Friday 26 February 2016

Outland (1981)

Outland is a 1981 British science fiction film, only it isn’t a science fiction film. It’s a western. A western in space. That’s an idea that has been done quite a number of times but Outland is about as pure an example of the concept as you’re likely to see.

Marshal William O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the newly arrived chief of security at a mining project on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. It really shouldn’t be a terribly demanding job for a lawman, the main law enforcement tasks being dealing with drunken brawls. The miners are a tough lot but there’s not a great deal of scope for criminal activity. For one thing, there’s nothing much worth stealing.

There have been a couple of odd incidents. A miner thought he was being attacked by giant spiders and in his panic tore his space suit, resulting in his death. Another miner decided to wander into a no-atmosphere zone without his pressure suit, resulting in a very messy death.

The rather weary and cynical company physician, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), assures O’Niel that these incidents are the kinds of things that happen in a place like this. It’s an environment that combines boredom with stress and loneliness and a sense of isolation so it’s inevitable that occasionally someone will crack up and do something crazy or stupid or self-destructive or try to kill themselves. Both incidents seem to be clear cases of suicide. Marshal O’Niel concedes that this is a very plausible explanation although he decides it might be worthwhile to do a little digging in the outpost’s history.

The results of this digging are, as Dr Lazarus has to admit, a little puzzling. In the past six months there have been twenty-four such incidents, compared to just two in the previous six months.

O’Niel is now determined to do some fairly thorough digging and he finds evidence of drug dealing (in a very dangerous drug indeed) and corruption on a massive scale. What he has discovered is going to be potentially very inconvenient for some powerful people, and potentially very dangerous for Marshal O’Niel. He’s going to need some allies but it soon becomes obvious that he isn’t going to find any. He’s a marked man and he’s on his own and hired killers are after him.

Peter Hyams’ screenplay is more or less a straight by-the-numbers western plot. It’s the classic western tale of the new lawman trying to clean up a corrupt town and finding himself up against a crooked rancher, with hired guns on their way in the stage coach to kill him and with the townsfolk too frightened or too apathetic to stand by the lawman. And he can’t even trust his own deputies to support him. Making the setting a mining operation on one of the moons of Jupiter instead of a frontier town in the Old West makes no difference to the story at all.

In some ways this is probably the point - to take a stock-standard western plot and give it a science fiction setting.

The characters are also stock-standard western characters and again this may well be deliberate.

Peter Hyams also directed and in this capacity proves himself to be quite competent. While there are no surprises (we know the identity of the bad guys from the start and we basically know how the plot will play out) he does build the tension quite effectively. The action scenes are reasonably well handled although the movie lacks the spectacular action set-pieces that science fiction fans tend to like.

Visually it’s quite impressive. The mining outpost has a grungy, seedy, slightly sleazy and very industrial look to it. The miniatures work is fine and the sets are excellent and they’re convincing. You won’t have any trouble believing this this is what a mining operation on Io might well look like. The costumes are equally convincing - these people look the way miners in space could be expected to look.

And guys in space suits armed with shotguns are a nice touch.

Sean Connery is less flamboyant than usual but this suits the mood of the picture and he still has charisma to burn. I wasn’t quite so sold on Peter Boyle as Sheppard, the chief bad guy - his character doesn’t quite have the necessary menace or the smoothness (or the brains) and really doesn’t seem formidable enough.

The most interesting thing about this movie is its very old-fashioned feel. It wears its old-fashioned values on its sleeve. There is corruption and betrayal but (unlike so many movies of its era) it doesn’t wallow in cynicism and nihilism. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys. There’s no moral ambiguity. O’Niel is an old school hero. He might not be the smartest or the most efficient cop in the solar system but he’s honest and he knows his duty and he intends to do what he has to do, regardless of the price he might have to pay. His marriage has problems but that’s not because he’s not a devoted family man. The problems are simply the result of being a cop and being posted from one lousy mining outpost to another. He actually does his best to be a good husband and father. This is a movie in which the characters have to choose between right and wrong and the movie makes it clear that if you want to be able to live with yourself it’s wise to choose right rather than wrong.

Outland gets a decent anamorphic transfer on DVD, with at least a few token extras.

Outland is enjoyable enough. The action sequences aren’t wildly exciting but they’re competent and the movie has a nicely grungy look and feel. It’s basically High Noon in space. Maybe not quite top rank but still recommended.

Friday 19 February 2016

The Land Unknown (1957)

The Land Unknown is a lost world movie and it involves dinosaurs. That’s exactly the kind of thing I like, so it’s no surprise at all that I found The Land Unknown to be great fun.

This movie was made by Universal in 1957 and although it was shot in Cinemascope it’s clearly a fairly low-budget effort.

The US Navy is mounting an ambitious scientific expedition to the Antarctic. Among other things they want to investigate something rather curious found by Admiral Byrd’s 1947 expedition - a large body of open water where there shouldn’t be open water.

Commander Hal Roberts (Jock Mahoney) is to lead the helicopter team tasked with the investigation of that body of apparently warm water. The team also includes (inevitably) a glamorous female - reporter Maggie Hathaway (Shirley Patterson).

They discover more than warm water. They discover a lush hidden valley. More disturbingly their helicopter is damaged by a collision with a flying creature that looks as bit like a pterodactyl. Repairing the helicopter presents some difficulties - it seems they may be stuck in this valley for quite a while. They have plenty of food and water but they do have have other problems - the valley is filled with dinosaurs. Living dinosaurs!

The dinosaurs include a tyrannosaurus rex and they only manage to discourage the gigantic hungry reptilian predator by using the helicopter’s rotor blades as a weapon. There are also carnivorous plants - very large carnivorous plants.

Of course the dinosaurs are remnants of a population that has survived for tens of millions of years. They’re not likely to encounter cavemen. But how do they explain the theft of part of their food supplies - cans of food that have been neatly opened in a manner that suggests that no animal could be responsible. When Maggie gets kidnapped the explorers really start to wonder what is going on.

These days no-one would consider making a movie like this without a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. The 1950s was however the heroic age of low-budget film-making, when film-makers didn‘t worry about having pitifully inadequate budgets - they just went ahead and made the movies anyway and they often attempted ludicrously ambitious projects on absurdly small budgets. The word impossible was not part of their vocabulary. Sometimes they fell flat on their faces but they made the pictures anyway and sometimes they worked. The Land Unknown uses a good deal of stock footage and some dubious special effects but in spite of this it is one of the examples that mostly works.

The dinosaur battles are staged, as in so many lost world movies, using monitor lizards. The tyrannosaurus rex is pretty unconvincing. On the other hand the scenes involving the aquatic plesiosaurus are quite effective and even scary.

This movie is obviously shot on a sound stage and the lost world is rendered largely through background paintings. The results should be shoddy and phony but somehow they manage to be surprisingly evocative and effective. This movie takes places in a science fiction world and the artificiality of that world actually adds to the movie’s success. On a very limited budget any attempt at realism would have fallen flat anyway. By  not trying for realism the film-makers end up with something much more appealing and atmospheric.

The acting is basic B-movie standard but the actors at least show some enthusiasm. Director Virgil W. Vogel became a prolific television director after making a handful of features. Considering the resources available to him his handling of this assignment can’t really be faulted.

This movie is one of five that comprise Universal’s pleasingly inexpensive Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2. The transfer is anamorphic and is quite splendid.

The Land Unknown is a highly entertaining science fiction adventure B-movie that succeeds rather well in achieving its admittedly modest aims. It has a lost world and it has dinosaurs and it has great scenes involving a Sikorsky S-51 helicopter, one of the coolest early helicopter designs. Highly recommended.

Friday 12 February 2016

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter has had a very up-and-down career as a director, or at least it has been very up-and-down in commercial terms. Big Trouble in Little China, an over-the-top action adventure romp, was certainly a commercial low point. Like so many of his commercial failures it has attracted a loyal cult following.

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a truck driver. He finds himself propelled into a world of black magic and mayhem when the fiancée of his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is snatched at San Francisco Airport by a Chinese gang.

Jack has the kind of experience that Alice had after going down that rabbit hole. Suddenly he’s in a bizarre world beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown, a world of monsters, magic and sorcery. This world is dominated by David Lo Pan (James Hong), an evil sorcerer who as a result of a curse has been trapped in a strange undead incorporeal state for more than two thousand years. To escape the curse he needs to marry a girl with green eyes. Wang Chi’s girlfriend happens to have green eyes. But there is another girl with green eyes, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), who also has green eyes and she’s mixed up in this situation as well.

Jack doesn’t understand any of this but he’s the kind of guy who never runs away from a fight.

Things get stranger and stranger. There is a whole world beneath Chinatown, a world in which an epic battle between good and evil must be played out. Warring Chinese gangs fighting it out in the streets with machine-guns are one thing but beneath Chinatown black magic is by far the bigger threat.

What follows is a great deal of very entertaining mayhem. The movie opens at a brisk pace and that pacing never falters for a moment. The action is continuous and it’s executed with a great deal of flair and imagination.

The big twist is that Jack Burton thinks he is the hero but he isn’t. He’s the sidekick. Wang Chi is the hero. Wang Chi knows what’s going on; Jack doesn’t have a clue. It’s not that Jack is stupid. Maybe he’s not a intellectual giant but he’s not a fool. He’s simply completely out of his depth. He tries his best to play the hero but it doesn’t really work. 

Not that Wang Chi isn’t grateful for Jack’s help. Jack might not have much experience battling evil sorcerers but he’s brave and he’s loyal. He’s the ideal sidekick in fact. Of course Jack still thinks he’s the actual hero.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this movie is that every member of the cast understands the type of movie this is. They all understand what Carpenter is trying to do. And they all produce exactly the right kinds of performances. The performances are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but not in a sneering or condescending way.

Kurt Russell is quite superb. He has the square-jawed action hero persona which contrasts delightfully with Jack’s total unawareness of his own inadequacies. He’s funny but he never allows his performance to descend into outright parody. We might be amused by Jack but we never despise him. Wang Chi never despises him either - he appreciates the fact that Jack is risking his life in order to fight beside him against Lo Pan.

Dennis Dun is terrific also. Wang Chi is very capable but he’s no superman and he would never be foolish enough to do anything this brave except that he has to save his fiancée and he intends to save her.

Kim Cattrall is delightful. She’s no shrinking violet, she’s quite feisty but she’s not a clichéd kickass action heroine. She’s pretty terrified but she’s determined not to give up. Cattrall is funny too and she combines superbly with Kurt Russell. James Hong is an absolutely splendid villain. He’s thoroughly evil but perhaps just a tiny bit tragic. Victor Wong is wonderfully amusing as the tour bus driver Egg Shen who knows a bit more about fighting black magic than you might expect from a tour bus drive.

The action set-pieces are crazy and spectacular. Carpenter was clearly pretty familiar with Hong Kong action movies and captures the feel of that genre perfectly whilst still giving the movie his own distinctive signature.

The Region B Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary by Carpenter and Kurt Russell which is almost as much fun as the movie. They’re obviously great friends and they obviously had a blast making the movie and their enthusiasm for it is infectious. They get very chatty but there’s plenty of fascinating background on the movie as well. The Blu-Ray looks magnificent. 

John Carpenter is a director who has never really achieved either the commercial success or the recognition he deserves. That’s possibly because rather than playing safe he chose to do idiosyncratic movies like this one. It’s easy to see why Big Trouble in Little China bombed at the box office. In 1986 studio executives would have had no idea how to market such a movie and mainstream critics would have been bamboozled by it. It appears that the studio solved the problem by not promoting the movie at all.

In spite of this Big Trouble in Little China is enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday 6 February 2016

The Leech Woman (1960)

The Leech Woman is a sci-fi/horror B-movie that manages to be just a little better than you might expect. It was made by Universal in 1960 and gave Coleen Gray one of her few starring roles, and also one of her more interesting roles.

Dr Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) is a scientist. He’s not the world’s greatest scientist but he is ambitious, and he’s not held back by any moral scruples. He’s particularly interested in older women - because older women would like to be young again and they would be prepared to pay a great deal of money for anything that could achieve that objective. Dr Talbot happens to be married to June, a woman somewhat older than himself. He doesn’t love her. He doesn’t even like her. But she is a convenient guinea pig and since she’s crazy about him it isn’t difficult to persuade her to play that role. June Talbot (Coleen Gray) would desperately like to be young again but she doesn’t expect her husband’s researches to come to anything. In the meantime, faced with a husband who clearly despises her, she takes solace from the bottle. She takes a lot of solace from the bottle.

Then a very old African woman arrives at Dr Talbot’s office. She proves to be very very old indeed. In fact she’s over 150 years old, a fact verified to Dr Talbot (how he verifies this fact is one of a number of holes in the plot).

This woman, Malla, not only claims that her tribe has the secret to longevity - she also claims they possess the secret to restoring youth. No surprisingly Dr Talbot is soon making plans to go to Africa to find Mala’s tribe and to get hold of this secret which he expects will make him a very rich man. He has to patch things up with June because he’ll need her as a guinea pig. They engage an experienced guide, Bertram Garvay (John Van Dreelen), and set off into the heart of Africa. Well of course it’s actually a sound stage with some stock footage not very adroitly added to give it the vague appearance of Africa.

They find Mala’s tribe, and Malla as well. And yes, the tribe really does possess the means of restoring youth. Unfortunately there are complications. Not very pleasant complications.

That’s the first half of the film. The second half brings June back to the United States and with her youth restored. Only there are more complications. Even more unpleasant ones. Maybe the secret of eternal youth is one of those things that should remain a secret.

You expect a movie like this to have a villain. This one has a multiplicity of villains. In fact every major character is, to a certain extent, a villain. These are not very nice people. They’re people who would slit your throat to get what they want from life. Villains tend to offer fine opportunities for entertaining acting pyrotechnics and the cast in this movie make the most of those opportunities. Phillip Terry gives a marvellously over-the-top performance as the appalling Dr Talbot, a real swine of the first water. John Van Dreelen as the safari guide Garvay is just as vicious. Grant Williams as the weak-willed lawyer Neil Foster is not exactly a moral paragon either. And Malla, whether young or old, is pretty much a monster as well. Even Neil’s girlfriend Sally (Gloria Talbott), the one major character who isn’t totally reprehensible, is a rather spiky and insanely jealous character.

June Talbot is as evil as any of them but the role does give Coleen Gray a terrific opportunity to show her talents as an actress. She has to play June as ageing and bitter, and also as young and glamorous and deadly. She also has to play the role mostly in very unglamorous and at times quite heavy makeup. June is evil, but she’s evil in more complex ways than the other characters and Gray really is quite impressive.

Edward Dein had a fairly limited career as a director but that career does include the truly bizarre but fascinating Shack Out On 101 (1955), which demonstrates his affinity for outré subject matter. He keeps the pacing pleasingly taut and overall he handles proceedings fairly well.

The plot twists are unlikely to cause any great surprises but that’s not necessarily a major flaw in a horror movie.

If the movie has a theme it is this - if someone suddenly has the opportunity to gain what they most ardently desire just how high a price will they be prepared to pay for it? Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, just how high a price will they be prepared to make others pay to allow them to gain it? In this movie the answer is that no price is too high. These people may be monstrous but they’re monstrous in entertaining ways and the lack of a sympathetic hero character really isn’t a major problem.

This movie is among the five that comprise Universal’s bargain-priced Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2. The anamorphic transfer looks terrific.

The Leech Woman is a fairly well-executed B-movie that might not deliver too many genuine scares but it does have its creepy moments, and the ruthlessness of the characters can be rather frightening. Coleen Gray’s performance is a highlight, along with Philip Terry’s scenery-chewing villainy. 

Thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.