Friday 30 September 2016

Carry On Cleo (1964)

Carry On Cleo was the tenth of the Carry On movies and one of the most successful. It was a box-office smash hit at the time of its release in 1964 and remains one of the most highly regarded movies of the series.

I’ve always had a preference for the Carry On movies dealing with historical subjects. They seem to lend themselves particularly well to the over-the-top and highly theatrical comedic style of the Carry On films. 

Carry On Cleo has the considerable advantage of some absolutely perfect subject matter - Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, the plot against Caesar’s life and Caesar’s and Antony’s romantic dalliances with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) is a British wheel-maker who has invented a new and highly advanced type of wheel - the square wheel. The advantages of the square wheel are obvious. Well, they’re obvious to Hengist Pod anyway. Along with his friend Horsa (Jim Dale) Hengist is captured by the Romans and sold into slavery. They end up in the galleys.

While all this is going on Caesar (Kenneth Williams) has sent Mark Antony (Sid James) to remove Cleopatra (Amanda Barie) from the throne of Egypt and replace her with her brother Ptolemy. Antony takes one look at the gorgeous Queen of Egypt and decides that it’s a much better idea to back Cleopatra against Ptolemy.

Hengist and Horsa end up in Rome where the bumbling and cowardly Hengist ends up being mistakenly given the credit for slaying half a dozen would-be assassins and becomes Caesar’s bodyguard. Caesar and Antony travel to Egypt where they are in competition for Cleopatra’s affections and Antony’s best chances of gaining those affections is obviously to assassinate Caesar. 

This film obviously has, by Carry On standards, a fairly substantial plot. More importantly Talbot Rothwell’s script has an abundance of gags nearly all of which come off. And the historical subject matter isn’t just a colourful background - the gags and the story are perfectly integrated and while there’s the usual supply of double entendres there’s also some genuine wit.

The actors throw themselves into their roles with tremendous enthusiasm. They clearly appreciated having such a strong script. Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey are wonderful but then they always were. Kenneth Connor gives one of his best Carry On performances. Joan Sims doesn’t get much screen time but she’s in blisteringly good form as Caesar’s neglected, jealous and shrewish wife Calpurnia. Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra is a delight. Jon Pertwee puts in an appearance as a mad soothsayer.

Carry On Cleo was a very fortunate production indeed. It was shot at Pinewood and producer Peter Rogers was able to use some magnificent sets that had been built for the mega-budget Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra. They were never used for Cleopatra since the production of that film was moved to Rome but Carry On Cleo director Gerald Thomas was more than happy to make use of them. Some of the costumes (including those worn by Amanda Barrie) had originally been made for Cleopatra as well. As a result Carry On Cleo looks like an incredibly expensive movie. In actual fact it’s budget was a paltry £165,000 (compared to the $44 million that 20th Century-Fox poured into Cleopatra). Carry On Cleo looks absolutely gorgeous.

The movie was shot widescreen and in colour to take full advantage of the terrific sets.

The ITV Studios DVD, from their Carry On: The Ultimate Collection boxed set, includes an entertaining audio commentary with Amanda Barrie and Julie Stevens (who plays Horsa’s lady love). The transfer is extremely good. 

It’s all outrageous fun, and it’s worth it just to hear Kenneth Williams deliver the line that was voted in a 2007 poll as the funniest line in movie history. This may be the best of all the Carry On movies. It’s certainly in the top three. I’d even go so far as to rate it as one of the best movie comedies of all time. Very highly recommended.

Friday 23 September 2016

King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

King Kong vs Godzilla dates from 1962 and by this time the idea had taken root that one giant monster was not enough. Godzilla was a huge box-office drawcard but pitting him against other equally formidable monsters was obviously going to be the way to make sure audiences kept buying tickets. Having Godzilla battling King Kong must have seemed like a surefire winner. Toho Studio managed to secure the rights to use King Kong and King Kong vs Godzilla was the result.

Mysterious weather events in the Arctic are causing enough concern for the UN to send their latest submarine to investigate. They run into big trouble and then they see Godzilla emerging from inside a huge ice floe (in one of the movie’s most effective scenes).

It is a well-known scientific fact that dinosaurs, like salmon, always return to their birthplace and since Godzilla-like fossils have been discovered in Japan it is clear that Japan is where Godzilla will be heading.

Meanwhile a Japanese pharmaceutical company has despatched a scientist to a remote Pacific island to secure supplies of a new wonder drug called soma which is found only in berries that grow only on this one island. The company is also looking for a major publicity attraction so reports of a giant monster on the island make the island even more interesting to them - this monster could be a great sales gimmick.

The monster is of course King Kong. Capturing him is surprisingly easy - soma sends him to sleep. The giant ape is towed to Japan on a raft.

Now the Japanese have two giant monsters to contend with. This is especially tricky since each monster has different strengths and weaknesses. Dinosaurs hate electricity but as everyone knows electricity makes giant apes stronger. A barrier of high tension wires carrying a million volts should be able to keep Godzilla at bay but when King Kong reaches the barrier it not only fails to stop him, it makes him much more powerful. Tokyo is, once again, in deadly peril.

There seems to be only one solution. It is a well-established scientific fact that for millions of years dinosaurs and giant apes were natural enemies. If they can be brought together they might, with luck, destroy each other. Transporting King Kong to the scene of the epic battle presents a challenge but an ingenious employee of the aforementioned pharmaceutical company has the answer to that - he has invented a super-strong cable so all they need to do is to send the ape to sleep and then he can be easily transported by balloon! This provides a scene with the kind of inspired lunacy that makes Japanese monster movies so appealing.

The stage is set but which monster will prove to be the stronger, and will the battle of the monsters really save Tokyo from destruction? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Ishirô Honda is once again in the director’s chair and there’s plenty of insanely silly but thoroughly enjoyable action. The monsters are everything one could hope for but it has to be said that King Kong tends to steal the picture. This ape has star quality. He’s also the best actor in the movie. The special effects are often terrible but they’re terrible in a fun way. Lots of toy trains get stomped! The effects might be crude but there are plenty of them. Kong is actually portrayed by a guy in a gorilla suit rather than with stop-motion. This will disappoint stop-motion fans but it works well enough.

The plot is totally mad and this film really goes overboard on the comic relief. It’s also breathtakingly (although very amusingly) politically incorrect.

The American version (which is the one I’m reviewing here) cut quite a few scenes and replaced them with dull talky scenes shot in Hollywood. I’m told the Japanese version is a lot better and I can well believe it.

The Region 4 DVD from Siren is a two-movie disc, pairing this one with the original Godzilla as the Godzilla Double Feature volume 1. It’s one of the worst DVD presentations I have ever come across. Even Alpha Video have never released anything quite this bad. The transfers are horrible, there’s massive print damage and both movies are (very badly) pan-and-scanned. It’s a disgraceful effort. Luckily it was a rental - I’d have hated to have paid to own this dismal DVD.

King Kong vs Godzilla tries to be a light-hearted romp of a monster movie and it succeeds reasonably well (and probably succeeded a lot better before American studio execs made their ham-fisted attempts to Americanise it). It’s worth a look but you would undoubtedly be well advised to seek out the Japanese version.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein, released in 1944, was one of Universal’s infamous (but commercially very successful) monster rally movies. Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster all feature in the film although perhaps rather curiously their roles are not actually central. It’s not really a very good movie but it has its moments and it is strangely enjoyable.

It certainly boasts a formidable array of horror icons in its cast - Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carrol Naish.

Dr Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) has been continuing the work of the notorious Dr Frankenstein and as a result he is now rotting in prison. He still dreams of taking up the great work again but it seems unlikely he will ever be able to do so. Then fate intervenes - the prison is struck by lightning which demolishes the wall allowing Niemann and another prisoner, the hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) to escape. 

Now Niemann can go back to his experiments but there are two tasks he must first accomplish - he must find Dr Frankenstein’s notebooks and he must get his revenge on the men whose testimony put him in prison. Then, with Daniel as his faithful assistant, he has a whole series of ambitious experiments to work on.

A chance encounter with a traveling Chamber of Horrors show run by a Professor Lampini (George Zucco) provides Niemann with a very useful opportunity - this traveling show will provide a perfect cover for him, allowing him to travel through the countryside without being recognised or attracting suspicion. Professor Lampini is not happy with this idea but he is quickly disposed of.

One of Lampini’s prized exhibits is the skeleton of Dracula. Of course no-one really believes it is the skeleton of the famous vampire but when Niemann removes the stake from the skeleton he discovers that this is indeed Count Dracula and he’s come back to life. 

Resurrecting vampires is just a distraction for Niemann. He is keen to get back to his laboratory, especially after not only finding Dr Frankenstein’s precious notebooks but also the frozen bodies of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster. Dr Niemann has a particular interest in brain transplants and now he has lots of brains and lots of bodies to play with.

Of course you can’t expect to go around raising the dead and transplanting monster brains without something going wrong. In this case it’s something rather unexpected that goes wrong, the end result of a tragic love triangle between a hunchback, a werewolf and a gypsy girl. It must surely only be a matter of time before the villagers show up with flaming torches and pitch-forks.

The big problem with this movie is that combining so many monsters is an inherently unwieldy idea, especially since none of the monsters really have any logical connection with one another. Edward T. Lowe Jr’s screenplay (based on Curt Siodmak’s story) can’t really resolve this difficulty. The Dracula part of the story ends up being like a short film within a film. The Wolf Man story then takes over with Frankenstein’s Monster only playing a very insignificant part towards the end. In fact the main thrust of the plot is the story of Niemann’s obsession with surpassing Frankenstein’s achievements, combined with the tragic romantic entanglements caused by the arrival of the beautiful gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo).

If the various plot strands never do come together very successfully, and if most of the ideas are very unoriginal, it has to be said that this movie is remarkably well executed. Director Erle C. Kenton maintains a frantic pace and provides plenty of thrills and some surprisingly effective visual touches (the vampire bat murder seen only in silhouette being a notable example). Of course Universal always managed to make even their lesser horror movies look terrific. This movie is no exception. The sets are extremely impressive, especially the ice cave. The monster transformation scenes are mostly well done (the werewolf transformation scene is very very good indeed).

The acting is a bit variable. Karloff’s performance is quite interesting if rather low-key - Niemann seems affable, quietly spoken and even kindly but if someone gets in his way he disposes of them with breathtaking ruthlessness. It’s as if he’s so obsessed by his work that killing is merely a minor irritation. Chaney could have played the Wolf Man in his sleep by this time but he does add his characteristic touches of pathos. Carradine is a very sinister and very effective Dracula. J. Carrol Naish makes Daniel both a chilling cold-blooded killer and a sympathetic victim of love gone wrong. Elena Verdugo gives a spirited performance as the gypsy girl. Atwill and Zucco really only have cameo roles (although Zucco makes the most of his very brief screen time).

The Region 4 DVD is noticeably lacking in extras but the transfer is superb.

House of Frankenstein is disjointed and is little more than a jumble of not very original ideas but it’s so well executed that one can’t help forgiving its faults. And it is consistently entertaining. Recommended.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Gray Lady Down (1978)

Gray Lady Down is a 1970s disaster movie starring Charlton Heston and that’s always a pretty good recipe for entertainment.

This time Heston is Captain Paul Blanchard, skipper of the nuclear submarine USS Neptune. The Neptune is returning to port at which time Blanchard will be handing over the command to his former Executive Officer, Commander Samuelson (Ronny Cox). The normal procedure is to remain submerged until reaching port but Blanchard decides it would be more fun to enter on the surface and enjoy some fresh air. Surfacing in heavy fog might not seem like the greatest of ideas, and in fact it proves to be a very bad idea. The Neptune manages to get itself rammed by a Norwegian freighter. The submarine promptly sinks.

The boat comes to rest on a ledge 1450 feet below the surface, well below its designed crush depth. Forty-one crew members survive the collision but their problems have only just begun. The reactor has shut down and one of the air purifiers is now inoperable. They have enough air for about 36 hours but the ledge is in an undersea canyon and it is subject to continual rockslides. 

This is all pretty bad, and now the Executive Officer (and soon to be skipper) is starting to crack up.

The Navy has no problem finding the stricken submarine. Rescuing the survivors should be no problem - they have their new high-tech deep sea rescue submersible, the DSRV-1. Unfortunately in order to carry out a successful rescue the Neptune’s escape hatch has to be clear and it isn’t. It’s covered by debris from the numerous rock slides. This is very bad news but there may still be a chance. An oddball genius US Navy officer, Captain Gates (David Carradine) has been working on an experimental underwater craft called the SNARK. The SNARK might be able to clear the escape hatch. 

Everything that could go wrong goes wrong. There are more rock slides. The remaining bulkheads on the Neptune are about to give way. The SNARK can’t find the Neptune at first. There are quarrels between Gates and the officer in charge of the rescue operation, Captain Bennett (Stacy Keach). The Neptune is running low on power and the survivors will soon be sitting in the dark. More crew members start to crack up. 

The tension doesn’t let up as one obstacle after another crops up to frustrate the rescue attempt.

You would normally expect Charlton Heston to handle the heroic stuff (since he was very good at that sort of thing) but oddly enough it’s David Carradine (who wasn’t so good at such things) who does most of the hero things. Charlton Heston still gives a pretty good performance as Blanchard, a captain who manages to combine a certain crustiness with a surprising amiability. David Carradine was of course a terrible actor and his performance is distractingly eccentric and at the same time rather dull. 

The special effects are reasonably good and the various submarine models look fairly impressive.

The producers got a lot of coöperation from the US Navy which is perhaps a bit surprising given that the film shows most of the crew members dealing remarkably badly with a crisis situation and given that the Neptune’s collision appears to have come about as a result of a combination of irresponsibility and carelessness (the submarine spotted the freighter on radar but the officer of the watch decided not to worry about it until it was too late). And the thought of a misfit like Commander Samuelson ever being considered for command of anything larger than a dinghy is positively terrifying. I guess the Navy figured that the chance to impress by showing off some high-tech toys would be enough to compensate for the depiction of the submarine crew as a bunch of neurotic incompetents. And the DSRV-1 is pretty cool and (according to the end credits such a vessel really was available for use by the US Navy for submarine rescues).

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the movie is about the sinking of a nuclear submarine and we’re assured that there’s no danger whatsoever on that score. This was the late 70s and Hollywood was starting to get into full-blown hysteria mode over nuclear stuff (in fact Hollywood had been indulging in nuclear paranoia since the 50s). I suspect that in return for their assistance the US Navy vetoed any mention of nuclear dangers. I’m actually quite sure the Navy was correct on that score but I’m still surprised the producers were able to resist the temptation to introduce a nuclear panic into the mix.

The Region 4 DVD I watched was a rental copy and the menus didn’t work but rental DVDs usually are in poor condition. The anamorphic transfer was pretty nice.

1970s disaster movies can’t be judged by conventional movie standards. They’re supposed to be ludicrously melodramatic and cheesy and the acting is supposed to be exaggerated and hammy. What matters is whether they deliver entertainment and Gray Lady Down does that reasonably well. It doesn’t have the inspired craziness of other 70s Charlton Heston disaster flicks such as Airport 1975 but it has a few cool gadgets and it has submarines (if you like that sort of thing and I most definitely do like submarine movies). If you want a gripping realistic movie about a submarine rescue attempt in peacetime then the 1950 British production Morning Departure remains the gold standard. If you want action and slightly silly fun then Gray Lady Down isn’t too bad at all. Recommended.