Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

I’m now determined to work my way through all of the Roger Moore James Bond movies, And they’re proving to be considerably more enjoyable than I’d expected! Last night it was The Man with the Golden Gun.

With Christopher Lee as the villain you’d think you couldn’t go wrong. And you’d be right. He’s a splendid villain, striking just the right balance between scenery-chewing and genuine menace. And this movie boasts not one but two Bond girls! There’s a serious glamorous Bond girl (Maud Adams) and an equally glamorous comic-relief Bond girl (Britt Ekland). But let’s face it you can’t have too much feminine pulchritude in a Bond movie.

Christopher Lee is Scaramanga, the world’s most expensive hitman. Nobody knows what he looks like, but his signature is that he always kills with a golden bullet. In fact he fires the golden bullet from a golden gun. He can afford such indulgences, since his price is a cool one million dollars per hit. And it now appears that his latest target is Agent 007.

Bond is naturally keen to find Scaramamaga before the mysterious assassin finds him. His search takes him to the usual array of exotic locations, and eventually to Scaramanga’s lover, the beautiful Andrea Anders (Maud Adams). Of course it turns out that this was no simple hit and that much more is at stake, and that Scaramanga has his own agenda.

Bond has two assistants this time, a tough Thai cop and a beautiful but not overly efficient British secret agent named Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). Miss Goodnight is however keen to help. She also seems rather keen on getting Bond into bed.

Scaramanga has an assistant of his own, the pocket-sized Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize, best known as Ricardo Montalban's midget assistant in the Fantasy Island TV series.

This movie doesn’t have as much spectacular gadgetry as the typical Bond movie but it still has plenty of impressive action sequences. And Scaramanga’s solar cannon is fun. Mention should also be made of the British secret service headquarters in Hong Kong Harbour - I won’t spoil it by revealing the location but it’s a nice touch, and wonderfully British.

It also departs from the usual style in that the chief bad guy isn’t just pulling the strings behind the scenes. He’s an action hero as well, and while Bond is stalking him he’s also stalking Bond. And he’s a villain with a lot more overt physical menace than the typical Bond diabolical criminal mastermind. It’s a variation that works pretty well.

Maud Adams has the looks but her performance is perhaps just a little less than riveting. It’s fortunate that Britt Ekland is on hand. At this point I have to make a confession. I rather like Britt Ekland. OK, she was never going to pay Lady Macbeth, but to be fair she was never daft enough to think she could. She knew her limitations and worked within them. And for this kind of light comedy role combined with a rather charming dolly-bird style of glamour she’s just right.

Moore is in fine form. In only his second outing in the role he already seems quite at home. There’s quite an emphasis on comedy in this film, with Clifton James providing additional comic relief in the role of Sheriff J. W. Pepper (which he also played in the previous film, Live and Let Die).

The sets aren’t as elaborate as in some of the other Bond movies, but they are cleverly done. Scaramanga’s fun-house is very effective.

There’s action, there’s fun, there’s glamour. There’s not really much to complain about here. It’s a pretty worthy addition to the Bond canon.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

moving this blog, or possibly shutting it down

I'm thinking of moving this blog, or possibly shutting it down. I'm just so exasperated with the awfulness of the Blogger interface. Even fairly simple things like positioning images are a huge drama. And the Blogger Help Centre is monumentally useless.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sorority Girl (1957)

Sorority Girl is a slightly odd entry in Roger Corman’s filmography. It’s one of his early efforts as a producer/director and was certainly marketed as an exploitation feature for the drive-in crowd.

What it actually is is a combination of teen flick and 1940s-style women’s melodrama. In some ways it reminds me of the American exploitation movies of the 30s which were often essentially women’s melodramas spiced up with exploitation elements. And like those movies Sorority Girl seems to promise more luridness than we actually get. The poster would lead us to expect a certain amount of sexual kinkiness plus lots of spanking. Well I guess it isn’t all empty promises - we do indeed get a spanking scene. Yes, with the paddle depicted on the poster.

Most movies of that era dealing with juvenile delinquents or related subjects focused either on nice clean-cut small-town kids gone bad, or tough kids from the wrong side of town who were always bad. But in Sorority Girl the bad kids are wealthy kids attending an Ivy League college. It’s an anticipation of much later movies that would explore this kind of Spoilt Rich Kid territory.

There’s very little to the plot. Sabra (Susan Cabot) comes from a very wealthy family indeed, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to be accepted by the other girls in her sorority. The boys seem to steer clear of her as well, even though she’s quite pretty (and rich). As the movie unfolds we discover that Sabra has some major psychological and emotional issues, and we’re less and less surprised that nobody likes her.

Sabra’s mother is rich and selfish and has always regarded Sabra as an annoyance. She has never felt accepted anywhere, and her resentment causes her to lash out. She has a compulsion to be nasty to people, to the point of ensuring that they won’t like her. Her pledge, Ellie, is the one exception, displaying a rather pathetic devotion although she’s a little less devoted after Sabra loses her temper and gives her a good spanking with the afore-mentioned paddle.

When her hated mother cuts off her allowance she becomes desperate, and her behaviour becomes increasingly unstable until events spiral out of her control.

With a barebones plot the movie is forced to rely on characterisation, and Sabra is an undeniably fascinating character, and much more complex than you expect in a 50s teen movie. Here again the movie bears more resemblance to the classic women’s melodramas of the 40s with their focus on troubled, complicated and not always easily likeable women. This demands quite a lot of Susan Cabot who has to do a lot more acting than she was called upon to do in later Corman films like Wasp Woman. And she does a pretty fair job. The tale of Susan Cabot’s own life and death is actually as bizarre as the plot of a Roger Corman film, but that’s another story.

The teen pregnancy sub-plot adds to the exploitation elements but the main focus is always on Sabra’s descent into her own private emotional hell. Corman takes his material quite seriously, and most of the cast members do so as well, and the end result is a movie that is more intelligent and more emotionally charged than your average 50s drive-in movie.

The fact that this was 1957 and there was therefore no way to deliver the kind of luridness that this kind of movie would certainly have featured had it been made a decade later works in its favour. It has no choice but to take itself seriously and to capture and keep our attention by making us care about the characters. And it explores the subject of mental illness with surprising subtlety.

The Region 4 DVD release is acceptable as far as sound and image quality are concerned, although the picture is perhaps a little washed out. There are no extras at all.

A surprisingly decent if odd little movie.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Red Sonja (1985)

Conan the Barbarian inspired a short-lived boom in sword & sorcery movies in the 80s. None of the official or unofficial sequels (or just plain rip-offs) of that movie have a good reputation, and Red Sonja is a movie that very few people seem to have a good word for.

Maybe its because my expectations were very low, or maybe it’s because I was comparing it to Deathstalker which I saw (and hated) recently, but I found myself enjoying Red Sonja more than I’d anticipated.

For copyright reasons the producers weren’t able to make another Conan movie, but they still wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger. So this time Schwarzenegger’s character is renamed Kalidor, and (more surprisingly) he’s not the hero. He’s the sidekick. The hero, or in this case heroine, is Red Sonja, played by Danish model Brigitte Nielsen. Although a character named Red Sonya had played a minor role in one of Robert E. Howard’s stories the Red Sonja of the movie is based on a character invented by some of the many writers who have continued to churn out mostly second-rate imitations of Howard’s work since his death.

The plot is nothing more than a collection of clichés but in a movie of this type that doesn’t matter too much. What you want is a mix of action and humour, with larger-than-life heroes and villains. In any case the plot, such as it is, begins with Red Sonja’s family being largely wiped out by the villain of the piece, the wicked lesbian Queen Gedren. Gedren’s soldiers rape Sonja, and worse is to come. Sonja’s sister Varna dies at the hands of Queen Gedren, trying to prevent Gedren from capturing a magic talisman known as The Talisman.

The gods have compensated Sonja somewhat for her misfortunes. They have given her the strength to become a mighty warrior. Sonja has spent years training and perfecting her fighting skills. Now she must find and destroy The Talisman. She intends to do this alone, but instead accumulates no less than three sidekicks. One is a boy prince named Tam whose city was destroyed by Queen Gedren. He’s accompanied by his chief courtier and general dogsbody, Falkon. The third is Kalidor. Sonja isn’t the kind of girl who needs rescuing by muscle-bound barbarian heroes like Kalidor but she has to admit that he does come in handy at times. And although she has sworn not to have sex with men it’s clear that she thinks he’s pretty hunky.

They have the usual adventures, encountering bandits and mechanical dragon monsters along the way, before the final showdown with Gedren. And in their spare time Sonja and Kalidor practise their own odd courtship rituals, which mostly involve attacking each other with swords.

Schwarzenegger gets less to do than usual, not being the chief hero, but he’s more than adequate for this type of thing. Given that Brigitte Nielsen is just over six feet tall she certainly has the physical presence her role requires. She can’t act at all, but she isn’t really called upon to do any serious acting anyway. Ernie Reyes Jr as Prince Tam and Paul L. Smith as Falkon provide the comic relief. They’re not overly annoying and they’re even quite amusing at times. Sandahl Bergman can’t act either, but as the evil mastermind
Queen Gedren she really only needs to look suitably villainous and glamorous, with more than a hint of sexual perversity, which she manages quite successfully.

This movie has the feel of an old-fashioned Italian sword & sandal epic, probably not surprisingly given that Dino de Laurentiis had assembled a mostly Italian crew and the film was shot in Italy. I think it’s that old-fashioned fun feel that I liked. Despite some of the ingredients’ having the potential to make a fairly dark movie the end result is more of a light-hearted adventure romp.

It’s not by any means a great movie, or even (to be perfectly honest) a good movie, but it’s an entertaining popcorn movie.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Fathom (1967)

Fathom is one if those movies that works extremely well for what it is. If you expect more than it’s capable of delivering you’ll be disappointed, but if you accept it as a light-hearted adventure romp you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable time with it.

It starts out giving the impression it’s another 60s spy spoof movie, but really it’s more of a spoof of crime caper movies.

Raquel Welch is the improbably named Fathom Harvill. She’s a dental technician who spends her weekends sky-diving. She’s a little surprised to find herself recruited by the British security services for a secret mission involving the recovery of a top-secret H-bomb component. At least the two guys who recruit her tell her they’re from British Intelligence, and that the Fate of Civilisation As We Know It is at stake. Fathom isn’t a fool and she’s sceptical, but it sounds like her part in the mission is fairly minor and not overly dangerous.

All she has to do is to accidentally land her parachute in the grounds of a house in Spain that is being used as a base by a couple of Red Chinese spies (played by Greta Chi and Tony Franciosa). This is when Fathom gets double-crossed for the first time, finds herself a murder suspect, and is told yet another very convincing tale.

It eventually turns out that what everyone is after isn’t connected with H-bombs, but rather with ancient Chinese treasure. There are three groups all trying to get their hands on the fabled Fire Dragon, and all of them have very convincing stories to prove that they’re the good guys and the others are just crooks, and all of them seem to need Fathom’s help. And since she’s been framed for more than one murder she doesn’t much choice other than to become more and more involved.

Fathom throws in lots of silly fun elements, from exploding ear-rings to speedboat chases and Fathom even finds herself in a bullring facing a rather annoyed bull. This is no James Bond film, it doesn’t have that kind of budget, but it has some reasonable stunts involving scuba diving, train chases, aircraft chases and car chases. And of course sky-diving.

What’s probably most notable about this for a 1967 movie is that Raquel Welch is not the hero’s girlfriend, nor is she a helpless female who needs to be rescued constantly, nor is she there merely to provide glamour (although of course being Raquel Welch she does provide considerable glamour). She’s the action hero, and she gets to do the hero stuff herself. But she’s not an ice-cool professional lady spy/crime-fighter like Emma Peel. She’s a reluctant amateur who just happens to be smart enough and resourceful enough to deal with the situations she finds herself in. And since her hobby is sky-diving we accept that she’s athletic enough and brave enough to get away with it.

Raquel gets able support from Tony Franciosa as a smooth talker who could be anything from a private eye to a jewel thief to a spy. He’s the sort of guy who can charm himself out of most situations. Richard Briers is an unlikely action hero, but then he’s not supposed to be a competent action hero. As the offsider of the mysterious Colonel Campbell he’s probably more dangerous to himself than to anyone else. Ronald Fraser is amusing as always as the man who may be a spymaster or a common crook. Clive Revill overacts outrageously as yet another mysterious stranger who wants the Fire Dragon.

But it’s Raquel Welch’s movie. She’s very much the star, and the success of the movie depends entirely on her performance. She’s more than equal to the task. It’s actually a nicely judged performance - she’s feisty but not aggressive, smart but not annoying, competent at action hero tasks but not unconvincingly so, and she doesn’t do overdo the tongue-in-cheek approach. It’s a silly movie (and intentionally so) but she resists the temptation to be overly hammy. And she’s likeable enough and amusing enough to keep us interested when the plot gets a bit creaky. Welch has always been underrated and this sort of comic action movie was the kind of thing she did very well indeed.

This was 1967 and the movie was clearly intended for the widest possible audience so there’s no sex, no nudity and no graphic violence. Today it would probably get a G rating without too much trouble. It’s also great fun. This is a lightweight unpretentious romp that succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Deathstalker (1983)

What can you say about a movie like Deathstalker? Of course it’s trash, but the question is, is it entertaining trash? The answer to that is, well yes, sort of. If you’re in the mood.

This 1983 production from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures was part of the mini-boom in sword & sorcery movies that followed in the wake of Conan the Barbarian. Corman followed his standard operating procedure of the time, taking the basic sword & sorcery formula and adding lots of gore, lots of sex and lots of nudity.

The plot involves some wandering warrior type, known as Deathstalker, who is informed by an old witch that he has a Destiny. He has to find a magic sword, and then other magical items. He will also have to defeat a powerful and evil wizard, who is also the king. The wizard-king has arranged a contest of martial prowess for the the mightiest warriors in the region. They’re led to believe that the winner will inherit the kingdom, but the evil wizard-king simply intends to destroy them all as threats to his power.

Deathstalker accumulate a group of side-kicks, including an amazonian warrior who always fights topless. I guess it distracts her opponents fairly effectively. In fact she seems to prefer doing most things topless.

The wizard-king has figured out that Deathstalker is his biggest threat, so he sends his best assassin to eliminate him. He transforms the assassin into the likeness of the princess Codille. The princess is played by former Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton. One assumes she got the part because of her willingness to take her clothes off. It certainly wasn’t for her acting ability. But then no female member of the cast manages to keep her clothes on for more than a few minutes at a time.

There’s lots of mayhem, and the plot contains most of the elements you would expect, as far as I could make out. Plot coherence wasn’t really a priority here. And perhaps you might not have been expecting the naked mud wrestling. It certainly adds a much-needed touch of class.

The sets and costumes are passable for a low-budget movie. The fight scenes are gory but not overly inspired.

The acting is the kind of bad acting you only really get in a bad 80s straight-to-video movie (I actually have no idea if this one ever got a proper theatrical release but it’s definitely straight-to-video quality). If I tell you that Barbi Benton acquits herself quite respectably by comparison with the rest of the cast you’ll have some idea how awful the acting is. Although perhaps I’m being unfair to her - being a nude model doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of acting talent. The rest of the cast have no excuses however.

I guess what you have to ask yourself is - how much do you enjoy low-budget 80s schlock? If you can treat it as a silly but fun popcorn movie it’s entertaining enough. As much as I adore trash cinema this one this one just didn’t quite do it for me. It’s certainly not for a lack of trashiness. It was more a certain lack of fun.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Riddle of the Sands (1979)

The Riddle of the Sands was one of the first of the great espionage novels. It also has the distinction of being the only spy novel to be written by an author, Erskine Childers, who ended up being shot for treason. The most surprising thing about this novel is that it had to wait until 1979 for a movie adaptation.

The novel was written in 1903, a time when tensions were running high in Europe, particularly between Britain and Germany. The two powers were involved in a frantic naval arms race, with fears on the part of the British that the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet might soon be in a position to challenge British command of the seas. This background is essential for an understanding of the story.

A young English yachtsman has been exploring the German coastline, specifically that part of the coastline that provides Germany’s outlet to the North Sea. And he’s noticed some odd things, and he’s attracted some surprisingly hostile attentions. The large steam yacht Medusa and the gunboat Kormoran have both gone close to sinking his tiny yacht. The incidents seemed like accidents, but Arthur (Simon MacCorkindale) has had his suspicions aroused.

Arthur invites an old friend of his from his Oxford days to join him in his nautical adventures. Charles Carruthers (Michael York) speaks fluent German and works for the Foreign Office. At first he is extremely sceptical, but before too long he is forced to admit that something strange is certainly going on, and that it seems to be something that Germany wants to hide from the outside world.

These two amateur spies have stumbled upon something very big indeed, something beyond their wildest fears or imaginings. They need proof however, and they need to stay alive long enough to get that proof back to the British Admiralty.

It’s the gentleman amateur status of the two slightly reluctant British spies that gives the story its charm, and it also adds considerably to the tension. Arthur and Charles are entirely alone, reliant on their own wit and bravery to pull off an espionage coup of incalculable importance to their country.

Much depends upon the performances of Simon MacCorkindale and Michael York, and they do a splendid job, making their characters both sympathetic and plausible without overdoing the Boys’ Own Paper type of jingoistic heroics that might easily have made the tale merely tedious. Alan Badel as Dollmann is a suitably mysterious and menacing foe. Jenny Agutter as his daughter is mainly there to provide some love interest but she gives some unexpected depth to what could have been a very marginal character, and she manages a creditable German accent.

There’s some action, but not a huge amount. It’s not that sort of spy story. These are not James Bond-style action heroes, they’re just ordinary Englishmen caught up in extraordinary circumstances. There’s more than enough atmosphere and suspense to compensate for the relative lack of action.

This is a decidedly untypical spy film, and all the more interesting for not conforming to the clichés of the genre. It’s also a fine sea story. There’s some good period detail, and some impressive location shooting in the Netherlands and Germany. The strange sandy coastline with its shifting sandbars and its incessant mists makes an unusual but effective setting.

It’s a movie that appears to have been largely forgotten since its 1979 release. Perhaps the lack of explosions and shootouts might make it seem rather old-fashioned but if you’re a connoisseur of off-beat espionage movies it’s very much worth seeking out (as is the novel on which it’s based).

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Moonraker (1979)

Moonraker seems to have a fairly mixed (although mostly negative) reputation even among aficionados of the Roger Moore James Bond films. That seemed reason enough to see it.

The movie opens with the hijacking of an American space shuttle on loan to the British government. Her Majesty’s government is understandably embarrassed, so Agent 007 is assigned to find out what happened.

His first port of call is the gigantic industrial complex where Drax Industries manufactures the Moonraker space shuttles. Almost immediately attempts are made on his life. Bond starts to wonder if perhaps the fabulously wealthy Hugo Drax isn’t all that keen on having this particular mystery solved.

Bond quickly makes contact, contact of a rather physical nature, with two glamorous women who work for Drax. One is a helicopter pilot, played by Corinne Clery (a French actress probably best known for the arty S&M epic The Story of O. The second is a NASA astronaut/scientist, Dr Holly Goodhead. This time Agent 007 gets to bed both of them. It soon becomes obvious that Drax’s business empire is not quite what it appears to be. He has an enormous number of employees who seem to be just a bit too physically perfect, and who don’t seem to have any particular duties. Bond also encounters his old enemy Jaws, and survives various additional assassination attempts.

It all leads up to a climactic space battle which could be seen as the Bond franchise’s attempt to jump on the Star Wars bandwagon.

There are some very silly gadgets. The hovercraft gondola that Bond employs in Venice may be the silliest Bond gadget of all time, but the Bond movies are all about silly gadgetry and camp fun. The space shuttles themselves suffer from the same problem that NASA’s real-life space shuttles suffer from - as spacecraft go they’re petty boring.

Despite these reservations Moonraker has most of the elements you want to see in a Bond movie - spectacular stunts, explosions, outlandish gadgets, more explosions, and glamorous women. There are exotic locations, some fairly impressive sets (although perhaps not quite as impressive as in some of the other Bond movies). The action sequences are done with the panache you expect in a Bond film. As always the violence and the sex are toned way down to ensure a PG rating, which in box-office terms was probably essential.

If it’s a little sillier than the average Bond film then that probably just reflects the difficulty the producers saddled themselves with in having to come up with more and more unlikely gadgetry.

Roger Moore is in good form and Lois Chiles makes a pretty reasonable Bond girl who turns out to be a bit of a kickass action heroine in her own right. Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax is a good creepy villain. Richard Kiel makes yet another appearance as Jaws, and this time he finds love!

I really didn’t have any major problems with this movie. The Bond franchise was based on campy fun and it delivers both.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Two on a Guillotine (1965)

Even in 1965 Two on a Guillotine must have looked very old-fashioned, but it’s not entirely without its charms.

It’s a combination of an Old Dark House horror mystery (a sub-genre that had already become hackneyed by the early 30s) and a romantic comedy. It does however involve stage magic, and I tend to be pretty tolerant of movies dealing with the world of illusionists.

'Duke' Duquesne is a celebrated stage magician. He is assisted in his act by his beautiful young wife, Melinda (Connie Stevens). They have an infant daughter, and his career is going well. They are working on a new trick, a rather macabre one involving a guillotine. And then Melinda disappears without explanation, and Duquesne retires from the stage and lives as a recluse for the remainder of his life. His daughter is sent to live with her aunt.

Twenty years later the daughter, Cassie (also played by Connie Stevens), receives word of her father’s death. She has had no contact with him since her mother vanished. Duquesne’s funeral is a little on the bizarre side - according to his last wishes his coffin is chained and padlocked to make escape as difficult as possible. Duquesne has vowed to return from the dead if he can, and he wants it to be a challenge! His will is odd as well - his daughter gets everything so long as she lives in his house for a week, in case he really does return from the grave.

She won’t be alone in the house though - a newspaper reporter (Dean Jones) has managed to convince her that he’s not really a newspaper reporter, he’s really a nice regular guy, and he’s talked his way into staying so that she ill have someone to protect her.

These are the usual Old Dark House spooky clichés, there’s a blossoming romance, and finally after an inordinately long wait the actual plot kicks in. We find out what really happened to persuade the great magician to retire, and what really happened to his wife.

It’s not a bad little horror tale, but it could have been told very effectively in just over an hour. In fact the movie runs for 107 minutes. And that’s the problem. Dean Jones is harmless, Connie Stevens is cute and amusing, Cesar Romero does some scenery-chewing. There are a couple of quite well done horror moments. There’s some gentle humour and some romance, and they’re handled competently enough. And there’s go-go dancing, always a major plus in my book.

All in all it’s innocuous and moderately entertaining if you’re in a tolerant mood.

I caught it on TCM at Halloween. I have no idea if it’s available on DVD. It’s definitely one to rent or watch on cable, rather than one to buy.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Four Sided Triangle (1953)

For many people the story of Hammer Films begins with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and The Horror of Dracula in 1958. This is an entirely incorrect view. Hammer made their first horror movie in 1935 (Phantom Ship, also known as The Mystery of the Marie Celeste). It’s not even true that The Curse of Frankenstein marks a major departure for the studio. They’d already been making some very dark film noirs, quite a bit of science fiction and several movies with definite tinges of gothic horror (such as Terence Fisher’s 1952 film noir Stolen Face). And in 1953 they’d made what can be considered a dry run for their Frankenstein films, with Four Sided Triangle.

In Four Sided Triangle most of the elements of the classic Hammer Frankenstein film were already in place.

In a quiet English village three youngsters grow up under the watchful eye of the jovial local general practitioner, Doc Harvey. The two boys Robin and Bill, and the girl, Lena, are inseparable. But already a romantic triangle is forming. Even in play the two boys compete for Lena’s favour. So far the triangle has only three sides.

The boys turn out to be scientifically gifted. Bill in particular blooms under the tutelage of Dr Harvey. They go off to Cambridge, then return to continue their experiments. Lena has gone to America, but she returns as well, and is soon installed as a kind of live-in housekeeper/assistant to the two budding young scientific geniuses. But there’s still the problem of two young men, and only one young woman. That triangle has re-emerged.

Robin and Bill have made the greatest scientific breakthrough of the age. They have devised a means of duplicating any object. Any non-living object. Bill however believes that living creatures can be duplicated as well. Meanwhile Robin and Lena have announced their impending marriage, Bill, who is of course hopelessly in love with Lena, is devastated. But perhaps there is a solution. What if there were two Lenas? One for Robin, and one for Bill?

This is a Hammer film directed by Terence Fisher, so you know that Bill’s idea is going to go horribly wrong.

Terence Fisher can’t really be regarded as a horror auteur but he was an extraordinarily skilled craftsman. His camera set-ups are rarely fancy, but somehow they’re always just right. If you ask yourself if a particular scene could possibly have been filmed more effectively in some other way, the answer is almost invariably no. Fisher has come up with the simplest and best way to film the shot. With Fisher the visuals always serve the plot, and if you don’t notice the hand of the director then he’s done his job properly.

Fisher is not often thought of as an actor’s director, but he was one in the sense that his unobtrusive competence always allowed room for the actors. Again, his considerable visual skills were there to enhance the performances, not to swamp them. And he did get very fine performances from people as disparate as Lizabeth Scott and Peter Cushing. In Four Sided Triangle Stephen Murray plays Hammer’s first full-on mad scientist, and as was so often the case in the later Frankenstein movies he’s not really a bad person at all. He’s merely been tempted, and has succumbed to the temptation.

Barbara Payton is effective in her dual role as Lena and as Lena’s artificial twin. She’s not a femme fatale, she just can’t help the fact that no matter how many times she might be duplicated she’s still going to love Robin rather than Bill.

James Hayter was Dr Harvey was often annoying in roles such as this but the movie cleverly implicates him in Bill’s mad schemes, so he can’t be the moralising outsider passing judgment on others. It’s an example of just how sophisticated this early Hammer movie is.

This is also the earliest glimpse of a Hammer mad scientist’s laboratory, and it’s a pretty good early effort.

Hammer never really changed their basic approach. They always believed that the recipe for success was to make B-movies, but to make good well-crafted B-movies that managed to look more expensive than they were. This 1953 production is a fine example, and it’s highly entertaining as well. Recommended.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is, as its name suggests, an end-of-the-world movie. This time the threat isn’t aliens or meteors, it’s the atomic bomb.

Both the Americans and the Russians have carried out their largest ever H-bomb tests, and this simultaneous detonation seem to have had some rather disturbing effects. There are floods in New Zealand, cyclones in London and Greece, airports closed down by fogs unprecedented in history. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, there’s an unscheduled solar eclipse. The government assures the populace that there’s nothing to worry about.

Th story is told through the eyes of three people. Two are reporters on a London newspaper, the third works for the government’s Meteorological Office. Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) was once a promising journalist. A bitter divorce has caused him to crawl inside a whiskey bottle. He keeps his job on the paper because his friend Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) covers for him. Bill is your basic hardbitten middle-aged journalist with a heart of gold.

Stenning encounters Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) when he tries to talk his way into an interview with Britain’s top meteorologist, Sir John Kelly. He’s not looking to get involved with another woman but he and Jeannie hit it off pretty well, and there’s a definite attraction. Jeannie leaks important information to Stenning, information that suggests that the government’s assurances that everything is under control may be a long way from the truth.

Bit by bit the truth emerges. The earth has been knocked off its axis, causing cataclysmic global climate changes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the planet’s orbit has also been altered, and we are now heading closer and closer to the sun.

The three main characters are essentially just observers. They don’t make the important decisions. They’re not in a position to try to save the world. Their efforts to uncover the truth don’t change anything. They might know a little more about what’s going on than the average person but it doesn’t do them any good. The governments of the world have adopted a bold plan devised by the scientists, a plan that might just possibly avert disaster. Like everyone else our three protagonists can only wait and hope.

This is a fairly effective technique. When combined with stark black-and-white cinematography and a semi-documentary feel it adds to the feeling of a world at the mercy of forces beyond the control of ordinary people.

The three central characters could easily have been mere stereotypes but Edward Judd and Leo McKern in particular are able to bring their characters to life, to add some light and shade, and to make us care about them. Janet Munro is good as well although her character isn’t developed to quite the same extent.

There’s one rather surreal moment, when a bunch of beatniks run riot through the streets of London, causing mayhem. But it’s pretty mild mayhem. Their idea of rioting is dancing in the streets and throwing buckets of water (water is now strictly rationed by the government) over bystanders, accompanied by the sounds of crazy beatnik music.

Writer-director Val Guest is one of the unsung heroes of the British film industry. From the 40s to the beginning of the 80s he made countless movies in a variety of genres, and his filmography includes some extremely good movies (including quite a few for Hammer). He was always very good at building a sense of tension and impending disaster and even his lesser movies were rarely less than entertaining. He does a very skillful job with The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

One thing I especially liked was the use of tinting at the beginning and the end, a common practice in the days of silent cinema but rarely used in talking pictures. It works well in this production.

Network DVD have done a fine job with the transfer. The total absence of extras may disappoint some purchasers. A well-crafted and gripping movie.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

Hammer Studios had enjoyed some success with their mid-60s series of exotic adventure films, so it was not altogether surprising that their chief rivals, Amicus, should also try to get in on the act. The only surprising thing is that they waited until 1975. With an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot they must have thought they were on a sure thing. And they were right, although the success of these movies couldn’t save the studio.

In 1916 a steamship is torpedoed by a German U-boat. The handful of survivors are drifting helplessly in a lifeboat when they spot a vessel. In fact it’s the very U-boat that sank their ship. As it happens one of the survivors, a nan named Tyler (Doug McClure) is an American expert on submarines, and using his specialised knowledge the survivors are able to capture the U-boat. Their attempts to take the captured submarine to a neutral American port are thwarted however by the efforts of the U-boat’s captain and they fimd themselves a long way out of the main shipping lanes.

They make a landfall, but this coastline is strange and unfamiliar. The U-boat commander, Captain Von Schoenvorts, is an amateur scientist and a bit of an intellectual and he has a theory that this is the lost continent discovered by a forgotten European explorer back in 1720. Finding a place to land proves difficult until Tyler manages to navigate the U-boat through an underground river into the interior of the continent. The exterior coastline is shrouded in ice but the interior of the continent is tropical. But there are bigger surprises than that in store.

The continent is inhabited by dinosaurs. And they’re none too friendly. That strange enough but our motley band of explorers will find that life woks very differently indeed in this bizarre lost world.

The dinosaurs aren’t the most convincing movie dinosaurs you’ll ever see but there’s plenty of action and plenty of fun. And lots of explosions. The model work was done by Derek Meddings, who had worked on Gerry Anderson’s classic 1960s puppet adventure series such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. As you’d expect, the model scenes work extremely well, especially the passage of the U-boat through the underground river.

Doug McClure is, as always, a fine square-jawed hero. Susan Penhaligon as a glamorous lady biologist is the token female member of the cast. She’s good but she doesn’t get much to do. John McEnery steals the picture as the U-boat commander. He’s the most complex character in the movie, capable of cunning subterfuges but with a definite sense of honour, and with genuine human warmth and even a touch of humour.

This is a very silly movie but that’s part of its charm. It’s a ripping adventure yarn that revels in its own absurdity and if you’re prepared to just sit back and enjoy the ride you’ll find it a thoroughly entertaining hour-and-a-half of B-movie hokum.

MGM have released this one, in a very handsome transfer, as a double-feature along with the sequel, The People That Time Forgot. Seriously, how can you go wrong with submarines and dinosaurs in the same movie?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Paul Naschy blogathon

The Vicar of VHS informs me that at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies they're having a Paul Naschy blogathon from November 29 to December 3. Sounds like fun.

I shall be participating, assuming the Naschy movie I've ordered actually arrives at this far-flung outpost of the Empire in time.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Bolero (1984)

One could easily feel slightly embarrassed for even reviewing a film like Bolero, but fortunately your humble scribe feels no shame at all even in the ace of the trashiest of movies, so here goes.

Bolero was conceived by writr-director John Derek as a starring vehicle for his wife Bo Derek. She had enjoyed some success in the movie 10 a few years earlier. 10 had the advantage of having a director who knew what he was doing (Blake Edwards) and two capable leads (Julie Andrews and Dudley Moore). All Bo Derek had to do was to look stunning, which was just about within her acting range. Although she attracted most of the publicity Ms Derek in fact played a minor supporting role.

John Derek however believed she could be turned into a real honest-to-goodness movie star. Unfortunately without a director who knew what he was doing, and without two experienced leads to carry most of the acting burden, Ms Derek was out into the position of having to carry the film herself. In retrospect that was never ever going to work.

Now there are some people who think that making bad movies is easy. That might be true of regular bad movies, but to make something spectacularly awful, something in the Mrs Doubtfire class, requires a concerted effort. John Derek was certainly equal to the challenge. His first masterstroke as to cast his wife, who was nearly 30, as a teenage virgin. His second masterstroke as to set the movies in the 1920s. The only reason to do this would have been to take advantage of the clothes and hairstyles of the 20s, but Bo Derek simply doesn’t have the right look for 1920s fashions, and her early 80s California blonde beach babe hairstyle looks absurdly out of place.

All that is bad enough, but Bolero has major weaknesses in the plot department as well. The plot involves young Bo’s attempts to lose her virginity, and that’s about it.

Perhaps the worst thing about it is that there is a germ of a good idea here. The movie opens with scenes of silent movie heart-throb Rudolph Valentino. And Bo’s two lovers are a shiekh (just like the one played by Valentino in the movie of the same name) and a matador (just like the one played by Valentino in Blood and Sand). There was some potential here to exploit the idea that our heroine was seeking to relive the romantic fantasies of the countless young women who idolised Valentino, or even to bring in an element of the fantastic as Woody Allen was to do so successfully in The Purple Rose of Cairo. But in Bolero the idea goes nowhere, and Derek’s approach is much too literal.

There’s also the problem of exactly what kind of movie this is supposed to be. Is it intended to be funny, or whimsical? There are occasional hints that this may have been intended. Is it intended to be a romance? Or a steamy sex film? This seems plausible since the movie’s main selling point was that Bo Derek gets naked, but there really isn’t enough skin to make it a decent skinflick.

The only real hope for this was that it might triumph as an exercise in camp. It does have its moments when this ambition look like having a chance of being realised, but again it just doesn’t push things far enough.

On the other hand it does have a certain wtf factor going for it, and there is a kind of morbid fascination to it. Connoisseurs of cinematic train wrecks will find themselves forced to keep watching. If you lay in a sufficient supply of strong alcoholic drinks (the stronger the better) and plenty of junk food you may find some perverse enjoyment in this effort. And Bo Derek does get naked.