Monday 29 August 2011

Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (1963)

Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (Maciste, l'eroe più grande del mondo) is a rather good example of the peplum genre, and (rather unusually for this genre) with a very satisfactory DVD presentation, from Retromedia.

The people of Neffer were defeated in war by the Babylonians, and have paid a high price for their defeat. Each year they must send thirty of their most beautiful virgins to Babylon as tribute. as you might expect they’re not terribly happy about this situation.

Actually doing something about it is another matter. The young men of Neffer are brave and willing to fight, but as anyone who has ever watched one of these movies knows they will have little chance of success unless the have the services of a bona fide hero. Luckily, just such a hero happens to be available, in the person of Goliath (given the original Italian title of the film it’s pretty obvious that the hero is actually Maciste, but one muscle-bound hero is as good as another).

Director Michele Lupo provides us with some impressive action sequences, and we also have a worthy action hero star in the person of Mark Forest.

The sea battle scenes and the chariot races are quite spectacular. This is a movie that certainly looks more expensive than it was.

Most importantly, the movie is presented in the correct Techniscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s not a perfect print, but it’s pretty good, and definitely qualifies as one of the best DVD transfers I’ve seen in this sadly neglected genre.

The English dubbed soundtrack is acceptable if not fantastic.

Retromedia have included a second movie as a bonus feature. Sadly this one is a fullscreen transfer but since it’s a bonus feature one can’t complain too much.

Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is enormous fun and is really a must-buy if you’re a fan of this genre.

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Despite his immense cult popularity H. P. Lovecraft has tended to be avoided by horror film-makers. And for obvious reasons. Translating the horrors described so memorably in his gloriously purple prose into visual images entails an incredibly high risk that the results will look silly and unconvincing and will provoke laughter rather than chills.

A.I.P.’s 1970 Lovecraft flick The Dunwich Horror sounds at first like an incredibly bad idea. Combining Lovecraft with psychedelia in a contemporary setting will surely end up looking very very silly indeed. Even worse, they were going to try doing this on a very low budget, with Roger Corman as executive producer keeping a very tight hold on the purse-strings. In fact it not only works remarkably well, it’s probably the most satisfactory movie adaptation of Lovecraft ever made.

A rather disturbing young man wanders into the Miskatonic University library and announces that he’d like to borrow their most prized possession, the famed (or rather infamous) Necronomicon. The most evil and dangerous book ever written. His interest in the book seems even more worrying when it’s discovered that he is Wilbur Whately (Dean Stockwell), of the notorious (and feared) Whately family. His great-grandfather had been lynched, ostensibly for a murder but in fact he had been trying to bring back the Great Old Ones, ancient and malevolent creatures from another dimension who had ruled the Earth aeons ago.

Could Wilbur be planning something similar? And what of the stories of Wilbur’s mysterious birth, the alleged still-birth of his brother, the madness of his mother and the terrifying possibility that Wilbur’s father was not exactly human. The townspeople are very much afraid of Wilbur, and of his crazy grandfather (Sam Jaffe). No girl from the town would ever go out with Wilbur. So it comes as a surprise that pretty young student Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) should not only offer to drive Wilbur home to Dunwich, but that she should decide to stay for the weekend.

Dr Henry Armitage (Ed Begley) is the university’s resident expert on the Necronomicon. He knows all about the Great Old Ones, and he knows all about the Whatelys. He has his suspicions as to Wilbur’s intentions towards Nancy, and those suspicions don’t involve romantic walks on the beach. They involve sinister rituals and sexual congress with tentacled aliens.

Nancy has in fact been drugged by Wilbur, but even without this he appears to exert a strange hold over her. Other women find him creepy but she is oddly fascinated, a fascination that may well involve some kind of occult mind-control. She starts to have dreams, psychedelic dreams with sexual overtones (and Nancy is clearly not a girl who is especially comfortable with the subject of sex). Dreams of being pursued by hordes of half-naked hippies (and surely there can be no horror to equal the horror of half-naked hippies). Nancy’s friend Elizabeth, Dr Armitage and the town doctor are all determined to save her from a fate that will clearly be a good deal worse than death, but will they be too late? Can Wilbur be prevented from bringing back the gods of old?

The movie works to a large extent because director Daniel Haller had been Corman’s art director for years. He was accustomed to finding ways of producing striking visual images on the cheap. He had a fine sense of visual style. And he’d absorbed valuable lessons from working with Corman - he understood the importance of keeping things moving, of always having something interesting happening.

The effects at times rely too much on solarisation but mostly they are remarkably effective. The wind effects are especially good. And the truly frantic cutting not only provides the right level of disorientation, it also cleverly means we never see an image for long enough to notice how cheap it is or how unconvincing the monsters might be. Haller only ever allows us the briefest glimpses of the monsters so we can readily believe they’re a lot more terrifying than they actually are. This is always a sound method in low-budget films and Haller does it superbly.

The movie also benefits from a truly inspired piece of casting. Dean Stockwell’s absolutely flat delivery of his lines, the extreme creepiness he brings to the character, and the sense that he’s not really part of our universe at all, that his mind is off somewhere else, a long way off - all this adds up to a brilliantly effective performance.

Sandra Dee is quite good. This is a long way from Gidget but she comes across as a repressed virgin which makes it quite plausible that she’s exactly the type of woman Wilbur would be looking for. Ed Begley is great fun, and Sam Jaffe is wonderfully crazed.

Even the decision to add sex, which at first seems rather un-Lovecraftian, works surprisingly well. There might not be sex in Lovecraft but there’s certainly perversity and the sexual elements added to the story help in this regard. They make the townspeople’s horror of the Whately’s much more comprehensible. The movie definitely has a genuine Lovecraftian feel.

Modern audiences who expect CGI and gore won’t understand this movie at all. But if you value atmosphere and weirdness more than gore you’ll love this one. Lovecraft and psychedelia certainly works for me.

Saturday 27 August 2011

The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger was a movie that sharply divided both critics and horror fans at the time of its release. It was accused of being a triumph of style over substance. Perhaps it is, but with this much style who needs substance?

Tony Scott, like his brother Ridley Scott, had a background in TV commercials and it shows. The Hunger was criticised for its supposedly MTV-style cutting, and was also seen as a filmic manifestation of 80s excess. So negative was the movie’s reception that it was several years before Tony Scott could get another director’s gig.

There is some truth in all of these criticisms, but what really matters is - does the film work? The answer to that has to be yes. In fact in retrospect the idea of combining the decadence of vampires (blood-sucking parasitical creatures who never age) with the decadent excesses of the 80s (and what were the yuppies if they weren’t blood-sucking parasitical creatures desperately trying not to age) was a stroke of genius.

And if Tony Scott leant his craft making TV commercials, who cares? If that industry can produce people with as much visual flair as Scott displays in this film then more power to the TV commercial industry.

And to be honest the accusation of lack of substance is really not very fair. This is an unconventional vampire movie packed with more good ideas than most 80s horror movies. And while the plot is sometimes overshadowed by the visual extravagances it does most certainly have a plot.

Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) are a rather arty and very sophisticated couple living in New York. They teach music, but clearly they don’t need the money. They do so for the love of music.

Miriam is also a vampire. One of the strengths of this move is that doesn’t try to over-explain the characters’ backstories or the particular variation on the vampire mythos that forms the basis of the story. It avoids lengthy and cumbersome exposition. We are given hints, and that’s enough. One thing that is clear is that Miriam is almost unimaginably old, that she has probably survived since the days of ancient Egypt. She appears to be effectively immortal. She is a very beautiful woman in her late 30s, and she has been
a very beautiful woman in her late 30s for several thousand years.

Of course being immortal has its downside - loneliness. If you are immortal and you fall in love with a mortal you must watch your lover grow old and die. For Miriam there is a solution to this, but it’s only a partial solution. She can create new vampires to provide her with companionship, but there’s a problem. While Miriam is immortal, these vampiric creations of hers are not quite true vampires. Like her they feed on human blood, and they are immortal in a sense. But Miriam is not just immortal - she is entirely immune to the ageing process. These creations of hers are only partly immune to ageing. They remain young for centuries, but then they start to age and they age very rapidly indeed. But the true horror is, they age but they don’t die.

John has been her companion since the eighteenth century. He had been a beautiful young man, she had fallen in love with him, and she had offered him her gift - the gift of living for centuries and remaining as beautiful as ever, but with the knowledge that it might not last forever. As was the case with all her other lovers Miriam prayed that this time it might really last forever.

Now Miriam believes science may hold the answer. Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) and her team are working on the theory that ageing is a disease and it’s potentially curable.

Miriam’s tragedy is that while she might be some strange not-quite-human creature who must kill in order to survive, emotionally and sexually she is a completely normal woman. What she wants is a love that will fast forever, and while it seems impossible she must still keep trying. If John cannot be saved she must find a replacement, because Miriam is a woman who cannot live without love. Now she has a eye on Sarah Roberts as a replacement (Miriam being a bisexual vampire).

While David Bowie was probably the big box-office draw in this film it’s Catherine Deneuve who is unquestionably the star. She manages to make Miriam both subtly other-worldly and yet still very much a woman.

That’s not to say that David Bowie isn’t good. In fact he’s superb, but his role is more of a supporting role. What I like about his performance is a certain formality about his manners, very subtle done but it makes it believable that he really is a man of the eighteenth century. It’s little touches like that show just how good an actor he is.

The weak link is Susan Sarandon. Apart from the fact that her acting simply isn’t in the same league as Deneuve’s or Bowie’s the character of Sarah Roberts is not all that interesting. It’s easy to understand why a woman as cultured and sophisticated as Miriam would want to spend centuries with John Blaylock (Bowie). He’s a man who is obviously worthy of her. But it’s difficult to understand why she’s want to spend ten minutes with Sarah Roberts. Susan Sarandon just doesn’t have the class to make Miriam’s obsession convincing.

That’s a minor quibble. This is still one of the most interesting and stylish of all vampire movies, and I recommend it very highly indeed.

I should also mention the opening sequence, with Bauhaus performing their classic Bela Lugosi’s Dead. It’s also worth pointing out the influence that photographer Helmut Newton had on the style of this movie. Another nice touch is that their are no fangs in evidence - these vampires use rather elegant little knives in the shape of an Egyptian ankh.

Thursday 25 August 2011

3 Bullets for Ringo (1966)

3 Bullets for Ringo (3 colpi di Winchester per Ringo, AKA Three Graves for a Winchester) won’t appeal to all spaghetti western fans. The key to enjoying this movie is to release that although it certainly looks like a spaghetti western that’s not quite what it is.

The hero of this movie, Ringo, isn’t really a western hero. He’s more akin to the heroes of an Italian Hercules or Maciste movie. Like the heroes of peplums he is in effect a superhuman hero, someone with powers beyond those of ordinary mortals.

It takes a while to figure this out, but then you notice that twenty bad guys just fired at Ringo and they all missed, then he drew his two six-shooters and shot all twenty bad guys. Without reloading. In fact even though he fires literally thousands of rounds during the course of the movie Ringo never once reloads his guns. Of course six-shooters with unlimited ammunition supplies are seen in some early B-westerns and western serials, but this movie takes it to an extreme. It could be annoying, but then the penny drops that realism plays no part in this movie and that it’s really more like a fantasy film.

Director Emimmo Salvi actually started his brief career making peplums and when you find that out it pretty much confirms the suspicion that what he’s doing here is a peplum with six-guns.

The plot is also filled with absurdities which make more sense if you treat it as part spaghetti western and part heroic fantasy. Ringo Carson (Mickey Hargitay, best known today for having been married to Jayne Mansfield) and Frank Sanders (Gordon Mitchell) are gunslingers on the wrong side of the law.

The difference between them is that Ringo is basically good and it’s his destiny to become a True Hero. Frank on the other hand is much more tempted by the Dark Side of the Force. Their partnership breaks up over a woman. Jane Walcom chooses Ringo and Frank rides off into the sunset but their paths are destined to cross again. Ringo becomes the town sheriff and establishes law and order but the peace is threatened by the machinations of the corrupt and generally wicked banker Daniels who wants to get his hands on various parcel of land that he suspects contain gold. Among the people whose land he wants to steal is Ringo’s mum. There’s also the complication that Ringo’s father-in-law is a shady businessman who is involved in Daniels’ scheming.

In a battle with renegade soldiers Ringo is struck a blow on the head that leaves him blind. The doctor tells the family that the only possible way he could recover his sight would be by being dealt another blow on the head. This medical pronouncement will prove to have major Plot Significance. This battle also results in the return of Frank Sanders who takes over as sheriff, but he is the evil sheriff as opposed to Ringo’s good sheriff. Somehow the blind Ringo must find a way to stop the triumph of evil.

It’s all very silly, with outrageous coincidences and impossible feats of gunslinging prowess and more-than-human bravery. You’ll either find this too ridiculous to bother with or you’ll find a way to not only accept but to embrace the silliness. If you can do that then it’s an enjoyable enough romp. And the six-barreled dynamite cannon is fun.

The acting is two-dimensional but it hardly matters. Mickey Hargitay at least seems to be enjoying himself. There’s an enormous amount of action, all of which is very cartoonish. This is a movie that makes no concessions to realism. There’s no gore at all. The body count though is incredibly high, another clue perhaps that what we’re seeing is not meant to be taken at all seriously.

As an added attraction there’s a voodoo ceremony that makes no sense whatever in the context of the plot but gratuitous voodoo ceremonies are something I have no problem with.

The DVD from Wild East Productions presents the movie in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and generally looks pretty good.

Definitely not one of the classics of the spaghetti western genre but while it’s a bad movie when judged by any conventional standards it’s kind of fun if you’re in the mood for some slightly tongue-in-cheek action fun.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

House on Bare Mountain (1962)

The House on Bare Mountain (1962) belongs to a very obscure exploitation movie sub-genre indeed, the monster nudie picture. Nudie-cutie movies were highly profitable, and so were monster movies, so adding monsters to a nudie movie would surely be a surefire winner. That was the theory anyway.

The nudie-cutie itself came into existence when the US Supreme Court ruled that nudity was not in itself obscene. Exploitation movie producers still had to tread warily though. Nudity might be legally permissible but sex was another matter. So the trick was to make movies with lots of naked women in completely non-sexual situations. It’s a tribute to the ingenuity of exploitation film-makers that they managed to find do many ways to do just that. The first solution was the nudist camp movie, but this formula proved to be much too limiting.

In 1959 Russ Meyer came up with a better solution, adding a plot (a very very thin plot but it was better than nothing) and comedy. The result was The Immoral Mr Teas which was hugely successful. Combining nudity and comedy was a kind of American tradition - this had been the basic formula for burlesque with comics alternating with strippers.

House on Bare Mountain
follows the same formula but with added monsters. Well really only one monster, a werewolf. Something Weird Video has paired this one with another monster nudie feature, Kiss Me Quick. Co-producer Bob Cresse also stars. Cresse was not the most popular person in the exploitation movie business and thus bills himself in this movie as Lovable Bob Cresse.

The plot is simple. Grannie Good (played by Cresse in drag) runs a small but select school for genteel young ladies. It makes an effective cover for her real business, which is bootlegging. To assist in this side of the business she has a werewolf. The advantage of employing werewolves is that you don’t have to pay them very much, and they usually don’t belong to unions.

The operation has been running very smoothly but now Grannie Good suspects there’s a spy in their midst, that one of her girls may be working for the police. She turns out to be half-right. The young ladies are most fairly well behaved but they do have a great deal of trouble keeping their clothes on. But since it’s an all-girls school and the only staff member is Grannie Good no-one worries very much if the girls don’t bother too much with clothing.

It’s moderately amusing but lacks the anarchic quality and the manic energy that made Kiss Me Quick considerably more entertaining. It might be a little short on monsters but there’s certainly no shortage of young ladies. All of whom takes their clothes off. Frequently. Very frequently.

This being 1962 there’s no frontal nudity but there are bare bottoms and bare breasts in abundance. And being 1962 there are also beehive hairdos and other 60s treats.

Ultimately the question of whether a movie like this is worth seeing comes down to one thing - does it include go-go dancing? In fact it not only includes go-go dancing, it includes naked go-go dancing.

The print looks remarkably good and you get two movies plus a host of extras, so if you have a liking for the weird and wonderful world of 60s sexploitation this is a worthwhile buy. Very tame by todays standards but that’s part of the charm of the nudie-cutie.

House on Bare Mountain is highly recommended.

Friday 19 August 2011

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Movie fans often complain that Hollywood should make fewer remakes, reboots and sequels and come up with more original ideas instead. The sad story of Hudson Hawk provides some explanation of why Hollywood sticks to remakes and franchises.

Hudson Hawk was based on an original idea, it cost an enormous amount of money and it tanked at the box office.

This is actually a case where the reasons for the film’s failure were fairly complicated but this was one of a series of big-budget box-office disasters that hit Hollywood in the late 80s and early 90s (Howard the Duck in 1986, Ishtar in 1987, Cutthroat Island in 1992, Waterworld and Showgirls in 1995). Careers were destroyed, studios collapsed. Hollywood has really been running scared ever since. Studio executives console themselves with the thought that no-one is going to lose their job for authorising yet another Batman movie.

So why was Hudson Hawk such a box-office bomb?

The main reason of course was that what started out as a moderately budgeted movie ended up costing $65 million, a huge budget by 1991 standards. It seem to be a truism that any movie that suffers from enormous budget blowouts and well-publicised production problems will get savaged by mainstream film critics. This may be simply another symptom of the declining standards of journalism. Such movies are an easy target, and the reviews practically write themselves (just throw together a few snarky comments about out-of-control egos and Hollywood excess and you have your review). In some cases these movies really are as frightful as the reviews suggest, in others they’re really not deserving of the critical mauling they received (Waterworld is certainly a colossal stinker, Cutthroat Island is harmless fun and Showgirls is of course a masterpiece).

In this case a further problem was that with the big budget and an ill-conceived publicity campaign by TriStar Pictures and with Bruce Willis as the star audiences assumed they were going to be getting a summer blockbuster in the style of Die Hard. They weren’t expecting Bruce Willis singing old Bing Crosby’s hits like Swinging on a Star. What might have done moderately well as a quirky mid-budget release was now seen as a failed blockbuster.

That may sound suspiciously like I’m about to tell you that Hudson Hawk really isn’t that bad. Which I am, sort of.

So on to the plot. Hudson Hawk (Bruce Willis) is a famed cat-burglar who’s just been released from prison, and he’s recruited for what turns out to be a fateful robbery. He actually wants to go straight, but he isn’t given a choice. He has to steal a Leonardo da Vinci sculpture, the Sforza Horse. The plot from this point on becomes ludicrously over-complicated but that’s more of an asset than a hindrance - the movie is supposed to be and the plot is inventive and engagingly screwy. Hudson Hawk will find himself involved with New York mobsters, the CIA, the Vatican and a couple of crazed billionaires. There are 15th century flying machines, and there is a gigantic machine that produces gold by means of alchemy. And there are lots of explosions. And show tunes.

It’s a movie of spectacular contrasts. Some sequences are not merely delightful, they’re almost inspired. Other scenes fail dismally and annoyingly. I love the first robbery, which becomes a bizarre musical number with Hudson and his sidekick singing Swinging on a Star to time the robbery. On the other hand I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget the dolphin-speaking scene.

The DVD comes with a commentary track by director Michael Lehmann which certainly helps to explain why the movie is the way it is. Bruce Willis came up with the original idea and Steven de Sousa’s first draft screenplay was apparently a fairly conventional comedy/action movie. Then Willis and Lehmann decided it would be more fun to take a few more risks, to try to make a much more unconventional film. So part of the film’s anarchic and at times surreal feel was intentional. On the other hand as the production careered out of control it undoubtedly ended up even more chaotic than planned. The movie damaged Lehmann’s career severely but he seems oddly fond of it.

Bruce Willis is OK as Hudson Hawk. Andie McDowell provides the love interest, as a sexy secret agent nun working for the Vatican, and she’s pretty good. James Coburn is the head CIA agent, a piece of casting clearly intended as a tribute to the spy spoof movies he made in the 60s such as Our Man Flint. And then we have Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the kinky megalomaniacal billionaires, Darwin and Minerva Mayflower. That the movie succeeds in being entertaining and weirdly fascinating despite its many flaws is mostly due to these two. Their performances are crazed and over-the-top to a truly awe-inspiring and terrifying degree but when they’re onscreen the movie is a lot more fun.

Overall the movie is a strange and uneasy mixture of slapstick, action and general weirdness but if you’re in the right frame of mind it’s enjoyable. Getting drunk also helps. And it’s hard to dislike a movie that features a macho action hero who sings show tunes and is in lust with a sexy secret agent nun. They don’t make movies like this any more. I kind of liked it.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The Forgotten Pistolero (1969)

The Forgotten Pistolero (Il pistolero dell'Ave Maria) is a fairly obscure spaghetti western, and it’s quite a pleasant surprise.

Rafael and Sebastian are two young men who encounter one another and at first it appears they have little in common. In fact Rafael has been searching for Sebastian for years. They were childhood friends. A lengthy flashback sequence now intervenes.

Sebastian and his sister were the children of a famous Mexican general. When he returned from the war (and I’m not entirely sure which war this was) he received an unexpected welcome from his wife Anna. She and her lover Tomas proceeded to murder him. Sebastian and his friend Rafael (the son of a servant) had fled after the murder and had not been seen since. But while vengeance might be delayed it cannot be avoided indefinitely.

Sebastian will eventually discover that his family situation was actually even more complicated than it seemed.

The plot is based vaguely on the story of the murder of King Agamemnon after his return from the Trojan War.

Director Ferdinando Baldi had a lengthy career that seems to have spent largely making peplums and spaghetti westerns. There’s nothing flashy about this movie but Baldi’s direction is more than competent. The script is clever and (by the standards of 1960s Italian genre movies) fairly coherent. The pacing is excellent and technically the movie is very very solid.

The acting is also quite strong. Leonard Mann as Sebastian, Pietro Martellanza as Rafael, Luciano Paluzzi as the murderous Anna and Alberto de Mendoza as the treacherous but smooth Tomas all give fine performances.

Roberto Pregadio’s score does its best to sound like an Ennio Morricone score but it works extremely well.

There’s no one element that really stands out, this Italian-Spanish co-production is simply a well-made and very entertaining example of its genre with no obvious faults and it all holds together nicely.

This movie has been released under various alternative titles, including Gunman of Ave Maria.

I picked this one up, along with a stack of other spaghetti westerns, in a bargain bin. There’s absolutely no indication on either the disc or the box as to its origin or who released it except that it’s an NTSC all-region disc. It’s letterboxed and the picture quality is exceptionally good for a bargain DVD.

Monday 15 August 2011

Espionage in Tangiers (1965)

Espionage in Tangiers (Marc Mato, agente S. 077) is a 1965 eurospy movie and if you’re familiar with the genre you’ll know what to expect.

These movies weren’t just cheap knock-offs of the James Bond formula; they were ultra-cheap knockoffs. If you approach them expecting the quality of special effects and stunts that the 1960s Bond movies provided you’ll be disappointed. But they have their own charm, and despite what you might read in some online reviews this is actually a pretty decent example of the breed.

There is of course a death ray that has been developed by an idealistic scientist. In these types of movies idealistic and kindly scientists were always working on things like death rays. Of course their dream was always that their invention would bring about world peace. Needless to say the death ray is stolen by certain unspecified bad guys.

Secret Agent S 077 (played by Argentinian actor Luis Dávila) is assigned to recover the dearly device. The assignment will of course bring him into contact with numerous beautiful glamorous women, but he’s a professional and he knows that’s the price you pay for being a secret agent.

There are naturally a series of double-crosses. This film has more than its share. In the opening sequence we’ve already gone beyond mere double-crosses or triple-crosses and we’ve reached the level of quadruple-crosses.

Trying to describe the plot in any detail would be futile. The plot exists purely to provide an excuse for lots of action, and in that area the movie delivers pretty strongly.

The tone is definitely tongue-in-cheek, which is how it should be.

The acting is B-movie standard although social mention should be made of Alberto Dalbés who is great fun as the twisted sadistic criminal genius Rigo Orel.

There’s some nifty location footage of Tangiers which adds to the atmosphere.

Dark Sky have released this one as part of a two-movie drive-in pack complete with vintage drive-in ads. The movie is letterboxed and the picture quality is acceptable. Given that most eurospy movies are only available in pan-and-scanned grey market versions we should be grateful that this one looks as good as it does.

This Spanish-Italian co-production should please eurospy fans.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

The 50s was the decade that saw Hollywood go crazy for Jules Verne. It’s not that difficult to understand why. If you’re committed to the idea that the best way to combat the threat of television is by making lavish big-budget colour Cinemascope epics then Verne is ideal source material. The really surprising thing is that most of these movies turned out rather well, and 20th Century-Fox’s 1959 Journey to the Centre of the Earth is no exception.

Sir Oliver Lindenborok (James Mason) is a crusty, eccentric but basically good-natured geology professor at Edinburgh University. In 1880 he is presented by a student with what at first seem to be merely a rather interesting volcanic rock. Then he notices that it’s unusually heavy. Could there be something inside? There certainly could. It’s a metal plumb bob, but more intriguing still is that there’s a message on it. In Icelandic. The message, written by a famous Icelandic explorer named Arne Saknussem who vanished a century earlier, is that if you descend into a certain extinct volcano in Iceland you can reach the centre of the Earth.

Being a professor of geology our hero is understandably quite excited by this. He writes to an eminent geologist in Stockholm, a man renowned as an authority on volcanoes. Rather than the reply he was hoping for he receives a message from the university in Stockholm. Professor Göteborg has suddenly disappeared. Lindenbrook realises at once that the treacherous Göteborg has set off for Iceland, hoping to be the first man to reach the centre of the earth and return to tell the tale. Lindenbrook has no intention of allowing himself to be beaten to this prize, and the race is on.

Lindenbrook sets off on his own expedition. He is to be accompanied by his favourite student (soon to be his son-in-law) and by a friendly and immensely strong Icelandic farmer. There a few more surprises in store for him. There is yet another rival in the field, a descendent of the original Saknussem. And Professor Lindenbrook finds himself with a fourth member of his expedition. Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl) proves to be a rather distracting presence for the professor although she’s a distraction he comes to be rather fond of. And of course she provides the necessary romantic sub-plot.

There will be many perils to be faced, both human and natural.

Disney had set a very high standard for Verne adaptations with their 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and while Disney’s movie remains the best of them all Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not far behind.

The special effects look 1950s but they also look wonderful, and help to give this film much of its charm. The world below the surface of the Earth is brought to life with some gorgeous colour effects.

It’s a great story but of course it’s scientifically ludicrous in the light of present-day knowledge. This potential problem was avoided by keeping the late 19th century setting, so the idea seems perfectly plausible to the characters.

Bernard Herrmann’s score should also be mentioned. As he did so often Herrmann captures the spirit of the story perfectly with his music.

Pat Boone is perfectly adequate as the professor’s student and prospective son-in-law. Arlene Dahl makes a great love interest who also turns out to be a bold and courageous member of the expedition. After his sensational performance in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea James Mason was the obvious choice to pay Professor Lindenbrook. It’s a less challenging role than Captain Nemo but it gives Mason the opportunity to have an enormous amount of fun. It’s a delightful performance.

Fox did a superb job of restoring this movie for their DVD release. It looks magnificent.

A great combination of spectacle, adventure, romance and sheer fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

As director Roger Corman points out on the commentary track to X (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) there are two kinds of mad scientist movie. There’s the mad scientist as monster movie, and there’s the mad scientist as obsessed but well-meaning visionary movie. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes definitely falls into the second category.

Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland) is a dedicated surgeon. He had long been obsessed with the idea that doctors essentially work in the dark. X-rays can give a vague shadowy glimpse inside the body but they are subject to misinterpretation, with often fatal results. If only doctors could see clearly what was going on inside a patient’s body.

To this end Dr Xavier has been experimenting with ways of extending the range of human vision to cover the entire electro-magnetic spectrum rather than just the fairly narrow band represented by visible light. And he believes he has achieved a breakthrough. He now needs an experimental subject, and he decides to use himself.

The experiment is a success, of sorts. Dr Xavier is able to see through solid surfaces, although the experience is rather disturbing. He is able to save the life of a young female patient by diagnosing her illness by looking straight through her skin into her internal organs. Dr Xavier discovers he has other abilities as well - he can see through women’s clothing. He’s a serious and earnest man of science but it has to be admitted that he finds this to be a rather desirable skill.

Unfortunately Dr Xavier’s success does not impress his medical colleagues and he finds himself facing an accusation of malpractice, and shortly afterwards he finds himself on the run accused or murder.

He hides out in a carnival, working as a psychic under the name of Mentalo. Later he meets up again with his assistant, Dr Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis). She is keen to help him, but he needs money. Then he realises that he can easily get as much money as he needs - all he has to do is get to Las Vegas. With his x-ray vision he’ll be guaranteed of an unstoppable winning streak. Then he can equip a laboratory and continue his research. But his mind is starting to crack under the strain and his vision is too acute - he sees too much.

While there’s a fair amount of scientific silliness in the plot Corman and his cast play it generally pretty straight. There are moments of comic relief but overall this is not a campfest.

Ray Milland’s intense and committed performance is a major asset. Apparently he not only liked working with Corman, he also (to Corman’s considerable surprise) considered this to be one of his best roles. Even the presence of Don Rickles in the cast (as Mentalo’s manager/frontman) doesn’t give the film a camp feel. Rickles actually gives a fine, rather dark and sinister performance.

The special effects are of course cheap, but they work well enough. The movie was made in widescreen and in Pathécolor. Corman chose Pathécolor because, yes you guessed it, it was cheaper than other types of colour film. But as usual Corman manages to make a cheap movie look quite impressive.

The MGM DVD includes a commentary track by Corman. Most of the MGM Midnite Movies DVDs don’t include any extras so this is a definite bonus. On the other hand MGM usually come up with good DVD transfers and this one is no exception.

This movie takes a fundamentally silly premise and makes a fairly effective serious science fiction movie out of it. Recommended.