Monday 27 April 2015

Saturn 3 (1980)

In the 1970s British television mogul Lord Lew Grade made the ill-fated decision to move into feature films. Grade had demonstrated an uncanny instinct for what would work for television audiences but he clearly had little understanding of the film industry. Saturn 3, released in 1980, was one of the many misfires that resulted.

In fact Saturn 3 is not all that bad. It’s biggest problem was timing. In 1980 sci-fi audiences expected action and spectacle in the Star Wars mould. Saturn 3 is more in the style of odd quirky early to mid 70s sci-fi films like Colossus: The Forbin Project, Westworld and Demon Seed and like those films it deals with technology run amok.

The story unfolds at a food research establishment on the third moon of Saturn. The station was set up to help provide food for the starving millions on Earth (this being the 70s  there has to be a reference to the 70s obsession with overpopulation). Why exactly growing food on the third moon of Saturn would help feed people on Earth is never explained.

There are only two people on Saturn 3, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Farrah Fawcett) and they appear to be more interested in their bedroom romps than in doing any actual research. They are however thoroughly enjoying themselves. Or at least they were, until Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) arrived.

Benson has been sent to get the research moving along, mainly by constructing and then programming a robot named Hector. Benson in fact was never supposed to be sent on this mission - he’d washed out of the training program due to his all too evident craziness. Benson murdered the man who was supposed to be sent and took his place.

It’s soon obvious that Benson is more interested in bedding Alex than in food research. Alex however is not interested. 

Meanwhile Benson presses ahead with the programming of Hector. This is accomplished by “direct input” - essentially Benson’s personality is imprinted on the robot. Given that Benson is a sex-crazed murderer this has unfortunate consequences. Soon Hector is a crazy, and as sex-obsessed, as Benson.

As you would expect Hector eventually run amok and Adam and Alex spend a great deal of time being chased by the insane killer robot.

The personnel behind this movie provide a few surprises. Novelist Martin Amis, not exactly noted for his science fiction, wrote the screenplay from a story by John Barry. Barry was supposed to direct but he had a falling-out with star Kirk Douglas and in any case he died fairly early on in the film’s troubled production history. Producer Stanley Donen ended up directing the movie. Donen of course was famous as a director of musicals although he also did some terrific lightweight thriller/romances in the early 60s (such as Charade and Arabesque).

Donen’s background in musicals is undoubtedly responsible for some of this movie’s odder (and more interesting) visual moments. The early scenes on the giant space station as Captain Benson’s spacecraft is being prepared for launch are choreographed exactly as if Donen had been making a big-budget 1950s musical. Surprisingly enough this works quite well and it certainly establishes a suitably quirky tone.

Kirk Douglas was one of the great Hollywood hams who could never see a piece of scenery without chewing it. This stood him in good stead when he turned to low-budget genre movies in the 70s. His acting isn’t exactly good but it works. On the other hand it has to be said that his nude scenes are not exactly a plus! Farrah Fawcett was obviously selected for her role purely for her ability to add some glamour but she’s perfectly adequate. Harvey Keitel is good although he might have been better had the decision not been made to get Roy Dotrice to dub his dialogue.  The result is a bit disorienting but since he’s playing a complete nutjob it could be argued that it adds to the impression that Benson is not playing with a full deck. These three have to carry the entire film, there being virtually no other characters at all, and they do so quite effectively.

The special effects are of mixed quality. Some of the scenes of spacecraft in flight are very crude. The robot however is fairly impressive. The sets are terrific in an outlandish 1970s way. On the whole the movie is visually original and quite interesting.

Saturn 3 was a box-office bomb and quickly gained a reputation as a spectacularly bad movie. This is a little unfair. It has its flaws but it’s consistently entertaining and slightly unusual.

I watched the movie on an old non-anamorphic DVD edition but it’s recently been released   in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack by Shout! Factory. Since much of the appeal of the movie derives from its visuals it’s probably worth picking it up on Blu-Ray. 

Saturn 3 is by no means a great movie but it’s oddly enjoyable. Recommended.

Friday 24 April 2015

eight year blogiversary

I’ve now been running this blog for eight years. And it’s to be hoped I can keep running it for quite a while to come - one of the things that has surprised me is that after 1260 posts I haven’t yet run out of movies to write about!

I have noticed that my tastes have changed somewhat. I seem to be reviewing more science fiction movies and not quite so many horror movies. I’ve also noticed that my reviews have become significantly longer - looking back to my very first post, on the excellent 1931 pre-code shocker Svengali, I’m amazed by how brief and perfunctory my review was.

On the whole I’ve enjoyed the blogging experience, and I’m still enjoying it. Now I’m off to watch another movie - I have to keep the posts coming!

Sunday 19 April 2015

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls is one of the great low-budget horror movies and it’s also a rather unusual movie of its type. Made in 1961 on an absurdly small budget it disappeared almost without trace at the time but since then its reputation as a cult film has grown steadily.

Herk Harvey was a maker of industrial and educational films in Kansas. One day he discovered, quite by accident, a location that seemed absolutely perfect as a setting for a horror film. He asked his friend John Clifford to write a script and then set about raising  finance from local businessmen to make a feature film.

The setting was Saltair, a resort on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The resort included an amusement park and a pavilion and it was the pavilion that would feature so strikingly in the movie. This was actually the second such pavilion, the first having been destroyed by fire in 1925 (unfortunately the second pavilion would also be destroyed in a fire in 1970). The second Saltair pavilion was an enormous dance hall, and it would be the scene for the bizarre dance sequence at the end of the movie.

When he first saw the pavilion Harvey had the idea of the dead emerging from the lake to attend a kind of danse macabre. This idea was to form the central inspiration for the movie’s plot.

The movie opens with three girls in a car being inveigled into a drag race. They lose control on a bridge and their car crashes into a river. Frantic attempts to rescue the girls seem to have been in vain when one of the girls emerges from the river, having miraculously survived the accident.

The girl, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), is a rather quiet girl who is about to take up a position as a church organist in Lawrence, Kansas. She finds a room in a boarding house where she attracts the (somewhat unwelcome) attentions of fellow lodger John Linden (Sidney Berger). 

Mary seems to be becoming more and more disconnected from reality, as if she somehow doesn’t belong. She is also convinced she is being followed by a corpse-like figure. The man doesn’t threaten her but his presence (or possibly imagined presence) certainly disturbs her. Mary’s strangeness causes concern to kindly Dr Samuels (Sam Levitt) who tries to help her. 

Mary is also increasingly drawn to the abandoned Saltair Pavilion which she had passed on her way to Lawrence. As she becomes more disconnected her fascination for this gloomy but oddly beautiful place grows steadily. The pavilion will be the scene for the movie’s climax.

There’s no need to say any more about the plot. This is not really a plot-driven movie in any case - it’s the mood and the strange central character that matter.

John Clifford admits that when he started writing the script he had no clear idea where it was going and that even in the finished script he had no truly coherent idea of what it all meant. This is in fact one of the movie’s greatest strengths. I have always firmly believed that it is not the business of a horror movie to scare the audience, that the aim should be to create an atmosphere of unease and of a vague cosmic wrongness. This aim is often easier to accomplish if the movie avoids the temptation of over-explaining things. Horror that is formless, amorphous and ambiguous is generally more effective than horror that is overt and explicit. Carnival of Souls is a textbook example of how to create the subtle horror of suggestion.

Herk Harvey claimed that his intention was to make a movie with the look of Bergman movie and the feel of Cocteau. He had always had the idea that the movie might be more suited to the art-house than to the drive-in circuit. These were considerable ambitions for a first-time director. The surprising thing is that overall the movie really does achieve what he set out to do.

The movie failed commercially on its initial release, due in large part to nightmarish distribution problems. It finally started to attract attention when it was sold to TV and its cult following built steadily. Herk Harvey was never to make another feature but he did live long enough to have the satisfaction of seeing Carnival of Souls not only achieve his ambition of playing the art-house circuit but also being lauded internationally at film festivals.

Obviously a movie made on a budget of around $30,000 could have been more polished had more time and money been available but overall the minuscule budget was more of an asset than a liability - Harvey and Clifford had very little money to work with but they did have complete freedom. More money always involves more compromises. It also has to be said that Harvey made the small budget go a very long way. This is a visually stunning film. This was partly due to Harvey’s good fortune in finding truly amazing locations - the pavilion, the organ factory, the wooden-slatted bridge. Harvey himself pays tribute, and rightly so, to his cinematographer Maurice Prather. There’s no question however that much of the film’s success is due to the extraordinary vision of director Herk Harvey.

Candace Hilligoss’s performance is crucial, and impressive. Harvey and writer John Clifford wanted the protagonist to be a person with no real emotional connection whatsoever with other people. That’s a challenge to an actress but Hilligoss is equal to it, capturing the aloof emotionally empty quality of the character extremely effectively. 

While Harvey admits that his inexperience in feature films coupled with the lack of time and money does make the movie rather less polished than it might otherwise have been he believes that this actually enhances the movie’s disturbing weirdness, and he’s undoubtedly correct. Despite these minor rough edges what is truly impressive about Carnival of Souls is just how visually striking it is. There are some extraordinarily inspired touches of subtle spookiness. The scenes in Saltair are as effective and as well-crafted as anything you’re likely to find in a big-budget major studio production. Being entirely new to the world of feature films gave Harvey and Clifford the advantage of being able to approach the project without any preconceptions and with refreshing originality.

The major revelation of the story is unlikely to come as a surprise but it’s the atmosphere that is created that matters and that atmosphere is achieved superbly.

Criterion really went to town with their DVD release which includes (on two discs) both the original theatrical print and a slightly longer director’s cut as well as a host of extras, most notably an abbreviated but highly informative audio commentary from the writer and director and print interviews with them as well as star Candace Hilligoss. Image quality is superb.

Carnival of Souls is a genuine masterpiece of low-key horror. Very highly recommended.

Monday 13 April 2015

Juggernaut (1974)

Juggernaut is a 1970s disaster movie set on an ocean liner. That might lead you to avoid this film on the assumption that it’s going to be a rehash of The Poseidon Adventure. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Juggernaut is not really a disaster movie - it’s an old-fashioned suspense thriller. And a very good one.

It’s not quite what you might expect from director Richard Lester either. Lester made his name with quirky, stylish (possibly over-stylish) 1960s movies such as A Hard Day’s Night. In the 70s he made a series of big-budget adventure movies that were also exceptionally quirky, managing to be determinedly anti-heroic and yet enormous fun - movies like The Three Musketeers (and Lester’s was the best-ever adaptation of Dumas’ adventure classic), Robin and Marian and the criminally underrated Royal Flash. Juggernaut is not at all typical of Lester’s output although it does have some distinctive Lester touches.

The plot is straightforward suspense thriller stuff. A madman calling himself Juggernaut has planted seven bombs on the ocean liner Britannic, bombs loaded with enough explosive to send the ship to the bottom of the sea. To make things worse the ship is caught in a Force 8 gale so there is no chance of launching the lifeboats.

A Navy bomb disposal team is despatched to try to defuse the bombs. They are dropped by parachute from a Hercules transport aircraft. The seas are so rough that it is by no means certain that any of the team will actually be able to get aboard the ship safely before being dashed to pieces by the sea. This scene, exceptionally well mounted, is a major highlight of the film.

The team is led by Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris). Defusing the bombs is no easy matter - whoever designed these bombs was a skilled and very devious artist in the art of bomb-making.

While Fallon and his team work to defuse the bombs Detective Superintendent John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins) of Scotland Yard is working equally feverishly to track down Juggernaut. It’s a race against time with the bombs set to explode in 22 hours. Of course the steamship line could pay the half million pound ransom but the British government has put pressure on the line not to do so on the (perfectly correct) grounds that caving in to terrorists simply encourages further terrorism.

What distinguishes this movie from a typical disaster movie is the rather subtle characterisation. All the characters are believable. Even the ship’s social director (played by Lester regular Roy Kinnear) is believable even though he’s there to provide comic relief.  He’s trying to do his job, to keep the passengers’ minds off impending disaster. He’s terrified himself but he still has a job to do. The ship’s captain, played by Omar Sharif, is obviously a man whose life is much less in control than it should be. This is all conveyed by subtle suggestion, a far cry from the cardboard cutouts you usually find in a disaster movie.

Richard Harris gets the sort of role that he always played to perfection. Fallon is a cynical, hard-drinking outrageously larger-than-life personality but he’s exactly the sort of man you’d expect to find defusing bombs for a living. He has spent his career thumbing his nose at death but he knows that death has a way of making a man pay for that sort of bravado. 

David Hemming is Fallon’s second-in-command, Chief Petty Officer Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings). Fallon and Braddock are poles apart in personality in temperament but they’re very close friends, Fallon’s over-the-top machismo complementing Braddock’s quiet rather self-effacing likeability. Harris and Hemmings have equally divergent acting styles but they work together superbly. These were the days when Anthony Hopkins had not yet discovered his inner ham and his performance as the flustered but determined detective is nicely judged. Ian Holm’s role as the director of the shipping line is one of the movie’s few weaknesses, being overly predictable and obvious. Freddie Jones is at his creepy best as Sidney Buckland, one of the many suspects interviewed by the police in their search for the bomber.

You expect cynicism in a 1970s movie, especially so with this sort of subject matter, but this movie resists the temptation to indulge in anything quite so obvious. There’s only one overtly cynical line of dialogue (delivered by Ian Holm on the subject of terrorism) and it’s the one moment in the film that falls completely flat. While Fallon might seem cynical he isn’t really - his cynicism is more a kind of bravado, his way of dealing with a life spent facing imminent death and also a useful way of diverting attention from the fact that he’s actually a brave man who is a thorough professional.

Maybe we’re supposed to see the British government’s attitude as cynical but the way the story develops tends to undercut that interpretation and to suggest that their tough approach was actually the correct one.

Richard Lester’s direction is crisp and efficient, without too many overt stylistic flourishes. The emphasis is on suspense rather than action and Lester proves himself to be equal to the challenge. Given the storyline you expect constant cutting back and forth between the events on the liner and the police investigation in London but it’s done in an unusual way. Instead of the rapid cutting that you’d see in a movie today this one cuts back and forth in large and rather leisurely chunks. Oddly enough this serves to heighten the suspense much more effectively.

Lester was brought on board quite late in the day after two other directors had departed. The fact that he didn’t originate the project and was essentially working simply as a director for hire is possibly one of the reasons the movie works so well. He had few opportunities for self-indulgence and stylistic excess.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray offers an adequate if less than stellar transfer without any extras apart from a trailer.

For some bizarre reason this movie was originally released on DVD under the atrocious title Terror on the Britannic.

Juggernaut is a taut tense and very superior thriller with enough distinctiveness of style to make it interesting without distracting from the essential suspense. Very highly recommended.

Thursday 9 April 2015

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

Despite having directed one of the most commercially successful of the Universal horror movies of the 30s, The Black Cat, Edgar G. Ulmer was destined to spend most of his career making ultra low budget movies. Towards the end of his career these included quite a few science fiction movies that are often far more interesting than their minuscule budgets might suggest.

The Amazing Transparent Man was released in 1960. Invisible man movies were nothing new but this one does add a few new twists.

Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) is a bank robber whose escape from prison has been engineered by Major Krenner (James Griffith). Krenner is a man of indeterminate nationality who has served in the military forces of a number of countries. Joey Faust has no idea why Krenner would have wanted to spring him from prison. The explanation is something he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams.

Major Krenner has Faust brought to his secret laboratory where his reluctant collaborator Dr Peter Ulof is working on bizarre scientific experiments on invisibility. This interests Faust insofar as he can se the potential that invisibility could have for someone in his own line of work. An invisible bank robber should have a lucrative career.

Major Krenner has other ideas in mind. His plans are far more ambitious, and far more sinister. For Krenner invisibility is the key to power.

Krenner and Faust are both equally treacherous and they spend most of the movie trying to double-cross one another. Krenner’s girlfriend Laura (Marguerite Chapman) is trying to double-cross both of them. Poor Dr Ulof just wants to save his daughter, held hostage by Krenner.

The plot is far-fetched but Jack Lewis’s screenplay is reasonably interesting and as the story digresses it becomes a lot darker and a lot more morally complex than you generally expect in low-budget potboilers of this type.

Even on a budget of almost nothing Ulmer could make his films look fairly stylish. The laboratory set is obviously cheap but Ulmer uses it skillfully and creates the right sort of atmosphere. The scenes in which Dr Ulof and Krenner watch the results of their experiments through tiny windows in a lead-lined cubbyhole are quite creepy.

Ulmer’s big problem was always that he was rarely able to work with decent actors but in this film the principals give quite effective performances. James Griffith as Major Krenner is clearly both cynical and slightly deranged. Douglas Kennedy as Joey Faust is  just as cynical but he has some decency in his character even if he himself is not aware of it.

The special effects are what you expect in an ultra low budget sci-fi movie but they get the job done. The very short running time (just 58 minutes) is a definite asset. If you don’t have the money for fancy special effects or action sequences then you’re always well advised to keep your movie short and snappy.

The ending manages to be both very 1950s and unexpectedly drastic.

The movie dispenses with the technobabble so beloved of 1950s science fiction movie-makers. There is no attempt at offering any kind of explanation of Dr Ulof’s invisibility machine. In some ways that’s a pity - I personally love technobabble and silly pseudoscience. Perhaps Ulmer felt that such things would distract the viewer from the interpersonal dynamics between the characters. Which is fine, but if you want human drama you probably need actors of slightly higher calibre than this. 

Ulmer made two other science fiction movies at the beginning of the 1960s that are well worth checking out, Beyond the Time Barrier and Journey Beneath the Desert.

Shout! Factory and Timeless Media have included this film in their Movies 4 You - More Sci-Fi Classics release. The transfer for The Amazing Transparent Man is very good. 

The invisibility angle is used cleverly, the movie is fast-paced and the end result is very entertaining in a low-budget B-movie kind of way. By no stretch of the imagination can The Amazing Transparent Man be described as a classic but it is fun. Recommended.

Saturday 4 April 2015

I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living is an odd moody little horror movie that manages to deliver a few genuine surprises.

Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) is a man who, rather reluctantly, finds himself in charge of a cemetery. The Kraft family is old money and they have varied business interests. Robert has been managing their department store but if you’re a member of the Kraft family part of the deal is that you have to take your turn as chairman of the trust that runs the cemetery.

The cemetery’s caretaker is a Scotsman of advanced years, Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel). Robert Kraft figures he’ll do the old boy a favour by pensioning him off on very generous terms. McKee seems less than enthusiastic, having served as caretaker for forty years.

Managing the cemetery is made easier by a large map in the office. All the plots are laid out on the map. The plots that have been bought and paid for but are not yet occupied are marked by white pins while those in which the deceased have already been interred are indicated by black pins. Things first start getting strange when Robert accidentally marks the plots bought by his friend Stu Drexel and his wife with black rather than white pins. The next day the young couple are dead, killed in an auto accident. This is slightly creepy but of course it can only be a macabre coincidence. Nothing to worry about. Then it happens again - a living person’s plot is marked on the map by a black pin and that person dies within 24 hours, apparently of natural causes.

Robert is now quite freaked out. He even contacts the police. Detective Lieutenant Clayborne (Robert Osterloh), a thoroughly professional and fairly sympathetic cop, assures Kraft that this really is just another coincidence. Clayborne is too experienced a cop merely to dismiss the story out of hand. He conducts a thorough investigation but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there has been foul play.

Robert Kraft’s nightmare is not over yet. He is persuaded to mark some other plots with black pins, on the assumption that when nothing happens he will realise that he’s been letting his imagination run away with him. But of course something does happen. Now Robert Kraft is genuinely frightened and he feels that his grip on sanity is starting to loosen. His sanity will have to endure even more shocks.

The premise of the film is original and clever. It relies very much on atmosphere and on keeping things as mysterious as possible for as long as possible. Right up to the end the audience has no way of knowing what is really going on. It could be something supernatural but then it could also be a very clever conspiracy. Or it could be the work of a madman. Keeping the explanation in doubt enhances the film’s creepiness considerably. This movie also uses the very effective technique of avoiding any overt horror until the end - the suggestion of horror is always more terrifying than what we actually see.

Whether the payoff at the end will satisfy all viewers is a moot point. I think it works pretty well.

Frederick Gately’s black-and-white cinematography creates the right atmosphere and does it subtly. Director Albert Band maintains the suspense. There are a few cheap but very effective special effects. The map itself is central to the movie and starts to look more and more surreal as the movie progresses.

The acting, considering that this is very much a B-movie, is rather good. Richard Boone does particularly well, resisting the temptation to give a typical horror movie performance. as a result the movie becomes a fascinating psychological study as Kraft’s mind slowly but surely looses its grip. Even more surprising is that the supporting players are very good as well - Theodore Bikel as the caretaker is nicely low-key with just a touch of creepiness.

This is one of four very entertaining low-budget horror flicks included in Shout! Factory’s Timeless Horror - Movies 4 You boxed set. The transfer is exceptionally good.

I Bury the Living is a really rather nifty little horror gem, and by B-movie standards a very well-crafted one. Highly recommended.