One of the obnoxious things about modern streaming services is how difficult they make discovery. To be fair, it’s not an easy problem to solve. If you have many thousands of options on your platform, there’s only so many ways to traverse the landscape, and it’s an easy decision to just fall back on “popularity” as the final arbiter. Novelty junkies and film obsessives really only make up a tiny proportion of a given service’s audience, so that often works well enough. On the other hand, the notion of idly spinning through options for a half hour is a common enough occurrence that maybe some optimization is in need.
Each service has their own idiosyncrasies, I guess. Netflix has a huge catalog that could roughly be divided into: Disney properties that people love to watch (i.e. MCU, Star Wars, Pixar, other animated flicks, etc…), Friends (and other TV shows that they didn’t shell out 100 million dollars for), direct-to-video cheapies, and an increasingly bizarre and divergent list of Netflix Originals that are promoted for a week and then disappear forever. In terms of older movies, Netflix is abysmal. Only 16 movies made before 1950 are available, and more than half are WWII propaganda films that are only there because of the (actually pretty good) Netflix Original documentary series Five Came Back. Up the date to 1970 and you get a whopping 42 options. Of course, this is their strategy: popular, new, preferably owned by Netflix themselves to minimize licensing fees. Also of note: Netflix has the auto-play feature that everyone hates, but which you can get around by constantly scrolling through the choices (always moving, like a shark). Netflix is data driven enough that I have to believe they have some sort of data that supports the whole auto-play function (i.e. this might be one of those “pay attention to what they do, not what they say” situations.) Regardless, this drives behavior that does not help discovery.
Hulu mainly focuses on TV and, as far as I can tell, has had the same featured “popular” movies for, like, 9 months (this despite having exclusive rights for critical darlings like Minding the Gap and Support the Girls). Even so, browsing TV shows isn’t really optimized for discovery. You’re basically pushed what’s popular, which again, is a hard strategy to argue with, but doesn’t make for finding something new and interesting.
Shudder is actually pretty great, but that’s only because they’re so small and have a very well curated catalog (if you’re a horror fan and aren’t subscribed, you should consider doing so!) It helps that horror fanatics (i.e. their subscribers) have seen all the basic classics and are generally hungry for stuff that’s obscure, old, foreign, or any combination of such. My guess is that licensing for these is also relatively cheap, so they’ve got a sorta virtuous circle brewing here.
I’m not trying to completely devolve into a full-blown whinging session on streaming services (mission: already failed!), but I do need to to talk a little about Amazon’s service. It has its flaws, for sure. The interface isn’t as slick, some practices are dubious, and some of the transfers are atrocious. But! There’s a treasure trove of older material on Amazon Prime that you won’t find anywhere else (even, sometimes, on DVD). They are literally multiple orders of magnitude better than Netflix when it comes to older films. Once again, discovery of these hidden gems isn’t particularly easy, but one thing that Amazon does is the “Because you liked X” recommendation slot, which, if you substitute the right movie for “X”, will unlock some sort of algorithmic gremlin that will provide you with dozens of obscure, non-obvious recommendations that actually sound pretty interesting. Netflix has this too, but the depth of Amazon’s catalog makes it far more effective.
All of which is to say that I recently watched an passable British thriller called The Medusa Touch on Amazon Prime, and was pleasantly surprised to find a whole section of strange (mostly British) thrillers I’d never heard of being recommended to me a couple of weeks later. So I watched a bunch of them. Now, for the most part, there’s a good reason these are obscure films, but I’ve actually had a pretty good time with them, and many have elements that are fantastic (even if the film overall is not particularly great). There has GOT to be a better name for this than “Medusa Touching the Algorithm” (maybe something simpler like “unlocking the algorithm?”), but that’s what I’ve got for now. Let’s take a look at some of these:
- The Medusa Touch – A writer (Richard Burton) in London is found near death under mysterious circumstances, and the French detective (apparently working under some sort of exchange program) working the murder pieces together the writer’s strange life. He discovers the victim’s psychologist (Lee Remick), who spins a strange, bordering on silly tale of a man convinced that he has the psychic power to cause disasters, big and small. “I have a gift for disaster,” he says, and we see a number of examples throughout his life, all told in flashback. Strangely, while his body is near death, his brain’s activity is only increasing, and strange occurrences are happening around town. What a strange little slice of late 70s paranoia! Burton is fantastic, turning a rather daft script into something almost (almost!) believable all on his own.
Lee Remick holds her own as the psychologist, and the two detectives are interesting. Modern audiences obsessed with this sort of thing might note that the detectives are kinda coded gay, though this is never explicitly laid out in the film itself (nor is it particularly relevant to the plot). The film does build to a tense, if a bit implausible climax, and of the films on this list is the one most worth checking out. I have to admit that I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this movie in the first place (I think I was trolling the JustWatch New list, but not sure about that), but I’m glad I did, since it unlocked the recommendations for the below! ***
- Madame Sin – Robert Wagner plays a CIA agent kidnapped by an evil mastermind (the titular Madame Sin) played by Bette Davis. She wants to use him to steal a Polaris submarine, and she’ll use her sonic, brain-scrambling death ray to destroy anyone in her way. Obvious sub-Bond knock-off that can’t even really compete with the worst of that series. Instead of globe trotting, we get a few minutes of a helicopter taking off (a couple of times), which the filmmakers apparently regarded as mind-blowing at the time. Still, the whole affair is worth it for Bette Davis hamming it up and delivering some doozies, like this one: “How many times and in how many ways do I have to prove to you, there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, only winners and losers and I’M A WINNER…” And then the ending in the car, when she spies Windsor Castle and wants to know when the lease is up so she can buy it. Classic. Wagner is pretty stiff, but functional, and it’s always nice to see Denholm Elliot show up (this time as Madame Sin’s henchman, the guy who explains that the Royal Family have lived in Windsor Castle for centuries and that the Queen has grown somewhat attached to it). The film could have perhaps leaned into the more humorous bits, but it opted to play things mostly straight, which is a shame, because this could have been a lot better if played with a wink. The tagline for the movie was “Even Doctor No would say ‘yes’ to Madame Sin!”, which is funny, but I suspect not particularly accurate. There are far better Bond pastiches out there, but this one has its moments. **
- The Jigsaw Man – A Michael Caine led spy caper about the head of the British Secret Service defecting to Russia, then getting sent back to London to retrieve some documents that were left behind. To facilitate this, he needs extensive plastic surgery, and he’ll have to use all his wits and knowledge to navigate the dangers of being caught between MI6 and the KGB. So there’s a skeleton of a good movie here, and Caine is always fun, but this falls down severely in execution. Nevertheless, the idea of a longtime spy playing MI6 and the KGB off of each other with ever more elaborate ruses is an interesting one, and the implication that he’s always planning ahead and fitting his moves into a puzzle-like structure is a neat one. It’s just a shame that the ruses are not very well conceived or executed or portrayed. Not a snooze-fest or anything, but not exactly great either. **
- Killjoy (aka Who Murdered Joy Morgan?) – This TV movie features a very early Kim Basinger performance, and decent stable of supporting talent, ranging from “that guys” like Robert Culp and Stephen Macht to more obscure performers. Basically Basinger and her doctor boyfriend Macht are planning on getting married, but a jealous colleague invents a fictional woman named Joy Morgan who Macht is supposedly having an affair with. Then Culp shows up wondering about Morgan himself, though we don’t really know who he is or what he’s after. It starts a little slow, but then some schemes get revealed, red herrings are proffered, and the twists start coming fast later in the movie, until the third act when it’s all laid out leading to the final twist. It’s a pretty decent little hospital-based thriller, lots of twists and turns that are mostly successful (they might not all entirely fit, but the attempt is appreciated), and a visual style that is pretty good for the era (i.e. this is long before prestige TV, so it doesn’t look particularly cinematic, but it’s not bad either). Again, not high cinema, but entertaining enough. **1/2
- Nothing But the Night – Three trustees of the Van Traylen Trust have died during the last few months in deaths looking like suicides. However, after a suspicious bus crash involving three more trustees and thirty orphan kids, the police, aided by doctors, start to investigate. One young girl shows particularly strange symptoms, and a doctor sets about using hypnosis to uncover hidden memories. Meanwhile, the young girl’s mother, upset that the child was taken away, seeks to expose the Van Traylen Trust… or something like that. This takes its time to get moving, but it eventually emerges as a sorta mashup between The Wicker Man and Get Out.
Along for the ride are Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both doing a good job selling the weirdness of the plot (along with a pretty good child performance from Gwyneth Strong), which only gets weirder towards the bonfire finale when all is revealed. One of the better flicks from this litter exercise. **1/2
- The Initiation of Sarah – This is basically Carrie goes to college and joins a sorority. Yes two sisters, one of whom has latent psychic powers, go to college. The more normal, popular one joins up with the leading sorority (led by the ultra-snobby Morgan Fairchild playing a character named, I shit you not, Jennifer Lawrence), while the psychic one joins the nerdy sorority that doesn’t even bother recruiting anymore. It turns out that the house mother of the nerdy sorority (played by Shelly Winters) is a witch who wants to use our protagonist’s psychic powers to exact revenge on a rival sorority. It’s a pretty tame TV movie elevated by an unhinged Shelly Winters, a super bitchy Morgan Fairchild, and a surprisingly sympathetic performance from Kay Lenz as the Carrie-esque Sarah. Also of note: Robert Hays, of Airplane fame shows up as a hunky frat dude; I think this is the only thing other than Airplane that I’ve seen this guy in… Catnip for fans of derivative 70s schlock, it’s one of the more interesting movies from this list (incidentally, this may not have been a direct recommendation from The Medusa Touch, but it was on my watchlist next to a bunch, so I’m including it.) **
- Loophole – Martin Sheen is an architect who just lost his job and needs some quick cash to pay off some debts. He falls in with some bank robbers, led by Albert Finney, and while initially hesitant to participate, eventually agrees to go along, using his architecture skillz to plan and execute the heist. This is by the numbers heist stuff, elevated only by the talent involved, even if they sometimes just feel like they’re going through the motions themselves. That being said, it’s entertaining enough for what it is, and heist fanatics will probably enjoy it well enough. The ending is kinda bizarre. After successfully tunneling into the safe from the sewers below (spoilers, I guess, but come on), it starts to rain and the sewers start to fill with water, which could effectively trap them in the safe. The thieves all leave, but Sheen stays in the vault, claiming its safer there. Ultimately, its just an excuse for a misleading shot of Sheen in a dirty bath (making you think that he drowned in the safe or something?), but it turns out that he made it out just fine? Again, some entertaining stuff here, but it’s all a bit hackneyed. **
- Paper Man – A few poor students use their computer hacking skillz to create a fictitious person so they can get a credit card. It starts as a prank, but it takes on a life of its own when people start dying, seemingly at the hands of the room-sized-computer, which is obviously pissed off about having been used in the scam. Lots of amusing early 70s computer jargon like: “I’m just identifying myself to the computer. It’s called logging in.” Some of the death sequences are pretty creepy, especially the one woman who is attempting to teach the computer voice recognition. She normally says a word a bunch of times using different intonations, etc… and eventually the computer figures out what she’s saying and repeats the word back. Only this time, she says “Breath” and the computer responds “Death”. It’s a made for TV movie, so when she gets sliced in half by an elevator, it’s not really graphic, but it’s pretty disturbing nonetheless. Pretty sure the transfer is from a VHS (or maybe, just maybe, Beta!), so it doesn’t exactly look great, but its actually a pretty good slice of 70s technophobia, and it’s actually mildly clever on that front too. Probably most notable for being an early showcase for Dean Stockwell, it’s actually pretty well done for a TV movie. **1/2
Alright, so most of these movies are not very good, but it’s still fun to get sucked into a Medusa Touched Algorithm.