Monday 29 September 2014

The Neanderthal Man (1953)

The Neanderthal Man is a low-budget sci-fi/horror flick that really does suffer from its meagre budget but it’s not entirely without interest.

In the Sierras in California a strange creature has been seen. It’s obviously a cat but it’s much too big to be a mountain lion, and no-one has ever seen a mountain lion with tusks! The local game warden decides this is a case that needs to be investigated by a real scientist. There happens to be a real scientist living in the town but Professor Groves (Robert Shayne) contemptuously dismisses the idea, Undeterred, the game warden goes looking for a scientist who will listen to a story, and he finds one in the person of Dr Ross Harkness (Richard Crane). It takes some doing but eventually Dr Harkness agrees to go back to the mountains with the game warden to look into the matter.

He soon makes the acquaintance of Professor Groves. Groves is a brilliant but controversial scientist who has been ridiculed by the scientific establishment for his rather bizarre ideas about man’s ancestors. Groves is irascible and seems more than a little unhinged. Eventually we discover exactly what Groves has been up to in his laboratory. He believes that every animal contains within it a kind of essence of the animals from which it evolved. And he has come up with a serum that he believes can unlock those memories or essences of earlier species.

It takes him a while but eventually D Harkness figures out that the sabre-toothed tiger has come from the professor’s laboratory. By injecting an ordinary cat with the serum he has awakened kitty’s sabre-toothed tiger heritage. More disturbingly, it appears that Groves has been trying out his serum on humans. The result is a neanderthal man!

This could be dismissed as merely a rather outré line of research except for the series of murders that takes place, with survivors describing an ape-man of superhuman strength.

The plot plays out as a fairly standard story of a brilliant but tragic mad scientist who has pushed his researches too far.

The big problem is the sabre-toothed tiger. It’s clearly just a plain old common and garden variety tiger. Occasionally we see crude close-ups of a stuffed tiger head with gigantic fangs but in every shot where we see the whole living animal it obviously just has regular tiger teeth. One can’t entirely blame the film-makers - trying to persuade even the tamest tiger to allow someone to fit it with prosthetic fangs is an undertaking to which the tiger would be likely to take grave exception. The fact remains that all the scenes involving the sabre-toothed tiger are embarrassingly unconvincing.

The neanderthal man makeup effects really aren’t too bad for a low-budget feature, but they aren’t particularly scary. They don’t allow any changes of expression at all and the one expression the neanderthal man does have is too benign. He looks more like a kid with a halloween mask than a ravenous monster.

 The initial transformation scene is done rather well although the later transformation scenes are much less effective.

The premise might be rather outlandish but it has to be said that it’s really no goofier than the premise of the average sci-fi/horror movie and in some ways it’s an idea that seems to indicate that writers Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen have actually tried to come up with something that at least sounds very vaguely scientifically plausible. Obviously it isn’t plausible at all but as sci-fi technobabble goes it sounds good. 

German-born director Ewald André Dupont had enjoyed some acclaim in Germany during the silent era. His later career, which saw him making movies in various countries, was less successful.

The acting is generally no more than adequate although Robert Shayne does the mad scientist scenery-chewing with considerable enthusiasm and to good effect.

It can’t be denied that The Neanderthal Man needed a much bigger budget, and that the  screenplay fails to do very much with an idea that might have had promise. 

This is one of the movies in the Shout! Factory / Timeless Media Movies 4 You: More Sci-Fi Classics set. All four movies are on a single DVD. The transfer is 16x9 enhanced and is quite reasonable, especially given the ridiculously low price.

If you want harmless slightly silly fun The Neanderthal Man is enjoyable enough within its limitations. Recommended.

Monday 22 September 2014

The Face of Marble (1946)

The Face of Marble is a 1946 Monogram horror flick starring John Carradine. It’s a mad scientist movie, but it’s a whole lot more than that.

John Carradine is Dr Charles Randolph, a brilliant brain surgeon whose research is veering far into uncharted territory. In other words he’s a mad scientist. Dr Randolph and his assistant Dr David Cochran (Robert Shayne) believe they are on the verge of conquering death. Needless to say their experiments involve electricity and a secret formula.

Robert Shayne would go on to play a fully-fledged mad scientist in The Neanderthal Man. In The Face of Marble he’s just the assistant, but if you’re a trainee mad scientist you really couldn’t have a better teacher than John Carradine.

One interesting twist is that it’s not Dr Randolph who wants to keep pushing on despite the evidence that his experiments are flawed, it’s his assistant who insists that they go on.

Their experiments are almost successful, but prove to have terrible consequences.

There are further plot complications - Dr Randolph’s young wife Elaine has fallen for Dr Cochran. And the Randolph family’s housekeeper Maria (Rosa Rey) is a voodoo priestess.

This one throws just about everything imaginable into the mix - there’s a mad scientist, there’s voodoo, there’s vampirism and there’s a dog who walks through walls. There’s also a nosy police inspector causing trouble about the dead body of a sailor washed ashore on the beach. It seems the sailor had been exposed to massive amounts of electricity, which is not the sort of thing you expect with a drowning victim. The romantic triangle alluded to earlier will also cause major problems, as romantic triangles usually do when they’re aided by voodoo.

It’s a Monogram movie so it’s a very low-budget affair. That doesn’t prove to be to much of a problem. Dr Randolph’s laboratory is a perfectly adequate if not spectacular mad scientist’s laboratory. The special effects are obviously very cheap but they work well enough and they certainly don’t detract from the fun.

While the story is a real mixture of elements the screenplay (by Michael Jacoby) deserves credit for managing to combine them quite effectively. The romantic triangle forms an integral part of the plot. Even the juxtaposition of science and voodoo works surprisingly well. Dr Randolph and Dr Cochran are trying to do exactly what the voodoo priestess Maria is doing - interfering with the course of nature. The fact that the movie seems to be shuttling back and forth between science fiction and supernatural horror also becomes more acceptable once you realise that that’s the whole point, that the movie is saying that science and voodoo are more or less interchangeable. You might not agree with that view but it’s a perfectly valid one for the movie to take.

John Carradine is always fun. In this sort of movie you expect his performance to be outrageously hammy but in fact he underplays his rôle slightly (or at least it’s underplayed by John Carradine standards) and adds some actual emotional depth. One of the intriguing things about this movie is that the mad scientist isn’t a good man who slowly becomes corrupted by playing God - in this case he actually becomes less crazy as he realises what the consequences are.

By the standards of 1940s Monogram horror cheapies this is a movie that tries to be a bit subtle and a bit ambitious, and surprisingly it’s at least party successful in these efforts. 

This is one of the four movies (all on a single DVD) in the Shout! Factory / Timeless Media Movies 4 You: Timeless Horror set. The print used for the transfer of The Face of Marble was clearly not in great condition but it’s quite watchable. There are occasional minor sound issues but nothing to get too worried about. Considering the ludicrously low price of this set and the fact that the other transfers are pretty good there’s not much to complain about. These are movies that are unlikely ever to get full restorations so they are probably never going to look any better than this. The set also includes The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, The Snake Woman and I Bury the Living.

Those who start with the prejudice that all Monogram pictures were junk may be inclined to dismiss The Face of Marble with a sneer. If you don’t suffer from that prejudice or if you’re prepared to put it aside then you might find yourself enjoying this movie quite a bit. It’s obviously not in the same league as the Val Lewton movies of the same era but it’s really a lot better than its reputation would suggest. Recommended.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

It’s a tough thing for a fan of cult movies to admit but until tonight I had never seen Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. I had heard a great deal about it of course and I can’t really explain why I’d never seen it. I have now had the chance to see it on the Blu-Ray release (that’s the good news) in a colorised version (that’s the bad news).

I managed to endure a few minutes of the drab lifeless colours before switching to the black-and-white version which is (mercifully) also included.

This is of course one of the legendary Ray Harryhausen movies of the 1950s. Harryhausen’s flying saucers do not disappoint.

In some ways the plot, from a story by Curt Siodmak, is pretty much a stock-standard alien invasion story. Flying saucers were big news at the time so combining the flying saucer craze with an alien invasion story was an excellent idea. The original inspiration was apparently a book by noted UFO enthusiast Donald E. Keyhoe, who had been a prolific writer of extremely good and wildly imaginative pulp fiction back in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of his pulp stories are now available in book form and I can highly recommend The Vanished Legion and (even more particularly) Strange War.

Dr Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) is a scientist working on Project Skyhook, which involves the launching of a dozen artificial satellites. Marvin and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) encounter a flying saucer while driving to the satellite launch site. Project Skyhook has been running into problems and contact has been lost with most of the satellites. What Dr Marvin does not know but will soon find out from his boss General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) is that the satellites are no longer up there in space. The wreckage of the satellites has been found scattered in various locations across the globe. It won’t take the viewer long to figure out that the loss of the satellites is connected with the flying saucers that have been spotted recently. It takes Dr Marvin a little longer to spot the connection, but not too long.

The flying saucers attack the launch site and pretty soon Project Skyhook is a smouldering expanse of rubble and scrap metal. Dr Marvin discovers (through a clever early use of the much-used technique of slowed-down sound recordings) that the aliens have been trying to make contact with Earth. At this point you might think this is going to be another of those alien invasion movies involving tragic misunderstood aliens fleeing a dying world. That turns out to be partly true but it soon becomes obvious that the aliens were not trying to contact us to negotiate with us but merely to inform us of our impending conquest. They were hoping for a surrender to save them the trouble of destroying us.

Of course the Earth has no intention of surrendering. And Dr Marvin is not one of those irritating movie scientists who tries to persuade us to try to understand the aliens’ point of view. Dr Marvin is in fact as gung-ho as anyone about resisting the invasion and he is soon busily inventing a secret weapon to knock those flying saucers out of the sky. The story builds towards the inevitable showdown with the aliens, and some very satisfying battle scenes.

One of the great attractions of 1950s sci-fi is the technobabble, something 1950s film-makers were very good at. This movie has some superb examples, the best being the Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank and the alien helmets made from solidified electricity (Ray Harryhausen himself claimed the credit for that last one). 

It goes without saying that when you see Ray Harryhausen’s name in the credits you expect that the special effects will be a major feature of the film and that they will be impressive. In this movie Harryhausen delivers the goods on both counts. The flying saucers really do look terrific. The amazing thing is that the largest models used were only a foot in diameter and yet they look much more convincing and much more sophisticated than any other attempts at that time to depict flying saucers.

This movie, like most low-budget sci-fi movies of its era, uses a lot of stock footage. The difference is that in this movie the stock footage is integrated into the action with extraordinary skill and in almost every case it’s been so carefully selected that it fits in perfectly. This film is an object lesson in how to use stock footage properly and effectively.

The climactic battle scenes, with flying saucers wreaking destruction on Washington and other cities while Dr Marvin’s new sound gun takes a toll on the saucers, are remarkably effective. The flying saucers look like they’re really there.

The Blu-Ray includes a number of extras including an audio commentary with Harryhausen himself and a couple of supposed experts who seem to know very little about their subject. Harryhausen though supplies a good deal of fascinating information on the making of the film and the creation of the special effects. The breath-taking simplicity of some of his techniques demonstrates that getting special effects right depends on skill and imagination rather than the popular modern approach of just throwing money at the problem.

While I listened to the audio commentary I forced myself to sit through the colorised version. I was not impressed. The colours look much too much like the colours in so many movies today - too drab and way too much blue and green toning. To my mind the black-and-white version looks fresher and brighter. The good news is that apart from the ill-advised colorisation the transfer is extremely good.

The biggest surprise is that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers works very well as a genuine science fiction action movie rather than an exercise in high camp. There is nothing of the so-bad-it’s-good quality to this movie. And there is no reason to be embarrassed by the special effects - they still look very impressive. Highly recommended.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)

Zombies of Mora Tau was one of producer Sam Katzman’s 1950s low-budget science fiction/horror flicks, included in Sony’s four-movie Icons of Horror Sam Katzman Collection.

Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) arrives at her great-grandmother’s house in Africa and something very strange happens on the drive there. Her great-grandmother’s chauffeur hits a man on the road and just drives on as if nothing had happened. He assures Jan that she is not to worry because it was not a man that the car hit. She remembers stories of zombies from her childhood but surely no-one believes such stories in the 1950s. It is obvious however that her great-grandmother most certainly does believe in zombies.

She discovers that a miscellaneous collection of adventurers and rough-necks are nearby, searching for a fabled treasure lost off the coast of Africa in the late 19th century. Her great-grandmother clearly knows a good deal about the story. In the past half-century half a dozen expeditions have tried to find the famous diamonds that went down with the Susan B in 1894. They are all buried in a nearby graveyard.

George Harrison (Joel Ashley) has no patience with legends of zombies. He aims to get those diamonds. Dr Jonathan Egger (Morris Ankrum) is accompanying his expedition, but for scientific reasons rather than greed. Handsome young deep-sea diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) shares Harrison’s interest in the diamonds. When a member of the crew of Harrison’s ship falls victim to a zombie Jeff starts to have his doubts about the wisdom of the whole undertaking but he puts those doubts aside when Harrison offers him a bigger cut of the loot.

It soon becomes apparent that the zombies are all too real and that the chances of getting those diamonds and getting out alive are not very promising. Jan’s great-grandmother tries to persuade the greed-obsessed adventurers that the diamonds are the reason for the existence of the zombies and that only by destroying the diamonds can the zombies find eternal peace. The zombies are of course the original crewmen of the Susan B and the various men who have since tried to claim the diamond treasure from its watery resting place a hundred feet beneath the sea.

This is a distinctly low-budget affair so don’t expect elaborate special effects or zombie makeup. In spite of this the zombies still manage to be fairly frightening. They don’t look particularly horrific but they just keep coming after you and nothing can stop them.

The diving scenes, surprisingly, are very well done and pretty convincing. And pretty exciting as well.

The acting is better than you generally get in such a low-rent feature. Gregg Palmer is a likeable hero and while Autumn Russell is a little insipid at times she’s an acceptable heroine. Allison Hayes has some fun as Harrison’s hardboiled wife. Marjorie Eaton is perfect as the great-grandmother who knows all the secrets.

The most common failing of the cheap sci-fi and horror movies of the 50s is poor pacing but Zombies of Mora Tau does not share that flaw. The action movies along in a very satisfying manner and the script does not get bogged down in unnecessary romantic sub-plots. There’s nothing startlingly original in the story but it hangs together and it offers a reasonably plausible explanation for the events. Plausible, so long as one admits the existence of voodoo and zombies.

Despite the low budget this movie is generally well-crafted. This is a movie that is enjoyably schlocky without Ed Wood-style incompetence.

The 16x9 enhanced transfer looks terrific. The four movies in the set are spread over two discs with (surprisingly) a few extras as well. Sony have done a fine job with this release.

Zombies of Mora Tau is just creepy enough to be more than just a so-bad-it’s-good movie but just silly enough to be great fun. It is in other words ideal entertainment for anyone who loves science fiction or horror B-movies. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

Sunday 7 September 2014

The Sea Wolves (1980)

The Sea Wolves is an old-fashioned war adventure movie in the very best meaning of the term old-fashioned. Andrew V. McLaglen was arguably the best director of such movies in the business at the time and he delivers all the excitement anyone could reasonably want.

The movie was based on the real-life raid on Goa by the Calcutta Light Horse in 1943, a mission that was not publicly revealed until 1978 due to the unfortunate circumstance that it involved a fairly major violation of Portuguese neutrality. The Calcutta Light Horse was a reserve cavalry regiment that had not seen active duty since the Boer War. In 1943 German U-boats were taking a heavy toll of Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean. They were acting on information broadcast from a transmitter on the German merchant ship Ehrenfels which had been interned at Goa (a tiny Portuguese enclave on the west coast of India). This in itself was a violation of Portuguese neutrality so the British felt justified in taking action but they could not afford to do so openly. A plan was hatched whereby the members of the Calcutta Light Horse, all retired soldiers, would sink the Ehrenfels.

In the film version the plan is hatched by Colonel Lewis Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) of the British SOE, a top-secret intelligence organisation which carried out a variety of what would today be called covert operations. They come up with the plan after having failed to eliminate the German spies passing on the intelligence that was then broadcast to the U-boats by the Ehrenfels.

The Colonel of the Light Horse, Bill Grice (David Niven), is only too eager to get involved, having been turned down for active service due to his age. The other members of the Light Horse are just as old and broken-down, and just as keen. They steal an ancient Indian barge which they then have to sail right around India before reaching their objective. Meanwhile Captain Stewart has got himself involved with a beautiful German spy - there’s no point in having Roger Moore in the movie if he can’t get mixed up with glamorous female spies.

The movie takes quite a while to get to the main action but that’s no problem because there is plenty of minor action to keep things bubbling along happily until then. The movie naturally ends with the sort of spectacular action set-piece that McLaglen was so good at.

Along the way you can have fun spotting all the superb British character actors who fill the supporting roles with such élan. Kenneth Griffith, Trevor Howard, Patrick Macnee, Allan Cuthbertson, Donald Houston - the list is too long to give in full but they’re all clearly having a terrific time. Of course they all over-act, but over-acting never hurt an action adventure movie. Gregory Peck relishes his last opportunity to play an action hero and at the age of 64 shows he can still teach younger actors a few things about how to do these things right. Peck has no problem playing a British officer - his natural speaking voice was rather patrician anyway and he wisely makes no attempt to do anything more in the way of an accent. He shares top billing with Moore and Niven. In 1980 Peck was still a major star, having had a massive hit with The Omen just a few years earlier.

There are plenty of amusing moments but while the operation has a certain comic-opera quality McLaglen wisely does not approach this movie as outright comedy, which might have had the effect of making a far-fetched plot (admittedly based on outrageously unlikely true events) seem merely silly. These old crocks are brave men and the movie treats them with the respect they deserve.

This Anglo-American-Swiss co-production was filmed on location in Germany and India. The budget was obviously quite generous and the action sequences are very impressively mounted. Enormous amounts of small arms ammunition get expended and there are enough explosions to gladden the heart of the most jaded action fan.

Reginald Rose’s screenplay was based on James Leasor’s book on the actual raid. Some of the German survivors of the raid acted as historical advisers.

Warner Home Video’s Region 1 DVD is totally lacking in extras but it does present the movie in a superb 16x9 enhanced transfer, and at a very reasonable price. My only quibble, and it’s a very minor one, is that the DVD cover artwork seems to depict Niven and Moore in German uniform, which they don’t wear at any stage in the film,

The Sea Wolves delivers the goods. This is a consciously heroic movie about some very unlikely heroes. There’s no cynicism here, and its absence is entirely to be welcomed. Great fun and highly recommended.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Battle in Outer Space (1959)

Battle in Outer Space is not one of Ishirô Honda’s most highly regarded movies but it may be his most entertaining work. It really is extraordinarily good fun. This is pure space opera and it’s superbly done.

It’s a movie that hits the ground running, opening with the destruction of a Japanese space station by alien spaceships. We never really find out who these aliens are but we know they intend to conquer the Earth. 

The aliens have the advantage of a super-weapon - a freezing ray. Of course as we all know, if an object’s temperature decreases rapidly its gravity will also decrease rapidly(!) so when the freezing ray hits an object it flies into the air due to its negative gravity. This is the kind of science that makes me love science fiction movies.

The aliens have established an advanced base on the Moon. Fortunately Japan has two advanced spacecraft ready to go and sixteen astronauts from various countries set off to destroy that base. When they reach the Moon they transfer to two very cool moon vehicles. They locate the alien base and a battle ensues. The aliens have another secret weapon - mind control. They can turn people into willing slaves who then serve the aliens. This mind control however only seems to work on a handful of human subjects.

The battle on the Moon is just the beginning. A full-scale attack by the aliens is imminent but Earth scientists (led by the Japanese of course) have constructed rocket fighters to oppose the invasion. Another major battle follows.

You expect that sooner or later Tokyo will get stomped but oddly enough New York is the first target, with much devastation being caused by the alien anti-gravity rays. Tokyo’s turn will come later.

The plot is, as you may have gathered, rather on the thin side. This is not a problem as the movie relies on non-stop action and spectacle and on those counts it delivers the goods so magnificently that the viewer is unlikely to have time to worry about the plot. And too much emphasis on plot would have slowed down the action.

The special effects are variable in quality. There’s some very clumsy use of matte paintings early on. On the whole though the special effects are excellent. There’s some superb miniatures work. The spaceships and the moon rovers look terrific. The destruction caused by the anti-gravity beams is rendered quite cleverly. The buildings hit by the beam can’t just explode in a normal way - they have to explode upwards, and these effects look pretty good.

The sets and costumes look great. The problem of showing the appearance of the aliens, always a potential weakness in a movie of this type, is (very wisely) avoided altogether. The only times we see the aliens they are wearing spacesuits that hide their features completely. They are very small in stature and they don’t move quite like humans and this comes off quite well.

An irritating feature of many Japanese science fiction movies is preachiness. Thankfully Battle in Outer Space mostly avoids this pitfall. There is a message about an external threat causing all the nations of Earth to work together which betrays a rather naïve belief in internationalism but at least there’s no heavy-handed pacifist message. This is a full-scale alien invasion and humanity either fights back or dies.

This movie is bundled with Mothra and The H-Man in Sony’s Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection boxed set. Each movie gets a disc to itself. Battle in Outer Space gets a lovely anamorphic transfer with nicely vibrant colours. Both a Japanese-language version with sub-titles and an English are included, plus a lively and informative (and very respectful) audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.

Battle in Outer Space is plain old-fashioned fun. Very highly recommended.