Wednesday 30 March 2011

The People That Time Forgot (1977)

In 1975 Amicus had a sizeable hit with The Land That Time Forgot, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Two years later a sequel appeared, The People That Time Forgot. In theory it’s based on the second book of Burroughs’ Caspak trilogy but in fact it eliminates most of the really interesting stuff from the book, the stuff that made this trilogy one of the weirdest of all lost world stories. The movie turns the story into a straight adventure tale, but fortunately it’s a very entertaining adventure tale indeed.

This one boasts not one but two square-jawed action heroes - Doug McClure and Patrick Wayne (son of some guy named John Wayne). Patrick Wayne is American war hero Major Ben McBride who sets to find his old buddy Bowen Tyler who disappeared mysteriously in 1915. Tyler left a message in a bottle, a message that was found and that told a bizarre story of a lost continent peopled with vanished creatures from every prehistoric epoch, from dinosaurs to cavemen.

McBride has managed to get backing from the British Navy and financing from a major newspaper to launch his expedition to find this strange world. He has recruited an old air force buddy and an eminent archaeologist for the venture, and (much to his disgust) he has been forced to take along a feisty girl reporter /photographer. She’s Lady Charlotte Cunningham, known to her friends as Charly.

They have an ice-breaker and they have a very cool aircraft - a five-seat amphibian. They need this to get over the mountain barrier that surrounds the lost world. Unfortunately their sturdy seaplane is no match for a flock of pterodactyls, even though it’s armed with a Lewis machine-gun. Shooting the pterodactyls just makes them angry! They crash-land and then set off on foot. They soon encounter a beautiful cave-girl who captivates them with her plucky courage (not to mention an extraordinarily impressive quantity of cleavage).

Their problem is they have just three weeks to find Tyler before the pack ice closes in and their ship must make its departure. And to find him they will have to battle assorted dinosaurs, hostile cave-men and the dreaded volcano god.

I’ve read dismissive comments about this movie, comments that claimed that the budget was just too small for the scale of the ideas. I don’t agree. On the contrary I think that considering the limited budget the movie looks pretty impressive. The model shots are mostly effective, the dinosaurs look reasonably good, the early 20th century atmosphere is very well done. The battle scenes are well staged. Director Kevin O’Connor keeps the action moving along at a good clip.

Patrick Wayne wasn’t in the same league as an actor as his old man but he’s perfect for this sort of role - he’s dashing and he’s likable. Doug McClure is reduced to a supporting role in this second movie but still gets to do some heroic stuff. Sarah Douglas is terrific as Charly and the banter between her and Wayne never becomes tiresome or vicious. They clash at first but they’re both basically sympathetic characters. Cult movie favourite Thorley Walters (familiar from countless Hammer films) makes a splendid jovial archaeologist. All the supporting performances in fact are quite solid.

It’s a colourful exciting adventure movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything else and it doesn’t need to be anything else. It’s thoroughly enjoyable.

MGM’s DVD release under the Midnite Movies banner range is typical of this range of DVDs - completely bereft of extras apart from a trailer but it’s a beautiful transfer and they’ve issued it in a two-movie pack along with The Land That Time Forgot which makes it sensational value and if you shop around you can pick it up for as little as five bucks.

Monday 28 March 2011

The Man from Planet X (1951)

No-one could match Edgar G. Ulmer when it came to making interesting and provocative little movies for virtually no money. His 1951 science fiction feature The Man from Planet X is a case in point.

A planet, known as Planet X, has been observed heading toward the Earth. It’s not going to collide with us but it will pass very close indeed. An astronomer has set up a makeshift observatory in an ancient “broch” or tower on an island off the coast of Scotland. When a spaceship is discovered to have landed in the island it’s clear enough this must have some connection to the mysterious Planet X.

The spacecraft is found by an American newspaper reporter who had been tipped off that something unusual was happening on this remote island. He and the astronomer’s daughter (being a movie scientist he naturally has a beautiful daughter) encounter an alien being. He doesn’t appear to be hostile and he accompanied them to the broch. All efforts at communication are in vain but the alien remains friendly until the astronomer’s sinister colleague Dr Mears steps in. Motivated by a desire to force the alien to reveal technological secrets that will make him rich Dr Mears threatens the alien.

Now they have a hostile alien on their hands and even worse a hostile alien with mind-control powers who can turn the villagers into unwilling slaves or soldiers.

The basic plot seems like a very straightforward alien invasion story, but things are by no means as clear-cut as they first appear. In his classic film noir Detour Ulmer used an unreliable narrator to create one of the most ambiguous crime movies ever made. In The Man from Planet X all of the most essential information about the plans of the alien comes from an equally unreliable source. Like the central character in Detour Dr Mears is self-serving and cowardly and we have strong reasons to doubt his truthfulness. He also has strong motives for lying about the alien’s intentions. So is the alien really the spearhead of an invasion force? If there are more alien on the way can we be certain they are hostile?

Quite apart from the lack of a common language there’s the question as to whether the intentions of the aliens would even by comprehensible to humans.

The movie was made on sets left over from an earlier movie about Joan of Arc. As wa generally the case for Ulmer he was faced with the problem of having no money and an unbelievably tight shooting schedule (a mere six days). How do you make a science fiction movie under those conditions? Ulmer’s solution is to use painted backgrounds and cheap models and lots of fog effects to disguise the absence of any location shooting and the deficiencies of the sets and props. In the hands of most film-makers the results would be irredeemably cheesy but Ulmer had an uncanny ability to make such solutions work.

The use of the old tower and the moors (even though they’re all painted) gives a very gothic feel to the movie which is quite effective, making the ambiguities of the plot seem more mysterious. Ulmer apparently was responsible for much of the production design and even painted some of the backgrounds

The makeup effects for the alien are also dirt cheap but oddly effective.

The acting is reasonable enough by B-movie standards although the village constable gets a bit grating after a while.

The Region 1 DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies range looks good. As usual with these release the extras are limited to a trailer.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s films might be as cheap as the cheapest Z-grade movies but they more than make up for this with a degree of visual ingenuity and moral ambiguity that puts them well above the level of the average ultra-low budget movie. Definitely worth seeing.

Friday 25 March 2011

The Oblong Box (1969)

The Oblong Box stars Vincent Price and features Christopher Lee in a supporting role. You might well think that’s reason enough to see this film. If so, you won’t be disappointed.

Like every second horror movie of the 1960s this 1969 British movie claims to be based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It is fact a product of American International Pictures and represents an attempt to continue the Roger Corman Poe series with different directors. The later Corman Poe films had been made in Britain.

We start with a prologue in the heart of Africa, with Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) witnessing a horrific scene of torture at a native ritual. We then find ourselves back in England, where Sir Julian is about to be married. His happiness is clouded by the necessity to care for his brother, Sir Edward. Some terrible event befell Sir Edward in Africa, and he has been left hideously scarred and dangerously insane.

Sir Edward has plans to escape and to take his revenge on the world, with the assistance of a motley crew of desperadoes and an African witch doctor. Sir Edward will appear to be dead and his confederates will later rescue him. But of course, this being a horror movie, the best-laid schemes invariably go wrong.

Also caught up in these events is a prominent surgeon, Dr Neuhartt (Christopher Lee). The good doctor has a need for corpses for both teaching purposes and for his private researches. In the 19th century there was of course no legal way to obtain such cadavers and so even respectable surgeons might well find themselves having to deal with some very unsavoury characters, characters who use rather unpleasant methods. Grave-robbing being just one of the options that such persons would avail themselves of.

Dr Neuhartt is caught up unwittingly in the affairs of the unfortunate Markham family.

Gordon Hessler does a very competent job. His gothic horror flicks for AIP are underrated (Cry of the Banshee is even more under-appreciated than this one). He realised it was necessary to move with the times and to make the horror slightly more overt than it had been in the Corman films but he still retains most of the flavour.

Vincent Price is perfectly cast and does an admirable job. Price was capable of giving serious and subtle performances in horror movies or of camping it up outrageously depending on which approach the movie in question demanded. In this case he keeps the hamminess to a minimum. Christopher Lee doesn’t get a lot to do but he brings that distinctive gravitas to his performance.

Of course a 60s horror movie has to have wenches, and the wenching duties here are shared by Uta Levka and Sally Geeson (the slightly less talented sister of one of the great 70s scream queens, Judy Geeson). Both are more than adequate for their roles.

This is a movie that doesn’t seem to be all that highly thought of, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable slice of 60s gothic horror with a fine cast, excellent production values, brisk pacing and a high degree of technical competence. Plus it has voodoo, always a bonus. It might not quite measure up the Corman Poe films, but Corman’s Poe films are among the best gothic horror movies ever made. The Oblong Box has no real reason to feel ashamed of comparisons to such films.

The Region 4 DVD is perfectly acceptable and the picture quality is very good, so no complaints there.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Race with the Devil (1975)

If highway mayhem plus satanic cults sounds like your idea of the ideal exploitation movie combination then Race with the Devil was a movie made for you.

Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) are motorcycle-racing buddies who run a bike shop. The business is doing well and Frank decides they should take a vacation together. He buys a gigantic motor home. There’ll be room for Roger and Frank and their wives and for their bikes on the back. Frank’s idea of a dream vacation is to get right away from people, so they set off in the dead of winter. With the motor home they’ll be self-sufficient.

Roger and Frank are overgrown teenagers in some ways but they’re basically regular decent guys. The trip goes well until one fateful night they encounter the one hazard that all vacationers fear - they run into a satanic cult conducting a human sacrifice. Even worse, the cultists realise they’ve been spotted. Now our hapless holiday-makers are on the run from enraged satan-worshippers.

What they haven’t realised is that their route to Aspen Colorado takes them right through the heart of devil-worshipper country. For hundreds of miles there are nothing but ordinary-looking country folk who are in fact minions of the Evil One.

When their wives are threatened Roger and Frank get fairly annoyed, but when the satanists trash their motorcycles they get really mad. That’s going too far. Now it’s time to buy weapons and get serious.

It’s one of those horror movies where most of the plot twists are expected, but that’s part of the fun of this sort of movie. Our unlucky campers don’t notice when they drive into the nearest town that all the townsfolk are clearly servants of the devil but we in the audience know right away.

What matters is that the lengthy chase is done with energy and a certain amount of flair, and with automotive destruction on the grand scale. This movie makes no pretense of aiming for subtlety but it does deliver excitement. It’s really more an action movie than a horror movie. It’s like Mad Max but with devil-worshippers instead of gangs.

Peter Fonda is a pretty limited actor but this is just about within his range and his performance is adequate. Warren Oates of course is fun. Loretta Swit (better-known for the M*A*S*H TV series) and Lara Parker don’t get to do much as the wives but they’re quite adequate as well. It’s not exactly an actor’s picture.

Director Jack Starrett keeps things fast and simple and the result is a highly enjoyable drive-in movie.

The Region 2 DVD lacks the extras that come with the Region 1 release but on the other hand it’s absurdly cheap, it’s widescreen and it looks good.

Monday 21 March 2011

Confessions Of a Young American Housewife (1974)

What distinguishes Joe Sarno’s sexploitation movies from most of the other such movies of the 1960s and 70s is that Sarno appears to be more interested in the people than in the sex. Or rather that he’s interested in sex as something that involves the heart and the brain rather than just the genitals.

His 1970s movies, judging by the couple that I’ve seen, show a certain mellowing. The characters are more likeable and Sarno seems to have more affection for them. There are betrayals and jealousies but there are no villains. Even in Abigail Leslie is Back in Town where the title character seems like she might be a destructive force she turns out to be nothing of the kind. Disruptive and unsettling certainly, but in a positive rather than a negative way.

Which brings us to Sarno’s 1974 production Confessions Of a Young American Housewife.

Carole (Rebecca Brooke) and her husband are involved in a foursome with Ann (Chris Jordan) and her husband. When Carole’s mother Jennifer (Jennifer Welles) arrives for a visit Carole is convinced that Jennifer is going to be shocked by her lifestyle. Jennifer had been named Young American Housewife of the Year for 1963 by a popular women’s magazine and to Carole she represents the pre-sexual revolution world.

It’s just not possible however to prevent Jennifer from finding out what’s going on. Far from being shocked Jennifer is having a sexual awakening of her own and Carole is the one who finds herself faced by some disturbing revelations and some even more disturbing feelings. The incest theme is handled sensitively and subtly and it remains a suggestion (and an uneasy feeling in both women’s minds) rather than anything explicit.

There’s a prodigious amount of sex and nudity and that brings us to another feature of Sarno’s films - the sex is genuinely erotic. It’s strictly softcore, or at least it’s softcore in terms of what we see, although Sarno in the accompanying interview hints that some of the sex might not have been simulated. It’s erotic because it isn’t mechanical. It’s sex as an expression of emotions. These are people who sleep together because they like each other and the real affection between the characters comes through. Sarno was very much aware that it’s much more exciting watching characters having sex if you’ve first come to know and like those characters as people.

The dialogue is a little clunky at times although it may just be that it’s a reflection of its times. The acting is better than you generally expect in a sexploitation movie. Jennifer Welles is actually pretty good, Chris Jordan is amusing and while Rebecca Brooke isn’t the world’s greatest actress she has a genuine screen presence and the camera loves her. I’ve only mentioned the women because Sarno’s focus is mostly on his female characters.

This movie isn’t quite in the same league as Abigail Leslie is Back in Town but it’s still an engaging piece of stylish erotica. And there surely has never been a more attractive adult actress than Rebecca Brooke.

Sarno was one of the three great American auteurs of the sex movie, the others of course being Radley Metzger and Russ Meyer. Their styles were very different, Metzger being the more impressive visual stylist while Sarno’s movies were more character-driven and Meyer’s movies were almost a genre unto themselves, but if you’re going to try to argue that sexploitation movies deserve as much respect as any other genre than it’s on the works of these three film-makers that your argument is going to rest.

The Retro Seduction Cinema DVD release is reasonably good. There’s some print damage evident but most sexploitation movies survive, if they survive at all, in a single print and in most cases the negatives have long since been lost. The picture quality is mostly good and the sound quality is good. There’s a short interview with writer-director Sarno and a bonus CD with music from his 1970s movies. Retro Seduction Cinema are one of the handful of companies releasing these kinds of movies on DVD and they do a fine job.

Friday 18 March 2011

The Big Cube (1969)

By 1969 the counter-culture flower-power psychedelic freak-out thing was starting to look like the next big thing as far as movies were concerned. Even the big studios were jumping on the bandwagon. The Big Cube was one of the results.

It’s an interesting mix - a psychedelic acid-trip movie combined with a psychological horror thriller and some totally over-the-top melodrama. Of course it doesn’t work but watching it fail is great fun.

Lana Turner is middle-aged Broadway star Adriana Roman who has married wealthy financier Charles Winthrop and has decided to give up the theatre to concentrate on being a wife. Her new husband has a daughter, Lisa, who has ben away at school in Switzerland for some years but has now finished school and returned home. There’s initially plenty of tension between the new wife and the step-daughter.

Lisa is a very innocent young woman and she soon falls in with a bad crowd. Her new friends are acid-heads but Lisa is entirely oblivious to all this, although she is puzzled a to why they keep dropping sugar cubes into their beers. She falls for handsome and charming medical student Johnny (George Chakiris) but Johnny has a thriving sideline selling drugs. He’s not overly concerned when he gets kicked out of medical school because Lisa has lots of money and persuading her to marry him should be child’s play.
Predictably Lisa’s dad and step-mom aren’t impressed by Johnny.

When Lisa’s father is killed in a boating accident Johnny sees his chance but unfortunately Winthrop senior’s will leaves Adrian in control of the purse-strings. Johnny’s devious mind had a solution to this. They’ll add LSD to Adriana’s sleeping pills and send her crazy so they can get their hands on the money. It doesn’t take long before Adriana starts to lose her grip but can they prevent things from going too far?

It all climaxes with a bizarre therapy-by-theatre scene.

There are the expected psychedelic special effects, there’s plenty of amusingly cringe-inducing dialogue and there’s as much bad acting as you could ever desire. All this combined with a wonderfully silly script. But the icing on the cake is that it takes itself way too seriously which makes it even more fun.

There’s also some terribly music, some cool discotheque scenes and some brief nudity to give the picture a suitable air of sin and wickedness.

Lana Turner’s performance is mind-boggling. I have no idea if she realised how silly the movie was. Mostly she looks very confused. She deals with this by pulling out all the stops and giving a performance that is constantly on the verge of hysteria. It works for me. And she has a delightful puzzled expression that takes the movie into camp overkill.

The other actors are uniformly horrendously awful, which is as it should be in this type of movie.

It’s a terrible movie but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was released on DVD as part of Warner’s Cult Camp Classics 2 Women in Peril boxed set. The image quality is superb. If you have an appreciation of camp then you’ll certainly want to see this one.

Monday 14 March 2011

Warlock (1989)

Warlock, made by New World Pictures in 1988, is basically a supernatural version of Terminator. An evil warlock and a dogged witch-hunter are both transported from 1690s Boston into the 1980s. The warlock is bent on ultimate evil and the witch-hunter is determined to foil his wicked plans.

The witch (he’s mostly referred to in the film simply as a witch rather than a warlock) had been facing execution but his jump forward three centuries into the future was engineered by the powers of darkness for other purposes than the obvious one of avoiding his date with the executioner. He’s on a mission from Satan to find the scattered pieces of the ultimate grimoire, the Grand Grimoire, a book that can deliver unlimited power and unleash unlimited destruction. Creation itself is threatened.

The witch-hunter, Redferne, finds an unlikely ally in the likeable but slightly ditzy Kassandra. Kassandra doesn’t want any part of this whole battling the ultimate evil business but when she gets in the witch’s way he casts a very nasty spell on her. She will age 20 years each day. Redferne informs her that unless she can retrieve her charm bracelet from the witch (he had to steal a personal item in order to cast the spell) there’s no way of reversing the spell. So Kassandra becomes an initially unenthusiastic recruit in the struggle against evil.

The grimoire has been hidden in three separate places. It’s not difficult to find. THe difficulty is finding it before the witch does.

The movie’s greatest strength (somewhat unusually for a horror flick) is the acting. Lori Singer is good as Kassandra. Julian Sands is both incredibly sexy and incredibly vicious as the witch. He radiates evil charisma and creates a truly memorable villain.

The real star though is Richard E. Grant as the witch-hunter Redferne. His performance manages to be both entertainingly hammy (as you’d expect from Richard E. Grant) and at the same time convincing and moving. He has a very personal score to settle with the witch, a tragedy in his own life that makes him a particularly determined witch-finder. And he has a charisma of his own.

What’s surprising is that the characterisations of both Redferne and Kassandra have a certain degree of subtlety. They have real motivations, real reasons for doing what they do, something you don’t really expect in a low-budget 80s horror movie. Their attitudes towards one another evolve over the course of the film as each of them learns to understand and respect the other.

The special effects are fairly bad but they’re great fun. There’s not a lot of gore but there are a couple of very chilling scenes. This is a convincingly evil witch - he’s utterly ruthless and gratuitously cruel and entirely lacking in any redeeming qualities.

To compensate for the slightly dodgy social effects there are some very nice and quite imaginative touches, such as Redferne’s very cool witch compass gizmo and the use of a weather vane as a deadly anti-witch missile. And the screenwriter obviously put some actual thought into the script, and even appears to have done some actual research into the occult - there are some convincingly authentic witch-hunting details. The nailing of footprints was a particularly cool little detail.

It doesn’t really have the feel of a 1980s horror movie at all. The aim seems to have been to make a movie very much in the tradition of the great gothic horror movies of the 60s and early 70s. And it achieves that aim. Terrific old-fashioned entertainment.

Saturday 12 March 2011

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

An adventure movie based on the adventures of Sinbad with special effects by Ray Harryhausen is a combination that can’t really fail. And The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is indeed pure fun.

Prince Sinbad is about to marry a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, a marriage that should ensure the future happiness of the two young people (who are genuinely in love) and the peace and prosperity of both kingdoms. But a scheming magician named Sokurah has other ideas. He lost his magic lamp in an earlier expedition to the fabled island of Calossa, home of the dreaded cyclops, and he is determined to get it back.

No sane person would back another expedition to the island and no sane person would take part in it, but Sokurah intends that such an expedition will take place. He will leave Sinbad and his father with no choice. When Sinbad discovers that his bride-to-be has been shrunk to a height of around six inches he is willing to do anything to reverse what is clearly a powerful and malevolent spell. When Sokurah informs him that he can easily restore the princess to her normal dimensions if only he could get hold of a portion of the eggshell of the gigantic and fearsome bird known as the roc, a bird that just happens to be found only on the island of Calossa, Sinbad agrees to undertake the hazardous voyage.

To procure a crew Sinbad has to resort to recruiting condemned criminals, a step that adds even more dangers to an already perilous voyage.

Director Nathan Juran and Harryhausen keep the monsters coming at a relentless pace. There are no boring bits in this movie. The monsters will be a delight to all fans of Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation techniques.

The acting is reasonably good. Torin Thatcher as the evil magician has the juiciest role and steals most of the acting limelight. Kerwin Mathews is a perfectly acceptable Sinbad and Kathryn Grant is likeable as the princess. Richard Eyer works pretty well as the boy genie in the lamp, in a role that could so easily have become annoying.

The one minor disappointment I had with the movie was that Sinbad’s ship looks a bit too European but that’s an insignificant quibble really.

This was one of Harryhausen’s earlier attempts at a Technicolor fantasy epic and it was a resounding success. It remains hugely enjoyable.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Lorna the Exorcist (1974)

It’s been a very long wait indeed for Mondo Macabro’s release of Jess Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist (Les possédées du diable). There are no exorcists at all in this film but everyone was trying to cash in on the success of The Exorcist so the title probably seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t think this one quite makes it as first-rank Franco but it’s interesting and it’s undoubtedly the most perverse movie he has ever made (which is saying quite a lot when you think of Franco films like Barbed Wire Dolls).

While there aren’t any exorcists in sight there are demonic possessions. The title character is a kind of combination demon/witch/vampire and the movie has affinities with other Franco movies of that period.

The plot is relatively simple but it’s not exactly straightforward, being laced with ambiguities. Patrick Mariel (Guy Delorme) is a wealthy businessman whose past comes back to haunt him as the 18th birthday of his daughter Linda (Lina Romay) approaches.

Patrick’s wealth came to him suddenly, almost 19 years earlier. He was on the skids and desperate when he encountered the bizarre but fascinating Lorna (Pamela Stanford). Lorna brought him good luck immediately, and assured him that even more good luck could soon come his way if he would just agree to a very simple little deal. All he had to do was to make love to Lorna, then head straight back to his hotel room and make love to his wife. His wife (Marianne, played by Jacqueline Laurent) would conceive a child, a girl, but the child would be Lorna’s. Lorna would return on the girl’s 18th birthday. Patrick, his mind clouded by both sexual lust and greed, agrees to the pact.

Whether Patrick really understood the agreement or would have agreed is the first of the film’s ambiguities, but 18 years later he receives a phone call from Lorna. She wants him to honour their agreement. She has kept her part of the bargain, and whatever scepticism Patrick may feel about demonic pacts he has to admit that al the wealth and success that Lorna promised did come his way exactly when she said it would. But surely Lorna can’t be serious about intending to claim his daughter. Apart from his scepticism, at the time he made the pact a daughter was merely a hypothetical future possibility. Linda is now very real and he is devoted to her. Whatever peccadilloes he committed in the past he is now a loving husband and father. Lorna soon makes it clear she is very serious indeed.

While the supernatural elements drive the plot we are never quite certain if we are dealing with actual manifestations of the supernatural. Much of what happens could be explained as coincidence, or madness, or possibly some kind of hypnotic suggestion. As in Franco’s best movies there is no clear dividing line between the real and the not-real.

The amount and sex and nudity in this film is prodigious, but that’s more or less expected in a mid-70s Franco movie. What isn’t expected is the truly extraordinary degree of perversity. The atmosphere of the movie is deeply unhealthy in almost every imaginable way. And again, as in Franco’s best work, the perversity and the sex are the core of the film. This is no straightforward pact with the Devil. Sex, motherhood, fatherhood, questions of identity, of control, the psychological dimensions of both sex and the supernatural, all are thrown together into a very disturbing cocktail.

Some directors would find a theme that obsessed him and spend two or three years working on one film, trying to express that theme perfectly. Being a low-budget film-maker Franco could not do that but his approach was just as obsessive. He would return to a theme again and again, trying to express that theme perfectly by a proves of accumulation. For this reason it’s impossible to fully comprehend Franco as a film-maker until you’ve seen a lot of his movies, probably at least two dozen. Lorna the Exorcist has to be seen in the context of a cycle of Franco films from the late 60s to the mid-70s, a cycle that includes his most provocative, controversial and disturbing erotic horror movies such as the infamous Female Vampire and the even more infamous Doriana Gray.

Those who regard Franco as a talentless hack will find plenty of support for their view here. Even by Franco standards this one is technically slapdash. But those who regard Franco as a visionary genius will find just as much support here for their view. Some of Franco’s most personal films are technically slapdash, as if the more involved he was the less he cared about technical details. He’s rather like a painter who is so anxious to get his vision on canvas that he can’t stop to correct minor technical errors, or a writer so desperate to get his ideas on paper that he has no time to revise, he simply completes one book and moves straight on to the next one.

The setting contributes a great deal to this production. It was filmed in the bizarre ultra-modernist city of la Grand Motte in the Camargue in southern France, a spectacular seaside resort built from the ground up within the space of a few years from the early 60s to the early 70s. Along with Godard’s Alphaville and Jacques Tati's Playtime this is one of the most stunning and successful uses in cinema of modernist architecture and interior design to create an atmosphere of alienation.

The acting is remarkably good. The four main stars are all highly effective, plus there’s a brief but entertaining cameo by Howard Vernon as Lorna’s strongarm butler. Pamela Stanford plays Lorna in such a way that we would find it equally easy to see her as a witch or a madwoman. Lina Romay walks off with the acting honours however, imbuing Linda with an incredibly unsettling mix of innocence, depravity and newly awakened sexuality.

The print quality is variable but given the deplorable state of the source materials (no intact negative survives) Mondo Macabro has done a great job.

The more one thinks about this movie the more one is inclined to consider that it may in fact qualify as one of his major works. Definitely recommended. It’s typically Franco in being a heady mix of art, mind games and sexual perversity.

Saturday 5 March 2011

X: The Unknown (1956)

X: The Unknown was one of a series of excellent science fiction films made by Hammer Films in the mid-50s. It was notable for being the first of many Hammer films to be scripted by Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s plot is outlandish but undeniably clever and original. An unexplained source of radiation appears not far from a nuclear research facility in Scotland. It’s discovered by a squad of soldiers undergoing training in dealing with radiation threats, but this is one radiation threat they’re quite unable to deal with. Especially when a huge fissure opens up in the ground, a fissure that seems to be almost unimaginably deep.

Dr Royston from the experimental nuclear facility comes up with a possible explanation, but can he convince anyone that such a bizarre explanation may in fact be the truth? Could they really be dealing with creatures of pure energy from within the molten core of the Earth itself?

Director Leslie Norman develops an impressive sense of menace, helped considerably by the decision to delay the onscreen appearance of the monster until very late in the film. The special effects at the end are a bit iffy but the makeup effects are good and there are some genuinely quite horrific scenes. I’m surprised some of these scenes got past the notoriously strict British censors.

There’s lots of delightful technobabble but the real highlight is Dr Royston’s personal laboratory, with ingenious scientific apparatus made from Meccano! You have to love a film where Meccano saves the world!

As with their early 50 outings in the film noir genre Hammer imported fading American stars for their science fiction movies to give them an extra transatlantic appeal. And as with their film noirs they chose remarkable wisely. In this case Dean Jagger gives a sympathetic and sensitive performance as the dedicated and humane Dr Royston.

Jagger sets great support from the legendary Leo McKern who plays an Atomic Energy Commission security expert despatched to investigate the strange happenings in Scotland. And you know this is a real Hammer film, because Michael Ripper’s in it, having a great time as a crusty sergeant.

Look out for musical comedy and pop star Anthony Newley in a minor role.

Like all of Hammer’s movies from the early to mid-50s X: The Unknown is a well-crafted, intelligent and highly entertaining movie. It takes its subject matter seriously and it gets away with doing so.

It was released on DVD by Anchor Bay paired with another fine Hammer sci-fi film from this era, Four-Sided Triangle. The picture quality on both movies is superb with nice crisp images and good black-and-white contrast, plus you get a couple of episodes of the World of Hammer TV documentary series. All of which makes this one an absolute must-buy.