Saturday 29 November 2014

Flareup (1969)

Raquel Welch may not be the world’s greatest actress but her career includes quite a few surprisingly interesting movies. Unfortunately Flareup is not one of them.

Flareup is a thriller, with Las Vegas go-go dancer Michele (Welch) on the run from crazed killer Alan Moris (Luke Askew). Moris has been divorced by his wife Nikki and he blames her friends Michele and Iris (Pat Delaney) for turning Nikki against him. In fact of course the truth is that nobody needed to turn Nikki against him. Moris is a crazy dangerous loser and Nikki figured that out by herself. Now Moris has flipped out completely and is planning to kill his ex-wife and her two friends. And anybody else who gets in his way. Michele decides that it might be a good idea for her to get out of Las Vegas. The police have offered her protection and they need her as a material witness but when Moris goes after Iris Michele decides she doesn’t trust the police to protect her. She heads for LA.

In LA she has no trouble getting another job as a dancer and she meets Joe Brodnek (James Stacy). Joe is obviously pretty keen on her and although he’s a little odd he seems to be odd in a harmless and rather engaging way and Michele thinks he’s kind of cute. Joe is a model aeroplane enthusiast, something that amuses Michele but also makes him seem more appealing.

There isn’t much time for romance though since Moris is still at large and now he’s turned up in LA.

The plot unfolds in a fairly routine way with Moris stalking Michele while the cops are stalking him. Routine is unfortunately a word that comes to mind quite often in regard to this movie. The chase scene through the old zoo is one of the better moments and the climactic scene is quite effective although it perhaps needed a bit more of a buildup.

Director James Neilson had a prolific career in television. In the 60s he made a few not very distinguished feature films. He was competent but uninspired and Flareup tends to be more of a fizzle-out than a flareup.

The action scenes are handled adequately but they lack any real imagination and are a bit perfunctory.

Welch was a capable enough actress in the right movie but her problem here is that her character is seriously underwritten. Michele is supposed to be a free spirit but the script tells us that fact rather than giving Welch the opportunity to demonstrate it. The script really gives her very little to work with and she seems unsure of herself, as if she wasn’t quite clear what was expected of her.

Unfortunately the other actors are even weaker and the other characters are even sketchier. We should care what happens to Michele and Joe but we don’t really know them enough to be particularly interested. 

The movie’s main strength is the amusing glimpse it gives us of the LA and Las Vegas night-club scene in the late 60s and it does manage to capture the seedy glamour of that scene quite well. The clubs Michele works in are topless bars and there’s plenty of topless go-go dancing. Miss Welch of course does not appear topless. She was smart enough to figure out early in her career that if you want to have a really sexy image you’re better off keeping your clothes on - leave something to the imagination. She does however contribute a fairly enthusiastic go-go dancing scene.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is quite acceptable. They’ve made an effort to maintain a high standard with this series and all their releases are at the very least reasonably good, and most are excellent. It has to be said though that this is one of their lesser efforts. It’s rather grainy and the colours perhaps could have been a little more vibrant.

Flareup is strictly a movie for Raquel Welch completists, or for very keen fans of 1960s go-go dancing. It’s mildly entertaining at best. Anyone interested in exploring Welch’s filmography is well advised to seek out some of her other better movies such as Kansas City Bomber, Fathom (a fun tongue-in-cheek caper movie which displays her proficiency at light comedy), the gritty revenge western Hannie Caulder (in which she plays one of the more convincing lady gunslingers) or The Lady in Cement (a fine slightly neo-noirish crime thriller which pairs her quite successfully with Frank Sinatra).

Sunday 23 November 2014

The Devil Rides Out (1968) - Blu-Ray

Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out is one of the most lavish of the horror movies made by Hammer Films, and certainly one of the best. I’ve seen it before but its release on Blu-Ray makes it worth a revisit.

This is a tale, based on a terrific Dennis Wheatley pot-boiler, of the dangers of meddling with Dark Forces. Christopher Lee knew Wheatley quite well and was keen to do a film based on one of his books. He persuaded Hammer to obtain the rights to Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out. The result is a movie that differs quite a bit from Hammer’s other gothic horror outings. in this case Lee’s judgment proved to be right on the money.

With Hammer’s usual array of talent behind the camera, with their ace director Terence Fisher at the helm, a fine cast headed by Christopher Lee and a script by Richard Matheson nothing was left to chance.

Christopher Lee plays the slightly arrogant but charismatic Duc de Richleau, and this time Lee is definitely one of the good guys, battling the Forces of Darkness. While de Richleau is something of as control freak that proves to be an asset, given the strength of the evil forces with which he must do battle. He is assisted by Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) who provides the brawn to match de Richleau’s brains.

Their young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has landed himself in a good deal of trouble. He has been dabbling in black magic and he’s in much deeper than he realises. He has become part of a coven controlled by the powerful magician Mocata (Charles Gray). It is obvious to de Richleau that drastic means will have to be taken, with or without Simon’s co-operation. The situation is complicated by the presence within the coven of a young woman named Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi). Mocata uses her as a medium but now Rex is falling in love with her so de Richleau is going to have to rescue her as well as Simon from Mocata’s clutches.

Mocata is not averse to using strongarm tactics but for the most part he prefers to attack the heroes with the weapon with which he is most comfortable - magic. It will come down to a show of strength between Mocata’s black magic and de Richleau’s equally formidable knowledge of the occult, and to a classic battle between good and evil.

It can be a very effective tactic to suggest the supernatural elements rather than showing them overtly. That tactic would not have worked in this case. It is essential to the story that there should be no ambiguity - that the audience should know that the powers of darkness called upon by Mocata are very real. Director Terence Fisher therefore had to make the supernatural elements absolutely explicit and we had to see them at work. Given Hammer’s budgetary constraints and the technology of the day that was a bold move but in general the effects are carried off successfully. The car chase in which Mocata aids Tanith from afar is a nice touch and it’s executed flawlessly.

Dennis Wheatley was a writer of occult thrillers rather than horror novels. The distinction is subtle but important. It means that this film could not be approached in the manner of Hammer’s horror films and it meant that an outright gothic style would have been inappropriate. To their credit the people at Hammer realised this and made the necessary adjustments. Terence Fisher was aware that he was making a thriller and he adjusts the pacing accordingly - a thriller needs to move faster than a gothic horror movie.

Hammer’s genius production designer Bernard Robinson (described quite accurately by Christopher Lee as Hammer’s real star) was no doubt delighted by the chance to get away from central European settings and to create sets that evoked the moneyed classes of the interwar years. The sets aren’t gothic but there is a definite hint of decadence. It’s a world of power and money and of people who sometimes have more power and money than is good for them. Robinson’s sets are superb. The observatory in Simon Aron’s house is a particular highlight - it exudes both luxury and evil.

A movie such as this needs the right actors and this movie is well served in this department. Charles Gray makes a wonderfully sinister villain, oozing sinister charm from every pore. Patrick Mower was very good at playing abrasive characters but Simon Aron isn’t like that at all. He’s a well-meaning young man but inexperienced in the ways of the world and desperately anxious to prove himself. He’s not a fool - if he was de Richleau would have left him to his fate. Mower makes Simon sympathetic without being excessively irritating in his naïvety.

Most all such a movie needs the right lead actor and Christopher Lee is perfect. The Duc de Richleau is slightly pompous and has more than a touch of arrogance but he is a very serious adversary for the powers of darkness. He takes the occult very seriously indeed. It is no joking matter, which is why it is so dangerous for people like Simon Aron to meddle in it. Lee’s performance has the gravitas and the absolute sincerity required, and the larger-than-life quality to convince us that victory is possible despite the odds.

You can’t play Dennis Wheatley in a tongue-in-cheek manner. If you try to do so the whole thing will simply collapse and in any case Wheatley’s plots are so outlandish that such an approach would be counter-productive. You just don’t need to add any outrageousness to a Wheatley story.

Visually this movie is a feast. Vintage cars, vintage aircraft, gorgeous clothes, sumptuous settings, Black Masses, satanic manifestations, car chases and all awash in the most magnificent colours.

The old Anchor Bay DVD was very good but the Studiocanal Blu-Ray/DVD combo is well worth upgrading to. Extras include the old audio commentary from the earlier DVD release (with Christopher Lee in fine fettle and displaying immense enthusiasm for a movie he is clearly still very proud of) plus a couple of documentaries. All in all a fine release for one of the Hammer’s greatest movies. Very highly recommended. 

Screencaps are from the DVD, not the Blu-Ray.

This was one of two Dennis Wheatley adaptations Hammer made in 1968, the other being the not entirely successful but still rather interesting science fiction movie The Lost Continent.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds is one of producer George Pal’s celebrated science fiction opuses and remains the best cinematic version of the story.

Paramount had purchased the film rights in the 1920s, apparently at the instigation of the studio’s co-founder Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille would act as executive producer of the film when it finally when into production.

The original H.G. Wells story was of course the first of the great alien invasion stories. The decision to update the story to a contemporary American setting for the movie works surprisingly well.

A meteor crashes to Earth. Astrophysicist Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) happens to be nearby on a fishing trip and is called in to have a look. He realises immediately that there is something decidedly odd about this meteor. In fact everything about it seems wrong and it’s also highly radioactive. The local sheriff posts men to stand watch over the meteor and that turns out to be a fatal assignment when the meteor opens up and a huge mechanical eye appears and promptly zaps them.

The meteor is of course a spaceship, the first of an invading fleet from Mars. The invaders seem unstoppable. The military are called in but nothing seems to be able to do the slightest damage to the hovering machines of the Martians. Dr Forrester has teamed up with a local school teacher, Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson), and while he’s still keen to try to find some way to combat the Martians it’s all he can do to keep himself and Sylvia alive.

More Martian war machines have been lading all over the world and the same story is repeated everywhere. Nothing can stop them. Only a miracle can save humanity. But will there be a miracle?

It’s a good story but making it a success on the screen obviously depended on getting the special effects right. Fortunately getting the special effects right was one of the things George Pal was good at. Pal hired the right people and he got the results. Much of the success of this particular movie was due to art director Al Nozaki who designed the Martian war machines. Wells had envisaged them as tripod machines but Nozaki gave them a 1950s Space Age look. They looked mightily impressive in 1953 and they still look superb today.

Having Oscar-winning cinematographer George Barnes on board certainly helps as well. He makes full use of the abilities of Technicolor film to give the movie the right kind of brilliantly vibrant up-to-date look while still managing to give plenty of atmosphere to the scenes of destruction. Director Byron Haskin would go on to make several classic movies in the sci-fi and fantasy genres and he handles things here to perfection.

Paramount spent some serious money on this film and it pays dividends. It looks impressive and it looks convincing.

Barré Lyndon’s screenplay makes plenty of changes to the novel but it keeps most of the essential elements.

Gene Barry makes a splendid hero. Dr Forrester is heroic, but not too heroic. He’s not a larger-than-life scientist hero who can overcome all obstacles. He’s really just an ordinary guy doing what he has to do to ensure his own survival and that of the woman he loves. Barry’s easy-going charm makes him a protagonist we can empathise with. Ann Robinson provides good support and they have enough chemistry to carry off the romantic sub-plot without any difficulties.

Paramount’s Region 2 DVD provides a superb transfer. There are no extras apart from some brief liner notes.

The War of the Worlds is one of the great science fiction movies of the 50s, or of any age for that matter. A true classic that stands the test of time with ease. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 9 November 2014

The Werewolf (1956)

The 1956 release The Werewolf was another of producer Sam Katzman’s 1950s low-budget horror films, included in Sony’s terrific four-movie Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection. 

The Werewolf is an attempt to update the lycanthropy concept by throwing in some pseudoscience and some 1950s obsessions.

A stranger appears in a small American town somewhere in the mountains. Soon afterwards a grisly murder occurs - the victim’s throat appears to have been ripped out by an animal but a witness says it was a man. Things start to get really worrying when Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Clovey (Harry Lauter) is attacked. He describes his attacker as a kind of wolf-man. 

Pretty soon the town is close to panic and there are lots of guys with rifles running about the woods.

Then a woman turns up, looking for her missing husband. Duncan Marsh had been slightly injured in a minor road accident and treated by two doctors.

We soon discover that the two doctors, Dr Morgan Chambers (George Lynn) and Dr Emery Forrest (S. John Launer) are actually part-time mad scientists. Dr Chambers is convinced that the world is going to be destroyed by radioactive fallout. He and Dr Forrest have developed a vaccine for radiation but it seems to have side-effects. Like turning people into werewolves. In the 1950s radiation was responsible for just about everything from giant killer insects to dandruff, and in this case it is (indirectly at least) responsible for lycanthropy!

The town’s sheriff, Jack Haines (Don Megowan), is a pretty reasonable sort of fellow and he wants if possible to bring in werewolf Duncan Marsh alive. Unfortunately Drs Chambers and Forrest have now arrived in town and they are determined that Duncan Marsh must die so they can continue their vital work.

This is actually a pretty downbeat sort of movie. Poor Duncan Marsh was just some poor slob who was unlucky enough to have a car accident. Now he’s a monster and he’s being hunted down. He’s about as tragic a monster as could be imagined and Steven Ritch’s somewhat overwrought performance goes all out to engage our sympathies.

The fact that everybody in town owns a gun and is at home in the mountains makes this a movie where the monster really has the odds stacked against him big-time. That helps in making the monster even more sympathetic but it also tends to make the werewolf a lot less scary than he should be.

The two mad scientists are interesting, Dr Chambers being a typical idealistic scientist whose obsessions have rendered him totally deranged while Dr Forrest seems like a gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

While the movie tries to give werewolves an up-to-date scientific veneer it does add one amusing nod to the classic horror movies of the 30s - it actually includes a villagers with flaming torches scene.

The werewolf makeup looks reasonable and has the advantage of allowing Steven Ritch to show some emotion but the transformation scenes are decidedly dodgy.

There’s plenty of location shooting and the movie in general doesn’t suffer too severely from a low-budget look. Fred F. Sears was not a great director but he does fairly well here, and most importantly the movie is quite well-paced. The climactic scenes on the bridge are reasonably effective.

The transfer is 16x9 enhanced (the movie was shot widescreen) and image quality is excellent.

The Werewolf is a bit lacking in genuine chills but it does follow the pattern established in Universal’s classic The Wolfman in portraying werewolves as victims rather than mere monsters. It’s not a great horror movie but it’s enjoyable enough. Recommended.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

Creature with the Atom Brain is another delightful sci-fi/horror concoction from Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman boxed set.

This is a mad scientist movie written by Curt Siodmak. The mad scientist in question is Dr Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gay) and of course he’s working on ways to bring the dead back to life. The money for his experiments is provided by gangster Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger). Buchanan was sold down the river by his fellow mobsters and he wants revenge on them and on the District Attorney who got him deported from the United States.

This movie hits the ground running with a splendid opening sequence in which a zombie-like heavy disposes of a gangster by snapping his spine like a twig and then escaping through an open window even though he’s been shot multiple times. When the police arrive on the scene they think they’ve struck it lucky - there are plenty of very clear fingerprints. The only problem is that the prints belong to a minor hoodlum who died twenty-four days earlier. Also puzzling for police scientist Dr Chet Walker (Richard Denning) is the fact that the fingerprints are luminous. And the blood found at the crime scene is not blood but a chemical compound. And sure enough (this being a 1950s sci-fi/horror movie) a Geiger counter reveals very high levels of radioactivity.

It doesn’t take Chet Walker (who is rather brighter than most sci-fi movie heroes) long to figure out that someone is using dead men as atomic-powered remote-controlled killers.

When a rather jumpy scientist-looking guy with a strong German accent leaves traces of radioactivity behind him in a bar Chet Walker is close to putting the pieces together. The guy in the bar was clearly a German mad scientist and he must be the man behind the terror that is now stalking the city.

Steigg and Buchanan also don’t take long to figure out that Walker is on their trail and must be stopped. Their anxiety to stop Walker becomes extreme when Walker calls in the military and has trucks cruising the streets equipped with radiation detectors. For good measure Walker has also persuaded the Air Force to have jet fighters overflying the city at low altitude. It’s never quite clear what purpose the jets serve but they do shake up the bad guys a bit.

The plot plays out pretty much as you’d expect with the bad guys hunting Dr Walker while he’s hunting them.

The acting is pretty basic. Gregory Gay makes a passable mad scientist although he doesn’t overact quite enough. Michael Granger’s performance as gangster Buchanan is serviceable enough and is suitably hard-boiled. Richard Denning is stunningly but amusingly condescending as Chet Walker although he seems a bit too bookish to be a police scientist. He does manage to come across as very professorial though. This is a movie that would have benefited greatly from the presence of at least one iconic horror star who could have added some real colour and menace to Dr Steigg but sadly the budget was too limited to stretch even to a second-rank star.

The necessary infodumps to explain the zombie killer are handled in typical 50s fashion with a professor showing a short film to Dr Walker. The technobabble is of a high standard; in other words it makes no sense at all but it sounds very scientific.

The secret to making this sort of film succeed is to utilise ideas that don’t require too much in the way of special effects and this movie gets away with virtually no special effects at all.  There is some reasonable cool-looking gadgetry and Steigg’s mad scientist laboratory is quite impressive. The tunnel connecting the main laboratory to the room where the zombies are kept is a nice touch and is a good example of the use of ideas that look good but cost almost nothing.

There’s very little in the way of makeup for the living dead men with the creepiness having to be supplied by having the actors shuffling around and acting even more woodenly than the rest of the cast. Considering the movie’s very low budget it’s a fairly effective if not very original technique.

The transfer is very good. The movie was shot in black-and-white and is presented fullframe which is perfectly correct. 

Creature with the Atom Brain does not reach any great heights but it provides pretty reasonable entertainment value. Recommended.