Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Quatermass II (1957)

Hammer had spent the early 1950s making a large number of reasonable enjoyable B-movies. These were mostly crime movies but they included a few science fiction films. All of these films were very low-budget productions. The big change in Hammer’s fortunes came with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. This was Hammer’s first genuine box office hit. The formula was perfect for the times, combining science fiction and horror. Quatermass II followed in 1957 and Hammer were now a force to be reckoned with.

Both Quatermass films were adapted from BBC television serials. 

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is head of the ambitious British rocket program. Their objective is not merely to launch a rocket into space but to send dozens of rockets to the Moon and to establish a permanent base there. He has constructed a scale model of the proposed base. Unfortunately he faces two major obstacles. The first is that his rocket’s atomic engine is disastrously unstable. That can of course be rectified in time. The second problem is more serious - the government does not want to give him the money to make his scientific dream into a reality.

Quatermass is therefore understandably under considerable stress. He does not need another drama to cope with but he’s stumbled onto something that could be a drama of literally cosmic dimensions.


It starts when he almost has a collision with a car. The passenger in the other car is suffering from some strange burns which he apparently got from handling some rocks. The story doesn’t make much sense but Quatermass does take some samples. When he gets back to his project headquarters he finds that his chief subordinate has been tracking some strange objects that are falling out of the heavens. They don’t behave like meteorites and their nature is a complete mystery. They appear to be coming to earth in the same area in which Quatermass had his near-collision with that other car.

Quatermass, being a scientist, is naturally very curious and decides to have a closer look at the area. What he and his assistant find is both extraordinary and shocking - it’s Professor Quatermass’s proposed lunar colony, complete with gigantic metal domes, sitting in the English countryside.


Quatermass is now not only intrigued but worried. The whole area is sealed off with armed guards and all his enquiries on the subject of the base run into brick walls. Quatermass is starting to suspect that there’s something sinister going on but even though he has top-level connections in Whitehall he just keeps running into those brick walls. Quatermass is however not your usual polite self-effacing British boffin - he’s a fast-talking American and when he’s set on something he goes at it like a bulldozer. The more obstacles he encounters the more determined he gets. 

There’s more than a hint of paranoia to this story. The atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which had been released a year earlier). There’s also a bit of an X-Files feel with suggestions of government cover-ups and conspiracies. 


Not everyone likes Brian Donlevy as Quatermass but I think he does a great job. He plays him as the kind of cantankerous single-minded totally obsessive visionary who gets things done because he never takes no for an answer. He’s bad-tempered and often rude but he’s aware of his faults and on occasions even apologises for them. He’s a hero who commands respect and you can’t help developing a certain affection for him.

Look out for Hammer favourite Michael Ripper - and yes he plays an innkeeper! There’s also Sid James as a drunken but courageous newspaper reporter.

The special effects are not particularly elaborate but this is a story that relies on atmosphere and suspense rather than special effects. The lunar colony scenes were obviously shot at a chemical plant but they work. On the whole it’s a movie that achieves the necessary visual impact without spending a huge amount of money. 


Val Guest was always a competent director and he gives this film the right sense of both urgency and menace.

Both the 1950s Hammer Quatermass movies were shot in black-and-white. Hammer were not yet in a position to be able to afford the risk of incurring the costs of filming in colour but the success of the Quatermass films would change that. I think the black-and-white cinematography is quite effective and meshes well with the rather stark production design.

Quatermass II provides some thrills and some chills, a great deal of action and plenty of old-fashioned entertainment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

House of Darkness (1948)

House of Darkness is a 1948 British movie that is sometimes labeled as a horror movie. In fact it’s a melodrama with gothic overtones. It does however have some claims to be a ghost movie so it’s at least understandable that it’s been given the horror label.

There’s a framing story which is, as unfortunately framing stories often are, quite unnecessary. The music is provided by George Melachrino, a popular orchestra leader of the time, and the framing story is an excuse to bring Melachrino into the film. Admittedly music does play a fairly important role in the story.

The actual story takes place in 1901 (we know this because the events of the film take place shortly before the coronation of King Edward VII). A rather gothic-looking house is inhabited by a very troubled family. The middle-aged, querulous and ailing John Merryman (Alexander Archdale) inherited the house from his stepmother. The much younger Francis Merryman (Laurence Harvey) is extremely resentful that his mother did not leave the house to him. Francis is irresponsible and willful, and financially extravagant, and being dependent on John for money inflames his resentment even further. John’s timid and nervous brother Noel (John Teed) worries a good deal and conspires with his brother.


Things seem to be about to come to a head over the matter of a forged cheque which offers John the chance he has wanted for years  to force Francis out of the house. John’s steadily declining health (he has a very weak heart) means that his policy of forcing a confrontation with Francis is perhaps a little unwise.

Francis has a beautiful and devoted wife, Elaine (Lesley Osmond) who does her best to keep the peace. Noel is engaged to Lucy (Lesley Brook) but this seems likely to cause more problems - Noel wants Lucy to come and live in the house and Francis is not at all happy about having to share what he considers should rightfully be his house.


It’s an ideal setup for a murder thriller but this isn’t a murder story. What it is is a delightfully overheated melodrama. It does have murderous hatreds and hatred can kill in various ways. It has guilt and it has envy and in fact all the prime ingredients for fine gothic melodrama.

Such fame as director Oswald Mitchell has rests on his prolific output of comedies but in the same year as House of Darkness he also directed another full-blooded melodrama, The Greed of William Hart, which starred Tod Slaughter (probably the greatest melodrama star of them all). Mitchell does a perfectly competent job.


John Gilling wrote the screenplay. Gilling did some good work in crime films in the 50s but his most notable achievements were as a writer-director of gothic horror films for Hammer in the mid-60s.

This was Laurence Harvey’s film debut. He looks absurdly young, because he was absurdly young - he was 19 when he was cast in this film. His extreme youth works in his favour since many of Francis’s character flaws are due to the combination of immaturity, irresponsibility and simmering adolescent resentment and jealousy. Laurence Harvey is not everyone’s cup of tea as an actor. He had a very narrow range and usually came across as emotionally disconnected and cold. In the wrong roles these flaws were fatal, but on the rare occasions when he landed just the right role he could be remarkably effective (an example being the very underrated 1968 spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic. Fortunately he’s perfectly cast in House of Darkness and his performance is odd but compelling.


This is one of those movies which is deliberately ambiguous about the supernatural elements. Are there ghostly forces at work in the house? Or are the ghosts merely a product of over-stressed imaginations twisted by guilt, envy and hate?

Network’s DVD release offers a very good transfer with no extras.

House of Darkness probably has just enough ghostliness to qualify as a low-key gothic horror movie in the style of the 40s. It’s melodrama that is the predominant ingredient though, and as melodramas go it’s fun in its deliriously overheated way. Plus Laurence Harvey’s strange but intriguing performance is a bonus. Recommended.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet was perhaps the most ambitious of all 1950s Hollywood science fiction movies. It was ambitious in terms of visuals, being made in colour and in Cinemascope with a big budget and special effects that were cutting edge at the time. It was also ambitious in terms of ideas. This is not just a space adventure movie or a western transferred to outer space. It really does try to say things about the human condition, and despite some moments of Freudian silliness it doesn’t embarrass itself too much in doing so. And of course it’s ambitious in its choice of source material - Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A United Planets cruiser captained by Commander Adams (Leslie Neilsen) arrives at the distant planet Altair-IV in the early 23rd century, its mission to search for survivors of an earlier expedition. There’s only one survivor from that original spaceship (the Bellerophon) and that’s Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), but he’s certainly made himself comfortable. He lives in luxury, pursuing his scientific work, and he most definitely does not want to be disturbed. He’s especially keen to keep his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) away from contact with visitors from Earth.

It seems like Morbius has turned Altair-IV into a paradise in outer space but there is a serpent in this Garden of Eden. Something killed everyone on board the Bellerophon except for Dr Morbius and that something could return, and Morbius suspects that it has returned. 


It’s a long wait for the action to start but then this is not an action-oriented science fiction film. The action is there because the studio knew the audience would expect it in a sci-fi movie. When the action does begin it proves to be quite satisfactory.

Cyril Hume’s screenplay is workmanlike. There are some big ideas here but while they’re treated intelligently enough they’re not developed in very great depth, which is perhaps just as well. MGM took a big risk with this film and it was important to keep the right balance between ideas and entertainment, and Forbidden Planet does in fact strike just about the perfect balance.


Director Fred M. Wilcox enjoyed his greatest success with family-oriented fare like Lassie Come Home. He was probably the wrong director for this movie - it needed a bit more of a sense of urgency and excitement. Wilcox’s pacing is a bit leisurely and his overall approach is just a little on the bland side. We know that there’s going to be some kind of climactic action scene but the tension possibly needed to be built up just a bit more gradually.

The alien landscapes are rendered using matte paintings and they do look like matte paintings. That’s a characteristic of the technology of the time that you just have to accept, and personally I think they look pretty cool. They do look artificial but that’s not as much of a problem as you might think - this is not a movie that is obsessed with realism, in fact it’s a movie that deliberately chooses to eschew realism, aiming instead for a hint of the dream-like.


The sets are simply marvelous. This is 1950s futuristic style at it its most awesome. The Krell complex is extremely impressive. There’s some truly dazzling production design here.

Dr Morbius, based on Shakespeare’s Prospero, is played with class by Walter Pidgeon. Anne Francis as his daughter (based on The Tempest’s Miranda) looks gorgeous and is quite convincing as a girl who has lived her whole life apart from all human contract other than her father. The role of Ariel in the play is fulfilled, not entirely successfully, by Robby the Robot. He’s a very cool robot but he’s used almost entirely for comic relief. Leslie Neilsen (who was a decent enough dramatic actor before turning to comedy late in his career) does a fine job as Commander Adams.


Forbidden Planet was the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the 50s. It has the big ideas, it has the sense of epic scale (in both space and time), it has the same emphasis on achieving a stunning visual impact. And like 2001: A Space Odyssey it’s a movie that gets better with repeat viewings.

Warner Brothers have done a terrific job with their Blu-Ray release. It looks superb and this is the kind of movie that can only be appreciated if it’s given this sort of treatment. It’s definitely worth the money to have this one on Blu-Ray. There are also plenty of extras.

Forbidden Planet tries to be intelligent sci-fi that is also fun and on the whole it succeeds. It’s a bona fide classic and a must-see movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was, in retrospect, too young to appreciate it. I remember being wowed by the visuals but bored by the story. I saw it again years later and was rather more impressed. Now having seen it once again after the lapse of even more years I can finally see it as a masterpiece.

Arthur C. Clarke was in the mid-60s one of the three biggest names in science fiction. He did not merely co-write the screenplay - the film was very much a collaboration between Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, to the point where it’s often difficult to know where Clarke’s vision stops and Kubrick’s begins.

Clarke was an atheist and very hostile to religion but oddly enough his fiction often had a certain quasi-religious element to it. The atheist conception of a universe that is random and purposeless is in fact explicitly rejected by this movie. In this movie humanity has a destiny. Whether this destiny is part of God’s plan or whether it is part of the plan of hyper-intelligent aliens doesn’t really matter. For all practical purposes hyper-intelligent aliens might as well be gods.

The central theme of the movie is human evolution, but evolution guided by outside forces.  These forces, unimaginably advanced aliens, first intervene in mankind’s story four million years ago. Our distant ape ancestors are peaceful vegetarians until a strange black monolith teaches them to use tools, and to kill. The movie’s approach is however considerably more subtle. The famous jump cut linking prehistoric tools with space age tools is more than just a striking piece of imagery. The monolith may have unleashed human aggression but it also unleashed human inventiveness and imagination and creativity and the implication is that these qualities are all inextricably linked.

Fast forward to 2001 and this brings us to the second intervention, with the monolith being discovered on the Moon. It has been left there for four million years, until such time that humans display their readiness for the next step in evolution by being able to find the buried object. A single radio transmission points in the direction of Jupiter and eighteen months later a spaceship is on its way to that planet, with a crew of five (three in suspended animation) plus the HAL 9000 super computer.


HAL, the computer that has become such an iconic feature of the movie, really is one of the central characters. Whether HAL really does have emotions and consciousness, or whether he has simply been programmed to mimic those qualities, remains uncertain (at one point we hear the astronauts discuss that very question with an interviewer from Earth). It doesn’t really matter - whichever is true the end result is a computer that behaves as if it has emotions and consciousness, which for all practical purposes may actually amount to the same thing.

HAL is one of the reasons that this is a movie that can only be fully appreciated after multiple viewings. On your first viewing you will undoubtedly  look at the HAL sub-plot from the point of view of the human astronauts. On subsequent viewings you may (as I did) start to look at these events from HAL’s point of view, in which case his actions become much more comprehensible.

What’s interesting is that the astronauts have been so carefully selected and so thoroughly trained to maintain an absolute discipline over their emotions that they come across as less human than HAL (which is why the deliberate underplaying of Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea which is off-putting at first comes to make perfect sense). If HAL has achieved consciousness and the ability to experience emotion then these are very recent developments and he has not had the time or opportunity to learn how to deal with these things. He is in some ways a super-intelligent child.


One of the emotions that HAL has developed is anxiety. There’s a crucial scene in which HAL expresses his anxieties about the mission to Dave. Dave assumes that HAL’s questions are simply part of a routine test of the psychological well-being of the human crew and fails to realise that HAL may in fact be expressing actual anxieties of his own.

HAL also shows signs of acquiring another human characteristic - a sense of self-preservation.

Anxiety and insecurity can of course lead to paranoia, and HAL certainly starts to exhibit paranoid tendencies. What’s really intriguing is that while Dave and Frank are becoming concerned that HAL might be a threat to them HAL is simultaneously becoming concerned that the human astronauts might be a threat to him.


The famous scene in which Dave decides he must de-activate HAL’s higher mental functions achieves a real poignancy. We’re obviously disposed to be on Dave’s side but we do really feel HAL’s fear.

The HAL sub-plot is not a mere plot device introduced to add danger to the Jupiter mission. The subject of the evolution of machine intelligence (to the point where it might well become artificial life) is one of the movie’s major themes, dovetailing nicely with the other main theme of human evolution.

This is an insanely ambitious movie. There had been big-budget sci-fi movies before this (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Woman in the Moon were very big productions indeed in the 1920s) and there had been intelligent thoughtful sci-fi movies as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey aims not only to be an intelligent sci-fi epic it also does something more - it creates a whole new aesthetic for sci-fi films. It looks radically different from every previous sci-fi movie and every sci-fi movie made since has been to some degree influenced by this aesthetic.


It also aims at a level of realism never previously approached in a movie. All the technology in the film not only looks like it would really work but is, within the limitations of what was known in the mid-60s, entirely plausible. The fact that we don’t have giant space stations that rotate in order to achieve artificial gravity doesn’t mean that the idea was implausible. If we failed to achieve the future predicted by this movie that is due to our loss of confidence in ourselves rather than any failing on the movie’s part.

Those who don’t like the film often complain about its length and its slowness. Personally I think the leisurely pacing works and many of the slower scenes actually tell you a great deal about the world of the film - and it is a fully realised world. It’s also been criticised for being pretentious and obscure. I actually think the plot is fairly straightforward, although the first time you see it you can be distracted by the visuals and misled into thinking it’s obscure when it isn’t.

2001: A Space Odyssey may have been immensely influential aesthetically but it was less influential as far as content is concerned. For a while it did look as though it might be the precursor of a run of intelligent provocative science fiction movies, movies like Planet of the Apes (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Westworld (1973), but that run soon dried up. This was perhaps inevitable. Big-budget science fiction movies are an enormous risk for a studio. They’re an even bigger risk if they’re long on ideas and short on action. Shoot ’em ups in outer space were to be the future of movie science fiction. 

2001: A Space Odyssey still stands up as one of the great science fiction movies. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Mad Ghoul (1943)

The Universal horror movies of the 1940s are a bit of a mixed bag but The Mad Ghoul does have quite a few things in its favour. Most notably it has the right cast. It has George Zucco as a mad scientist, it has famous scream queen Evelyn Ankers and it has Turhan Bey to add the necessary touch of exoticism.

Zucco plays chemist Dr Alfred Morris who has been researching some strange aspects of ancient Mayan rites. He believes that the Mayans may have used a type of poison gas to induce what he calls a state of death-in-life. He also has a theory about the Mayans’ rather unpleasant custom of tearing out the hearts of living sacrificial victims. He believes they had a means of reversing the state of death-in-life.

With his eager young student and assistant Ted Allison (David Bruce) Dr Morris is determined to prove the correctness of his theory.

At first we assume that Dr Morris is the kind of movie mad scientist who is led into evil through his single-minded pursuit of science without any moral grounding. He scornfully dismisses the idea of morality. He is a scientist and believes there is no good or evil, only true or false. There is however another factor at work in this case. Dr Morris knows a good deal about science but he is a fool when it comes to women. 


The worst thing is that he thinks he knows all about women. And as the old saying goes, there’s no fool like an old fool. Dr Morris’s foolishness about women will lead him to use his knowledge of science for evil rather than good.

Young Ted is also somewhat naïve when it comes to women, and this will have equally disastrous results for him. Ted is engaged to be married to popular singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) but he has an unknown and formidable rival in the person of her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey).


Soon a ghoul is on the loose, robbing graves all over the country. There seems to be some mysterious link to Isabel Lewis. Of course Isabel herself cannot possibly be involved. Reporter Ken McClure (Robert Armstrong) has a theory but he will need some hard evidence before he can go to the police. He has an idea he knows how to find that evidence.

George Zucco is in fine form. Dr Morris is the kind of mad scientist who doesn’t struggle very hard against the temptations of evil but he’s smooth and clever and he’s able to maintain an outward appearance of respectability. People trust Dr Morris. Zucco doesn’t overdo his performance - Dr Morris is a villain but he’s a victim of his own delusions and he’s not entirely unsympathetic.

David Bruce does an excellent job as the hapless innocent Ted Allison. Evelyn Ankers makes a sympathetic and glamorous heroine. Turhan Bey is as suave as ever as her handsome lover.


While the term zombie is never used this can be seen as a type of zombie movie, with a scientific rather than mystical explanation.

One of the great things about this movie is the lack of comic relief. I just can’t tell you what a joy it is to encounter a 1940s Universal horror flick without irritating comic relief. Even the smart aleck reporter is mostly played very straight.

The movie includes many of the staples of Universal horror films with some nicely atmospheric graveyard scenes. The makeup effects (by the legendary Jack Pierce) are effective without being in any way excessive. Universal’s horror films of this era might have been uneven but they always looked good.


The script, by Brenda Weisberg and Paul Gangelin, is serviceable and in fact surprisingly intelligent and has some original touches. Director James P. Hogan spent his career in B-features but he knew his business and his work here can’t be faulted. He gets the most out of the material and the results are quite classy by B-movie standards. Sadly Hogan died of a heart attack shortly before the film’s release.

The Mad Ghoul is one of the five movies included in TCM’s excellent (although hard to find) Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. Sound quality is just a little uneven. On the other hand the image quality is superb. There are a few extras. The Mad Ghoul is a neat little horror movie that has been unjustly neglected and is highly recommended. As for the TCM boxed set, it’s pretty much a must-buy for classic horror fans.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was the third of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies and the first to be produced by Universal. Universal decided not only to bring Holmes into the present day but also to have him battle Nazi saboteurs. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was released in 1942, at a time when Hollywood was whipping itself up into a frenzy over the war.

The contemporary settings of the Universal films are not generally too much of a problem. The wartime background was a less successful experiment which Universal mercifully abandoned after the first few films.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was based, very loosely, on Conan Doyle’s short story His Last Bow. This 1917 story, which in my opinion is one of the weakest of all Conan Doyle’s stories, had pitted Holmes against a Germany spy during the First World War. The spy theme is the only element of the short story utilised in the screenplay by John Bright and Lynn Riggs. 


Britain is being demoralised by a series of propaganda broadcasts from Germany. The broadcasts predict acts of sabotage. What really worries the British intelligence chiefs is that the predictions are always accurate. They are so worried that they are prepared to resort to desperate measures - they have called on Sherlock Holmes for help. Holmes has one clue to work with - the dying words of one of his operatives. He also has the assistance of the dead man’s girlfriend Kitty (Evelyn Ankers) and can also count on assistance from London’s underworld after Kitty delivers a stirring patriotic speech to them. 

It is obvious that the Germans have a sophisticated espionage and sabotage operation in place in Britain and that they have access to secrets that can only come from sources in high places. They are determined to safeguard their spy ring and attempt have been made on the lives of several senior British intelligence chiefs - and on the life of Holmes as well.


Kitty will play a vital role in uncovering this network, having attracted the amorous attentions of one of the Nazi ringleaders. 

The German spy network is set to pull off its greatest coup and it appears that they have the British thoroughly bamboozled. Holmes however is not so easily fooled.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had settled into their respective roles very well by this time. Bruce plays things fairly straight this time, as he was alway perfectly capable of doing. In fact there’s virtually no comic relief in this film. Thomas Gomez is a subtly menacing villain. The very underrated Henry Daniell provides fine support as does Reginald Denny. Evelyn Ankers shines as Kitty.


I personally have a strong dislike for wartime propaganda movies. The more hysterical the propaganda the less I like them and the tone of this film is very hysterical indeed. 

On the plus side this movie is very impressive visually. The look of the movie is reminiscent of both the great 1930s Universal gothic horror movies and the film noir style although in fact the noir style was only just beginning to emerge in 1942. Director John Rawlins is very fond of extreme close-ups which he uses to excellent effect. This was unfortunately the only Universal Sherlock Holmes movie that Rawlins directed.


There was nothing outrageous about having Sherlock Holmes hunting spies. Several of Conan Doyle’s original short stories are in fact espionage stories. Pitting the great detective against Nazis though just seems too anachronistic. The stridently propagandistic tone doesn’t help at all and there are way too many political speeches. 

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is not a complete success. Critics at the time were unenthusiastic but it did great business at the box office. The best thing about this movie is that its success ensured that there would be more Universal Sherlock Holmes movies. It marked an uncertain start to what would be one of the great B-movie series. Recommended, with reservations.