Saturday 29 January 2011

The Ambushers (1967)

Even if you’re a fan of 1960s spy spoof movies you may find the Matt Helm movies to be a bit of an acquired taste. And The Ambushers, the third in the series, has a particularly poor reputation.

There’s no doubt that The Ambushers is a very silly movie, with amazingly goof (and cheap) special effects. But it’s intentionally silly. Whether you enjoy the silliness is of course a matter of taste. There were two main approaches to making spy spoof movies in the 60s. You could try to retain at least a semblance of a proper spy movie plot but play it for laughs as well as thrills. Or you could abandon any pretense of plausibility and play it purely for laughs The Matt Helm movies, and especially The Ambushers, fall into the second category.

There is a plot. Well, almost. The US government has invented a flying saucer. Some bad guys have hijacked both the flying saucer and Sheila Sommers, its glamorous female pilot. It has a glamorous female pilot because it’s powered by electro-magnetism, and as everyone knows electro-magnetic energy is instantly fatal to males. The beautiful female pilot escapes. As well as being the top flying saucer pilot in the country she’s also an agent of the crack counter-espionage organisation ICE. She and ICE’s top agent Matt Helm (Dean Martin) are assigned to find the missing flying saucer. Sheila is also out for revenge on her former captors.

There’s also another glamorous female, played by Senta Berger, and she also wants revenge on the same gang of bad guys. That’s it really. Very little in the way of plot twists or double-crosses. Mostly it’s just a romp and an opportunity for Dean Martin to make lots of wisecracks.

Dean Martin doesn’t bother to act, he just plays the role as Dean Martin, but that appears to be intentional. It provides an excuse for countless Dean Martin in-jokes. Whenever he wants to seduce a woman he always puts on a romantic record, generally a recording by some guy called Dean Martin. So whether you like his performance depends entirely on whether you like Dean Martin as Dean Martin.

Senta Berger doesn’t do too much apart from looking like the typical glamorous eurobabe as femme fatale but she does it with a certain amount of style.

The film’s greatest strength is the chemistry between Dean Martin and Janice Rule who plays Sheila Sommers. It’s not so much actual romantic chemistry as comic chemistry. Ms Rule understands exactly what is required of her and the interchanges between her and Martin really do sparkle. She’s by far the best thing about this movie.

Being a 1967 movie aimed squarely at the widest possible audience it’s all very tame. The violence is cartoonish and jokey, with the hero threatened by drowning in a vat of beer being a typical example. Being Dean Martin he doesn’t find the idea of total immersion in alcohol scary in the least. The sexiness is confined to lots of innuendos and girls in bikinis.

The fact that Matt Helm’s secretary is a gorgeous young woman who rejoices in the name of Lovey Kravesit gives you an idea of the general tone of the movie. That, and the fact that the female agents of ICE conceal most of their high-tech gadgetry in their bras.

In fact it’s a bit like an American version of a Carry On movie, with the same sort of cheeky but good-natured abundance of double entendres and the same air of general lunacy. It’s certainly closer in spirit to Carry On Spying than to a James Bond movie.

If you’ve never seen a Matt Helm movie it’s perhaps best not to start with this one. The Silencers would possibly be a much better choice. But The Ambushers is still harmless fun, and it certainly has a wonderful 60s vibe to it.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Mesa of Lost Women (1953)

Mesa of Lost Women has just about everything you could want in a 1950s sci-fi flick, assuming your idea of great 50s sci-fi includes movies like Queen of Outer Space, Cat-Women of the Moon and other ultra-campy romps.

It’s a mad scientist movie and a monster movie. A man and woman are found wandering in Mexico’s Desert of Death. After they recover from dehydration and exhaustion they have an amazing tale to tell.

The sinister Dr Aranya (played by Jackie Coogan who is of course best known as Uncle Fester from The Addams Family) is conducting fiendish experiments on animals and people. He has created a race of spider-people. The males, like male spiders, are puny and weak. The females are beautiful and glamorous, but deadly and almost indestructible.

Dr Aranya had tried to enlist the assistance of another scientist, Dr Leland Masterson. When he refuses to cooperate he is used as an experimental subject and is left completely insane. He ends up in an asylum but escapes and hijacks a small plane which crash-lands on the very mesa on which Dr Aranya has his secret laboratory. Can Dr Aranya be stopped before his spider-women take over the world?

The special effects are ultra-cheap. The mad scientist laboratory is very basic. But the movie has enough goofiness in its plot to more than make up for these shortcomings, and the entire execution of the film is camp taken to delirious extremes.

The acting is bad, but it’s terrific Z-movie bad acting and it’s fun. Everyone is ludicrously intense. Tandra Quinn adds some exoticism as the most spectacular of the spider-women, the beautiful Tarantella. She can’t act but her non-acting performance is weird enough to be very effective. Harmon Stevens is ultra-hammy as Dr Masterson. While Jackie Coogan gets top billing he’s actually overshadowed by the spectacular and delightfully awful performances of the rest of the cast.

The plot makes no sense at all, which as it should be in this type of movie.

Most importantly the film runs for only 70 minutes, so there are no dull bits. Something silly is happening all the time.

My copy came on a three-movie disc along with Carnival of Souls and The Ape Man from an outfit called Classic Entertainment. The transfer is pretty dodgy but it was dirt cheap and it’s the sort of movie that is more fun if you’re watching a slightly grainy washed-out print with a few scratches.

Mesa of Lost Women is a classic of the campy sci-fi monster movie genre, a must-see for any self-respecting cult movie fan.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Images in a Convent (1979)

There’s no movie genre with more potential for sleaze than the nunsploitation genre. The surprising thing is that this genre has produced quite a few rather good movies.

Ken Russell’s The Devils being the one unquestioned masterpiece, but Norifumi Suzuki’s School of the Holy Beast, Jess Franco's Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun and Gianfranco Mingozzi's Flavia the Heretic all manage to be more than just exercises in sleaze (although they certainly possess sleaze in abundance).

Such a claim cannot seriously be made for Joe D'Amato's Images in a Convent (Immagini di un convento).

There is a plot, of sorts, but mostly it’s an excuse for sleaze. Lots of sleaze.

A young woman named Isabella is committed to a nunnery to keep her out of the clutches of her lascivious uncle. Then a mysterious young man who has been grievously wounded is taken in by the Mother Superior. And strange things start to happen. The nuns start to devote their time to acts of debauchery. It has to be said that they don’t appear to need much encouragement. Eventually an exorcist is called in but he has his work cut out for him, having to perform his rites while a dozen naked nuns try to tempt him with the pleasures of the flesh. Nobody ever said an exorcist’s life was an easy one.

There’s no need to discuss the acting, since a willingness to get naked was obviously the sole criterion used in casting this movie.

Joe D'Amato's prime concern as director seems to have been to include as much sleaze as possible without worrying too much about anything else. There is one good shot in the movie, a shot of a corridor in the nunnery, and Joe D'Amato clearly liked it so much he repeats it several dozen times. It does provide the movie’s one effective scene though, with the exorcist marching down the corridor being besieged by sex-crazed and mostly naked nuns. It sounds tacky, and it is, but it has a certain undeniable power.

Aside from that what you get is nudity and sex, by the truckload. I was going to say that this movie belongs to the harder end of the softcore porn spectrum but it might e more accurate to describe it as belonging to the softer end of the hardcore spectrum. Some scenes are certainly unequivocally hardcore.

All of which probably makes this sound like a pretty awful movie. It’s definitely not Citizen Kane but it never claims to be anything more than an exercise in eurotrash exploitation and it can’t be denied that it delivers the goods in the exploitation front.

My copy came in the Media Blasters Nunsploitation Classics boxed set. The transfer is dreadful but it does surprisingly include some extras, most notably a documentary on Joe D'Amato. The boxed set is marginally worth grabbing if you can find a cheap copy and if you’re a devoted fan of the nunsploitation genre.

Monday 17 January 2011

The Naked Jungle (1954)

The Naked Jungle is a classic piece of 50s cinema. It’s a combination of disaster movie and romantic melodrama and it’s a firm favourite of mine.

It’s also one of the first great Nature Strikes Back movies.

Eleanor Parker is Joanna Leiningen, who arrives at a remote South American cocoa plantation in 1901. She has just been married and now she is about to meet her husband for the first time. She was married by proxy. The plantation owner had placed an advertisement for a wife in a New Orleans newspaper and she had decided that he sounded like her kind of man.

Whether Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is ideal husband material or not he’s certainly quite a man. He’s not just larger than life, he’s several times larger than life. At the age of 19 he had arrived in South America and staked a claim to a huge tract of swamp. By sheer force of personality he has carved out an empire. The river itself has been forced to submit to him and 200,000 acres has been drained and put into cultivation. He has built himself a large and palatial house and stocked it with luxuries. The one accessory missing had been a wife.

Unfortunately their first meeting is not auspicious. Christopher thinks Joanna is too perfect, too much a lady, to survive in such hostile country. And worse is to come when he discovers that Joanna had been married before. He does not want another man’s cast-off.

Joanna however is quite a woman and she soon discerns the key to Christopher’s personality. He is terrified of women. There's a definite suggestion that he may be a virgin. With all his faults though she still believes he’s her kind of man. But romantic complications will soon have to be set aside. The marabunta are on the march.

The marabunta are soldier ants. Every few decades for some obscure reason they form themselves into a gigantic army of billions upon billions of ants, and they move across country devouring everything in their path. Not a single living thing remains where the marabunta have been. Even Chuck Heston shudders at the mention of this insectival menace. But he hasn’t built an empire by backing down. He is determined to fight the ants for his empire. It’s a epic struggle between two titanic forces of nature.

Chuck Heston gives us what could be described as an anticipation of Klaus Kinski’s similarly obsessed performances in Herzog’s South American epics like Fitzcarraldo. Heston was always impressive when given the chance to play these kinds of ludicrously over-the-top roles and he’s in splendid form here. Eleanor Parker (a formidable scenery-chewer in her own right) gives a restrained but forceful performance and she complements Heston extremely well.

The massive tidal wave of ants is done exceptionally well. They’re only normal size ants but they’re much more terrifying than the giants ants of various science fiction horror movies. Producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin were well-qualified to handle this kind of spectacle.

This movie is quite similar in some ways to Elephant Walk which came out in the same year. Both feature a young wife arriving in a remote jungle home to set up house with a husband who is obsessed by his own personal battle against the forces of nature. Both combine adventure, horror and romantic melodrama. And both are very very camp. Both are also enormously entertaining.

The Region 2 DVD might seem a little disappointing in its lack of extras but the transfer is absolutely gorgeous. This was a major studio picture (released by Paramount) and filmed in Technicolor and it looks stunning.

The Naked Jungle is overblown, outrageously melodramatic, unbelievably camp, and it’s entirely fabulous.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Big Bad Mama (1974)

A movie about a mother and her two daughters who take up bank robbing during the depression sounds like it might potentially be fun. Such a movie produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures sounds even more promising. And when I tell you that Big Bad Mama stars Angie Dickinson and William Shatner I can tell that you’re getting excited. And did I mention that the two stars take their clothes off?

In a dirt-poor hick town Wilma McClatchie’s daughter Polly is about to get married. At the last moment Wilma realises she cannot allow the wedding to go ahead. If Polly marries one of the local redneck hillbillies her life will be ruined forever. So Wilma grabs her two daughters and runs out of the church and takes off with local bootlegger Barney. Unfortunately Barney gets himself shot by the law in an ambush soon afterwards. Wilma decides to take over his bootlegging run. It’s the beginning of a colourful criminal career.

Wilma and her two girls soon decide bank robbing is more to their taste. Their introduction to this pastime comes when they rob another bank robber of his loot. Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) manages to climb aboard their car as they escape and persuades Wilma that he will be a useful partner. She’s not entirely convinced of his skills as a bank robber but she’s quite impressed by his prowess in the bedroom. This causes some tension since her elder daughter Billy Jean is also attracted to Fred.

A racetrack encounter with a penniless but charming southern con-man named William J. Baxter (William Shatner) changes the dynamics of the gang somewhat. Baxter takes Fred’s place in Wilma’s bed but Fred isn’t overly disadvantaged by this since both daughters are only too happy to share his bed. In between their sexual adventures they find time to pull off some spectacular heists and Wilma’s ambitions continue to grow until she decides it’s time for one last spectacular coup.

There’s plenty of action and plenty of fun. Its certainly not a movie that takes itself the least bit seriously. It’s essentially a fast-paced romp with lots of mayhem and an extraordinary number of car crashes.

There’s also a great deal of cheerfully exuberant sleaze.

Tom Skerritt is a likeable bank robber. Shatner is good although less over-the-top than usual in a role that is somewhat unusual for him - Baxter is a reluctant and very gun-shy bank robber and one assumes he sticks with the gang mostly in order to enjoy Angie Dickinson’s sexual favours (and one can hardly blame him for that). Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee are amusingly amoral as Wilma’s sexually enthusiastic daughters.

The movie belongs to Angie Dickinson though. She’s fabulous. She’s funny, she’s wicked, she’s smart and determined and she’s extremely sexy.

The only slight fault I find with the film was the incessant hillbilly banjo music. It was fine for the first ten minutes but it wore out its welcome very quickly. Of course if you actually like hillbilly banjo music then you might not find this to be a problem.

Being from the Corman stable it’s a very low-budget film but the paucity of the budget doesn’t really show. The stunts are reasonably impressive, and the 1930s costumes, settings and cars look terrific.

The Region 2 DVD from In2film is lacking in extras but it’s extraordinarily cheap and it looks good so it’s difficult to find any cause for complaint there.

This is the type of sleazy fun B-movie that New World Pictures could always be relied upon for. And did I mention that Angie Dickinson and William Shatner get naked a lot?

Saturday 8 January 2011

Zeppelin (1971)

I have to admit to being somewhat obsessed with zeppelins. I’ve never understood why there haven’t been scores of movies about zeppelins. So despite my reservations about the Warner Archive range of outrageously priced DVD-Rs I just had to buy Zeppelin.

The fear with a movie like this is always that it will turn out that zeppelins actually play a very minor role. You need have no fears on that on that point about this movie. Most of the movie takes place onboard a zeppelin.

Michael York is Geoffrey Richter-Douglas, a young lieutenant in a Scottish regiment of the British army, attached to a unit that is trying to find an answer to the zeppelin menace spreading terror through the country. The German airships can fly higher than any existing British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns have so far had little effect on them. The new British fighter about to come into service, the S.E.5, should change all that but there is concern that the enemy is about to introduce a new model zeppelin, the LZ36, which may be able to fly even higher than the S.E.5.

As it happens Richter-Douglas is half-German, and has a family back in Germany that is very well-connected indeed. He has met Count von Zeppelin socially. Richter-Douglas has been targeted by a beautiful German spy with whom he is having an affair. She is trying to persuade him to change sides and return to Germany but what neither of then knows is that British intelligence officers have been manipulating their affair behind the scenes. The British want him to return to Germany as well, but as a double agent. They want the secrets of the LZ36.

So far the plot seems a little complex but it more or less makes sense. Once we get to Germany it starts getting crazier, and once we’re aboard the zeppelin it’s starting to veer towards full-blown silliness. And that’s as it should be. If you’re watching a war/spy/adventure movie about zeppelins the last thing you want is a sensible coherent plot to take all the fun out of proceedings.

There’s a romantic sub-plot involving the beautiful young wife of the chief zeppelin designer. But Erika Altshul is more than just the love interest in this movie. She’s a zeppelin engineer herself and has logged more flying hours than almost any zeppelin commander. The role gives Elke Sommer the chance to show that she can be more than just a glamorous eurobabe. She’s arguably the most interesting character in the movie, beset by various conflicting loyalties and trying to find a way to behave like a decent human being in the middle of a war that is making that very difficult indeed.

Michael York could play this sort of role in his sleep. As always he’s likable and manages to be heroic without being annoying about it.

And there’s the kind of supporting cast that fans of British cult movies of this era dream about - Marius Goring, Peter Carsten, Anton Diffring and Andrew Keir, all get to have a great deal of fun.

This movie of course belongs to the happy time before the advent of CGI and the zeppelin looks genuinely imposing. I have no idea what the budget was but it must have been fairly substantial. The zeppelin interiors are impressive, and there are some pretty decent action scenes. And a rather cool aerial battle between a zeppelin and British fighter planes.

It was clearly aimed at a broad audience so there’s no sex or nudity. But then Elke Sommer never needed to take her clothes off to look sexy.

It’s all terrific goofy fun. Treat it as a popcorn movie and you’ll have a ball.

I’ve been regarding these Warner Archive DVD-Rs with some suspicion but I have to say that the picture quality is very very good indeed. The big concern though is that these discs come with warnings that they may not play on anything other than a conventional DVD player, in other words they may not play on a computer. These fears seem to be justified. This disc will not play in my old PC. Surprisingly though it does play on both the internal DVD drive of my iMac (which generally has huge problems playing anything at all) and on the external DVD burner attached to my Mac.

Friday 7 January 2011

Up Pompeii (1971)

Up Pompeii was based on the classic British comedy TV series of the same name. THe flavour is very similar to that of the Carry On movies and of course its star Frankie Howerd had appeared in several of those.

At the time the TV series seemed quite innovative with Howerd constantly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, and making comments on the cheapness of the sets and the age of the jokes. In fact the series was very much in the style of the Roman comedies of 2,000 years ago which were part of the inspiration for the series.

The central character is a slave named Lurcio (Howerd). He’s owned by an ageing and somewhat dotty senator, Ludicrus Sextus. Lurcio spends most of his time extricating Ludicrous and his family from various scrapes, and tis is a family very much inclined to get into scrapes. Ludicrus’s wife Ammonia has the morals of an alley cat and will chase anything in a toga. Their daughter Erotica is equally depraved. Their son Nausius on the other hand is much too innocent, forever falling in love but never quite managing to lose his virginity.

The movie is pretty much just an extended episode of the series, but with slightly more risque jokes and quite a bit of nudity. The original TV series was considered very raunchy indeed back in 1969. The extra naughtiness and the bare flesh does it no harm at all and again is quite in keeping with the kinds of comedies the Romans themselves enjoyed.

There is a plot to assassinate the Emperor Nero, and as usual the hapless senator Ludicrus gets himself accidentally involved. There’s no more to the plot than that, but it doesn’t matter. As with the TV series the plot is inconsequential, and Frankie Howerd could certainly carry a comedy quite successfully without requiring a plot. Interestingly enough although Up Pompeii also appeared to be improvisational almost to the point of anarchy it was in fact very tightly scripted. Frankie Howerd was quite capable of following a script precisely whilst seeming to be wildly ad-libbing.

In some ways it’s unfortunate that Frankie Howerd was the only cast member from the series to appear in the movie but the replacements are quite competent, and in the case of Sir Michael Hordern who pays Ludicrus in the movie much more than competent. The supporting cast includes the gorgeous Julie Ege as Voluptua, the wife of the treacherous proconsul Prosperus. Hammer had tried to make her a star, without a great deal of success, but she certainly adds some glamour.

Like the TV series the movie has that cheeky feeling that the best British comedies of its era had. It’s also very politically incorrect.

Whether it was really a good idea try to recreate the basic Up Pompeii formula in a feature film is open to debate. It was really much better suited to television and to a much shorter format but it’s still a pretty decent attempt.

If you’re a fan of the Carry On movies you’re probably going to love this one, and if you’re not then you’ll probably hate it. If you’re a fan of Frankie Howerd then it becomes a must-see. I’m a huge fan of both the TV series and Frankie Howerd so I certainly enjoyed myself.

It’s available on Region 2 DVD in a double-movie set paired with Up the Chastity Belt which is simply Up Pompeii transposed to a medieval setting. If you’re not familiar with the TV series it’s probably a better place to start, and it’s available on DVD as well.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Starcrash (1978)

The DVD cover for Starcrash could lead you to believe that this was an attempt by Roger Corman to make a low-budget Star Wars rip-off. In fact it isn’t.

Corman had nothing to do with the production of this movie so releasing it as a Roger Corman cult classic is misleading. Corman’s New World Pictures bought the US distribution rights after the film was completed. It’s really an Italian sci-fi flick produced by two Frenchmen with a mostly English cast. And while it was the success of Star Wars that motivated the investors in this movie the Italians certainly didn’t need Geirge Lucas to show them how to make space operas. They’d been doing that successfully for years, in movies like Antonio Margheriti’s fantastic Wild, Wild Planet. Starcrash is very much in the tradition of Italian space opera. Which is fine by me. I love Italian sci-fi.

Writer-director Luigi Cozzi already had a science fiction movie planned. Star Wars did cause him to make some changes but the feel of the movie is still thoroughly Italian.

Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and Akton (Marjoe Gortner) are space pirates and smugglers. They are caught and sentenced to several hundred years imprisonment on a penal planet. They are unexpectedly pardoned when the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) needs someone to undertake a hazardous mission to hunt down a troublesome pretender to the throne. Stella Star might be a criminal but she’s the best space pilot in the known universe.

Stella gets some help from a wise-cracking robot, gets captured by space amazons, fights space battles and rescues the Emperor’s son. And she does all his while wearing very little clothing. Apparently the standard uniform of a space pilot is a black bikini.

As you’d expect in an Italian space opera the special effects are cheap but effective and the film has style to burn. Cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli achieves some extraordinary effects with colour. In fact aside from Mario Bava I can’t think of anyone who has used colour in a more dazzling way.

The script is fairly weak but again that’s par for the course in Italian exploitation cinema - style matters more than substance and the movie has enough energy and flair to more than compensate for any deficiencies in the script.

Caroline Munro gives an enthusiastic performance as Stella Star. It’s clear from both her performance and the accompanying interview that she was having a great time and relishing the opportunity to play a lead role and be an action movie star.

Marjoe Gortner is suitably odd as her non-human partner and navigator. David Hasselhoff is unfortunately rather dull as the Emperor’s son. Joe Spinell chews the scenery with abandon as the villain of the piece while Christopher Plummer adds some gravitas as the Emperor. While everyone else is overacting he underacts but he knew what he was about and it has the effect of making him seem a distant and mysterious, almost god-like, figure.

The producers were clearly hoping to capture a wide audience so there’s no sex or nudity and no graphic violence.

The Shout Factory DVD has almost too many extras. There’s a very long interview with Caroline Munro, which is interesting. There are no less than two audio commentaries, by the same guy, but they’re rambling and tedious. The DVD transfer is good though and the colours are amazing,

It’s a fun romp of a movie. Well worth a purchase.