Monday 30 January 2012

Nightmare Castle (1965)

In the last few years we have finally seen decent DVD releases of some of Barbara Steele’s best horror films (although sadly so far no sign of the wonderful Riccardo Freda flick The Terrible Dr Hichcock). Severin’s 2009 release of Nightmare Castle (Amanti d'oltretomba) is particularly notable.

Barbara Steele is Muriel Arrowsmith and she’s married to a 19th century mad scientist, Dr Stephen Arrowsmith. An evil mad scientist. And she knows he’s mad and evil. Sadly she doesn’t know just how evil.

She has taken a lover, the hunky David. When Stephen catches them in flagrante delicto his reaction is perhaps just a trifle excessive. He tortures them both to death.

Unfortunately for Stephen he doesn’t actually own Hampton Castle. Muriel owned it, and now it has passed to her insane sister Jenny (also played by Barbara Steele). This doesn’t suit Stephen or his girlfriend Solange (Helga Liné) but Stephen has a plan. Jenny’s madness should make it easy to gain control of Muriel’s estate. In fact an even better solution presents itself once he meets the blonde bombshell Jenny (yes, Barbara Steele is a blonde for most of this movie) and sees that she’s rather a dish. This solution does not met with Solange’s approval.

Solange is in fact a old woman but being a mad scientist Stephen has restored her youth and beauty, by means of the blood of his ex-wife. This might not turn out to be a permanent restoration of her youth however, which makes her even more hostile to the exotic beauty Jenny.

Stephen and Solange still plan on making use of Jenny’s madness to make sure of their control of the estate, and they call in her old psychiatrist, Dr Dereck Joyce. Dr Joyce is charming and good-looking and seems to take a lightly greater interest in Jenny than is strictly necessary on medical grounds.

Stephen does face one unexpected problem. Jenny had certainly had a breakdown a few years earlier but she is now perfectly sane.

He still believes he can drive her insane and get what he wants but there’s been a worrying development. Muriel’s tomb is empty. He knows she’s dead, but will that stop her revenge?

One of the many good things about this movie is that the English version (the only one on the DVD) features Barbara Steele’s own voice, offering us a rare opportunity to give a true judgment on her acting abilities. This is one of her best roles. Paul Muller, as always, makes a delightfully sinister villain.

As director Mario Caiano explains in the accompanying interview much of the distinctive look of the movie was entirely fortuitous. With a very short shooting schedule and very little money there was no chance for cinematographer Enzo Barboni to do complex lighting setups. So mostly he just put a single 5000 watt light up high in a corner. The result is stark shadow that really enhance the atmosphere. A great example of the ability of good low-budget film-makers to make a virtue out of a necessity.

The extras include two interviews. The first is with Barbara Steele. In her early seventies she is still feisty, fiery, intelligent, amusing and rather charming. What’s especially pleasing is that she feels no need to apologise for her horror films and actually seems quite proud of them. She has some generous things to say about the various horror directors she worked with, including Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Riccardo Freda and Roger Corman. And she has some amusing anecdotes about the unpredictable and wildly eccentric Freda (whom she obviously admired) and of course about Fellini (for whom she worked on ). She’s also very generous in her comments about her fans and is delighted that she still receives 40 fan letters a week.

The second interview is with director Mario Caiano, a rather genial character who remembers the movie fondly.

The major highlight of this DVD though is the transfer - widescreen, uncut and looking splendid. A vast improvement on previous DVD releases of this film.

Nightmare Castle might not be a masterpiece but it’s a fine gothic chiller with psychological overtones and a very enjoyable horror movie.

Saturday 28 January 2012

She-Wolf of London (1946)

If you were going to teach a course in how not to make a horror movie She-Wolf of London would be the ideal teaching aid. This 1946 Universal clunker ticks just about all the bad movie boxes.

Few things are more annoying than a horror movie that turns out not to be a horror movie because there aren’t really any supernatural elements, it’s really just a murder mystery. But there is one thing more annoying - a movie of that type where it’s obvious from the start that there’s not really anything supernatural happening. And there’s one thing that is worse still - a movie of that type where the solution to the murder mystery is painfully obvious right from the start. And that’s She-Wolf of London.

And this movie’s problems don’t end there, as we shall see.

Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is an heiress who lives with her aunt and her cousin in London around 1900. Only they’re not really her aunt and her cousin. Aunt Martha (Sara Haden) was her father’s housekeeper. After Phyllis’s parents died Aunt Martha and her daughter Carol (Jan Wiley) continued living in the house although Phyllis still thinks they’re her relatives.

Unfortunately we’re told all this right at the start, an example of extraordinarily clumsy and inept writing, because the only hope of maintaining any suspense would have been to keep this knowledge from the audience.

Phyllis is engaged to Barry Lanfield (Don Porter), a wealthy young professional type. Phyllis is rather hesitant about the marriage though, on account of the Allenby Curse. We’re never told very much about the Allenby Curse except that it apparently involves lycanthropy. As a result Phyllis fears that she may be a werewolf. When she wakes up in the morning with mud caked on her shoes and blood stains and doesn’t remember anything she becomes more convinced she must indeed be a werewolf. In fact she believes she’s responsible for several recent attacks in the nearby park, attacks that were blamed on dogs.

Detective Latham from Scotland Yard has no doubt that a werewolf was responsible, although there’s little evidence to suggest such an outlandish explanation. Barry Lanfield on the other hand is certain that Phyllis could not possibly be a werewolf and he starts investigating the case privately.

I won’t reveal anything further but really the solution to the mystery has already been revealed through some very ham-fisted plotting.

Apart from its other deficiencies She-Wolf of London suffers from some unfortunate casting choices. No audience is ever going to believe for one moment that Phyllis is really a werewolf - she’s much too insipid and too timid. There are other casting problems as well, especially Sara Haden as Aunt Martha, but since I try not to reveal spoilers I won’t say any more about her. Lloyd Corrigan as Detective Latham is essentially comic relief and he’s not too bad. Don Porter is an adequate and reasonably likeable hero.

George Bricker wrote the screenplay and is therefore largely responsible for this movie’s utter failure. The terrible script combined with the badly miscast female lead really gave director Jean Yarbrough nothing to work with. It’s actually a reasonably well-made movie. Production values are quite high for what was very much a B-movie and there are some effectively atmospheric moments. The scenes in the mist-shrouded park are the kinds of wonderfully artificial scenes, obviously done on a sound stage, that I find to be for me are one of the more enjoyable features of the Universal horror movies of this era. It’s a very bad movie, but it’s a good-looking bad movie.

It’s part of Universal’s Wolf Man Legacy DVD set and the transfer is extremely good. There are no extras, Universal possibly feeling that the less said about this one the better!

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Solomon Kane (2009)

Being a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories I have been very reluctant to see the 2009 Solomon Kane movie. I did not believe that any modern film-maker could, or would, do them justice. I’m now delighted to be able to say that I was wrong.

The movie is not actually based on the stories themselves. It is an origins tale. It is however based on Robert E. Howard’s character and it is a genuine attempt to get the character right.

The movie opens with Kane as a pirate plundering a castle and as a result being damned. Kane returns to England and takes refuge in a monastery and renounces violence, believing this to be his only hope, even if it’s a slender hope, of salvation. He is forced to leave the monastery after the Father Superior has a vision that tells him that Kane’s destiny lies elsewhere.

He meets a Puritan family on the road and is invited to journey with them. William Crowthorn and his wife and their two children Samuel and Meredith are hoping to go to the New World to make a new start. It soon becomes apparent that things are going very wrong in England. Bands of raiders roam the country, burning and pillaging and murdering. We will later find out that the raiders are servants of the evil sorcerer Malachi.

Kane and his companions on the road encounter one of these bands, with disastrous consequences. William Crowthorn is killed. Meredith is carried off by the marauders.

Kane is now a man of peace and is unable to defend his companions. He now faces a terrible choice. To save Meredith he will have to take up the sword again, and in doing do he will risk the near certainty of eternal damnation. It’s a risk he is willing to take.

This is not a conventional action movie and it’s most certainly not a comic book movie. It’s unconventional nature seems to have frightened distributors and it failed to get a proper commercial release. It’s been generally written off as a commercial flop but if writer-director Michael J. Bassett is correct in his claims that the often-quoted $45 million budget was wildly exaggerated it may end up turning a profit through DVD sales. Bassett apparently doesn’t mind that it didn’t get its chances in the movie theatres - he’s hoping for a Blu-Ray release which he feels (probably correctly) is the best way for this film to reach an audience.

It’s also been much criticised by Robert E. Howard fans for supposedly having little to do with either Robert E. Howard’s stories or his character. That’s actually rather unfair. Bassett had hoped to use tis movie as a springboard for a series of later films that would have been based on Howard’s actual stories. More importantly, I think the movie does set up the character rather well and I think it does capture most of the qualities that make Solomon Kane very different from other sword-and-sorcery heroes.

Solomon Kane is a man to whom damnation and salvation are very real. He inhabits a world very different to our own. It is not a world of moral relativism. It is a world in which good and evil, Heaven and Hell, damnation and salvation, God and Satan, are not merely realities, they are the only realities that really matter. It is also a world in which the Christian religion matters. You cannot make a movie about Solomon Kane while indulging in fashionable anti-Christian polemics, and to his credit Michael J. Bassett understood this. He also understood that there could be no place for political correctness in such a movie - apart from anything else such concepts would have been hopelessly anachronistic.

He also deserves credit for taking his subject matter seriously. In an interview included on the DVD (and even if you don’t normally bother with DVD extras you really should watch this interview) he makes it clear that his intention was to avoid any hint of a tongue-in-cheek or camp approach. James Purefoy, who plays the title role, also deserves credit for playing the title role absolutely straight. Solomon Kane is a gloomy, tortured, utterly humourless man and any attempt to play him any other way would have made him just another generic action hero. Of course it’s likely that the movie would have done better commercially had it been approached as just another dumb action movie, so what we have here is something you don’t see very often these days in the movie world - artistic integrity.

Also noteworthy is the refusal to make Meredith a love interest. Kane’s feelings towards her are, as Bassett notes, much closer in spirit to courtly love than to romantic love. Kane is a Puritan after all. He doesn’t set out to rescue the girl because he expects to move in with her afterwards. He does it because he is fundamentally, in spite of the evil he has done in the past, a godly man and it is his duty. It is also the only way he can save his soul.

The movie also manages to avoid being transgressive or subversive, and that’s always something to be thankful for.

I’ve probably made the film sound terribly serious and dull but while it attempts to be more than an action movie it also succeeds in being a thoroughly entertaining and exciting action movie. If it’s sword fights and monsters and mayhem you want they’re there in abundance.

Visually it’s very impressive. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve as far as visual style is concerned then all the CGI in the world isn’t going to help you. Fortunately in this case the film-makers do have a coherent vision and despite some budgetary constraints it looks splendid.

While Robert E. Howard purists might not be satisfied this film is certainly closer in spirit to Howard’s writings than I would have expected. It’s an intelligent action movie, a very rare beast indeed.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Werewolf of London (1935)

Werewolf of London was Universal’s first attempt at a werewolf movie, in 1935. I believe it was not quite the first ever werewolf movie but it was the movie that first presented the werewolf to movie audiences in a fully developed form.

Universal had planned an earlier werewolf film that never got off the ground.

What makes Werewolf of London so interesting is that most of what we think of as werewolf lore was invented by Curt Siodmak in his screenplay for Universal’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man. Werewolf of London presents us with an earlier and slightly different kind of werewolf lore.

Dr Wildred Glennon (Henry Hull) is an English botanist who travels to Tibet in search of an unusual and exceedingly rare plant, the Mariphasa lupino lumino. He is attacked by a mysterious and rather beast-like figure but escapes with nothing more serious than a few cuts.

Back in England he sets to work to study this strange plant. He has built an extraordinary device that mimics the light of the moon and this is going to prove essential since the Mariphasa only blooms in moonlight. He receives a visit from the enigmatic Dr Yogami (Warner Oland) who spins him an outlandish tale of werewolves. Dr Yogami claims that the juice of the Mariphasa plant is the only antidote to a condition known as lycanthrophobia and warns Glennon that two souls are in mortal peril if he is not prepared to share the Mariphasa plant with him. Glennon dismisses all this as nonsense.

Soon however Glennon makes the unpleasant discovery that Yogami’s story might be true after all, and finds that he is indeed turning into a werewolf. The mysterious figure that attacked him in Tibet had been Yogami, and Yogami has now infected Glennon with the lycanthrophobia from which he himself suffers.

Unfortunately the only three blooms of the Mariphasa have been stolen from his laboratory. He remembers Dr Yogami’s warning that the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill that which it most loves, and Glennon fears for the safety of his wife Lisa.

A series of murders now sweeps London, with the victims showing signs of having been mauled by a wild animal. Dr Glennon strives desperately to find a way to escape his fate and to save Lisa but it may be too late.

It has been suggested that this film represents a lost opportunity, and that with a better director and a better cast it could have been a true horror classic. There’s no question that Stuart Walker proves to be a fairly pedestrian director. There’s also no question that it would have been a far better movie had Boris Karloff been cast as Dr Glennon (Universal had in fact planned to a werewolf movie starring Karloff as far back as 1932). Karloff would have brought to the role the right combination of obsessiveness, stubbornness, decency and kindliness, along with real menace as the werewolf. Henry Hull manages the obsessiveness and the stubbornness but he projects very little human warmth and as a result we feel less sympathy for him than we should.

It has also been suggested that Bela Lugosi would have been a better choice to play Dr Yogami. Lugosi in fact would have been perfect for this part but personally I like Warner Oland’s performance a great deal.

Werewolf of London has some major flaws and lacks the dramatic intensity and the sense of tragedy of The Wolf Man. Despite these flaws and despite having received a fairly bad press over the years it also has some very real strengths. The werewolf makeup by Jack Pierce is first-rate and is actually better and more effectively bestial than the makeup he created for The Wolf Man. The early scenes in Tibet are excellent and the first transformation scene is one of the best I’ve ever seen and very cleverly done as Dr Glennon passes behind a series of pillars, each time coming back into view with the transformation more advanced. The moon machine is also very cool.

The film’s greatest asset is that it incorporates so many good ideas and while it doesn’t quite do those ideas full justice it’s still a considerably better movie than its reputation would suggest. If you happen to be a real fan of werewolf movies then it’s absolutely essential viewing.

The DVD presentation in Universal’s Wolf Man Legacy set is very impressive.

Friday 20 January 2012

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man was not the first werewolf movie, it was not even Universal’s first werewolf movie, but it was the movie that put werewolves on the map cinematically speaking. It created the template on which most future werewolf movies would be based.

While Universal liked to claim the movie took its inspiration from European folklore the truth is that screenwriter Curt Siodmak made most of it up. In doing so he created the werewolf legend that was to become so familiar.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) is the second son of an English baronet, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Being the second son he could not expect to inherit either the estate or the title and feeling that his father cared little for him he packed his bags and moved to the United States. As a result of the unexpected death of Sir John’s eldest son everything has changed. Larry has returned to the family seat, although perhaps more out of a vague sense of family duty than any great enthusiasm. Nonetheless when Sir John suggests they should forget the past he is prepared to do so and to try to accept his position as heir with good grace.

When he meets Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) he starts to feel more enthusiastic about his prospects. He is immediately attracted to her and, although she is engaged to Sir John’s head gamekeeper it’s clear that she fees at least some interest in him as well.

All is going well until fate steps in. He visits a gypsy camp, accompanied by Gwen and Gwen’s friend Jenny Williams. Jenny wants to have her fortune read. The gypsy Bela (Bela Lugosi) becomes very agitated when he looks at her palm and tells her to flee. Moments later Larry sees Jenny attacked by a wolf and goes to rescue her. In doing so he is bitten by the wolf. He kills the wolf but the only body that is found is the body of the gypsy Bela.

Bela was of course a werewolf, and now that is to be Larry’s destiny as well. There is no escape.

The story behind the movie is as interesting as the movie itself. Curt Siodmak’s original script had the Larry Talbot character as an American named Larry Gill who was no relation to Sir John Talbot. He has simply come to Britain to install a telescope. More importantly, this first version suggested that Larry may have simply believed he was a werewolf but left the question as to whether he really transformed into a wolf ambiguous. There are still traces of this early version in the final film. Sir John Talbot believes his son is suffering from a delusion brought on by shock, and that the werewolf is a metaphor for the dark side of the human personality, a metaphor that has become real in Larry’s mind.

While that version could have made an interesting film, and in fact that very idea is the basis for the superb Val Lewton-produced Cat People made at RKO the following year. Universal however made the correct decision to ask Siodmak to rewrite the script to make the werewolf real. That is after all what Universal’s audience would have expected. The Lewton films took a very different approach to horror, but both approaches are valid in their own way.

This is one of Lon Chaney Jr’s finest performances. He makes Larry Talbot a very sympathetic character indeed and this is the key to the movie’s great success. He is the most tragic of all the Universal monsters, a man who has done nothing whatever to deserve his fate. Chaney manages to convey this without resorting to cheap sentimentality.

Claude Rains is excellent as always, the only problem being that I don’t think anybody could possibly believe that Lon Chaney Jr could be his son. Two men more physically dissimilar would be difficult to imagine. Bela Lugosi is shamefully under-utilised but makes the most of his brief screen time.

George Waggner might not have been the world’s most inspired director but he’s competent enough and he certainly understands how to pace a horror film.

Cinematographer Joseph Valentine and art director Jack Otterson combine to make this a visually very satisfying movie. Otterson’s forest set, built on a sound stage, is superb. It look outrageously artificial, giving the movie the feel of a dark fairy tale or a story out of legend. Jack Pierce’s wolf man makeup is the one element that in the past has caused me to have a problem with this movie. It’s not really very wolf-like, but I’ve finally learnt to accept it and to enjoy the movie’s other very considerable strengths.

A movie that works wonderfully well as a horror film but with more emotional punch than most of Universal’s monster flicks.

The DVD from the Wolf Man Legacy set looks very good and includes a documentary and commentary track.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

At the Earth's Core (1976)

In the mid-60s Hammer Films tried their hand at a series of vaguely science fictional adventure movies, with some success. In the mid-70s their great rivals, Amicus Productions, took the same path (fairly successfully also) with a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, which included At the Earth's Core in 1976.

This was based on the first of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels.

Eccentric scientist Dr Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) has designed a gigantic manned digging machine, the Iron Mole. This will open up a whole new field of exploration, deep within the Earth. The machine was paid for by one of Dr Perry’s former students, the rather flamboyant David Innes (Doug McClure). He was not one of Dr Perry’ more brilliant students but he did have the advantage of being extremely wealthy, wealthy enough to fund this ambitious project.

A test run has been organised which will see the machine burrow through a hill in Wales. Dr Perry and David Innes will make up the machine’s two-man crew. Things go very wring, the machine gets out of control, and they end up deep beneath the Earth’s surface. Very deep indeed. There they discover the lost world of Pellucidar.

It’s not a very happy world for its human inhabitants. It is ruled by the Mahars, giant bird-like winged creatures with telepathic powers. Their control over Pellucidar is enforced by another species, the human-like but vicious Sagoths.

The humans of Pellucidar are regularly captured and enslaved by the Mahars and our two intrepid explorers get caught in the net as well. David doesn’t take kindly to this and he determines to do what he can to overthrow the reign of the Mahars. He’s a courageous and honourable man but he has an ulterior motive as well - to free the beautiful princess Dia (Caroline Munro).

It’s all played very tongue-in-cheek, with Cushing overdoing it a little as the kindly dotty elderly professor. Given the movie’s target audience he can be forgiven for this. McClure is perfect for the role of David - bluff and blustering but brave and good-natured. As usual Caroline Munro isn’t given enough to do, but as always she gives a certain class to what she does do.

The budget wasn’t really equal to the film’s ambitions but since it’s played strictly as a fun rollicking adventure yarn it gets away with it and even when the special effects aren’t quite up to par they’re still fun. Actually the cheapness of the special effects and the sets adds to the cheese factor which adds to the movie’s charm.

Pure entertainment, and highly recommended.

MGM’s DVD release in their Midnite Movies range is barebones but looks stunning.

Monday 16 January 2012

The Crawling Eye (1958)

The Crawling Eye (The Trollenberg Terror) is another alien invasion movie, this one being a British effort dating from 1958.

American scientist Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) meets two attractive young English sisters on a train. He’s getting off at Trollenberg while they’re continuing on to Geneva. At least they were, until the younger sister suddenly announces that they absolutely must get off at Trollenberg. We later find out that they do a mind-reading act but one of the sisters really is psychic.

All is not well in the peaceful alpine village of Trollenberg. There have been an unusual number of climbing accidents recently, of a fairly gruesome nature. Climbers have been found beheaded. The villagers are falling prey to superstitious fears.

Brooks is there for professional reasons, to consult with Profesor Crevett (Warren Mitchell) at the observatory. They are studying cosmic rays but Crevett has other concerns at the moment - there’s a strange cloud that has settled on the upper slopes on the Trollenberg and it just stays there. That’s odd, but even odder is that the cloud is radioactive. He and Brooks have seen something like this before, several years earlier in the Andes. They had insufficient proof to justify informing the authorities but they had their suspicions that that cloud had been linked to a series of fatalities similar to the ones occurring now in Switzerland. Their suspicions went even further - that these strange events were the result of the activities of extraterrestrial visitors.

The death (again by beheading) of a geologist on the slopes of the Trollenberg seems to confirm their fears but they still don’t have evidence that would convince anyone. Not yet, but the evidence is not long in coming.

With a script by Jimmy Sangster this is actually a rather good little sci-fi flick. Director Quentin Lawrence wisely keeps us waiting for the payoff, concentrating on building up atmosphere.

There’s an extensive use of process shots but they’re done reasonably well and are not jarring.

Forrest Tucker makes a sympathetic hero and he’s reasonably believable. Warren Mitchell is fun as always. The acting is of a generally high standard, as you come to expect from British movies of this era, even low-budget productions such as this.

Image Entertainment have done a good job with the widescreen transfer. There’s a very small amount of print damage but on the whole picture quality is superb.

Friday 13 January 2012

Horror Island (1941)

Horror Island is fairly typical of Universal’s 1940s horror offerings, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Good-natured but shady and penniless would-be entrepreneur Bill Martin (Dick Foran) mets up with one-legged sea captain Tobias Clump (Leo Carillo) who claims to have found a map that shows the location of the treasure of the famous pirate Sir Henry Morgan. It’s on Morgan’s Island, which Bill Martin just happens to own. They take it to Professor Jasper Quinley’s shop but the professor gives them the bad news that the map is a fake.

Bill decides that a fake treasue map might still turn out to be a gold mine. He organises a treasure hunt. People will pay $50 to be taken to the island on his boat, and he’ll organise fake ghosts at the castle on the island to scare them. $50 was a lot of money in 1941 and I can’t imagine why anyone would shell out good money for such a trip but it’s just a movie so I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much about such details.

When they get to the island one of them is murdered and it becomes basically an Old Dark House movie, a genre that soldiered on for decades for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately it’s made clear right at the beginning that there are no real ghosts on the island so the movie misses out on being able to generate a moderate amount of interest by suggesting that the castle might be really haunted. There’s also the problem that the most convincing suspects get bumped off first.

There’s a mysterious caped figure named the Phantom running about but he fails to generate much excitement and it’s a subplot that really goes nowhere.

Since we know there’s nothing supernatural going on there no horror at all. We never really believe that the good guy characters are in the slightest danger so there’s no real suspense either. That leaves the comic element and it’s clear that this movie (like most of Universal’s 40s horror films) was intended mostly as comedy. The problem there is that there are very few laughs. In fact virtually none.

Dick Foran and Peggy Moran (who plays nice rich girl Wendy Creighton who must have been very bored indeed to join Bill Martin’s treasure hunt) are likable enough in an inoffensive way but they’re not capable of providing us with either thrills or laughs. There are several explicitly comic characters - the sea captain played by Leo Carillo, the professor, Bill Martin’s sidekick Stuff Oliver. Unfortunately they’re not very funny either.

You can’t blame director George Waggner too much. You can’t make bricks without straw and with an uninspired script and a lacklustre cast there wasn’t a great deal he could have done.

So what we’re left with is an innocuous but rather feeble movie and we’re grateful it only runs for 60 minutes.

Universal have provided an excellent DVD transfer in their Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set. In fact all five movies in the set look terrific but sadly they’re mostly very uninteresting movies and it’s a boxed set that is probably best avoided unless you’re a Universal horror completist.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

The X-Files (1998)

Despite having been a long-time fan of the TV series The X-Files I’ve only just caught up with the 1998 movie.

While the government conspiracy theory involving extraterrestrials was, as the series creator Chris Carter asserts, the backbone of the series it was also in many ways its least satisfactory element. That conspiracy theory takes centre stage in the movie but it works better than one might have expected.

The attempt to make the movie as cinematic as possible, to do things on a more epic scale than in the TV series, is reasonably successful. The movie makes extensive use of CGI and while I generally detest CGI I must admit it’s used quite well. The big weakness of CGI in my opinion is that people (and human-like monsters) always look very fake but in this movie the producers have wisely used CGI mostly to render objects and settings.

The series had such a distinctive look (not so obvious now since it’s been widely copied but back in 1993 it was quite startling) that the producers faced the challenge of keeping as much of that visual style as possible while at the same time opening it up for the big screen and making it not look like just an extended episode. Not a particularly easy thing to pull off but it’s done quite well.

The strength of the series was always the Mulder-Scully relationship and that, quite sensibly, remains a major focus in the movie.

The story begins with a terrorist bomb threat but of course it turns that things are not as they appear. Actually the movie itself begins with a prologue 37 million years ago, a prologue that will later tie in with the main story. The action eventually movies to the Antarctic with some fairly effective visual moments there.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is that there’s a considerable focus on the mysterious elderly men who seem to be behind the whole conspiracy. These men are familiar to viewers of the series but the movie shows us that their motivations may be more complex than we’d thought. Fans of the Cigarette Smoking Man (and I include myself in that number) will not be disappointed. Even if you’re not a fan of conspiracy theories it has to be admitted that The X-Files does give us conspiracy theories that are less simplistic than most.

And of course there’s something here for those viewers who love obsessing over that Mulder-Scully relationship. As with the series the movie still keeps things suitably ambiguous in this respect.

While the story more or less stands alone it does help a good deal if you’re familiar with the TV show.

On the whole it’s good entertainment value.

Friday 6 January 2012

The New Invisible Man (1958)

Any Mexican science fiction or horror movie from 50s and 60s is guaranteed to be fun and The New Invisible Man (El hombre que logró ser invisible), from 1958, is no exception.

I’m told this is more or less a remake of one of the sequels to Universal’s 1930s Invisible Man movies, although as I’ve only seen the first of the Universal films I can’t confirm that.

A Mexican scientist is working on the problem of invisibility when his brother is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. So he saves him from capture by making him invisible.

Being invisible is handy when it comes to tracking down murderers but unfortunately there’s an unforeseen side effect - the invisibility process eventually produces insanity. So while the invisible bother is hunting down the real killer the scientist brother has to try to come up not only with a way of reversing the invisibility process but also of curing the insanity that goes with it.

The invisible brother’s girlfriend stands by him but as the madness progresses the entire city is endangered as the invisible man convinces himself he’s some kind of avenging angel with a mission to rid the world of evil, and he sees evil everywhere.

Director Alfredo B. Crevenna and writer Alfredo Salazar were involved in the making of countless Mexican genre movies and they’re more than competent.

The acting is solid enough. The special effects are cheap but reasonably effective.

This is not, it has to be admitted, one of the better Mexican sci-fi/horror movies of its era but it still provides decent entertainment and it's worth a look.

It’s featured in the boxed set Crypt of Terror: Horror South of the Border, Volume 2. They’re rather indifferent prints and only the English dubbed versions are included but the set does include some very good movies most of which are unlikely ever to be released in better editions so it's still worth grabbing.