Saturday, 29 June 2013

Konga (1961)

It would be absolutely impossible not to love a movie that features both Michael Gough and a guy in a gorilla suit. And that’s just what Konga offers. This 1961 Anglo-American co-production from producer Herman Cohen (who also gave us Michael Gough in the excellent Horrors of the Black Museum and The Black Zoo) is a treat for fans of campy horror movies.

Gough is Dr Charles Decker, an English botanist who has been lost in the jungles of Darkest Africa for a year after a plane crash. Now he’s returned to Britain, bringing an extraordinary discovery with him. He has discovered the link between plants and animals and by means of this discovery he has developed a serum that can make animals grow to gigantic size. I know none of that makes any sense, which is one of the many things I love about this movie.

Decker also brought back with him a baby chimpanzee named Konga. By injecting Konga with the serum he causes him to grow in a matter of seconds into a full-grown gorilla (because everybody knows that when chimpanzees grow up they become gorillas). But Decker’s scientific genius has taken him even further - by means of hypnosis he can make Konga do anything he wants him to do. This includes getting rid of inconvenient academic superiors. Like all great geniuses Dr Decker is plagued by the stupidity of little men who cannot appreciate his brilliance. Dr Decker does not intend to let such men plague him even further.

Dr Decker has a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants. Carnivorous plants are a passion of his since they represent the link between plants and animals (more of the gloriously wacky pseudoscientific technobabble that makes this movie so wonderful).

Dr Decker has a faithful assistant named Margaret (Margo Johns). Margaret has obviously been in love with the brilliant but completely looney-tunes scientist for quite some time. Now she threatens to expose his current experiments to the press if he refuses to marry her.

Unfortunately Dr Decker also has a scientific rival, an Indian botanist who is close to making the very breakthrough that Decker believes will make his reputation.

Although the title suggests that we’re going to see a King Kong rip-off this movie actually has little in common with King Kong as far as plot is concerned although the ending obviously borrows a good deal from RKO’s 1933 classic. Konga grows bigger every time he’s injected with the serum. Soon he will be big enough to stomp the whole city of London.

Michael Gough is in fine form as the unhinged botanist. Gough was always a good choice for mad scientist roles and here he gets plenty of opportunities for the sort of outrageous over-acting for which we love this great actor. The performances by the other cast members are solid enough but they’re irrelevant - Michael Gough and Konga carry this movie on their own and no-one else is even going to get noticed.

There are some obvious similarities to the animal mayhem in The Black Zoo. There’s an old saying among actors that you should never work with children or animals because they’ll always upstage you. Michael Gough doesn’t have to worry about that. Nobody or nothing could ever upstage him when he was in full flight.

Producer Herman Cohen co-wrote the delightfully goofy script with Aben Kandel. The result is delicious high camp. Director John Lemont had a very brief career but he handles things quite adequately.

The special effects are wonderfully silly. Considering the low budget they manage to be reasonably spectacular. The carnivorous plants are particularly bizzare.

Konga has been released on DVD by MGM in their Midnite Movies range, paired with a South Korean sci-fi monster flick called Yongary on one double-sided disc. The transfer of Konga looks terrific although sadly it isn’t 16x9 enhanced. Still it does at least give us the widescreen aspect ratio and the colours are rich and vibrant.

Konga is a must-see for every cult movie fan who adores both Michael Gough and guys-in-gorilla-suit movies, in other words for every cult movie fan. A deliriously silly fun romp. Highly recommended.

Monday, 24 June 2013

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

The success of Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 unleashed a flood of horror movies starring older actresses. One of the later movies in this cycle was Curtis Harrington’s 1971 What’s the Matter with Helen?

It is the 1930s, and Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters) are the mothers of two young men who have just been convicted of a brutal murder. Helen is a widow. We aren’t told what has become of Adelle’s husband but he’s certainly long gone from her life. The murder trial has made them so notorious that they decide to get out of town, to go to Hollywood to start a new life. Adelle will open a dance academy for children. Helen will be her partner.

Another, even more pressing, reason for leaving town is that they are being stalked by an unknown man, presumably a man bent on some sort of revenge for the murder committed by their sons.

The dance academy prospers. They take on a third partner, Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir). While Adelle teaches the little darlings to dance Hamilton will teach them elocution. As he explains, talking pictures seem to be here to stay so elocution is all-important. The mother of every student is convinced that her daughter will be the next Shirley Temple (which would seem to fix the period of the movie somewhere around the mid to late 1930s).

Not only is the dance academy doing well - Adelle has also met a man. Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver) is the first man she’s met in years who has interested her. The only fly in the ointment is that Helen’s behaviour seems a little peculiar. Helen is very religious and it is implied that this has been at least partly responsible for her strange behaviour (the demonisation of Christianity was already well underway in Hollywood in the early 70s).

Helen’s behaviour becomes even more of a concern when she starts receiving letters, addressed to her under her real name but sent to her new Hollywood address. We know that something’s got to give, and of course it does.

Shelley Winters puts everything she’s got into her performance. It’s the sort of role she reveled in and she has no difficulty in matching the similar performances of actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in this genre. Helen is clearly an accident waiting to happen.

Debbie Reynolds is more of a problem. At 39 she was a tad too young for this kind of role and the fact that she looked even younger simply exacerbates the problem. There’s nothing wrong with her acting, in fact she’s very good indeed, but she’s just too young and glamorous and Adelle is too obviously psychologically healthy so we find ourselves focusing too much on Helen. In the one scene where Reynolds gets to appear haggard and temporarily unhinged she certainly does produce the goods.

Agnes Moorehead has a minor role as radio evangelist Sister Alma and as usual does her best to steal the picture. Dennis Weaver is adequate in the undemanding role of Adelle’s new love.

Curtis Harrington excelled at making understated psychological horror with an edge of weirdness. This movie is something of a slow-burner. Nothing horrific happens in the first half of the film but we get enough hints to tell us that trouble is brewing under the surface of Helen’s fragile sanity. When the latter part of the story calls for grand guignol excess both Harrington and his two stars are able to supply it.

The major weakness of the film is that Henry Farrell’s screenplay telegraphs its punches a bit too obviously. This flaw is magnified by the distributor’s bizarre choice of poster art that reveals a major spoiler (the poster I’ve chosen for this post was the only one I could find that didn’t reveal the spoiler). Farrell wrote the stories on which both Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte were based so he seems to have made something of a speciality of this sub-genre.

The sets and costumes are impressive (in fact Morton Haack scored an Oscar nomination for his costumes). The real highlight of the movie is the kiddy revue put on by Adelle’s dance academy. This is both the strangest and most disturbing sequence in the movie. In its own way its excessiveness almost approaches Ken Russell dimensions. It has to be said that the performances of the child actors are uniformly excellent. The kiddy revue proves the truth of the old acting adage that you should never act with children or animals because they’ll steal every scene they’re in.

The MGM Midnite Movies DVD release pairs this movie with another Curtis Harrington movie, his 1972 Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?. As usual there are no extras, and as usual the image quality is superb.

What’s the Matter with Helen? fails to achieve the magical and subtle weirdness of Harrington’s wonderful feature film debut Night Tide but it’s still a fun ride.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Ape (1940)

No-one has ever made more mad scientist movies than Boris Karloff. The Ape is a very typical example of the kind of role that Karloff did so well - the gentle dedicated scientist who is led to evil by his ardent but misguided desire to help people.

In this 1940 Monogram feature Karloff plays Dr Bernard Adrian, a country doctor who is obsessively committed to the search for a cure for polio (actually the disease is referred to simply as paralysis in the movie but I think it’s a fair assumption that it is in fact polio). It was polio that took his only daughter so his hatred for the disease is personal. Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon) is one of his patients, a young woman confined to a wheelchair as the result of this illness. Dr Adrian is determined that he will make her walk again.

Dr Adrian is regarded with some suspicion by the townsfolk. It’s just as well that they don’t know exactly what he’s up to or they’d be a lot more suspicious. Luckily no-one has connected the disappearance of so many of the town’s dogs to Dr Adrian. The doctor believes he is close to finding the cure. Only one step remains, but that step is a big one. The arrival of the circus in town will unexpectedly give him the chance to take that step.

The star attraction of the circus is a ferocious gorilla. The gorilla’s trainer hates the animal because it killed his father. The reason it killed his father was that he was tormenting it, a practice that the son continues with spiteful obsessiveness. But on this particular day he goes too far and he meets the same fate as his dear old dad. Severely mauled, he is taken to Dr Adrian’s surgery.

This is too good an opportunity to be missed. The man is going to die anyway so the good doctor extracts some spinal fluid - the ingredient he needs to perfect his cure. It seems like a stroke of good fortune for the doctor but things turn out rather differently.

After mauling its trainer the gorilla (which is of course a guy in a gorilla suit) escapes and starts ravaging the countryside, spreading terror and death wherever it goes. The connection between the escaped gorilla and Dr Adrian’s experiments isn’t going to be too difficult for the experienced horror movie fan to figure out.

This is a typically low-budget Monogram production but the rather spartan production values don’t matter too much. A guy in a gorilla suit is a guy in a gorilla suit after all, regardless of the budget. As with so many cheap 1940s horror movies this one relies very heavily indeed on the star quality of its lead actor and in a role so perfectly suited to his talents Karloff is not going to let the side down. Dr Adrian is a kindly dedicated man who simply cares too much. His determination to find a cure leads him astray. No matter how many times Karloff played this sort of role he could still make it work.

As with a lot of movies made by Poverty Row studios the lack of that pool of talented character actors that all the major studios had is the movie’s weak point. The supporting players are rather feeble, although Marus Wrixon does her best. France’s well-meaning but dumb boyfriend Danny (Gene O’Donnell) is particularly irritating.

William Nigh directed a lot of B-movies. He gets the job done but don’t expect anything startling. The only thing the Poverty Row studios demanded of a director is that he stick to the very tight shooting schedules necessitated by a very low budget. Curt Siodmak, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Carroll, did some interesting things in his time but this movie is not exactly a highlight of his Hollywood career.

This movie is included in Mill Creek’s 20-movie monster pack. The transfer is what you’d expect from a public domain movie released by this company. Picture quality is generally acceptable but there is a lot of print damage. Sound quality is acceptable. Given the insanely low price of this set there’s nothing to complain about.

The Ape has really only two things going for it - it has Boris Karloff and it has a guy in a gorilla suit. For me that’s enough to make this otherwise rather shoddy movie worth watching, but I’m a very big fan of both Karloff and guys in gorilla suits.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Battle for the Planet of the Apes was the last of the original Planet of the Apes movies and I find myself rather relieved to finally get to the end of this series. This one was marginally less irritating than the preceding one, and perhaps slightly more fun.

This one follows the later career of Caesar (and yes it's Roddy McDowell yet again), the son of Cornelius and Zira. A nuclear war has more or less destroyed human civilisation. Caesar is more or less the king of a small mixed ape-human community. Theoretically the apes and the humans live in peace and harmony but clearly it’s the apes who call the shots. The community is a bit like a large-scale hippie commune existing on subsistent agriculture, and indeed the humans look like typical hopeless unwashed hippies. At least the apes look clean.

The apes apparently have their own version of political correctness and we see a human teacher getting himself in big trouble by saying a forbidden word. The word is the dreaded n-word - no. Humans are not allowed to say no to apes.

While the chimpanzees and the orang-utans seem happy enough living in bucolic squalor with the humans, the gorillas are not happy at all. They want the weapons that Caesar has locked up in the armoury. There’s some fairly blatant gorillaphobia going on here and I can’t imagine any gorilla watching this movie not finding it offensive. Since the humans are so down-trodden someone else has to play the role of the bad guys, and it seems that the gorillas got elected.

Caesar is always feeling sorry for himself for being an orphan until his human pal MacDonald tells him that it’s possible for him to see and hear his parents. In they can find their way to the Archives in the nearby devastated city they can find videotapes of Cornelius and Zira. The city is the Forbidden City, but since Caesar was the one who made it forbidden he can ignore the prohibition. It’s no fun being a king if you can’t break your own rules. So Caesar, MacDonald and the orang-utan savant Virgil set off for the Forbidden City.

They discover that it’s not uninhabited as they’d assumed. It’s full of humans, and they’re all mutants and they’re bad people (definite mutantphobia here). The mutants didn’t know about Caesar’s miniature kingdom but now that they do know they’re eager to conquer it. There’s no reason that they’d want to but bad people don’t need a reason. Now Caesar’s kingdom is under threat of invasion and the gorillas can’t wait to get their hands on those weapons. We end up with a goofy but fairly enjoyable battle scene.

This movie in many ways is a logical successor to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with the same disturbing racial politics. The only black human is MacDonald and he’s brave and noble and a true friend to both humans and apes. All the evil mutants are white.

It’s interesting to see the way this cycle of films develops in its attitude towards humans and apes. The first movie made it very plain that the apes could be every bit as violent, cruel, brutal and arrogant as humans. In fact that’s sort of the point, that any oppressed population that suddenly finds itself able to become the oppressor will do so, and will become every bit as oppressive as the previous oppressors. Power will always corrupt.

But as the series continued humans were cast more and more as the bad guys, with the apes either as victims or as wise and benevolent rulers. That created a problem once human civilisation collapsed so then suddenly we see the gorillas become the bad guys. The chimpanzees and the orang-utans are always wise and benevolent and peaceful. It’s those damned gorillas who cause all the problems in ape society. Considering that these movies bent over backwards to be politically correct and progressive in their racial politics it’s rather ironic that the series ends with one race of apes condemned as being inherently violent and oppressive. Especially when the bad apes turn out to be the darkest of the three ape races.

The inconvenient fact that the first movie shows us the chimpanzees and the orang-utans being quite happy to live in a society that oppressed humans also gets more and more downplayed.

You can’t help feeling that the writers of the later installments became increasingly embarrassed by the first movie, and they seemed to get themselves twisted into knots trying to keep the essential structure of the series intact while making it more and more pro-ape and anti-human.

The later sequels suffered from increasingly tight budgets. Both Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes managed to look fairly slick in spite of this. Indeed Conquest is quite impressive visually. In this final installment though the tight budget finally started to bite and it has a distinctly low-budget look to it.

J. Lee Thompson, who directed the final two films, was a generally competent director and does a fairly solid job.

Roddy McDowell had by this time established himself as the number one actor when it came to playing apes. He certainly had a knack for conveying emotion even with the ape make-up. The supporting cast in this last movie mostly find themselves playing rather simplistic roles that don’t call for much in the way of acting.

You expect an American movie of the 70s to be filled with kneejerk self-loathing anti-Americanism and simplistic radical chic politics and that’s what this movie delivers. While the other movies in the series at least managed to wrestle with a few complex ideas the screenplay for this last Ape movie is muddled and generally uninteresting.

The Blu-Ray transfer for this movie (in the UK Blu-Ray boxed set) is exceptionally good, being very bright and absolutely crystal clear.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes provides a disappointing conclusion to a generally disappointing movie series. The first movie was superb but the sequels are not really worth bothering with.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Fog Island (1945)

By the mid-1940s the general opinion in Hollywood seemed to be that monster movies were out of favour with the public. As a consequence we got movies that seem like they want to be horror movies but they’re not quite sure if they dare. We got horror combined with comedy, mostly with lamentable results. And we got crime movies spiced up with a few of the trappings of horror. Fog Island belongs to the latter category.

This is a low-budget offering from the most low-budget of all Hollywood studios, PRC. In spite of the very tight shooting schedules and monetary restrictions PRC did manage to turn out a few decent movies, and this is one of them.

George Zucco is Leo Grainger, a businessman who has spent the last five years in gaol. He now lives on an island, Fog Island, with his daughter Gail (Sharon Douglas). Leo has decided to host a little party. The guests will be his former business associates. Leo believes they were responsible for his prison sentence. They believe that he owes them money. Whether they or Leo were the real crooks is not clear although we can assume that none of these people is over-scrupulous when it comes to money.

Leo also believes that one of these people was responsible for the death of his beloved wife.

While Leo’s quondam business partners suspect that he is seeking revenge they also sense that there may be money to be had. Their greed overrules their fears.

Alec Ritchfield (Lionel Atwill), Kavanaugh (Jerome Cowan)and Sylvia (Veda Ann Borg) duly arrive at the island. One of Leo’s former associates is now dead so his place is taken by his son Jeff (John Whitney). The party also includes astrologer and all-purpose mystic Emiline Bronson (Jacqueline deWit). Also present on the island is Doc Lake (Ian Keith), Leo’s former accountant who had also been sent to prison when Leo’s financial empire collapsed about his ears. The butler, Allerton (George Lloyd), will also bear watching. He is not what he seems.

So what does such a group of people, stuck on an island with a host who probably hates their guts, do to pass the time? Why they hold a séance, of course. And wander off down secret passageways and generally tear the place apart in their frenzied lust for loot, all the while doing their best to double-cross each other. It comes as no great surprise when the first corpse turns up. Every member of the cast is a potential murderer or a potential victim.

The big attraction here is provided by the two stars, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill. Both were wonderfully entertaining actors in this sort of B-movie. The more outrageous the role the better they liked it. Jacqueline deWit is a delight as the crooked astrologer, complete with turban!

There are secret passages, skulls, machines of death and all the usual horror paraphernalia. The island even boasts an organ, a sure sign that we’re going to be dealing with some sort of fiendish madman.

Terry O. Morse had a long career as an editor, and a somewhat more spotty career as a director. He certainly does a solid enough job here. Despite the shoestring budget this movie doesn’t really look particularly cheap or shoddy. The sets are quite adequate. Given that the copy I saw was a bargain-bin public domain print (which as far as I’m aware are the only copies available) it’s difficult to judge Ira H. Morgan’s cinematography. It’s impossible to be sure whether the darkness and murkiness were intended or are the results of a cheapjack transfer, but either way this is a movie that is enhanced by those very qualities of darkness and murkiness.

The worst flaws of American horror and crime B-movies of this era are poor pacing and painfully unfunny comic relief. Happily neither of these flaws are present here. This movie motors along quite nicely throughout its modest 72-minute running time.

My copy of this movie comes from a Mill Creek boxed set. For a public domain release the DVD is of reasonable quality. The image is not too murky and the sound is good.

Even without any supernatural elements this is a bona fide horror movie. Fog Island is a terrific little B-movie. Highly recommended.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Mystery and Imagination - The Suicide Club

The Suicide Club was one of the late episodes of the British gothic horror anthology television series Mystery and Imagination. This episode was broadcast in 1970. It is a feature-length adaptation of three connected short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson’s original idea was delightfully twisted and this adaptation captures that perverse quality extremely well. A bored Bohemian prince, Prince Florizel (Alan Dobie) wanders London at night in disguise, looking for the sorts of adventures that will appeal to his jaded tastes. Accompanied by his faithful Master of the Horse (Colonel Geraldyne, played by Eric Woofe) he finds an adventure that is too rich even for his blood.

The Suicide Club is a club for those who have grown weary of life and who lack even the energy to end their lives themselves. Each Friday night the cards are dealt at the club. Whoever draws the ace of spades is destined to be that week’s victim while the man who draws the ace of clubs will be his executioner. It’s the sort of Russian roulette that appeals to those who wish to end their existences in the most dissipated and decadent manner possible.

Prince Florizel has his suspicions that the Suicide Club may be even more sinister that it appears to be. The President of the club (Bernard Archard) and his beautiful, mysterious and creepily cold assistant (played by Hildegard Neil) may be playing a game of their own, a very profitable if very cold-blooded game.

In order to gain admittance to the club Prince Florizel had to sign the articles of membership. As a man of honour he will have to settle matters on his own account without any assistance from the police. The prince is a man of courage and of intelligence and he will be a formidable adversary, but the President of the club is also a very dangerous man.

The period detail is done well, as you expect from British television of this era. The club rooms of the Suicide Club are the right mixture of decadence and gothic excess.

Alan Dobie makes a fine hero and the role gives him the opportunity to indulge himself in some rather theatrical but very effective acting. Bernard Archard and Hildegard Neil play their roles to the hilt.

A fine adaptation of one of the perverse classics of gothic literature.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Mystery and Imagination - Frankenstein

Mystery and Imagination was a gothic horror anthology series broadcast on British television from 1966 to 1970. Each episode was based on a classic work of gothic fiction. Sadly only eight of the original twenty-four episodes survive and these have now been released on DVD by Network DVD. One of the more interesting of the surviving episodes is the feature-length adaptation of Frankenstein.

The early episodes were made by ABC. After their forced merger with Rediffusion the later seasons, with some major format changes, came out under the Thames TV banner. Frankenstein, first broadcast in 1968,  belongs to this later period.

The intention was clearly to produce an adaptation of the novel that was closer to both the letter and the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel. In this it succeeds reasonably well. This version makes use of one clever trick that had surprisingly not been tried in previous screen versions. I won’t reveal the trick as it does constitute a minor spoiler.

Ian Holm was always a fairly reliable actor and he does well in the title role. The supporting cast is solid with Richard Vernon being memorable as a crusty old professor of anatomy.

Obviously the producers didn’t have the kind of budget to play with that most film versions of the story have had but they still do a fine job of evoking the gothic atmosphere and the crucial bringing-the-monster-to-life scene works well. Frankenstein’s laboratory is less spectacular than in most Frankenstein movies but still looks reasonably impressive.

This TV version puts more emphasis on Dr Frankenstein’s conscious efforts to emulate a God he professes not to believe in, and in this respect is probably closer to Mary Shelley’s intentions than most movie versions. Mary Shelley’s father was a socialist agitator, her mother was an nearly feminist and her husband a strident and aggressive atheist. In spite of all this, or more probably because of these things, Mary Shelley was rather sceptical of our ability to dispense with God.

This Frankenstein focuses to a large extent on Dr Frankenstein’s responsibility towards his creature, and the psychological horror of his guilt over his creation. This is in general a much more psychological approach than has been taken in any film version.

Although Ian Holm was nearly forty when the program was made his Dr Frankenstein seems in many ways to be a very young man. His arrogance comes across as being partly at least the arrogance of youth, which makes his actions perhaps slightly more forgivable.

On the downside this TV version is rather talky, which is perhaps inevitable in a TV production that can’t rely as heavily on visual images as a movie would. Ian Holm at times gives the impression that he’s giving a stage performance.

An interesting Frankenstein adaptation and worth a look.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The Planet of the Apes is one of the classic science fiction movies, but alas the same cannot be said for the four sequels.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1972. J. Lee Thompson was otherwise a rather competent director but saddled with Paul Dehn’s painfully clumsy screenplay there was only so much he could do.

This time we jump forward a couple of decades from the third of the Apes movies (the rather average but not unentertaining Escape from the Planet of the Apes). All other household pets were wiped out by a plague so humans started keeping apes as pets. As the apes proved themselves to be so intelligent they soon became transformed from pets into slaves. How such a change could have come about is not revealed, for the very good reason that it makes no sense.

The child of Cornelius and Zira was supposedly killed at the end of the third movie but in fact he survived. He was brought up by kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). This ape, who will be named Caesar, is now the only ape on Earth capable of rational thought and speech.

The government of the US has now become a fascist police state (this movie is so cringe-inducingly 1970s it’s embarrassing). The apes are brutally conditioned to obedience. We are clearly expected to see the parallels with black slavery - and if we don’t see the parallels the movie beats us over the head with them until we do see. After Armando is arrested and tortured by the Establishment Pigs Caesar takes refuge among the slave apes but he has decided that the only answer to the oppression of the apes is revolution. We’re gonna smash the Establishment, man. Kill the Establishment Pigs. Just in case you still haven’t got the message the film has the police in Nazi-style uniforms.

Of course not all the Establishment Pigs are evil. Only the white ones. The white governor is evil and corrupt but his black aide MacDonald is a noble lover of freedom. This is both simplistic and vaguely insulting to both blacks and whites.

By making the bad guys into such cardboard cut-out melodrama villains this movie loses any impact it might have had, and also surrenders any opportunity to treat the human-ape conflict in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. We are bludgeoned into accepting the movie’s dubious premise. As always when Hollywood tries to engage with political issues the audience find themselves treated like dim-witted children who must be mercilessly coerced into agreement.

In this respect the movie compares poorly with the previous movie which had succeeded reasonably well in presenting the ape-human conflict as a genuine moral dilemma. No-one wanted to wish any harm to Cornelius and Zira but there was a real and plausible concern about what their existence could mean to human civilisation. The rights of individuals are not always easily reconcilable with the interests of society as a whole. Sometimes doing the right thing can turn out to be the wrong thing. Escape from the Planet of the Apes also worked as a real science fiction movie, with the future and the present interacting in complex and not always predictable ways.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes by contrast gives us a much less subtle moral dimension. It also offers less in the way of real science fictional ideas.

Roddy McDowell does his best as Caesar, but this is a much less interesting role than that of Cornelius. This is partly the fault of the script. Caesar could have been made a complex and conflicted character but the script ignores any possible psychological nuances in favour of making him a charismatic leader motivated purely by hate. McDowell had proved himself to be remarkably adept at conveying emotion and psychological conflict even through the layers of ape make-up. It’s a pity he didn’t get the chance to do very much with this character.

The screenplay really is the big problem here. It’s painfully obvious and painfully predictable, with not a trace of subtlety.

As always the ape make-up is extremely good. The budget was strictly limited but visually this is a very impressive motion picture. The bland and anonymous futuristic setting is perfect for the movie’s paranoid vision of the future. Thompson pulls off some good visual set-pieces (especially the ones using the pedestrian bridge with the tide of apes invisible at first but then quickly becoming very threatening). The crowd scenes and the battle scenes are handled deftly. With a limited number of extras Thompson was able to convince us that we were seeing a mass uprising.

The UK 20th Century-Fox Blu-Ray is at best moderately impressive. To me the image seems rather dark and picture quality overall is slightly below the standard you’d expect from a good DVD release.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has the distinction of being by far the worst of the first four Planet of the Apes movies. Unfortunately the five movies in this cycle are all linked so if you want to watch the whole cycle you can’t really avoid this one, even though avoiding it would be a very attractive idea.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Caltiki the Undying Monster (1959)

Caltiki the Undying Monster (Caltiki - il mostro immortale) is a 1959 Italian science fiction film (actually a US-Italian co-production) that is best-known today for the fact that Mario Bava finished the movie after director Riccardo Freda quit. Bava also did the cinematography, which is certainly another reason for seeing this film.

The legend is that Freda abandoned the movie in order to give Bava his chance as a director. That may or may not be true, but it makes a nice story.

A team of archaeologists is exploring Mayan ruins in Mexico when a volcano erupts. One of the party goes missing. When one of his colleagues goes diving in an underground lake to look for him he finds a fantastic treasure, but he also finds a hideous and terrible monster - Caltiki!

Caltiki looks pretty much like the Blob from the American movie of the same name. It starts off small but it grows rapidly, because of the radioactivity. As everyone in the 50s knew, radioactivity always makes monsters grow to enormous size. Caltiki grows especially quickly because a comet happens to be passing the Earth - the same comet that appeared in the skies at the time the Mayan civilisation collapsed.

While all this is happening Dr John Fielding (John Merivale) and his wife Ellen (Didi Sullivan) are having marital problems. This expedition was supposed to be their honeymoon but it hasn’t worked out well. The rather slimy Max Gunther (Gérard Herter) is starting to put the moves on Ellen but she’s not interested.

Max soon has bigger problems to worry about, after he has his arm eaten away. That’s what happens to anyone Caltiki touches. Max will soon find himself compelled to serve Caltiki’s interests.

When Caltiki starts to reproduce as well as grow the Mexican army is called in, so we get some fun scenes of tanks and flame-throwers battling the monster.

John Merivale makes an adequate hero, while Gérard Herter is effective as the rather sinister Max. The other actors perform reasonably enough for this type of movie.

The science is delightfully loopy. Caltiki is revealed to be a single-celled animal more than 20 million years old. None of the stuff about radioactivity or comets makes any sense whatsoever, which is how it should be in a monster movie. The attempts to link the monster with Mayan legends and to convince us that Caltiki has some connection with the Mayan deity of the sane name are equally ludicrous, and equally entertaining.

There are a few Bava moments although if you’re expecting the sort of stylistic tour-de-force that he produced in his later movies you might be a trifle disappointed. Nonetheless it’s still visually quite impressive and Bava does manage to provide plenty of atmosphere. The battle scenes with the Mexican tanks towards the end of the movie are great fun. Obviously done with miniatures but in such a way as to be almost surreal.

The Mexican setting is convincing despite the fact that the crew never left Rome.

The Italian Region 2 DVD release includes both the Italian and the English dubbed soundtracks. It’s a decent widescreen transfer.

This is a wonderfully silly movie which should please fans of 50s sci-fi and monster movies. Definitely worth a look.