Saturday 29 March 2014

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

The Evil of Frankenstein, released in 1964, was the third film in Hammer’s Frankenstein cycle. It’s an interesting variation on the formula.

Once again the hostility of the locals to his experiments has forced Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing of course) and his assistant Hans (Sandor Elès) to flee. He decides to return to Karlstadt. Although he was banished from the town a decade earlier, he still has substantial assets there, assets which he needs to convert into cash to fund his scientific work. Unfortunately on his arrival he finds that his chateau has been looted and left in ruins.

By a strange stroke of fate, due to an encounter with a deaf-mute beggar girl (played by Katy Wild), he discovers the frozen body of the creature he had created there ten years earlier, and this inspires him to attempt to revive the monster.

Unfortunately it proves difficult to restore the creature to consciousness, until Frankenstein hits on the idea of using a travelling hypnotist (by chance it happens to be carnival time in Karlstadt) to re-awaken the creature’s brain. The hypnotist, Professor Zoltán (Peter Woodthorpe), turns out to be an evil hypnotist who plan to use his hold over Frankenstein’s creation in order to gain wealth and exact revenge on his own enemies.

The greatest strength of Hammer’s Frankenstein films is the character of Baron Frankenstein himself, an uneasy mix of idealism and arrogance, genius and insanity. Peter Cushing (giving some of his best ever performances in this role) was able to tease out the various strands in the baron’s make-up with considerable subtlety and sensitivity. The Evil of Frankenstein gives us some tantalising hint of the obsessed scientist’s character flaws and complexities, hints which perhaps should have been more fully developed.

Despite the title The Evil of Frankenstein shows us a relatively sympathetic Baron Frankenstein. The evil in this movie comes more from others who misuse his creation than from the baron himself. Cushing managed to make each of his performances as Frankenstein slightly different. This time around he’s certainly obsessive but his chief failure is his unwillingness to believe that his scientific work, pursued for what he conceives to be noble purposes, can have dangerous and disastrous results. He is a man embittered by what he sees as the refusal of the world to allow him to continue his research in peace, and further embittered when he realises too late that Professor Zoltán is not only using him but endangering his work. Cushing is able to convince us that Frankenstein genuinely believes himself to be a fundamentally benign misunderstood genius.

This movie also features a very sympathetic monster. Like his creator he is used for evil purposes by the unscrupulous Zoltán. There are some touching scenes between the monster and the deaf-mute beggar girl, who both seem to recognise each other instinctively as outcasts.

Cushing as always dominates but he gets good support from the other players with Peter Woodthorpe making an interesting villain, a man who is evil because he is weak and selfish and self-centred rather than actively pursuing evil.

The Frankenstein cycle presented Hammer with a major creative challenge. By its very nature it was a rather restrictive formula. Each movie had to have Baron Frankenstein creating (or in this case) recreating another monster who would eventually run amok and leave the baron’s work in ruins. It’s to the studio’s credit that they managed to keep adding enough variations to that basic formula to keep it interesting. In this case screenwriter Anthony Hinds came up with a rather clever idea, shifting the focus of evil onto another character (Professor Zoltán) thereby casting both Frankenstein and his monster as victims.

The movie has other strengths as well. Director Freddie Francis (who won two Academy Awards as a cinematographer) had a particular flair for visuals, and The Evil of Frankenstein looks quite wonderful. The baron’s laboratory is magnificent. The visual strengths are sufficient in themselves to maintain the viewer’s interest even when the plot falters.

Given that it’s the look of this movie that is its strong suit it’s fortunate that the DVD included in Universal’s superb eight-movie Hammer boxed set is absolutely stunning. The picture is crystal clear, the colours are rich and vibrant. It’s a feast for the eyes. 

The Evil of Frankenstein has always been unfavourably compared to the Terence Fisher-directed Frankenstein movies. While it lacks the subtlety and moral force of Fisher’s movies it’s a better movie than its reputation would suggest and it looks fabulous. Well worth a look.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

I’m on a bit of a 1960s action adventure movie kick at the moment. Which brings me to Von Ryan’s Express, a World War 2 action flick about a mass escape of prisoners of war.

Colonel Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is an American flyer whose aircraft gets shot down over Italy in August 1943. He ends up in an Italian POW camp, and in the middle of a battle of wills between the camp commandant, Major Battaglia (Adolfo Celi), and the senior Allied officer among the prisoners, Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). The vast majority of the POWs are British with only a handful of Americans but Ryan is now the ranking officer among the prisoners.

Fincham is obsessed with the idea of organising escapes, even though it means exposing his men to extraordinary risks and to retaliatory action from Battaglia. Fincham has been stockpiling food and medical supplies for use in escape attempts even though his men are half starved and in urgent need of those medicines. Fincham and Ryan do not see eye to eye on this issue, and that’s putting it mildly. Ryan puts an end to what he regards as futile escape attempts - after all Italy is crumbling and it can only be a matter of weeks before the prisoners are freed by the advancing Allied armies. Ryan’s action is deeply resented by Fincham and by most of his men who take to referring to Ryan as Von Ryan.

Shortly afterwards Italy surrenders. The camp now has no guards. The prisoners are free. Well, sort of free. In fact they’re several hundred miles behind the enemy lines and the German Army is pouring into Italy to try to halt the invading Allies. They can leave the camp, but where do they go from there?

In the event they end up not going very far at all before being rounded up by the Germans and put on a train that will take them to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Being a prisoner of the Italians was really not so very bad, but the prospect of being a prisoner of the Germans is considerably less inviting.

Ryan however has no intention of spending the rest of the war in Germany. He might have been opposed to escape attempts from the Italian camp but he is very much in favour of escaping from the prison train. This is obviously going to be very difficult indeed. Any hope of success depends upon the willingness of Ryan and Fincham, who have been at daggers drawn, to work together. 

Hijacking a train full of armed German guards in the middle of German-controlled Italy seems like a suicidally bad idea but the very outrageousness of the idea works in its favour. Needless to say the train hijack sets up a string of action set-pieces all of which are extremely well executed.

Mark Robson had a somewhat bizarre career as a director. He did some excellent work for Val Lewton at RKO in the 40s, with The Seventh Victim being one of the best American movies of that decade. His later career was mixed to say the least. It included at least three legendary spectacularly bad movies, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake. What makes Robson interesting is that these three very bad movies are outrageously entertaining. They are also absurdly over-the-top. They’re trash, but they’re enormous fun. Von Ryan’s Express isn’t exactly trash but it certainly has a ludicrously over-the-top quality to it, and that sort of thing was right up Mark Robson’s alley. So it’s no real surprise that Robson does a great job with this movie.

The movie benefits considerably from the superb work of veteran cinematographer William H. Daniels. Daniels was one of the greats in his field. Sinatra liked his work so much he insisted on having him as cinematographer on most of his movies, which probably explains his presence here. 

The working relationship of Ryan and Fincham is central to the movie. Despite their often very strong disagreements they are both brave and resourceful men. Even when they had disagreed both had believed they were doing the right thing. Eventually they find they can work together, and a mutual respect slowly grows between the two men. Trevor Howard is ideal for this sort of role, playing a rather stiff-necked character who finds it very difficult to admit he can ever be wrong, but a man nonetheless with enough strength of character to overcome these personality flaws.

Frank Sinatra was notoriously lax in his attitude towards acting, generally refusing even to consider the possibility of doing retakes. He just wanted to get the job finished and collect his pay cheque and very few directors were strong enough to persuade him to take a more professional approach. Despite this it has to be said that he had a great deal of acting talent and could, if a role actually interested him, deliver the goods rather impressively. His laid-back approach works to his advantage here, with Ryan’s rather quixotic attitude towards the war contrasting nicely with Fincham’s overdeveloped sense of duty. Ryan is a deceptively complex character, a man with strong principles that he hides under a veneer of devil-may-care nonchalance. Sinatra’s low-key performance ends up being very effective.

Howard and Sinatra get good support from Sergio Fantoni as an Italian officer, Captain Oriani, who throws in his lot with the Allied prisoners. Oriani’s attitude towards the war is as quixotic as Ryan’s and not surprisingly they get along well.

To make a good action movie you need more than just a lot of explosions. You need to make the action scenes inventive, and Von Ryan’s Express scores highly in this area. The bombing of the railway yards with the train speeding through and the climactic scenes on the railway bridges are particularly impressive. 

Von Ryan’s Express is a classic action adventure movie and is a must-see for fans of the genre. Highly recommended.

Thursday 20 March 2014

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

I Married a Monster from Outer Space might sound like a silly but fun drive-in movie but surprisingly it takes itself relatively seriously. And, to a certain extent, it gets away with it.

The other surprise is that this movie was not the product of AIP or some other low-budget outfit. I Married a Monster from Outer Space is a Paramount Picture. Not just distributed by Paramount but actually made by the studio. Presumably Paramount were hoping to capture a slice of the increasingly lucrative drive-in market.

Madge (Gloria Talbott) is about to be married to insurance salesman Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon). What she doesn’t know is that Bill’s body has been taken over by an alien from outer space. He still looks like Bill, but his behaviour is slightly odd and distant. Unfortunately Madge doesn’t notice the strange change in Bill until after they are married.

Madge is increasingly worried by Bill’s emotional flatness. He also develops a tendency to go off on his own without any explanation. One night she follows him and discovers the terrifying truth - she is married to a monster from outer space.

Not surprisingly no-one believes her tale. This is partly because quite a few of the other men in the town have also been taken over by aliens, including the local police. When Madge tries to telephone the authorities in Washington she is told that all the telephone wires to Washington are down. When she tries to send a telegram to the FBI the clerk in the Western Union office tears up her telegram. And when she tries to leave town the local police tell her the road is washed out, even though it hasn’t rained for weeks.

Bill, or at least the alien now inhabiting Bill’s body, has his own problems. On his home planet emotions are unknown, but he now discovers that when you take over a human body you can start to develop human emotions. He starts to understand love, and it’s a very unsettling experience.

The aliens have a bigger problem. They were forced to leave their own world when their sun became unstable but before they could complete their spacecraft to set of in search of a new home all their females had died. Unless their scientists can find a way for them to breed with human women their race is doomed.

The aliens have not managed to take over all the men in the town and eventually they encounter opposition. But what can a few human men do against aliens who are impervious to gunfire? 

The plot has some very obvious similarities to Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers - the idea of aliens who look exactly like ordinary human beings, the protagonist who cannot convince anyone that her story is not the ravings of a madwoman, the isolation of the town by the aliens. In fact the basic plot is so similar that it is reasonable to assume that I Married a Monster from Outer Space was to a very large degree inspired by (or on a less charitable interpretation copied from) Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The main difference is that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not overly concerned with offering plausible scientific explanations. Although an explanation is offered it remains slightly vague and mysterious and it has some major plot holes which it cheerfully ignores. The emphasis is on creating a sense of menace and paranoia. I Married a Monster from Outer Space on the other hand goes to great lengths to explain the alien plan in detail, and the fact that the aliens have entirely reasonable (from their point of view) motives for their actions makes it less frightening. Once a mystery is explained it loses some of its terror. Once you know who the enemy is and you know exactly what their plans are you have some grounds for hope rather than despair. I Married a Monster from Outer Space also doesn’t quite have the energy and driving sense of desperation that Siegel’s classic has.

Having said that, I Married a Monster from Outer Space is still a fairly effective science fiction horror thriller. And the idea that not only has the heroine’s peaceful little town been invaded by aliens, she is actually married to one, does give the movie a significant scary creepiness factor.

Gloria Talbott makes an effective heroine and conveys fairly convincingly the horror of the heroine’s situation. Tom Tryon is rather dull, but since he is supposed to be an emotionless alien his lifelessness can be seen as an asset rather than a liability!

The special effects generally work quite well. The revelation of the alien features behind the human faces when exposed to certain kinds of light is fairly well done. The makeup effects are very good.

Of course invulnerable aliens have to have some kind of Achilles Heel but the one chosen by the film-makers in this case is rather lame and is likely to provoke laughter rather than thrills. This is symptomatic of the movie’s major failing - these aliens just aren’t formidable enough to convince the viewer that Earth is in deadly danger.

There is however one very effective and genuinely chilling scene near the end.

Director Gene Fowler Jr does a solid enough job but the movie really needed a bit more intensity and a bit more energy.

The Warner Archive Collection made-on-demand DVD presents the movie in a very good 16x9 enhanced transfer. The movie was shot in black-and-white.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space is quite entertaining in an undemanding way. If you’re a fan of 50s sci-fi it’s definitely worth a look.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

The 1960s ushered in a kind of golden age of action adventure movies. There had of course been plenty of adventure movies made earlier but the 1960s variety added high-octane action with spectacular stunts and lots of explosions. One of the best of these movies was the 1968 Anglo-American production Where Eagles Dare.

The great strength of this movie is that it doesn’t try to be anything else other than a straight action adventure movie. It has no axes to grind, it offers no message, it gives us no insights into the human condition. It is pure entertainment, and it is all the better for it.

Alistair MacLean was probably the most successful of all the thriller writers of that era. It was inevitable that many of his books would be turned into motion pictures, which they were, although with mixed success. Some of the adaptations of his stories were outright clunkers but the immense success of the first Alistair MacLean movie, The Guns of Navarone, encouraged movie-makers to keep trying. Where Eagles Dare came the closest to repeating the success of The Guns of Navarone although the underrated Ice Station Zebra should not be overlooked. MacLean wrote the screenplay for Where Eagles Dare himself and it captures the feel of his novels rather effectively.

In early 1944 an American general is captured when his aircraft is shot down over Austria. That in itself would be annoying, but this general happens to be a senior member of the planning staff for the invasion of German-occupied France. The British know that he survived the crash and they are certain that he has been taken to the castle of Schloss Adler, the headquarters of German military intelligence. The castle is perched on an inaccessible mountain peak high in the Austrian Alps. Rescuing the general would be an impossible task but the British decide they are going to do it anyway. They assemble a team of seven agents, all of whom speak fluent German and all of whom are experienced intelligence agents. 

The team is led by Major Smith (Richard Burton). The other members of the team are British, apart from one American, Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), a member of the elite Ranger Division. What is known only to Major Smith is that there is an eighth member of the team, glamorous blonde Mary Ellison. Her job is to help the team gain access to the castle by posing as a member of the domestic staff. On arrival at a nearby village yet another agent joins the team. Heidi (Ingrid Pitt) works as a barmaid in a tavern frequented by members of the German Alpine division based in the village but she is in fact a British agent.

The task seems difficult enough but in fact the real mission turns out to be not quite the mission these men were told about. It is part of an elaborate espionage game of fiendish complexity with double-crosses aplenty. While this adds additional interest the real point of  the movie is the action scenes. And there are action scenes in abundance. In 1968 these sequences were breath-taking and they remain impressive today. The cable-car scenes are among the all-time classic movie action sequences.

Brian G. Hutton directed very few films but his small output includes some extremely interesting items, including Kelly’s Heroes (another action classic), the very underrated Night Watch (Elizabeth Taylor’s only horror movie) and the excellent if rather outrageously over-the-top melodrama Zee and Co. (released in the US as X, Y and Zee and featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Susannah York and Michel Cane all at the top of their game). Where Eagles Dare demonstrates Hutton’s ability to orchestrate a very big-budget action movie on an epic scale, and to do so very effectively, with the very able assistance of cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson. Where Eagles Dare not only has copious quantities of action but it’s all set against a background of breath-taking scenery.

Richard Burton’s illustrious career included a couple of classic action adventure flicks, the most notable one aside from Where Eagles Dare being The Wild Geese. He might not have seemed the obvious star for such movies but he did them remarkably well. Real-life mercenary leader Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare who acted as technical adviser on The Wild Geese remarked on Burton’s ability to portray an officer with uncanny verisimilitude and that ability stands him in good stead in Where Eagles Dare

Burton himself felt that Clint Eastwood was a perfect choice as co-star, the two actors being about as different in style as could possibly be imagined and thus complementing each other very nicely. He was spot on about that. Burton and Eastwood make an unlikely but very effective team.

The supporting players include some faces that will be very familiar indeed to cult movie fans, with Ingrid Pitt and Anton Diffring (inevitably playing a sadistic SS officer) being particular notable. Derren Nesbitt is superb as a Gestapo officer, combining charm and evil in a truly chilling performance. Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark are other noteworthy members of the supporting cast.

This was 1968 so while there’s an incredible amount of mayhem the violence is not particularly graphic. It doesn’t need to be. It relies on thrills rather than gore and it delivers the thrills. The expenditure of ammunition is also truly prodigious. Clint Eastwood mows down approximately half the German army while Richard Burton and Mary Ure mow down the other half between them.

The British Blu-Ray release is 16x9 enhanced and looks very good. It includes a brief contemporary “making of” featurette.

It’s really only fair to judge a movie on the basis of how well it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do. Where Eagles Dare does just that, and does it to perfection. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Satellite in the Sky (1956)

Satellite in the Sky is an almost forgotten 1956 British science fiction film. It’s unusual for a British sci-fi offering of this period in being filmed in colour and CinemaScope  and on a reasonably lavish budget. Unfortunately it suffers from many of the problems that afflicted 1950s British science fiction movies.

Like Hammer’s early science fiction films (such as Terence Fisher’s Spaceways) it puts much too emphasis on melodrama and as a result it takes an inordinately long time for the actual science fiction to kick in. At 85 minutes it feel rather seriously padded out. It really needed to have about ten minutes trimmed from the first half of the film. It also suffers from some rather serious scripting problems.

The British are about to launch the first manned spacecraft, rather poetically christened the Stardust. Being an ambitious prestige project the launch is accompanied by a great deal of fanfare but certain elements of the project are being kept very high-hush. These top-secret aspects of the mission will have fateful results.

After interminable domestic melodramas involving the crew members and their wives, and feisty girl reporter Kim Hamilton (played by Lois Maxwell, before she became much better known as Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), the launch finally gets under way and at first everything seems to go smoothly. Apart from the fact that shortly after blastoff it is discovered that Kim Hamilton has stowed away on the spacecraft.

The real drama comes when the crew members discover that meteorologist Professor Merrity (Donald Wolfit), a last-minute addition to the crew, isn’t a meteorologist at all. He’s a scientist who has developed the ultimate bomb, a bomb that makes the H-bomb seem like a child’s fire cracker. The real object of the Stardust’s mission is to explode this Titanium bomb, known as T-1, in space. This is the only safe way to test the bomb, and the idea is to demonstrate  that the British and the Americans now have the ultimate doomsday weapon, a weapon that will make war impossible (of course the movie overlooks the fact that the British intelligence services and the US State Department were so riddled with Soviet spies at that time that within a few weeks the Soviets would undoubtedly have obtained the secret of the Titanium bomb and would have developed their own bomb thus creating another Cold War stalemate).

The problem is that the bomb stubbornly refuses to separate from the spacecraft (a fascinating anticipation of John Carpenter’s much later sci-fi black comedy Dark Star) so the crew are left with two choices - they can either try to land in which case the bomb will explode on Earth thus killing millions of people, or they can remain in orbit to be blown up with the bomb.

The basic story idea is actually a pretty good one. The trouble is that the screenplay (by John Mather, J. T. McIntosh and Edith Dell) fails to capitalise on much of the potential drama. One would think that the discovery of a stowaway would be a big deal, especially as the movie has laboriously established the fact that Kim Hamilton is a bitter opponent of the Stardust project, but in fact her presence on the spacecraft is simply accepted virtually without comment. The fact that the crew members have been lied to about the real mission  of the Stardust is also accepted is an unrealistically matter-of-fact way. This is a very talky movie, much too talky, but very little of the talk has anything to do with the very real potential conflicts among the crew.

Director Paul Dickson must also bear some of the responsibility for the failure to develop the kinds of tensions that among the crew that would have made things more interesting.

The acting is reasonably competent, given the fact that the script gives the actors very little  to work with. Donald Wolfit indulges in some fairly spectacular scenery-chewing.

Despite all these weaknesses this movie is not a total loss. Visually it’s reasonably impressive. The model work is rather good. The Stardust itself looks very cool indeed and the retractable observation chamber and the strange lift device the crew use to carry out space walks is a very nifty touch. The launch sequence is fairly well done and in general the special effects are considerably better than in most 50s sci-fi movies. The spacecraft interiors look convincing and are filled with cool 1950s-type high-tech equipment. The production values are on the whole top-notch.

Aviation geeks will be excited by some great footage of a very cool British 1950s fighter jet, the Folland Gnat, and of the awesome British Avro Vulcan strategic bomber, surely one of the coolest aircraft ever built.

The Warner Home Video double-bill DVD release pairs this movie with another, much better, sci-fi movie from this era, World Without End. Both movies are presented in their correct aspect ratios in good anamorphic transfers.

Satellite in the Sky might not be a great movie but the visuals are enough to make it worth a look. Given that World Without End is a very good movie this DVD double-bill is an essential purchase for 50s sci-fi fans, and if you’re going to buy it for World Without End you might as well give Satellite in the Sky a spin as well.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Dark of the Sun (1968)

Dark of the Sun was the first of what proved to be a rather small genre, the mercenary war adventure movie. It’s a small genre not because it lacks appeal but because such movies are expensive to do properly. And Dark of the Sun sets the bar very high.

Captain Curry (Rod Taylor) and Sergeant Ruffo (Jim Brown) are mercenaries employed by the beleaguered government of the Congo. Their mission is to take a train 300 miles through rebel-held jungle to rescue a party of civilians from a place called Port Reprieve. Or at least that’s the publicly stated aim of the mission. Their real task is to retrieve $50 million worth of diamonds held in the vaults of a Belgian mining company. The government needs the money to buy arms to fight the rebels.

They will need another experienced officer and they choose Captain Henlein (Peter Carsten). This proves to be an unfortunate choice. Henlein is an ex-Nazi. well, not exactly an ex-Nazi. He still proudly wears a swastika on his uniform. Both Curry and Ruffo dislike him intensely, but as Ruffo points out he’s the best officer available and for a mission like this he’s the man they need.

Henlein is to pick forty of the best Congolese government soldiers from the force he commands, which happens to be the best unit the Congolese government has. They will also need a doctor. Curry manages to persuade Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) to join the mission. He promises him a case of whisky and $100 a day. Wreid would accepted just for the whisky, but then there’s nothing Wreid wouldn’t agree to for a case of whisky.

The train is equipped with five .50 calibre machine guns but even with that armament and forty well-trained men it’s clearly going to be a rough ride. They don’t just have to worry about the rebels; they will also have to break through the lines of UN peace-keeping forces  (who are proving to be as useless as ever in keeping the peace). 

Getting to Port Reprieve is difficult enough but when they get there they find that their problems have only just begun.

Jack Cardiff was certainly the right man to direct this movie. Cardiff was one of the great cinematographers but he also made a number of interesting movies as a director. In this film he handles both roles (although he didn’t take the cinematography credit). He knew how to handle action scenes and he knew how to handle complex themes. And this movie has both.

As an action movie it delivers the goods. The combat scenes involving the train are stunning and there are more superb action set-pieces to come later in the movie. 

In 1968 the level of violence in this movie was considered to be quite shocking. The violence still shocks today, but not for the obvious reasons. Modern movies have a great deal more gore, but Jack Cardiff doesn’t need gore to shock the viewer. The shock value comes from the implications of what we’re seeing, the psychological motivations, and the casual acceptance of violence by the perpetrators. There’s a scene where Henlein commits a horrifying atrocity. The impact of the scene comes from his explanation for his action. In a strictly military sense it was probably necessary and had he not done it the safety of everyone including the innocent civilians they are supposed to be rescuing might have been put in jeopardy. But it is still an immoral act. That’s typical of the moral complexity of this movie.

Because this is more than just an action movie. It’s a movie that has something to say, and what makes it impressive in that respect is the way it avoids obviousness in doing so, and it avoids easy answers. The subject matter could easily have been used to make obvious political points and there’s little doubt that that is precisely the trap that a director making this movie today would fall into. But Cardiff, and screenwriters Ranald MacDougall and Adrian Spies, do not succumb to the temptation. If there is a political message it’s that political ideologies are not what matters. What matters is something deeper and more difficult. To describe it you’d have to use old-fashioned words like morality, decency and honour. There are such things as right and wrong, but they have nothing to do with ideology. A good man fighting for a bad reason may be considerably less dangerous than a bad man fighting for a good cause. And evil done in the name of a good cause is still evil.

The movie is more concerned with psychology than politics and it deals with the psychology of its characters in complex ways. Captain Curry is a straightforward mercenary. He fights for a pay cheque. Sergeant Ruffo is fighting for a different reason; he’s a Congolese and he believes he’s fighting to prevent his country from collapsing into savagery. This sounds like an obvious setup, with the idealistic Ruffo despising the avaricious Curry. But Ruffo doesn’t despise Curry. He likes him. He likes him a good deal, and he respects him. He knows that Curry is a good man. He might not be fighting for a good reason but he’s still a good man. There’s a tension between them as a result of their differing motivations but for both men friendship is far more important than a difference of beliefs.

After Henlein commits the atrocity referred to above Curry asks Ruffo why he doesn’t hate white people. Ruffo explains that just one generation earlier his tribe believed that eating the heart and brains of a slain enemy would give a man that enemy’s strength. Ruffo knows all about the darkness that lurks in the human soul and he knows it’s in his people and in all people. He does not have the right to condemn white people for the actions of a man like Henlein. 

The movie does not back away from the brutality of the conflict. Interestingly enough (and this is another example of the intelligence of the movie) we are told nothing about the rights or wrongs of either the government’s cause or that of the rebels. We are left to judge both by their actions rather than the cause they might be trumpeting. The government does not emerge with too much credit but given the savagery of the massacres we see the rebels committing we are left to reflect that maybe even the cynicism of President Ubi is preferable to this.

This a very dark movie. Heroism is not always enough. Even when combined with daring and professionalism it’s not always enough. There are times when things go badly wrong and people suffer and it happens no matter how hard you try.

If you’ve seen Jim Brown in other action movies of this era you’ve probably concluded that he’s fine for simple action movies but not much of an actor. This movie may change that opinion. This movie offers something Brown he very rarely got - the chance to play a complex nuanced character. The script gives him something to work with. He obviously relished the opportunity and gives the performance of his career.

Rod Taylor also gives what may be his career-best performance, and for the same reason. Curry is a complex man and he finds himself in a situation where he must confront the darkness in his own soul. This gives Taylor a part he can sink his teeth into, and does.

The other characters are less developed and less convincing but I suspect this is deliberate. It’s the friendship between Curry and Ruffo, and what both men learn from it, that matters. The other characters only matter insofar as they affect the two central characters. Having said that, both Kenneth More and Peter Carsten manage to take characters who are mere stereotypes and breathe life into them. Yvette Mimieux as the girl rescued by the mercenaries, having been the whole survivor of a massacre, has little to do but what she has to do she does well enough.

Dark of the Sun is essentially a journey into the heart of darkness and it handles this theme intelligently and without ever trying to bludgeon the viewer with its message.

The movie was shot in colour and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio. The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a generally excellent 16x9 enhanced transfer. 

Apart from its other virtues Dark of the Sun is also an extremely thrilling action adventure movie. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the first of several remakes of the 1956 science fiction classic

Since I saw the original only a week ago it’s going to very hard to avoid making comparisons between the two films. Sometimes I think it’s best not to do this, but rather to try to view different adaptations of the same story as separate entities that stand or fall on their own merits. In this case though I think comparisons are quite instructive as illustrations of the way that seemingly minor changes can have profound consequences.

The first noticeable thing about the remake is that the basic story remains, in its essentials,  very much the same. Most of the changes don’t really have much effect, but a couple of them do have a considerable effect.

The 1978 version lets us know right from the start what is going on. We see the planet from which the pods have originated, we see them reach the Earth, we know right from the start that this is going to be an alien invasion movie. And the early scenes immediately alert us to the fact that something strange is going on. That’s a fairly minor change. It does lessen the shock when really strange things start to happen so it’s a weakness compared to the original, but it’s a fairly minor weakness.

The hero, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), is an inspector with the Health Department in San Francisco. His friend Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adam) tells him a strange story. She believes that her husband is not her husband any more, that he’s suddenly changed so much that he’s a different person. Matthew thinks she should see a psychiatrist friend of his. Since the audience already knows that her husband really is different this scene has less impact than the similar scenes in the original where we really aren’t sure if these people are suffering from a strange delusion or whether they’re correct in their suspicions.

The psychiatrist, Dr David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), tries to persuade her that she is merely suffering from the kind of alienation everyone suffers from these days as a result of the increasingly temporary nature of personal relationships.

The first real evidence that Matthew unearths that something weird really is going on comes through his friend Jack Bellicic (Jeff Goldblum). Jack and his wife run an odd little business offering therapeutic mud baths. They discover a strange corpse, or what appears to be a corpse although it doesn’t seem to be quite human. It seems more like an unfinished human. It’s covered in a strange gel-like substance so unlike the similar scene in the earlier film it’s obvious straight away that this is not an ordinary corpse.

When Matthew suddenly gets the feeling that Elizabeth is in danger he breaks into her house and now he finds the concrete evidence of the presence of the pod people. Of course he still has the problem of trying to convince people of the truth of what seems like an incredible story.

It soon becomes apparent that the city is full of pod people who look perfectly normal but are strangely emotionless, and more disturbingly they are clearly doing strange things with giant pods which Matthew and Elizabeth are sure have a connection with strange flowers that started appearing in the city a few days before.

Now it’s obvious that they are facing a nightmare scenario and it’s going to be a struggle both to prevent themselves from turning into pod people and to convince the authorities that they are facing a full-scale alien invasion.

Most of the changes to the story are, as I indicted earlier, quite minor. The hero is a health inspector rather than a doctor but the character remains relatively unchanged. He is still a representative of the world of science and reason and the nature of his profession means that he is still a man who is trained to be observant. The other characters are in all essentials fairly close to their counterparts in the original, with the psychiatrist friend playing the same rôle as in the first film.

The big change is the setting. The 1956 movie took place in a small town. The remake takes place in San Francisco. The advantage of the small town setting was that in a small town everybody knows everybody and the sudden appearance of the strangely robotic and emotionless pod people is immediately noticeable and immediately terrifying. But in a city like San Francisco in the late 70s the appearance of the pod people lacks any real impact. In such a setting you expect to encounter strange people. In a city full of hippies and junkies and eccentrics the pod people just don’t seem scary. The horror that was so palpable in the original is totally dissipated in the remake. The horrific idea that people who seem totally normal could actually be alien monsters and that you’d have no way of knowing who is a real person and who is a pod person is still there in the 1978 version but it doesn’t have anything like the punch it has in the 1956 version.

The other big change is in the whole approach to the film. The 1978 version is a science fiction horror movie and that’s the way director Phil Kaufman approaches the movie. In contrast the director of the 1956 version, Don Siegel, had been making action thrillers laced very strongly with what would later come to be described as a film noir sensibility. So when he came to make a science fiction horror movie he made it exactly the way he had been making his film noir action thrillers. As a result the 1956 movie has a feel that differentiates it sharply from other sci-fi movies, and that unusual feel is responsible for making the 1956 movie such a fast-paced exercise in terror and paranoia. The 1978 movie is a reasonably good and very well-made science fiction horror movie but it’s still basically just another alien invasion movie.

Siegel also had neither the budget nor the inclination to worry about the kinds of special effects that are usually considered essential for science fiction. He simply concentrated on the terror and the paranoia. The 1978 movie goes to elaborate lengths to try to give the story proper science fiction credentials and to explain the workings of the pods. This is fine, but let’s face it science fiction technobabble is still science fiction technobabble no matter how plausible you try to make it sound. What matters in this story is that the hero suddenly finds himself in a nightmare world where absolutely anyone could be the enemy. That’s the crux of the story and it’s handled a lot more effectively in the 1956 film.

The 1978 movie is not by any means a bad movie. Donald Sutherland is excellent. Leonard Nimoy makes a very convincing celebrity psychiatrist. Jeff Goldblum’s performance is bizarre but fun. The special effects are done well. Kaufman succeeds in achieving an atmosphere of alienness and menace. 

The Region B Blu-Ray looks terrific and includes a host of extras.

On the whole the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good if rather conventional movie of its type. It’s just that the 1956 movie was a great movie. Remaking great movies is always a bad idea. The 1978 movie is worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to be the equal of its predecessor.