Friday 31 January 2014

The Mysterians (1957)

The Mysterians is a 1957 Japanese science fiction monster movie so you know what to expect. There’ll be a gigantic monster, unconvincing but immensely enjoyable special effects, Tokyo will get stomped and there’ll be lots of tedious lectures about how we’re going to destroy ourselves in a nuclear war.

This movie has all those ingredients but despite the lectures it’s mostly a great deal of fun. It was directed by Ishirô Honda, the director of the original Godzilla and therefore the grandfather of all Japanese monster movies.

The Mysterians is an alien invasion movie. A mysterious object is spotted in the skies by astronomers who immediately decide it has something to do with Planet 5, which no longer exists but now there’s a sort of planetoid or something where it used to be, a planetoid called Mysteroid. This is soon followed by the appearance of flying saucers, and then the inevitable giant monster. It’s actually a giant remote-controlled robot but it’s as effective in stomping Japanese towns as any giant dinosaur.

The Mysterians is slightly different from other Japanese monster movies in that the gigantic monster plays a relatively minor rôle. The threats posed by the aliens are more varied and therefore more interesting than the usual monster threat. 

The aliens, known as the Mysterians, seem at first to have rather ambiguous motives. They claim to be peace-loving and to hate the very idea of war although the fact that they have already wiped out an entire village, not to mention the other fact that their monster robot has already gone on a destructive rampage stomping everything and everyone in its path, leads the Japanese authorities to be (quite justifiably one would think) just a tiny bit suspicious of the peaceful intentions of the Mysterians.

The Mysterians inform the Japanese government that they don’t want to invade the whole Earth; they just want a tiny area of land, a mere three kilometres in radius. That might have been considered quite a reasonable request, but the Mysterians want something else as well. They want our women!

The Mysterians have irradiated their own world in a nuclear war (pause for a lecture about the evils of war) and now most of their offspring are abnormal. So they want to marry Earth  women. The idea that a species from another planet would be capable of interbreeding with humans is one of those remarkably silly ideas that the makers of science fiction movies and television series got fixated on for decades. But this is a Japanese monster movie so it’s hardly sensible to get bent out of shape about a bit of scientific silliness. Scientific silliness is exactly what you want in a movie of this type.

The threat to Japanese womanhood galvanises the Japanese government and an all-out attack is launched on the Mysterians. Unfortunately the Mysterians are operating from within a huge dome that seems impervious to all known weapons. The aliens have some pretty formidable weapons of their own, death rays that can blow fighter aircraft out of the skies and reduce Sherman tanks to a molten mess (the melting tanks are a major highlight of the movie for me).

The Japanese soon convince the other world governments that international co-operation will be needed to counter this threat. And soon a new secret weapon, a rather cool-looking rocket aircraft, is ready to be used against the invaders. Without any notable success. But scientists are also working on an electron gun for which they have high hopes.

This is one of those “scientists as heroes” science fiction movies although this is tempered by some tedious lectures about the dangers of the misuse of science so at times it veers in the direction of the “scientists as villains” sub-genre. But it’s a Japanese scientist who will prove the Mysterians’ undoing although not by using electron guns or rocket aircraft.

The special effects are often remarkably crude, although in a very entertainingly silly way. The Mysterians’ death ray is rendered in a way that will delight fans of bad special effects. The flying saucers are pretty dodgy as well. On the other hand the Mysterian space station  looks pretty cool and the giant robot is wonderfully silly. There’s enough action and enough explosions to keep things moving along sufficiently quickly for viewers not to worry too much about the silliness factor. The alien spacesuits are a major plus as well.

Ishirô Honda knows not to spend too much time on human interest angles or romantic subplots. His audience wants giant robots stomping Tokyo and death rays knocking fighter jets out of the sky and he makes sure he gives them what they want.

The movie was shot in colour and in TohoScope. 

The BFI’s UK DVD release appears to be region-free and although its barebones it’s an excellent 16x9 enhanced transfer. This is fortunate because the Region 1 DVD from Tokyo Shock is out of print and used copies are horrifically expensive. The BFI’s DVD on the other hand is in print and it’s ridiculously cheap and it looks great. 

The Mysterians has everything a fan of Japanese science fiction monster movies could ask for, all done with energy and style and with more imagination than usual. Highly recommended.

Monday 27 January 2014

The Return of Dracula (1958)

The Return of Dracula is mostly interesting as an early attempt (it came out in 1958) to bring the vampire into a contemporary setting. Aside from that it’s a fairly routine by-the-numbers low-budget vampire flick obviously aimed at the drive-in market.

The vampire (we assume he’s Dracula although he’s never named) decides that eastern Europe in the 50s is not the place to be, a sentiment no doubt shared by most of the population of eastern Europe at that time. He’s decided he wants some California sunshine, which is a bit odd given that he’s a vampire. He murders another would-be refugee on a train and takes his identity. Then he shows up in the small town of Carleton California, claiming to be Bellac Gordal, a long-lost relative of the Mayberry family. Nobody in the family has seen Bellac since he was a kid so the deception is pretty easy to carry off.

It’s soon obvious that Cousin Bellac is a bit odd. He tends not to show up at meal times and he disappears fairly regularly. The Mayberrys assume that his sufferings in communist Hungary have made him somewhat anti-social so they don’t worry too much at first.

The first major sign of trouble is the sudden and mysterious death of a blind girl named Jenny. The audience knows that she’s the vampire’s first victim but no-one in the town knows that.

It comes as no surprise to the audience when the young and beautiful Rachel Mayberry starts looking a bit pale and complains about feeling rather tired. Rachel had been initially rather taken by Cousin Bellac’s European sophistication and old world charm. This will soon take on sinister implications.

The rest of the plot follows the standard course for a Dracula movie without adding anything particular new or original. The vampire has vampirised one young woman and obviously has his sights on his next victim who will obviously be Rachel.

This wasn’t the first attempt to transplant Dracula to American soil. Universal had already done that in 1943 with their excellent and very underrated Son of Dracula. Universal opted for a setting in the American South and went all out with the southern gothic vibe. That worked very successfully. Landing Dracula in California is in some ways a bolder move but it presents obvious challenges that The Return of Dracula doesn’t quite succeed in meeting. The incongruity of a middle European vampire running about in an idyllic 1950s vision of small-town America does work up to a point. And the movie does succeed in capturing the occasional gothic mood.

The acting is quite competent with Francis Lederer making a reasonably effective vampire.  He mixes charm and menace with some success. Norma Eberhardt is unfortunately a slightly bland heroine.

Of course there has to be a vampire hunter. One expects this to be a van Helsing type character. John Merriman (John Wengraf) coms across as basically that type but oddly he’s a European policeman. Having Dracula hunted by a cop is an interesting touch.

This movie was clearly intended as drive-in fodder and the budget was obviously fairly minimal. Director Paul Landres does an acceptable job within those constraints.

By this time this movie was released it had already become hopelessly outdated due to the appearance of the first couple of Hammer gothic horror movies. The Hammer movies not only looked infinitely better with vastly superior production values they were also simply much better movies in every department. They were also a whole lot scarier. It definitely has to be admitted that The Return of Dracula is a bit lacking when it comes to actual scares.

One plus is the merciful lack of comic relief, an annoying feature that horror film-makers were finally starting to dispense with.

MGM released this movie in their Midnite Movies range, paired with another movie, The Vampire, made a year earlier with the same director and the same screenwriter. Both movies have been given very fine anamorphic transfers. Neither movie could be described as a classic but if you can pick up the disc fairly cheaply it’s a reasonably fun double-feature.

The Return of Dracula is mildly entertaining but don’t expect too much.

Saturday 25 January 2014

my new Cult TV blog

I’ve started a cult TV blog. It will cover exactly the same ground as my old LiveJournal cult TV community (which still survives), being devoted to cult TV series from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s (with very occasional forays into the early 80s) with most emphasis on the 60s and 70s.

Most of the series I’ll be blogging about will be from the science fiction, espionage and action/adventure genres although other genres will be included from time to time.

Here’s the link to the new blog.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Lisa and the Devil (1974) - Blu-Ray review

Lisa and the Devil is a movie I’ve written about before but now that I’ve had a chance to see it on Blu-Ray (in Arrow’s three-disc Region B release), and given that it remains one of my all-time favourite movies, it seems worth taking the opportunity to re-evaluate it. It’s a decade since I last saw the film and re-watching it has only increased my admiration for it.

After the success of Baron Blood in 1972 producer Alfredo Leone gave Mario Bava almost complete freedom to make his next movie in whatever way he chose. Sadly things did not turn out as either Leone or Bava hoped.

As is perhaps fitting for a movie about the Devil Lisa and the Devil was a very unlucky movie. It was a great success with audiences at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival but in spite of this failed to be picked up by distributors. A year later, with the movie still unsold, producer Alfredo Leone persuaded Bava to allow him to make major changes to the film, changes that involved not just recutting the movie but doing extensive reshoots. Bava initially was agreeable to this and did some of the reshooting himself but eventually decided that it had gone much too far and refused to have anything more to do with the process, leaving Leone to direct many of the new scenes himself. The result of the reshoots was a movie that would be released, very successfully, as House of Exorcism, but a movie that bore little resemblance to Bava’s original vision.

Leone is often cast as the villain for effectively trashing Bava’s masterpiece. This is a little unfair. The fact is that the horror market had changed dramatically by 1973. The loosening of censorship allowed horror film-makers to rely on sex and gore at the expense of mood and atmosphere and they took enthusiastic advantage of this new freedom (with results that were commercially successful but artistically disastrous). Audiences came to expect gore-fests and had little patience with subtle horror. Movies like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby made gothic horror seem old-fashioned and the mammoth success of The Exorcist in 1972 sounded the death knell for horror movies with period settings.

The result of these changes was that in 1973 no distributor was willing to touch a movie so  emphatically and deliberately old-fashioned in style as Lisa and the Devil. None of this was Leone’s fault and his only chance of getting any return on the movie was to turn it into something that could be marketed, such as an Exorcist rip-off.

The tragedy of Lisa and the Devil is that had it been released six or seven years earlier it might well have been a major success. The tragedy for Bava is that he did not live long enough to see his film rediscovered and finally earning the praise it deserved.

Lisa and the Devil was filmed in late 1972. Elke Sommer had starred in Baron Blood and she and Bava had gotten along well (probably because being a painter herself she understood a director who was more interested in the visuals than the characters). Sommer and Telly Savalas were signed to the lead roles, Sommer as Lisa and Savalas as the Devil. Bava had hoped to get Anthony Perkins on board as well but this idea fell through. Veteran actress Alida Valli was cast in the key role of the Countess with a strong supporting cast.

While the screenplay is credited to Bava and Alfredo Leone several other writers had been involved, most notably Roberto Natale and Romano Migliorini. Right from the beginning though this was Bava’s project and he seems to have been the one responsible for most of the key ideas.

The story itself is less important than the way it is told. Lisa (Elke Sommer) is a tourist in Toledo in Spain. In a square in the city she sees a fresco depicting the Devil transporting the dead to Hell. This establishes the movie’s major theme. She becomes lost and encounters a man who bears a striking resemblance to the Devil as depicted in the fresco. She will later discover that the man, who is buying a mannequin in an antique shop, is Leandro (Telly Savalas). And the audience will later discover that Leandro is the Devil. Leandro gives Lisa directions and she turns into a narrow street at which point the blurring of reality and illusion, of past and present, begins. She accepts a lift from a wealthy couple, the Lehars, in a vintage Packard limousine. The car breaks down and Lisa, the Lehars and their chauffeur are put up for the night in the palatial villa of a woman we know only as the Contessa (Alida Valli). The Contessa lives there with her son Maximilian (Alessio Orana) and her butler Leandro.

From this point on the narrative becomes less and less linear and more and more elliptical.  Lisa is apparently the exact double of a woman named Elena, a woman who had been involved in a perverse romantic triangle with Maximilian and the Contessa’s husband (and Maximilian’s step-father) Carlos.

The movie starts out quite clearly in the 1970s but from the moment that Lisa encounters the Lehars in their vintage limousine the time element starts to become doubtful. Perhaps Lisa has found herself in the past, or perhaps these other characters have somehow found themselves in what would be for them the future. Or perhaps we’re in a world outside of time as it normally understood (the broken watches and the clock without hands certainly suggest this). We may be in a world of ghosts, or even in Hell.

Bava is careful not to offer us any certainties on these matters. Dream and reality, life and death, seem to merge. This may be a dream of death dreamt by the living or a dream of life dreamt by the dead. Or a little of both.

The movie is liberally littered with mannequins, a fitting symbol for the blurring of the lines between reality and illusion. Leandro is a kind of puppet master and perhaps in truth we are all puppets manipulated by the Devil.

It’s quite possible that the people Lisa encounters in the Contessa’s house have been dead for forty years.

There’s a good deal of black comedy, more than one expects in an Italian horror film, but the comedy adds to the horror rather than defusing it. Leandro is a humorous kind of Devil and the idea that the Devil would have a sense of humour is entirely consistent with the mood of the movie.

The movie was to some extent inspired by Bava’s admiration for the novels of Dostoyevsky and the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. While the movie might be stylistically old-fashioned thematically it’s extremely modern. It deals not so much with the supernatural itself as with the nature of reality and the mystery of death. Bava was a religious man so it’s fair to say that it also deals with the question of damnation.

Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer were inspired casting choices. Savalas gives a career-best performance as the Devil with a twinkle in his eye while Sommer has exactly the right kind of slightly doll-like look.

Arrow’s Region B Blu-Ray offers an anamorphic transfer. While this is probably the best the movie has ever looked there are some minor problems. The picture is a little soft at times. Whether the Blu-Ray offers any significant advantage over the DVD (also included in Arrow’s three-disc package) is somewhat debatable. Either way the transfer is good enough to allow us to appreciate the visual brilliance of the film and that after all is what matters. Both Italian and English soundtracks are included. The English dub is excellent and there’s no real reason to prefer the Italian, especially given that Italian movies of this era were always post-dubbed anyway. Arrow have sweetened the deal with a host of extras including a commentary track by Tim Lucas and a booklet including an essay on the film by Stephen Thrower. Arrow’s release also includes the House of Exorcism version, with both movies on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The inclusion of both the English and the much rarer Italian dub is another bonus.

Lisa and the Devil had a limited theatrical release in Spain and then vanished from view for many years. Today it stands as not only Bava’s masterwork but also as possibly the greatest of all European gothic horror movies. Very highly recommended.

Monday 20 January 2014

new Cult TV blog - yes or no?

I’m currently trying to decide whether to include occasional posts on cult TV programs here or whether to start a dedicated cult TV blog.

Cult TV shows of the 1950s to 1970s are a major passion of mine, so any postings here or on a new blog would be confined to shows from those decades, with maybe a very occasional foray into the early 80s. I run a LiveJournal community for cult TV of these eras but LiveJournal is, sadly, frighteningly and depressingly quiet these days.

I’m not really sure if there any blogs out there focusing on this particular area of interest. If there are I haven’t encountered them.

My problem is that I already run quite a few blogs so I’m a bit daunted by the idea of trying to get a new one off the ground. Apart from this one I currently run a classic movies blog, Classic Movie Ramblings, a vintage genre fiction blog, Vintage Pop Fictions, and a 19th century art blog, Strange Tears.

So what do my regular readers here think? Include 1950s-1970s cult TV series here or set up a specific blog for that subject?

Sunday 19 January 2014

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

The paintings of real-life Dutch artist Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706) inspired Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (possibly the greatest of all 19th century writers of gothic fiction) to write his 1839 gothic tale A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter. This tale was adapted by Leslie Megahey in a TV movie, with the title Schalcken the Painter, which was screened in the BBC’s arts program Omnibus in 1979.

As the movie opens Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is a pupil of the Dutch master Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham). He is rather promising and seems destined for a successful career but at the moment he is still a poor pupil, certainly in no financial position to ask for the hand of  Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) with whom he is in love. Rose reciprocates his love but a sudden visit to Dou’s home by a mysterious stranger seals the fate of their hopeless love. This stranger claims to a certain Vanderhausen from Rotterdam and he brings with him a casket laden with a fortune in gold. He asks, or rather demands, Rose’s hand in marriage. Vanderhausen isn’t merely old and ugly - he looks almost like a walking corpse. But his riches are enough to induce Dou to accede to his demand. Rose is to be married to Vanderhausen.

Rose begs Schalcken to save her from the terrifying prospect of this marriage but while Schalcken certainly loves her he is too ambitious to renounce any prospect of a successful career as a painter by alienating Dou. The unfortunate Rose is married to Vanderhausen who takes her off to Rotterdam.

After her marriage nothing further is heard of her. At one time Dou, worried by the lack of letters or any other contact from his niece, had sent Schalcken to Rotterdam to find her. But nobody in that city has heard of her, or of Vanderhausen for that matter. It is as if she has vanished into the air.

The years pass. Schalcken devotes himself to his career and has soon established himself as a highly sought-after painter whose fame eclipses that of his old teacher Dou. Schalcken marries. It is in practical terms a good match but there is clearly no great passion or even affection involved. Schalcken had already made his choice between love and fame and his single-minded pursuit of success has left him without the time, the energy or the inclination for the kind of love he might have had with Rose.

Schalcken will eventually encounter Rose again, in very peculiar and disturbing circumstances. And Schalcken will have a very disturbing experience of his own in the crypt of a church. This experience may perhaps be a vision, a waking nightmare, or an encounter with the supernatural. The film makes no attempt to clarify the nature of the event, a decision that makes the event all the more unsettling.

Even with its modest 68-minute running time Schalcken the Painter is somewhat slow and while there are hints of what is to come the actual horror does not kick in until the very end, and when it does kick in it’s horror of a very subtle kind. The leisurely pacing works in its favour, largely because this is a TV movie that is very atmospheric indeed.

This is a good story, but more interesting than the story itself is the way it is told. It is a movie about a 17th century Dutch painter and the movie looks like a 17th century Dutch painting. Writer-director Leslie Megahey, cinematographer John Hooper and production designer Anna Ridley immersed themselves thoroughly in 17th century Dutch art with the aim of reproducing this look in the entire production. They clearly took particular note of Vermeer’s work - so many scenes in this movie look astonishingly like Vermeer paintings. And they have captured the essential stillness of Dutch art of this period. They have also reproduced the sense of composition in depth of such paintings, with figures in the background framed by doorways. They have avoided the most glaring faults of most television costume dramas - too much lighting and too vivid colours. This is a visually beautiful film but it is beautiful in a restrained manner.

A sense of eroticism runs throughout the movie, but it is always a suppressed eroticism. The conflict between the indiscipline of romantic love and the rigid discipline required for artistic achievement, the conflict between the selflessness of love and the necessary selfishness of artistic obsession, the conflict between art and commerce, all these elements are clearly present but this film does not try to bludgeon the viewer with these themes. It makes those points but it does so with restraint. Restraint is the keynote, just as restraint was the keynote of 17th century Dutch art.

Schalcken was famous for his ability to reproduce the effects of candle light, and the movie  endeavours, very successfully, to reproduce these effects. Most scenes really do look like they were filmed by candle light. They probably were not, but they succeed in looking that way. Schalcken the Painter may have been a TV movie but it looks more like a feature film although at the same time it takes advantage of the greater intimacy of television. It was an ambitious project and it looks a good deal more expensive that it was.

The acting is also restrained, but is at the same time deliberately somewhat artificial. Paintings are scenes that have been staged and it is appropriate that the film has a slightly staged feel to it. Jeremy Clyde is particularly impressive, giving a performance that hints at inner anguish rigidly suppressed.

Schalcken the Painter has been released as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo by the BFI in its Flipside series and it has to be said that it’s far more interesting than most of their releases. The picture is quite grainy but it seems quite likely that this was a deliberate artistic choice rather than a fault in either the source material or the transfer. Aside from this picture quality is extremely good with excellent contrast (a very important factor given the style of the photography). Sound quality is fine.

Schalcken the Painter is a bold attempt to make a TV movie that works as both a horror movie and an art movie, and for the most part it succeeds admirably. It provides intelligent entertainment and a viewer can hardly ask for more than that. This is one of the forgotten treasures of the golden age of British television. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

The 27th Day (1957)

The 27th Day, a relatively low-budget film from an independent production company but released by Columbia, makes use of some of the more popular clichés of 1950s science fiction movies but it at least has the virtue of combining them in unusual and original ways.

Five people from various parts of the globe, apparently chosen at random, are kidnapped by aliens. The alien leader is the sort of alien leader you expect in such a movie - he lectures us about the violent ways of humans and our determination to destroy ourselves with the H-bomb. The usual dreary lecturing that we always get from wise aliens. And of course he tells us that his own planet is dying and that his people need a new planet. A planet just like the Earth. But of course the aliens are far more moral than we are and would never destroy any intelligent life form.

Then he throws a curve ball. He tells the five people that each of them will be given a weapon. A super-weapon in the form of three small capsules, capable of causing devastation on a scale that makes the H-bomb look like a child’s fireworks. If in 27 days these five people have not destroyed the Earth then the aliens will depart peacefully. The aliens are relying on our well-known violence and wickedness and our determination to destroy ourselves, etc etc. Then the aliens throw in an act of treachery that makes it obvious that they’re actually far less moral than we are. They take over the airwaves to tell the people of Earth what they have done, assuming that the resultant panic will achieve their object of manipulating us into destroying ourselves.

Of the five chosen people one is a Chinese peasant girl, one is a German physicist, one is a newspaper reporter from LA and one is a young Englishwoman from Cornwall. The fifth person is (and this is the clincher) a young soldier from an unnamed country behind the Iron Curtain, a country that is clearly the Soviet Union.

The five people react in different ways. One commits suicide. One ends up in a hospital in the US but refuses to give any information on the device the aliens gave him. The newspaper reporter from LA, Jonathan Clark (Gene Barry), and the girl from Cornwall, Eve Wingate (Valerie French), get together and hide out in an abandoned racetrack. The young Russian soldier in meanwhile relentlessly interrogated (and tortured) by the Soviet military in an effort to get him the reveal the secret of the device so they can use the weapon before the evil imperialistic capitalist American pigs can use it.

As you might expect, and as the alien anticipated, there is widespread panic and a frantic search is soon underway across the world for the five unfortunate chosen people.

The situation soon becomes more complicated as doubts are raised as to the real intentions of the aliens and the real purpose of the capsules. A number of moral quandaries have to be faced and the world finds itself in a race against time in more ways than one. Jonathan Clark’s belief that the wisest course of action is to hide out faces a difficult challenge. He knows he bears a formidable responsibility, but is running away the appropriate way to deal with such a responsibility?

Gene Barry was a rather underrated actor and gives a nicely understated performance as the LA reporter. He plays Clark as a man who is as far removed as can be imagined from the hardbitten cynical newspaper reporter stereotype. Clark is a rather quietly spoken thoughtful man who is all too aware of the heavy weight of responsibility he carries. Barry however doesn’t make the mistake of making him overly earnest. He’s a likable sort of guy who just happens to understand the seriousness of his position.

The other actors are capable enough by B-movie standards.

The fact that this movie dares to take an anti-communist line and to show communists behaving the way they really did behave is of course sufficient reason for it to be reviled and ridiculed by most modern reviewers to whom knee-jerk anti-Americanism has become as natural as breathing. This is a rather sad commentary on the world of today. While the movie’s treatment of the ethical dilemmas involved and the way these dilemmas are resolved might not be entirely satisfactory it does at least try to grapple with such problems in a way that few modern movies would dare to.

It is of course interesting to compare this movie’s depiction of advanced alien civilisations with other movies of its era such as the absurdly overrated The Day the Earth Stood Still. Looking to aliens to solve humanity’s problems is a temptation, but a dangerous one. Like most movies that deal with such issues it raises issues that the film-makers may or may not have ben entirely aware of, issues of freedom and responsibility and human dignity.

The 27th Day has been released by Sony in their made-on-demand DVD series of Columbia titles. The DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer without any extras.

The 27th Day is by no means a great movie but don’t be put off by some of the negative online reviews. It is worth a look.

Saturday 11 January 2014

The Cyclops (1957)

Writer-producer-director Bert I. Gordon is one of the legendary figures in the field of low-budget science fiction/horror film-making. The Cyclops, released in 1957, includes many of the features that B-movie fans associate with Gordon. Most notably, it features ordinary animals made to appear as being of gigantic size. Gordon’s obsession with this idea (an obsession fueled mostly by its cheapness) would reach its apogee in 1977 with the deliriously camp Empire of the Ants.

Empire of the Ants had the added bonus of Joan Collins in full-on bitch model, a feature sadly lacking in The Cyclops. But The Cyclops still manages to be good fun in a cheerfully schlocky B-movie way.

Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) has hired an aircraft along with a pilot and a couple of scientists to search for her fiancé Bruce whose plane is believed to have crashed in a rugged mountain chain in Mexico three years later. Susan believes Bruce is still alive.

They manage to make a landing in a clearing and Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr), who has brought along a precision scintillator for just such a purpose, makes a discovery that gets him very excited. The scintillator is going crazy and the whole area seems to be unbelievably rich in uranium.

Susan and Russ Bradford (James Craig) soon make a discovery that is just as remarkable but rather more worrying - the canyon in which they landed seems to be home to common animals that have grown to enormous size. There are mice the size of large dogs and hawks the size of a light aircraft. And lots of enormous and evidently ferocious lizards.

They do eventually find signs of poor old Bruce as well - the wreckage of his aircraft, his flying suit, and indications that he may have survived his plane crash and lived for an indeterminate time period in a cave. When they investigate the cave they find themselves trapped by a huge one-eyed monster that seems at least half-human but is twenty feet high.

By this stage even a ten-year-old will have figured out what’s going on but in some ways that just adds to the fun. And even if it is a bit obvious the script is perfectly serviceable for the type of movie this is. If you’re the type of person who’s going to worry over the scientific implausibilities of the story then you’re not the sort of person who is going to this movie anyway.

Gordon was no great shakes as a director but he gets the job done. The short 66-minute running time helps. There’s not enough plot for a longer movie but there’s just enough for 66 minutes.

The special effects were clearly done on the cheap. The odd thing is that some of the scenes with the normal-size characters and the giant animals in the same shot look quite convincing while others look deplorably unconvincing. The one-eyed monster makeup is effective enough for a movie that was never meant to be taken too seriously.

Lon Chaney Jr is ideally cast as the treacherous and cowardly but oddly sympathetic Marty Melville. We can’t really dislike him too much - his treachery and his cowardice are too open. Chaney pretty much steals the picture. The other players are perfectly adequate if just a little on the bland side.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is totally barebones, not even a trailer, but it offers a pristine anamorphic transfer.

This is an unpretentious monster movie and it’s silly fun. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea (and it definitely is mine) then The Cyclops can be recommended fairly confidently.

Monday 6 January 2014

The Tartars (1961)

The Tartars (I tartari) is a 1961 sword and sandal epic which was an Italian-Yugoslavian co-production distributed by MGM. It belongs to the historical rather than mythological peplum genre. There are no monsters but there are some pretty fair battle scenes and it does star Orson Welles and Victor Mature, which is more than sufficient reason to make it worth seeing.

The setting is the Russian steppe about a thousand years ago. The Vikings have settled here and are doing quite well but they are under pressure from their powerful neighbours the Tartars who have reached the same destination coming from the east. The local Tartar khan is trying to persuade the peace-loving (!) Vikings to join the Tartars in beating up on the local Slav tribes but the Vikings just want to be left alone to work their farms in peace. When the Viking Prince Oleg (Victor Mature) is presented with the khan’s proposal he stubbornly refuses. An altercation ensures, during which Oleg demonstrates his commitment to the peace process by putting his battle-axe through the khan’s head. Sometimes you have to put the case for peace rather forcefully. The Vikings make off with a Tartar princess, Samia (Bella Cortez) as a hostage.

The khan’s brother Burundai (Orson Welles) is not entirely displeased by these events. He is now the chief khan of the neighbourhood, answerable only to the Great Khan himself. And the Great Khan is a long way away. Burundai is intensely ambitious and he regards the opposition of the Vikings as a small matter. He soon has a hostage of his own, Helga (Liana Orfei), the wife of Oleg.

The natural expectation at this point would be an exchange of hostages but things have become complicated. Samia and Oleg’s brother Eric (Luciano Marin) have fallen in love and Samia has no wish to return to her people. Burundai meanwhile has raped Helga and in any case he had no intention of exchanging hostages. The life of a Tartar princess is of no concern to him if it stands in the way of his ambitions.

When the Vikings discover what has happened to Helga they start to get seriously annoyed. Even the most peace-loving (!) peoples can only be pushed so far. War is clearly going to ensue. The odds seem to be stacked against the Vikings but Oleg is now out for revenge.

There’s pretty much all there is to the plot. It’s a bit thin, but at 83 minutes this is fairly short for a peplum and the plot is enough to set up the climactic battle scene. The ending is rather unexpected but I won’t give anything away by saying any more about it.

The battle scenes are on a fairly lavish scale. There are either a lot of extras or some pretty clever camera tricks have been used to make it look that way. The action scenes are handled well and there are enough of them to compensate for the slightly threadbare plot.

These Vikings are strictly plains-dwellers but being Vikings they haven’t ventured too far from water. Their fort is on the river Volga and we do get to see an actual Viking longboat even if it plays a minor role in the action.

The palace of the Khan is impressive and looks suitably exotic and eastern. Orson Welles gets to wear some very cool eastern potentate costumes, and also sports reasonably effective makeup to give the impression of being an Asiatic warlord.

Orson Welles is in fact the chief reason for watching this movie. He’s delightfully debauched and evil (and lecherous) with a rather nice line in simmering malevolence. American actors didn’t always get to dub their own voices in Italian movies but there’s no mistaking that the voice you hear in this movie most certainly belongs to Welles. Welles even gets to do some action scenes, wielding a sword with some enthusiasm. Burundai mostly gets his henchmen to do his dirty work but you don’t get to be a khan unless you’re prepared to lead your troops in battle.

Victor Mature gets overshadowed a little by Welles, but then that happened to just about everybody who played opposite Welles. It’s not easy getting noticed when Welles is in full flight but Mature is a solid enough hero. Luciano Marin is adequate as Oleg’s basically loyal but trouble-prone brother. The two main female stars really don’t get much to do. Arnoldo Foà stands out in the supporting cast as Burundai’s chief henchman Ciu Lang. Looking oddly like a Buddhist monk Ciu Lang is an interesting character, a man who has too many moral scruples to be entirely comfortable serving a master like Burundai.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD has no extras apart from the movie’s trailer but the anamorphic transfer is quite splendid, presenting the movie in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in all its Technicolor glory. Picture quality is sharp and the colours are vivid and there is no noticeable print damage. It’s very rare to see a movie of this genre looking this good.

The Tartars is worth a look just for Orson Welles’ magnificently evil performance. Apart from that it looks great and it’s perfectly decent entertainment and even if it doesn’t reach any great heights fans of the genre should be reasonably well satisfied. Recommended.

Friday 3 January 2014

The Ghoul (1933)

Boris Karloff, then at the height of his popularity, returned to Britain in 1933 to make The Ghoul for Gaumont-British Pictures. This often overlooked Egyptian-themed horror movie had been floating about for years in very sub-standard editions until its release on DVD, in a very fine transfer indeed, by MGM.

The Ghoul was clearly an attempt to cash in on the enormous success of The Mummy the year before.

Boris Karloff plays Professor Morlant, an ageing and ailing Egyptologist who believes he can cheat death by means of a fabulous jewel looted from an Egyptian tomb. By means of this jewel Anubis will give him eternal life.

Unfortunately for the professor quite a few other people know about this jewel and they all want it, in some cases for its mystic properties and in others simply for its monetary value.

As Professor Morlant dies he assures his faithful servant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) that he will return from the dead. Since this happens early in the film the audience will certainly believe him even if Laing doesn’t.

After Morlant’s death the various parties seeking the jewel converge on his very gothic house. Unfortunately at this point the movie becomes more of an Old Dark House comedy thriller rather than a horror movie. It will return to horror eventually, with mixed success.

The first third of this movie is actually quite good. It builds the gothic mood successfully enough and it achieves a certain creepiness, mainly due to Karloff’s performance as the professor who already looks like a corpse before he is dead.

The motley collection gathered at the house includes Morlant’s heirs, young Ralph Morlant  (Anthony Bushell) and his cousin Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson). Betty drags along her friend Miss Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) whose job it is to provide the obligatory painfully unfunny comic relief. Also present are a young clergyman (played by a very young Ralph Richardson), Professor Morlant’s shady solicitor Broughton (played by Cedric Hardwicke) and the inevitable mysterious Egyptian Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth).

Nothing notably happens for quite a while as the film gets badly bogged down but finally Karloff does reappear to deliver a certain amount of horror.

The fairly strong cast assembled by Gaumont-British for this picture deserved better material. Karloff is effectively creepy, while Ernest Thesiger overacts outrageously and fairly amusingly.

The failings of The Ghoul are many. The basic idea is good but the script does little with it. The pacing is too slow, especially in the middle stages. The payoff is a rather disappointing cop-out. Comparing it to The Mummy merely emphasises its weaknesses. While The Ghoul boasts some reasonable sets and does have some gothic atmosphere it lacks the visual brilliance that Universal brought to their horror films of this era. Director T. Hayes Hunter is competent but sadly uninspired. There are a few good visual moments, especially early on. The funeral scene is quite creepy and atmospheric.

MGM’s DVD is superb. Picture quality is extremely crisp, contrast is good and there is no sign whatsoever of print damage. Sound quality is good as well. The lack of extras is a slight disappointment but MGM are to be commended for making this relatively little known   horror movie available in such a pristine state.

The Ghoul is not a terrible picture. It’s certainly no worse than most of Universal’s 1940s efforts. It’s just not a very good picture. It illustrates the important truth (one that Universal understood in the 30s but forgot in the 40s) that if you want a good horror movie it helps to have a good script and a director and a cinematographer with a genuine feel for the material, and you need to keep the focus on the main horror plot as much as possible. Boris Karloff fans will be reasonably satisfied by his performance. Worth a look as a rare example of a 1930s British horror movie that at least tries to deliver some genuine chills, and does at times partially succeed.