Friday 24 October 2014

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Colossus: The Forbin Project qualifies as both a science fiction movie of the “computers will one day turn against us” variety and a Cold War thriller. Released in 1970, this is a very fine movie whichever genre you assign it to.

Dr Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is the scientist responsible for designing and building Colossus. Colossus is a super-computer and it’s intended to take charge of the defence of the United States. With nuclear war being an ever-present danger the idea is to eliminate the possibility of human error inadvertently causing such a war. Colossus has no emotions and cannot make mistakes. Surely it would be much safer to leave any decision as to how to respond to a threat of war in the hands of an infallible machine rather than an all too fallible human being?

The idea of Colossus is one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” notions. Once Colossus is activated the President of the United States can relax knowing that nothing can go wrong. 

Of course you won’t be surprised to hear that in fact something does go wrong. In fact it goes wrong within minutes after Colossus is activated. Colossus announces that it has detected the existence of “another system” and that it wishes to make contact. What should have caused much greater concern is that Colossus is not so much making a request as issuing an order. The “other system” turns out to be a Soviet counterpart to Colossus, known as Guardian.

The President of the US and the Chairman of the USSR are not too happy about this but Dr Forbin persuades the that it would be best to agree to the request. Dr Forbin is not worried. He knows that nothing can go wrong, because he created Colossus. Despite its vast computing powers Colossus is incapable of independent thought, so there can’t really be any danger. At this point the alert viewer might be inclined to start doubting Dr Forbin’s judgment. After all he has been telling everyone about Colossus’s practically limitless learning capacities and its entirely limitless capacity for accumulating data. And Colossus has after all been designed to make decisions on its own initiative. You might think that a computer with limitless learning ability that has been designed to make decisions is already perilously close to being a machine that can think for itself and you might also think that perhaps it’s just a tiny bit rash giving such a machine control of the whole of the US nuclear arsenal. You might further ponder the wisdom of allowing said machine to establish direct contact with a similar computer that has control of the whole of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Dr Forbin however is still confident that Colossus poses no danger. Well, fairly confident. He does admit that Colossus might not actually be under human control any longer but he is still sure there’s nothing to worry about.

It doesn’t take very long before there is most certainly something to worry about, when Colossus and Guardian start launching missiles. They promise to abort the missile launches as soon as the US and Soviet governments agree to start taking their orders from the two computers.

Now even Dr Forbin is worried. Very worried. And things just get more and more worrying. Colossus-Guardian is no longer a super-computer. Now it’s a kind of a cross between a world dictator and a god. But it’s OK, because it’s all for our own good. Colossus-Guardian has realised humans cannot be trusted to run their own affairs, so it intends to run our affairs for us. As Dr Forbin soon discovers, running our affairs includes telling us when to go to sleep, when to exercise and how much to drink. Dr Forbin now finds he has created the ultimate Nanny, and Nanny most definitely knows what is best for us. Anyone who doesn’t wish to obey Nanny will be liquidated.

This movie is to a considerable extent another reworking of Frankenstein. The parallels to Mary Shelley’s great novel are in fact very close. Dr Forbin is very much like Dr Frankenstein, an idealistic scientist with a burning desire to help mankind but with rather poor judgment and a chronic inability to recognise the danger of his creation, combined with an inability to admit he may be mistaken until it is too late. Colossus is very much like Dr Frankenstein’s monster - not inherently evil but combining superhuman strength with a frighteningly childlike view of the world. And like a child being inclined to rage if thwarted.

There’s also an obvious anti-totalitarian message. A totalitarianism that is imposed upon us “for our own good” is every bit as unpleasant as any other kind of totalitarianism. Possibly even worse, since people (or machines) that know what is good for us are not content with mere power; they want to micro-manage every aspect of our lives.

This was a big-budget movie and it showcases some stunning sets combined with what were for the time some cutting-edge technical innovations such as filming scenes simultaneously on two different sets with the characters on the two sets communicating with each other on videophones. There are very few outdoor scenes, which could have resulted in a rather static and dull feel but director Joseph Sargent avoids those dangers with plenty of camera movement. In fact the enclosed feeling that results from most of the action taking place in a couple of sets contributes to the growing feeling of paranoia and entrapment.

Eric Braeden is impressive as the well-meaning Forbin who really is a decent kind of guy who just happens to have made an error of judgment that might spell the end of civilisation. He’s a very believable scientist, arrogant in a manner that in some ways makes him just as childlike as Colossus. Susan Clark plays is chief assistant but is sadly miscast and completely unconvincing as a scientist.

This movie dates from an age that was starting to view computers as a potential threat to human freedom and even human survival and can be compared to other science fiction movies of its era dealing with computers run amok, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Westworld and the somewhat notorious Demon Seed

A word of warning relating to DVD releases of this movie - the Region 1 is apparently a pan-and-scan version and should therefore be avoided. The Region 2 DVD from Medium Rare is in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and features a good anamorphic transfer. It also includes a director’s commentary track.

Colossus: The Forbin Project is an intelligent and thoughtful science fiction movie and it’s also a tense and gripping story. One of the best science fiction movies of its era. Highly recommended. 

Saturday 18 October 2014

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

It was of course inevitable that having produced their own very successful versions of Frankenstein and Dracula Hammer would eventually turn their attentions to Universal’s other classic monster subject, the wolf-man. Rather than just remaking The Wolf Man they decided to do something a little bolder - adapting Guy Endore’s interesting and original 1934 novel The Werewolf of Paris. Unfortunately the themes of the book would probably not have lent themselves to Hammer’s approach to gothic horror and the screenplay by Anthony Hinds ended up having almost nothing in common with Endore’s novel.

The screenplay does however come up with a couple of reasonably effective twists on the werewolf idea. Director Terence Fisher was always attracted by stories that presented a conflict between good and evil and Hinds’ screenplay gives him plenty of scope to explore this conflict.

Universal's The Wolf Man established the werewolf as a tragic monster, doomed through no fault of his own. The Curse of the Werewolf follows the same pattern. A serving girl (played by Yvonne Romain) is raped by a beggar in prison. That’s bad enough, but the resulting child is born on Christmas Day, a circumstance that always involves the danger that the child will be exposed to evil influences (the idea being that a child born on the same day and at the same hour as Christ is an insult to Heaven).

The evil influences in this case go back before the conception of the child. It was the brutality and lust of the Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) that began the chain of unfortunate circumstances.

The child is adopted by the kindly Alfredo (Clifford Evans) who gradually becomes aware that there is something amiss with young Leon. A wise and sympathetic priest explains the workings of the curse - a werewolf is a man with a human soul and a wolf spirit constantly at war with each other. The outcome of the struggle is always uncertain, with both damnation and redemption being possible. This is an idea that allows Fisher to explore the good/evil dichotomy in a single individual.

To add to the tragedy, even as a boy Leon is not unaware of the struggle for dominance between good and evil being waged within him. As he grows up he, and everyone around him, tries to pretend that somehow the evil has been averted.

There are plenty of promising ideas here and Fisher makes the most of them.

Oliver Reed plays Leon as a man and of the various rôles he played for Hammer in the early 60s this is the most demanding, and the most rewarding. Reed could be menacing and he could be very dark indeed but he could also be very sympathetic and this part gives him the opportunity to show his full range as an actor. Most importantly Reed has that indefinable quality that makes a true star - the ability to dominate the screen.

While I don’t wish to take anything away from Lon Chaney Jr’s fine performance in The Wolf Man there’s no question that Oliver Reed was the better actor and he adds extra layers of complexity to the doomed hero. One cool thing about this movie is that to play Leon as a boy Hammer found a child actor who looks exactly like a child version of Oliver Reed!

Fisher knew that the problem with any werewolf movie is that even the best werewolf makeup can look a little silly so he wisely refrains from revealing the werewolf until very late in the picture. Most of the horror is portrayed indirectly and as so often this has the effect of making it all the more effective. Suggested rather than overt horror is always more frightening, especially when you’re dealing with a tragic monster. The fact that we don’t see Oliver Reed in the full werewolf makeup until the end helps us to regard Leon as a man and not a mere monster. The makeup effects aren’t spectacular but they do have the advantage of allowing Reed to express emotion. Fisher has enough sense to know that poorly executed transformation scenes have ruined many werewolf movies so he achieves the transformations in stages using cutaways rather than taking the risk of showing them directly.  

Fisher demonstrates his sure touch with the pacing of the film - it starts slowly but gradually accelerates until towards the end it becomes relentless. He also knows that some horror movie clichés should not be avoided - a villagers with flaming torches scene is not a cliché but a much-loved horror movie convention, so he includes one.

This movie was made by Hammer’s A-Team - Terence Fisher directing, Arthur Grant doing the cinematography and Bernard Robinson doing the production design. The result is a classy and stylish gothic horror movie with a fine sense of tragedy. Highly recommended.

Universal have done a good job with the DVD transfer (from their Franchise Collection Hammer Horror Series boxed set). The lack of extras is a little disappointing but the set is excellent value for money.

Sunday 12 October 2014

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil a Daughter marked the end of the line for Hammer as far as horror movies are concerned. Rather ironic, given that the film was a major box-office hit. Many connoisseurs of Hammer’s movies consider this to be the worst of all their horror movies, and with good reason.

By the time this movie was made Hammer were certainly aware that the horror movie market had changed. To the Devil a Daughter was thus an attempt to make the sort of movie that audiences in the mid-70s seemed to crave. More specifically it’s an attempt to jump on the Exorcist bandwagon. Stylistically it marks an abandonment of everything that made Hammer’ films distinctive, and everything that made them good.

Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee) is an excommunicated priest who has established his own church, the Children of the Lord, in Bavaria. Father Michael was excommunicated for heresy, although describing his views as heretical would be something of an understatement. The screenplay is a little obscure on the exact nature of his beliefs but his new church would appear to be a rather elaborate attempt to disguise out-and-out Satanism.

Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) is a nun in Father Michael’s church. She was adopted by two church members but once a year, on her birthday, she returns to England to see her biological father Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott). 

John Verney (Richard Widmark) is an American author who has achieved international success with his books on the occult. He is approached by a very agitated Henry Beddows with a request that Verney kidnap Catherine from the Children of the Lord in order to save her from a mysterious but very unpleasant fate. Verney, scenting a story that could provide material for a potential bestseller, agrees. With the assistance of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine) Verney succeeds in doing so but he seriously underestimates Father Michael’s powers. Verney is inclined to consider most Satanists as harmless if deluded eccentrics but he believes that a very small minority are truly dangerous. He realises too late that Father Michael belongs to that very small minority.

Of course we have no doubt right from the start that Father Michael intends Catherine to take part in some kind of forbidden ritual and we equally have no doubt that the ritual will be something rather nasty. Verney knows quite a lot about the occult but does he know enough to stop someone like Father Michael?

Hammer had had a major success with their 1968 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley had been delighted by the results and had given his friend Christopher Lee the rights to do film versions of several of his occult thrillers, free of charge. In fact Hammer’s version of To the Devil a Daughter has little to do with Wheatley’s novel and Wheatley was appalled by the film. Christopher Lee was equally appalled by the film, believing that many of the scenes added to the story were obscene and disgusting. I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Apart from being distasteful and crassly exploitative the screenplay is also garbled and worst of all the movie has an ending which is hurried and nonsensical.

This movie was an Anglo-German co-production (hence the choice of a German lead actress) and it seems to have made a lot of money for everyone except Hammer. Hammer were by this time having difficulties raising finances for their films and the financial deal they made on this occasion proved to be a very poor deal for the company.

The movie’s strong point is the superb cast. Richard Widmark hated every minute of the making of the film but he turns in a good performance. Christopher Lee is exceptionally sinister and malevolent. The young and very inexperienced Nastassja Kinski delivers a capable performance although her rôle requires very little of her. Denholm Elliott is excellent as the terrified and cowardly Henry Beddows. Honor Blackman and Anthony Valentine provide good support. It’s a dream cast but their efforts are largely wasted by the incoherent script (which gives the appearance that they were making it up as they went along which in fact was exactly what they were doing).

Director Peter Sykes had an undistinguished career and this movie suggests he was out of his depth.

Hammer were trying to match Hollywood with his movie and it does look quite expensive, with plenty of location shooting.

Hammer proved with this movie that they knew exactly what audiences wanted. It didn’t do them any good and to be honest if the company was going to have to make movies like this in order to survive it’s perhaps just as well that this turned out to be their final horror movie.

Anchor Bay’s DVD looks pretty good. Extras include a brief “making of” featurette that includes interviews with Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine (who has some amusing Richard Widmark anecdotes) and a rather embarrassed Christopher Lee.

To the Devil a Daughter marks a sad ending to the Hammer horror story. This one is best avoided unless you have a thing for crass Exorcist rip-offs.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Bear Island (1979)

The Anglo-Canadian co-production Bear Island was the last of the notable film adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s novels. This one actually has little to do with the source novel and has a poor reputation but it proves to be entertaining enough.

A group of UN scientists arrive at Bear Island, a frozen waste well to the north of Norway which happens to be the site of a major NATO base. The scientists are supposedly there to study changing climate patterns but in fact most of them are not scientists and have no interest whatsoever in the weather. The expedition in fact is a motley assortment of spies, criminals, conspirators and fruit-cakes. So why would such people have gone to the trouble of infiltrating a scientific expedition? The answer is gold. Nazi gold, which was a remarkably popular theme in 1960 and 1970s thrillers.

You see Bear Island had been used as a military base before, by the German in World War 2. It was the site of an important U-boat base. The base was destroyed by Allied bombing late in the war. Or at least that’s what everyone assumed. In fact the U-boat pens are still there, along with several U-boats. The U-boats include U-351 which may or may not have been used by the Nazis to carry off the Norwegian gold reserves in the last days of the war.

Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland) is unusual in that he really is a marine biologist. Despite this he also has an ulterior motive in wanting to go to Bear Island. Although he’s an American he was born in Germany and his father was a U-boat captain. He was believed lost when U-351 disappeared in 1945. Lansing hopes to discover the truth about his father’s fate.

Lechinski (Christopher Lee) is a Pole who may or may not be a KGB agent. The expedition’s leader, Professor Otto Gerran (Richard Widmark), is a Norwegian who was suspected of collaboration with the occupying Germans during the war. He was cleared of the charges but the suspicions remain. He certainly seems to be on good terms with the expedition’s two resident Nazis. Yes, this is yet another thriller about Nazis who are unhappy with the result of World War 2 and are hoping for a re-match. Smithy (Lloyd Bridges) is a genial American who seems to know more about spycraft than you’d expect in a member of a scientific expedition. In fact there’s hardly a member of this party who doesn’t arouse suspicions, apart from Dr Judith Rubin (Barbara Parkins) who is merely a shrill scientist who wants to lecture everybody.

Such romantic interest as this film has centres on the relationship between Lansing and Dr Heddi Lindquist. Dr Lindquist is a dull, humourless Norwegian psychiatrist and she’s played by the dull, humourless Vanessa Redgrave. Sutherland and Redgrave have zero chemistry and the romance sub-plot falls very flat indeed.

Don Sharp was noted for his competence as an action director and he delivers some quite effective action set-pieces, including a murder by avalanche and a chase involving hydrocopters and jet skis. 

The movie’s greatest strength is the setting. There’s some spectacular photography and the frozen wastes of Bear Island provide the perfect atmosphere for a suspense thriller. The scenes in the U-boat pens are very impressive and effectively eerie.

This is not one of Sutherland’s best performances but he’s solid enough. Richard Widmark  is surprisingly convincing as a troubled and possibly treacherous Norwegian. Christopher Lee, not surprisingly, makes a good sinister possible KGB agent. Vanessa Redgrave is the weak link, as she was in every movie she ever made. Lloyd Bridges is typically over-the-top as Smithy. Lansing and Professor Gerran are the only characters who exhibit any depth at all so it’s fortunate that Sutherland and Widmark are the only actors who make any attempt at actual acting.

Sony’s DVD release is barebones but features an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Bear Island has some pacing problems and suffers from some very uneven acting. Luckily the spectacular setting, the impressive sets and Don Sharp’s skills as an action director are enough to compensate for these problems and the end result is a fairly effective suspense thriller. Recommended.