Sunday 28 December 2014

best cult movies of 2014

The ten best cult movies I saw in 2014:

Münchhausen, Josef von Báky, 1943

The Ipcress File, Sidney J. Furie, 1965

Kill, Baby . . . Kill!, Mario Bava, 1966

Seconds, John Frankenheimer, 1966

The Devil Rides Out, Terence Fisher, 1968

Dark of the Sun, Jack Cardiff, 1968

Lisa and the Devil, Mario Bava, 1972

The Eagle Has Landed, John Sturges, 1976

Fascination, Jean Rollin, 1979

Other notable cult movies I watched in the past year:

The War of the Worlds, Byron Haskin, 1953

Battle in Outer Space, Ishirô Honda, 1959

The Curse of the Werewolf, Terence Fisher, 1961

Crack in the World, Andrew Marton, 1965

The Satan Bug, John Sturges, 1965

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent, 1970

The Sea Wolves, Andrew V. McLaglen, 1980

Thursday 25 December 2014

getting into the festive spirit

It's Christmas once again and I'm sure that Elvira has something under her tree to get you into the festive spirit. So Merry Christmas everyone!

Bandolero! (1968)

In 1968 the western was a genre in a state of transition. In Hollywood the classic western was about to give way to the revisionist western (a tedious sub-genre and ultimately rather pointless since John Ford had been making revisionist westerns like Fort Apache since the late 1940s). The spaghetti western seemed like it might breathe new life into the genre although the spaghetti western itself would quickly become an overly politicised dead end. 

Bandolero! shows a certain degree of spaghetti western influence and also in some ways anticipates the revisionist western but without the pretentiousness.

Bandolero! belongs to a different sub-genre, the quirky offbeat western. It’s never quite sure how seriously it wants to take itself. It would make rather a good double feature with a movie like Shalako.

Bandolero! was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, arguably the best action movie  director of his era (with terrific movies like The Wild Geese and ffolkes to his credit), and it boasts an interesting cast headlined by James Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch.

The movie hits the ground running with a bank robbery that goes spectacularly wrong. Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang are soon behind bars and are awaiting the arrival of a traveling hangman. The hangman arrives but he’s not what he seems to be and Dee and his cronies have cheated death, not for the first time.

Sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) does not take kindly to seeing outlaws escaping from under his nose and he vows to pursue them even if his pursuit takes him into neighbouring Mexico. In fact he is determined to continue the pursuit indefinitely. This might sound like the sheriff is a dedicated if somewhat obsessed lawman but that’s only part of the truth. The main reason for his relentless pursuit is that Dee Bishop has taken wealthy Mexican widow Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch) as a hostage. And the sheriff is suffering from a severe case on unrequited love as far as the Widow Stoner is concerned.

Playing a rather ambiguous part in these events is Dee Bishop’s brother Mace (James Stewart). Mace is the sensible, law-abiding older brother. At least that’s what everyone always assumed. It turns out Mace is a bit more complicated than people thought.

The chase into Mexico takes both pursuers and pursued deep into bandit country. And these are bandits who enjoy killing gringos even more than they enjoy killing the locals. Both Dee’s gang and Sheriff Johnson and his posse will soon have their hands full.

Dean Martin spent of his film career either just going through the motions or gleefully sending himself up (as he does in the wonderful Matt Helm movies like The Wrecking Crew). On the rare occasions when he actually took a rôle seriously he delivered some unexpectedly fine performances, none finer than his turn as the reformed alcoholic sheriff’s deputy in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. He takes his rôle in Bandolero fairly seriously. It offers him the opportunity to display some emotional depth while at the same time having some tongue-in-cheek fun.

James Stewart made something of a specialty of complicated western heroes and Bandolero! allows him to be complicated whilst also indulging himself in a bit of fun. The movie does not make too many demands on Raquel Welch’s acting abilities and she does a more than competent job. 

Andrew V. McLaglen was an exceptionally good action director and he pulls off some fairly impressive visual set-pieces. McLaglen always understood the importance of pacing and he keeps things moving in a very satisfactory manner.

This movie’s biggest problem is its tone. At times it seems to want to be dark and edgy and at other times it want to be light-hearted and witty and tongue-in-cheek. It’s at its best when it’s being gently amusing. Sadly the nihilism and cynicism that were eating away at the vitals of American cinema like a cancer manage to push this movie too much into pointless despair territory.

Notwithstanding this unfortunate circumstance Bandolero! still has much to recommend it. It’s fast-paced and stylish, it boasts some impressive location shooting, it’s well-acted and the action sequences work well.  

Bandolero! is included in the Raquel Welch Collection DVD boxed set. The set also includes Fathom (a fun caper movie), The Lady in Cement (a noirish crime thriller in which he co-stars with Frank Sinatra) and the 1966 science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage

The set illustrates rather well the surprising diversity of her career and all four movies are worth seeing. I highly recommend the boxed set. And despite some minor reservations Bandolero! is also recommended.

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)

Considering the immense popularity of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels it’s a bit surprising that the character made so few appearances on the screen after the very successful 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu. There was an unsuccessful TV series during the mid-50s and that was pretty much it. That is until producer Harry Alan Towers got hold of the rights in the 1960s and saw the potential in relaunching the Devil Doctor on his career of crime and attempted world domination.

The result was The Face of Fu Manchu, released in 1965. Towers was known mostly as a low-budget producer but for this production he obtained German financing and enough of it to give the film reasonably high production values.

Towers wrote the screenplay himself and it provides all the plot elements required for such a movie. It has a diabolical conspiracy by Fu Manchu involving mass murder and world political control and it has the right plot twists. Most crucially it captures the feel of Sax Rohmer’s books pretty effectively.

Dr Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has been trying to discover the secret of a rare poppy grown only in Tibet, a poppy that can produce a poison of unimaginable horror. He intends to use this as a threat to gain political power. He does however lack one essential piece of information, known only to the High Lama. A British expedition to Tibet some years earlier had discovered this secret and the information is contained in the papers from the expedition, now under lock and key in a museum in London.

Naturally Fu Manchu has kidnapped a scientist, Professor Muller (Wolf Rilla), who will be forced to assist him. And naturally Fu Manchu will also kidnap the professor’s daughter Maria (Karin Dor) and threaten her with all kinds of torture in order to persuade her father to cooperate. 

To convince the British government of the seriousness of his threats Fu Manchu plans to wipe out an entire town in Essex, an event portrayed with surprising (and effective) grimness. 

Towers managed here to assemble the perfect cast for a Fu Manchu movie. Without taking anything away from Henry Brandon’s fine performance in Drums of Fu Manchu or Boris Karloff’s deliriously over-the-top interpretation of the role in MGM’s wonderful 1932 The Mask of Fu Manchu there’s no question that Christopher Lee would turn out to be the finest of all screen Fu Manchus. Lee’s performance works because he takes the character seriously (which was always Lee’s instinctive approach to any role). He gives Dr Fu Manchu some real substance and more importantly he imparts some genuine menace to the role.

Nigel Green was by far the best Nayland Smith. He makes Nayland Smith actually seem like the sort of man who would present a real threat to Fu Manchu. There’s nothing bumbling about Green’s Nayland Smith. He’s a bit pompous but he has the steely determination that the character has in the books.

Howard-Marion Crawford is (as always) a delight as Dr Petrie. And Tsai Chin is just right as the daughter of Fu Manchu - sexy and glamorous and evil with a dash of sadism. Her obvious joy at the prospect of flogging one of her women is a definite highlight of the movie, adding the touch of perversity that it needs.

The movie also benefits from a fine German supporting cast. Joachim Fuchsberger was a veteran performer in the wildly popular German Edgar Wallace krimis of the 60s like Zimmer 13 and Der Hexer and he knows how to provide the kind of acting this type of movie needs. He can do the action hero stuff and he plays his role fairly straight but with just a suggestion of tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Karin Dor had made several krimis as well and she makes an admirable heroine. Wolf Rilla was another veteran of both krimis and the wonderful early 60s Dr Mabuse movies (such as The Invisible Dr Mabuse).

The movie benefits also from having Don Sharp as director. Sharp had directed a couple of movies for Hammer (including The Devil-Ship Pirates) and had demonstrated his ability to handle both gothic horror and action adventure films. He was the perfect choice for this movie and he keeps the pacing pleasingly brisk.

The sets are quite effective. Fu Manchu’s secret hideout beneath the Thames was clearly inspired by Sax Rohmer’s The Trail of Fu Manchu and it adds something of a gothic touch. The water chamber linked to the Thames is a nice perverse touch. The decision to set the movie in the 1920s rather than the 1960s was a very wise one and the period look is achieved quite successfully.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a generally good anamorphic transfer. 

The Face of Fu Manchu was followed by four sequels, although with increasingly limited budgets.

The Face of Fu Manchu is enormous fun and it’s at least reasonably faithful to the spirit of Rohmer’s novels. Fans of old-fashioned action adventure thrillers with a dash of outrageousness should get plenty of enjoyment out of this one. The performances of Christopher Lee and Nigel Green are major bonuses. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Concorde... Airport '79

Airport had kicked off the disaster movie movie boom in 1970 and had been a huge hit for Universal. In fact it was successful enough to spawn no less than three sequels. The last of these was The Concorde... Airport '79, generally considered to be the weakest of the four. That’s a fairly accurate assessment but the movie can still offer a great deal of fun if you’re in the right mood.

Setting this movie on board Concorde rather than on a boring old 747 seemed likely to add a bit more excitement, and in some ways this turns out to be the case.

The movie begins with the delivery of the first Concorde to Federation World Airlines. Concorde’s arrival in the US almost ends in disaster when it narrowly misses a collision with a hot air ballon manned by militant greenies. This is one of many subplots in this movie that end up going nowhere at all.

The Concorde’s first scheduled passenger service for Federation World Airlines is to be a flight to Moscow via Paris. One of the passengers will be newscaster Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely). Her boyfriend is billionaire industrialist and arms manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner). Maggie has just discovered that Harrison has been illegally selling arms to various rogue states and she’s told him that she’s going to expose the scandal. Harrison decides that his best option is to take out a contract on Maggie. Now you might think this would be fairly straightforward. Surely any competent hitman could arrange a little accident for her, possibly have her hit by a car. But no, that’s not good enough for Harrison. He decides that the easiest way to have her killed would be by destroying the Concorde. The fact that destroying the Concorde would undoubtedly set off an incredibly exhaustive investigation, the sort of exhaustive investigation he desperately wants to avoid at this point in time, apparently does not occur to him.

Trying to shoot down the Concorde is crazy enough but Harrison compounds his lunacy to deciding that this will be accomplished by an experimental missile system built by his own company, thus ensuring that the exhaustive investigation will be directly focussed on his own company.

Concorde takes off for Paris, piloted by the airline’s chief pilot Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) and French pilot Paul Metrand (Alain Delon). The Concorde will end up facing not just one deadly threat but two - as a backup plan Harrison has an F-4 Phantom armed with air-to-air missiles in case his new missile system fails to do the trick.

Now the Concorde was, even by today’s standards, an awesome technological achievement. It was a remarkable aircraft. But it was a passenger jet, albeit one designed to fly at twice the speed of sound. It was not an air superiority fighter optimised for dogfighting. It was hardly likely to be able to out-manoeuvre a purpose-built fighter aircraft. But in this movie that’s exactly what Concorde can do!

But Harrison is determined, and he has more schemes up his sleeve to doom the Concorde!

There are of course a couple of romantic subplots, most notably between a Russian Olympic gymnast and an American TV reporter, and between Captain Metrand and stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel). Joe Patroni will also have a romantic interlude in Paris, although he doesn’t get quite what he thinks he’s getting.

Now as you’ve probably gathered the plot is pretty silly. Even just the outline of the plot is silly, but when we get to the details it becomes very much sillier. That’s not really a problem however - generally speaking the sillier the disaster movie the more fun it is. This movie does however have a couple of major problems.

The first problem is with the special effects. They’re truly awful. I don’t mind special effects that are not entirely convincing - once I get into a movie I can allow my willing suspension of disbelief to gloss over slightly iffy special effects. In this movie however the effects are just too crude, too obviously fake and too obviously cheap. They jar you out of the movie. In fact virtually all the action scenes fall a little flat and are sometimes badly paced (the final climactic scenes seem much too rushed).

The second problem is with the cast. You expect a disaster movie to have at least a couple of big names, plus the usual array of second-stringers and superannuated former stars. This movie really doesn’t have much in the way of star power. Robert Wagner was at best a moderately big star, Alain Delon was a huge star in Europe but much less so in English-speaking markets, and while Sylvia Kristel was possibly the most famous porn star in the world (having featured in the most successful soft-core porn movie of all time, Emmanuelle) she was not exactly a mainstream star.

Even worse are the wide divergences between the performances. Robert Wagner and Susan Blakely seem to think they’re making a serious thriller. George Kennedy thinks it’s broad comedy. Alain Delon is renowned as a minimalist kind of actor and is clearly uncomfortable trying to play an extroverted heroic role.

Disaster movies require a particular kind of acting. It has to be over-the-top and larger-than-life but it has to stop short of outright self-parody. In Airport 1975 Charlton Heston and Karen Black (two of the best scenery-chewers in the business) showed how it should be done. Their performances were wildly extravagant but they still managed to convey the impression that their characters believed in the reality of the situations they faced - they were not overtly comic or tongue-in-cheek performances. Unfortunately George Kennedy not only crosses the line into self-parody but does so in a somewhat embarrassing way, as do some of the supporting players (notably Martha Raye who must have been very very desperate for money to take this role).

And what exactly were the producers thinking of when they cast Sylvia Kristel? It’s not that her performance is any worse than anyone else’s, but let’s face it what Sylvia Kristel was known for was her ability to portray uninhibited sexuality (which she did superbly). I’m not suggesting that she should have been cavorting about naked but surely it would have been sensible to make her character at least a little bit sexy? There are only two sexy scenes in the movie and she’s not in either. With all due respect to Andrea Marcovicci one can’t help thinking that Sylvia Kristel could have made the hot-run romp scene really sizzle.

There’s also one truly cringe-inducing moment. Joe Patroni has confided to Metrand that he lost his wife a year earlier and he’s still really broken up about it. So Metrand sets him up with an expensive French hooker (played rather improbably by Bibi Andersson), but he doesn’t tell Patroni she’s a hooker. He lets Patroni think this woman has fallen in love with him and that maybe he has found True Love again, then the next morning tells him the woman was a prostitute. It’s a pretty cruel thing to do but Patroni think it’s a great joke. It comes cross as rather creepy.

Having made these criticisms it has to be admitted that The Concorde... Airport '79 still has enough loopiness and sheer outrageousness to satisfy hard-core disaster movie fans. The plot, despite its extreme implausibility, has some inspired lunacy to it that makes one wish the producers had tried just a little harder with this movie.

The Region 4 boasts an adequate transfer without extras.

The Concorde... Airport '79 cannot be taken seriously even for a second but it’s rather enjoyable silliness. Recommended for fans of the genre, although certainly not as good as Airport 1975 or Airport ’77.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)

The 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu is one of the notable attempts to transfer the adventures of Sax Rohmer’s great arch-villain to the big screen. 

Sax Rohmer was the pseudonym employed by Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959). Rohmer is today a very under-appreciated writer. He wrote some fine gothic fiction and an extremely interesting series of occult detective stories. He also wrote five books chronicling the plots of the female diabolical criminal mastermind Sumuru. His greatest fame however came from the Fu Manchu novels, the first of which appeared in 1913 (the final book came out in 1959).

There was an immensely entertaining and quite outrageous 1932 MGM film adaptation, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. It is most notable for Myrna Loy’s sizzling and utterly depraved performance as Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo Suee. 

There was also a series of five films in the 1960s featuring Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu. The first two films, The Face of Fu Manchu and The Brides of Fu Manchu, are actually rather good.

Although there was a Fu Manchu novel called Drums of Fu Manchu Republic’s serial has nothing to do with it, although it does have some resemblances to the 1932 MGM movie The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Dr Fu Manchu is once again plotting for political control of the whole of Asia. His idea this time is that if he can get his hands on the Sacred Sceptre of Genghis Khan then all the peoples of Asia will recognise him as their ruler. Naturally getting hold of the Sacred Sceptre is a complicated process. First you need to find three separate fragments of an inscription, that will then lead you to the location of the tomb of Genghis Khan, then you have to survive various booby traps to reach the tomb. This being a serial, the process becomes even more complicated. Fu Manchu’s nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (for some bizarre reason the serial insists on referring to him as Sir Nayland rather than Sir Denis), is engaged in a race with Fu Manchu to find the Sceptre first, and then once it is found it changes hands half a dozen times.

Allan Parker, the son of a scientist murdered by Fu Manchu, becomes Nayland Smith’s invaluable assistant. Smith’s old friend Dr Petrie is there as well, although playing a fairly minor role. Fu Manchu is ably assisted by his daughter Fah Lo Suee and by his loyal Dacoits. In this serial their loyalty is not voluntary - they have been surgically turned into zombies by Fu Manchu. This is a fun idea, although perhaps not quite consistent with the methods of the Fu Manchu of the books.

And this being a serial both the heroes and the villains are regularly captured by one other only to pull off a daring and improbable escape. There are car chases, and chases on horseback, and by train and aeroplane. There are countless fist fights and plenty of gun fights. There are battles with marauding tribesmen loyal to Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu has a whole series of fiendish deaths planned for his enemies, including a particularly nasty fate for Nayland Smith in the penultimate episode. 

The fun in a serial does not come from the fact that the heroes always escape - we know they will always escape - but rather from the ingenious ways in which they manage this in the cliffhangers. This serial has the very considerable advantage of being directed by John English and William Witney, two of the best serial directors in the business, and these hair’s-breadth escapes are executed with skill and imagination. The biggest problem with serials was to prevent the pace from flagging in some of the middle episodes but English and Witney were notable for not allowing this to happen.

Drums of Fu Manchu has some reasonable sets but more importantly the action sequences are executed with care and attention to detail.

The Dr Fu Manchu of this serial is not quite the Dr Fu Manchu of Rohmer’s novels. Rohmer was always at pains to stress Fu Manchu’s very strict code of honour, something rather less in evidence here. The serial does not quite capture the flavour of Rohmer’s books but it’s a pretty good attempt.

Henry Brandon makes a fine larger-than-life and deliciously villainous Fu Manchu. My own personal opinion is that Christopher Lee was the best of the screen Fu Manchus but Brandon is certainly very very good. William Royle as Nayland Smith does not seem quite clever enough to be a serial rival to the evil doctor - he’s a bit Colonel Blimp-ish. Gloria Franklin is a good Fah Lo Suee although she pales into insignificance alongside Myrna Loy’s magnificent performance in the 1932 MGM movie. Robert Kellard as Allan Parker handles the action hero bits fairly well although he’s otherwise a little colourless.

VCI’s DVD presentation provides acceptable if far from impressive transfers and a short documentary that provides a reasonable introduction for viewers new to the wonderful world of Fu Manchu.

Drums of Fu Manchu has the reputation of being one of the best of the classic serials and it’s a reputation that it generally lives up to. It’s not quite as much fun as Republic’s superb Spy Smasher or Universal’s deliriously camp Flash Gordon but it’s still in the top tier. Highly recommended. I also highly recommend the 1932 movie and of course Sax Rohmer’s novels such as The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Daughter of Fu Manchu and The Bride of Fu Manchu.

Friday 5 December 2014

Invasion (1966)

Invasion is a low-budget 1966 British science fiction film made at Merton Park Studios, where countless low-budget British films were made in the 50s and early 60s. Low-key is the term that most completely describes Invasion - low-key in the best sense of the term.

A very small object is picked up by a British military radar operator. The object is much too small to be an aircraft. At about the same time every piece of electrical equipment in the vicinity experienced a momentary failure. Major Muncaster (Barrie Ingham) has his men out scouring the area for the mystery object. What they find is rather puzzling - scorch marks that seem to have been left by a much larger object. And very definite traces of radioactivity.

On the same night Lawrence Blackburn (Anthony Sharp) and his mistress are motoring through the countryside when they accidentally hit a young man. The man is very strangely dressed but they assume he must have been returning home from a fancy dress party. The mysterious man (played by Ric Young) does not seem to be too badly injured but Blackburn races him off to the local hospital.

The doctor on duty in the casualty department, Dr Vernon (Edward Judd), notices a couple of odd things about the young man. He seems to have a rather strange reaction to temperature. He orders a routine blood test and that’s when things really start to get puzzling. Neither Dr Vernon nor his colleague Dr Clair Harland (Valerie Gearon) have ever seen blood like this before. So strange is the blood that, absurd as it may seem, they are convinced it cannot possibly be human blood. The results of the X-rays taken at the same time are just as startling. 

The only possible conclusion is that the young man is not human. They accept this conclusion with typical English sang-froid. But what do you do when a man who is not human arrives in your hospital.

Major Muncaster has meanwhile turned up at the hospital but he doesn’t really know what to do either. The obvious step is to refer the matter to higher authorities but unfortunately all the outside telephone lines are dead. Consultant surgeon Brian Carter decides to refer the matter to the local MP but when he tries to leave the hospital it becomes clear, in rather spectacular fashion, that no-one is going to be leaving the hospital that night.

Even more worrying is the fact that it’s getting hotter. Much hotter. Opening the windows doesn’t help - it’s just as hot outside. And the temperature keeps rising.

An interview with the mystery patient does not exactly clarify things. He certainly admits to being an alien. The rest of his story sounds reasonably convincing but of course no-one is in a position to know whether the alien can be trusted or not.

He is not the only alien either. There are several others. Two of the aliens were apparently prisoners being escorted to a penal planet. The problem is, which of the aliens are the bad guys and which are the good guys? Needles to say they all claim to be the good guys.

The ambiguity of the situation is maintained quite effectively and it is the core of the story. 

The threat posed by the aliens is somewhat ambiguous as well. The big advantage of this story is that it requires virtually no special effects, making it ideal subject matter for a low-budget science fiction film. The movie relies instead on suspense, ambiguity and atmosphere and it achieves these qualities fairly successfully.

The aliens are all played by Asian actors, most notably French-born Japanese actress Yôko Tani. 

Edward Judd makes a fine English hero, dealing with an extraordinary situation in a matter-of-fact way. He gets good support from Valerie Gearon.

Invasion was written by noted British TV writer Roger Marshall from a story by Robert Holmes (who went on to write many classic Doctor Who adventures). Director Alan Bridges handles matters efficiently enough and he keeps the story moving, a vital factor with a story that contains very little action. The ending is satisfactory enough and it’s in keeping with the tone of the film but it could have used a bit more suspense and a bit more energy. 

Network’s Region 2 DVD release has no notable extras but it’s a decent anamorphic transfer.

Invasion is a science fiction movie that makes a virtue out of its very English quality of understatement. It’s a reasonably interesting slightly offbeat story and it works pretty well. Recommended.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Flareup (1969)

Raquel Welch may not be the world’s greatest actress but her career includes quite a few surprisingly interesting movies. Unfortunately Flareup is not one of them.

Flareup is a thriller, with Las Vegas go-go dancer Michele (Welch) on the run from crazed killer Alan Moris (Luke Askew). Moris has been divorced by his wife Nikki and he blames her friends Michele and Iris (Pat Delaney) for turning Nikki against him. In fact of course the truth is that nobody needed to turn Nikki against him. Moris is a crazy dangerous loser and Nikki figured that out by herself. Now Moris has flipped out completely and is planning to kill his ex-wife and her two friends. And anybody else who gets in his way. Michele decides that it might be a good idea for her to get out of Las Vegas. The police have offered her protection and they need her as a material witness but when Moris goes after Iris Michele decides she doesn’t trust the police to protect her. She heads for LA.

In LA she has no trouble getting another job as a dancer and she meets Joe Brodnek (James Stacy). Joe is obviously pretty keen on her and although he’s a little odd he seems to be odd in a harmless and rather engaging way and Michele thinks he’s kind of cute. Joe is a model aeroplane enthusiast, something that amuses Michele but also makes him seem more appealing.

There isn’t much time for romance though since Moris is still at large and now he’s turned up in LA.

The plot unfolds in a fairly routine way with Moris stalking Michele while the cops are stalking him. Routine is unfortunately a word that comes to mind quite often in regard to this movie. The chase scene through the old zoo is one of the better moments and the climactic scene is quite effective although it perhaps needed a bit more of a buildup.

Director James Neilson had a prolific career in television. In the 60s he made a few not very distinguished feature films. He was competent but uninspired and Flareup tends to be more of a fizzle-out than a flareup.

The action scenes are handled adequately but they lack any real imagination and are a bit perfunctory.

Welch was a capable enough actress in the right movie but her problem here is that her character is seriously underwritten. Michele is supposed to be a free spirit but the script tells us that fact rather than giving Welch the opportunity to demonstrate it. The script really gives her very little to work with and she seems unsure of herself, as if she wasn’t quite clear what was expected of her.

Unfortunately the other actors are even weaker and the other characters are even sketchier. We should care what happens to Michele and Joe but we don’t really know them enough to be particularly interested. 

The movie’s main strength is the amusing glimpse it gives us of the LA and Las Vegas night-club scene in the late 60s and it does manage to capture the seedy glamour of that scene quite well. The clubs Michele works in are topless bars and there’s plenty of topless go-go dancing. Miss Welch of course does not appear topless. She was smart enough to figure out early in her career that if you want to have a really sexy image you’re better off keeping your clothes on - leave something to the imagination. She does however contribute a fairly enthusiastic go-go dancing scene.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is quite acceptable. They’ve made an effort to maintain a high standard with this series and all their releases are at the very least reasonably good, and most are excellent. It has to be said though that this is one of their lesser efforts. It’s rather grainy and the colours perhaps could have been a little more vibrant.

Flareup is strictly a movie for Raquel Welch completists, or for very keen fans of 1960s go-go dancing. It’s mildly entertaining at best. Anyone interested in exploring Welch’s filmography is well advised to seek out some of her other better movies such as Kansas City Bomber, Fathom (a fun tongue-in-cheek caper movie which displays her proficiency at light comedy), the gritty revenge western Hannie Caulder (in which she plays one of the more convincing lady gunslingers) or The Lady in Cement (a fine slightly neo-noirish crime thriller which pairs her quite successfully with Frank Sinatra).

Sunday 23 November 2014

The Devil Rides Out (1968) - Blu-Ray

Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out is one of the most lavish of the horror movies made by Hammer Films, and certainly one of the best. I’ve seen it before but its release on Blu-Ray makes it worth a revisit.

This is a tale, based on a terrific Dennis Wheatley pot-boiler, of the dangers of meddling with Dark Forces. Christopher Lee knew Wheatley quite well and was keen to do a film based on one of his books. He persuaded Hammer to obtain the rights to Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. The result is a movie that differs quite a bit from Hammer’s other gothic horror outings. in this case Lee’s judgment proved to be right on the money.

With Hammer’s usual array of talent behind the camera, with their ace director Terence Fisher at the helm, a fine cast headed by Christopher Lee and a script by Richard Matheson nothing was left to chance.

Christopher Lee plays the slightly arrogant but charismatic Duc de Richleau, and this time Lee is definitely one of the good guys, battling the Forces of Darkness. While de Richleau is something of as control freak that proves to be an asset, given the strength of the evil forces with which he must do battle. He is assisted by Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) who provides the brawn to match de Richleau’s brains.

Their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has landed himself in a good deal of trouble. He has been dabbling in black magic and he’s in much deeper than he realises. He has become part of a coven controlled by the powerful magician Mocata (Charles Gray). It is obvious to de Richleau that drastic means will have to be taken, with or without Simon’s co-operation. The situation is complicated by the presence within the coven of a young woman named Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi). Mocata uses her as a medium but now Rex is falling in love with her so de Richleau is going to have to rescue her as well as Simon from Mocata’s clutches.

Mocata is not averse to using strongarm tactics but for the most part he prefers to attack the heroes with the weapon with which he is most comfortable - magic. It will come down to a show of strength between Mocata’s black magic and de Richleau’s equally formidable knowledge of the occult, and to a classic battle between good and evil.

It can be a very effective tactic to suggest the supernatural elements rather than showing them overtly. That tactic would not have worked in this case. It is essential to the story that there should be no ambiguity - that the audience should know that the powers of darkness called upon by Mocata are very real. Director Terence Fisher therefore had to make the supernatural elements absolutely explicit and we had to see them at work. Given Hammer’s budgetary constraints and the technology of the day that was a bold move but in general the effects are carried off successfully. The car chase in which Mocata aids Tanith from afar is a nice touch and it’s executed flawlessly.

Dennis Wheatley was a writer of occult thrillers rather than horror novels. The distinction is subtle but important. It means that this film could not be approached in the manner of Hammer’s horror films and it meant that an outright gothic style would have been inappropriate. To their credit the people at Hammer realised this and made the necessary adjustments. Terence Fisher was aware that he was making a thriller and he adjusts the pacing accordingly - a thriller needs to move faster than a gothic horror movie.

Hammer’s genius production designer Bernard Robinson (described quite accurately by Christopher Lee as Hammer’s real star) was no doubt delighted by the chance to get away from central European settings and to create sets that evoked the moneyed classes of the interwar years. The sets aren’t gothic but there is a definite hint of decadence. It’s a world of power and money and of people who sometimes have more power and money than is good for them. Robinson’s sets are superb. The observatory in Simon Aron’s house is a particular highlight - it exudes both luxury and evil.

A movie such as this needs the right actors and this movie is well served in this department. Charles Gray makes a wonderfully sinister villain, oozing sinister charm from every pore. Patrick Mower was very good at playing abrasive characters but Simon Aron isn’t like that at all. He’s a well-meaning young man but inexperienced in the ways of the world and desperately anxious to prove himself. He’s not a fool - if he was de Richleau would have left him to his fate. Mower makes Simon sympathetic without being excessively irritating in his naïvety.

Most all such a movie needs the right lead actor and Christopher Lee is perfect. The Duc de Richleau is slightly pompous and has more than a touch of arrogance but he is a very serious adversary for the powers of darkness. He takes the occult very seriously indeed. It is no joking matter, which is why it is so dangerous for people like Simon Aron to meddle in it. Lee’s performance has the gravitas and the absolute sincerity required, and the larger-than-life quality to convince us that victory is possible despite the odds.

You can’t play Dennis Wheatley in a tongue-in-cheek manner. If you try to do so the whole thing will simply collapse and in any case Wheatley’s plots are so outlandish that such an approach would be counter-productive. You just don’t need to add any outrageousness to a Wheatley story.

Visually this movie is a feast. Vintage cars, vintage aircraft, gorgeous clothes, sumptuous settings, Black Masses, satanic manifestations, car chases and all awash in the most magnificent colours.

The old Anchor Bay DVD was very good but the Studiocanal Blu-Ray/DVD combo is well worth upgrading to. Extras include the old audio commentary from the earlier DVD release (with Christopher Lee in fine fettle and displaying immense enthusiasm for a movie he is clearly still very proud of) plus a couple of documentaries. All in all a fine release for one of the Hammer’s greatest movies. Very highly recommended. 

Screencaps are from the DVD, not the Blu-Ray.

This was one of two Dennis Wheatley adaptations Hammer made in 1968, the other being the not entirely successful but still rather interesting science fiction movie The Lost Continent.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds is one of producer George Pal’s celebrated science fiction opuses and remains the best cinematic version of the story.

Paramount had purchased the film rights in the 1920s, apparently at the instigation of the studio’s co-founder Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille would act as executive producer of the film when it finally when into production.

The original H.G. Wells story was of course the first of the great alien invasion stories. The decision to update the story to a contemporary American setting for the movie works surprisingly well.

A meteor crashes to Earth. Astrophysicist Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) happens to be nearby on a fishing trip and is called in to have a look. He realises immediately that there is something decidedly odd about this meteor. In fact everything about it seems wrong and it’s also highly radioactive. The local sheriff posts men to stand watch over the meteor and that turns out to be a fatal assignment when the meteor opens up and a huge mechanical eye appears and promptly zaps them.

The meteor is of course a spaceship, the first of an invading fleet from Mars. The invaders seem unstoppable. The military are called in but nothing seems to be able to do the slightest damage to the hovering machines of the Martians. Dr Forrester has teamed up with a local school teacher, Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson), and while he’s still keen to try to find some way to combat the Martians it’s all he can do to keep himself and Sylvia alive.

More Martian war machines have been lading all over the world and the same story is repeated everywhere. Nothing can stop them. Only a miracle can save humanity. But will there be a miracle?

It’s a good story but making it a success on the screen obviously depended on getting the special effects right. Fortunately getting the special effects right was one of the things George Pal was good at. Pal hired the right people and he got the results. Much of the success of this particular movie was due to art director Al Nozaki who designed the Martian war machines. Wells had envisaged them as tripod machines but Nozaki gave them a 1950s Space Age look. They looked mightily impressive in 1953 and they still look superb today.

Having Oscar-winning cinematographer George Barnes on board certainly helps as well. He makes full use of the abilities of Technicolor film to give the movie the right kind of brilliantly vibrant up-to-date look while still managing to give plenty of atmosphere to the scenes of destruction. Director Byron Haskin would go on to make several classic movies in the sci-fi and fantasy genres and he handles things here to perfection.

Paramount spent some serious money on this film and it pays dividends. It looks impressive and it looks convincing.

Barré Lyndon’s screenplay makes plenty of changes to the novel but it keeps most of the essential elements.

Gene Barry makes a splendid hero. Dr Forrester is heroic, but not too heroic. He’s not a larger-than-life scientist hero who can overcome all obstacles. He’s really just an ordinary guy doing what he has to do to ensure his own survival and that of the woman he loves. Barry’s easy-going charm makes him a protagonist we can empathise with. Ann Robinson provides good support and they have enough chemistry to carry off the romantic sub-plot without any difficulties.

Paramount’s Region 2 DVD provides a superb transfer. There are no extras apart from some brief liner notes.

The War of the Worlds is one of the great science fiction movies of the 50s, or of any age for that matter. A true classic that stands the test of time with ease. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 9 November 2014

The Werewolf (1956)

The 1956 release The Werewolf was another of producer Sam Katzman’s 1950s low-budget horror films, included in Sony’s terrific four-movie Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection. 

The Werewolf is an attempt to update the lycanthropy concept by throwing in some pseudoscience and some 1950s obsessions.

A stranger appears in a small American town somewhere in the mountains. Soon afterwards a grisly murder occurs - the victim’s throat appears to have been ripped out by an animal but a witness says it was a man. Things start to get really worrying when Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Clovey (Harry Lauter) is attacked. He describes his attacker as a kind of wolf-man. 

Pretty soon the town is close to panic and there are lots of guys with rifles running about the woods.

Then a woman turns up, looking for her missing husband. Duncan Marsh had been slightly injured in a minor road accident and treated by two doctors.

We soon discover that the two doctors, Dr Morgan Chambers (George Lynn) and Dr Emery Forrest (S. John Launer) are actually part-time mad scientists. Dr Chambers is convinced that the world is going to be destroyed by radioactive fallout. He and Dr Forrest have developed a vaccine for radiation but it seems to have side-effects. Like turning people into werewolves. In the 1950s radiation was responsible for just about everything from giant killer insects to dandruff, and in this case it is (indirectly at least) responsible for lycanthropy!

The town’s sheriff, Jack Haines (Don Megowan), is a pretty reasonable sort of fellow and he wants if possible to bring in werewolf Duncan Marsh alive. Unfortunately Drs Chambers and Forrest have now arrived in town and they are determined that Duncan Marsh must die so they can continue their vital work.

This is actually a pretty downbeat sort of movie. Poor Duncan Marsh was just some poor slob who was unlucky enough to have a car accident. Now he’s a monster and he’s being hunted down. He’s about as tragic a monster as could be imagined and Steven Ritch’s somewhat overwrought performance goes all out to engage our sympathies.

The fact that everybody in town owns a gun and is at home in the mountains makes this a movie where the monster really has the odds stacked against him big-time. That helps in making the monster even more sympathetic but it also tends to make the werewolf a lot less scary than he should be.

The two mad scientists are interesting, Dr Chambers being a typical idealistic scientist whose obsessions have rendered him totally deranged while Dr Forrest seems like a gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

While the movie tries to give werewolves an up-to-date scientific veneer it does add one amusing nod to the classic horror movies of the 30s - it actually includes a villagers with flaming torches scene.

The werewolf makeup looks reasonable and has the advantage of allowing Steven Ritch to show some emotion but the transformation scenes are decidedly dodgy.

There’s plenty of location shooting and the movie in general doesn’t suffer too severely from a low-budget look. Fred F. Sears was not a great director but he does fairly well here, and most importantly the movie is quite well-paced. The climactic scenes on the bridge are reasonably effective.

The transfer is 16x9 enhanced (the movie was shot widescreen) and image quality is excellent.

The Werewolf is a bit lacking in genuine chills but it does follow the pattern established in Universal’s classic The Wolfman in portraying werewolves as victims rather than mere monsters. It’s not a great horror movie but it’s enjoyable enough. Recommended.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

Creature with the Atom Brain is another delightful sci-fi/horror concoction from Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman boxed set.

This is a mad scientist movie written by Curt Siodmak. The mad scientist in question is Dr Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gay) and of course he’s working on ways to bring the dead back to life. The money for his experiments is provided by gangster Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger). Buchanan was sold down the river by his fellow mobsters and he wants revenge on them and on the District Attorney who got him deported from the United States.

This movie hits the ground running with a splendid opening sequence in which a zombie-like heavy disposes of a gangster by snapping his spine like a twig and then escaping through an open window even though he’s been shot multiple times. When the police arrive on the scene they think they’ve struck it lucky - there are plenty of very clear fingerprints. The only problem is that the prints belong to a minor hoodlum who died twenty-four days earlier. Also puzzling for police scientist Dr Chet Walker (Richard Denning) is the fact that the fingerprints are luminous. And the blood found at the crime scene is not blood but a chemical compound. And sure enough (this being a 1950s sci-fi/horror movie) a Geiger counter reveals very high levels of radioactivity.

It doesn’t take Chet Walker (who is rather brighter than most sci-fi movie heroes) long to figure out that someone is using dead men as atomic-powered remote-controlled killers.

When a rather jumpy scientist-looking guy with a strong German accent leaves traces of radioactivity behind him in a bar Chet Walker is close to putting the pieces together. The guy in the bar was clearly a German mad scientist and he must be the man behind the terror that is now stalking the city.

Steigg and Buchanan also don’t take long to figure out that Walker is on their trail and must be stopped. Their anxiety to stop Walker becomes extreme when Walker calls in the military and has trucks cruising the streets equipped with radiation detectors. For good measure Walker has also persuaded the Air Force to have jet fighters overflying the city at low altitude. It’s never quite clear what purpose the jets serve but they do shake up the bad guys a bit.

The plot plays out pretty much as you’d expect with the bad guys hunting Dr Walker while he’s hunting them.

The acting is pretty basic. Gregory Gay makes a passable mad scientist although he doesn’t overact quite enough. Michael Granger’s performance as gangster Buchanan is serviceable enough and is suitably hard-boiled. Richard Denning is stunningly but amusingly condescending as Chet Walker although he seems a bit too bookish to be a police scientist. He does manage to come across as very professorial though. This is a movie that would have benefited greatly from the presence of at least one iconic horror star who could have added some real colour and menace to Dr Steigg but sadly the budget was too limited to stretch even to a second-rank star.

The necessary infodumps to explain the zombie killer are handled in typical 50s fashion with a professor showing a short film to Dr Walker. The technobabble is of a high standard; in other words it makes no sense at all but it sounds very scientific.

The secret to making this sort of film succeed is to utilise ideas that don’t require too much in the way of special effects and this movie gets away with virtually no special effects at all.  There is some reasonable cool-looking gadgetry and Steigg’s mad scientist laboratory is quite impressive. The tunnel connecting the main laboratory to the room where the zombies are kept is a nice touch and is a good example of the use of ideas that look good but cost almost nothing.

There’s very little in the way of makeup for the living dead men with the creepiness having to be supplied by having the actors shuffling around and acting even more woodenly than the rest of the cast. Considering the movie’s very low budget it’s a fairly effective if not very original technique.

The transfer is very good. The movie was shot in black-and-white and is presented fullframe which is perfectly correct. 

Creature with the Atom Brain does not reach any great heights but it provides pretty reasonable entertainment value. Recommended.