Wednesday 30 January 2008

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

The Tomb of Ligeia was the second of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films to be made in England. Judging by his statements on the DVD commentary track Corman seems to have found the British approach to film-making rather congenial. Certainly he’s full of praise for the mostly British cast and crew. And with good reason. In some of the other films in this series Vincent Price really has to carry most of the acting burden himself but this time he has a strong supporting cast to work with. English actress Elizabeth Shepherd does a fine job in the dual role of Rowena/Ligeia and there are some delightful English character actors in minor roles. Oliver Johnston as the butler Kenrick and Derek Francis as Lord Trevanion are wonderfully entertaining. For this film Corman decided to abandon his previous practice in the Poe films of shooting entirely in the studio. He’d done that in order to get as artificial a look as possible, since he was dealing with the unconscious mind and was trying to capture a kind of dreamlike quality. This time there’s lots of location shooting. I liked the artificial feel of the previous movies but I must admit his change of technique works very well also. The sets (the studio shooting was one at Shepperton Studios in England) also look great – the visual style of the movie is extremely gothic and also a little decadent. On the whole the visuals still look very good, and still stand up very well 40 years after the movie was made.

Vincent Price gave some great performances in Corman’s movies and this one is no exception. Verden Fell is a man under the spell of a dead wife, a wife who believed that her indomitable will would allow her to overcome and defeat death. Price’s performance is understated and subtle. There’s really not much plot – the film is almost entirely about character and mood – but Corman’s visual flair endures that the audience’s attention remains riveted. Compared to modern horror movie there’s no gore and very little overt horror; there is however an overwhelming gothic atmosphere, an atmosphere of unhealthy and tragic obsession. It’s an effective and highly entertaining film. The DVD commentary track by Corman is simply splendid. He really does wonderful commentary tracks for his movies – he explains how and why he did particular shots in a particular way and the explanations are just technical enough to give you a real insight into his method without being too technical for a non-expert to understand. He explains his intentions and his motivations clearly and concisely (and it’s clear that in the Poe films at least Corman was a serious and thoughtful film-maker). He’s also charmingly generous in his praise of the people he worked with. The movie (in the MGM Midnite Movies DVD series) also looks fantastic – a very worthwhile buy for lovers of classic horror.

Sunday 27 January 2008

The Bloody Judge (1970)

The success of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (or The Conqueror Worm as it’s also known) inspired a host of witch-hunter films, including the excellent Blood on Satan’s Claw, and also Jess Franco’s The Bloody Judge. Franco’s film is a little different since the is not primarily on witchcraft – Judge Jeffries, the bloody judge of the title, earned his notoriety during the 1680s for his condemnation of hundreds of alleged conspirators and traitors against the unpopular Catholic king of England, James II. Witchcraft was merely a convenient charge to use against the king’s perceived enemies when there was insufficient evidence of treason, although in fact Jeffries required very little evidence indeed in order to sentence an unfortunate prisoner to death for treason. The Bloody Judge is more of a historical adventure with elements of fairly grisly horror added to the mix. It follows the fortunes of the young son of one of Jeffries’ political opponents, a young man who is involved with the sister of a woman condemned as a witch by Jeffries. The great strength of this movie is Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffries. It was a role that Lee was very keen to play, and it’s a performance of which he is justly proud. Lee gives a restrained but chilling performance, portraying Jeffries as a man whose behaviour is a combination of genuine zeal for his profession and for the service of the king and an overwhelming ambition for power. Lee plays him as a man who has just about convinced himself that his actions really are both necessary and just, but also as a man who is intelligent enough to have some disagreeable twinges of conscience. He is also a man who is able to dispense brutal and summary justice because he makes sure he never actually sees the unpleasant results.

With a moderately generous budget and some great locations in Portugal this is a rather slick and glossy production from Franco, with a couple of surprisingly convincing battle scenes as the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against King James comes to a disastrous end. Howard Vernon contributes an outrageously sadistic performance as the king’s executioner, Leo Genn is very good as Jeffries’ enemy Lord Wessex, and Maria Schell and Maria Rohm are quite adequate in supporting roles. But it’s Christopher Lee’s picture, and his performance is the main reason to see this film. It’s also a highly entertaining movie, and the Blue Underground DVD is, as usual with that company, immaculate. The interviews with Franco and Lee are the highlights of the extras.

Saturday 26 January 2008

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The Devil Rides Out is one of the most lavish and most expensive of the horror movies made by Hammer Films. With Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher, at the helm, a cast headed by Christopher Lee and a script by Richard Matheson you’d have expected the results to be pretty special. And they are. This is possibly Hammer’s finest moment. The larger than usual budget allowed them to depart from their customary 19th century setting. This one is set in the 1920s, and it looks scrumptious. It’s a tale, bade on a Dennis Wheatley pot-boiler, of the dangers of meddling with Dark Forces. Christopher Lee is the arrogant Duc de Richleau, who is something of as control freak, but this time Lee is one of the good guys, battling the Forces of Darkness. Lee actually knew Dennis Wheatley and it’s obvious from the commentary track that he actually believes in the reality of these satanic forces. That may have given his performance added zest, because he turns in a career-best performance. Patrick Mower is good as the naïve young man dabbling in wickedness. The special effects are excellent by the standards of 1968. It’s a movie that stands up very well today – the feel of malevolent agencies lying in wait for the unwary is conveyed extremely well, there’s plenty of action and there’s plenty of suspense. And there are some real chills. This is one of the less camp Hammer movies – it was intended to be taken seriously, and it works as a serious horror film. And the print on the Anchor Bay DVD is absolutely gorgeous, a very sharp picture and wonderful colour. A very good and very entertaining movie.

Necronomicon (AKA Succubus, 1968)

Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden, probably better known under its US release title of Succubus, was one of the first Jess Franco movies I saw, when I first discovered everyone’s favourite exploitation auteur a few years ago. It impressed me enormously at the time, and seeing it second time I’m even more impressed. This film, along with Venus in Furs and Vampyros Lesbos, sees Franco at his most self-consciously arty. This is the story of Lorna, a stripper who does a kinky act at a club in Berlin. The S&M aspects of the act start to bleed into her life outside the club. Franco describes the movie as a study in paranoia, and it certainly captures the feel of paranoia extremely well. Reality and delusion become inextricably mixed, and it’s increasingly unclear exactly whose delusions we’re seeing. It’s packed with bizarre and disturbing imagery and with overheated eroticism. There are moments that seem silly, but then dreams seem pretty silly anyway so it doesn’t really matter. In fact it captures that element of the silly and incongruous that is often the thing that tells us that we’re dreaming. So having the psychiatrist pick up a model of a pig and then ask Lorna what she thinks of pachyderms makes sense in the garbled world of dreams. There are moments that go close to kitsch but somehow he gets away with it – the scene with Lorna and the mannequins, for example, which manages to be genuinely erotic and disturbing. Janine Reynaud is extraordinary as Lorna. Jack Taylor’s detached non-acting style of acting adds just the right touch of alienation, and the result is a heady fever dream of sex and madness. Very little is actually explained in this movie. If you like your movies neatly wrapped up at the end you’ll hate this one, but then if you like your movies comfortingly conventional you probably won’t get past the first ten minutes. This one and Venus in Furs remain my favourite Franco movies.

Thursday 24 January 2008

The Return of Dr Mabuse (1961)

With his 1922 movie Dr Mabuse, der Spieler Fritz Lang created one of the enduring villains of 20th century cinema. The shadowy figure of Dr Mabuse was to appear in several more of Lang’s films, including his final film The 1000 Eyes Of Dr Mabuse, and in moves by countless other directors. Like a diabolical spider, Dr Mabuse sits in the middle of a gigantic web of corruption and criminal conspiracies. Dr Mabuse enjoyed a renaissance in early 1960s German films. The Return of Dr Mabuse (Im Stahlnetz des Dr Mabuse) opens with a series of murders, apparently related to large-scale international organised crime activities. At first Commissioner Lohmann (Gert Fröbe) has no reason to suspect Dr Mabuse’s involvement – Mabuse is, after all, dead. It soon becomes apparent, however, that this is no ordinary criminal plot. He is up against an army of men who have been turned into virtual robots, with no will of their own, mindless and remorselessly carrying out their orders. The plot also seems to go beyond mere crime. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Dr Mabuse. But Dr Mabuse is dead. Isn’t he? Then Lohmann discovers the charred remains of a book at one of the murder scenes, where a notorious female mobster from Chicago has been assassinated by means of a flame-thrower concealed in a truck. The book, by a mysterious clergyman, mentions Mabuse by name. Lohmann is more and more convinced that the evil doctor is somehow involved. He is also starting to wonder if the FBI agent who is assisting him in the investigation is really who he says he is. And is there a connection with the city prison’s strange inability to account for some of its more notorious inmates?

The movie has more than enough energy and style to overcome the limitations of its low budget. Gert Fröbe is delightful as Commissioner Lohmann, Lex Barker is solid as FBI man Joe Como, and Daliah Lavi adds some glamour as a nosy reporter. There’s also a mad scientist, so really this film has everything you could want. It’s all terrific fun. It’s a bit similar in feel to the Edgar Wallace krimis that were such a staple of the German film industry in the 60s. I’m getting totally hooked on the German movies of this period.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Horrors of Spider Island (1960)

Horrors of Spider Island is a strange little 1960 German exploitation movie. A group of female dancers are recruited for a show that’s going to tour Asia, starting with Singapore. Unfortunately their plane crashes, and they find themselves on a deserted tropical island. Eight beautiful girls, and Garry their manager. Things seem hopeful when they find a cabin on the island, but the cabin turns out to contain the corpse of a scientist, trapped in a gigantic spider’s web. For a while it looks like it’s going to be a straightforward horror movie, then a couple of the dead scientist’s young male assistants arrive, and it mutates into a kind of beach party movie. Then it goes back to being a horror film. A very bad horror movie. But this is one of those rare cases when a movie really does work in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. It’s so goofy and good-natured you can’t help liking it. And, although the set-up – eight beautiful girls trapped on an island menaced by a monster – would lead you to expect an outrageously sexist movie, surprisingly enough it isn’t sexist at all. The hunky guys are as scantily-clad as the girls, and the girls (although some are obviously the type of girls who enjoy having a good time) are never portrayed as brainless bimbos. If you love bad campy horror movies then Horrors of Spider Island delivers the goods. The Something Weird DVD release includes three very strange little short films, all involving young women and spiders.

F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1932)

F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (F.P.1 antwortet nicht) is an odd little film, a 1932 co-production between Gaumont British Pictures and the famous German UFA studios. The cast is a mix of British and German talent, including Jill Esmond, Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre. It’s a spy thriller with a dash of science fiction. A brilliant naval officer designs a floating airfield, a kind of gigantic stationary aircraft carrier, that is to be moored in mid-Atlantic. Various unspecified powers are determined to sabotage this project. Jill Esmond plays Claire Lennartz, the owner of the shipyard responsible for building the F.P. 1 (Floating Platform 1), a woman who is involved in a romantic triangle. Her would-be lovers are Droste, the designer of the F.P.1, and Major Ellissen, an adventurer and pioneering aviator. When saboteurs strike she realises which of the men she loves, but she has to call on the other man to carry out a daring rescue operation. The print I saw seems to be a drastically shortened version of the original release, making the plot rather obscure. The early 1930s aircraft are fun, and the special effects are reasonably impressive for a 1932 movie. This was a big-budget production filmed simultaneously in English and German. The idea is more exciting than the execution, and even the shortened version drags in places, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of off-beat movies and strange genre hybrids.

Friday 18 January 2008

They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants is one of those movies that you watch not expecting all that much but that ends up being a very pleasant surprise indeed. This is an utterly charming movie. Made in 1971 and directed by Anthony Harvey, it tells the story of a retired judge (George C. Scott) who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, and his psychiatrist, Dr Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). The movie raises questions about where we draw the line between madness and genius and fantasy and reality, and suggests that perhaps life needs a little madness. The chemistry between Scott and Woodward is extraordinary – they are an absolute delight. Scott gives one of the finest performances of his career – he is funny, he is touching, and he is magnetic. They Might Be Giants offers a mixture of humour, romance, intelligence and pathos. A wonderful little film that deserves to be much better known.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

The Day the World Ended (1955)

I’m a great admirer of Roger Corman, and his ability to do a lot with a little fills me with awe. It has to be admitted though that his 1955 sci-fi flick The Day the World Ended is unbelievably bad. Corman could do a lot with a little but he couldn’t perform miracles with nothing at all, and the budget on this one was obviously virtually zero. It’s interesting to compare it with another very early Corman film, Swamp Women, made the same year. Swamp Women is also made on a budget of almost nothing, and the acting is equally bad. It doesn’t need any budget, though, while The Day the World Ended needed at least a few dollars spent on the monster make-up. And the bad acting in Swamp Women adds to the fun, the movie being an outrageously camp (and fantastically entertaining) women convicts on the run movie. The Day the World Ended is just too ambitious, and takes itself too seriously. The endless moralising and the religious homilies get very tiresome. Moralising is always a danger in a nuclear armageddon movie, and Corman lacked the experience at that stage to keep that tendency under control. It’s the story of a handful of survivors of a nuclear war, holed up in a house in an isolated valley, and fighting off attacks by mutants. It really doesn’t even work as an exercise in camp, the tone being so ponderous and the pacing being so leaden. Still, it shows Corman even this early in his career playing around with different genres so it has some historical interest.

Sunday 13 January 2008

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

The Killing of Sister George is a movie I’ve seen many times. Robert Aldrich, who directed the film, has become one of my favourite directors. It achieved considerable notoriety at the time it was released in 1968. The Region 2 DVD I recently bought presented the movie in widescreen and uncut. I’d actually never seen the uncut version. The movie is about June, a middle-aged soap opera actress who is almost always referred to as George, the name of the character she plays, Sister George. She lives in London with her lover Alice, known as Childie. When it appears that her character is going to be killed off (that’s the killing referred to in the title) her world starts to crumble.

What makes this movie so surprising for 1968 is that their lesbian relationship is treated so casually. Only a few years earlier in William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour homosexuality is still something to be whispered about. Traditionally when homosexual characters have made an appearance in Hollywood movies they’ve almost invariably been shown killing themselves or at least ending up unhappy as their punishment. The ending of The Killing of Sister George is much more complex than that. And George herself (wonderfully played by Beryl Reid) is a complex character, a person who finds it difficult to survive in the world because of her absolute refusal to compromise – she makes no effort to hide her sexuality, she makes no effort to hide her scorn for fools, she expects the world to accept her as she is. Alice (a superb performance by Susannah York) could easily have become a stereotype, the femme lesbian who collects dolls in a relationship with the butch George, but in fact her character is also complex. While in the case of George what you see is what you get, Alice’s character is revealed gradually as we see that there is more to her than the childlike persona she adopts with George.

This is a very moving story, but the film is also extremely funny – lots of humour, most of it black (my favourite kind). A very good movie that repays repeated viewings.

Thursday 10 January 2008

The Iron Rose (1973)

The Iron Rose is perhaps Jean Rollin’s least-known movie. At first glance it’s easy to see why – although it was made in 1973 and thus comes in the middle of his vampire cycle there are no vampires, and the erotic element is very subdued for a Rollin film (although it does have a clown, another Rollin trademark). In fact, though, this is a very typical Rollin film with all his usual themes and imagery and the visual poetry that is the main reason for seeing his movies. A young couple wander through a graveyard. They decide it would be fun, and romantic, to make love in an open crypt. Time gets away from them, darkness falls, and when they emerge they cannot find the path that will lead them out of the cemetery. They are in a city of the dead, they are lost, and the call of the dead is strong. It isn’t easy to distinguish life from death, or dream from reality, or love from hate, and one’s reason can easily give way to madness. But is this a story about someone going mad, or is it simply a dream of madness? And if it’s a dream, who is doing the dreaming?

As you expect in a movie by Jean Rollin, dialogue is sparse. You could eliminate the dialogue and it would make little difference – not because there is a lack of content, but because Rollin’s images are so strong they simply do not require dialogue to support them. The images are also ravishing! It’s a movie that is both decadent and romantic. Is it a horror movie? Perhaps, but this is subtle horror, and is more akin to a movie like Polanski’s Repulsion than it is to the average horror film. I’ve seen five Rollin movies, and I’ve liked them all, but this one is now my favourite. This is movie-making at its most poetic, disturbing and beautiful. I can’t recommend The Iron Rose too highly.

Night of the Lepus (1972)

By 1972 film-makers had shown humanity battling the threats of giant ants, giant spiders, killer bees, giant gila monsters, killer shrews and sundry other murderous mutant wildlife. It was becoming something of a challenge to think of new and convincing threats. And then someone came up with a brilliant idea to breathe new life into this now rather tired sub-genre. How about giant killer bunny rabbits? I mean bunny rabbits are pretty scary to begin with, aren’t they? So giant killer bunny rabbits would have to be absolutely terrifying. Thus was Night of the Lepus born.

You might think that the only possible way to make a movie about giant carnivorous rabbits would be with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but in fact Night of the Lepus is played absolutely straight. Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh are scientists working on a biological method of controlling a plague of rabbits somewhere in the US south-west. Unfortunately their experimental method of preventing the rabbits from breeding turns them into gigantic carnivorous bunnies that breed like, well, rabbits. The acting from the support cast, which includes with DeForest Kelley (from Star Trek) and Rory Calhoun, is uniformly awful. The biggest problem with this movie, though, is that real rabbits are used, with miniature sets to make them look huge, but they still look like rabbits. And it’s hard to enjoy watching rabbits being shot, machine-gunned, set on fire and electrocuted, especially when you can’t avoid the very strong impression that the rabbits being shot, machine-gunned, set on fire and electrocuted are actual living rabbits. What could have been an enjoyable so-bad-it’s-good movie experience becomes a little sickening. So unfortunately Night of the Lepus turns out to be a lot less fun that one might have expected.

Monday 7 January 2008

The Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

The Shiver of the Vampires (Le Frisson des vampires) is my third Jean Rollin movie, And I’m becoming quite the Rollin fan. Once again his debt to the Surrealists is very much in evidence, and once again this is neither a conventional vampire movie nor a conventional horror movie. It is, however, slightly less surreal and slightly closer in feel to traditional horror than his earlier Rape of the Vampire (Le Viol du vampire). Rollin’s movies are very much image and mood-driven rather than plot-driven – if you like a strong straightforward story you’ve picked the wrong director! Fortunately Rollin’s images (helped along by the rather wonderful music by a progressive rock band of the era called, I believe, Acanthus) are impressive enough to stand on their own. His use of colour is dazzling. Being a Jean Rollin movie there is of course a positively staggeringly amount of nudity, so if you have a problem with nudity you want to stay right away from this one.

A young wife and her new husband pay a visit to he old (and visually magnificent) chateau owned by two of her cousins, who are now deceased. Sort of. They also encounter some other odd denizens of the chateau, and discover the results of her cousins’ researches into old religions. The most striking of these inhabitants are the two maids – Rollin seems obsessed by the idea of female twins or doubles, and although these two young women a clearly not related (one being blonde and very European and the other being Asian) they still seem like twins. As usual with Rollin the characters are all to some degree ambiguous, and the events of the film are equally ambiguous. The feel of the movie is very, very trippy – this is a real treat for lovers of late 60s/early 70s psychodelia. There are also some amazing entrances by the vampire Isolde, but I’m not going to spoil things by telling you any details. I don’t think this film is as good as Rape of the Vampire or Requiem for a Vampire, but for fans of arty Eurohorror it’s still a must.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

I finally got to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Movies about youth culture made by people who don’t really understand that youth culture often turn out to be embarrassing. While Beyond the Valley of the Dolls superficially seems to be a satire of the youth culture of 1970 it really isn’t. It’s more a satire on, and at the same time a celebration of, all pop culture. And director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert do understand pop culture. It plunders just about all of pop culture from soap operas to superhero comics, from pop music to the sort of soft porn exploitation movies made by people like Russ Meyer. No human being has ever talked the way these characters talk, especially Ronnie Z-Man Bartell whose speech is a bizarre mixture of Shakespeare, philosophy, pop psychology, comic book and Hollywood-speak. As a result the movie has a kind of timeless quality. It’s not dated because it was never really in date. It just is, and you either accept it or you don’t. While this movie is very obviously (from the point of Meyer and Ebert) an exercise in camp it’s also a movie made with surprising skill. Meyer’s direction is energetic and imaginative. The acting is awful beyond belief but it’s awful in an interesting way. Meyer apparently directed it as if he was directing a serious movie, spending time discussing with the actors their motivations in the scenes they were about to film. As a result the actors don’t seem to know if they’re supposed to be really acting or not and the results are very strange but absolutely fascinating. Dolly Read is simply wonderful as Kelly – she has the right mix of wide-eyed naiveté, bright-eyed enthusiasm, a kind of rampant but innocent sensuality, good humour, all combined with no acting talent whatsoever. She’s a delight. John Lazar as Z-Man is eccentric almost to the point of grotesquerie. He’s acting his little heart out and the result is bizarrely entertaining.

The whole movie is funny but the ending is a kind of apotheosis of weirdness, weirdness taken to heights and to places no-one had previously dared reach for. It’s extremely violent and very very funny. The violence is so silly that you can’t really be offended by it. I enjoyed every moment of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Circus of Fear (1966)

Circus of Fear seems to have been an attempt to combine a gritty crime/mystery thriller with some horror elements, with Christopher Lee included in the cast to make sure horror aficionados got the point. It doesn’t entirely work, despite the undoubtedly charismatic presences of both Lee and Klaus Kinski. The movie might have worked better if they’d played up the horror elements a bit more, but it’s still an interesting hybrid. I must admit that my enjoyment of the film was hampered by the extremely poor DVD picture quality. Since I only paid a couple of bucks for the DVD I shouldn’t really complain though.

Circus of Fear does have the creepiness that a circus background always gives to a movie. There are two parallel plots, one being a revenge plot and the other involving the hunt for the loot from a daring daylight robbery on the Tower Bridge. The film does have some camp value, and it’s decent entertainment if you like low-budget 60s British movies.

Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

Dr Terror's House of Horrors, made in 1965, was the first of the horror anthology films made by Amicus Studios in Britain in the 60s and early 70s (although there had been earlier British films of this type such as the superb 1945 Dead of Night). Five travellers on a train encounter a mysterious stranger who tells their fortunes using a deck of tarot cards. The five segments that make up the movie are the stories of these five men. That the movie succeeds at all (and it was very successful at the time) is mostly due to the stylish and lively direction by Freddie Francis and the fact that each segment is so short there’s simply not enough time to get bored. In fact the material is pretty thin. The only story that is really memorable is the one featuring Christopher Lee as a pompous art critic. It has some genuinely effective twists, and Lee’s performance is odd but amusing. The other segments involve a very standard werewolf story, a vampire tale that just doesn’t work at all despite a fairly decent performance by a young Donald Sutherland, a killer plant story (the highlight of which is Bernard Lee’s absolutely deadpan delivery of some stupendously embarrassingly dialogue) and a story of a musician who falls foul of a voodoo god. Peter Cushing is very sinister as the mysterious stranger on the train, and the framing story works moderately well. The idea of the anthology film was a good one, and some of Amicus’s other efforts in this vein are a lot better – especially Asylum which I think is one of the most underrated of British horror movies. Dr Terror's House of Horrors is entertaining enough as long as your expectations aren’t too high.

Thursday 3 January 2008

The Island of Dr Moreau (1977)

The 1977 version of The Island of Dr Moreau doesn’t have an especially high reputation, but it’s one of those movies that I found myself pleasantly surprised by her. Although made in the same year as Star War it’s very much representative of the pre-blockbuster type of science fiction film. It’s not trying to be a cinematic landmark and it’s not trying to include as many explosions and as much mindless action as possible. It’s a small-scale rather unimposing sort of film, relying more on the strength of its ideas than on special effects. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is Burt Lancaster’s performance as Dr Moreau – he doesn’t play him as a crazed mad scientist, or as a monster or a vicious sadist. His Moreau is calm and rational. He may inflict suffering, but it’s not his intention to do so. It’s just in the nature of the things he does. He’s in the business of creating life, and life brings pain – you can’t have life without it. He doesn’t rule his miniature world by fear so much as by awe, and by sheer force of personality. His creatures obey him because he is, after all, their god. As the Sayer of the Law reminds them, his is the hand that makes and heals as well as the hand that hurts. His intentions are noble, and he genuinely wants his artificial humans, created from animals by manipulation of the very basis of life itself, to achieve lives of dignity and purpose. All too often he fails, and his failures entail suffering, but he regrets this. It’s a fascinating and rather powerful performance. Michael York as Braddick, the sailor marooned on Moreau’s island, adopts the opposite approach. Instead of playing Braddick as a calm, noble and brave hero he plays him as a person who always seems likely to topple over the edge of hysteria and madness. This works better than you might expect, and when he becomes one of the victims of Moreau’s experiments it makes his struggle to maintain his hold on his personality more interesting. And it’s entertaining! Nigel Davenport as Moreau’s bodyguard and Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law give good support. Barbara Carrera is there mainly as eye candy, and to provide a love interest, but her performance is at least competent. Her main problem is that her part is underwritten and her struggle with her own nature (which isn’t explicitly stated but is obvious enough) isn’t given enough stress. The makeup is fairly effective, and the lack of modern CGI effects does the movie no harm at all. Although it takes considerable liberties with the plot it captures the spirit of the original novel by H. G. Wells fairly well, which of course is far more important than a rigid adherence to the details of the book. It’s not a great movie by any means, but if you approach it with realistic expectations it provides decent enough entertainment without insulting the viewer’s intelligence, which is more than can be said for many of the big-budget science fiction films of more recent years.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Some Girls Do (1969)

Some Girls Do is a 1969 British spy spoof, and it has all the ingredients you’d expect in such films – a moderate amount of action, lots of beautiful girls, exotic locations, gadgets, and a plot that is inconsequential, convoluted but reasonably entertaining. In this case the spy is Bulldog Drummond, although this version of the character is rather different from the 1930s original. He’s mutated into a kind of cut-rate James Bond. The plot revolves around a gang of glamorous female spies who are trying to sabotage a new supersonic airliner. Robert Morley steals the film as Miss Mary, head of a cookery school, whose involvement with the plot is obscure but he’s so entertaining it scarcely matters. Sydne Rome is breathless and enthusiastic as a blonde female spy who changes sides fairly regularly. Richard Johnson makes an adequate hero. The sets are great, there’s a reasonable quota of action and it never gets boring. And you get glamorous girl robots. It’s very lightweight, but it has a nice 60s vibe to it, so if you like that sort of thing it’s recommended.

Tuesday 1 January 2008

Castle of Blood (1964)

Castle of Blood (Danza macabra), directed by Antonio Margheriti, is a fine piece of Italian gothic horror dating from 1964. The story isn’t terribly original – a writer makes a wager that he can survive a night in a spooky castle on the Night of the Dead. The claustrophobia of the film, and the feeling of entrapment you get in a nightmare, more than makes up for any shortcomings in the plot. Plus there’s a wonderful performance by Barbara Steele. The Synapse DVD version was compiled from several sources, so it’s partly in English and partly in subtitled French! It was apparently (according to the liner notes) made to cash in on the success of the Roger Corman Poe films in Italy, which is why the framing story involving Poe is there. Other interesting snippets in the liner notes – it was filmed using a three-camera setup, as used in television but very seldom in film; and Margarete Robsahm, who played Julia, was so embarrassed by her lesbian love scene with Barbara Steele that she retired from acting! It was also heavily cut on its initial US release. The liner notes compare it to Mario Bava’s 1973 masterpiece Lisa and the Devil, a comparison which actually makes sense. The black-and-white cinematography is extraordinarily moody and the whole film has the logic of nightmare. An impressive film, more atmospheric than scary but all the better for it. A must for Barbara Steele fans, or for anyone who likes subtle horror, or has a decided taste for the gothic.