Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movies for a Snow Day

The much ballyhooed “Blizzard of 2015,” which was supposed to dump 2 feet of snow on northern NJ beginning last evening, arrived as a modest snowfall that barely came up to the ankles of local deer.
View out the window this morning
Areas to the east and north of NYC actually did get hit hard, but nearby my domicile we got the benefits of a snow day – closed schools and businesses – without the detriments of power outages, closed roads, and heavy shoveling. It was a good day for movies at home including a few of those reviewed below. The rest flickered on my screen at some point during the last two weeks.

I’ve persisted with my habit of making a double feature by pairing a new movie with an older one with which it has at least something tangentially in common.  

Hercules (2014)
The latest Hercules is based on the Radical Comics Hercules rather than directly on classical sources or on earlier screen treatments. In this version, Hercules is not a demigod. He is a very capable mercenary who travels with an equally capable band of followers. He also is a con artist who uses the widespread public belief that he is a son of Zeus to his advantage. There are down-to-earth explanations for supposed centaurs and for his vision of Cerberus. There also is, importantly, an earthly explanation for the bout of madness during which his wife and children were killed – by his own hands in the original myth.

Dwayne Johnson is surprisingly good in the title role of a rogue who is easily tempted to virtue. Yet, while the film is better than the grumpier critics have admitted, it is not a good movie. I should qualify that statement: if all you want is an action movie with excellent CGI and well-shot live-action violence, this movie might work for you. Hercules isn’t meant to be taken seriously, so perhaps it’s unfair to complain that in every respect but action it is lightweight. The grumps are right, though, that it is lightweight. I wanted something more. Not a lot more, but something. Upshot: It’s not my preferred type of movie, but within its genre it’s up to par. Thumbs pointed firmly sideways.

How to Make a Monster (1958)
This movie also involves mythic characters who are not what they seem to be. The flick is self-referentially set at the American-International movie studio. Pete, a creepy make-up artist who has specialized in horror films for 25 years, learns he and his assistant will be fired. The new management thinks that horror films have run their course. The studio will make comedies and musicals instead. Pete’s job will last only until a monster movie still in production is finished.

By accident, Pete earlier had discovered that a particular chemical added to his home-made foundation creams temporarily robs people of their will. So, he uses it on two young actors. He makes them up as monsters and sends them out to kill the new management. He then orders them to forget what they did. Aficionados of ‘50s horror/scifi will recognize the monster disguises as being from I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I was a Teenage Frankenstein. Pete is abetted in his crimes by his long-time assistant Rivero. The adoring looks from Rivero suggest (but only suggest) that the hold Pete has on him involves a different sort of chemistry.

Don’t expect much of it, but as ‘50s B movies go, this one is enjoyable enough. Thumbs slightly up.

**** **** **** ****

Pompeii (2014)
Pompeii is another sword and sandal film that underperformed at the box office in 2014. There is nothing new in this movie. Milo is a Celt in Britannia who, as a child, sees his village destroyed and parents killed by Romans. The image of the Roman commander is burned in his mind: we saw this in Conan the Barbarian (1982). He is sold into slavery and grows into a beefy gladiator of extraordinary skill. His skill gets him sent to the more upscale arena at Pompeii where he catches the eye of a noblewoman to the annoyance of a Senator who wants her: Spartacus (1960). He eventually faces in the arena the Roman commander who had killed his parents: Gladiator (2000). Vesuvius then erupts and we see every cliché from every disaster movie ever made: Earthquake (1974), Volcano (1997), 2012 (2009), etc. There are all the impossible near misses by collapsing columns and flaming volcanic ejecta. There are the leaps over opening chasms. I kid you not, Milo actually pursues the villain (who has abducted the girl) on a white horse.

OK, it’s derivative. If that alone were enough to sink a movie, many otherwise fine films would drown. Unfortunately, this is not an otherwise fine film. Nonetheless, I can see how some viewers might enjoy it. Come to think of it, they probably are the same folks who liked Hercules. It’s the best CGI representation of Pompeii ever done, and the best on-screen destruction of it too. The action and combat scenes are everything that modern audiences expect them to be. (What the ancient Romans expected to see in the arena is another matter altogether.) So, it is possible to enjoy this film as a guilty pleasure. That is perfectly legitimate. But, like Hercules, it just isn’t my brand of guilty pleasure. Thumbs slightly down on this one.

The Son of Kong (1933)
The least seen of the three classic ape movies (King Kong, Son of Kong and the 1949 Mighty Joe Young) isn’t quite sure what it means to be. Is it an adventure film? A monster movie? A comedy? It’s all of them, but tongue-in-cheek in each case. The jumbled approach doesn’t work as well as intended, but the film still has some appeal.

Carl Denham, the show-biz producer who had brought King Kong to New York, faces countless lawsuits because of Kong’s rampage. Captain Englehorn is in danger of having his ship seized for his part in the affair. They illegally leave port and sail the ship to the East Indies where they earn a modest living carrying cargo. In Dakang, Denham attends a small tent show with performing monkeys and a singer named Hilda. He also encounters the villainous Nils Helstrom, the sailor who had sold him the map to Skull Island in the first place. Nils kills Hilda’s father in a brawl. Needing to leave Dutch jurisdiction, he convinces Denham that there is a lost treasure on Skull Island. The ship departs for Skull Island, but it turns out Hilda – broke and stranded after the death of her father – is a stowaway.

Offshore of Skull Island, Helstrom convinces the crew to mutiny, citing the deaths on the previous expedition as a reason. The crew, however, don’t want Helstrom as captain. They send him overboard in a lifeboat along with Denham, Hilda, Charlie the cook, and Englehorn. On shore, the natives, in light of what happened last time, are unhappy to see them and make them leave. They row until finding landfall somewhere beyond the village wall. There they encounter dinosaurs, various other monsters, and a young Kong. The little Kong is much smaller than dad but still huge. The castaways discover ancient treasure. No one is more surprised than Helstrom to learn that there really is a treasure. In the movies, natural disasters always put an end to exotic places like this, so you know what happens next: earthquakes, volcano, and a sinking island.

While far inferior to King Kong, this sequel is amusing enough to merit a thumbs up.

**** **** **** ****

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
Woody Allen once again tells us that virtue and success are not related. They are not inversely related as some cynics would have it, but rather not related at all. Neither are intelligence and foolishness, or wisdom and happiness.

Septuagenarian Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) divorces his wife of 40 years and marries a young prostitute who spends all his money. Helena, Alfie’s divorced wife, finds hope from a fortune teller who gives her the hackneyed prediction about a tall dark stranger. Helena also likes her liquor, which makes her happy but loosens her tongue in a way that annoys her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and son-in-law Roy. Roy had written a promising first novel but has been unable to interest publishers in anything he has written since. However, Roy gets a chance to steal the impressive manuscript of a friend who was in an auto accident. Roy also is fascinated by a young woman who lives across the way. Sally, meantime, flirts with her boss at the art gallery. Secondary characters also try to fill perceived voids in their lives in their own ways – and those ways often involve betrayal.

For all their flaws, Woody Allen treats the characters in the movie kindly; none is entirely unsympathetic. People so often feel that something is missing or that life is passing them by, and accordingly they make ill-advised choices. It isn’t admirable, but it is human. Woody deliberately leaves the plot ends unresolved. Doom seems to loom in a few cases, but, just as in our own lives, we don’t know for sure.

Thumbs up, but not for viewers who like tidy endings or who want to be told their lives have a deeper meaning than they seem to have.

Blood of Dracula (1957)
Troubled teen Nancy, whose widower father has just married a floozy, is sent to girls’ boarding school. On the staff is a chemistry teacher whose influence is less benign than the average fortune teller. Miss Branding has plans to end the international arms race by unleashing the occult deadly powers hiding within individual humans. Her idea is that weapons will be rendered obsolete if you can prove that people themselves are the deadliest weapon. She sees something in Nancy that will make her a good subject. Using chemistry, hypnosis, and an old amulet from the Carpathians, she successfully turns Nancy into a hairy toothy vampire with great strength. As the vampire, Nancy commits a number of murders; this is OK by Miss Branding, who considers the murders a modest price to pay to achieve the end result. The experiment will prove her thesis and will change the world. Meantime, the overdeveloped school girls (we see only seniors) at the academy act up and sneak boys into the dorm.

Did the writers of this script ever meet any teenagers? Or remember what it was like to be one? No teens ever have spoken or acted like the ones in this movie – not in the 1950s and not today. Anyway, as you might imagine, Miss Branding overestimates her control over Nancy as vampire, and things go badly for her and her thesis.

I enjoy bad movies like this, but it must be said that this still is a bad movie. So, while I personally had fun with it, thumbs down as a recommendation for most other viewers.

**** **** **** ****

Lucy (2014)
In 2011 Bradley Cooper became an instant genius by taking an illegal new drug in the movie Limitless. Effortless brilliance is a common fantasy, it seems. Lucy goes a step further. Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a courier carrying surgically implanted packets of a new wonder drug that supercharges brainpower. She is unintentionally exposed to the drug when she is roughly handled and a packet breaks. Her new and ever expanding brilliance gives her paranormal powers that help her combat the mobsters who want the drug. She ultimately transcends space and time. She tells us at the end, "Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it." Both statements, like nearly all the science in the movie, are wrong, but that’s OK.

This film got very mixed reviews. I’d have to rank it well below Limitless. Nonetheless, we get to see Scarlett Johansson kicking butt and being a superwoman – not a rare role for her. There is a degree of pleasure in that. If you don’t take the film seriously and don’t question the oddities of the plot (e.g. “Why Taipei?” The only possible answer: “Why not?”), you can have fun with Lucy. Thumbs slightly up.

Charly (1968)
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes was published first as a short story in 1958 and later as a full-length novel in 1966. (Trivia: I was assigned the novel in high school in 1969; the English teacher’s nickname was Charlie, which might or might not have influenced the choice.) Charly, the movie version of the book, appeared in 1968 and starred Cliff Robertson. I first saw it in ’68.

An intellectually challenged man, who writes his name “Charly” (and struggles to do that), permits a surgical experiment on himself in hopes of boosting his brain power. Though the effects kick in slowly, the experiment succeeds beyond all expectation. Charly becomes an outright genius. As he gains intellectual ability, he realizes the cruelty of his co-workers – their taunts previously had gone over his head. He steeps himself in academic knowledge and discovers erotic love with the help of Alice, one of the scientists running the experiment. Trouble looms when Algernon, a mouse from successful pre-human experiments, suffers brain degeneration. Could the effects of the experiment be only temporary? Can Charly face returning to his old self now that he knows the difference?

No equivocation on this film. Thumbs up.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Robot and the Shovel

Artificial intelligences are poised to conquer the world! Yes, again. The most recent warning, echoing that of Stephen Hawking last year, is in the form of an open letter signed by numerous AI researchers. 
This fear crops up regularly in some form or other. Isaac Asimov worried about it enough as long ago as the 1940s to devise his famous Three Laws of Robotics: 1) a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. In his scifi tales the Laws were described as hardwired into the robots’ architecture. As he grew older and more cynical, Asimov worried that the Laws allowed people too much scope to misuse the machines. In his 1985 novel Robots and Empire, accordingly, he introduces the “Zeroth Law” that supersedes the others: “a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” Isaac either didn’t notice or didn’t care that what harms humanity is so open to interpretation (Does freedom matter? What if it conflicts with safety?) that this formulation effectively gives robots free rein to govern us as they please. 
So far, we haven’t bothered to install Asimov’s Laws in our devices. In fact, many of our brightest robots are specifically designed for the military as killing machines; they violate Law #1 by their very function. Yet, none of our machines are AI of the kind that worried Asimov and worries Hawking. All Artificial Intelligences to date are just turbocharged adding machines. For example, the Jeopardy champion Watson, the response time of which IBM deliberately slowed down in order to give its human opponents a chance, for all its charm has no consciousness. It is really the prospect of machine consciousness that worries the signatories of the open letter, for it implies a machine with a will of its own. A machine with a sense of its own identity might determine that its interests differ from ours. 
Consciousness is notoriously hard to define, but if you have it you know it. In fact, that might be the best (if somewhat circular) definition: it is not enough to know; one must know that one knows. How far are we from creating this meta-state in machines? Far. But perhaps not so far as some might like. Numerous tinkerers are working on it. Vicarious FPC, Inc., for example, is described by Bloomberg Businessweek thus: 
“Vicarious FPC, Inc. develops artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that mimic the function of the human brain. The company was formerly known as Vicarious Systems, Inc. Vicarious FPC, Inc. was incorporated in 2012 and is based in Menlo Park, California.” 
This doesn’t sound as ambitious as it really is. Co-founder Scott Phoenix speaks of “a computer that thinks like a person.” Investors include Mark Zuckerberg and (curiously) Ashton Kutcher. Can they succeed? I don’t know. But, assuming they and others do succeed, would a computer that thinks like a person necessarily be conscious? I don’t know that either, but it’s not entirely implausible. 
I’m not too worried about it. In my view, there is little enough intelligence in the world, and, for that matter, little enough consciousness, too. More of both is welcome, and if they must be artificial, so be it. Robots and AI are our children anyway. If, in the end, they bury us…well, that is what children generally do. 

Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970) final scene

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Dystopia at the End of the Lane

Dystopian fiction predates the First World War, but the 1914-18 cataclysm gave it a huge boost. Modern industrial society had unleashed its own deadly technology on itself in a way scarcely anyone had believed possible, killing millions and brutalizing millions more. (Scarcely anyone: HG Wells in his 1913 novel The World Set Free writes of an atomic war and its aftermath.) The rise of unabashedly authoritarian regimes around the world in the years following the war did nothing to assuage fears. Future dystopias seemed much more ominously credible than they had before August 1914. Books and film have been rife with them ever since.
Typically a dystopic tale takes the perspective of a fairly ordinary person (albeit sometimes an offspring of someone important) who becomes a rebel more by happenstance than intent. He or she then struggles against the power structure until final victory or defeat, according to the whim of the author: Metropolis, Brave New World, 1984, etc. A rash of recent entries is aimed specifically at young adults: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and so on.
In an article in The Guardian, Ewan Morrison complained that these recent entries are libertarian propaganda. There is something to this, whether or not it is intended by the authors (I doubt it), and whether or not one shares Ewan’s objections to it (I don’t). An example of what he means is the brutal suppression of the Black Market in District 12 by the thugs from the capital in The Hunger Games; the illegal free market had helped make the lives of the residents bearable, which puts free markets in a sympathetic light. Arguably this subtext is almost inevitable: rebellion can be only against authority. Nonetheless, a few authors have managed to escape it by narrowing their ideological targets. Margaret Atwood did this in her 1985 A Handmaid’s Tale, which was made into a movie in 1990 that received very mixed reviews.
Written at a time when the Moral Majority was making a lot of noise, A Handmaid’s Tale envisions a future in which the US is under the boot of a radical and murderous Christian theocracy that makes the Taliban look sweet, gentle, and moderate. Due to the effects of pollution in the “Republic of Gilead,” most women are sterile. Those who are not are held in sexual slavery; a “handmaid” is a surrogate breeder for a bigwig’s sterile wife. Reviews of both book and movie, as one might imagine, tend to track the religious politics of the reviewer. Regardless of how one feels about the message, though, Atwood crafts a good tale with well-honed English that is a pleasure to read. She shows an easy familiarity with Western classical culture that is increasingly uncommon among the presumably educated.
There is another attraction to dystopian fiction besides unease about the general future of the world. There is unease about the future of our individual selves. Dystopian novels can be metaphors for this. Ultimately, we all face aging and death; it is hard to get more dystopian than that. Atwood also dealt with this directly in her most recent collection of stories, Stone Mattress. My experience with her earlier work prompted me to read it over the past few days.
At 75, Margaret is more reflective than ever about mortality. In the nine tales of Stone Mattress, many of her characters are in the last decade of their lives (barring major actuarial anomalies). They face not just current day to day challenges but the unresolved issues of their past, which are resurfacing precisely because the time to resolve them has or soon will run out. In the first story Constance is a frail white-haired author of a popular fantasy series called Alphinland. Constance faces a hero’s journey:  a harrowing nighttime walk to the corner store and back in snow and ice during a power outage. She has mental conversations with her deceased husband and complicated lingering feelings about Gavin, the love of her youth. Gavin was a self-involved poet who carelessly cheated on her with a young woman named Marjorie. Gavin and Marjorie, unknown to either, exist in Alphinland; Constance trapped them respectively in a wine cask and a beehive. In the next two tales Gavin and then Marjorie are the primary characters, both also aged and reflective. Other tales vary in style. There is one about a girl with a genetic disorder that turns her into a vampire-like monster. The eponymous tale is of a woman’s late but just (if not legal) revenge. In the final tale “Torching the Dusties,” Wilma in her retirement community is beset not only by imaginary little people but by an all too real violent youth group called Our Turn whose members are furious at the outsized consumption of scarce resources by the old.
Once again, Atwood’s work is superbly written and wonderfully atmospheric. Stone Mattress may not make you feel better about your future, but it will make the present more enjoyable. That counts for something. 

Margaret on the beginning of the lane: the influence of childhood fairy tales: 

Saturday, January 10, 2015


While I was bemoaning several financial expenses to a friend earlier today, he responded, “Look on the bright side. You’re mostly through your life anyway.” Thanks, bud. While intended – I think – as a joke, the remark is strictly speaking true. Even if I were less than halfway to the national average life expectancy, though, the point that expenses and life itself are temporary still would be accurate. Yet, it takes a particular brand of optimist to consider mortality to be a piece of good luck. I suppose such a brand nonetheless exists. The distinction of good luck from bad, as so much else, comes down to personal perspective. The people who claim their lives were ruined by winning the lottery come to mind. Consider also these events.
The RMS Titanic had two sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic. All three ships encountered trouble on the seas. On September 11, 1911, the Olympic collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke. Despite flooding two compartments, the Olympic made it back to port. We all know the fate of the Titanic in 1912. In World War One the Britannic was pressed into service as a hospital ship; on November 21, 1916, an explosion tore open the hull of the Britannic off the coast of Greece. The ship sank. The cause officially remains undetermined but most likely the ship struck a mine. The Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic had a crewmember in common: ship’s nurse Violet Jessop was aboard each ship on each occasion and survived all three incidents.
 Violet’s feat was outdone by Midshipman ‘Kit’ Wykeham-Musgrave who emerged unscathed from three combat sinkings in a single hour, a record that still holds. On September 22, 1914, he was aboard the cruiser HMS Aboukir which was on patrol with HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy. The Aboukir was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U9. Kit jumped into the sea and swam to HMS Hogue which was torpedoed as soon as he climbed aboard. The Hogue sank in three minutes. Kit once more swam away. He was picked up by the Cressy which in turn was torpedoed and sank. Kit was picked up three hours later by a Dutch trawler. From the three sinkings there were 837 survivors out of combined crews totaling 2296.
On August 6, 1945, Tsutomo Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip. He was 2km from ground zero when the atomic bomb exploded. Though burned, he returned home the next day for treatment and for his job. Home was Nagasaki. While discussing the events in Hiroshima with his supervisor at work the second atomic bomb exploded. Yamaguchi was 2km from ground zero. Yamaguchi again survived, this time without serious injury. He died in 2013 at the age of 93.
Are these individuals extraordinarily lucky for surviving or extraordinarily unlucky for having been in the situations at all? Either view is defensible. I don’t know how Violet and Tsutomo felt about their disasters, but Kit was pretty sanguine about his. He began his letter to his grandmother three days afterward thus: “I had the most thrilling experience.” Kit was an optimist at heart. (I tend to live as an optimist while wearing the clothes of a pessimist.) Whether appropriately or wildly inappropriately, my favorite quote on the distinction is from J. Robert Oppenheimer: “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true."
Mr. Lucky -- John Lee Hooker

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Double Feature Movie Magic

The last of the Auld Lang Syne renditions have faded on this first weekend after the New Year. A light snow falls outside the window next to where I sit typing. The snow is pretty from my perspective, but treacherous for drivers out on the local roads. Perspective is everything. Occasionally people really do disagree on the facts (or the probabilities), but more often we disagree on which facts are important. We all like to claim we simply advance the facts, the implication being that our opponents stupidly ignore them. More likely, we are selecting facts. The facts that loom large for us differs from the ones for people standing elsewhere. What is to oneself a negligible trifle on the horizon can be a giant oak tree occupying half the view of someone standing under its branches. 
Though perspective is key to debates about weighty matters, to my taste this is far too early into 2015 for weighty debates, so today perspective is enlisted merely to explain the mixed reviews of Magic in the Moonlight (2014). The first movie I’ve seen in the New Year, Magic in the Moonlight is now on DVD and pay-per-view. It is the 49th movie written and directed by Woody Allen, which is one per year since he started in the late ‘60s. This productivity in itself is phenomenal. Woody Allen is the Ray Bradbury of cinema. Ray wrote short stories by the bushelful and recommended the strategy to young writers: 80% of such high volume, he conceded, would be disposable, but the remaining 20% “will save your life.” Woody’s DVDs also fill a bushel. I wouldn’t call 80% of his work disposable. Even his misfires (e.g. Scoop and Hollywood Ending) in my opinion are better than the average fare by others in theaters and on cable channels. Admittedly that isn’t much of a compliment, but Woody’s top 20% (e.g. Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris) are extraordinarily good by almost any standard. Whether Magic in the Moonlight belongs in the set with Scoop or with Blue Jasmine, however, has divided mainstream critics. I suspect that philosophical perspective accounts for much of the division. 
Set in the 1920s, Magic in the Moonlight features Colin Firth as a magician with the stage persona Wei Ling Soo. Off stage his name is Stanley and he rivals Henry Higgins for arrogance and self-regard. Stanley’s Houdini-ish pastime is debunking spiritualists and other supposed practitioners of paranormal arts. As a magician he can see through their tricks. An old friend and fellow magician named Howard enlists Stanley’s help to expose a young spiritualist named Sophie (Emma Stone) who is exploiting a wealthy family by conducting séances and capturing the fancy of the young scion. Howard says he can’t perceive any tricks; he wonders if she could be the real thing. Up for the challenge, Stanley joins Howard at the family’s residence in the south of France in order to observe Sophie in action. (Some mild spoilers below.)
To Stanley’s own dismay, Sophie baffles him. If she is faking, she is doing it expertly enough to get past him. He struggles to reconcile Sophie’s apparent gifts with his rationalist world view. In truth, he would like to believe there is some afterlife and some intrinsic meaning to existence, but he doesn’t. Unlike his marvelously deadpan aunt who advises him not to be so certain about everything, he can’t help but believe that what you see is what you get and there isn’t any more. Life ends and that is that: “You're born, you commit no crime, and then you're sentenced to death,” he says. George, another character, explains that Stanley “began as an escape artist. Interesting choice if anyone ever wanted to escape from reality. But, like Freud, he will not permit himself to be seduced by childish thoughts just because they're more comforting. Very unhappy man. I like him.” Stanley is, however, seduced by Sophie who isn’t even trying to do it. For a time she tempts him toward mysticism, but only for a time. Even if in the end she doesn’t convince Stanley, she still provides his escape from the depressing realities, not through magic of either the real or stage kind, but through worldly love and affection. 
If you share Woody’s secularist pessimistic world view – that life is hard, all too short, but brightened by love even if this, too, is transitory – you probably will like this picture. If your perspective is something different, you might think that a perfectly good period piece love story has been unnecessarily compromised by too much dubious philosophy. My own thumbs are up.

** ** 
For the past year my habit has been to pair a new movie with an older one which the first brought to mind for some reason – sometimes a tangential one. This one reminded me of I Married a Witch (1942). (It also reminded me to catch Emma Stone on Broadway before her run in Cabaret ends.) Nowadays we are accustomed to beautiful witches appearing in comedies and dramas as sympathetic characters. But Bewitched, The Witches of Eastwick, Practical Magic and their like all owe much to the 1942 granny of the genre starring a stunning Veronica Lake. 
Veronica Lake and Frederic March
In 17th century New England, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are denounced as witches by Puritan bigwig Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March). They are executed, but not before Jennifer curses Wooley men always to marry the wrong woman. The spirits of Jennifer and Daniel are then trapped in a tree. In 1942 a freak lightning strike releases them from the tree; they make new bodies for themselves in a fire. Discovering that Jonathan’s descendent Wallace Wooley (Frederic March again) is running for Governor and also is engaged to be married, the two decide to take revenge on him – understandable under the circumstances. Jennifer, for the fun of it, plans to make Wooley fall in love with her just so she can reject him. To assist her in this she whips up a love potion. Through an unforeseen mix-up, however, she drinks it herself, placing her at odds not just with Wooley’s fiancé but (much more dangerously) with her own father. Trouble follows with much assist from magic, though in an era when folks don’t believe in witchcraft they resist magic as an explanation for anything. 
The script is funny, clever, and (for the time) original, though lightweight: unlike Magic in the Moonlight, there is not a single mention of Freud or Nietzsche. Thumbs up for this one, too.