The Chase is (Sometimes) Better Than the Catch
THE WATCHER IN THE ATTIC (1976) - A Review
We're in an age of transition. Movie attendance in the U.S. continues its decades long decline. The sell-through DVD market has also shrunk greatly from its not-so-long-ago heights. Video rental or retail stores are, for all intents, nonexistent. Meanwhile, streaming and bootleg formats for movies are the areas experiencing growth. Kids, literally damning their eyes, are watching movies intended to be seen on the big screen on their cellphones. It may not be the End Times for movies (just yet), but it is a period of instability and change.
I'm not a streaming movie kind of guy. I want to know I can watch a movie even if the internet is down, and without the myriad technological difficulties that these more involved systems can fall victim to. That being the case, I still absolutely love DVDs. They're tangible, dependable, and can come with posters, artwork and extras that can make for a fuller experience of a particular film.
Being that DVDs are cheaper to produce and lighter to ship than VHS tapes ever were, there are still a lot of places that sell DVDs, despite the shrinking market for them. And, given the death of thousands of video stores across the country, used DVDs are cropping up all over the place, too - and not just in thrift stores - often for incredibly low prices.
One of the perks, if you will, of working where I do, is that my walk home takes me right past both a Goodwill and an Arc thrift shop, so I generally check in at these stores multiple times a week. Usually there's nothing of interest to me, but it doesn't cost me anything time-wise to find that out.
Ah, but every so often, persistence pays off, such as the day I found a huge treasure trove of 1940s film noir and 1950s sci-fi that had just been put on the shelf. However, such large scale payoffs are rare.
But it's not unusual to find a couple of films I'm interested in that make for very odd combinations indeed. Such was the case last week, when I came across a still sealed copy of the Academy Award-nominated nature documentary Winged Migration (2001) and a used copy of the Ray Dennis Steckler "classic" The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). What do these two films have in common? Not much, really, other than that I wanted them both, and they both cost three bucks. (Which is probably close to the full budget for the Steckler movie...)
So now, whatever the virtues or demerits of these individual films, my personal enjoyment of them will forever be enhanced and colored by the fact that I bought them as a sort of double-feature. It made me think about how much the experience of finding a movie, or getting to the point of seeing it, can become part of your personal experience of that film. My epic adventure in getting to see the Bollywood film Mr. Bechara (1996) in Chicago is a great story, though too long to go into here. The epic search my wife and I went through in trying to find the local movie theater in Thimphu, Bhutan is another classic - even though it ends with us not even making it into the theater.
As odd DVDs continue to pop up in odd places, I have come to have a deeper understanding of the full breadth of the potential cinematic experience they offer. Where it used to be that you might come across a crazy great movie you'd never heard of on late night cable, now you might find that movie at the checkout aisle at the grocery store, or at a gas station, or pretty much anywhere, really. Unlike seeing it on TV, if you buy the DVD, that film is now yours, available for you to watch again at any time. You just have to stumble across it.
And that's what happened to me in the last week or so. Our local Grocery Outlet, which is also on my path home from work, acquired a huge stock of used DVDs that had come from a Hollywood video store (or stores) somewhere. They're selling them for $2.99 each - but if you buy one, you get another one for free. Needless to say, the day I discovered these, I was a little late getting home from work.
Not surprisingly, most of the DVDs were fairly modern, and fairly mainstream, even the straight-to-video crap titles. But there were some delightful oddities scattered throughout the bin. I got the Something Weird exploitation double-feature of the Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968) and The Labyrinth of Sex (1969). I also picked up a couple of Gene Autry westerns. They had multiple copies of the gruesome 1966 mondo "documentary" Africa Blood and Guts (AKA Africa Addio). They also had many, many copies of the Takashi Miike western, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).
One of the films they only had one copy of was something I had never heard of before, but hey, for a buck and a half I was more than willing to take a chance on something called The Watcher in the Attic (1976). It turns out to be a strange Japanese erotic thriller, based on a short story by the writer Rampo Edogawa (1894-1965). His stories have been made into dozens of movies, and this particular story has been remade several times since this version.
Set in 1920s Tokyo, Watcher centers on a creepy landlord who, just as the title implies, watches his tenants from the attic. Given that this is an erotic thriller, a generous helping of fetish play, death and murder follow, before (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) an earthquake flattens everything.
Is it any good? Well, sure. Is it weird? Yes, but nowhere near as out there insane as some similar Japanese films from that time period. Did I enjoy it? For the most part, yes, though I personally found the recurrent use of clown make-up to be anything but erotic. But as my wife and I watched this old, foreign, sex and violence thriller, I kept remembering that I had gotten this at a down market grocery store. Most of the people who work there would probably die of shame if they knew they had been selling a film like this. This aspect of my experience of The Watcher in the Attic added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the film. No doubt it will make me smile and laugh whenever this particular film comes up.
I think that's a lot of context, a lot of story, to get for a buck and a half. Certainly I more than got my money's worth. Hopefully the chase is not always better than the catch, but if you're lucky, the chase can enhance the catch, making it sweeter and weirder than it would have been otherwise.
When I was a kid, one of the stock phrases used in old science fiction trailers was "keep watching the skies!" Now, while I do still watch the skies, I also keep a pretty keen eye on the shelves, too. You never know what's going to turn up.