Saturday 30 August 2014

Son of Samson (1960)

Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei re) dates from 1960 and is a fairly stock-standard peplum made slightly more interesting by a non-standard setting in ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians are being oppressed by their Persian conquerors and the Pharaoh is little more than a puppet. When he shows signs of independence he is murdered. Meanwhile the heir to the throne, Kenamun, has had a chance meeting in the desert with a muscle-bound strongman. Kenamun saves the strongman’s life when he is attacked by a lion, and when another lion appears the strongman returns the favour. In the English dub we are told that this muscle-bound hero’s name is Maciste and that he is the son of Samson. One assumes that the son of Samson bit has been added for the English dub and that in the original Italian version he is simply Maciste. Maciste had been a popular hero in Italian movies as far back as 1914 when he featured in the brilliant epic Cabiria and would have needed no further introduction to Italian audiences.

The heir to the throne has some big problems, caused by the machinations of the obligatory beautiful-but-evil Queen Smedes. She is determined to cement her power by marrying Kenamun. Kenamun has rather inconveniently fallen in love with a humble girl named Nofret, one of a party of women who had been rescued from marauding bad guys by Maciste. Smedes makes Kenamun a gift of a necklace, a necklace with magical powers that causes Kenamun to forget his love for Nofret and his friendship for Maciste.

Maciste arrives in the Egyptian city of Tanis and starts causing mayhem by beating up the palace guards and freeing slaves and others oppressed by the wicked regime. Maciste knows that Kenamun is a good man and that he is not responsible for the evil deeds done in his name but he has to find a way to reach Kenamun. Naturally Maciste is given various opportunities to demonstrate his superhuman strength, single-handedly lifting obelisks and performing other similar feats of strength.

The plot is standard for the genre and features two-dimensional villains and two-dimensional heroes. There’s just enough action to keep things interesting.

One thing that is unusual is the level of graphic violence and gore. It seems quite likely that cuts would have been required at the time and it’s rather fortunate that Retromedia have been able to source their DVD from what we can assume to be an uncut print. 

Mark Forest was an American body-builder from Brooklyn who enjoyed a brief period of stardom in Italy during the peplum boom. He was never likely to win any acting awards but he certainly looks the part. The evil queen is played by Chelo Alonso, a striking Cuban actress popularly known as the Cuban H-bomb. She’s also no great shakes in the acting department but like Forest she has the right look for this type of movie. 

The Egyptian settings provide some surprisingly impressive spectacle, the costumes are handsome and the battle scenes are done quite well considering the limited numbers of extras that the budget was able to furnish.

Director Carlo Campogalliani had made his first Maciste movie more than forty years earlier so as you’d expect he handles the job quite competently.

There are no monsters and the only supernatural elements are the magic necklace plus an old guy who seems to have some limited psychic powers that play no part at all in the plot.

Retromedia have released this movie as part of a double-feature DVD, paired with Son of Cleopatra. Son of Samson gets a 16x9 enhanced transfer. Image quality is adequate with very little print damage. Colours are not quite as bright as one could wish for. Sound quality is fine.

If you’re not a peplum fan then Son of Samson is not the movie that is going to change your mind about the genre. If you are a fan you’ll be reasonably satisfied. This is not in the first rank of such movies but it’s enjoyable enough. Recommended.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is one of the more well-known, or one might more accurately say notorious, low-budget science fiction/horror shockers of its era. That’s largely because of the wonderful title and because it features one of the truly iconic schlock cinema images. Sadly that’s about all this movie has going for it.

It won’t surprise you to know that this is a mad scientist movie. The mad scientist in this case is brilliant young surgeon Dr Bill Kortner. His father is also a surgeon and the elder Dr Kortner is increasingly disturbed by the extremes to which his son’s researches seem to be taking him. He is also alarmed by his son’s willingness to try highly experimental treatments on human subjects. His son’s attitude is the attitude taken by every movie mad scientist worth his salt - he believes that he is a misunderstood genius being held back by the timidity and jealousy of the scientific establishment.

The young surgeon conducts his more esoteric experiments at the family’s secluded country dwelling (which looks like the sort of place that mad scientist in low-budget movies would use for their experiments). Naturally he has an assistant, a man named Kurt who was once a great surgeon, until he lost his arm in an accident. Dr Bill Kortner is particularly interested in the potential of organ and limb transplants and he has replaced Kurt’s missing arm, with unfortunately rather unsatisfactory results.

The young scientist is about to face his greatest challenge, which will also present him with his best opportunity to prove his doubters wrong and to prove triumphantly the correctness of his theories. On the way to his country hideaway/laboratory he crashes his car and his girlfriend Jan is decapitated. To most people this would be a horrific tragedy but to Dr Kortner it’s a minor problem - he has saved Jan’s head so all he has to do is to find another body to which to transplant the head. In the meantime he can keep Jan’s head alive for a couple of days in a dish filled with his new experimental wonder serum. 

The enthusiastic young scientist has already performed several experimental transplants and the less-than-successful results one such experiment are kept locked in a cupboard in his laboratory. The headless Jan discovers that Kortner’s serum gives her some kind of paranormal power to communicate with the monster in the cupboard.

One of the problems Dr Kortner is now going to face is that Jan is not a bit grateful to him for having saved her life. In fact she now hates him for keeping her alive. He hasn’t yet realised this however and he is busily searching for a new body for her, while she sits in her dish and plots revenge.

This is a movie that has a lot of problems. The low budget is one of them. Dr Kortner’s mad scientist laboratory looks like a spare room in which a youngster has assembled the ingredients of a bargain store child’s chemistry set. It’s one of the lamest mad scientist laboratories you’ll ever see.

The acting is terrible, even by Z-movie standards. Worst of all, Dr Bill Kortner is the sleaziest mad scientist of all time. He’s not even sleazy in an interesting way. He is creepy, but again not in an interesting way. We don’t get to know Jan before her unlucky accident so we have no opportunity to develop any empathy for her before she becomes a revenge-crazed monster. There are no sympathetic characters in this movie. There are no heroes and no heroines. It’s difficult to care what happens to any of these rather annoying people.

Writer-director Joseph Green had an incredibly brief career. It’s easy to see why it was so brief. This movie offers no indications that Green possessed any talent whatsoever. This is a movie that is technically slightly more proficient than Ed Wood’s movies, but considerably less fun.

The disembodied head in the dish provides the iconic image I mentioned earlier. It is an effective image but it’s the only memorable thing about an otherwise very dull movie. 

This is one of the four movies in the Shout! Factory / Timeless Media Movies 4 You - More Sci-Fi Classics set. All four movies come on one single-sided DVD. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die gets an acceptable transfer. The lack of extras (apart from one alternate scene) is a little disappointing but the very very low price makes this DVD superb value for money.

The fact that The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a bad movie is not a major problem for me. There are many bad movies that I thoroughly enjoy. The problem is that it’s a bad movie that isn’t very much fun. I can’t really recommend this one.

Friday 22 August 2014

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a low-budget American horror movie that displays considerable originality in subject matter. Family curses are par for the course in horror movies but head-hunting Indians and immortal witch doctors are something else.

Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) has devoted his life to the study of the occult. His motivation is not curiosity but fear. For more than a hundred years the men of his family have died suddenly, apparently of heart attacks, on reaching the age of sixty. Jonathan Drake knows that these have not been natural deaths. Now his elder brother Kenneth has turned sixty and Jonathan must act immediately if he is to save him. Unfortunately his studies of the occult have not provided him with an answer and he will not be able to save his brother. The question is, will he be able to save himself?

Police Lieutenant Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards) is investigating the death of Kenneth Drake. Rowan does not believe in family curses or any manifestations of the occult. He believes in facts. But this is a case that seems to defy all logic and Jeff Roan may have to reconsider his beliefs.

The Drake family curse resulted from the actions of an ancestor who wiped out an Amazonian Indian tribe after one of the Indians killed a member of his expedition. One member of the tribe escaped, and unfortunately for the Drake family that lone survivor was a witch doctor who had achieved immortality.

The witch doctor Zutai (Paul Wexler) is being aided in his campaign of vengeance by an archaeologist, Dr Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell). Dr Zurich has other secrets, as we will discover.

Lieutenant Jeff Rowan, with some help from Jonathan Drake’s daughter Alison (Valerie French), will have to race against time to find a way to save Jonathan Drake who has already narrowly escaped several attempts on his life from the murderous witch doctor.

The low budget is quite evident. The entire movie was obviously shot on a sound stage and there are only a handful of sets. The special effects are extremely cheap and simple. This does not damage the movie too much. Dr Zurich’s laboratory looks scary and creepy. The flying skulls effect might be dirt cheap but it’s done very well done and looks genuinely scary. The atmosphere of menace and mystery is achieved in a very satisfactory manner.

The makeup for the witch doctor Zutai is rather effectively grotesque. To prove that they were immortal and no longer needed food the witch doctors had their lips sewn up, an effect that certainly looks pretty horrific.

The shrunken heads collected by Zutai and Dr Zurich add a very macabre touch, and by the standards of 1959 they add some surprisingly graphic horror imagery.

The acting is better than you might expect in such a low budget movie. Henry Daniell as Dr Zurich is wonderfully sinister and hams it up outrageously while Paul Wexler delivers some real chills as the silent witch doctor. 

This is one of the four movies in the Shout! Factory / Timeless Media Movies 4 You - Timeless Horror set. All four movies come on one single-sided DVD. The transfer of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is unfortunately full-frame but the black-and-white image quality is good. The lack of extras is disappointing but on the other hand the very very low price makes this DVD extremely good value. 

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake might not be a great horror movie but it is a rather nifty little flick. It has clever ideas, good atmosphere and some subtle but nonetheless effective chills. It’s great fun. Recommended.

Monday 18 August 2014

Force 10 from Navarone (1978)

Force 10 from Navarone is a sequel to The Guns of Navarone, and that’s its biggest problem. The Guns of Navarone was one of the best action adventure movies ever made and this sets up unrealistically high expectations for the sequel. The Guns of Navarone (released in 1961) was also an old school World War 2 action adventure movie, from the era before the Bond movies changed all the rules. Force 10 from Navarone is very much a post-Bond movie (in fact it was directed by Guy Hamilton who was responsible for no less than four Bond movies), so it’s a different style of action adventure movie. Force 10 from Navarone is more tongue-in-cheek but it’s also more overtly far-fetched in its execution.

It also suffers from being a sequel made 17 years after the original. Only two characters from the original film appear in the sequel but due to the time lapse both characters had to be recast. The roles of Gregory Peck and David Niven are taken over by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox. A sequel that doesn’t have a single actor from the original film can hardly be regarded as a true sequel, even if the Alistair MacLean novel on which it is based really was a sequel to The Guns of Navarone. Shaw and Fox, very wisely, make no attempt to maintain any continuity with the characters played by Peck and Niven.

Force 10 from Navarone was an Anglo-American co-production and was released in 1978. Perhaps not surprisingly it failed to ignite the box office.

Having said all this, it’s actually by no means a bad movie. It’s just not the movie that the tie-in with the 1961 movie would have led audiences to expect. 

Some time after the events described in The Guns of Navarone two members of the team  that had carried out the earlier mission are re-united for another secret operation behind enemy lines. Major Mallory (Robert Shaw) and Sergeant Miller (Edward Fox) have orders to assassinate a traitor operating with Partisan forces in Yugoslavia. They will be air-dropped in Yugoslavia in an RAF Lancaster along with another team, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Barnsby (Harrison Ford). Barnsby’s team, code-named Force 10, have been tasked with destroying a vital bridge.

Right from the start everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The secret take-off of the Lancaster is interrupted by the inconvenient arrival of a contingent of Military Police. Before the drop-zone is reached the Lancaster is shot down. Only two survivors remain from Force 10. Mallory and Miller also survived and it seems the only logical thing to do is for them to join the remnants of Force 10, although Barnsby is not exactly delighted by the prospect. Barnsby is a serious young officer who likes to do things by the rule book. Mallory and Miller have never read the rule book.

They are supposed to join up with a Partisan force but end up being captured by Chetniks (anti-communist guerillas who co-operated with the Axis forces against the communist Partisans). After a series of misadventures our heroes do find the Partisans but there are more double-crosses in store for them. To top it all off they discover that the bridge they are supposed to destroy can’t possibly be destroyed without a vast quantity of explosives that they don’t possess, and even if they had the necessary explosives the job couldn’t be done in the time available. It’s all bitterly disappointing, until Sergeant Miller points out that while they can’t blow up the bridge they could destroy it by indirect means. 

As mentioned earlier director Guy Hamilton was a veteran of four Bond movies. His approach in Force 10 from Navarone is very similar to his approach in his Bond films. That’s no bad thing, given that his Bond movies include Goldfinger, generally regarded as the best of the series. 

The special effects are very good indeed, especially in the climactic scenes. The movie was shot in various locations, including Yugoslavia. Military geeks will be amused that the German tanks in this movie are actually Russian T34/85s, which in 1978 would still have been standard equipment in Yugoslavia’s army. The Germans did use captured equipment in secondary theatres of the war such as the Balkans so it’s not as unrealistic as it might seem. The action sequences are well executed and there are plenty of them.

Harrison Ford does a competent job as Barnsby. Barnsby is brave but rather too tightly buttoned, making a nice contrast to the more flamboyant Mallory (played by the much more flamboyant Robert Shaw). Edward Fox is amusing as the rather eccentric Sergeant Miller, a man who is happiest when he has something he can blow up. With his suitcase full of fiendish explosive gadgets he is a character who would be perfectly at home in a Bond movie. Richard Kiel as the larger-than-life (literally in this case) Chetnik leader, Barbara Bach as the beautiful double agent Maritza and Franco Nero as the ambiguous Captain Lescovar are all fairly solid.

The Region 4 DVD offers a 16x9 enhanced transfer that looks pretty impressive.

By the time this movie was made the classic World War 2 action adventure movie was coming to the end of its run. Force 10 from Navarone cannot compare with the best movies in the genre, and certainly is nowhere near as good as earlier Alistair MacLean adaptations such as The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable second-rank representative of the genre. Recommended.

Thursday 14 August 2014

The Snake Woman (1961)

The Snake Woman is an ultra low budget 1961 British horror movie that turns out to be better than one might have expected. It’s no masterpiece but it’s a competent exercise in subtle horror, relying entirely on atmosphere to compensate for a complete lack of either gore or special effects.

Dr Addison (John Cazabon) is a research scientist who has been working on the theory that snake venom can be used to treat mental disturbances. He’s been trying out this experimental treatment on his own wife, apparently with some success. What he doesn’t know is whether this treatment will have any effect on their unborn child. He will soon have the answer to that question.

The child, a girl, is born and it’s obvious right at the start that she’s slightly odd. She has no eyelids and her body temperature is very very low indeed. The midwife attending the birth is a bit of a local witch and she has no doubt that the child is a serpent-child and is evil.

The villagers are inclined to take a similarly dim view of Dr Addison’s experiments. It is after all 1890 and in rural England they don’t hold with experimenting with snakes. The villagers express their concerns in a rather proactive manner by burning down Dr Addison’s snake-house, accidently killing Dr Addison in the process. You generally expect the scene with the massed villagers armed with flaming torches to come at the end of a horror movie but in this case they get to do their flaming torches stuff very early on.

The doctor attending the birth, Dr Murton (Arnold Marlé), is a kindly old gentleman so he rescues the newborn child. He’s about to go to Africa on a scientific expedition so he leaves the child with a local shepherd. 

Twenty years later the doctor returns to find that the girl, who had a rather sinister reputation, has disappeared although the villagers have no doubt she is still around. 

This inhabitants of this particular village have a remarkable propensity to die from snake-bite. Colonel Wynborn who spent many years in India has no doubt that in each case death resulted from the bite of a king cobra, which is of course impossible. But the colonel has seen the bite of the king cobra hundreds of times and he is convinced he is right. 

The colonel has managed to persuade an old friend who works for Scotland Yard to send an officer to investigate. The officer chosen is not only young and keen, he also has a scientific background. He soon makes the acquaintance of the now elderly and thoroughly unhinged midwife who is convinced that the young policeman is the destined instrument for the destruction of the serpent-woman. He is not too enthusiastic about the prospect, having met the serpent-woman and having noted that she is a rather attractive young woman. He is however determined to do something about the rash of snake-bite deaths.

Director Sidney J. Furie would go on to have a long and interesting career and to make some very stylish movies such as The Ipcress File. Having a talented (albeit fairly inexperienced) director at the helm is what makes The Snake Woman a better movie than it has any right to be given that it was clearly made on a minuscule budget. Furie did not have either the time or the money to do anything flashy with this picture but he does bring a considerable degree of competence to proceedings.

One of the pitfalls of making science fiction or horror movies on zero budgets is the temptation to attempt special effects that are much too ambitious. Furie wisely avoids special effects altogether, apart from one very brief moment at the end. 

Mostly Furie relies on achieving as much atmosphere as he can without spending any money and the results are quite satisfactory.

The acting is reasonably competent. John McCarthy is an adequate hero. Susan Travers as Atheris the snake-woman looks beautiful and exotic which is all her role really requires.

The Snake Woman is one of four movies in the Timeless Horror - Movies 4 You set from Shout Factory and Timeless Media. All four movies come on one single-sided DVD, at an amazingly cheap price.

The Snake Woman is not an overlooked masterpiece but it’s a solid, surprisingly well-made and fairly entertaining horror flick. Recommended.

Sunday 10 August 2014

The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron is a 1933 Mascot aviation adventure serial and it’s rather good fun.

The plot is ridiculously far-fetched but in a serial that’s really a feature rather than a bug. Stephen Gray is a contractor building a dam but the project is being sabotaged by aerial attacks by a group of pilots known as the Mystery Squadron. These rogue flyers are led by a mysterious masked figure, the Black Ace. They have half a dozen aircraft equipped with flame-throwers. If you were going to arm aircraft for these kinds of sabotage operations I would have thought there were much simpler and more effective ways of doing so than fitting a rather clumsy flame-throwing device at the tail but one of the requirements of a serial is goofy gadgetry and the flame-throwers do look reasonably impressive.

Mr Gray decides he needs protection so he hires a couple of barnstorming aviators, Fred Cromwell (Bob Steele) and Bill Cook (Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams). Their efforts to discover the base from which the Mystery Squadron is operating and the identity of the Black Ace provide plenty of opportunities for various good guys to get captured by the bad guys and for various bad guys to get captured by the good guys. Those kinds of plot twists were pretty well essential in order to spin out a serial for a dozen or so episodes (this one runs for twelve episodes).

Naturally Stephen Gray has a beautiful high-spirited daughter, Dorothy, who also happens to be a pilot. Needless to say she will need to be rescued on various occasions. 

As for the identity of the Black Ace there are several possible suspects and the mystery is sustained fairly well. There’s a sub-plot involving a gold mine, always a popular concept in a serial.

Much of the action takes place at the San Juan Tavern, a large establishment well equipped with secret passageways and hidden staircases. There will be endless chases through these secret passageways.

The big drawcard though is the promise of aerial action and on that score this serial certainly delivers the goods. There’s at least one flying sequence (and often more) in each episode. The aerial sequences are quite impressive with some suitably hair-raising stunt flying. The Mystery Squadron’s base is in a cave concealed in a canyon, which seems like the sort of location for a base that would practically guarantee you would lose most of your aircraft in accidents in the first week. It might not be a very sensible location but it looks good. There’s a considerable reliance on miniatures for the many scenes of aircraft being blown up and the miniatures work is very proficient for a low-budget production.

Serials often relied too much on recycling footage by means of flashbacks in order to pad them out to the required number of episodes. The Mystery Squadron uses this technique but does so sparingly.

The acting is of the standard you expect in a serial, in other words it’s mostly wooden and the dialogue (which isn’t exactly sparkling to begin with) is delivered in a generally stilted manner. That doesn’t matter too much in a serial. What matters is that the heroes should look heroic, the villains should talk like villains and the heroine should be beautiful and high-spirited. The Mystery Squadron satisfies these requirements. Bill Cook’s addiction to jelly beans provides a running gag that gets a little tired after a while but Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams is there to provide some comic relief which he does without being too irritating.

Pacing is always a potential problem in a serial but this one moves along pretty swiftly. The action comes thick and fast and the episode cliffhangers are done well. Mascot had vast experience in turning out serials that provided good entertainment on modest budgets and they knew how to work the serial formula to good effect.

The Mystery Squadron is available on DVD from Alpha Video, a company renowned for spectacularly horrible transfers of public domain movies. Even by their standards this one is atrocious. On the other hand you can pick it up for a couple of dollars and that eases the pain a little.

The Mystery Squadron offers plenty of thrills and serial fans should get a great deal of enjoyment out of this one. While the DVD is terrible it is absurdly cheap and the serial itself can be highly recommended.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Reptilicus (1961)

Reptilicus may well be the worst giant monster running amok movie ever made. In its own way it’s certainly one of the most memorable, even if it’s memorable for all the wrong reasons. Despite its epic awfulness it has to be admitted that it’s quite entertaining in a fun bad movie way.

This was a Danish-US co-production. If you’ve ever wondered why the Danes are not famous for their giant monster movies Reptilicus may provide the answer.

We start with a copper-mining operation in Denmark. There is considerable puzzled excitement when the drill bit comes up dripping with blood. And with pieces of flesh adhering to it. The chief of the drilling crew realises immediately that this is a job for scientists. The site is excavated and the tail of a giant reptile is discovered. It is taken back to the aquarium in Copenhagen. The remains had been deep-frozen far beneath the earth. As a result of an unfortunate mistake the tail is allowed to thaw out, and naturally the tail begins to regenerate an entire reptile, which is promptly named Reptilicus.

For some entirely inexplicable reason a general from the United Nations was called in when the reptile tail was unearthed. This proves to be rather fortunate since the regenerated monster reptile is soon running loose in the Danish countryside leaving a trail of mayhem behind it.

While the scientists seem unsure what to do next General Grayon has no such doubts. He’s going to hit Reptilicus with all the firepower at his disposal. This has the result of making Reptilicus rather annoyed. Eventually a flamethrower is employed. This seems to be fairly successful and Reptilicus heads for the open sea to lick his wounds. The wounds were obviously not very severe and Reptilicus is soon sinking ships throughout the Baltic Sea.

General Grayson is convinced that he just needs more firepower although it is pointed out to him that blowing up the monster is likely to produce a whole crop of monsters regenerated from the pieces of the first monster. Eventually of course someone comes up with a simply way of dealing with the monster which could have saved thousands of lives if only they’d thought of it earlier.

This movie commits every sin that a low-budget film can commit. The pacing is too slow, there’s too much padding with travelogue shots of Danish tourist attractions, there’s excessive reliance on badly chosen stock footage, the monster is unexciting and unconvincing, the miniatures are cheap and crude, the special effects are ludicrously clumsy. There’s a shot of a couple of farmers being eaten by Reptilicus that may well be the worst special effect ever put on film.

Samuel Z. Arkoff took one look at this film and decided it was an unreleasable mess. AIP recut the movie and eliminated the scenes of Reptilicus flying across the countryside on the grounds that these scenes looked silly. When you consider how silly the rest of the movie is those scenes must have been truly amazing. I’m not sure if the optical effects (with Reptilicus spitting green slime) were original or were added by AIP. Either way they’re horrifically crude.

The monster itself is very feeble indeed. The most effective scene is the chaos on the opening bridge scene which is the one moment in the film that comes close to being scary. The scene in which the monster gets torched by a flamethrower is accompanied by such screams of agony that you’re probably going to start feeling sorry for poor old Reptilicus.

The acting is remarkably poor even by low-budget monster movie standards.

Producer-director Sidney Pink was a film-maker in the Ed Wood mould. He had considerable ambitions but his talents proved woefully inadequate to the realisation of those ambitions. Journey to the Seventh Planet, his other US-Danish co-production made around the same time as Reptilicus, is an interesting but entertaining failure and is worth seeing. Pink co-wrote the screenplay to Reptilicus with Ib Melchior, with whom he collaborated on the incredibly cheesy but fun The Angry Red Planet. Pink, like Ed Wood, was always hampered by extremely low budgets so it’s hard to know whether he could have made better movies if he’d ever managed to get his hands on some real money.

Shout! Factory and Timeless Media have included Reptilicus in their Movies 4 You - More Sci-Fi Classics release. This offers four movies on a single disc at a ludicrously low price. The transfer of Reptilicus is acceptable. Given the film’s ultra-low budget it probably never looked much better than this.

This is a very bad movie indeed, but it’s so comprehensively and spectacularly bad that one can’t help being fascinated. In its own inept and bungling way Reptilicus really is kind of fun. It’s the sort of movie you have to see for yourself - no description can adequately prepare you for it. Recommended for lovers of heavy duty cheesiness.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon is one of the most important science fiction movies ever made. It’s the movie that kicked off the space travel movie craze of the 1950s. Ironically it was beaten to the punch by Lippert’s low-budget Rocketship X-M but that movie would never have been made had it not not been for the publicity surrounding Destination Moon. Destination Moon was also the first movie to deal with space travel in a thoroughly realistic manner. It could almost be said that this is the movie that invented the Space Age.

This George Pal production was based on a novel by the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein and Heinlein co-wrote the screenplay. Other movies have been based on Heinlein’s fiction but Destination Moon remains by far the most overtly Heinleinian of them all. 

There is no US government space program in this movie. A handful of visionary scientists and engineers who have been experimenting with rocketry for some years conceive the project. They had earlier worked on a US Air Force rocket program but when the rocket blew up the US government cut the funding. To General Thayer (Tom Powers), Dr Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and aircraft manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) the cancellation of the government’s rocket program isn’t a disaster, it’s a blessing. It means space research can now be left in the hands of free enterprise which means something might actually get achieved. And Thayer, Cargraves and Barnes don’t just intend to build a rocket - they intend to go to the Moon! In order to attract financing from the private sector they commission a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining the basics of rocketry. This cartoon adds a delightfully odd whimsical touch.

This moon mission is a private venture but that doesn’t mean the project is free of bureaucratic interference and politically-inspired attempts at sabotage. Interfering government busybodies intend to ban the mission but our three intrepid space pioneers get wind of this and decide to launch the rocket right away without testing. Heinlein was never shy about expressing his political views and he certainly makes his opinion of hand-wringing Nanny State bureaucrats very clear indeed.

At the last moment the spacecraft’s radio and radar operator has to drop out due to appendicitis so Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) is drafted to replace him. Wesson will provide the movie’s comic relief. The movie doesn’t really need the comic relief but luckily Wesson proves to be far less irritating than most of the actors providing comic relief in Hollywood movies of this vintage. 

The biggest surprise of the movie is that the spacecraft does not encounter a meteor storm en route to the Moon. There will be dangers and adventures but this film goes to great lengths to make these dangers plausible. It cannot be blamed for creating the meteor storm cliché but it does create the space-walking astronaut drifting off into space cliché.

Getting to the Moon is one thing. Getting home again is another. And that’s where the astronaut’s problems really begin.

Destination Moon proves that it is possible to make an exciting space adventure movie without abandoning scientific plausibility. There is genuine excitement and tension as the four astronauts, faced with the possibility of being marooned on the Moon forever, battle desperately to find a way to return home.

This movie won the Best Special Effects Oscar and was nominated for best Art Direction. The paintings representing the lunar surface don’t look particularly realistic but they do still look rather impressive. The spacecraft itself has a superb 1950s elegance to its design. 

Destination Moon’s sublime technological optimism and its faith in individualism, self-confidence and courage make a refreshing change from the guilt-ridden miseries of modern popular culture. 

Image Entertainment’s DVD is barebones (apart from a trailer) but it’s a reasonably good transfer. There’s some print damage and a few speckles but overall the image is crisp and the colour (the movie was shot in Technicolor) looks fine.

In its quest for realism Destination Moon did not inspire too many imitators but it did put science fiction on the map as far as movies were concerned, and it’s an entertaining movie. Heinlein’s uncompromising opinions give it a unique flavour. Highly recommended.