Friday 31 May 2024

King Solomon’s Mines (1985)

There have been several film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s classic 1885 tale of adventure King Solomon’s Mines. The 1937 version has its admirers and it’s reasonably enjoyable but it has its problems and Sir Cedric Hardwicke is badly miscast as Allan Quatermain. The 1950 version is much better with Stewart Granger being perfectly cast in the lead role, and looks great. And then there’s the 1985 version.

This is a Cannon production, which depending on your tastes is either very promising news or very worrying news. This 1985 version is much less admired than the earlier films but there was some impressive talent involved. Maybe he’s no Stewart Granger but Richard Chamberlain was no slouch when it came to playing in adventure movies. Sharon Stone was not yet a big name but you can see signs of her star quality. You’ve got Herbert Lom as a villain, always a huge plus. And John Rhys-Davies is always fun in these kinds of movies. You’ve got J. Lee Thompson directing. This is the guy who directed The Guns of Navarone. The man knew how to make exciting action-adventure movies.

This 1985 version is not exactly a faithful adaptation of the novel, as we shall see. Not surprisingly given that it was made in 1985 this is very much an attempt to capture a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe.

The setting would appear to be German East Africa and since there are cars and aircraft but the Great War is never mentioned we can guess that the events of the film are supposed to take place shorty before the outbreak of war, probably around 1912 or thereabouts.

Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone) is a student archaeologist from Iowa. She has apparently hired Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) to help find her archaeologist father who has disappeared in Africa. He had been looking for a map revealing the location of King Solomon’s Mines, having devoted most of his career to the search for the mines. Hardly anybody actually believes the mines exist. Jesse’s father believes they exist, and he is convinced that he has acquired a map that really will lead him there.

The local German commander, Colonel Bockner (Herbert Lom), believes in the mines. As does the sinister scheming Dogati (John Rhys-Davies). They want that map.

Allan Quatermain doesn’t believe in the legend but Jesse is his client and although she’s exasperating he’s determined to help her.

Wild adventures ensue, with Jesse getting captured several times, a horse-drawn car chase, a car chase, an aerial dogfight, various pitched battles, fight scenes on a train and encounters with lions. Jesse and Quatermain almost get eaten several times, and not always by animals.

Of course they eventually find King Solomon’s Mines and of course it turns out to be a very dangerous discovery, with Colonel Bockner and Dogati not being the only threats.

The whole movie is crazy and don’t expect a taut coherent plot, and don’t expect a movie that makes any concessions at all to realism or plausibility. It’s closer in feel to the wonderful movie serials of the 1930s and 40s than to Rider Haggard. Scenes are included because they’re fun, not because they have the slightest connection to the plot.

Cannon obviously could not match the budget Spielberg had on Raiders of the Lost Ark but this movie still looks expensive. Whatever the budget was most of it ended up on the screen. The visuals are impressive. OK, some of the special effects are a bit iffy but for a modestly budgeted movie they work well enough. And they are fun. I’d rather have fun cheesy special effects than fancy effects done without imagination.

J. Lee Thompson is a director whose work has been seriously underrated. He knows the importance of pacing. The action doesn’t let up. As soon as our hero and heroine escape from one danger they are plunged into some new terror.

Richard Chamberlain makes a perfectly adequate hero. Sharon Stone is charming and cute as the likeable Jesse, a girl with an extraordinary talent for getting herself into trouble. Herbert Lom hams it up outrageously, which is as it should be.

This movie did extremely well at the box office. Critics hated it, insisting on comparing it to the 1950 movie even though it should have been glaringly obvious that the 1985 movie has its tongue planted firmly in cheek and is deliberately silly, goofy and cheesy. This unabashedly a B-movie.

Get yourself plenty of beer and popcorn, switch off your critical faculties and just sit back and enjoy the fun. This is a hugely enjoyable load of nonsense and I loved it. Very highly recommended.

The Olive Films Blu-Ray is barebones but offers a lovely transfer.

I've also reviewed the 1937 version and the 1950 version.

Tuesday 28 May 2024

King Kong (1976 remake)

The 1976 Dino De Laurentiis-produced remake of King Kong has a very poor reputation. Does it deserve the derision it has attracted over the years? We shall see.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 King Kong is one of the most important genre movies ever made. It set new standards in visual splendour and extravagance and it’s a fun monster movie that has real heart and a certain degree of moral complexity. It is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.

The 1976 version retains the essential story elements, with some unfortunate changes. An ambitious obsessive sets out to find a previously unknown island. In the 1933 version he is a documentary film-maker named Carl Denham. In the 1976 version he’s a ruthless oil company executive. The island turns out to be home to a previously unknown tribe, and to a 5-0-foot tall gorilla who is worshipped as a god. In the ’33 version Denham takes along with him a girl named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who will provide the love interest in his movie. In the ’76 version the girl is Dwan (Jessica Lange), an actress rescued from a yacht that has sunk. The girl finds herself being offered to the giant ape, although whether she is a sacrifice or is intended to be his bride remains uncertain.

Eventually the ape is captured and taken to New York as the world’s greatest spectacle, he runs amok and lots more mayhem ensues. The 1933 version boasts one of cinema’s most iconic endings.

Despite staying fairly close to the original story the 1976 film manages to do a lot of things wrong.

Firstly, the island looks too real. This is a story of the fantastic, a mix of fantasy, science fiction and horror. In the ’33 movie the island looks like it belongs to the world of dream, of the imagination, of the subconscious. In the ’76 version it looks too much like it belongs in the real world. On the other hand the locations were well chosen and they do look great.

Secondly, the film is too long. The original ran for 100 minutes and included a leisurely (but effective) buildup. The ’76 version runs for 134 minutes and it’s just too much. Despite its much longer running time the ’76 version has a lot less action and excitement. It really drags at times.

Thirdly, the story just doesn’t work in a 70s setting. In 1933 the idea of a previously unknown island full of unexplained wonders seemed plausible. In 1976 it just seems silly.

Fourthly, the iconic ending is replaced by a crude clumsy ending with no style at all.

Fifthly, the ’76 remake is heavy-handed and grindingly predictable.

Sixthly, in the original Kong is an actual monster but that gives the tragic element a certain bite. The ’76 version is all syrupy sentimentality. Kong is a peaceful herbivore who just wants to eat bananas and make friends with the pretty blonde lady. It all gets much too Gorillas in the Mist for my taste. Kong really isn’t scary enough in this ’76 version.

The biggest problem of all is that the characters are so much less interesting than those in the 1933 movie.

The character of film-maker Carl Denham in the original is replaced by oilman Fred Wilson. Carl Denham was a complex man. He was ruthless and reckless but he was fundamentally honest. He made questionable decisions but he was no villain. He was an interesting character. Fred Wilson is a cardboard cut-out movie villain and he’s not the least bit interesting.

In the remake the love interest for the girl is zoologist Jack Prescott (played by Jeff Bridges who is more hairy than Kong himself). Jack is an idealistic scientist hero who cares nothing for money but is dedicated to science and justice. He’s perfect in every way. He’s a bit of a smarmy self-righteous bore although Jeff Bridges tries hard to make him likeable.

The one exception is the girl. Jessica Lange has copped a lot of flak for her performance. I think that’s unfair. OK, Fay Wray was a better actress and the character she played was more interesting but Lange is obviously playing the part of Dwan the way it was written. She’s supposed to be a ditzy blonde actress. That’s how Lange plays her. She’s cute and sexy and fairly likeable. She’s the only cast member who gives a halfway decent performance.

John Guillermin directed. My favourite of his movies is the very unfairly maligned Sheena (1984) which has some slight affinities to King Kong.

The 1976 version is not a total loss. It has its strengths. Dino De Laurentiis wanted to put the relationship between Dwan and Kong at the centre of the movie. It becomes a kind of very kinky love story. In fact it becomes a perverse romantic triangle with Kong and Jack competing for Dwan’s love (she really likes her men hairy). That’s an interesting angle. It’s also made clear that there is an erotic dimension to Kong’s attraction to Dwan. You have to remember that audiences in the 70s were much more sophisticated than modern audiences and much more comfortable with grown-up concepts.

There are some great visual moments and of course this was pre-CGI so the visuals really do look terrific. The scenes in which Dwan is presented to Kong as his bride are superbly conceived and shot and they’re loaded with perverse eroticism. 

There were plans to build a full-scale Kong but it proved impracticable so most of the shots of King are guy-in-a-gorilla-suit shots, but they're still extremely impressive.

Overall the 1976 King Kong has to be regarded as a failure. An interesting failure perhaps, but one that is hard to recommend.

Saturday 25 May 2024

Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976)

Adventures of a Taxi Driver was released in 1976 and was the first of the three “Adventures of” British sex comedies, inspired by the success of the “Confessions of” movies. In fact the formula is pretty much the same - the hapless hero finds that his job brings him into constant contact with sex-starved women, and despite being hapless the hero is also strangely attractive to women.

Producer, director and co-writer Stanley Long had by this time been in the exploitation movie business for a long time. He knew how to make movies with very limited budgets. In the 60s he had been mostly a producer but around 1970 he started directing as well.

Adventures of a Taxi Driver was made on a very small budget indeed (on 16mm) and was a huge box office hit.  Two more Adventures movies would follow.

There’s very little plot. Joe North (Barry Evans) is a London taxi driver. He lives with his mum (played by the great Diana Dors), his thieving kid brother Peter and his kid sister. Life at home is total chaos so Joe moves out. He moves in with his mate Tom (Robert Lindsay) and Tom’s stripper girlfriend Nikki (Judy Geeson).

Joe’s girlfriend Carol (Adrienne Posta) wants him to move in with her. In fact she wants to get married, an idea that terrifies Joe.

In the course of his job Joe has numerous sexual encounters with female fares, some of which end satisfactorily and some of which (in fact most of which) end up in disaster of some kind.

Big trouble is in store for Joe and this time none of it is his fault. Maybe he’s a bit too trusting.

Joe is good-natured, a bit cheeky, a bit cocky and in spite of his many misadventures very cheerful. He likes chasing women and frequently it’s the women doing the chasing. Barry Evans is perfectly cast - he has the charm and likeability to make it quite plausible that the female of the species would find him very desirable. Evans is certainly the film’s biggest asset.

Judy Geeson is very good of course (and although she’s playing a stripper she doesn’t take her clothes off). She’d been paired very successfully with Barry Evans in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush in 1968 which probably explains her casting here. Diana Dors has great fun as Joe’s mum. The other cast members are generally competent enough. Look out for a cameo from Stephen Lewis, playing a character identical to the one he’d played in the massively popular On the Buses TV series. Also look out for Ian Lavender, better known as Private Pike in Dad’s Army.

It has been said that the problem with 70s British sex comedies is that they’re not sexy and they’re not funny. That’s somewhat unfair. These movies have been much maligned over the years. I quite enjoy them. Adventures of a Taxi Driver might not be hilarious but it is consistently amusing.

The other accusation levelled against these films has more weight. Of course one has to take account of British censorship. The fact that this incredibly innocuous movie got an X Certificate in Britain illustrates the craziness of British censorship. This movie is unbelievably tame. I don’t think censorship was entirely to blame - British film-makers, even British sexploitation film-makers, have never been comfortable with sex. One does get the impression when viewing this movie that Long’s approach to the nude scenes was let’s get them over with as quickly as possible.

If you compare this movie to an Italian sex comedy made at almost exactly the same time, Nello Rossati’s The Nurse (1975), the difference is striking. Rossati was clearly quite unembarrassed about shooting nude scenes. It’s also worth pointing out that the Italian film is much funnier.

This movie doesn’t rely on slapstick to the same extent as the Confessions movie. There was apparently a lot of last-minute improvisation.

Amusingly this movie was playing in Britain at the same time as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Adventures of a Taxi Driver did much better business at the box office.

Adventures of a Taxi Driver is harmless fun. Recommended.

This movie is part of Powerhouse Indicator’s three-movie Adventures of Blu-Ray set. The movie was shot in 16mm so while the transfer is very good it’s not going to blow you away. The boxed set comes packed with extras.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

King Kong (1933)

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong astounded audiences in 1933. It hasn’t lost any of its impact. It’s deservedly regarded as a classic, and it’s one of the most important movies in the history of genre cinema. 

This is a movie about a man who wants to make movies unlike anything ever seen before and that’s exactly what Cooper and Schoedsack were aiming to do, and they succeeded.

King Kong was made at RKO with David O. Selznick acting as executive producer.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) makes what we assume are semi-documentary movies in wild and exotic places (such movies were indeed hugely popular at the time and Cooper and Schoedsack had made such movies). He’s been advised that what his films need is some love interest. He’s decided that that is good advice. He’s looking for a suitable actress but due to his reputation for risk-taking no agent will provide such an actress. Quite by accident he encounters Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a former film extra down on her luck. She’s desperate and she jumps at Denham’s job offer. She’s told she’ll need to be on board the ship ready to sail at dawn.

The movie starts fairly slowly but that’s OK since we get a gradual buildup of the sense of mystery. This is a ship headed to an unknown destination for an unknown purpose. We also get a chance to get to see just how obsessive Carl Denham is, and we get the chance to get to know Ann Darrow and care about her. She’s feisty, likeable and sexy. She also takes a very sensible and grown-up attitude towards Carl Denham. He’s certainly using her but he did rescue her from destitution and gave her a break when she needed it so she owes him. He also promised not to put the moves on her and he’s kept his promise. He’s played square with her and she intends to play square with him.

The destination turns out to be an uncharted island west of Sumatra. If Carl Denham wanted something special to film then he’s certainly found it here. Dinosaurs and a gigantic gorilla definitely qualify as something new. A great deal of mayhem follows, Ann gets to be up close and personal with King Kong, there’s plenty of slaughter. Eventually even more slaughter will follow, in New York, leading up to one of the most iconic ending sequences in movie history.

Of course it’s tempting to focus on Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation which was ground-breaking at the time and still impresses but King Kong has a lot more than that going for it. Once the action starts 40 minutes in it’s relentless. There is a solid hour of non-stop action and excitement and danger. It has a solid plot, basically a riff on Beauty and the Beast. The sets are wonderful. There’s tragedy (Kong is certainly a tragic monster). There’s romance.

It’s also a pre-code movie. Had this movie been made two years later it would have been a whole lot blander. The mayhem and violence wrought by Kong would have needed to be toned way down. And the hints of perversity would have been eliminated (any suggestion that Kong’s attraction to Ann was sexual would have been ruthlessly eliminated). It would have been just a routine monster movie. But in 1933 RKO didn’t have to worry too much about such things and King Kong is breathtakingly violent and loaded with perversity.

I love the extreme artificiality of the island. It’s like a fever dream. Or a voyage into the unconscious of a madman. The special effects are stunning but they’re not aiming for realism. If you’re going to make a fantasy movie it’s pointless trying to make anything in the movie look realistic. King Kong takes place in its own world where the rules are different.

The movie was shot entirely on sound stages and on the backlot. There is no location shooting at all. Which is a major plus - it reinforces the sense that we’re no longer in the everyday world. We’re not in Kansas any more.

Two acting performances stand out. Robert Armstrong is excellent as Carl Denham, effectively conveying the character’s complexity. Carl is unscrupulous and cynical but he’s basically honest and in his own way he’s an obsessive visionary who will sacrifice anything to get his vision on the screen. There’s a lot of Carl Denham in most of the great film-makers in cinema history.

The other standout is Fay Wray. She’s mesmerising and very sexy and she’s never whiny.

And, to be fair, Bruce Cabot is quite good as the handsome first mate Jack Driscoll with whom Ann falls in love.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray offers a lovely transfer and most importantly the film is uncut. Anyone who saw King Kong on TV in the 60s, 70s or 80s was seeing a heavily cut print. The audio commentary track features Ray Harryhausen, a very appropriate choice. It also features snippets or archival interviews with original cast and crew members including Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray.

King Kong works as well today as it did ninety years ago. A hugely entertaining visually stunning movie. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 19 May 2024

The Witch (La strega in amore, 1966)

La strega in amore is a 1966 Italian gothic horror movie in a contemporary setting, directed by Damiano Damiani. It was released in English-language markets as The Witch, The Witch in Love and Strange Obsession.

Sergio Logan (Richard Johnson) is a writer although he appears to be more interested in women than in writing. He replies to a newspaper advertisement placed by an old lady. She is looking for a live-in librarian to organise a huge manuscript collection. Sergio is intrigued because the qualifications outlined in the advertisement could only apply to one man in the whole of Italy - himself. Why is the old lady so interested in employing him?

The old lady is Consuelo Lorente (Sarah Ferrati). Sergio considers the possibility that she is merely looking for a toy boy. But the manuscript collection exists, as does the library. Then things get a little odd, and then Sergio meets Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino), the old lady’s daughter.

He had already decided to decline the job offer but now he thinks it might involve the possibility of persuading Aura into bed, and that interests him a lot more than old manuscripts. He decides to take the job.

Sergio is a somewhat amoral character. He’s a womaniser and he’ll do whatever it takes to get a woman into bed. He isn’t bothered by the idea of lying or manipulating people. When it comes to women he’s used to calling the shots and it doesn’t occur to him that someday a woman might turn the tables on him.

He encounters Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volontè), his predecessor in the librarian job, and his predecessor in others ways that Sergio doesn’t yet fully understand. Fabrizio has apparently been given his marching orders but he’s still there and seems to intend to stay. Sergio’s mistake is to make certain very obvious assumptions about the setup. He assumes that Consuelo is a middle-aged woman terrified of getting old and looking for young male bed partners. That’s not what is going on, and Sergio will come to regret making such blithe assumptions.

It’s obvious to Sergio that Fabrizio has been sharing Aura’s bed. It looks like a classic romanic triangle, with Sergio as Aura’s new lover and Fabrizio as the displaced lover. There’s plenty of tension between the two men.

The audience will immediately recognise that there’s something wrong about this strange household. Consuelo lives in what is virtually a palace, hidden away in the middle of an ordinary street in Rome. There’s an atmosphere of decay and decadence, we suspect there are some dark secrets concealed here, the stories Consuelo tells of her marriage to her late husband should ring alarm bells for Sergio but they don’t. There’s an unhealthy overheated excessively enclosed atmosphere.

Sergio of course doesn’t know that he’s a character in a horror movie so he assumes Consuelo is just a rich crazy old eccentric trying to convince herself that she’s still the sex kitten she once was. A viewer who didn’t know that this was a gothic horror movie might well make the same assumptions. Until very late in the movie there are no overt signs of anything supernatural. The movie seems to be a psychological or perhaps an erotic thriller, with a film noir tinge (enhanced by some quite noirish black-and-white cinematography). It might even be a twisted melodrama.

The viewer will however start to suspect what’s going on long before Sergio does. There are subtle clues, and things that don’t quite add up. We start to think that Sergio has involved himself in something very strange and very perverse and most viewers will doubtless figure out the secret long before the final reveal.

Richard Johnson was inspired casting. He’s so over-confident and arrogant that he misses all the red flags. At the same time Sergio is not actually evil and Johnson makes him just sufficiently sympathetic that we don’t want anything too terrible to happen to him. Rosanna Schiaffino is excellent. She makes Aura seem slightly mysterious without overdoing it. Sarah Ferrati is wonderfully disturbing as Consuelo. Gian Maria Volontè gives a strange unsettling highly strung performance as Fabrizio, who could just as easily be a villain or a victim.

When things get really weird and the gothic horror elements kick in they’re done quite subtly. The horror is all the more effective for being low-key. This is not grand guignol stuff.

If you’re expecting conventional gothic horror you might be disappointed. Until very late in the movie it has the feel and tone of a noirish psychosexual melodrama. It never does become a conventional gothic horror movie. It does however have a protagonist put into a situation which threatens psychological and emotional destruction. The threat is to the psyche, and maybe the soul, rather than the body. As to whether there’s a threat to his physical existence as well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This is a movie that includes some classic gothic tropes but it goes out of its way to avoid dealing with them in a routine horror film fashion. It’s creepy and disturbing rather than scary. If you can accept those things then it’s highly recommended.

This film is part of Arrow’s Gothic Fantastico Blu-Ray boxed set. La strega in amore gets a lovely transfer. Kat Ellinger’s audio commentary is as fascinating as the movie. I liked her unexpected comparison of this movie with both Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity and her placing of the movie within the context of decadent literature.

Friday 17 May 2024

Excalibur (1981)

John Boorman’s Excalibur is a very ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur. Despite its ambitions it was apparently a rather modestly budgeted movie. Boorman claims to have inadvertently kicked off the sword-and-sorcery boom of the 80s. Given that Conan the Barbarian came out in 1982, a year after Excalibur, he may have a point.

Excalibur aims to retell the entire Arthurian legend, starting before the birth of Arthur.

Boorman’s idea was to show the three stages in the history of the land, coinciding with the three stages of Arthur’s life. The idea that the king and the land are one is central to the myth. If the king thrives, if he is strong and just, then the land thrives. If the king loses his way then the land suffers.

The first third of the movie is the first stage, an age of barbarism and chaos. It is Arthur’s destiny to unite and civilise the land. Boorman saw the story as also being a metaphor for the rise of Christianity and a more rational individualistic outlook displacing the older nature-centred concept of the land, the king and the people being mystically and magically linked. Which in some ways means that civilisation contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, since an individualistic rational conception of life is incompatible with the older truth that the king and the land are one. Boorman doesn’t try to tell us which of those outlooks we should prefer. We have to make up our own minds. This is a movie for grown-ups.

Britain is a chaotic divided land. The sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson) aims to unite the land under Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne). He hopes that Uther will be the man capable of doing so, but Merlin has his doubts when Uther becomes obsessed with Igrayne (played by Boorman’s daughter Katrine Boorman), the beautiful young wife of the duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave). Uther persuades Merlin to use his magic to allow him to spend the night with Igrayne, with Igrayne thinking she is making love with her husband. This night of lust will have immense consequences. The child that results is Arthur, and the deal was that the child would be Merlin’s to raise as he sees fit. The other consequence is that Igrayne’s young daughter Morgana (Arthur’s half-sister) will have a life-long grudge against both Merlin and Arthur.

Merlin sees the boy Arthur as the man destined to bring a new world into being. Merlin however knows that there will be no place for him in this new world. He is in effect putting in train events that will destroy the world of magic and of the old gods, the world to which he belongs. Merlin accepts this as inevitable. Morgana will also come to realise that there is no place for her in this new world. She belongs to the world of the old gods, the world of mysticism and magic.

This first stage of the movie has a dark grungy look. This was not quite the first epic to go for this look. The excellent The War Lord, made back in 1965, had pioneered the gritty realistic approach to the epic but Excalibur puts this approach to a very different use.

The second stage begins when Arthur becomes king, ushering in an age of prosperity, peace and stability. The whole look and tone of the movie changes. Everything is bright and airy. Camelot is not quite a fairy tale world, but it is a world of light and of order.

This can however only continue as long as the king is strong and just. The problem is that Arthur is betrayed by his queen Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and his best friend and most trusted knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay).

The king has lost his faith in himself and in his destiny and he has lost his sense of his own destiny. The king sickens physically, morally and spiritually and the land sickens. There is famine and plague, and misery. Again the tone and look of the movie changes. We’re now in a dark and gloomy world.

Morgana has played a sinister role in promoting discord between the king and queen, but it is the betrayal by Guenevere and Lancelot that does the real damage.

Once again magic has been used to bring about a fateful sexual union, and the birth of a child which will have consequences. The child is Mordred, the son of Arthur and Morgana.

Merlin is determined to prevent the fatal consequences which will follow, and a battle of magic between Merlin and Morgana ensues.

The Arthurian legend is no cheerful fairy tale. It is a tragedy. The triumph of good over evil cannot be assumed. The triumph of the new world over the old cannot be assumed. In this third stage of the movie there is hope, perhaps the Quest for the Grail can restore both the king and the land, but it’s a precarious and desperate hope.

Merlin and Morgana are by far the most interesting characters. They are outsiders. They belong to a different world. A pre-rational world of pagan gods, nature mysticism and magic. Arthur is ushering in a new world, a world in which there will be no place for Merlin and Morgana. While Morgana has other more personal reasons for opposing Arthur she would have to oppose him anyway because he represents this new world.

Merlin is aware that there will be no place for him in this new world. He believes it is destined to come anyway, and that he is destined to play a major part in bringing this about.

Perhaps Merlin knows that Arthur’s world will not last, and will end in a reversion to chaos and barbarism. Perhaps he sees human history as a cyclical thing, as in Norse mythology where the world will inevitably be destroyed, and then reborn. The idea of an eventual rebirth is certainly implicit in the Arthurian legend - one day a king will once again appear and will once again claim Excalibur from the lady in the lake.

This movie probably has more resonance today than it had in 1981, given that we now live in an age of gloom and pessimism.

There are some great action scenes and the movie can certainly can be enjoyed as a fantasy action movie, or even indeed as a sword-and-sorcery movie. There is however also plenty of thematic and emotional complexity.

Boorman relies mostly on fairly simple special effects. It’s another demonstration that talent and imagination (and intelligence) matter more than money and gee-whizz digital effects.

Excalibur looks superb on Blu-Ray and John Boorman’s audio commentary is what an audio commentary should be. He doesn’t tell us things that we can perfectly well see for ourselves. Instead he tells us how and why he made the movie and what he was trying to achieve.

Excalibur is very highly recommended.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Fifth Floor (1978)

The Fifth Floor is a 1978 thriller that is basically a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rip-off.

Producer/director/co-writer Howard Avedis had made some interesting exploitation drive-in movies in the early 70s.

The Fifth Floor begins with Kelly McIntyre (Dianne Hull) working in a disco to pay her way through college. She’s just had a fight with her boyfriend Ronnie Denton (John David Carson).

Kelly has a drink to cheer herself up and ends up on the dance floor having convulsions. She is rushed to hospital. The diagnosis is strychnine poisoning. Kelly is convinced that someone has tried to kill her. The doctors are convinced she tried to commit suicide, so she’s locked up in the psycho ward on the fifth floor.

When she tries to explain that she isn’t crazy and that someone really tried to kill her. The psychiatrist Dr Coleman (Mel Ferrer) decides she must be deluded and paranoid. He’s going to keep her in the psycho ward.

The psycho ward is as nightmarish as you’d expect but the biggest problem is male psychiatric nurse Carl (Bo Hopkins). He’s obviously a sadist and a sleazeball but no-one on the staff has noticed because let’s face it, this is a psychiatric hospital and the staff (including the women) are all sleazebags and bullies.

Carl tries to rape Kelly. When Kelly complains it is seen as proof that she’s paranoid.

Kelly is starting to find out how psychiatric hospitals work. It doesn’t matter if you’re crazy or not. What matters is whether or not you have power. The staff have power. The patients have no power, and no rights. They are also not allowed any self-respect. The female patients have to shower while being watched by male nurses.

And Carl is not going to give up on Kelly.

Kelly isn’t the only patient being brutalised. They’re all being brutalised. And she isn’t the first female patient to have attracted Carl’s attention. She’s befriended a woman named Melanie (Sharon Farrell) who has had the same experience.

Melanie wasn’t crazy either, but she is now.

Kelly has no contact with the outside word. Patients are not allowed to make telephone calls.

She knows she isn’t crazy but she knows her sanity can only hold up for so long. She is determined not to break, but everybody breaks eventually. She contemplates escape. But what happens if she escapes? Nobody will believe that an escaped mental patient might be sane.

The acting is mostly what you expect in an exploitation movie, because this essentially is an exploitation movie. But that’s the kind of acting you need in a movie like this. You don’t want subtlety, you want scenery-chewing. And there are some fine scenery-chewers in this film.

Bo Hopkins as Carl is a study in sadistic malevolence. Anthony James and Robert Englund contribute delightfully excessive performances as patients. Julie Adams as the senior nurse is a nasty piece of work, a woman who never doubts that she is right and the patients are wrong. John David Carson is nicely ambiguous as Kelly’s boyfriend. Is he on her side or not?

Dianne Hull as Kelly is the exception. She does give a subtle performance and it works. She’s the sane centre around which all the craziness revolves.

There’s only a small amount of actual violence but this movies manages to be pretty harrowing. There’s not much nudity but there’s definitely a sleazy vibe to it.

The Fifth Floor
was obviously a low-budget effort and it’s rough around the edges but it’s effective and it gets its point across. It’s a reasonably good entry in the fascinating psychiatric terror sub-genre. Highly recommended.

The Code Red DVD offers an acceptable if hardly dazzling transfer with very little in the way of extras.

I’ve reviewed another of Howard Avedis’s movies, The Teacher (1974), which is flawed but interesting.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Syndicate Sadists (1975)

Syndicate Sadists (Il giustiziere sfida la città) is a 1975 movie directed by Umberto Lenzi that falls within the poliziotteschi genre.

This is not a cop movie. The police play no part whatsoever in the story. This is more of a lone wolf hero vigilante movie.

It begins with a mysterious stranger riding into town. He rides a motorcycle rather than a horse but this movie does have major western elements.

The stranger is Rambo (Tomas Milian) and yes the name was taken from the books on which the Sylvester Stallone movies were based. Rambo is a loner. He doesn’t like authority. His buddy Scalia (Mario Piave) works for a private police force. This was the period of Italian history known as the Years of Lead, with violent crime getting out of control and regular terrorist outrages. The idea of rich people turning to private cops rather than the official police has plenty of plausibility. Scalia wants Rambo to join up but Rambo isn’t a team player. This is the equivalent of the scene in dozens of westerns in which the hero is offered a sheriff’s badge or a deputy’s badge but turns it down.

Scalia is trying to solve a kidnapping on his own, to further his career. Milan is run by two criminal organisations, the equivalent of rival outlaw gangs in a western. There’s the Conti gang, run by a hoodlum named Conti (Luciano Catenacci), and the Paternò gang, run by old man Paternò (Joseph Cotten). Paternò is old and blind and his hot-headed son has ambitions to take over.

Rambo has no interest in the case, until something happens that gives him a personal score to settle. Now he intends to wage a one-man war against both gangs.

Vincenzo Mannino’s script is basically a grab-bag of clichés. Lenzi wasn’t enthusiastic about doing this movie and wasn’t happy with it. It’s easy to see why but Tomas Milian’s charismatic performance and the excellent action scenes more than compensate for the deficiencies of the screenplay. There are as many car and motorcycle chases as any reasonable person could wish for.

While the plot might be lacking in originality it holds together very satisfactorily and it provides the necessary excuses for the action scenes.

There’s also plenty of violence but it’s not especially graphic. Lenzi is more interested in giving the viewer an adrenalin rush than in relying on gore.

There is however a copious expenditure of small arms ammunition.

The final showdown is superbly executed and very tense and exciting.

Lenzi paces the film extremely well.

There’s no sex and no nudity. The emphasis is entirely on action and Lenzi is not going to distract us from that for a moment.

There’s no complexity to any of the characters. Rambo is just another mysterious gunslinger of the kind so familiar in westerns.

The one possible exception is old man Paternò, who has a strange and interesting attitude towards Rambo. It’s possible that Rambo is the son he’d have liked to have had, instead of the idiot son he actually has. This relationship could perhaps have been developed a bit more. Joseph Cotten has his moments in this film but he looks very old and frail. Of course that’s the point of the character, that he’s an old man losing his grip on his organisation so Cotten’s performance does actually work quite well.

Don’t expect anything profound or ground-breaking from this movie. Just sit back and enjoy the roller-coaster ride and the mayhem, and enjoy watching Tomas Milian giving a master-class in charisma.

My liking for Umberto Lenzi grows with each Lenzi film I see. Syndicate Sadists is top-notch entertainment, highly recommended.

This is one of five films in Severin’s Violent Streets Umberto Lenzi/Tomas Milian poliziotteschi Blu-Ray boxed set. Extras include interviews with various people involved in the film, the most interesting being the Lenzi interview. The transfer is superb. English and Italian language options are provided.

Thursday 9 May 2024

The X from Outer Space (1967)

Criterion’s Eclipse Series 37 DVD boxed set When Horror Came to Shochiku includes four movies made by Shochiku studio in 1967-68 as part of the studio’s short-lived attempt to jump on the science fiction/horror/monster movie bandwagon. The X from Outer Space (1967), directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu, is very definitely a science fiction monster movie.

It begins with plans to send a nuclear-powered manned spacecraft (nicknamed the Astro-Boat) to Mars. Previous missions have ended in disaster. The crew of four naturally includes a beautiful blonde girl scientist, Lisa.

The voyage runs into the usual hazards, such as meteor storms. They make a stopover on the Moon, which leads to romantic complications. Lisa is in love with the spaceship’s commander, Captain Sano, but she has a rival on the Moon. A cute astronaut girl named Michiko.

After leaving the Moon the spaceship runs into real trouble - a UFO. The astronauts find weird stuff on the exterior of their ship. They bring the stuff inside and discover a kind of egg-shaped object. They decide to bring it back to Earth. 

You won't be surprised to learn that this turns out to be a really bad move on their part.

The egg contains a monster and pretty soon he’s a really big monster. He’s 200 feet tall. He’s not very friendly. He wants to stomp things. He wants to stomp cities. Being a monster he has his heart set on stomping Tokyo. After that he’ll see what else there is in Japan to stomp. The monster is given the name Guilali.

He is of course unstoppable. And of course he feeds on nuclear energy.

Tanks and fighter jets don’t bother him in the least.

The only hope is to come up with a scientific answer. Lisa may have the solution - a hitherto undiscovered substance which may destroy Guilali’s power. But it will have to be brought back from the Moon.

It’s now a race against time. Can the astronauts bring the anti-Guilali substance back to Earth before Tokyo gets stomped?

There’s nothing very original here. It’s your basic Japanese monster movie. The studio was clearly aiming at a young audience and the movie contains just about everything that kids were going to love.

The special effects and the miniatures work might be cheap and cheesy but they’re fun and cool. The monster is goofy but he’s fun and cool as well. OK, he does look a bit like a dinosaur with a chicken’s head but he does look like a monster. Disappointingly he doesn’t breathe fire but you can’t have everything.

The best thing about this movie is that there’s no message. The monster isn’t anyone’s fault. This is just a lighthearted monster movie romp.

Once the monster begins his rampage the movie’s pacing accelerates. Which is a good thing. We’re not given time to notice any technical flaws or to notice the cheapness of the effects. It’s just action scene after action scene.

The acting is fine by monster movie standards. There are likeable heroes. Lisa and Michiko are smart, brave and adorable. The elderly generals and politicians are suitably grave and portentous.

There is the romantic sub-plot alluded to earlier and and given that this is really a kids’ movie it’s kept at an innocent and rather sweet level.

As since it is obviously aimed at kids there’s no point in being hyper-critical about plot holes or any failures in logic, or any lack of scientific plausibility.

The X from Outer Space is silly and goofy but I think it’s fair to say that it was intended to be nothing more than lighthearted fun, and I think it succeeds on the intended level.

The transfer is lovely. Both the Japanese (with English subtitles) and English-dubbed audio options are provided. The only extra is brief liner notes (which take the movie much too seriously).

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Devil’s Possessed (1974)

Devil’s Possessed (El mariscal del infierno) was written by Paul Naschy (who also starred) and directed by León Klimovsky. It’s a story of horrific crimes committed in 15th century France by the king’s marshal Barón Gilles de Lancré (Naschy). It was released in 1974.

This movie is either a swashbuckling adventure with quite a few horror elements or a horror film with quite a few swashbuckling adventure elements.

It’s based very loosely on the real-life case of Gilles de Rais (1405-1440), notorious as one of the most prolific mass murderers in history although at various times since then doubts have been raised about his guilt.

In the movie Gilles de Lancré is disillusioned by what he perceives as the king’s lack of gratitude for his political and military services. Gilles withdraws from public life and becomes increasingly obsessed by alchemy and occult practices. He employs the services of renowned alchemist Simon de Braqueville (Eduardo Calvo) who assures Gilles that he will have access to power and unlimited riches. But a price will have to be paid. The magical operations will require the sacrifice of virgins.

Gilles is horrified but his ambitions overwhelm his horrors. He is aiming at nothing less than the throne of France. His ambitions are encouraged by the beautiful but scheming Georgelle (Norma Sebre).

Gilles finds himself with two problems. Firstly the powers and riches promised by de Braqueville have not materialised. Gilles is told that more virgins will have to be sacrificed. Gilles remains confident but he grows impatient, and he has spent most of his fortune financing de Braqueville’s experiments.

Secondly, it turns out that he is not really cut out for a career of evil. He is troubled by nightmares.

Gilles, despite his achievements as a soldier, is in some ways a weak and foolish man. He is easily led. And he is very easily manipulated by a ruthless woman like Georgelle.

Soon he has a third problem, the arrival of his old comrade-in-arms Gaston de Malebranche (Guillermo Bredeston).

Gilles hopes that de Malebranche will take service with him and become his right-hand man. Gaston however is disturbed by what he has seen in de Lancré’s castle and what he has seen in the countryside. The peasants are being crippled by taxation and there is much evidence of the brutality of de Lancré’s men. Gaston is a straight arrow. His instinct is to oppose tyrants and if his old friend Gilles has become a tyrant he will certainly oppose him.

Gaston joins a band of rebels living in the forest. At this point the movie starts to borrow heavily from the Robin Hood legend, with Gaston leading an outlaw band against a wicked tyrant. Gaston disguises himself in order to participate in a joust organised by Gilles in a scene that is very reminiscent of Robin Hood entering the archery contest organised by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

The noble and lovely Graciela (Graciela Nilson) plays a role that brings Maid Marian to mind.

Of course the evil in the Robin Hood legend is also driven by ambition - Prince John’s determination to seize power. Devil’s Possessed is like Robin Hood with 1970s gore and graphic brutality.

Gilles de Lancré is not exactly a tragic figure. He has freely chosen evil and he displays horrific cruelty. We don’t feel inclined to be too sympathetic towards him. At the same time we do get a sense that perhaps he was at one time a good man. Naschy manages to make him look like a man haunted by his own evil. He also has no trouble convincing us that Gilles is man whose hold on sanity is becoming ever more tenuous. There are perhaps a few echoes of Macbeth in Gilles de Lancré.

Georgelle isn’t the least bit haunted by her evilness. She relishes it. Norma Sebre does a great job here.

Guillermo Bredeston as Gaston de Malebranche does the noble swashbuckling hero thing adequately enough.

Devil’s Possessed
has effectively horrifying moments, it has a real atmosphere of evil, it’s fast-moving and it’s action-packed. It has fine performances and it has Naschy in top form. There’s also a rather nice touch at the end. Highly recommended.

This film is included in Shout! Factory’s Paul Naschy Collection II Blu-Ray boxed set. The transfer is very good.

I consider León Klimovsky to be a rather underrated director. I’ve reviewed a number of his movies - Vengeance of the Zombies (1973, with Naschy) is very good and I enjoyed The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1973) and Werewolf vs Vampire Woman (1971)

I’ve reviewed quite a few Paul Naschy movies, including the intriguing gothic horror/giallo hybrid Panic Beats (1983) and the terrific werewolf-in-Japan flick The Beast and the Magic Sword (1983).