Saturday, 19 April 2014

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a major hit for Irwin Allen (who produced and directed as well as co-writing the screenplay) in 1961. The success of the movie inspired Allen to follow it up in 1964 with the television series of the same name.

Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) is an eccentric scientific genius who has somehow persuaded Congress to let him build a highly advanced nuclear submarine, the Seaview. Nuclear submarines were a topical subject at the time, just a few years after the USS Nautilus’s famous voyage under the North Pole.

The Seaview has a number of civilian passengers on its maiden voyage, including a congressman who considers the Seaview to be a waste of money. Also aboard, for some obscure reason, is psychiatrist Dr Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine). Dr Hiller is not the only woman aboard the submarine. Admiral Nelson has brought along his secretary, Lieutenant Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden) who presence has predictably caused major disciplinary problems.

Apart from its other advanced features the Seaview boasts the world’s only underwater aquarium, which allows Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) to indulge his hobby, the study of sharks and other denizens of the deep. Emery also happens to be one of the world’s leading physicists, a circumstance that will soon turn out to be rather fortunate. When we first meet him he’s taking one of his sharks for a walk.

The Seaview is a research submarine rather than an actual warship although it’s rather heavily armed for a research vessel with an array of missiles (with atomic warheads of course) and torpedoes. You just never know when you’re going to need a nuclear missile.

The Seaview has just repeated the Nautilus’s feat and surfaced at the North Pole when an alarming discovery is made - the Van Allen Radiation Belt which surrounds the Earth has caught fire. The sky is on fire! This delightful piece of scientific silliness sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

One thing that is refreshing is that this movie does not follow the very tedious practice, so common in 1950s sci-fi, of blaming every disaster on humans.

An emergency session of the United Nations predictably achieves nothing but a lot of pointless talk. It’s going to be up to Admiral Nelson and the Seaview to save the world.

Admiral Nelson and Commodore Emery believe they have a plan that can do just that. It’s obvious what has to be done. If you have a fire raging out of control what do you do? You nuke it of course. So they have to nuke the Van Allen belt - the atomic explosion will blow the whole belt out into space. All they need to do now is to contact the President of the United States to get the go-ahead (they have very wisely decided to ignore the UN completely). It’s obvious that Admiral Nelson intends to proceed with his plan whether he gets official approval or not. This is one of those science fiction movies that casts scientists very much in the hero mould, with politicians being seen as largely irrelevant.

While the Seaview is involved in a race against time to reach the only location from which the missile can be fired Admiral Nelson finds himself faced with other obstacles. The most serious is that the scientific consensus is against him. The majority of the world’s scientists disagree with his plan. The UN is against him as well. They have ordered the destruction  of the Seaview. Fortunately Admiral Nelson knows only too well that the scientific consensus can be wrong. 

Another obstacle is the psychiatrist, Dr Miller. Dr Miller believes that thinking for yourself and having the courage of your convictions are sure signs of a paranoid personality. 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea really owes more to Jules Verne than to the average submarine movie. It is in some ways an updated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This turned out to be a rather clever idea.

The Seaview will be familiar to fans of the television series. Irwin Allen very wisely kept the miniatures and some of the sets from the movie and was able to re-use them in the TV series. It’s still a very cool looking submarine.

The relationship between Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane (played by Robert Sterling in the movie) is a lot more combative than in the TV series. Although we’re told that Admiral Nelson is like a father to Crane they clash repeatedly, usually over some high-handed action by the admiral who tends to regard the Seaview as his own personal property and infringes on the captain’s area of responsibility in a manner that is inevitably going to cause tension. The Admiral Nelson of the movie is a rather more arrogant character that the Admiral Nelson played by Richard Basehart on TV. Walter Pidgeon is fairly convincing as a visionary scientist with perhaps just a bit too much self-confidence.

Robert Sterling is a little dull as Captain Crane. Joan Fontaine seems somewhat out of place in this movie. Having a psychiatrist let loose on a submarine proves to be as disastrous one one would expect it to be. Barbara Eden is there purely to provide some glamour, which she does. By 1961 Peter Lorre’s health was failing but he still has his moments. On the whole I prefer the cast in the TV series but that may of course be due to my greater familiarity with the TV version.

The special effects are pretty well done with the burning sky being quite impressive. Of course it wouldn’t be a submarine adventure movie without a giant killer octopus, and this movie boasts not one but two such creatures. It has to be admitted that the first giant killer octopus in this movie is one of the more disappointing examples of the breed, looking obviously fake. The second example is a great improvement, being clearly a real octopus in a tank with a model of the Seaview.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a reasonably good anamorphic transfer.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a pure adventure film that (quite rightly) has no interest whatsoever in scientific veracity. As a submarine adventure movie it’s second only to the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in entertainment value. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Crack in the World (1965)

Crack in the World is both a science fiction movie and a disaster movie and it delivers the goods on both counts. This 1965 production was made by Security Pictures and distributed by Paramount and boasts surprising lavish production values.

Dr Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews in possibly the best of his many 1960s cult movie appearances) is a well-meaning and dedicated scientist who has come up with a plan to provide the entire world with limitless cheap energy. The plan is simplicity itself - all you have to do is drill right through the earth’s crust to reach the magma below. He’s managed to get large-scale funding for the scheme and has set up an ambitious drilling operation in Tanganyika.

There’s only one slight problem. Just before reaching the magma they strike a layer of rock they can’t drill through. Dr Sorenson has a solution for this - a thermonuclear explosion should do the trick. He’s persuaded the US Air Force to provide him with a nuclear missile for the purpose.

Dr Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) works for the project but he has his doubts about the wisdom of using nukes. His fear is that the explosion will create a gigantic crack in the world and that will mean the end of the planet. He believes that underground nuclear tests have already caused hairline cracks in the earth’s crust.

This scientific dispute is complicated by a romantic triangle involving Dr Sorenson, Dr Sorenson’s wife Maggie (Janette Scott) and Dr Rampion.

Dr Sorenson is determined to go ahead with the blast anyway, and he does. And of course the result is the crack in the world that Dr Rampion predicted. Now Dr Sorenson and Dr Rampion have to work together to find a way to save the earth.

The romantic triangle subplot actually works surprisingly well. Apart from adding some extra dramatic tension it also has the effect of humanising Dr Sorensen, making him more than just a well-intentioned mad scientist. Some reasonably good acting from all three leads helps a good deal. Dana Andrews does particularly well as his character starts to self-destruct.

The special effects are extremely good by the standards of 1965. In fact they’re extremely good by today’s standards. This may not have been a big-budget movie but it looks like one. The sets are equally impressive with the project’s underground operations centre looking quite convincing. The miniatures work is excellent and there are enough explosions to satisfy anybody.

The science is of course very silly, another major factor in the movie’s favour.

Andrew Marton’s long directing career wasn’t especially distinguished but he does a very creditable job here. The movie is nicely paced and the tension is maintained very effectively.

The location shooting was done mostly in Spain.

There’s a definite mad scientist touch to the movie but it’s nicely balanced by making Dr Sorensen a sympathetic and even tragic figure. And while his actions might have threatened the survival of the world he accepts the responsibility for those actions and then knuckles down to the task of saving the world. The anti-technology elements are irritating but they’re balanced to some extent by giving the scientists the chance to try to undo the damage they’ve done. It’s also made clear that Dr Sorensen’s motives are admirable even if he is inclined to take perhaps a few too many risks. But as he points out, if you don’t take risks you can’t make progress.

Olive Films’ DVD release is completely typical of this company’s output - there are zero extras but the 16x9 enhanced transfer is absolutely superb.

Crack in the World is exciting and fairly spectacular and it’s also well-acted. Both science fiction and disaster movie fans should be delighted by this movie. Dana Andrews fans will be pleased to see him getting the opportunity to do some real acting. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

The 1960s and 1970s represented a golden age of wartime action adventure movies. The Eagle Has Landed, a British production, was unique in having a World War 2 setting with Germans as heroes.

In real life German paratroopers carried out a daring and successful operation to rescue Mussolini after he had been deposed. The premise of the movie, based on a novel by Jack Higgins, is that this operation gives Hitler the bright idea of ordering an even more daring mission - to kidnap Winston Churchill. Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle), the head of the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service), is instructed to carry out a feasibility study. Canaris thinks it’s the most stupid idea he’s ever heard but orders are orders, and in any case he’s confident that Hitler will forget all about his brainwave in a week or so.

Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall) is given the job of preparing the feasibility study. And then it seems that fate has taken a hand. The Germans just happen to have an agent in a tiny seaside town named Studley Constable in Norfolk, and the town just happens to be a few miles from the country house at which Churchill is going to be staying in the very near future. And the town just happens to be ideally situated on a quiet stretch of coastline. The clincher is that Radl just happens to have come across the perfect man to carry out such a mission. Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) is a brilliant and recklessly bold paratroop commander who speaks faultless English without a trace of an accent. The Germans would need to have a man on the ground first and here again fate has put the ideal candidate at Radl’s disposal in the person of Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), an IRA terrorist currently lecturing at a German university. Much to Radl’s amazement he finds himself coming to the conclusion that the operation has a real chance of success.

There is one minor problem. Colonel Steiner is currently under sentence of death for trying to free a Jewish girl from under the noses of the SS. But when SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence) presents Colonel Radl with a written authorisation from Hitler allowing him a free hand in carrying out the operation that minor obstacle is removed.

Colonel Steiner and his men agree to carry out the mission on one condition (a condition that will have fateful consequences) - they will wear Free Polish uniforms but they will wear their German uniforms underneath. They are prepared to die, but they are not prepared to accept the shame of being shot as spies.

Liam Devlin successfully makes contact with the German agent in the Norfolk village, but things quickly start to get complicated for him. The last thing he had expected was to fall in love in the middle of the operation but that’s what happens when he meets Molly (Jenny Agutter). 

Steiner and his men parachute in and everything is going smoothly. Then fate (yes, fate again) steps in. One of his men rescues a young village girl from drowning but in the process of doing so his German uniform is revealed. Nonetheless Steiner presses on.

Fate is also about to take a hand in the career of Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman). Pitts is in command of a US Ranger detachment stationed near Studley Constable. He’s about to be shipped back home and will thus lose his one chance of seeing combat. When he learns of the presence of Steiner’s men in the village he sees his chance. Rather than contact the War Office he decides that he will be the hero of the hour and gain all the glory of foiling the German plan. Sadly Colonel Pitts’ military skills fall ludicrously short of his ambitions. Pitts’ rash decision does provide the opportunity for the movie to launch into some full-scale action sequences. The war has come to Studley Constable, with a vengeance. And Churchill is about to arrive. It seems that all that stands between Steiner and success is one bumbling American officer.

The movie goes to elaborate lengths to establish that Colonel Steiner is a good German, a man who hates the Nazis and who is determined to do his duty, but to do it with courage and honour. The movie goes to equally elaborate lengths to establish that Steiner’s men are good Germans, Germans who will risk their lives to save drowning children. This does serve a very important purpose. The movie cannot work unless the audience can be persuaded to be at least half-hoping the Germans will succeed. Even Radl has to be a fairly sympathetic character. Michael Caine and Robert Duvall manage to make their characters effectively sympathetic without being too irritatingly virtuous. They are honourable men, but they are also ruthlessly efficient. The performances of Caine and Duvall are crucial and they are both superb. Caine, surprisingly, makes a convincing German officer and he has the advantage that Steiner is supposed to speak English without a trace of an accent, so the actor fortunately is not tempted to have a try at a Teutonic accent.

Anthony Quayle had played countless British officers and he plays Admiral Canaris exactly the same way. Donald Pleasence is delightfully and chillingly menacing as Himmler. Larry Hagman is deliriously over-the-top as the hapless Colonel Pitts. His performance is a treat although he does seem to be acting in a different movie from the other actors! When he makes his appearance the tone of the whole movie changes subtly, with a slight suggestion of black comedy. This could have ruined the film but fortunately the premise is itself so outrageous that it gets away with it. Fate can turn life into tragedy but it can just as readily turn it into farce, and the line between tragedy and farce is in any case often rather blurred.

The movie faces a bigger challenge in making Liam Devlin sympathetic. Donald Sutherland pulls out all the stops to make Devlin a loveable rogue and he does a good job of it but we can’t help remembering that he is a member of a terrorist organisation, and he doesn’t have the advantage of being able to claim that he is a soldier doing his duty for his country. Devlin is certainly charming but his charm comes across as having just a little of a  sinister touch.

This was a lavish production and some care was taken to give it the right authentic touches, even to the extent of having an actual German Fieseler Storch aircraft (or a remarkably good replica aircraft) and a genuine-looking captured British Motor Torpedo Boat. The action scenes are executed with considerable skill.

John Sturges already had an impressive record as a director of action movies and his handling of this one is confident and assured. 

The Region B Blu-Ray lacks extras but the transfer is faultless.

The Eagle Has Landed is a fine example of the excellent action adventure movies of its era. Great entertainment, highly recommended.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Devil’s Sword (1984)

In the 1980s the Indonesian film industry was booming. Indonesian audiences wanted action and thrills and that’s exactly what Indonesia’s film industry offered them, in movies like The Devil’s Sword.

Producer Gope Samtani knew how to assemble the necessary ingredients - a magic sword, lots of martial arts, lots of swordplay, plenty of black magic, an evil queen, a beautiful heroine and as much sex as the Indonesian censor would let him get away with. And he had the right leading man in handsome charismatic Barry Prima. Barry Prima wasn’t a great actor but he had the matinee idol looks to appeal not just to Indonesian audiences but to the export market as well.

The legend of the South Sea Queen had provided the inspiration for movies and comic books (and would be the subject of the classic 1989 Indonesian horror thriller Lady Terminator). The evil Crocodile Queen of The Devil’s Sword is basically a variation on the theme.

Magic swords forged from meteorites were another ingredient with guaranteed appeal for Indonesian audiences (and they show up in the folklore of many other countries as well). The magic sword in this movie can confer almost unlimited power upon the warrior who wields it. So naturally all the evil warriors in Java are trying to find the sword. The one man who can stop them is the most formidable of all the good warriors on the island, Mandala (Barry Prima). Mandala’s ageing guru has already paid the price fir trying to conceal the whereabouts of the sword from the evil warriors. So now Mandala has an additional motive  for foiling their evil plans - to avenge the mutilation of his guru.

Mandala is not the only one after revenge. Banyu-Jaga (Advent Bangun), the chief henchman of the Crocodile Queen, has kidnapped the husband of a village chief’s daughter. The daughter, who happens to be a formidable martial arts expert in her own right, teams up with Mandala. She knows the fate in store for her husband. Like so many other village men he will have to serve the insatiable lusts of the dreaded Crocodile Queen. She is determined to save the poor boy from a fate worse than death.

Along the way Mandala and his newly acquired sidekick will have to battle a collection of extremely fearsome evil warriors. Luckily the evil warriors have stated fighting amongst themselves so that’s thinned out their numbers a little. Unluckily, Mandala himself falls prey to the Crocodile Queen. His guru, the one who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the evil warriors from finding out where the sword was hidden and lost both his legs in the process, has to use his powers of telepathy to rescue Mandala.

Of course it all ends with a climactic fight in the Crocodile Queen’s cave.

This all sounds fairly typical of 1980s sword and sorcery movies, and it is. The Devil’s Sword does however have a few things that make it stand out from the crowd. The first of these elements is the skillful blending of local mythology with a standard sword and sorcery plot. The second element is the outrageous sense of fun. 

The special effects are fairly crude but they’re executed with so much flair that for the most part they work extremely well. The arrival of Banyu-Jaga on a flying rock is a particular highlight. There’s also a very cool cyclops monster.

The Crocodile Queen’s lair probably wasn’t a very expensive set but it looks terrific. This movie proves the truth of something I’ve always believed - energy, imagination and enthusiasm are far more important than big budgets.

The Crocodile Queen makes a wonderful villainess. The Devil’s Sword really pushed the edge of the envelope when it came to the amount of sex the Indonesian censor would allow. It might be tame by the standards if the time in regard to what is actually shown but it manages to create an incredibly sleazy atmosphere. There’s also a considerable amount of gore but the violence is so cartoonish it’s impossible to be offended by it.

This film boasts a host of colourful villains, all of them being satisfyingly evil in completely distinctive ways. The crocodile men are a nice touch.

Absolutely everything you could possibly wish for in a sword and sorcery movie can be found here.

Mondo Macabro have managed to find a remarkably good print. The 16x9 enhanced transfer really is quite superb. As always with this company’s releases the extras are fascinating and informative, the highlight being a truly bizarre interview with Barry Prima who must be one of the most delightfully eccentric movie stars in history.

The Devil’s Sword is a non-stop roller coaster ride of sheer unadulterated fun. If a movie it to be judged by how well it achieves what it set out to do then this is a truly great movie. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Fascination (1979) on Blu-Ray

Fascination, released in 1979, was the last film in Jean Rollin’s original cycle of vampire films which had started with Le viol du vampire in 1968, although he would return to the vampire theme in the late 1990s with Two Orphan Vampires.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work Fascination is not a bad place to start – the surrealist elements always present in his movies are less extreme in this one, or at least they’re less overwhelming. It also has (by the standards of a Rollin movie) a coherent plot. In the late 70s Rollin was moving towards a slightly more accessible style, but without sacrificing the strengths of his earlier productions. Fascination is still a million miles away from Hollywood notions of horror.

Right from the start we find ourselves in the world of Rollinesque surrealism, a surrealism liberally laced with decadence. We see two girls dancing on a stone bridge with a phonograph sitting on the roadway of the bridge. We then move to a slaughterhouse where two women are drinking ox blood from wine glasses. This scene was probably inspired by a short story, The Glass of Blood, by the French decadent poet and novelist Jean Lorrain (1855-1906). Lorrain’s story was in turn inspired by a somewhat bizarre real-life practice of the time in which wealthy people suffering from anaemia or similar disorders would start their day with a glass of cow’s blood at a local slaughter-house.

This strange obsession with blood provides the theme of the movie, another of Rollin’s very unconventional filmic explorations of vampirism. Oddly enough though the element of vampirism is downplayed for most of the film, only becoming explicit at the end (and even then it’s still more than a little ambiguous).

The story proper begins with a falling-out among a group of thieves, one of whom takes shelter in an apparently deserted château. The château is not quite deserted however. Marc (for that is the thief’s name) soon encounters two rather unsettling young women, Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elisabeth (Franca Maï), whose interest in him is obviously sexual but equally obviously goes beyond the merely sexual. He is warned not to stay around until dark, as they are having other guests, apparently very dangerous ones. His problem is that he cannot leave because the other apaches, his former confederates, are waiting for him outside and they are armed.

Whether Eva and Elisabeth really want him to stay or not is rather uncertain. Elisabeth seems to be very attracted to him and (for reasons that will later become clear) that may be why she seems to hope he will leave.

The château is surrounded by a moat and the only means of entrance (or exit) is by means of a stone bridge. He seems to be comprehensively trapped, at least until Eva takes a hand. In one of the most iconic scenes of 1970s horror she deals with his quondam accomplices rather effectively by means of a scythe. 

Still Marc does not leave. The other guests arrive, all women and all behaving in a strange manner that is both seductive and vaguely menacing although Marc is too arrogant to take the hints of menace seriously. He is too intrigued, too fascinated, to leave. Staying at the château may prove to have been a rather serious mistake once the actual nature of the planned festivities becomes clear.

Fascination has the lyrical, poetic visual style you expect from Rollin.  It also has extremely competent acting, with Brigitte Lahaie and Franca Maï as the two disturbing young women and Jean-Marie Lemaire as the thief on the run all giving strong performances.  

The elegant chateau provides a perfect setting for a Rollin film. The movie is set in the early years of the 20th century and captures the feel of fin de siècle decadence very effectively. If you’re already a fan of Rollin’s brand of poetic and deliciously perverse erotic horror you won’t be disappointed by this movie.

Rollin was first and foremost a visual stylist. One gets the feeling that plotting only interested Rollin insofar as it contributed to the atmosphere and provided the excuse for creating striking images. In this case the plot, while rather thin, is relatively straightforward.  The surrealism comes from the manner in which the story is told and from the imagery.

Of course a Rollin vampire movie is going to feature lesbianism. While this was obviously good for the box-office it does serve a genuine purpose, lesbianism being (like vampirism) a sterile and rather self-reflexive kind of sexuality.

Interestingly enough, considering its release date, Fascination is fairly light on gore. Even the sex and nudity is even, by late 70s standards, rather restrained. In fact restraint is a hallmark of this particular film and it proves to be one of its strengths. Rollin’s aim was always to create a feeling of mystery and in this case the downplaying of the gore is accompanied by increased emphasis on mood. This is a movie that is for the most part subtly unsettling rather than shocking, which makes the few shocking moments all the more effective. In some ways it’s much more reminiscent of his 1973 non-vampire movie The Iron Rose than of his earlier vampire movies. It could in fact be argued that Fascination is not a vampire movie at all, but rather a movie about a group of women fatally fascinated by the vampire myth.

Rollin was never especially interested in horror as such, belonging more to the French tradition of le fantastique. He liked vampires not because they were frightening but because they were entrancing, creatures adrift in time and out of place in the real world. He was more anxious to create a sense of wonder suffused with melancholy than to scare his audience. That counted against him at the time but has worked in his favour as far as his enduring reputation is concerned.

Redemption’s Blu-Ray release is quite stunning and is a vast improvement over their old DVD release. Picture quality is pleasingly crisp and the colours and strong and vibrant. The extras include an episode of a 1999 TV documentary series called Eurotika dealing with European cult cinema, an episode that includes an extended interview with the director, and a booklet containing a perceptive essay on Rollin by Tim Lucas.

Fascination was one of Rollin’s most commercially successful movies and it’s also one of his most artistically satisfying creations. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

The Evil of Frankenstein, released in 1964, was the third film in Hammer’s Frankenstein cycle. It’s an interesting variation on the formula.

Once again the hostility of the locals to his experiments has forced Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing of course) and his assistant Hans (Sandor Elès) to flee. He decides to return to Karlstadt. Although he was banished from the town a decade earlier, he still has substantial assets there, assets which he needs to convert into cash to fund his scientific work. Unfortunately on his arrival he finds that his chateau has been looted and left in ruins.

By a strange stroke of fate, due to an encounter with a deaf-mute beggar girl (played by Katy Wild), he discovers the frozen body of the creature he had created there ten years earlier, and this inspires him to attempt to revive the monster.

Unfortunately it proves difficult to restore the creature to consciousness, until Frankenstein hits on the idea of using a travelling hypnotist (by chance it happens to be carnival time in Karlstadt) to re-awaken the creature’s brain. The hypnotist, Professor Zoltán (Peter Woodthorpe), turns out to be an evil hypnotist who plan to use his hold over Frankenstein’s creation in order to gain wealth and exact revenge on his own enemies.

The greatest strength of Hammer’s Frankenstein films is the character of Baron Frankenstein himself, an uneasy mix of idealism and arrogance, genius and insanity. Peter Cushing (giving some of his best ever performances in this role) was able to tease out the various strands in the baron’s make-up with considerable subtlety and sensitivity. The Evil of Frankenstein gives us some tantalising hint of the obsessed scientist’s character flaws and complexities, hints which perhaps should have been more fully developed.

Despite the title The Evil of Frankenstein shows us a relatively sympathetic Baron Frankenstein. The evil in this movie comes more from others who misuse his creation than from the baron himself. Cushing managed to make each of his performances as Frankenstein slightly different. This time around he’s certainly obsessive but his chief failure is his unwillingness to believe that his scientific work, pursued for what he conceives to be noble purposes, can have dangerous and disastrous results. He is a man embittered by what he sees as the refusal of the world to allow him to continue his research in peace, and further embittered when he realises too late that Professor Zoltán is not only using him but endangering his work. Cushing is able to convince us that Frankenstein genuinely believes himself to be a fundamentally benign misunderstood genius.

This movie also features a very sympathetic monster. Like his creator he is used for evil purposes by the unscrupulous Zoltán. There are some touching scenes between the monster and the deaf-mute beggar girl, who both seem to recognise each other instinctively as outcasts.

Cushing as always dominates but he gets good support from the other players with Peter Woodthorpe making an interesting villain, a man who is evil because he is weak and selfish and self-centred rather than actively pursuing evil.

The Frankenstein cycle presented Hammer with a major creative challenge. By its very nature it was a rather restrictive formula. Each movie had to have Baron Frankenstein creating (or in this case) recreating another monster who would eventually run amok and leave the baron’s work in ruins. It’s to the studio’s credit that they managed to keep adding enough variations to that basic formula to keep it interesting. In this case screenwriter Anthony Hinds came up with a rather clever idea, shifting the focus of evil onto another character (Professor Zoltán) thereby casting both Frankenstein and his monster as victims.

The movie has other strengths as well. Director Freddie Francis (who won two Academy Awards as a cinematographer) had a particular flair for visuals, and The Evil of Frankenstein looks quite wonderful. The baron’s laboratory is magnificent. The visual strengths are sufficient in themselves to maintain the viewer’s interest even when the plot falters.

Given that it’s the look of this movie that is its strong suit it’s fortunate that the DVD included in Universal’s superb eight-movie Hammer boxed set is absolutely stunning. The picture is crystal clear, the colours are rich and vibrant. It’s a feast for the eyes. 

The Evil of Frankenstein has always been unfavourably compared to the Terence Fisher-directed Frankenstein movies. While it lacks the subtlety and moral force of Fisher’s movies it’s a better movie than its reputation would suggest and it looks fabulous. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

I’m on a bit of a 1960s action adventure movie kick at the moment. Which brings me to Von Ryan’s Express, a World War 2 action flick about a mass escape of prisoners of war.

Colonel Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is an American flyer whose aircraft gets shot down over Italy in August 1943. He ends up in an Italian POW camp, and in the middle of a battle of wills between the camp commandant, Major Battaglia (Adolfo Celi), and the senior Allied officer among the prisoners, Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). The vast majority of the POWs are British with only a handful of Americans but Ryan is now the ranking officer among the prisoners.

Fincham is obsessed with the idea of organising escapes, even though it means exposing his men to extraordinary risks and to retaliatory action from Battaglia. Fincham has been stockpiling food and medical supplies for use in escape attempts even though his men are half starved and in urgent need of those medicines. Fincham and Ryan do not see eye to eye on this issue, and that’s putting it mildly. Ryan puts an end to what he regards as futile escape attempts - after all Italy is crumbling and it can only be a matter of weeks before the prisoners are freed by the advancing Allied armies. Ryan’s action is deeply resented by Fincham and by most of his men who take to referring to Ryan as Von Ryan.

Shortly afterwards Italy surrenders. The camp now has no guards. The prisoners are free. Well, sort of free. In fact they’re several hundred miles behind the enemy lines and the German Army is pouring into Italy to try to halt the invading Allies. They can leave the camp, but where do they go from there?

In the event they end up not going very far at all before being rounded up by the Germans and put on a train that will take them to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Being a prisoner of the Italians was really not so very bad, but the prospect of being a prisoner of the Germans is considerably less inviting.

Ryan however has no intention of spending the rest of the war in Germany. He might have been opposed to escape attempts from the Italian camp but he is very much in favour of escaping from the prison train. This is obviously going to be very difficult indeed. Any hope of success depends upon the willingness of Ryan and Fincham, who have been at daggers drawn, to work together. 

Hijacking a train full of armed German guards in the middle of German-controlled Italy seems like a suicidally bad idea but the very outrageousness of the idea works in its favour. Needless to say the train hijack sets up a string of action set-pieces all of which are extremely well executed.

Mark Robson had a somewhat bizarre career as a director. He did some excellent work for Val Lewton at RKO in the 40s, with The Seventh Victim being one of the best American movies of that decade. His later career was mixed to say the least. It included at least three legendary spectacularly bad movies, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake. What makes Robson interesting is that these three very bad movies are outrageously entertaining. They are also absurdly over-the-top. They’re trash, but they’re enormous fun. Von Ryan’s Express isn’t exactly trash but it certainly has a ludicrously over-the-top quality to it, and that sort of thing was right up Mark Robson’s alley. So it’s no real surprise that Robson does a great job with this movie.

The movie benefits considerably from the superb work of veteran cinematographer William H. Daniels. Daniels was one of the greats in his field. Sinatra liked his work so much he insisted on having him as cinematographer on most of his movies, which probably explains his presence here. 

The working relationship of Ryan and Fincham is central to the movie. Despite their often very strong disagreements they are both brave and resourceful men. Even when they had disagreed both had believed they were doing the right thing. Eventually they find they can work together, and a mutual respect slowly grows between the two men. Trevor Howard is ideal for this sort of role, playing a rather stiff-necked character who finds it very difficult to admit he can ever be wrong, but a man nonetheless with enough strength of character to overcome these personality flaws.

Frank Sinatra was notoriously lax in his attitude towards acting, generally refusing even to consider the possibility of doing retakes. He just wanted to get the job finished and collect his pay cheque and very few directors were strong enough to persuade him to take a more professional approach. Despite this it has to be said that he had a great deal of acting talent and could, if a role actually interested him, deliver the goods rather impressively. His laid-back approach works to his advantage here, with Ryan’s rather quixotic attitude towards the war contrasting nicely with Fincham’s overdeveloped sense of duty. Ryan is a deceptively complex character, a man with strong principles that he hides under a veneer of devil-may-care nonchalance. Sinatra’s low-key performance ends up being very effective.

Howard and Sinatra get good support from Sergio Fantoni as an Italian officer, Captain Oriani, who throws in his lot with the Allied prisoners. Oriani’s attitude towards the war is as quixotic as Ryan’s and not surprisingly they get along well.

To make a good action movie you need more than just a lot of explosions. You need to make the action scenes inventive, and Von Ryan’s Express scores highly in this area. The bombing of the railway yards with the train speeding through and the climactic scenes on the railway bridges are particularly impressive. 

Von Ryan’s Express is a classic action adventure movie and is a must-see for fans of the genre. Highly recommended.