Wednesday 27 July 2016

Godzilla: Invasion of the Astro-monster (1965)

Godzilla: Invasion of the Astro-monster is a 1965 entry in the long-running Japanese Godzilla movie series from Toho Studio. I’m not the biggest fan of these types of movies but this one is slightly unusual and on the whole it’s pretty good.

We start with the discovery of a mysterious new planet just beyond Jupiter. The World Space Authority sends spaceship P-1 to investigate. The crew comprises American astronaut Glen (Nick Adams) and Japanese astronaut Fuji (Akira Takarada). 

Rather unexpectedly Planet X (as it has become known) is inhabited, and the inhabitants are seemingly humanoid. The X-people have big problems. Or rather they have one big problem - Monster Zero. Monster Zero (recognised immediately by the earth astronauts as King Ghidorah) is ravaging their planet. 

They have a plan to deal with this. They want permission to travel to Earth and then to take Godzilla and Rodan (known to the X-people as Monster 01 and Monster 02) back to Planet X to destroy King Ghidorah. To sweeten the deal they offer Earth the secret of curing cancer.

Godzilla and Rodan are transported to Planet X (in giant bubbles towed by flying saucers) and immediately start beating up on King Ghidorah. The plan seems to be working out most satisfactorily.

In fact things are not at all what they seem to be, as Glen and Fuji soon come to suspect. Earth will soon be facing deadly dangers of its own from rampaging monsters.

Fuji’s sister Haruno (Keiko Sawai) is hoping to marry a geeky and not very successful inventor named Tetsuo (Akira Kubo). Tetsuo’s latest invention will later play an important plot role. The other romantic sub-plot also ties into the main plot.

This is as much a space opera as a monster movie. The monsters are really subsidiary to the main plot and they are not the major villains or the major threat.

Ishirô Honda had directed the very first Godzilla movie as well as a very large proportion of the monster movies that followed it and he’s once again at the helm for Godzilla: Invasion of the Astro-monster. This time he has a pretty good script (by Shin'ichi Sekizawa) to work with.

The special effects are a little uneven. Some are quite crude and the flying saucers are very disappointing. On the other hand the monster sequences are very well executed.

The miniatures work is quite impressive (apart from those flying saucers). The spaceship P-1 looks cool. The sets have the right 1960s vibe and the X-people costumes are restrained but look good. It goes without saying that Japanese towns will get stomped and by this time the crews at Toho had a lot of experience with that sort of thing and those scenes are effective.

The acting is perfectly adequate by monster movie standards.

There are several welcome things that make this an enjoyable monster movie - there’s very little comic relief, no cute children and amazingly no preachiness.

The Region 4 DVD from Madman offers a pleasingly handsome anamorphic transfer (the movie was naturally shot in the Tohoscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio). 

By 1965 a straightforward monster movie would have been just another rehash of previous  productions so the decision to make this primarily a space adventure with added monsters was a sound one and works extremely well. Godzilla: Invasion of the Astro-monster (also released under several other titles including Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) is great fun. Highly recommended.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Message from Space (1978)

Message from Space is a decidedly odd 1978 Japanese science fiction movie from Toei Studio. As you might expect given its release date it is basically a Star Wars rip-off, but played to a large extent for comedy. Unfortunately the comedic elements are less than entirely successful.

The planet Jillucia has been invaded by the evil empire of Gavanas. The Jillucians are facing utter defeat. Only one thing can save them. Their gods have given them eight liabe seeds to cast into space. The liabe seeds will by some occult means seek out eight heroes who will save Jillucia. Princess Emeralida (Etsuko Shihomi), the granddaughter of the Jillucian leader, sets off in a spaceship to bring these heroes back. She is accompanied by a loyal warrior, Urocco (Makoto Sato).

Three of the seeds end up with three disreputable human rough riders (kind of like space  hot rodders with some juvenile delinquent tendencies). They are not very promising hero material. Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan) is a spoilt rich girl who hangs around with the rough riders and seems at first to serve no real plot purpose.

A much more promising hero prospect is maverick retired soldier General Garuda (Vic Morrow). He’s cynical but at least he’s brave and competent. Garuda quite the military after getting into trouble for staging nan expensive space funeral for an old comrade - the problem being that the old comrade was a robot.

Another hero will join them later - a renegade Gavanas prince (played by Sonny Chiba).

Initially our motley band of would-be heroes have no clear idea of how to go about fighting the mighty Gavanas Empire. Since they were chosen by a god they assume the god will let them know what they should do.

The first half hour concentrates on comedy and is heavy going. Once the action gets under way however things pick up considerably and the movie gets better and better. The action is relentless and it’s generally stylish and imaginative.

The special effects are extremely variable. Some are very good; some are very hokey (although if anything that adds to the fun of what is in truth an essentially very silly movie).

A Star Wars rip-off has to have at least one cute robot. In this case the robot is Beba 2 who seems to be the only real friend General Garuda has. As cute robots go Beba 2 is fairly amusing without being irritating.

A Star Wars rip-off also has to have a princess and Princess Emeralida fits the bill well enough.

The acting standout is definitely Vic Morrow. He plays things fairly straight and he makes a fine grizzled but determined action hero. He actually tries to do some real acting and acquits himself quite well.

More than anything else what makes this film worth seeing is the visual style. It’s bizarre but fun, and totally excessive in a very Japanese way. Princess Emeralida’s spaceship is a sailing ship with a rocket motor. The costumes, especially for the bad guys, are deliriously over-the-top.

Shout Factory’s DVD release is fairly light on extras but the anamorphic transfer is good.

Message from Space might be a Star Wars rip-off but it has lots of Japanese weirdness and it’s fast-paced fun. If you want a good Star Wars rip-off watch Starcrash. If you want an enjoyably bizarre Star Wars rip-off then Message from Space may be just what you’re after. Recommended.

Thursday 14 July 2016

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

The House of the Seven Gables, released by Universal in 1940, is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic novel of the same name.

We begin with a family curse. In 17th century New England wealthy landowner Jaffrey Pyncheon cheated a poor man, Matthew Mule, out of his land by accusing him of witchcraft. Matthew was hanged but before he died he cursed Pyncheon. Pyncheon built his house, Seven Gables, on Matthew Maule’s land. On the day the house was completed Pyncheon died, his mouth filled with blood, in apparent fulfillment of the curse.

Many years later, in 1828 to be precise, the house is still occupied by the Pyncheon family. The current head of the family has run up ruinous debts. His heirs Jaffrey (George Sanders) and Clifford (Vincent Price) have differing views as to what should be done. Clifford wants the house to be sold to clear the debts. Clifford is a composer and would prefer to move to New York. Jaffrey is against the idea. He claims to be concerned with family honour and tradition but in reality he wants to gain possession of Seven Gables because of the family legend that there is a fortune in gold hidden somewhere in the house. Jaffrey has inherited the worst of the Pyncheon faults - insatiable greed.

Matters come to a head, tragedy follows and Clifford finds himself serving a life sentence for murder. He is innocent but he has made the mistake of becoming an obstacle to Jaffrey’s greed. 

Jaffrey’s plans don’t work out quite as neatly as he’d hoped and he doesn’t get Seven Gables after all. Cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) gets the house. Hepzibah and Clifford were to have been married. Hepzibah stands by her man while Jaffrey continues on his scheming way.

Coincidences are part and parcel of melodrama so you won’t be surprised to learn that a descendant of Matthew Maule, the man who cursed the first Jaffrey Pyncheon, plays an important role. 

This is a tale of revenge, spanning two decades, but with a few twists.

George Sanders is at his most suave and most villainous and is a delight. Vincent Price gets to play the hero (this was some years before he became a horror icon). Margaret Lindsay gives a satisfactory performance as the patient faithful Hepzibah. Dick Foran was a lightweight actor and as Matthew Maule he’s totally overshadowed by Sanders and Price. In fact everyone is overshadowed by Sanders and Price, not thyat it matters because they’re the key characters and it’s their fates that concern us most.

The screenplay doesn’t quite capture the full flavour of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. This is Hawthorne Lite but the ingredients are still there for a fine story.

This is gothic melodrama with the emphasis on the melodrama. Had Universal made this movie a few years earlier it would doubtless have been given the full horror treatment and might well have been one of the studio’s classic horror titles. As it stands the horror is somewhat downplayed although it’s by no means absent. 

It’s also a little surprising that the movie has few of the classic Universal horror visual signatures. Even the house itself does not seem particularly sinister - in fact it really needed to be made more sinister to bring out the gothic atmosphere. Universal however had by this time decided that horror was no longer a commercially viable formula for A -pictures.

The Region 2 DVD release offers a very satisfactory transfer. The only extras is an entertaining ten-minute interview with Vincent Price from a British talk show.

Horror fans will see this film as a wasted opportunity on Universal’s part and will be left wondering just how much fun George Sanders and Vincent Price could have been together had they been given the chance to play their roles in full-blown horror mode. As it stands it’s still an enjoyable melodrama with a few horror undertones and Sanders and Price are still very very good. Fans of these two great actors won’t want to miss this film. Recommended.

Thursday 7 July 2016

The Black Scorpion (1957)

The Black Scorpion is a fairly typical representative of the 1950s giant bug monster movie genre. And as far as I'm concerned there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest claim to fame is that the stop motion effects were done by the great Willis O’Brien - this is the guy who taught Ray Harryhausen how to do stop motion.

We start with a volcanic eruption in Mexico. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) and Hank Scott (Richard Denning) are geologists investigating the aftermath. They expect to find a certain amount of devastation but they find some rather puzzling things as well. Like a policemen who appears to have died from some mysterious kind of poison. 

They also find a lump of obsidian with a scorpion inside it. Not too startling, except that the scorpion is still alive and it belongs to a species believed to be long extinct.

That particular scorpion was of normal size but it soon becomes apparent that they are dealing with much bigger specimens. Much much bigger. Scorpions the size of a house. And other gigantic bugs as well, but the scorpions are the main problem.

There’s no point in shooting the scorpions - that just annoys them. An expert called in from Mexico City has some ideas on how to combat this menace but it’s going to be a dangerous undertaking. In fact it will involve Drs Ramos and Scott being lowered into a volcanic fissure in a metal basket. For some reason they need to take photographs of the monsters. This proves to be even more hazardous than expected when they discover a whole nest of giant scorpions - dozens of them.

Clearing out the nest is a challenge but just when it seems that the threat is over the giant scorpions are back and this time they’re heading for Mexico City. And it seems that nothing can stop them.

The script is dull and predictable, the plot holds no surprises for anyone familiar with this genre and the first half hour is rather slow but you watch a movie like this for the monster scenes and there are plenty of them and they’re very effective. The train scene is particularly good and provides some genuine chills. The climactic stadium battle is a frenzy of destruction. 

Richard Denning and Carlos Rivas make perfectly acceptable heroes. In fact Denning is pretty good. Of course there has to be a love interest - in this case that purpose is served by the lovely Mara Corday (who was no stranger to giant bug movies) as a feisty rancher whose ranch is threatened by the scorpion plague. Unfortunately the producers decided to throw in an annoying kid as well, although he’s not really much more annoying than the average kid in monster movies.

Willis O’Brien had made his reputation with King Kong. His stop motion animation in The Black Scorpion is exceptionally good - in fact it compares quite favourably with the best of Harryhausen’s work. Giant bugs are particularly suited to this technique since their movements are fairly jerky anyway. They look reasonably convincing and they actually do look huge.  

The most surprising thing about this film is that it involves giant bugs and yet there’s not a single mention of radioactivity. These gigantic bugs apparently survived for aeons in underground caverns until the volcanic eruption allowed them to get loose. This is a monster movie in which the monsters are not our fault, which I find to be very refreshing. Even better, it means we’re spared the dreary preaching that afflicts so much 50s sci-fi.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a pretty decent anamorphic transfer. There’s some minor print damage at times but on the whole image quality is excellent. Amazingly enough there are extras and they’re worthwhile extras to boot. The highlight is the prehistoric sequence from the 1956 Irwin Allen documentary The Animal World, with stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

If you love giant bug movies you’ll love The Black Scorpion. The story is trite, the characters are fairly uninteresting and the acting is at best adequate. None of that matters. It’s a movie about giant killer scorpions and it features some classic stop motion animation.  That’s all you need to know. Highly recommended.

Friday 1 July 2016

The Day the Sky Exploded (1958)

The Day the Sky Exploded is an Italian-French co-production and is important as being one of the first European movies to attempt to jump on the science fiction bandwagon. It’s also an interesting anticipation of the “giant meteor about to destroy the Earth” sub-genre. To cult movie fans today its primary interest may lie in the fact that the cinematographer was a certain Mario Bava.

It’s clearly set a few years in the future. The first manned space mission to the Moon is about to get underway. It is a joint Soviet-US-British effort and the spacecraft is to be launched from Australia. The location of the launch site is not specifically mentioned in the movie (at least in the English-dubbed version) but the number of bad Australian accents to be heard gives the game away.

American John McLaren (Paul Hubschmid) is to pilot the spacecraft. Everything seems to be going well until he’s about to leave Earth orbit when one of the atomic motors malfunctions. McLaren is able to save himself by ejecting in the emergency capsule but he doesn’t have time to shut down the nuclear reactor. This will turn out to be an unfortunate oversight.

The now unmanned spaceship is heading for the asteroid belt where it explodes. The explosion causes hundreds of asteroids to cohere together into a single mass that is now on a collision course with the Earth!

The mission scientists in Australia now have to find a way to save the world but it seems hopeless. Oddly enough the obvious solution (obvious to any science fiction fan anyway) does not occur to any of them until the last moment.

The countdown to possible (or probable) disaster manages to build a reasonable degree of tension. The film focuses to a large degree on personal relationships, particularly between McLaren and his wife and between one of the scientists and the female head computer operator. There’s perhaps too much emphasis on the personal relationships angle - it slows things down just a little.

One of the more interesting elements is that while space exploration using “atomic rockets” was common enough in 50s science fiction this is one of the few examples that explores the consequences if something were to go wrong. While the movie takes the opportunity, which no movie of that era could resist, to lecture us about the evils of nuclear weapons there is one piece of supreme irony that may have been quite unintentional - the disaster is brought about by the peaceful use of nuclear power while the only hope for saving us may be those evil atomic weapons.

There’s a very heavy reliance on stock footage of missile launches and disaster scenes. They’re integrated well enough into the storyline but there is the perennial problem with stock footage that the differences in the quality of the film stocks can be distracting.

Paolo Heusch is credited as the director. While Mario Bava did not get a directing credit until Black Sunday in 1960 he had already been utilised several times as a kind of fix-up director, taking over and completing films (such as Caltiki the Undying Monster) that other directors had been unable to complete. As a result there are those who like to imagine they can see Bava’s directorial hand behind various late 50s movies on which he served as cinematographer. There’s really nothing in this film that would support such a theory in this case. There are a few scenes that do certainly reveal glimpses of the Bava touch as cinematographer - scenes in which the lighting is just a bit more imaginative than you expect in a low-budget movie.

There are also one or two special effects for which Bava would certainly have been responsible.

Of course it goes without saying that the one thing a good science fiction films needs is silly science. In that area The Day the Sky Exploded comes through with flying colours. There’s not a thing in this movie that makes any scientific sense.

The Day the Sky Exploded works reasonably well, within the limitations of low-budget 50s film-making. Despite the subject matter it’s less preachy than most sci-fi disaster movies. There’s a message here about international co-operation but amazingly enough the movie assumes the viewer is smart enough to work this out without being bludgeoned with it. There are no speeches!

Not a bad little movie. Worth a look.