Having A Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: Melies, Moles & Mantises

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, May 22, 2019 07:58pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi where I review recent Blu-ray releases.

Melies Fairy Tales In Color, Blackhawk Films/Flicker Alley:
I was less than halfway through my first viewing of this when I realized it was one of my favorite things I own. Many of these films have been released many times before. I already own a couple of restored Georges Melies collections and they look good, but they don't look anything like this. To begin with, my old collections are in black & white, but this new set is in COLOR! These weren't colorized by Ted Turner, no, each and every frame of these films was hand painted. Melies was a genius who just couldn't accept the shortcomings of technology. Sure, film had just been invented and was only silent and black & white, but Melies wasn't about to let those basic facts hold him back. So he had every frame of his movies painted with gorgeous color that reminds one of the French postcards that were contemporaneous to Melies' films. The director had fantastic images he wanted to show so he developed a variety of special effects to show them. Double exposures, substitution splices, time-lapse photography... Melies developed and did whatever it took to make his visions real and the results are just as jaw dropping now as they were a hundred and twenty years ago.

The films are surreal, complex, and fantastic, they create a unique world of magic and wonder. This set is worth it just for the restored version of A Trip To The Moon alone. Melies' loose and fanciful adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel has long been considered one of the cornerstones of cinema. I've seen the film many times before but this new color version is like seeing it for the first time. The hand-painted frames make the fantastic lunar world even more stunning and psychedelic. But A Trip To The Moon is just one of thirteen films on this set, and others like The Kingdom Of The Fairies and The Impossible Voyage are equally surreal and amazing. There are scenes on this disc that you will find yourself watching over and over because the images are just so timeless and cool. The person who painted Melies' sets is one of the best painters I've ever seen. I kept freeze-framing the films just to stop and soak up the amazing details of his painted backdrops. Labyrinthine cities, dense tangled forests, haunted medieval towns -- his details were just spectacular. The hand-painted colors add another whole dimension to the films. Often they are more than just coloring and actually react to the action occurring on screen. Melies had an influence on every artist who came after him. At times, artists like Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, and Terry Gilliam just seem to be copying him. His influence on the surrealists especially is incalculable, but elements of his work exist throughout pop culture. Some of the most timeless images in film history are in this set. It belongs in every person's collection.

The Mole People & The Deadly Mantis, Shout Factory/Scream Factory:
This part of my column is a continuation of last month's column where I was reviewing some of the great new 1950's black & white movie Blu-rays. Shout Factory has begun a new release program of classic Universal sci-fi and horror films from the 1950s. Many of these are the quintessential "bug-eyed monster" films of the era. The Mole People and The Deadly Mantis are the first two releases in the series and they have never looked better! Shout Factory are releasing at least one of these a month along with their series of Hammer reissues. These movies are not high-brow cinematic masterpieces like the first Blu-ray I reviewed in this column, but they are fun lowbrow entertainments that are iconic examples of the era they were made in. The films are frequently padded out with stock footage that is the cinematic equivalent of filler. The Deadly Mantis in particular has a ton of this footage; it could amount to a quarter or third of the movie's runtime and entire narrative sequences are constructed around it. You almost get the impression that the director had a ton of stock footage and got the scriptwriter to write a screenplay that would use it all. This would be a real problem if the monster sections between the stock footage weren't so damn cool. Stock footage tends to be in noticeably worse condition than the rest of the scenes in any given film. Sometimes the condition is so bad, it almost feels like you're watching two separate movies. What's great about these lovely Shout Factory remasters is that even the stock footage is dramatically cleaned up. There are still some tears and scratches but like every aspect of these new transfers, these films have never looked this good. The Deadly Mantis was especially crying out for a good remaster. Universal's old DVD versions of it looked pathetic. The film is filled with misty vague scenes and the old DVDs couldn't read the visual nuances properly so everything looked pixilated and awful. Now you can see the giant mantis loom out of the smoke and fog the way he was supposed to.

You have to wonder why Universal didn't put these out themselves. Their Universal Monsters Legacy Collections are some of the nicest Blu-ray sets on the market. I wonder why they didn't just release these movies as a set like they did when they originally put them out on DVD in their Classic Sci-fi Ultimate Collections? That being said, Shout Factory did a great job on these and they might be even better than if Universal released them for one simple reason: Shout Factory owns the rights to Mystery Science Theater  so each of these releases doesn't just have a beautifully restored version of the film, you also get the Mystery Science Theater version of the movie as well. So the week I bought these, I ended up watching both films twice. Any movie release that gets you to watch it twice in one week is a good value. You get other bonus features like commentaries and trailers on these but the real icing on the cake is getting the two versions of the films. Both of them are pure weekend fun. The Mole People tells the story of archeologists exploring ancient ruins who are trapped in underground caverns by a cave-in. They eventually discover an ancient subterranean civilization that has been trapped there since Sumerian times. The lightless conditions have caused the entire race to become albinos and they are served by a slave race of subhuman "mole people." The appearance of the surface dwellers leads to chaos in the sunken civilization until the mole people rise up in a long overdue rebellion. The "mole people" in this film are some of the best monsters to ever come out of the fifties. Photos of their leering faces and claws were some of the most memorable images from that decade. The same holds true for The Deadly Mantis. A giant earthquake unleashes a humongous prehistoric preying mantis that has been frozen beneath the ice of the North Pole for millions of years. The creature starts heading south and since his old forms of prey are extinct he starts feeding on humans. He soon gets to the United States where he attacks cities like Washington D.C. before ending up in the Manhattan tunnel where the army plans a final showdown with the monster. Just as in the case of the Mole People, photos of the Deadly Mantis in the Manhattan tunnel filled the monster magazines of the era and were iconic atomic age pop culture images in their day. Even today these images resonate strongly as timeless examples of 1950s paranoia. These movies are tons of fun and both of them are worth checking out.

Relevant Tags

Jon Longhi (27), Movie Moment (14), Cult Film (26), Cult Films (21), Film (184), Horror (213), Blu-rays (13), Monsters (15), Georges Melies (1), Silent Film (32), Mst3k (4), Mystery Science Theater 3000 (4)