Written by Josh Becker

It’s 1991, and video stores have made Bruce Campbell a low-budget celebrity. He and his friends at Renaissance Pictures seem to have what it takes (the company had five films to its credit and was still in business!). Their latest film “Darkman” had been a legitimate success within the studio system, and maybe it was the breathing room that afforded them which let them turn back to a small budget for their next project. After all, it’s more fun when the big boys aren’t involved.

Josh Becker had directed and co-written the company’s third feature “Stryker’s War” (1985, aka “Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except”) and had worked with Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell on short films before that. Becker wrote and directed “Lunatics: a Love Story”, Bruce Campbell signed on as an actor and producer (with Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert as executive producers, of course), and Ted “Theodore” Raimi got the starring role.

As the opening credits roll, we’re treated to the sleazy meanderings of a saxophone. As soon as the title appears, the music collapses into a mix of hip-hop and jazz that promises fun, funky times ahead. The composer is none other than Joseph LoDuca, who had started to work with the Raimi crew on Evil Dead and would go on to write memorable themes for their Xena and Hercules shows (along with plenty of other TV and movie scores).

They're just a couple crazy kids!

They’re just a couple crazy kids!

After the credits, we get an establishing shot of L.A. followed by a pan from a lingerie billboard ad to a tenement across the street. A mail carrier enters the building, and residents come out to deliver exposition. (Only one ever appears again, and only for a moment, so there’s really no point to this scene. All of the relevant information we clumsily receive here is given later.) we learn that the guy in 206 is crazy. He screams in the night. He has food delivered. He moved in six months ago and never leaves his apartment.

The walls in 206 are covered in tinfoil, movie shorthand for crazy. The place is unkempt, and boxes and papers are strewn everywhere. Still, it’s spacious, and it’s got a lovely view of the lingerie billboard. Hank Stone (Ted Raimi) is enjoying a more cramped space. He’s underneath his bed, clutching his head and whimpering. It seems that there are spiders in his brain, as we see in a nifty bit of stop-motion animation.

This is what happens when you don't brush the cobwebs out of your hair.

This is what happens when you don’t brush the cobwebs out of your hair.

Hank also has Bruce Campbell on his mind, as should we all! In Hank’s case, though, Campbell is a maniacal surgeon who wants to perform unspecified but certainly unseemly operations on him. Tinfoil seems to help keep the mad doctor at bay, because crazy, and we’ll see a lot of Campbell and tinfoil over the 1 hour and 27 minute running time.

"I'm your producer. I'll be in just a few scenes to trick you into watching this movie."

“I’m your producer. I’ll be in just a few scenes to trick you into watching this movie.”

Bruce Campbell also plagues the movie’s love interest, in the form of her sleaze-ball boyfriend Ray. Nancy is played by Deborah Foreman, known in my circles for portraying Muffy in the original “April Fool’s Day”. In that, she had a juicy, low-budget role, getting to play the mysterious hostess of a rapidly unravelling island vacation. Here, she is relegated to cringing and looking gooey-eyed as events require, and to Foreman’s credit she plays the part like a trooper.

Both actress and character are having second thoughts.

Both actress and character are having second thoughts.

More on that later. The important thing, plot-wise, is that she feels responsible for everything that goes wrong around her. So these are the promised lunatics: a paranoid schizophrenic (I guess?) and a self-appointed scapegoat. Notice that one is an incurable psychosis and the other is, at best, a deep but treatable neurosis.

After Ray dumps Nancy, stranding her in L.A. with no money and an unpaid hotel bill, she winds up wandering the streets until she runs into a gang that wants to rape her. Managing to hide in a phone booth, Nancy winds up answering the phone. On the other end is Hank, who thinks he’s contacting a prostitute. Thus the lovers are set on their lunatic path.

Let’s talk about the giant spider. It’s why I watched it after all, and it’s more pleasant than other things I have to say. The spider shows up near the climax, when Hank has actually left his apartment in order to find Nancy. Nancy has run away from him, because he knocked her out in a delusional fit and is generally, you know, unstable.

You know what? I’ll get to the spider in a bit, but I have to deal with the elephant in the room, because this movie makes me hate myself. This is a Nice Guy story. No matter what he does, no matter his failings, no matter his prospects, no matter his sanity, Hank will win the girl like a prize for simply not being completely horrific. As a young man, this type of thing appealed to me a great deal. I’d actually get upset at movies where the heroine didn’t fall for the Nice Guy simply because he was present. How dare Andie pass on Duckie simply because she wasn’t attracted to him?

Nice Guy movies enforce this notion that women have no agency; that their love goes to those who simply aren’t horrific. This is different from Chaplin in “City Lights”, who goes to great lengths to cure his love’s blindness but then avoids her because he doesn’t want to burden her with his poverty. It’s different from Moranis in “Little Shop of Horrors”, who gives up everything he believes makes Audrey like him in order to save her. These men misjudge the women, who already love them for who they are. Nice Guys just have to be in position for a woman to land on them.

What he have in Hank is a horror show of a Nice Guy. He’s a jobless shut-in with a serious psychosis, who acts out violently during delusional episodes. On the plus side he writes truly awful poetry. After chasing Nancy out of his apartment, stalking her, and needing to be saved from a garbage truck by her (we’ll get back to that), Hank manages to knock out the lead gang member. For this one act Nancy is his. Nancy, who managed to elude and often defeat all threats until the finale, is a trophy Hank earned by leaving his apartment.

"I'm ready for my participation trophy!"

“I’m ready for my participation trophy!”

I could dismiss this as simply inept writing (which it is) but for the fact that I know I would have loved it if I’d seen this when it came out in 1991. It’s Ted Raimi being silly! Haha, crazy people! Happy ending — woot! My disappointment in my younger self is so great that I simply can’t remove it from discussion of “Lunatics: A Love Story”. I can’t be objective and leave it at saying that the script is built on clumsy cliches and expectations and that the humor is droll at best and plodding in general. I can’t distance myself enough to just say that the movie treats Nancy poorly. I can’t, because the movie puts my cultural misogyny in my face and expects me to find it funny. It’s repellent to me in a way that mere shoddiness and laziness of craft never achieves.

So, now that I’ve explained why I would never recommend this film to anybody, I’ll move on to the part I mostly liked. Hank is running around looking for Nancy, who’s running away from the rape gang. When he leans up against a wall, an insectile leg reaches down toward him. It’s a big goddamn spider, and it chases Hank down the street in some neat stop motion sequences. In reality, Hank is running away from a garbage truck, and why Nancy shoots at it for him I will never figure out.

"What the @&$# did I do?"

“What the @&$# did I do?”

I won’t say that this scene made the movie worth it, but between it and the trio of rappers who appear in Hank’s apartment I at least had a few moments of genuine enjoyment. I love stop-motion, and this is better quality than the movie required or deserved. It’s done by David Hettmer, who also worked on “Army of Darkness” with Renaissance. The animation is fun, and while the “spiders in the brain” scene is more memorable (by virtue of being over-the-top) it’s a treat watch the giant spider chase Hank down the street.

"Come back! My babies are in your brain!"

“Come back! My babies are in your brain!”

I can’t wrap this up without expanding on the rappers in Hank’s apartment. While the animated spiders were cool, the highlight for me was when these guys showed up. Early in the movie, Hank turns on his radio and these guys appear in his living room performing the LoDuca penned “Saran Rap”. This is a delightfully specific song about the spiders crawling in Hank’s mind, and I wish to hell that it was available to purchase. It’s a more threatening delusional episode than a mad surgeon, because it’s basically Hank materializing people to mock and berate him. Accusing yourself is a big part of mental illness, so I was glad to see the movie veer somewhat near the neighboring state of authentic symptomatology, if only for a moment.

The only non-whites in the film who aren't rapists are a hallucination.

The only non-whites in the film who aren’t rapists are a hallucination.

Becker went on to a minor career, directing episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Jack of All Trades” as well as the TV movie “Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur”. He co-wrote and directed the Bruce Campbell vehicle “Alien Apocalypse” and directed “Harpies”, starring Stephen “Not Alec” Baldwin–both of which play occasionally on SyFy instead of content. What I’m suggesting is that his work is serviceable but neither outstanding enough for bigger movies nor expedient enough for steady work. It’s hardly surprising, then, that “Lunatics: A Love Story” is a rough without any diamond.

Spiders 3D (2013)

Directed by Tibor Takács
Written by Joseph Farrugia, Tibor Takács, and Dustin Warburton

We start in space, with the title appearing against a starry background.

In space, no one can hear you sigh at the spinning title.

In space, no one can hear you sigh at the spinning title.

I don’t have a 3D set, but if the title hadn’t mentioned it I wouldn’t have known I was missing something. So, good going titles.

The camera pans until the Earth comes into view. Then we see our planet covered by a spider. As our view pulls back we see that it’s actually on a view port of an orbiting space station. From the dead astronaut and many loose spiders, we may assume that something went wrong. Further, the Cyrillic letters on a clipboard indicate it was a Russian vessel.

If you were thinking that a meteorite would strike the space station, I congratulate you! You’ve seen a movie before.

Meanwhile, in New York City, our hero arrives at a rail transit control hub. Patrick Muldoon (“Starship Troopers”, “Days of Our Lives”) plays Jason, who seems to be some kind of district chief. One of the workers hands him an iPod. This is a gift purchased on Jason’s behalf for some young girl. Like a lot in this film, the details are murky.

When there’s a problem at the Noble Street subway station, transit worker Jimmy goes into the tunnel to investigate. He finds that something has penetrated the tunnel, but his experience fighting in Iraq tells him it wasn’t a bomb. Homeland Security is called anyway. Given that Jimmy fails to notice the large blue spider that crawls out his pants seconds after he’s bitten, it’s probably wise not to trust his observations.

Jason breaks contact with Jimmy to watch a news report on the incident. It identifies the cause as debris from a Soviet satellite launched in the 1980s. Jason decides to see the damage for himself, so he heads out. He tries to reach Jimmy again but gets no response. This is hardly surprising, as Jimmy has passed out from the toxins in his system and landed on the infamous third rail.

Jason pulls up to a subway entrance in a New York Transit van. A body is being loaded into an ambulance, and our hero asks callously if it was a jumper. A woman some kind of uniform who seems to know Jason informs him that it’s Jimmy. She is Rachel, played by Christa Campbell (“Mansquito”, “Day of the Dead”), and we’ll find out more about her later.

Down in the tunnel people in hazmat suits inspect the area with various equipment. They declare it’s free of radiation, and a bunch of officials enter — Jason and Rachel included. A Dr. Darnoff identifies a piece of wreckage as a disposal unit from the satellite. Homeland Security is satisfied, Rachel says the Health Department is not. ‘Waste’ sounds like something potentially hazardous. While everyone bickers over who’s paying for what and when the subway can re-open, nobody notices rats fleeing the area.

Later that night Rachel arrives at a Chinese restaurant where her daughter Emily has been waiting with (presumably) a babysitter, who promptly leaves after being paid. Rachel tells Emily that her father means well, and from their mention of his subway and the presence of gifts we can start to infer that Jason and Rachel might be more than friends.

Jason stops at a hospital, where a Dr. Stella takes him to the morgue. There she confirms that Jimmy died of electrocution. What’s interesting is what hadn’t killed him; she found the spider bite and worse — marble-sized eggs in his abdomen! Jason asks to take them to City Health, which probably violates all manner of procedures, but Stella readily hands them over.

Jason’s next stop is Rachel’s apartment. He gives Emily the iPod, and she happily flees the scene. Jason hands the eggs to Rachel, and she gives him divorce papers. At least we finally understand their relationship.

From here the plot spins into the well-worn patterns of government conspiracy, re-uniting family, and experiments gone wildly out of control. The area around the Noble Street station becomes overrun with spiders the size of people, and it’s up to Jason to stop the enormous queen.

It’s not what you’d call a good movie, but it’s largely entertaining and has some really nice touches. Some of the minor characters actually have significant plot beats, and even the soldiers that enforce the quarantine are shown to be people with their own motivations. The thinnest characterization is Colonel Jenkins, played by veteran actor William Hope (“Aliens”). He’s the villain of the piece, responsible for many of the named-character deaths and difficulties, but the script doesn’t give him any motivation or personality other than the face of pitiless government.

The true joy of this film is the spiders themselves. They’re goofy looking and abundant, growing to the size of a horse in roughly a single day. Then there’s the queen… But first let’s talk origin.

We’re told by Dr. Darnoff that the soviet scientists had tried to splice alien genes into several different animals but that only the attempt with spiders had succeeded. Why would they do this? To produce military-grade silk for making armor. The colonel, of course, wants to drop spider eggs on enemies.

All of which begs several grade-school level questions.

1. Why would you cross anything potentially dangerous with a spider? You know what you cross spiders with? Tomatoes! Tomatoes never killed anybody.1

2. When did the silk plan enter the picture? Did the dead aliens have a gold-plated record that told of the wondrously strong silk their genes produced? It seems more like something the scientists made up when they were caught making alien-hybrid spiders.

3. Why did they stay relatively small in the space station? Granted it’s not like there was a lot of food, but it’s not as though they spent enough time eating to grow as big as they did so quickly on Earth.

4. What did they eat on the space station? A cosmonaut, obviously. But then what? The station was essentially abandoned for decades.

5. After the giant spiders wipe out your enemy, how do you get rid of them? The Orkin army?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that all mysteries are explained by “alien
DNA” and that the queen is the size of a nice house in the suburbs.

One of these two is very smart. The other splices alien DNA into spiders.

One of these two is very smart. The other splices alien DNA into spiders.

While it’s not CGI on the level of “Jurassic Park” or Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”, the effects in this are a darn sight better than the typical fare in modern spider movies. For the most part the spiders interact reasonably well with the environment, and the design is fun. They have big humanoid eyes and multiple sets of jaws. Best of all, the queen shows accumulated damage from all of the bullets and general artillery that have hit it. When so many details are omitted, glossed over, or otherwise left to the viewers’ imagination, this demonstrates that genuine care went into the production.

Overall I found “Spiders” entertaining and a touch above the average monster flick. Despite a run-of-the-mill plot and some standard failings, it’s a movie that I can go back to again and again.

And maybe one day I’ll manage to see it in 3D!

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Patrick Muldoon is no stranger to fighting giant spiders. Even if you don’t count “Starship Troopers”, he starred in the direct to TV “Ice Spiders”.

I actually appreciate that the script leaves Jason and Rachel’s relationship undefined for so long. It seems more natural that they don’t talk about it all the time.

Of all the people in the film, I feel sorriest for the babysitter. It sucks for all the victims, but here’s a girl who was just picking up some spare cash, and she gets put in quarantine and killed almost as an afterthought.

FOOTNOTES

1. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” doesn’t count.

1000 Misspent Hours: Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula

There’s a movie that’s been passing around my circle of friends, testing their mettle and their willingness to continue speaking to me. It’s a movie that I discovered because of my fascination with two things: big damn spiders and the nearly contractual obligation for Linnea Quigley to remove her clothing on camera.

The movie is a DTV Jess Franco production, amusingly titled “Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula in Eight Arms to Love You”. It’s the story of a were-spider (Lina Romay) who, well, has a lot of sex. It’s the sort of cinematic effluvium that defies description, but El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting came the closet to explaining the experience of watching Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula in Eight Arms to Love You.

I’ll eventually post my own review, someday when I can bring myself to watch it again.

Checkpoint Telstar: Earth vs The Spider (1958)

The Cold War movie review site Checkpoint Telstar is running a series of horror reviews this month for its HubrisWeen celebration — 26 reviews (A to Z) leading up to Halloween.

Day 5 is a review of the classic Big Damn Spider movie “Earth vs The Spider”, directed by serial BDS user Bert I. Gordon. It’s one of our favorites here in the Web, and Telstar is one of my closest friends, so I hope you’ll give it a read.

“Earth vs The Spider” on Checkpoint Telstar

See ya in the Web!

The Black Scorpion (1957)

Written by David Duncan and Robert Blees
Directed by Edward Ludwig

Giant critters were a staple of the drive-in fare of the late 1950s. “Tarantula”, “Them!”, “The Beginning of the End”, and so many others — the genre consisted largely of forced perspective filming, footage of animals super-imposed over actors, and the occasional puppet. In these standard techniques “The Black Scorpion” falls squarely on its drooling face. Where it excels is in the superb use of stop motion animation for the majority of its creature effects.

The film opens on stock clips of volcanos and earthquakes as a narrator ponderously explains the setup. He tells us that before forces that are “the most violent of modern times”, the people of Mexico can only pray. (Cue prayer footage.) A new volcano is formed, he tells us, and it grows 9000 feet in only a few days!

No one will be seated during the rather bland opening credits.

No one will be seated during the rather bland opening credits.

When the opening credits end, we see a jeep hauling a small trailer through the wasted landscape. The vehicle stops, and our male leads climb out to drop some exposition. Hank Scott is an American, visiting Mexico through the courtesy of Professor Artur Ramos. They are geologists who’ve driven through the destruction for three days to reach the new volcano. Amid all the waste lies a literal sign of life: a road marker which (if somehow still close to its standing position) indicates that they are 117K from Mexico City1 and only 12K from San Lorenzo. There are also indications that at least one other vehicle has been through here recently.

Continuing their journey, Ramos and Scott come upon workers repairing phone lines. These men affirm that San Lorenzo is near but haven’t heard how the town has fared in the wake of the disaster. The bridges might be out, they warn. A police car that headed that way never came back, though, so it’s possible that the route is clear2. The geologists thank them and continue their thrill-a-minute drive.

They locate the police car in a tiny deserted village. The car, and pretty much everything nearby, has been demolished. They can’t tell by what, but it may be related to that buzzing sound… Scott and Ramos find one survivor (a baby) and one victim (the police officer). They use the police radio to call in their discoveries then continue on to San Lorenzo, where military assistance should arrive the following day.

A crowd greets them in San Lorenzo, and after handing the baby to a nearby woman our heroes join Father Delgado for some dinner and expository dialog. It seems that in the aftermath of the eruption there have been other disappearances and unusual destruction. When victims have been found, their bodies are bloodless and their faces frozen in fear. Largely fueled by rumors from local caballeros, the masses believe it to be the work of a demon bull3.

Of course, none of this dissuades our intrepid duo from heading ever closer into danger. The following day, against the advice of Major Corsio (head of the newly arrived army unit), our action geologists continue driving toward the new volcano. They meet up with Teresa Alvarez, owner of the Alvarez ranch (whose cattle herders have fled, fearing the demon bull). Ramos discovers a sheet of unearthed shale, and after a lot more exposition and a meal the plot finally lurches begins in lugubrious earnest.

If you think I didn’t care for this movie, you’re partially correct. The pacing is atrocious, the plot meandering, and the direction tepid. I’ve seen far worse, but on a scale of “Unwatchable” to “Play It Again Now!” I would give it an honest “Well I’ve Seen That Now”… except. Ah, except for the wonderful, animated scenes of giant scorpions and other critters!

The great Willis H. O’Brien (“King Kong”, 1933) designed and supervised the effects, and his protegé Peter Peterson handled the actual animation. There are a few major set pieces, and they are a joy to behold: the lost underground world, the train tracks, and the stadium. The scenes at the train and stadium feature a lot of giant scorpion on vehicle violence and even the grisly demise of a few animated people. They’re a fun treat for fans of stop motion animation.

The reason I’m writing about this movie is what happens deep underground. Amid all the seismic activity of the eruption, an entrance opened on a world that had been sealed underground since pre-history — an enormous set of caverns in which monsters live brutal lives. It’s down here that Juanito meets a trap-door spider roughly the size of a brown bear.4

Wait. Six legs? We found the spider that everyone in "Camel Spiders" kept talking about!

Wait. Six legs? We found the spider that everyone in “Camel Spiders” kept talking about!

“Wait”, you cry. “Who’s Juanito?”

Remember Teresa Alvarez, whose caballeros believed in a demon bull? Juanito is a servant boy on her ranch, and it is truly unfortunate that he stuck around. Whenever he’s told to stay put, he immediately sneaks off to run straight toward the scorpions. It’s amazing to me that nobody ever thought to tie Juanito down.

Naturally, when Ramos and Scott decide to descend into the crater via a lowered cage, Juanito tags along. This, immediately after being discovered hiding in the jeep, whereupon he had once again been told to stay the hell put. Somehow, two scientists fail to detect the child during a twenty-minute descent in a cage the size of a closet. Once they reach the bottom, the men tramp off, leaving Juanito to find some danger — which he does with a quickness!

Juanito leaves the safety of the cage and wanders directly to the lair of a big damn spider. This kid is so determined to die that he actually tugs at the spider’s trap door! Naturally, Ramos and Scott must rush over to save him. Mercifully the action soon moves to Mexico City, and the plot is no longer propelled by Juanito’s self-destructive urges.

This spider is an odd one. For one thing, it only has six legs. That’s assuming that the front appendages with pincers are pedipalps, which they would be on a scorpion. Additionally it doesn’t exactly leap out of its tunnel, which sadly allows Juanito plenty of time to get running. If we’re to assume any attempt at historical accuracy it could be that this arachnid is from a lost family of the sub-order Mesothelae, but it seems unlikely that much thought went into it.

With limited time and budget O’Brien and Peterson put the main effort into the scorpion models, which are excellent. The spider and another creature (a sort of worm with arms) are left over from O’Brien’s work on King Kong! They were two of the monsters at the bottom of a ravine, in one of the most famous cut scenes in the history of cinema. It’s neat that they were pressed into service again a quarter of a century later, but their design esthetic does not sit well alongside the more modern work.

Budget is the enemy of many films, but its lack is painfully visible here. The super-imposing process of the 1950s was labor intensive, and there was just too much to do. The result is a number of scenes that show the silhouette of a scorpion over running crowds. This is the matte over which the animation was to be placed, and it doesn’t look good on its own.

The other thing that looks bad is the scorpion head used for close-up shots. O’Brien supposedly supervised all of the effects, but he must have been looking elsewhere when this puppet was made. All of the realism and artistry of the animation models is completely absent here. It has a goofy, gaping maw that’s constantly drooling and googly eyes, and it looks nothing like the creatures taking apart trains and pulling helicopters out of the sky.

Hampered by a meandering script and budgetary constraints, “The Black Scorpion” nonetheless marks a high-point in arachnid cinematic effects. Far superior to most puppets and better than low-budget CGI, it’s a shame they weren’t part of a worthier movie.

FOOTNOTES

1. It is actually far from ludicrous to imagine a volcano appearing so near Mexico City. The city lies in the path of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which forms a roughly latitudinal line across the country. There is even an active volcano only 40-some miles away. I will not speculate as to the odds of the spontaneous generation of such a massive new volcano in the region, but I think that the side effects of such an event would be catastrophic enough without adding giant prehistoric scorpions into the equation.

2. Whenever a character thinks that someone never returning is a good sign, I can only marvel at their innocence. If I go two hours without hearing from someone, I assume they’ve been eaten by dingoes.

3. Sadly, the legend of the demon bull is largely glossed over. It seemed far more plausible than the actual danger presented.

4. Nope. I’m not invoking the scorpions-are-arachnids clause to justify including this movie in the Big Damn Spider canon, although scorpions are way closer to spiders than whatever the heck this creature is. It only has 6 legs, so maybe it’s an escapee from “Camel Spiders”.

Camel Spiders (2011)

Written by J. Brad Wilke and Jim Wynorski
Directed by Jim Wynorski

Early into the US occupation of Afghanistan, a photo of soldiers was widely circulated in which a pair of camel spiders hung grotesquely in the foreground. For a week or two everyone shuddered at the thought of those humongous Middle-Eastern spiders, and then we collectively forgot about the whole thing. Inevitably, Roger Corman produced the movie “Camel Spiders”. The only real surprise was that it took almost a decade for him to get around to it.

That green is nature's way of warning viewers to avoid the film.

That green is nature’s way of warning viewers to avoid the film.

The film opens during a firefight in Afghanistan. American troops are pinned down by rebels (extras in street clothes, some of whom are literally wearing towels), who are likely meant to be Taliban forces. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Partly this is because they’re all about to die horribly, but mostly it’s because they are irrelevant to the plot.

What is relevant to — and indeed is — the plot, is how these Afghanis die. Pale spiders, about the size of cats, crawl over the combatants and fang them to death. They then drag away two of the bodies before the American troops eventually notice the lack of returned fire and investigate.

The medic determines that it was death by beshbesh — camel spider. These are deadly desert spiders that can outrun men and inject a powerful venom with their bite1. Captain Sturges (Brian Krouse, of “Sleepwalkers” and the TV series “Charmed”) is more concerned about his own side’s single casualty.

Corporal Plot-Device has been killed in the bullet exchange, and the lightly wounded captain assumes responsibility for taking his body home. Despite ample photographic evidence of the stately manner in which the bodies of our soldiers are transported, the corporal is crated up with a few rodent-sized camel spiders and shipped to a military base in Arizona, where it’s put on a truck transporting munitions.

The driver of the truck is Sergeant Underwood (Melissa Brasselle2), and the clumsy sexual tension between her and Captain Sturges will be an uncomfortable feature of the rest of the film. Fortunately, it’s broken for the time being by an accident.

The local sheriff (C. Thomas Howell) is in hot pursuit of some guy. I didn’t write his name down because, like so many characters in this movie, his only purpose is to cause trouble through his demise. Seconds after his introduction, this presumably naughty person runs into the sergeant’s truck.

Three things happen:

  1. Our speeding driver either dies or is carted off to a hospital. His impact on the plot done, he is quickly discarded.
  2. The truck is damaged, which ensures that the captain and sergeant have to stick around.
  3. The corporal’s coffin falls out of the truck, introducing camel spiders into the Arizona wilds3.

The truck can still move a bit, so the sheriff guides our nascent couple to a motel. Captain Sturges calls the base and arranges for a pick-up the next morning. Then he and the sheriff head to a diner, leaving the sergeant to guard the semi-broken vehicle with its corpse and munitions.

The diner is filled with characters, and from the attention given them it is clear that they are to become the primary group of survivors and victims for the remainder of the film. There’s the bickering couple with a distanced teenager; the owners of the diner; a pair of investors, who want to tear town the diner and build a casino; the waitress a heart of gold; and two guys so into their own jaded skepticism I can only assume their journey to Las Vegas is ironic. There’s also the minority chef, whose death signals the arrival of the camel spiders.

Santa Moose and his eight camel spiders come for the naughty children.

Santa Moose and his eight camel spiders come for the naughty children.

From this point the movie centers on survival, as the group attempts first to escape then to wait out and finally to destroy the 8-legged, Afghani invaders. Families come together, jerks get a clue, villains get theirs, and the innuendo-fueled romance of Sargeant Underwood and Captain
Sturges inexplicably blossoms.

There are two other groups of people who appear early in the film. Their paths never intersect that of the main characters. In fact, this isolation is so complete I suspect that at least one of these sections was added after principal shooting stopped. Given that the movie only clocks in at 79 minutes, I’m almost certain of it.

It would be wrong to call “Camel Spiders” cheap; it’s budget-conscious. Over decades of working for Corman, Wynorski has learned how to spend effectively. The sound and image are clear, because it pays to spend on recording. It doesn’t pay off as much to costume extras that only have a few minutes of screen time. He skimped on the Afghani rebels, and I honestly didn’t even notice that the first time I saw it. Characters are left as broad, archetypal strokes. Any investment in them comes from our associations with the familiar roles. A remark now and then reminds us where they all are on their usual path to redemption or spider chow.

Likewise, the CGI effects are mediocre at best. The spiders aren’t convincing, and they often fail to interact with the environment. Blood sprayed frequently but unrealistically. You’d think that here is where the money should be spent, to make the central menace believable. I’d think so too, really. I’m inclined to believe that Jim Wynorski agreed. It’s likely that with the volume of effects this was as good as could be provided by the budget. Given the choice of quantity over quality, well… this is a Roger Corman production.

The large number of spiders is a pretty good trade for quality. The demands on the actors and script are significantly reduced by the frequency of spider appearances. There’s some screaming, a lot of running, then a pause to drop some clumsy character beats — that’s the basic pulse of the movie. The rhythm never becomes frantic, but it’s active and never let’s the movie lose you entirely. In fact, it’s a lot of fun without being any good at all.

A case in point is what I call Chekov’s spider4, a spider shown in the first act that comes into play before the end of the movie. This is as close as the movie comes to a real payoff for paying attention. Shortly after the coffin falls out of the truck, a camel spider crawls into a car through its open sun roof. Almost immediately, someone takes the car to go get help but arrives safely. The spider, apparently, is napping. Much later on, long after the audience has given up on that particular plot point, someone else sticks his head in the car window and gets a face-full of spider. The delay is almost clever, and as such it sticks out in a movie that asks so very little of its audience.

Give “Camel Spiders” a minimal amount of your attention, and in return it will give you all it’s got. As little as it has, that’s a pretty even trade.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

In fact, camel spiders are not “true spiders”. They’re related arachnids belonging to the order Solifugae. The movie alludes to this with the constant refrain of “It’s only got six legs!” In fact, camel spiders have eight legs.

Two camel spiders hitch a ride with the corporal’s body. However many there were by the time of the car accident (whereupon every last one fled for the desert), they all had to fit in the coffin. A few hours later, there were dozens of them at the diner. By the following morning, hundreds swarmed the abandoned facility, and some were the size of a person! These are breeding and growth rates that don’t just defy reason — they walk up to reason, break its cane, take its wallet, and give it a good kick before running away laughing down the street.

Why do the experts always walk right up to get bitten? Don’t they cover that in the introductory classes?

There’s a locked door in the gypsum plant. We never find out what’s behind it, and it’s sort of driving me nuts.

FOOTNOTES

1. Camel spiders are non-venomous, grow to about 6″ max, and top out at about 10 mph.

2. Melissa Brasselle is not only a Corman regular but has worked almost exclusively with Jim Wynorski. Out of a few dozen appearances, no fewer than 17 have been in his films.

3. While this particularly fictional breed of camel spider is indigenous only to the Bronson Canyon region of Afghanistan, real camel spiders are present throughout the world in sandy environments.

4. Yeah. I referenced Anton Chekov in the review of a crap spider movie.

Dragonquest (2009)

Writers: Brian Brinkman and Micho Rutare
Director: Mark Atkins

When you find yourself watching an Asylum film, you have two options: set the bar low, or go wash the dishes. There was something fermenting under all the tableware in the sink, so I chose to keep watching “Dragonquest”. Besides, I’d been assured that the fantasy adventure contained a big damn spider for no damn reason.

As it turns out, there’s no reason for most of what happens in “Dragonquest”, but I’ll get to that later. First, there was a rocky outcropping…

Technically, it's more of a Dragon Field Trip.

Technically, it’s more of a Dragon Field Trip.

The movie opens with some long aerial shots of terrain, then settles on a ledge high on a barren cliff. Here, a hooded figure (Brian Thompson, recognizable to any fan of “The X-Files” as the alien bounty hunter) squeezes a large gem until blood pours out. His name is Kirill, and his ritual summons a crap CGI dragon made of crap CGI shadows.

From this ominous beginning, the story shifts to an idyllic rustic village, where an idyllic young peeping tom uses a spyglass to see what an idyllic young maiden has under her blouse. Sadly, this sexual-predator in the rough is our hero.

His name is Arkadi, and he lives with Grandfather, the kind of wise old man who always winds up watching over orphaned protagonists in hiding. He is not amused by Arkadi’s antics — chasing girls and smoking what appears to be fairy dust. The little pervert probably keeps Tinkerbell locked in a chest with his dirty scrolls.

Sensing the coming of plot, Grandfather gives Arkadi an amulet. It’s very shiny for an artifact that has been hidden away, and it’s shaped like a cross between a knot and a honeycomb. Our hero is sent several inches away so that Grandfather may confer not at all secretly with another villager.

It seems that Arkadi is destined to succeed where Grandfather has failed. We’re left to imagine that this most be something important, but not for long. The shadow dragon arrives and starts burning everything in sight. Grandfather, of course, dies sending the dragon away. He did manage to send his friend to warn the King.

As for Arkadi, he is sent to find Maxim (about whom he knows nothing). The fate of the partially disrobed village girl is not known.

Grandfather’s pal goes to the King’s castle and tells everyone he meets about Arkadi before admonishing them against telling anyone else. One of the King’s men promptly hies himself to Kirill to spill everything.

There follows an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, represented by about five dudes taking turns falling down. Arkadi stumbles on this scene, and he talks briefly with the King before his majesty gets flambéd by Kirill’s dragon.

In what becomes a recurring theme, Arkadi stumbles blindly away from the action.

It is telling that some of the only dark-skinned actors in the movie are the bandits who jump Arkadi as he wanders toward his destiny1. It is also telling that the only reason for this attack is to introduce Katya, a warrior trained in the arts of applying make-up and fighting in corsets. She rescues Arkadi and leads him to Maxim — portrayed by Marc Singer as a growling land-pirate — who finally puts the plot train back on the rails.

It seems that Maxim, Kirill, and Grandfather were all part of an organization called the Brotherhood. Their purpose is unclear, but it somehow involves continually hiding a bunch of gems that represent virtues and getting people to collect them again. Grandfather got all of them but one — humility — and apparently after some time limit was exceeded the gems were taken away from him and re-hidden. I’m speculating here, but no reason is ever given for why they all have to be found again.

The amulet that was given to Arkadi is for turning the gems into one amazingly gaudy bauble. For some unclear reason, Grandfather believed that Arkadi was possessed of the necessary virtues to collect them all — meaning that there must be gems for lechery, laziness, and generally being a doofus. It’s hard to know for sure, as after an initial, rapid rundown most of the virtues are never again mentioned. Regardless, Arkadi is now the Keeper, and it’s his job to prevent the quaffle from passing through his goal hoops. Or to prove himself virtuous enough to create his own crap dragon, whichever.

From here, the story settles into the titular quest, and we see Arkadi blunder from one pointless challenge to another as he wanders toward his inevitable, unearned victory.

Typical of these challenges to his virtue is what I call the Challenge of Pretending There’s a Big Damn Spider. Arkadi has been sent off on his own while Maxim and Katya go somewhere else (hopefully to call their agents). Seeing a cave, our hero decides to poke around in it. He finds himself in an improbably well-lit tunnel, where he stands as a giant spider saunters past him. Then he looks down and sees a gem.

There may as well not have been a spider at all. Or a cave, really.

Arkadi demonstrates the Virtue of Invisibility to Arachnids.

Arkadi demonstrates the virtue of Invisibility to Arachnids.

Every now and then you can see some slim connection to a virtue (chastity, represented by not immediately rubbing parts with a stranger), but none of it is particularly challenging or proves much of anything unusual in his character. That’s the really frustrating thing about the movie; Arkadi’s rewards feel like prizes for participation, not a proof of his superior inner qualities.

Asylum has a reputation for churning out low-budget genre films with generic plots and slumming B-list actors. The surprising thing about “Dragonquest” is that the familiar fantasy elements are thrown together into a completely incoherent mess. Nothing fits together except for the constant refrain of collecting the Stones of Virtue, which activity is so random and non-challenging as to suggest divine intervention.

That could explain why the spider’s legs disappear at certain points in its ambling. Or maybe it’s just that nobody really cared enough to put forth any kind of effort for an Asylum feature.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • It was awfully nice of Kirill to wait until Arkadi got the amulet before launching his attack.
  • I honestly couldn’t tell if the King put himself out of his misery or stabbed at the dragon as he burned to death.
  • I need to watch a good movie soon.
  • Unsurprisingly, this is the first screen-writing credit for both of the writers, Brian Brinkman and Micho Rutare.

FOOTNOTES

1. If the only black actors in your modern movie are bandits, you should probably take a sensitivity course. I mean, yay for breaking up the blinding glare of paleness, but would it kill you to spread people around?

Have Rocket — Will Travel (1959)

Written by Raphael Hayes
Directed by David Lowell Rich

Writing a review of The Three Stooges is an interesting challenge. Narrative coherence is irrelevant when the story only exists to provide an excuse for eye-gouging and set-wrecking. Dialogue doesn’t need to be more eloquent than an angry “Why you!” I’m not even certain that normal standards of acting apply. But, since there’s a giant spider in their film “Have Rocket — Will Travel”, I’m prepared to work through all that.

Let’s start with the title. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Stooge titles tend to be plays on expressions or titles of other works. In this case, it’s a reference to the popular western show “Have Gun — Will Travel” that began airing in 1957 — two years before the release of this film. There’s no other connection to the show, but the reference is reinforced with a title song that is sung by the Stooges over the opening credits.

I'll watch your movie. Just please stop singing.

I’ll watch your movie. Just please stop singing.

Speaking of credits, the Stooge line-up for this outing is Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Joe DeRita (Curly-Joe). Curly-Joe gets some guff for being the second substitute Curly, who himself replaced Shemp. (Being the third Stooge was seemingly as fatal as drumming for Spinal Tap1.) Curly-Joe does a decent enough reproduction of Curly’s routines, and he provides some genuinely entertaining moments, so I’m not going to dump on the guy. I think he just suffered from being cast at a time when the Stooges were just re-enacting stale clones of their previous routines.

Speaking of clones, I should give a quick rundown of how the set pieces stitch together.

We start with a rocket test by the National Space Foundation (NSF). This is their 4th launch, and there’s a monkey on board — because I guess in the 1950s it was mandatory to put a monkey in space movies. The test fails, and the rocket crashes. The Stooges, who are the maintenance men on the base, are put in charge of guarding the fallen rocket. This leads to the Stooges chasing the monkey all over the rocket until it accidentally rights itself.

Here’s where things get unnecessarily complicated. Dr. Ingrid Naarveg, lead (and apparently only) scientist at the NSF, is nice to the Stooges. They see her as a daughter and want to help her keep the project alive. In order to do that she needs to find a better fuel. Stooges to the rescue! In the course of a night they brew up a more powerful fuel (the secret is sugar!) and load it into the rocket.

The head of the NSF, angered by the Stooge’s nocturnal activities (and the inevitable ancillary destruction), manages to chase them into the rocket and launch it into space. Our promised space travel is under way at last!

Once on Venus, the Stooges encounter a talking unicorn, a giant spider, and a tyrannical robot (that makes clones of them because it likes their form). They also sing more of the title song. On their return, the Stooges are hailed as heroes. They leave the clones in their place and run off with the talking unicorn to sing more of that infernal song.

You don’t have to be a Stooge fan to find their rise to fame predictable. It’s a given in American comedy that experts are fools and fools are experts. Opposites attract, experts are unmasked, the simple are rewarded, and there’s probably a wedding.

In this case, the wedding is between Dr. Naarveg and the base psychiatrist. Barely in the movie, their roles consisted primarily of 1) Dr. Naarveg providing unnecessary motivation to the Stooges and 2) the psychiatrist repeatedly telling her that she’ll only find happiness by marrying him and abandoning her career. He finally convinces her with a sudden agarring2. It was, after all, 1959, and while a comedy could make a woman the lead scientist in a space program it would also make certain to put her back in her place by the end.

Additionally, while the pompous head of the NSF gets a humiliating take-down, remember that three bumbling clods managed in one night to produce the breakthrough in fuel that eluded Dr. Naarveg. That’s got to hurt.

Some of the Stooge routines were painful, too. Interestingly, it wasn’t due to the performances. A classic routine is a classic routine, and old and fat as they are the Stooges are skilled physical comedians. I place the blame on the director, David Lowell Rich. Rich was a workman director, the bulk of whose career was spent in TV. B-Movie fans may have seen the TV movie “Satan’s School for Girls” (an Aaron Spelling production), but his most remembered work is possibly “The Concorde — Airport ’79”, the final nail in the coffin for the Airport franchise.

It’s clear that Rich and cinematographer Ray Cory had no idea how to film the Stooges. These are guys who mastered their craft on the stage, and when they went to film they largely kept that full view ethos. They fill the screen with broad movements and large messes. Here, the camera often slows things down, breaking the frenzy of action into careful and discrete pieces. It just doesn’t work well, and (as in “Yellowbeard” and “The Villain”) the humor doesn’t survive filming.

That isn’t to say that nothing works. A few scenes work very well, mostly because the close shots are mixed well with larger fields of chaos. Two of these are standard Stooge set pieces: the bedroom and the ballroom. The first shows the unusual morning routine of the Stooges, and everyone wrestles with appliances, clothing, and furniture. The second, of course, winds up in a pie fight.

The society ball is where Curly-Joe shines. While the others are dancing enthusiastically with their new admirers, Curly-Joe just wants a piece of cake. His doomed effort sends the soirée flying face-first into its pie-filled fate, while he calmly accepts what is left for him. It’s a sequence that’s both entertaining and oddly reassuring.

The other fun scene was the invention of the rocket fuel. Dr. Naarveg’s lab becomes a kitchen as the Stooges start mixing ingredients in a large vat. Much of the ensuing business is familiar, but it’s less pat than the other scenes. There’s something delightful about Larry intently brewing coffee over a bunsen burner, like the Walter White of caffeinated beverages. Of course, not even Larry tried to cook with the flame-throwing giant spider.

That’s right: flame-throwing giant spider.

Pretty much my worst nightmare.

Pretty much my worst nightmare.

Almost immediately after disembarking on Venus, the Stooges are threatened by a giant tarantula (courtesy of forced perspective shots and editing). Then the film stops, and a light beam is drawn in, emanating from the tarantula. Flame pursues the Stooges as they run away.

I’d like to tell you that there’s no real reason for there to be a flame-throwing giant spider on Venus. The crazy part is that there is a terribly convoluted reason.

You see, despite all the nonsense about making fuel, the rocket is launched by igniting a lengthy fuse. It’s a strange plot point, requiring the base commander to accidentally (and angrily) light the fuse to send the Stooges on their voyage. Mysteriously, there is some fuse left for the return trip, and it’s up to the flame-throwing giant spider to reignite it.

I fault screenwriter Raphael Hayes for the clumsy movement of the script, but I have to admire his fierce devotion to the fuse gag — a device that backed him so far into a narrative corner that only a flame-throwing giant spider could get him out of it.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • While rocketing to Venus, the Stooges turn on the communication console and get a TV Western. They change the channel and tune in the NSF lab, where Dr. Naarveg and her suitor are engaged in a dramatic scene in the style of a soap opera. I really liked the thought of the console having been installed so the monkey could watch his favorite shows.
  • The robot is delightfully ill-constructed. It looks like the prop guy just stuck a bunch of crap on a box until he ran out.
  • The Stooge snore gag works every time.
  • There’s a keyhole at the base of the rocket. I find that charming, for some reason.

FOOTNOTES

1. To be fair, Joe Besser didn’t die “in office”, as it were.

2. agar, v.t. to kiss the bejeesus out of a co-star. Named for John Agar, the grand master of the technique.