Film Review: Last Woman On Earth (dir by Roger Corman)


The title character of the 1960 Roger Corman film, Last Woman On Earth, is Evelyn Gern (Besty Jones-Moreland).  When a vaguely defined apocalypse occurred and apparently wiped out almost every living person on the planet, Evelyn was on vacation in Puerto Rico and scuba diving.  Because she had her own oxygen tank, she was able to survive while everyone on the surface was asphyxiated by a sudden change in the atmosphere.  (Or something like that.  To be honest, I never quite understood what the apocalypse was about or if it had occurred worldwide or just in Puerto Rico.)

Evelyn may potentially be the last woman on Earth but, unfortunately for her, there’s at least two men left.  There’s her husband, Harold (Antony Carbone).  Harold is a brutish businessman who, before the world ended, was constantly under the threat of indictment.  And then there’s Martin (Robert Towne, who also wrote the script), who is Harold’s attorney.  With the world apparently ending, Harold decides that he’s in charge while Martin decides that he’s in love with Evelyn.  Evelyn, for her part, ends up spending a lot of time praying in the local church.  At the end of 71 minutes, someone is dead and the survivors are left to consider an uncertain future.  It’s not a particularly happy film, though, at the same time, it’s not really well-made enough to be that depressing.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that this film opens with everyone watching a cock fight because, despite its title, Last Woman On Earth is all about the extremes to which men will go to assert their authority.  There’s absolutely no reason for Harold and Martin to end up trying to kill each other, beyond the fact that they both want to be in charge and they both want the same woman.  Honestly, though, if you’re one of the last three people on Earth, I would think that you might be inspired to rethink certain traditional and patriarchal concepts.  That, of course, doesn’t happen in Last Woman On Earth.  It’s hard not to be disappointed with the fact that, even with society no longer existing, Evelyn’s reaction to most conflict is to retreat to the background and let the man fight it out among themselves.  I mean, we expect no better from Harold and Martin but Evelyn’s passivity in the face of everything gets rather frustrating very quickly.

Of course, it could be argued that I may be expecting too much from a film that was shot over a week and only made because Corman happened to be shooting another movie in Puerto Rico at the time.  Corman rarely went on location so, when he went down to Puerto Rico to do Creature of the Haunted Sea, he decided to get the most out of the location as he could by shooting a second film.  Screenwriter Robert Towne was cast as Martin because he was already getting paid to write the script while the film was being shot.  By casting Towne, Corman saved money that would have otherwise been spent on a professional actor.  Towne, who is credited as Edward Wain, ends up giving a rather bizarre performance, alternating between stiff underacting and eye-bulging overacting.  You kind of find yourself regretting that apparently it was decided that it would have been too expensive to fly Dick Miller or Peter Graves down to Puerto Rico.

The film doesn’t add up too much, beyond serving as a document of an era’s paranoia about the impending end of the world.  (Two years after the release of this film, the Cuban Missile Crisis would bring the world to the brink of a real-life apocalypse.)  Corman does manage to get a few haunting shots of the deserted streets of San Juan, though one gets the feeling that this would more due to luck than any specific intention on his part.  Last Woman On Earth was released on a double bill with Little Shop of Horrors and, when seen today, it really can’t start to compete with Seymour and his talking plant.

Creature Double Feature 5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (AIP 1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (AIP 1965)


cracked rear viewer

Boston’s WLVI-TV 56 ran it’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ series from 1972 to 1983. Though fans remember it mostly for those fabulous giant monster movies starring Godzilla and friends, CDF occasionally featured some monsters of a different kind… 

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had teamed to make five successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, beginning with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER (there was a sixth, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, that starred Ray Milland rather than Price). Studio execs James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, joined forces with Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (makers of the CARRY ON comedies) and shipped Corman and company to jolly ol’ England for the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Both turned out to be high points in the Corman/Price/Poe series.

1964’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is a sadistic, psychedelic nightmare of…

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An Olympic Film Review: Personal Best (dir by Robert Towne)


Like all good people, I am currently obsessed with the Olympics.  I was hoping that I would be able to post an Olympic-related film review every day during the games but, unfortunately, regular life got in the way and it didn’t happen.  I’ll try to post what I can today and then, for the rest of this upcoming week, I will be concentrating on reviewing films that have been nominated for best picture.

(Interestingly enough, only one Olympic-related film has been nominated for best picture and I reviewed Chariots of Fire years ago.)

The 1982 film Personal Best is a movie that I recorded off of Cinemax last year, specifically so I could review it during the Winter Games.  That may have been a mistake on that part because Personal Best doesn’t actually deal with the Winter Games.  Though it’s a film about athletes training to compete in the Olympics, they’re all runners, swimmers, and pole vaulters.  In short, they’re all hoping to compete at the Summer Games (which, for my money, are nowhere near as much fun as the Winter Games).  On top of that, no one in Personal Best actually gets to compete at the Olympics.

Of course, that wasn’t how things were supposed to go originally.  While doing research for this review, I discovered that Personal Best had quite a long and somewhat tortured production history.  The directorial debut of the famous (and famously slow) screenwriter Robert Towne, Personal Best was originally meant to showcase athletes preparing for the 1980 Summer Olympics.  However, shortly after production began in 1980, it was announced that the United States would be boycotting the Olympic Games and the script was hastily changed to reflect that fact.  Shortly after the boycott was announced, production was put on hold when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike.  In what the New York Times described as being “a ploy to allow the movie to become an independent production and resume shooting during the strike,” Towne filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros.  The end result of that lawsuit was that David Geffen stepped in and financed the film.

This led to yet another lawsuit, this one filed by Towne against Geffen.  Towne claimed that Geffen forced him to sign a “coerced agreement” that not only lost him the rights to a script he had been working on about Tarzan but also left him dead broke.  Geffen, in that same New York Times article, is quoted as saying, “Robert Towne took a picture budgeted at $7 million – ‘Personal Best’ – and made it incompetently for $16 million,” and that he agreed to take over financing because, ‘no other studio would pick the film up because Robert Towne had spent $5 million, and there wasn’t a coherent scene in the entire movie.”

I know what you’re saying.  “That’s great, Lisa, but what’s the actual film about?”

Personal Best, for the most part, is about bodies in motion.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  There’s a plot.  Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a young runner who hopes to someday compete in the Olympics.  She finds herself torn between following the advice of her lover, Torry (Patrice Donnelly) and the advice of her manipulative coach (Scott Glenn)  and things get even more complicated when she enters into a heterosexual romance with a swimmer named Denny (Kenny Moore).  Both Towne and the film deserve credit for the forthright way that it portrays Chris and Torry’s relationship and also for its unapologetic portrayal of women who are just as competitive and determined to win as men.

But really, the film doesn’t seem to be that concerned with the story that it’s telling.  The film itself is far more interested in the images of professional athletes competing and training.  This is one of those films that is full of slow-motion scenes of people running down tracks and attempting to jump over hurdles.  Most of the cast was made up of actual athletes and Towne’s camera lovingly captures every single ripple of muscle as they move across the screen.  Watching the film, it was hard not to be reminded of the way Leni Reifenstahl fetishized athleticism in Olympia.  This is a film that loves, celebrates, and comes close to worshiping athletes.  That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that the film lingers for so long on those bodies that it’s hard not to eventually get bored with them.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch someone jump over a hurdle in slow motion before you don’t care anymore.

And it turns out that, no matter how impressive the athletes may look, you do need to tell a compelling story, especially if, like Personal Best, your film is over two hours long.  As written, Chris Cahill is not particularly likable or even that interesting.  Her life revolves around competition and she really has no other interests.  That may be a realistic portrayal of what it takes to be the best but there’s a reason why most sports biopics are heavily fictionalized.  Chris spends a lot of time getting mad and crying and it gets a little bit old after a while.  Perhaps it would be different if we believed that Chris actually was one of the best runners in the world but the film never quite convinces us.  (It doesn’t help that Mariel Hemingway spends the entire film surrounded by actual track and field athletes.  Hemingway does her best with the role but it’s always easy to tell who is actually an athlete and who is just acting.)  On the other hand, the coach and Torry are far more interesting characters but both of them keep getting pushed to the side.

Personal Best is a film that will be best appreciated by people who are as obsessed with athletics as the film is.

Halloween Havoc!: CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (Filmgroup 1961)


cracked rear viewer

Roger Corman  satirizes himself in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to create one of the most wacked-out goofy drive-in flicks ever filmed, that gets even goofier as it goes along. We’ve got goony gangsters, a lovesick spy, beautiful babes, and the silliest looking monster you’ll ever see.

Rapid Roger had just wrapped up shooting THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in sunny Puerto Rico, and since the weather was so beautiful, decided to quickly churn out another picture. He got screenwriter Charles B. Griffith to whip up a monster movie spoof (having had success with Griffith’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and retained the previously shot film’s stars. Actor Beach Dickerson designed the sea creature out of a wet suit, with ping-pong ball eyes and covered in an oil cloth to give it that straight from the depths look. Hokey looking…

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44 Days of Paranoia #25: Chinatown (dir by Roman Polanski)


Our latest entry into the 44 Days of Paranoia is a dark masterpiece.  Based on a script by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, 1974’s Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made.

Chinatown takes place in 1940s Los Angeles.  Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) who claims that her name is Evelyn Mulwray.  She wants Gittes to follow her husband, Hollis, and discover whether he’s having an affair.  Gittes gets some pictures of Hollis with a young woman (Belinda Palmer) and hands them over to Evelyn.

The next day, the pictures are published on the front page of the newspaper and Gittes is confronted by another woman (Faye Dunaway) who explains that she — and not the woman who hired him — is the actual Evelyn Mulwray.  Gittes then learns that Hollis has turned up dead, drowned in a reservoir.

Gittes suspects that Hollis was murdered and launches his own investigation.  This eventually leads Jake to Hollis’s former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston).  Noah also happens to be the father of Evelyn and he offers double Gittes’s fee if Gittes will track down Hollis’s younger girlfriend.

As his investigation continues, Gittes discovers that Hollis’s murder was connected to both the continued growth of Los Angeles as a city and a truly unspeakable act that occurred several years in the past.  Nobody, it turns out, is what he or she originally appears to be.  To say anything else about the plot would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t seen Chinatown before.

Since I first started reviewing films for this site, one of the things that I’ve discovered is that it’s actually easier to review a bad film than a good film.  It’s easier to be snarky and cynical about the latest film from Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich than it is to explain why a film works.  There’s a famous saying about pornography: “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it,” and sometimes that’s the way I feel whenever it comes time to try to review a great film.

Consider Chinatown.  At its heart, Chinatown is an homage to the old film noirs of the 40s and 50s.  Now, I have to admit that I’ve lost track of how many noir homages I’ve seen.  It seems like every director has to make at least one hard-boiled, morally ambiguous detective film.  Chinatown has all of the familiar elements — the hero is a private investigator, Evelyn Mulwray initially appears to be a classic femme fatale, the dialogue is appropriately cynical, and the plot is full of twist and turns.  Even the film’s theme of political conspiracy serves to remind us that most noirs used their detective stories as a way to explore the hidden underbelly of American society.

And yet, with Chinatown, Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans took all of those familiar elements and used them to create one of the greatest films ever made.

Why is Chinatown such a great film?

Some of the credit has to go to Jack Nicholson who, in the role of Jake Gittes, gives perhaps his best performance.  As I mentioned above, Gittes is, in many ways, a stock character but Nicholson brings so much nuance and depth to the role that it doesn’t matter.  Nicholson’s trademark cynicism and sarcasm are both to be found here but he also brings a cocky recklessness to the role.  Gittes is such a charismatic and likable hero and so confident in himself that it makes the film’s ending all the more shocking.

As good as Nicholson is, he’s matched at every turn by John Huston’s Noah Cross.  Noah Cross is one of the most vile characters to ever appear on-screen, which is why Huston’s rather courtly performance is all the more disturbing.  When Gittes confronts Noah about the worst of his many crimes, Cross simply responds that a man is never sure what he’s capable of until he does it.  Huston delivery of the lines leave us with little doubt that Noah believes every word of what he’s just said.

In the end, though, most of the credit has to go to Roman Polanski’s direction and Robert Towne’s script.  Towne’s script provides a genuinely challenging and thought-provoking mystery, while Polanski’s stylish direction keeps the view continually off-balance and unsure of who is telling the truth.  Reportedly, Polanski and Towne had a contentious relationship, with Polanski changing the ending of Towne’s script to make the film much more downbeat.  In the end, Polanski made the right choice.  The film ends the only way that it possibly could.

Or, to quote the famous line: “It’s Chinatown.”

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer