Sunday 28 December 2014

best cult movies of 2014

The ten best cult movies I saw in 2014:

Münchhausen, Josef von Báky, 1943

The Ipcress File, Sidney J. Furie, 1965

Kill, Baby . . . Kill!, Mario Bava, 1966

Seconds, John Frankenheimer, 1966

The Devil Rides Out, Terence Fisher, 1968

Dark of the Sun, Jack Cardiff, 1968

Lisa and the Devil, Mario Bava, 1972

The Eagle Has Landed, John Sturges, 1976

Fascination, Jean Rollin, 1979

Other notable cult movies I watched in the past year:

The War of the Worlds, Byron Haskin, 1953

Battle in Outer Space, Ishirô Honda, 1959

The Curse of the Werewolf, Terence Fisher, 1961

Crack in the World, Andrew Marton, 1965

The Satan Bug, John Sturges, 1965

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent, 1970

The Sea Wolves, Andrew V. McLaglen, 1980

Thursday 25 December 2014

getting into the festive spirit

It's Christmas once again and I'm sure that Elvira has something under her tree to get you into the festive spirit. So Merry Christmas everyone!

Bandolero! (1968)

In 1968 the western was a genre in a state of transition. In Hollywood the classic western was about to give way to the revisionist western (a tedious sub-genre and ultimately rather pointless since John Ford had been making revisionist westerns like Fort Apache since the late 1940s). The spaghetti western seemed like it might breathe new life into the genre although the spaghetti western itself would quickly become an overly politicised dead end. 

Bandolero! shows a certain degree of spaghetti western influence and also in some ways anticipates the revisionist western but without the pretentiousness.

Bandolero! belongs to a different sub-genre, the quirky offbeat western. It’s never quite sure how seriously it wants to take itself. It would make rather a good double feature with a movie like Shalako.

Bandolero! was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, arguably the best action movie  director of his era (with terrific movies like The Wild Geese and ffolkes to his credit), and it boasts an interesting cast headlined by James Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch.

The movie hits the ground running with a bank robbery that goes spectacularly wrong. Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang are soon behind bars and are awaiting the arrival of a traveling hangman. The hangman arrives but he’s not what he seems to be and Dee and his cronies have cheated death, not for the first time.

Sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) does not take kindly to seeing outlaws escaping from under his nose and he vows to pursue them even if his pursuit takes him into neighbouring Mexico. In fact he is determined to continue the pursuit indefinitely. This might sound like the sheriff is a dedicated if somewhat obsessed lawman but that’s only part of the truth. The main reason for his relentless pursuit is that Dee Bishop has taken wealthy Mexican widow Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch) as a hostage. And the sheriff is suffering from a severe case on unrequited love as far as the Widow Stoner is concerned.

Playing a rather ambiguous part in these events is Dee Bishop’s brother Mace (James Stewart). Mace is the sensible, law-abiding older brother. At least that’s what everyone always assumed. It turns out Mace is a bit more complicated than people thought.

The chase into Mexico takes both pursuers and pursued deep into bandit country. And these are bandits who enjoy killing gringos even more than they enjoy killing the locals. Both Dee’s gang and Sheriff Johnson and his posse will soon have their hands full.

Dean Martin spent of his film career either just going through the motions or gleefully sending himself up (as he does in the wonderful Matt Helm movies like The Wrecking Crew). On the rare occasions when he actually took a rôle seriously he delivered some unexpectedly fine performances, none finer than his turn as the reformed alcoholic sheriff’s deputy in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. He takes his rôle in Bandolero fairly seriously. It offers him the opportunity to display some emotional depth while at the same time having some tongue-in-cheek fun.

James Stewart made something of a specialty of complicated western heroes and Bandolero! allows him to be complicated whilst also indulging himself in a bit of fun. The movie does not make too many demands on Raquel Welch’s acting abilities and she does a more than competent job. 

Andrew V. McLaglen was an exceptionally good action director and he pulls off some fairly impressive visual set-pieces. McLaglen always understood the importance of pacing and he keeps things moving in a very satisfactory manner.

This movie’s biggest problem is its tone. At times it seems to want to be dark and edgy and at other times it want to be light-hearted and witty and tongue-in-cheek. It’s at its best when it’s being gently amusing. Sadly the nihilism and cynicism that were eating away at the vitals of American cinema like a cancer manage to push this movie too much into pointless despair territory.

Notwithstanding this unfortunate circumstance Bandolero! still has much to recommend it. It’s fast-paced and stylish, it boasts some impressive location shooting, it’s well-acted and the action sequences work well.  

Bandolero! is included in the Raquel Welch Collection DVD boxed set. The set also includes Fathom (a fun caper movie), The Lady in Cement (a noirish crime thriller in which he co-stars with Frank Sinatra) and the 1966 science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage

The set illustrates rather well the surprising diversity of her career and all four movies are worth seeing. I highly recommend the boxed set. And despite some minor reservations Bandolero! is also recommended.

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)

Considering the immense popularity of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels it’s a bit surprising that the character made so few appearances on the screen after the very successful 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu. There was an unsuccessful TV series during the mid-50s and that was pretty much it. That is until producer Harry Alan Towers got hold of the rights in the 1960s and saw the potential in relaunching the Devil Doctor on his career of crime and attempted world domination.

The result was The Face of Fu Manchu, released in 1965. Towers was known mostly as a low-budget producer but for this production he obtained German financing and enough of it to give the film reasonably high production values.

Towers wrote the screenplay himself and it provides all the plot elements required for such a movie. It has a diabolical conspiracy by Fu Manchu involving mass murder and world political control and it has the right plot twists. Most crucially it captures the feel of Sax Rohmer’s books pretty effectively.

Dr Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has been trying to discover the secret of a rare poppy grown only in Tibet, a poppy that can produce a poison of unimaginable horror. He intends to use this as a threat to gain political power. He does however lack one essential piece of information, known only to the High Lama. A British expedition to Tibet some years earlier had discovered this secret and the information is contained in the papers from the expedition, now under lock and key in a museum in London.

Naturally Fu Manchu has kidnapped a scientist, Professor Muller (Wolf Rilla), who will be forced to assist him. And naturally Fu Manchu will also kidnap the professor’s daughter Maria (Karin Dor) and threaten her with all kinds of torture in order to persuade her father to cooperate. 

To convince the British government of the seriousness of his threats Fu Manchu plans to wipe out an entire town in Essex, an event portrayed with surprising (and effective) grimness. 

Towers managed here to assemble the perfect cast for a Fu Manchu movie. Without taking anything away from Henry Brandon’s fine performance in Drums of Fu Manchu or Boris Karloff’s deliriously over-the-top interpretation of the role in MGM’s wonderful 1932 The Mask of Fu Manchu there’s no question that Christopher Lee would turn out to be the finest of all screen Fu Manchus. Lee’s performance works because he takes the character seriously (which was always Lee’s instinctive approach to any role). He gives Dr Fu Manchu some real substance and more importantly he imparts some genuine menace to the role.

Nigel Green was by far the best Nayland Smith. He makes Nayland Smith actually seem like the sort of man who would present a real threat to Fu Manchu. There’s nothing bumbling about Green’s Nayland Smith. He’s a bit pompous but he has the steely determination that the character has in the books.

Howard-Marion Crawford is (as always) a delight as Dr Petrie. And Tsai Chin is just right as the daughter of Fu Manchu - sexy and glamorous and evil with a dash of sadism. Her obvious joy at the prospect of flogging one of her women is a definite highlight of the movie, adding the touch of perversity that it needs.

The movie also benefits from a fine German supporting cast. Joachim Fuchsberger was a veteran performer in the wildly popular German Edgar Wallace krimis of the 60s like Zimmer 13 and Der Hexer and he knows how to provide the kind of acting this type of movie needs. He can do the action hero stuff and he plays his role fairly straight but with just a suggestion of tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Karin Dor had made several krimis as well and she makes an admirable heroine. Wolf Rilla was another veteran of both krimis and the wonderful early 60s Dr Mabuse movies (such as The Invisible Dr Mabuse).

The movie benefits also from having Don Sharp as director. Sharp had directed a couple of movies for Hammer (including The Devil-Ship Pirates) and had demonstrated his ability to handle both gothic horror and action adventure films. He was the perfect choice for this movie and he keeps the pacing pleasingly brisk.

The sets are quite effective. Fu Manchu’s secret hideout beneath the Thames was clearly inspired by Sax Rohmer’s The Trail of Fu Manchu and it adds something of a gothic touch. The water chamber linked to the Thames is a nice perverse touch. The decision to set the movie in the 1920s rather than the 1960s was a very wise one and the period look is achieved quite successfully.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a generally good anamorphic transfer. 

The Face of Fu Manchu was followed by four sequels, although with increasingly limited budgets.

The Face of Fu Manchu is enormous fun and it’s at least reasonably faithful to the spirit of Rohmer’s novels. Fans of old-fashioned action adventure thrillers with a dash of outrageousness should get plenty of enjoyment out of this one. The performances of Christopher Lee and Nigel Green are major bonuses. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Concorde... Airport '79

Airport had kicked off the disaster movie movie boom in 1970 and had been a huge hit for Universal. In fact it was successful enough to spawn no less than three sequels. The last of these was The Concorde... Airport '79, generally considered to be the weakest of the four. That’s a fairly accurate assessment but the movie can still offer a great deal of fun if you’re in the right mood.

Setting this movie on board Concorde rather than on a boring old 747 seemed likely to add a bit more excitement, and in some ways this turns out to be the case.

The movie begins with the delivery of the first Concorde to Federation World Airlines. Concorde’s arrival in the US almost ends in disaster when it narrowly misses a collision with a hot air ballon manned by militant greenies. This is one of many subplots in this movie that end up going nowhere at all.

The Concorde’s first scheduled passenger service for Federation World Airlines is to be a flight to Moscow via Paris. One of the passengers will be newscaster Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely). Her boyfriend is billionaire industrialist and arms manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner). Maggie has just discovered that Harrison has been illegally selling arms to various rogue states and she’s told him that she’s going to expose the scandal. Harrison decides that his best option is to take out a contract on Maggie. Now you might think this would be fairly straightforward. Surely any competent hitman could arrange a little accident for her, possibly have her hit by a car. But no, that’s not good enough for Harrison. He decides that the easiest way to have her killed would be by destroying the Concorde. The fact that destroying the Concorde would undoubtedly set off an incredibly exhaustive investigation, the sort of exhaustive investigation he desperately wants to avoid at this point in time, apparently does not occur to him.

Trying to shoot down the Concorde is crazy enough but Harrison compounds his lunacy to deciding that this will be accomplished by an experimental missile system built by his own company, thus ensuring that the exhaustive investigation will be directly focussed on his own company.

Concorde takes off for Paris, piloted by the airline’s chief pilot Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) and French pilot Paul Metrand (Alain Delon). The Concorde will end up facing not just one deadly threat but two - as a backup plan Harrison has an F-4 Phantom armed with air-to-air missiles in case his new missile system fails to do the trick.

Now the Concorde was, even by today’s standards, an awesome technological achievement. It was a remarkable aircraft. But it was a passenger jet, albeit one designed to fly at twice the speed of sound. It was not an air superiority fighter optimised for dogfighting. It was hardly likely to be able to out-manoeuvre a purpose-built fighter aircraft. But in this movie that’s exactly what Concorde can do!

But Harrison is determined, and he has more schemes up his sleeve to doom the Concorde!

There are of course a couple of romantic subplots, most notably between a Russian Olympic gymnast and an American TV reporter, and between Captain Metrand and stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel). Joe Patroni will also have a romantic interlude in Paris, although he doesn’t get quite what he thinks he’s getting.

Now as you’ve probably gathered the plot is pretty silly. Even just the outline of the plot is silly, but when we get to the details it becomes very much sillier. That’s not really a problem however - generally speaking the sillier the disaster movie the more fun it is. This movie does however have a couple of major problems.

The first problem is with the special effects. They’re truly awful. I don’t mind special effects that are not entirely convincing - once I get into a movie I can allow my willing suspension of disbelief to gloss over slightly iffy special effects. In this movie however the effects are just too crude, too obviously fake and too obviously cheap. They jar you out of the movie. In fact virtually all the action scenes fall a little flat and are sometimes badly paced (the final climactic scenes seem much too rushed).

The second problem is with the cast. You expect a disaster movie to have at least a couple of big names, plus the usual array of second-stringers and superannuated former stars. This movie really doesn’t have much in the way of star power. Robert Wagner was at best a moderately big star, Alain Delon was a huge star in Europe but much less so in English-speaking markets, and while Sylvia Kristel was possibly the most famous porn star in the world (having featured in the most successful soft-core porn movie of all time, Emmanuelle) she was not exactly a mainstream star.

Even worse are the wide divergences between the performances. Robert Wagner and Susan Blakely seem to think they’re making a serious thriller. George Kennedy thinks it’s broad comedy. Alain Delon is renowned as a minimalist kind of actor and is clearly uncomfortable trying to play an extroverted heroic role.

Disaster movies require a particular kind of acting. It has to be over-the-top and larger-than-life but it has to stop short of outright self-parody. In Airport 1975 Charlton Heston and Karen Black (two of the best scenery-chewers in the business) showed how it should be done. Their performances were wildly extravagant but they still managed to convey the impression that their characters believed in the reality of the situations they faced - they were not overtly comic or tongue-in-cheek performances. Unfortunately George Kennedy not only crosses the line into self-parody but does so in a somewhat embarrassing way, as do some of the supporting players (notably Martha Raye who must have been very very desperate for money to take this role).

And what exactly were the producers thinking of when they cast Sylvia Kristel? It’s not that her performance is any worse than anyone else’s, but let’s face it what Sylvia Kristel was known for was her ability to portray uninhibited sexuality (which she did superbly). I’m not suggesting that she should have been cavorting about naked but surely it would have been sensible to make her character at least a little bit sexy? There are only two sexy scenes in the movie and she’s not in either. With all due respect to Andrea Marcovicci one can’t help thinking that Sylvia Kristel could have made the hot-run romp scene really sizzle.

There’s also one truly cringe-inducing moment. Joe Patroni has confided to Metrand that he lost his wife a year earlier and he’s still really broken up about it. So Metrand sets him up with an expensive French hooker (played rather improbably by Bibi Andersson), but he doesn’t tell Patroni she’s a hooker. He lets Patroni think this woman has fallen in love with him and that maybe he has found True Love again, then the next morning tells him the woman was a prostitute. It’s a pretty cruel thing to do but Patroni think it’s a great joke. It comes cross as rather creepy.

Having made these criticisms it has to be admitted that The Concorde... Airport '79 still has enough loopiness and sheer outrageousness to satisfy hard-core disaster movie fans. The plot, despite its extreme implausibility, has some inspired lunacy to it that makes one wish the producers had tried just a little harder with this movie.

The Region 4 boasts an adequate transfer without extras.

The Concorde... Airport '79 cannot be taken seriously even for a second but it’s rather enjoyable silliness. Recommended for fans of the genre, although certainly not as good as Airport 1975 or Airport ’77.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)

The 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu is one of the notable attempts to transfer the adventures of Sax Rohmer’s great arch-villain to the big screen. 

Sax Rohmer was the pseudonym employed by Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959). Rohmer is today a very under-appreciated writer. He wrote some fine gothic fiction and an extremely interesting series of occult detective stories. He also wrote five books chronicling the plots of the female diabolical criminal mastermind Sumuru. His greatest fame however came from the Fu Manchu novels, the first of which appeared in 1913 (the final book came out in 1959).

There was an immensely entertaining and quite outrageous 1932 MGM film adaptation, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. It is most notable for Myrna Loy’s sizzling and utterly depraved performance as Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo Suee. 

There was also a series of five films in the 1960s featuring Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu. The first two films, The Face of Fu Manchu and The Brides of Fu Manchu, are actually rather good.

Although there was a Fu Manchu novel called Drums of Fu Manchu Republic’s serial has nothing to do with it, although it does have some resemblances to the 1932 MGM movie The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Dr Fu Manchu is once again plotting for political control of the whole of Asia. His idea this time is that if he can get his hands on the Sacred Sceptre of Genghis Khan then all the peoples of Asia will recognise him as their ruler. Naturally getting hold of the Sacred Sceptre is a complicated process. First you need to find three separate fragments of an inscription, that will then lead you to the location of the tomb of Genghis Khan, then you have to survive various booby traps to reach the tomb. This being a serial, the process becomes even more complicated. Fu Manchu’s nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (for some bizarre reason the serial insists on referring to him as Sir Nayland rather than Sir Denis), is engaged in a race with Fu Manchu to find the Sceptre first, and then once it is found it changes hands half a dozen times.

Allan Parker, the son of a scientist murdered by Fu Manchu, becomes Nayland Smith’s invaluable assistant. Smith’s old friend Dr Petrie is there as well, although playing a fairly minor role. Fu Manchu is ably assisted by his daughter Fah Lo Suee and by his loyal Dacoits. In this serial their loyalty is not voluntary - they have been surgically turned into zombies by Fu Manchu. This is a fun idea, although perhaps not quite consistent with the methods of the Fu Manchu of the books.

And this being a serial both the heroes and the villains are regularly captured by one other only to pull off a daring and improbable escape. There are car chases, and chases on horseback, and by train and aeroplane. There are countless fist fights and plenty of gun fights. There are battles with marauding tribesmen loyal to Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu has a whole series of fiendish deaths planned for his enemies, including a particularly nasty fate for Nayland Smith in the penultimate episode. 

The fun in a serial does not come from the fact that the heroes always escape - we know they will always escape - but rather from the ingenious ways in which they manage this in the cliffhangers. This serial has the very considerable advantage of being directed by John English and William Witney, two of the best serial directors in the business, and these hair’s-breadth escapes are executed with skill and imagination. The biggest problem with serials was to prevent the pace from flagging in some of the middle episodes but English and Witney were notable for not allowing this to happen.

Drums of Fu Manchu has some reasonable sets but more importantly the action sequences are executed with care and attention to detail.

The Dr Fu Manchu of this serial is not quite the Dr Fu Manchu of Rohmer’s novels. Rohmer was always at pains to stress Fu Manchu’s very strict code of honour, something rather less in evidence here. The serial does not quite capture the flavour of Rohmer’s books but it’s a pretty good attempt.

Henry Brandon makes a fine larger-than-life and deliciously villainous Fu Manchu. My own personal opinion is that Christopher Lee was the best of the screen Fu Manchus but Brandon is certainly very very good. William Royle as Nayland Smith does not seem quite clever enough to be a serial rival to the evil doctor - he’s a bit Colonel Blimp-ish. Gloria Franklin is a good Fah Lo Suee although she pales into insignificance alongside Myrna Loy’s magnificent performance in the 1932 MGM movie. Robert Kellard as Allan Parker handles the action hero bits fairly well although he’s otherwise a little colourless.

VCI’s DVD presentation provides acceptable if far from impressive transfers and a short documentary that provides a reasonable introduction for viewers new to the wonderful world of Fu Manchu.

Drums of Fu Manchu has the reputation of being one of the best of the classic serials and it’s a reputation that it generally lives up to. It’s not quite as much fun as Republic’s superb Spy Smasher or Universal’s deliriously camp Flash Gordon but it’s still in the top tier. Highly recommended. I also highly recommend the 1932 movie and of course Sax Rohmer’s novels such as The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Daughter of Fu Manchu and The Bride of Fu Manchu.

Friday 5 December 2014

Invasion (1966)

Invasion is a low-budget 1966 British science fiction film made at Merton Park Studios, where countless low-budget British films were made in the 50s and early 60s. Low-key is the term that most completely describes Invasion - low-key in the best sense of the term.

A very small object is picked up by a British military radar operator. The object is much too small to be an aircraft. At about the same time every piece of electrical equipment in the vicinity experienced a momentary failure. Major Muncaster (Barrie Ingham) has his men out scouring the area for the mystery object. What they find is rather puzzling - scorch marks that seem to have been left by a much larger object. And very definite traces of radioactivity.

On the same night Lawrence Blackburn (Anthony Sharp) and his mistress are motoring through the countryside when they accidentally hit a young man. The man is very strangely dressed but they assume he must have been returning home from a fancy dress party. The mysterious man (played by Ric Young) does not seem to be too badly injured but Blackburn races him off to the local hospital.

The doctor on duty in the casualty department, Dr Vernon (Edward Judd), notices a couple of odd things about the young man. He seems to have a rather strange reaction to temperature. He orders a routine blood test and that’s when things really start to get puzzling. Neither Dr Vernon nor his colleague Dr Clair Harland (Valerie Gearon) have ever seen blood like this before. So strange is the blood that, absurd as it may seem, they are convinced it cannot possibly be human blood. The results of the X-rays taken at the same time are just as startling. 

The only possible conclusion is that the young man is not human. They accept this conclusion with typical English sang-froid. But what do you do when a man who is not human arrives in your hospital.

Major Muncaster has meanwhile turned up at the hospital but he doesn’t really know what to do either. The obvious step is to refer the matter to higher authorities but unfortunately all the outside telephone lines are dead. Consultant surgeon Brian Carter decides to refer the matter to the local MP but when he tries to leave the hospital it becomes clear, in rather spectacular fashion, that no-one is going to be leaving the hospital that night.

Even more worrying is the fact that it’s getting hotter. Much hotter. Opening the windows doesn’t help - it’s just as hot outside. And the temperature keeps rising.

An interview with the mystery patient does not exactly clarify things. He certainly admits to being an alien. The rest of his story sounds reasonably convincing but of course no-one is in a position to know whether the alien can be trusted or not.

He is not the only alien either. There are several others. Two of the aliens were apparently prisoners being escorted to a penal planet. The problem is, which of the aliens are the bad guys and which are the good guys? Needles to say they all claim to be the good guys.

The ambiguity of the situation is maintained quite effectively and it is the core of the story. 

The threat posed by the aliens is somewhat ambiguous as well. The big advantage of this story is that it requires virtually no special effects, making it ideal subject matter for a low-budget science fiction film. The movie relies instead on suspense, ambiguity and atmosphere and it achieves these qualities fairly successfully.

The aliens are all played by Asian actors, most notably French-born Japanese actress Yôko Tani. 

Edward Judd makes a fine English hero, dealing with an extraordinary situation in a matter-of-fact way. He gets good support from Valerie Gearon.

Invasion was written by noted British TV writer Roger Marshall from a story by Robert Holmes (who went on to write many classic Doctor Who adventures). Director Alan Bridges handles matters efficiently enough and he keeps the story moving, a vital factor with a story that contains very little action. The ending is satisfactory enough and it’s in keeping with the tone of the film but it could have used a bit more suspense and a bit more energy. 

Network’s Region 2 DVD release has no notable extras but it’s a decent anamorphic transfer.

Invasion is a science fiction movie that makes a virtue out of its very English quality of understatement. It’s a reasonably interesting slightly offbeat story and it works pretty well. Recommended.