Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

While their 1942 release The Mad Doctor of Market Street is a distinctly lesser entry in the Universal horror canon it does have Lionel Atwill in mad scientist mode and one or two other features that make it worth a look.

Several titles were considered when the project was being developed, including Terror of the Islands and Terror of the South Seas. This suggests it was initially conceived as a kind of tropical jungle romp. It ends up being a horror movie with not quite enough actual horror although the premise is promising enough (if not exactly startlingly original).

Ralph Benson (Lionel Atwill) is, like so many mad scientists in books and movies, trying to conquer death. He believes he can bring the dead back to life. The problem is that Benson is not the typical mad scientist, who usually starts out as a good man who ends up perverting his genius by pushing too far into dangerous areas of research. Right from the start he is a charlatan, a pseudoscientist with no real understanding of medical science. He might really believe he can restore life to the dead but that’s because he is not a real scientist. His research is a mishmash of garbled ideas he has stolen from others. He is not a good man who becomes evil through hubris or misfortune - he is dishonest, scheming and unscrupulous from the beginning. This is the most interesting thing about this movie and its main claim to originality.

There is a potential problem here. In most mad scientist movies we feel at least some sympathy for the mad scientist - we feel he could have been a great man if only he’d had slightly better judgment. We don’t feel any sympathy for Ralph Benson. He’s a fake, he’s dangerous and he is motivated purely by the lust for power and money (especially power). In this respect Lionel Atwill can be said to have made the right choices in his performance. Benson is a phony but he’s plausible and charming. Atwill’s performance is initially fairly restrained - he makes us feel that this is a man who could successfully fool people. As the story progresses Atwill’s performance becomes progressively more extreme (and delightfully so). As things start to go wrong we see Benson more and more as a psychopathic madman.

The story opens (moodily and stylishly) in San Francisco as an unfortunate and rather unwise young man, desperate for money, agrees to be used as a guinea pig in Benson’s experiments. The experiments go badly awry and Benson is soon on the run, wanted for murder.

He takes passage on a steamship, the S.S. Paradise, bound for New Zealand. The ship is destined never to reach its destination. It is shipwrecked and a small group of survivors find themselves on a remote Pacific Island. Among the survivors is Ralph Benson.

Benson soon convinces the natives he is a god. His scientific knowledge might be limited but he gets lucky and the natives believe he really can raise the dead. He continues his experiments, which is not good news for his fellow survivors, or for the natives. Since Benson’s science is no more than pseudoscience it’s inevitable that sooner or later he will stumble and once the natives start to doubt his godlike powers things are bound to get rather tricky for him. He is accepted as both god and absolute ruler of the island but his reign depends entirely on his ability to continue to perform miracles and of course miracles  turn out to be not so easy to perform.

There are enough good ideas here to make an excellent horror movie but by the early 1940s Universal’s horror films were tending more and more towards parody and light comedy so the ideas are not really developed sufficiently and the tone of the movie is too self-consciously comedic.

The casting is a problem. Atwill is excellent of course. The two romantic leads, Patricia (Claire Dodd) and Jim (Richard Davies), are adequate. Una Merkel was a fine comic actress but as Patricia’s Aunt Margaret she’s playing for pure comedy. She does this well enough but her performance pushes the movie too far in the direction of a lighthearted comic romp. This leaves Atwill as the only member of the cast actually trying to make a horror movie.

Despite these deficiencies there are some compensations. Joseph H. Lewis, later to become the darling of film critics for crucial entries in the film noir canon such as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, is the director. As always his approach is stylish and imaginative and as always Lewis demonstrates his ability to make a cheap B-movie look good. It also has to be said that even though Universal’s 1940s horror movies were mostly very inferior to their 1930s masterpieces the studio still had technicians with the skills to make these movies look great. Lewis gained the nickname Wagon-Wheel Joe for his penchant for shooting scenes through the spokes of wagon wheels in his early B westerns. It’s amusing to see him using some similar techniques here. 

There are a few quite effective and chilling images. The flower soaked in chloroform with which he subdues a native woman is a nicely creepy touch.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street is included in TCM’s five-movie Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. The transfer is very good and there are at least a few token extras.

This is by no means a classic of the genre but Atwill’s performance, Lewis’s direction and the slightly unusual approach to the mad scientist stereotype are enough to make it worthwhile viewing. Recommended.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Asylum (1972)

Hammer’s great rival in the British horror movie market in the 60s and 70s was Amicus Productions. Amicus specialised in horror anthology films, all of which are worth seeing, but in my view the best of all their films was their 1972 release Asylum.

Asylum was written by Robert Bloch, best known as the author of Psycho but an excellent and versatile writer of fiction in various genres. The director was Roy Ward Baker, one of the top British directors of the period (and a man who did some notable horror movies for Hammer as well).

Asylum benefits from a particularly strong framing story. Young psychiatrist Dr Martin (Robert Powell) has applied for a position as a houseman at an insane asylum. On arrival he discovers that the director of the hospital is now a patient. The assistant director sets Dr Martin a challenge. He has to interview four patients, one of whom is the asylum’s former director. If Dr Martin can correctly identify which patient is the former director he gets the job. Each of the four patients then tells his or her story, these stories being the movie’s four segments.

In the first of these, Frozen Fear, Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) is a young American having an affair with a middle-aged Englishman, Walter (Richard Todd). Since Walter’s wife (Sylvia Sims) controls the money and refuses to give him a divorce they plot to kill her. This proves to be more difficult than they expected, which may or may not be because the wife is a student of voodoo. It’s a nicely macabre story, very much what you expect from Robert Bloch. Parkins was a competent actress. Richard Todd’s career may have been on the downslide but he was an excellent actor and he does well here.

In the second part, The Weird Tailor, Barry Morse plays a tailor name Bruno desperate for money who is delighted when the mysterious Smith (Peter Cushing) offers him a huge fee for a rather unusual suit. The suit is in fact very unusual indeed. Cushing is delightfully creepy and, as he so often did, he makes Smith a figure who is both terrifying and tragic. Barry Morse (a fine and underrated actor) is able to make Bruno almost pathetic but not quite and he does a fine job in emphasising Bruno’s desperation for money which warps his judgment.

The third segment, Lucy Comes to Stay, involves a young woman named Barbara (Charlotte Rampling). Barbara has been released from a mental hospital after a breakdown but her brother George (the delightfully smooth and urbane James Villiers) is not convinced that she has fully recovered. He employs a nurse to keep an eye on her. He had hoped that they had heard the last of Lucy (Britt Eckland) but his hopes are to be sadly disappointed. Rampling was not yet a star but she already has that slightly odd quality that always made her so interesting. Britt Eckland has rarely received much respect as an actress and that’s a trifle unfair. Her performance is more than competent.

The fourth segment (Mannikins of Horror) features the inimitable Herbert Lom as Byron, a man who believes he can transfer his mind into a toy robot. 

One of this film’s major asset is the stellar cast. Apart from those already mentioned there’s Geoffrey Bayldon as the hospital’s unctuous porter and Patrick Magee as the assistant director, Dr Rutherford. This is a movie in which everyone is so perfectly cast that it’s hard to pick a single standout performance. They’re all so good.

Asylum is an example of just how good a modestly budgeted movie can be with the right people involved. Director Roy Ward Baker, cinematographer Denys N. Coop, editor Peter Tanner and art director Tony Curtis were all professionals and the results are very good indeed. 

Camera tricks like Dutch angles generally need to be used judiciously but in this case, given the subject matter and the asylum setting, they’re entirely appropriate and are used to good effect. While much of the movie was made as Shepperton Studios there’s a considerable amount of location shooting as well. Amicus, like Hammer, were able to make cheap movies that looked more expensive than they were.

Amicus, very wisely, did not try to copy the Hammer style directly. Hammer were the masters of gothic horror so Amicus concentrated on contemporary chillers. This gives Amicus’s movies their own distinctive flavour.

Robert Bloch’s screenplay adapted four of his own earlier short stories. Lucy Comes to Stay was a story that he considered to be a kind of dry run for Psycho.

Dark Sky’s DVD presentation includes a brief but quite informative featurette on the history of Amicus Productions and an audio commentary with Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney. Their recollections of the making of the film are still vivid and they are clearly (and with reason) quite proud of it. The transfer is good although not outstanding.

There’s no gore but there’s plenty of suspense and a nicely creepy atmosphere of crazed weirdness. You just don’t need gore in a horror movie if you know what you’re doing. Asylum is one of the most enjoyable of all British horror movies of this era. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Magician (1926)

The Magician is a 1926 horror melodrama based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name. It’s a movie that deserves to be better remembered - in fact it’s one of the best American horror movies of the silent era.

Maugham’s novel tells the story of magician Oliver Haddo. The character was based on Aleister Crowley. Maugham had met Crowley and taken an immediate dislike to the man. Crowley was of course a charlatan, although a rather interesting one. 

In the movie Haddo (played by Paul Wegener), an occultist, pseudo-scientist, hypnotist and would-be alchemist, is searching for a magical formula that will enable him to create life. Having found the formula all he needs is the heart blood of a pure maiden, and he finds a suitable victim in the person of sculptress Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry). Margaret is part of the Parisian artistic avant-garde and moving in such circles it’s perhaps not surprising that she should encounter a dangerous madman like Haddo.

Margaret is engaged to a brilliant young American surgeon, Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich), who has saved her from paralysis after a freak accident in her studio. One of her statues, a rather grotesque faun, fell on her and crushed her (in a wonderfully bizarre scene that sets the tone of the picture rather well). Oliver Haddo is determined to prevent this marriage and he uses his hypnotic gifts to persuade Margaret to marry him. Dr Burdon, along with Margaret’s guardian Dr Porhoet (Firmin Gémier), is equally determined to win her back and to save her from the grisly fate Haddo has in store for her.

Irish-born Rex Ingram was one of the great silent film directors. He was never particularly happy with the Hollywood approach to film-making and made many of his movies (most of which starred his wife Alice Terry) outside the US, although still under the MGM banner. Ingram’s career more or less ended with the introduction of talking pictures. 

The Magician features a good deal of location shooting and despite being a silent film it has a surprisingly modern feel to it. Those who avoid silent movies because of the exaggerated acting styles of the period need have no fears with this movie - the acting is extremely naturalistic. 

Even Paul Wegener as the villain resists the temptation to indulge in histrionic gestures and his character is all the scarier for his restraint. Wegener was most famous for his roles in classics of German Expressionist cinema such as The Golem. Alice Terry underplays as well, and does so very effectively.

It’s the visuals that are the heart of the film and Ingram proves himself to be a master in this department. He avoids the extremes of German Expressionism but this film has an abundance of superbly atmospheric and subtly sinister images. The one sequence in which Ingram really lets himself go is a hypnotic dream sequence but despite its excessiveness it works very well without becoming merely silly.

The Magician has all the themes that would soon become such familiar ingredients of the classic horror movie - a mad scientist villain who tries to play God in time-honoured Dr Frankenstein style, with the sort of laboratory that all self-respecting mad scientists should have, a wonderfully gothic sorcerer’s tower, a ghastly experiment carried out at the height of a raging thunderstorm, a damsel in distress, a noble hero determined to save said damsel, a malevolent dwarf assistant for the mad scientist,  and plenty of creepy gothic atmosphere. It’s also remarkably well-paced.

The sets are terrific and the art direction in general is magnificent.

Like so many silent movies this one makes good use of tinting, a technique that sadly went of fashion after the end of the silent era. 

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD features a pretty decent print. There’s some print damage but on the whole the image quality is clear and crisp. Considering the age of the film and the fact that it has not been subject to a full-scale restoration it has to be said that it looks exceptionally good.

The Magician is visually stunning and very entertaining. While it’s a genuine horror movie it’s pure melodrama in tone, which is fine by me. A true neglected masterpiece of silent cinema. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966)

Our Man in Marrakesh (also released under the title Bang! Bang! You're Dead!) is a low-key spy spoof from prolific producer Harry Alan Towers whose spectacularly uneven output   embraced just about every exploitation genre one can think of. This particular production can best be described as innocuous but fairly entertaining.

Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) is a spymaster anxiously awaiting a courier bringing two million dollars to buy some sensitive documents that he’s obtained by presumably rather nefarious methods. He knows the courier is one of six people catching a bus from Marrakesh but unfortunately he has no idea which one is the courier. Compounding the problem is that not one of the six people is what he appears to be.

Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) has come to Marrakesh to build a hotel but he’s masquerading as an oilman. Krya Stanovy (Senta Berger) has half a dozen explanations for her presence in Morocco, none of them true. Mr Fairbrother (Wilfred Hyde-White) claims to be selling bathroom fittings while Mr Lillywhite (John le Mesurier) claims to be a promoter of package tours.

Jessel and Krya are thrown together when a dead body is found in Jessel’s hotel room. They have the police after them and Casimir’s men as well, led by the sinister Jonquil (Klaus Kinski). After being chased over half of Morocco they encounter an unlikely chieftain of a band of Arab bandits - the Eton-educated Al Caid (Terry-Thomas).

The plot is not exactly strong on originality but it doesn’t really matter. Don Sharp’s typically energetic direction ensures that the action doesn’t flag. And there is quite a bit of action.

This movie’s biggest asset is the delightful cast. Tony Randall might be an unlikely hero for a spy movie but this is hardly a serious spy movie and in any case Andrew Jessel is the archetypal innocent caught up in a web of espionage that he finds utterly bewildering and Randall has no difficulty playing that sort of character. In fact he’s rather good.

Senta Berger manages to be slightly ditzy, glamorous, mysterious and appealing which is exactly what her rôle calls for. Herbert Lom oozes smooth sinister charm in the inimitable Herbert Lom manner. Klaus Kinski was always well cast as a colourful heavy while Margaret Lee is fun as Casimir’s dotty girlfriend. John le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White are wonderful as ever while Terry-Thomas sparkles as the old Etonian brigand leader. It’s a superb cast perfectly suited to the material.

While it was the Bond films that caused the 60s spy movie craze Our Man in Marrakesh is not, unlike the Derek Flint movies (such as Our Man Flint) or the Matt Helm movies (such as The Wrecking Crew), a spoof of the Bond movies. It’s a spoof of an earlier generation of spy movies - movies like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest - which typically featured an ordinary guy who gets mixed up in espionage very much against his will.

Don Sharp was a logical choice to direct. He could always get good results on a limited budget and he was more than competent when it came to action scenes (and this one includes a couple of pretty decent action set-pieces).

The location shooting in Morocco certainly paid off, giving the movie the ideal atmosphere of intrigue in exotic locales.

While this is a spoof it’s a gentle kind of spoof. Don’t expect the outlandishness of a Matt Helm movie. This is a much more low-key sort of movie. There’s plenty of amusement to be had but then it throws in a moderately serious spy movie climax with a bit of real excitement. 

This DVD is typical of Network’s releases - a good anamorphic transfer, no extras, and fairly reasonably priced.

Our Man in Marrakesh is the sort of movie that could never be made today. It’s innocent gently tongue-in-cheek good-natured fun with zero social comment and zero irony, absolutely no graphic violence and barely a hint of sex. It aims to do nothing more than deliver light-hearted entertainment and it succeeds admirably. It also has a simply wonderful cast. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Last Grenade (1970)

The mercenary action movie was a very small sub-genre that perhaps surprisingly produced two great movies, Dark of the Sun (1968) and The Wild Geese (1978). Sadly The Last Grenade doesn’t even come close to the quality of those films although it did have definite potential.

Major Harry Grigsby (Stanley Baker) and Kip Thompson (Alex Cord) are mercenaries in Africa. Thompson betrays Grigsby and kills most of his men in the process. This betrayal provides the movie’s best moments in the form of the superb action set-piece that opens the movie, with a truly stupendous number of explosions.

Grigsby wants revenge and he gets the chance when the British government hires him to hunt Thompson down and kill him. Thompson has been causing them major problems in Hong Kong. The British want him dead but they don’t want to be seen to be involved. General Charles Whiteley (Richard Attenborough) will give Grigsby as much assistance as possible, on an unofficial basis of course.

Grigsby teams up with his old comrades Sergeant Gordon Mackenzie (Andrew Keir), Andy Royal (Julian Glover) and Terry MItchell (John Thaw). His plans for revenge don’t exactly go smoothly. In fact they go very badly and Grigsby ends up in hospital in Hong Kong.

Grigsby is a very sick man. He has tuberculosis and he knows time is running out for him. While recuperating he and General Whiteley’s wife Katherine (Honor Blackman) fall in love and begin an affair. It’s at this point that the movie loses its way badly. The romantic sub-plot does serve an important purpose in advancing the plot but unfortunately it does so in a very obvious and predictable manner, and the romantic scenes are clumsy, unconvincing and tedious.

Oddly enough, rather than humanising the hero the romance ends up making him both less sympathetic and less convincing - Grigsby doesn’t really seem the type to steal another man’s wife in such an underhanded and sleazy manner. On the other hand while I would hazard a guess that we’re supposed to see Katherine Whiteley as a free spirit trapped in a dull marriage to me she comes across as being exactly the sort of woman who would betray her husband.

The romance also brings the main plot to a standstill, and it never regains its momentum.

On the plus side there’s the strong cast. Stanley Baker has the charisma to carry off the rôle of Grigsby in fine style. Andrew Keir, John Thaw and Julian Glover provide fine support although the latter two are unfortunately rather under-used. Richard Attenborough manages to bring both the necessary pomposity and the necessary dignity to his performance as General Whiteley. Honor Blackman does her best and it’s hardly her fault that her character serves little purpose.

The weak link is Alex Cord’s ham-fisted performance as Kip Thompson. He’s an odd character for such a film - a crazed drug-addled hippie mercenary. Cord’s performance is hopelessly muddled and unconvincing.

The contrast between Grigsby, the old school professional soldier who (despite being a mercenary) has old-fashioned notions of honour and loyalty, and the calculatingly cynical but deranged Thompson could have been interesting. Unfortunately Thompson never becomes more than a cartoon villain.

Director Gordon Flemyng spent most of his career in television. While he shows considerable skill in handling the action sequences the movie suffers from very poor pacing and whenever the focus shifts away from the action it becomes dull and lifeless.

The biggest problem is that while the action scenes are good there aren’t enough of them. In particular the ending falls very flat - we assume it’s all leading up to a spectacular climax but it just doesn’t happen.

Scorpio Releasing have issued some rather interesting 1960s and 1970s cult films on DVD and they’ve done a pretty fair job with The Last Grenade. Picture quality is mostly very good. There are no extras.

In spite of a few good moments The Last Grenade is on the whole a disappointment - it goes off not with a bang but a whimper. Maybe worth a look if you’re a very dedicated Stanley Baker fan.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Shadow of the Cat is a 1961 British gothic horror movie that is almost a Hammer film. It was shot at Bray Studios, it was directed by John Gilling who went on to make some of Hammer’s best 60s horror films, it stars Barbara Shelley, it was photographed by Arthur Grant and the production design was by Bernard Robinson. Officially, and for complex legal and financial reasons, it was credited to BHP Productions but it was in fact a Hammer film in all but name.

On the other hand it’s also very different to the usual run of Hammer gothic horror movies. More on that later.

Ella Venable has mysteriously disappeared. Actually there’s nothing mysterious about it - the audience knows right from the word go that Ella has been the victim of foul play. There was only one witness to the crime - Ella’s cat Tabitha. Now you might think that a killer has nothing to worry about when the only witness is a cat. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. 

Tabitha is not exactly a helpless little kitty. Ordinarily she’s the friendliest of felines but she doesn’t take kindly to having her mistress murdered. She wants revenge. And for a small tabby cat she’s rather determined.

Ella’s husband Walter (André Morell) has called Ella’s niece to the house, partly to give her the bad news that Ella wrote her out of her will shortly before her disappearance. Walter has also assembled other family members - the three most disreputable members of the family. He needs help in order to deal with a formidable menace - one small tabby cat. Walter has his faithful butler Andrew but although Andrew is a strong healthy young man he’s no match for an enraged and vengeful feline.

One interesting, and clever, feature of this film is that the cat’s actions are somewhat ambiguous. The murderers certainly believe the cat is actively plotting to get them. But does the cat actually have supernatural (or at least preternatural) powers? Or has Tabitha simply seen something horrific and is she is now merely behaving the way any animal might behave, striking out instinctively at people who have frightened her? We do get some intriguing cat point-of-view shots that imply that the cat has a more-than-animal understanding of the situation but even here she could be just fixating on something that has disturbed her animal mind. There’s a memorable scene where Walter is stalking the cat in the basement but we have the distinct impression that it’s really the cat who is stalking him. This ambiguity works quite effectively - is it the cat seeking revenge or the killers’ own consciences haunting them?

Hammer made movies in black-and-white but their gothic horror movies were invariably in colour. This was what gave them their distinctive flavour - gothic atmosphere achieved with bold lush colour rather than moody black-and-white. Shadow of the Cat is however in black-and-white. This, among other things, makes it seem old-fashioned compared to the typical Hammer gothics. One thing is immediately apparent - director Gilling and cinematographer Arthur Grant can make a black-and-white horror movie look every bit as good as a colour film. They can use shadows just as effectively as they used bold colour in other Hammer productions. If you’re a fan of the classic Universal style of black-and-white gothic horror you will be well satisfied with the job they’ve done here.

The movie opens with a shot of the decaying gothic mansion of the Venables. It is your typical gothic dark and stormy night, and an old lady is reading Poe aloud. This again emphasises the movie’s affinity with the classic American horror cinema of the 1930s. 

Another point of departure from the regular Hammer style is the setting. It’s Edwardian England rather than 19th century central Europe, with cars as well as carriages.

Barbara Shelley was one of the great scream queens and she gives her usual fine performance. André Morell, a splendid actor, is wonderful as the irascible but very frightened Walter. The other cast members are excellent but it’s Shelley and Morell who dominate the movie.

This movie is at times reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies that were so popular in the 1930s. The atmosphere and the setup are both similar and it has a lot of the same ingredients - a group of people who don’t trust one another thrown together in a crumbling gothic pile, a plot driven by scheming relatives after an inheritance, suggestions of the supernatural that may turn out to be no more than suspicions.

Apart from its gothic trappings Shadow of the Cat has a lot more in common with Hammer’s black-and-white contemporary psychological thrillers of the early 60s than with their gothic horror movies.

One criticism that has been leveled at this movie is that a small domestic cat is not a very scary monster. That criticism misses the point. In fact the key to the movie is that it’s a psychological horror movie not a monster movie. The cat is not the monster. The monsters are human. The cat is merely the catalyst (if you’ll excuse my awful pun) that triggers the killers’ own feelings of guilt and anxiety.

On the subject of the cat special mention must be made of the cat’s trainer, John Holmes. This is not the kind of movie in which the cat just has to sit on a cushion looking cute. She’s not a bit player, she’s one of the leads and she has to do some serious acting! Getting the cat to do what was needed on cue must have been quite a challenge but however they did it it worked.

Network have done their customary very creditable job with the DVD. Picture quality is superb. Unusually for Network there are some worthwhile extras including an excellent documentary on the film.

Shadow of the Cat is not at all a typical Hammer production but it’s a well-crafted and generally very nifty little horror flick. It is a throwback to an earlier era of horror, which may be one of the reasons it’s been so often overlooked. The old-fashioned feel is however quite deliberate and today it makes this film seem quite refreshing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Meteor (1979)

Meteor was one of the last of the 1970s disaster movies. In some ways it’s the most ambitious of all - the fate of the entire planet is at stake. Unfortunately it combines high ambitions with a limited budget and woefully inadequate special effects.

Dr Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) is a former NASA scientist who is urgently summoned to deal with a crisis. A very big crisis. A new comet had been spotted a week or so earlier. Nothing surprising in that, new comets appear regularly. This one was headed for the Asteroid Belt and as luck would have it the Americans had a manned space probe already on its way to Mars. NASA’s chief thought it would be a cool idea to divert the probe to get a good look at the comet. They ended up getting much too close a look as the comet ploughed into one of the larger asteroids, Orpheus. The asteroid broke up and now the fragments are headed towards Earth. One of these fragments is rather large - about five miles across - and it appears to be on a collision course with Earth.

Dr Bradley’s help is wanted because he was the man behind Project Hercules, a satellite armed with fourteen nuclear missiles designed for the specific purpose of dealing with just such an emergency. Unfortunately the decision was taken that rather than have the missiles aimed into outer space so they could intercept rogue asteroids they should instead be aimed at the Soviet Union. Now NASA needs someone who can realign the satellite to shoot down that pesky asteroid.

Dr Bradley reaches the worrying conclusion that fourteen nukes will not be enough to stop the asteroid. If only they had another nuclear-armed satellite! In fact there is another such satellite. The Soviets have one. The Soviets have never admitted that their Peter the Great satellite exists, but then the Americans have never admitted that Hercules exists either.

The obvious thing to do is to talk to the Russians. Since the Russians are also well aware of the approaching asteroid it isn’t too hard to get them to agree to send the astrophysicist responsible for the design of their satellite to the US to consult with Dr Bradley. Dr Dubov (Brian Keith) assures Dr Bradley that the Russians have no such satellite but speaking entirely hypothetically if they had built such a satellite it would have been armed with sixteen missiles and it would indeed have been placed in orbit exactly where the Americans believe it to be. And yes, purely hypothetically of course, it would then be possible to combine the striking power of Peter the Great and Hercules. And yes, he would be quite happy to give Dr Bradley the necessary information to realign this hypothetical satellite to aim its missiles at the asteroid.

Dr Dubov had been accompanied to the US by his trusted assistant and interpreter Tatiana (Natalie Wood). Tatiana is a widow (her cosmonaut husband had been killed a few years earlier) and Dr Bradley is separated from his wife. No viewer is going to be surprised when they take a bit of a shine to one another.

Dr Bradley and his team, along with Dr Dubov, head for the top-secret launch command centre of Project Hercules, cunningly concealed beneath New York. With the (hypothetical)  Russian satellite they now have thirty nukes, enough to deal with menacing asteroids. In theory. The trouble is that no-one has ever tried blowing up an asteroid before so no-one has any idea if the plan will actually work. meanwhile smaller fragments of Orpheus are already hitting the Earth, causing widespread devastation. If the missile plan doesn’t work it’s goodbye to civilisation.

As far as disaster movie plots go this one is no sillier than average and Meteor had the potential to be a disaster movie classic. This is however an American International Pictures  production, with the sort of parsimonious budget you expect from AIP. Had the movie been released a decade or two earlier nobody would have worried about the iffy special effects. They would have been regarded as par for the course for sci-fi movies and people would simply have enjoyed the movie as an exciting B-picture aimed at the drive-in market. By 1979 however audiences expected every sci-fi movie to look as good as Star Wars. And judged by the standards of Star Wars the special effects in Meteor just don’t cut it. They don’t cut it at all. In fact they’re basically 1950s standard. Of course for someone like me that’s no problem - it just adds to the fun. But it certainly was not going to help this picture at the box office.

The Project Hercules headquarters in a disused subway station beneath the Hudson River is quite a cool idea and looks good.

Meteor does benefit from an impressive cast. The characterisation is practically non-existent so what the producers needed were actors with charisma and energy who were not afraid to go over-the-top. Sean Connery, with charisma to burn, was an ideal choice as the hero. Karl Malden is very good as the NASA chief. Henry Fonda makes a brief appearance as the US President and he manages to look grave and presidential which is all that was required of him. Martin Landau goes gleefully berserk as a disgruntled general.  For some reason it was decided to make the Russian scientist, Dr Dubov, unable to speak English. This means that Brian Keith has to deliver all his dialogue in Russian. Dramatically this does work pretty well. In fact he pretty much steals the picture with a deliciously excessive performance - he even gets to sing! In Russian! Since she’s playing a Russian interpreter Natalie Wood gets to practice her Russian as well. And since she’s an astrophysicist as well as an interpreter her character actually serves some purpose.

Ronald Neame had directed The Poseidon Adventure a few years earlier so he must have seemed like an obvious choice to direct Meteor. In fact Meteor does have a few very Poseidon Adventure-like moments in its later stages. Given the pitifully inadequate special effects budget Neame does his best and he keeps things reasonably exciting.

This very much a movie from the age of detente, when (relatively) peaceful co-existence and even limited co-operation between the two super powers seemed to be entirely possible. There are no bad guys in this movie. Both the Americans and the Russians were equally at fault in building satellites with missiles aimed at each other, and both are equally willing to work together to save the world. Dr Dubov is not only the most interesting and entertaining character in the film he’s also a thoroughly charming fellow.

Sir Run Run Shaw was also involved in the production of this movie, which undoubtedly explains the scenes of Hong Kong menaced by a tidal wave.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray looks splendid although it’s disappointingly lacking in any extras at all.

No sane person would attempt to argue that Meteor is a great movie, or even a good movie. It is however quite entertaining if you’re prepared to accept ridiculously cheap special effects as a feature rather than a bug in a science fiction disaster movie.