The Midwich Cuckoos was the most quintessentially English of Wyndham’s novels. An adaptation of that novel set in the United States sounded like a seriously poor idea.
Nonetheless the 1995 version of The Village of the Damned is a John Carpenter movie and I do generally like John Carpenter movies, so I have set aside my prejudices and here I am reviewing it.
One day everybody in the town of Midwich loses consciousness. All the animals lose consciousness as well. Some hours later they all regain consciousness. No-one has any idea what has happened or why. The government has sent Dr Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) to investigate. While she’s certainly a doctor it’s reasonable to assume that she has some intimate connections with the intelligence community.
It soon becomes apparent that every single woman of child-bearing age in Midwich is pregnant and they all fell pregnant on the day of the unexplained blackout. It’s obvious that something very strange is going on. There is simply no possible way that some of these women could be pregnant, but they are. And they all decide to keep their babies.
The children grow up very fast. They are extremely bright but lack any kind of empathy. They’re not actually emotionless - in fact they display an excessively emotional need for revenge if they suffer any injury or even a minor inconvenience. This is one of the elements in the story that worked fine in the 1960 movie but seems inconsistent and meddled in this version.
Dr Verner is still hanging around and giving the impression she knows more than she’s prepared to reveal publicly. She seems to have been added to the story to give it a bit of an X-Files vibe, with a vague suggestion that maybe the government knows more than it’s prepared to let on as well. She chain smokes through the move so you could describe her as the movie’s faintly sinister Cigarette Smoking Woman.
The children become more obviously evil. It’s not just Midwich’s future that looks bleak, these kids could be a threat to the whole planet.
There are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s no subtlety in the portrayal of the children. Right from the start they are clearly Demon Children From Hell and their evilness is so blatant you have to wonder why everybody else in the town doesn’t just leave. For the story to work it’s necessary that the women should make serious attempts to bond with the children and should be genuinely emotionally conflicted about them. Nobody could be emotionally conflicted about these little horrors. It’s also necessary that the strangeness of the children should be revealed slowly, so that at first it’s still possible for people to convince themselves that they’re just normal kids. All of this was done successfully in the 1960 film and the 1995 film fails on every count.
There’s a much bigger problem. John Wyndham had a deep love for traditional English society, and he felt that things were changing rapidly and not necessarily for the better. The Midwich Cuckoos is a kind of allegory of the rise of soulless mass society. The Midwich of his novel was a creation that the author cared about and the reader cannot help feeling emotionally involved in the tragic fate that seems to be the village’s destiny. All of that is lost in Carpenter’s film. His Midwich is already soulless so why would anybody care if it’s threatened?
The characters are dull and the acting is dull. Terrible things happen to the local doctor, Dr Chaffee, but Christopher Reeve’s performance is so colourless and uninvolved that Dr Chaffee is even more robotic than the demon children. The other actors make no impression whatsoever and their characters are so uninteresting that I found it difficult to keep track of them.
Kirstie Alley tries to be cynical and sinister but she doesn’t really have the acting chops to make Dr Verner anything more than a cipher.
The special effects are OK but they’re not really any improvement on the 1960 movie.
There are some minor changes to the story, notably in regard to the David character, but they’re muddled and unconvincing.
By 1995 Carpenter’s once promising career was definitely on the skids. He no longer had enough commercial clout to be given the level of creative control necessary to do something interesting with the material and he knew it. He didn’t want to make The Village of the Damned and he didn’t have final cut and he had major disagreements with the studio and it seems likely that he just lost interest and was only thinking of the pay cheque. It’s ironic that the commercial failures that derailed his career were in fact some of the best and most interesting movies of his career (movies like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China). This must have been more than a little disillusioning. Unfortunately The Village of the Damned was not the sort of movie that was going to get his career back on track.
The overwhelming impression I get from this movie is pointlessness. It’s inferior in every way to the 1960 film and it adds absolutely nothing of value to the story.
I found myself not caring what happened to Midwich or its inhabitants who seemed no more convincingly human than the evil alien children.
I really can’t think of any reason whatsoever why anyone would want to see this movie.
Saturday, 23 June 2018
Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Agnes Moorehead plays popular mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder who has rented a spooky mansion called The Oaks. She and her secretary Lizzie (Lenita Lane) are alone in the house because the entire domestic staff has quit. They’re afraid of The Bat, a mysterious killer who has been terrorising the local community. They’re also afraid of actual bats, following a newspaper report that the bats in this area are infected with rabies.
The Oaks belongs to the local bank president, a man named Fleming. He’s gone off on a hunting trip with his physician, Dr Malcolm Wells.
A very large amount of money has been embezzled from the bank and the nice young bank vice-president, Victor Bailey, has been arrested for the crime.
There are at least three major sub-plots and the connections between them are pretty tenuous.
There are all the standard ingredients of the Old Dark House film. There are secret passageways and masked villains and lots of running about and screaming.
It’s Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead who make this movie worth seeing, insofar as it’s worth seeing at all. The other cast members are distinctly unmemorable.
Price gives one of his more understated performances but of course he still manages to be pretty creepy.
Moorehead was a much admired actress and this film gives her a rare chance to play a leading rôle. And she has a great deal of fun as the feisty mystery novelist.
Crane Wilbur, who write and directed The Bat, had a lengthy career in film, starting as an actor and moving on to directing. A lengthy career, but not a particularly distinguished one.
Creaky is the word that is inevitably going to be used when describing this movie. Not only does it belong to a genre whose glory days were the 1930s, it really does feel very 1930s stylistically as well. There’s a heavy reliance on shadowy outlines of sinister figures to provide scares. Compared to the horror movies that were being made by Hammer at about this time it must have seemed pretty tame even to contemporary audiences.
Of course any Old Dark House movie is going to have that problem of feeling dated. It’s an inherently very old-fashioned concept. The original play made its Broadway debut in 1920, so it actually pre-dates what we think of as the golden age of the detective story. The difficulty with trying to revive The Bat as a movie in 1959 is that it was either going to feel very old-fashioned, or it was going to end up with a high camp feel. The movie mostly ends up just being old-fashioned.
I personally like old-fashioned things, and I have a certain fondness for the genre but even back in the 30s Old Dark House movies were something of a hit and miss proposition.
There are numerous public domain version of the his movie floating around. Surprisingly enough it’s actually had not only an official DVD release but a Blu-Ray release as well. The version I saw was a public domain copy and the quality was atrocious. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you would bother spending real money buying the Blu-Ray or the apparently excellent Anchor Bay DVD. This really is not the kind of movie you’re likely to watch again and again.
If you’re a hardcore fan of Vincent Price or Agnes Moorehead you might get some enjoyment from this movie, otherwise you’d have to be a pretty enthusiastic devotee of Old Dark House films to bother with this one. If you want a really good Old Dark House movie, check out One Frightened Night or Tomorrow at Seven.
Friday, 1 June 2018
The little seaside town of Antonio Bay in northern California is celebrating its one hundredth birthday. Antonio Bay is a quiet little town. In fact the last time anything exciting happened here was a hundred years go when a ship called the Elizabeth Dane was wrecked in the bay, the disaster being caused by a mysterious fog. That event led to the foundation of the town.
Gothic horror often involves a curse, and the curse is often a collective one, falling upon an entire family. In this case it’s the entire town that is under the curse. That curse is the consequence of certain terrible things that happened exactly a century ago.
It starts with odd things happening. Car alarms going off for no reason, windows shattering, lights inexplicably flashing on and off. And there’s a fog, just as there had been in 1880. The fog is heading straight for a fishing trawler, the Sea Grass.
The local priest knows what’s going on. He’s found an old diary that recounts the events of that night in 1880 and reading that diary has almost sent the good priest over the edge of madness.
Now the unearthly fog of 1880 has returned and there’s something evil and deadly in that fog.
Carpenter started making horror movies at a time when a certain amount of gore was pretty much required if you expected to get a commercial release. While Carpenter didn’t seem to object to gore he didn’t really need it. He was good enough to scare us without the gore. In The Fog he doesn’t overdo it. In fact there’s a lot of implied gore. There are ultra-violent killings but you don’t really see much at all. The violence was mostly added in the reshoots.
What Carpenter did have was a very fine talent for atmosphere. In The Thing he uses the Arctic wastes and the horror of snow and ice with terrifying effectiveness. In The Fog his setting is a picturesque California seaside town but he still manages to build some incredibly creepy atmosphere.
And Carpenter certainly had the technical skills. He keeps the tension ratcheted up very nicely and when he throws in his scares they do scare.
The Fog has a pretty decent cast. Adrienne Barbeau as the radio station owner and operator (effectively it’s a one-woman radio station), Jamie Lee Curtis as hitch-hiker Elizabeth Solley, Janet Leigh (who was of course Jamie Lee’s real-life mom) as Antonio Bay’s chief civic booster Kathy Williams and Tom Atkins as the closest thing the film has to a conventional hero are all very solid and Hal Holbrook is fun as the well-meaning whisky priest.
The location shooting is impressive and even includes a couple of scenes shot at locations used by Hitchcock in The Birds. The radio station in the light house is a rather cool idea.
Carpenter’s biggest cinematic influence was not a horror director but Howard Hawks. Carpenter’s career has essentially been an attempt to do horror, sci-fi and adventure movies in the Hawks style.
Carpenter also cites Lovecraft as a major influence on The Fog, and there are certainly some Lovecraftian touches.
The Fog is a low-budget movie (it cost just over a million dollars at the time) but the special effects are very effective. Carpenter is smart enough not to try anything too ambitious. It’s better to stick to simple effects that work and that’s what he does. The ghosts look very creepy. The fog looks mysterious and menacing.
The Region 4 DVD offers a nice anamorphic transfer. The film was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ration that Carpenter preferred (and used with such skill). There’s a lively and chatty and very worthwhile audio commentary by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill. Carpenter is a guy who gives the impression that he absolutely loves doing audio commentaries for his movies.
The Fog manages to combine the visceral thrills of the slasher film with the moodiness and spookiness of the traditional ghost story and it’s a blend that works very well indeed. One of Carpenter’s best, and certainly one of the best horror movies of its era. Highly recommended.
Friday, 18 May 2018
There are some crucial differences between Tarzan as played by Johnny Weissmuller and the Tarzan of the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (starting with Tarzan of the Apes in 1914). The Burroughs version of Tarzan is not an illiterate child of the jungle. Although raised by apes he has acquired an education from books. He belongs to both civilised society and to ape society. Someone at MGM decided that their Tarzan would be more popular if they quietly dropped the civilised side of the character. Given the enormous success enjoyed by the films it may well be that it was the right decision although it is a pity that so much of the complexity of the character is lost.
The movie begins with James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) hoping to get out of Africa, but they intend to leave the continent as rich men. Their plan is to find the legendary elephants’ graveyard where a fortune in ivory awaits them. The problem is that no-one knows the location of this graveyard and there’s no point in asking the natives since all the tribes are united on one point - anyone who knows the location must die. Parker and Holt however have quite accidentally stumbled upon a very promising lead.
They set off into the jungle with one unexpected additional member in their party. Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) has just arrived in Africa and insists on joining the expedition.
It takes a very long time for Tarzan to make his appearance in Tarzan the Ape Man. This means of course that the audience is eagerly looking forward to his entrance and when he does arrive he does so in some style.
By the time Tarzan appears the expedition has already encountered some formidable obstacles and dangers. The crossing of the river on rafts, the river being infested with hundreds of angry hippos and a few hungry crocodiles as well, is a superb action-adventure set-piece.
Tarzan and Jane meet under somewhat informal circumstances - he kidnaps her and carries her off to his treetop lair. Jane spends the rest of the movie hurtling back and forth between her old life with her father and her new life with Tarzan.
In this movie Tarzan encounters European civilisation for the first time and the encounter does not go at all smoothly. In fact it’s close to open war. Harry Holt’s hotheadedness is a major contributing factor. Harry likes to shoot things and he tends to do so without giving it a second thought. This does not endear him to Tarzan, especially on those occasions when Tarzan is the target.
Tarzan’s encounter with Jane proceeds much more satisfactorily. Tarzan can’t talk but that’s OK because Jane does enough talking for both of them. In fact she does as much talking as a dozen normal people. This girl just never stops talking, although she and Tarzan also seem to manage pretty well with certain non-verbal forms of communication.
There’s plenty of action with an endless supply of marauding lions and leopards and Tarzan getting chased (and very nearly caught) by crocodiles plus of course there are the much-feared murderous dwarves. Not pygmies, we are distinctly told that these are dwarves not pygmies. And they have some nasty plans for Jane’s father and for Harry Holt.
The director was W.S. Van Dyke, more renowned for his efficiency than his brilliance but he handles the action pretty well. There is of course a great deal of stock footage, and some process shots that are amusing in their outrageous obviousness.
This movie is available on DVD but I caught it on cable TV so I can’t tell you anything about the quality of the DVDs. The TV print I saw was in reasonably good condition.
This film is of course very very politically incorrect. It’s also plenty of fun (strange how politically incorrect movies do tend to be fun). There’s adventure and there’s romance. Tarzan and His Mate followed two years later and is even better (and it ups the eroticism very significantly).
Tarzan the Ape Man is important historically in that it established the formula for most of the countless Tarzan movies that would follow and it’[s worth seeing it for its own sake. Recommended.
Friday, 4 May 2018
It starts out promisingly, with a harmless priest feeding the pigeons in a Roman piazza but as we will soon discover he is no priest. He is a very high-priced assassin.
His target is the King of Kafiristan, Kafiristan being somewhere in central Asia. The Americans want Kafiristan’s oil and to get it they need to keep the king alive and that’s the job assigned to CIA agent Mark Stone.
The assassin is Oscar Snell, ex-Gestapo agent and reputedly the best hitman in Europe. Snell’s weakness is that he loves candy. That’s not really a weakness, but he does a habit of leaving candy wrappers lying about thus providing a useful clue for anyone trying to track him down.
Kerwin Mathews plays Stone as a typical square-jawed American eurospy hero, albeit one who takes his espionage duties fairly seriously. It’s not exactly a riveting performance but he handles the action scenes pretty well. He naturally has a sidekick, Costa (Venantino Venantini), who naturally provides comic relief.
While Stone is a rather dour hero Oscar Snell is a much more interesting villain. We feel right from the start that he’s dangerous even though he keeps himself very much under control. He’s a lone wolf villain and he likes being an assassin. At times one can’t help feeling sorry for him - his plans for killing the king are sound enough but they just keep misfiring.
This movie lacks the outrageous plot elements that are usually associated with the eurospy genre, and it’s also notably lacking in gadgetry. In fact plotwise it’s a very straightforward suspense thriller, with the assassin hunting the king and Mark Stone hunting the assassin.
It might sound a bit dull but it isn’t. There’s a lot of action and the action scenes are stylish and exciting. Rather than one-on-one fistfights we get extended all-in brawls in interesting settings - the fight among the statuary in the Orsini Gardens, the fight in the meat-packing plant and the fight among the barrels in the warehouse are all exceptionally well executed. And the fights are, by the standards of 1968, pretty full-blooded.
Stylistically this movie perhaps has more in common with the hard-edged eurocrime thrillers of the late 60s and early 70s than with the classic mid-60s eurospy genre, or at least that’s the direction in which it’s heading. Even with its moments of comic relief this is a fairly serious movie and it’s a eurospy movie with virtually no traces of camp. The action is what matters and that’s what the movie concentrates on.
There are some bikini-clad girls of course, although not quite as many as are usually found in this genre. And Costa certainly pursues the ladies with enthusiasm, and with a certain amount of success. Mark Stone is not so much into womanising although there is a glamorous lady doctor on hand to provide a love interest.
The Killer Likes Candy was released by Code Red as part of a spy movie DVD double-feature. It’s paired with a reasonably entertaining heist movie from the Philippines called Stoney (AKA Surabaya Conspiracy).
If you’re a fan of eurospy movies then you know that you have to be grateful for what you get. There aren’t many such films available on DVD and those that are available are very rarely in their correct aspect ratios and image quality is usually dubious. Sadly that’s the case with The Killer Likes Candy. It’s an awful pan-and-scanned print, but the chances of this movie ever getting a decent DVD release are pretty much zero. If you want to see the movie then this is probably as good as it’s ever going to get.
The Killer Likes Candy doesn’t deliver the over-the-top fun you generally hope for in a eurospy feature but it does deliver some decent suspense and some fine action sequences. The DVD transfer is definitely problematic but the movie is still worth seeing and is still recommended.
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
The dubbed version which hit the U.S. in 1964 pushes the comic elements even further, in fact it arguably pushes them a little too far.
This movie is also a bit unusual in that its star (or at least one of its two stars) went on to have a real career. That star was Australian Rod Taylor and in the same year that he made Colossus and the Amazon Queen he also made the movie that made him a legitimate movie star, that movie being The Time Machine.
Pirro (Rod Taylor) and Glauco (Ed Fury) are the two heroes. Pirro has the brains while Glauco has the muscles. At least Pirro thinks he’s the one with the brains. They’re broke and Pirro grabs what seems to him to be a great opportunity to earn some easy money. All they have to do is undertake a sea voyage and act as watchmen. The difficult part is tricking Glauco into going along with the idea but Pirro has plenty of experience in such matters.
Everything seems to be going well. They land on a remote island where lots of gold is waiting for them and the rest of the crew. There’s also a feast laid out with plenty of fine wine. Unfortunately the wine is drugged. They’ve been tricked but it’s worse than that - they have been sold to the Amazons. And the Amazons have only one use for men.
This is a Battle of the Sexes movie but with the roles reversed. The men are the warriors and are in control. The men are effeminate slaves who spend their time gossiping and are treated like pets. That is the fate awaiting Pirro, Glauco and their pals.
A worse fate may be in store for Glauco. He has offended the captain of the guard and she wants him put to death.
The Queen of the Amazons is anxious to give up her throne. All the other amazons are allowed to have men but the queen must remain chaste and she’s getting rather tired of chastity. There are two deadly rivals competing for the succession.
And of course there are plenty of romantic complications in store as well. The amazon women are all somewhat man-crazy. There are also some pirates who are mostly there so as to provide the obligatory climactic battle scene.
It’s very hard to judge comedy when it’s been dubbed. The original script might well have been quite witty. The dubbed version goes for broad comedy. Mostly it doesn’t succeed in being especially funny but it does manage to be seriously weird. This movie takes high camp as far as it can be taken and then some. There are some awesomely camp dance sequences. There’s also a cheerful disregard for period. The story is supposed to take place not long after the Trojan War but then we get some medieval jousting, not to mention the jazz-inspired dancing (and even without the jazzy score added for the dubbed version the dance routines are clearly jazz-inspired).
The costumes are absurd but they are amusingly bizarre.
The cast clearly understood that subtlety was not required in their performances.
One of the great things about movies of the past is that the film-makers did not agonise over whether their films might offend somebody. This is a rather good-natured movie on the whole but it sure isn’t politically correct.
Colossus and the Amazon Queen is available on DVD from Retromedia in a two-movie pack paired with Goliath and the Sins of Babylon. Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is an excellent film and it gets a pretty decent anamorphic transfer. Sadly the transfer for Colossus and the Amazon Queen is pan-and-scanned and definitely not so good.
It’s generally rather unfair to deliver a harsh judgment on a movie when you’re seeing it in a poorly dubbed version plus the print is not in great condition and to top it all off it’s pan-and-scanned but I think it’s still reasonable to say that this is a pretty bad movie. Despite this it has a certain goofy charm. It’s a bit like a beach party movie in that you have to be in the right mood but I found it to be oddly enjoyable. Recommended, if you have a high tolerance for camp.
Sunday, 15 April 2018
The U.S. Navy has a research establishment on the Salton Sea. They do all sorts of things there, including the testing of parachutes. Navy personnel make parachute jumps into the Salton Sea and are then recovered by boat. It’s all routine stuff, until three men are killed. Why they died is a mystery but it’s what happened to their bodies that is worrying.
Lieutenant Commander John Twillinger (Tim Holt) is not happy about it. He’s a guy who does things by the book and doesn’t take chances so he advises the local sheriff to close the beaches (to the disgust of the locals since it’s the height of the tourist season). And he sends some samples to Dr Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) at the laboratory at the base.
The results are puzzling. Even more puzzling to Dr Rogers is the radioactivity. He’s pretty sure the Navy hasn’t been doing anything that would explain the radioactivity, but there it is.
And then more people start dying.
It’s a nice slow buildup. We know something terrible is happening but at this stage we have no idea what it might be. As always what you don’t know and what you don’t see are more frightening than the things you do know and see. This is something that makers of horror movies keep learning, and then forgetting.
Of course eventually comes the dreaded moment when the monster has to be shown. Since the monster in question is a giant carnivorous mollusc one expects the worst but it’s actually not too bad. And the special effects in general are very good. There is real creepiness here. It was a standard feature of monster movies of the era to have the Scientist giving an expository lecture and showing a little film to explain things to the other characters. In this movie Dr Rogers has a little film about the very unpleasant habits of molluscs and I have to say that it enhances the creepiness fact quite a bit. It makes you really not want to encounter a gigantic mollusc.
Even after the monster is revealed this movie still relies on building suspense and genuine terror rather than just the slightly silly mayhem you so often get in this genre. Director Arnold Laven understands pacing as well and on the whole this is a pretty well-made film. The ending is very expertly handled. It’s also a bit more grisly than most 50s monster flicks. And even the hero shows real fear at times, a hero of course not being someone who is without fear but someone who can be afraid and still do his job.
There are some intriguing foreshadowings of a much more famous later movie, a movie about a deadly shark made by some guy called Spielberg.
And there’s some decent underwater photography. This was obviously a B-picture, but just as obviously it was made on a slightly more generous budget than usual.
The acting is well above the standard you expect in a monster movie. Tim Holt is very good as Lt. Cmdr. Twillinger, a character with a bit of complexity (by monster movie standards). He’s a man who pushes others, and himself, very hard. He’s a bit of a martinet and not overly popular with the men under his command. This seems to be just the way he approaches his job since he can be quite affable with civilians. He’s not an obviously sympathetic hero type but right from the start we respect his professionalism.
Hans Conried is not an actor you expect to find playing things straight but that’s how he plays Dr Rogers and it works pretty well. The supporting players are all competent.
The Salton Sea, a huge saltwater lake in the middle of the desert in southern California, is a good choice as a setting for this type of movie. In the movie at least it has a rather brooding feel to it (particularly at the beginning). The All American Canal System also features prominently and is used just as effectively.
While other giant critter sci-fi horror movies gained cult followings The Monster That Challenged the World ended up being pretty much forgotten. This is both surprising and unfair because this happens to be a well above-average example of the breed.
I caught this film on TV and happily it was a very good letterboxed print. It’s been released on DVD and more recently on Blu-Ray as well.
The Monster That Challenged the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Highly recommended.