Thursday 30 July 2020

Arabella And The Battle Of Venus


Venus Envy

Arabella And The Battle Of Venus
Written by David D. Levine
Tor Books ISBN: 978-0765382825


Arabella And The Battle Of Venus
is the second of the phenomenally cool Arabella Ashby books. Following on just a few months after the end of the first novel, Arabella Of Mars (which I reviewed here), this one starts off like all good Hollywood movie sequels do, by trying to hit all of the same story points that made the first one in the series a success. So, set in an alternative, Victorian pulp style version of reality where it’s possible to sail galleons from planet to planet, the books tend to read as a kind of crossbreed between C.S. Forester, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jane Austen.

So the book opens with Arabella in charge of her father’s plantation on Mars but her fiancé Captain Singh, acquired from the last novel as part and parcel of being allowed to take on the responsibilities of such a position (i.e. a lady would need to be married), already off on a voyage in the vicinity of Venus. The full reasons of this particular voyage are something Arabella... and the reader... do not find out until a fair way into the book so, I wont spoil that little surprise here but, despite the reasons, the Captain has been captured by the French and he and his crew, not forgetting his vessel Diana with it’s mysterious navigational automatum Aadim, are prisoners somewhere on the planet.

Yes, it’s a time of war and, despite being defeated and exiled to the dark side of the moon, Napoleon Bonaparte has escaped captivity and is waging war against the English around Venus. And not only that but he’s developing... oh wait, yeah, I’m not going to tell you that stuff because it’s spoilerific and you won’t want to know until it comes up. Whatever he’s doing there though, with the news that a particularly ruthless prison governor will be turning up to take charge at Captain Singh’s prison, Arabella bails out of debt a roguish but charming privateer named Captain Fox and persuades him and his crew to take their vessel Touchstone, accompanied by her and a chaperone, in a race to get to Venus before the new prison warder gets there... and try and break Captain Singh and the crew of the Diana out of captivity. Well that’s the initial plan anyway.

And, it’s all very well written and brilliantly entertaining but, after a while, I was getting just a little worried that this novel was going to be a repeat of the first one. Of course, more of a good thing is never unwelcome but I was concerned the whole novel was once again, more or less, going to take place on board the Diana. Indeed, there’s even an argument about the fine points of navigation wagered as a bet between her and Fox with a kiss and a dinner at stake, something which might be scandalous should Arabella lose her bet. As it happens though, Levine knows exactly when to change tack and about a third of the way through the book, Arabella and the crew of the Touchstone are also captured by the French around Venus and, through some smooth talking by Arabella, sent to work hard labour in the same compound as Captain Singh.

At this point, of course, the book becomes a prisoners of war story... which is not usually my favourite kind of tale, to be honest but... Levine once again proves himself a master of this particular kind of prose and it's riveting. And, once a certain bit of information comes Arabella’s way as to what Captain Singh was really doing in the vicinity of Venus, it becomes a rush to stage a prison break from the compound. This, in itself, is an impossible task with the penalty for people trying to run being a firing squad and with this particular compound on Venus being located so far away from anywhere else and in the midst of swampland, that it’s not really worth trying to escape it in all honesty. However, there’s another, more pressing reason to leave and ‘warn the British fleet’ as soon as possible (yeah, I’m really not telling you what, okay?) and so Arabella, Singh, Fox and their respective crews, not to mention a fair number of Venusian slaves... whose language Arabella has been trying to learn... make a bold bid for an escape under cover of the prisoners' amateur dramatic production of a Shakespeare play.

And the book is a delight. There are little surprises which turn up as the story takes slight turns throughout the course of the narrative, including Arabella attending a dinner party with Napoleon, an unusual navigational manoeuvre and a meeting with another famous person of the times in which this alternate reality is set, although, once again, it wouldn’t be such a surprise if I mentioned it here. There’s even a more darker, more permanent incident which visits itself upon one of the regular characters here which is, it is more than hinted, fixable and in such a way that the person who is victim to this particular blight would probably approve, as best they could, of this crippling misfortune.

Arabella And The Battle Of Venus is an absolutely enthralling read and, once the initial voyage to the shores of Venus is done with (and yes, even before that, truth be told) a real page turner. I was absolutely absorbed in the story pretty much from start to finish and my only question is in what direction can the writer possibly take his readers next? Well, I’ll hopefully know at some point sooner or later because I have the next volume in the saga,  Arabella, The Traitor Of Mars, on order as I type.

Tuesday 28 July 2020

The Invisible Man Returns


The Price In Sight

The Invisible Man Returns
USA 1940 Directed by  Joe May
Universal Blu Ray Zone A


After the success of Son Of Frankenstein in 1939 (which I reviewed here), Universal’s interest in revisiting their classic horror stable was renewed and the first out of the gate was The Invisible Man Returns which is, as the credit following this one at the start of the movie proudly emblazons, ‘The Sequel To The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells’. It’s also, more to the point, a direct sequel to James Whale’s successful ‘adaptation’ of The Invisible Man (which I reviewed here).

Indeed, Claude Rains photograph is even briefly referenced in a newspaper near the start of the film as we are informed that the main villain of the last film left behind a brother, Dr. Frank Griffin, played by John Sutton. He’s not the film’s lead protagonist though... that would be the title character whose name is Geoffrey Radcliffe. Radcliffe, played here by a young Vincent Price, long before horror movies became his thing (and this isn’t really a horror movie anyway, of course), is in prison awaiting public execution the next morning for the murder of his brother... even though Dr. Griffin and Radcliffe’s fiance Helen know he is innocent.  Helen is played by Nan Grey, the same young lady who fell victim to the early vampire lesbionics in Dracula’s Daughter (reviewed here).

But wait, what’s this? Following a visit by Dr. Griffin the night before his execution, Radcliffe mysteriously vanishes from his cell. Could it be his friend has given him a dose of the old invisibility formula so he can walk out undetected, find the real culprit for his brother’s death and clear his name. You betcha! That’s one of the two things which the story works towards resolving here...

One plot is the attempt by Radcliffe to clear his name, by terrorising a confession out of both men responsible -  the boss of Radcliffe’s coal mine operation, Richard Cobb, played by Cedric Hardwicke (who would turn up a few times in these Universal monster movies) and his nefarious henchman Willie Spears, played by Alan Napier who would, of course, grow up many years later to be the elderly Alfred the butler opposite Adam West’s Batman.

The other plot thread is Frank Griffin’s race against time to try and discover the antidote to invisibility which had eluded his brother before Radcliffe suffers the same fate and is driven to insanity by the dangerous chemical used in the formula. Meanwhile, of course, both he and Helen are also trying to thwart the intelligent but kindly Chief Inspector Sampson (played by Cecil Kellaway) and his police force.

So yeah, it’s a romp and... it’s okay. It is kind of an enjoyable piece of fluff and the special effects, for their time, are very good it has to be said. I mean, yeah we get the old rocking chair with nobody in it trick and various other episodes of moving scenery and props to denote the passage of the invisible Radcliffe but we also get some quite sophisticated tomfoolery with various camera tricks. There’s even a sequence where he pulls up Willie Spear’s legs to tie him up with a piece of rope and then they cut to a close up of the ends of his legs... which are dummy legs as they don’t flex at all... and what looks like stop motion animation of the rope tying around them. Presumably there was some flexible wire inside the rope to ensure it would stay in position for every frame that was filmed.

There’s also a nice bit where Radcliffe’s almost lifeless body reverts back to visibility near the end, allowing Griffin to save his life with an operation after all! First we see his skeleton appearing, then some of the veins, then the muscles and skin etc... revealing Vincent Price in the flesh, finally. I don’t know if this was the first time that this kind of anatomical precision was attempted in film but it’s astonishing for the period, I think.

There’s the occasional bit of cute dialogue too. When the two guards who let Radcliffe escape from his cell at the start of the film are being questioned, instead of saying... “That’s the way it was, so help me God!”, one of them says “... so help me Bob.” He then follows it up with “Wasn’t it Bob?” After which, the other copper, who is presumably named Bob, puts his oar in. So, yeah, some good humour carrying on in James Whale’s tradition which certainly makes the film agreeable and watchable.

What’s perhaps also as impressive as the special effects in this, though, is the fact that, while the various ‘bobbies’ are tumbling about in their usual ham fisted shenanigans as Radcliffe escapes them time and time again, Inspector Samson is actually quite an intelligent fellow who works out the truth of certain elements of the plot way before everyone else and is often two steps ahead of most people in the film. He even, in one nicely done special effects sequence, fills his general area with cigar smoke which reveals that the invisible fugitive is standing mere inches away from him. So, yeah, an intelligent police inspector in the film is a refreshing change of pace from the way the police are treated in most set ups.

The film is elevated by the scoring of Frank Skinner and Hans Salter with, as you might suspect given Universal’s musical modus operandi in this period, some lifts from Skinner’s score for Son Of Frankenstein. It’s not the most memorable score in the series though and there are lots of silent passages throughout too but it certainly works a charm and is good as a stand alone listen too.

Things buzz along to a double ending, first at the coal mine where the main villain of the piece comes to a sticky end and then, of course, in the race to try and save Ratcliffe’s life. I seem to remember this coal mine set though and I’m pretty sure that the same place was used in one of the many Mummy sequels a few years after this film was shot. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

So there we are. Not much to add here on The Invisible Man Returns other than Vincent Price would, of course, very briefly reprise his role as the voice of The Invisible Man at the end of Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein. He would continue on in much more romantic, matinee idol kinds of roles such as his turn in the famous film Laura until, at some point in the 1950s, he would become indelibly linked to the horror genre which he is still mostly remembered for. The Invisible Man films would continue on without him, of course, with the next two in the series being very unusual entries in the directions they take. In fact, the next movie doesn’t feature an invisible man at all... but I’ll get to that when I rewatch it again for this blog sometime soon.

Sunday 26 July 2020

The Thing (1982)


The Thing Man

The Thing
USA 1982 Directed by John Carpenter
Arrow Ltd Edition Blu Ray Box Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Man is the warmest place to hide huge spoilers if you’ve not seen this movie.

I’ve already said that, out of all three movie versions of John W. Campbell Jr’s novella Who Goes There?, my favourite version is always going to be the 1951 adaptation, The Thing From Another World, (reviewed here) regardless of the inaccuracies to the source material... which is something they are all guilty of, one way or another although, I think the prequel to this movie might actually be closer in some ways, ironically. That being said, I absolutely love John Carpenter’s The Thing and it’s nothing short of a modern horror classic. I can’t believe it was such a huge flop when it released in the summer of 1982 and I find it hard to understand the critical attacks on it. This film, like many of those released that summer, gave us things we hadn’t seen before on screen and, certainly, this is something which I think has had a huge influence on modern horror directors.

Starting with a saucer flying down to the earth, Carpenter then goes out of his way to replicate the title card of the original movie (minus ‘from another world’ obviously, which in itself was only added to the original to distance it from a comedy, novelty song of the time). We then start the film proper with a low, pulse rhythm which is absolutely reminiscent of most of Carpenter’s other scores but was also composed by Ennio Morricone. Actually, the music in this is one of those huge mystery puzzle pieces to the layman like me as not all of the score was retained (some of it turns up in Tarantino's The Hateful Eight), some of it not used in its final form and some was composed by Carpenter himself.

We see a Norwegian helicopter chasing a dog in Antarctica, trying to shoot it to slow it down so the occupants can blow said dog up with a stick of TNT. The dog makes it to safety as we are introduced to the personnel of the American base camp and this includes the only female presence in the movie... the voice of MacCready’s Chess Wizard computer voiced by Carpenter’s then wife, Adrienne Barbeau. Her inclusion is short lived because, when the computer wins at chess, MacReady pours the rest of his J&B into the machine and it dies a death as he comments, “Cheating bitch!” I don’t know if Carpenter was already, at this time, having problems with his marriage but, if he was, this seems like a perfect line for him to express himself with. I really like Barbeau myself and am looking forward to reading her autobiography soon.

As the dog makes it to the base, we get the whole team out there and the Norweigans come to a sticky end, one by a bizarre, clumsy accident which destroys him and his helicopter and the other, by the base commander shooting him through the eye, after the intruder accidentally wounds one of his men. We have the one and only Kurt Russell playing the main protagonist/anti-hero MacReady and he is ably supported by a full ensemble cast of Wilford Brimley (Blair), T.K. Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry, yes that’s right folks... REM from the Logan’s Run TV show is in this), Joel Polis (Fuchs) and Thomas G. Waites as Windows. This really is an ensemble piece here although, when MacReady is forced to take charge of the situation later, it becomes clear that this is his film.

And it’s got the whole, lurking paranoia and trust issues that was a hangover from the original source material, mostly absent from the 1951 classic (of which, from what I understand, Carpenter is a huge fan). It’s also got some really unusual and surreal gory, alien transformation effects as various people are assimilated or attacked by The Thing throughout the movie. Including what I should probably call ‘the split head dog’ scene and the eye popping moment when the doctor is trying to revive one of the men with a defibrillator and the whole stomach caves in, revealing teeth which bite both his arms off. Also that wonderful moment when the head pulls itself off of a body, sprouts big spider legs and eye stalks... and tries to sneak out of the room past the others.

The make up effects were primarily spearheaded by the very young and enthusiastic Rob Bottin, who had worked with Carpenter previously on The Fog (which I reviewed here). I understand he put so much into the opportunity that he was hospitalised with stress sometime into the shoot but, when you look at what he and his effects crew achieved here, it’s nothing short of remarkable and, surprisingly, there’s not a heck of a lot like it out there in movies since (although, obviously, the prequel rightly took a page out of the same book, if memory serves). It’s pretty much exactly the kind of twisted, organic look you might imagine when reading an H. P. Lovecraft story... it’s surely the closest we’ve had to an actual manifestation of Cthulhu like namelessness on screen. It’s been said that Campbell’s original story was influenced by the classic Lovecraft tale At The Mountains Of Madness but, I think that’s probably not all that accurate if you’re comparing the story content dispassionately and I’m not 100% sure if Campbell ever went on record as saying that, to be honest.

Carpenter pays homage to the Christian Nyby version of the tale when he has MacReady go over to the Norweigan base camp to find the aftermath of the people who have already been ‘Thinged up’. He finds the big, thawed out block of ice (no idea how the Norweigans got it through the door but maybe I missed something on the interiors) and when they check out the videotape footage of their ‘discovery’ later, lots of the shots are silent, restaged versions of the crew in the 1951 version discovering the saucer. However, what Carpenter also cleverly does... because the grotesque aftermath of the camp and what they find there occurs before the dog-splitting scene... is to ramp up the tension by showing the audience the kind of ride they are soon going to be in for themselves. Make no mistake, this is a master of horror at the top of his game here.

And I won’t spoil anything else for you but, suffice it to say, the 1982 remake/adaptation is just as essential viewing as the original is. Fans of cinema truly need to see both versions. The limited edition Arrow Blu Ray box has a nice slipcase, posters, booklet and cards but I’m assuming the non-limited edition which is still around also has the same Blu Ray extras. There are a lot of those on here too and I haven’t watched them all as yet but, one of note would be a new documentary which details, not just the making of this version but also the original story and the making of the 1951 version. Another featurette lasting just under a half an hour tries to shed some small light on just why The Thing might have been ‘lost in the woods for the trees’, so to speak, by highlighting many of the incredible, modern classics of cinema that were released around the same time... so stuff like Conan The Barbarian, Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here), Blade Runner (reviewed here) and the horrible horrribleness that was E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial. There’s even a FrightFest short from one of the previous years which is a mini, twisted version of the famous ‘wire in the blood’ scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s a nice transfer of the movie too, obviously and... all in all... tremendous value for money for one of the all time classic pieces of early 1980s cinema. Always worth a watch and the Arrow Blu Ray is definitely the way to go. There’s no thing like it.

The Thing at NUTS4R2

The Thing From Another World (1951)
The Thing (1982)
The Thing (2011)

Thursday 23 July 2020

The Thing From Another World


The Thing And I

The Thing From Another World
USA 1951 Directed by Christian Nyby
HMV Premium Collection Blu Ray Zone B


The Thing From Another World is based, somewhat loosely (although not as loosely as many believe, by all accounts... in many ways it’s more faithful on story progression and mechanics than the remake), on John W. Campbell Jr’s novella Who Goes There? And I’m going to make some very clear statements to start off this review by way of caveats which may well put some of you off from reading on but I’m going with what I see as the facts on this one.

My least problematic point is that I’ve not actually read the original novella (although I do intend to at some point... just saw a free copy online). So I can’t tell you blow for blow how great it is as an adaptation other than what I can gather from the comments of others, which I’ve encapsulated in the paragraph above. My next two statements might anger some, though.

The Thing From Another World was not, as people seem to want to believe these days, directed unofficially by auteur Howard Hawks. Sure, he had a hand in it as he produced it and turned directing chores over to one of his editors but any good producer makes suggestions on the set and I suspect Nyby directed it just as much as Steven Spielberg directed the Indiana Jones movies with producer George Lucas on the set making suggestions (remember, it was Lucas’ wish that Temple Of Doom starts off with Indy in a tuxedo, which is something Spielberg really didn’t like the sound of). There are varying conflicted reports by actors and crew members as to how things went... including from Hawks himself who originally said he just made a few suggestions on set but, over the decades, his perceived involvement in it seemed to grow. So, yeah you may think that some of the signature, directorial flashes come from Hawks but, then again, people often don’t credit the work of a close collaborator when it comes to picking up on certain stylistic similarities (take Ennio Morricone’s famous, early scores, for example, which were orchestrated by Bruno Nicolai and vice versa).

One of the reasons that Hawks chose Nyby was that, as his editor, he knew that he was familiar with the kinds of cuts and rhythms that were synonymous with the visual language that Hawks used. In fact, it was apparently Nyby who came up with the suggestion of using damn near no close ups in the film whatsoever because, as a former editor, he knew that the film could easily change shape in the cutting room if they were not careful so... he decided to go more for master shots or mid range shots so that it couldn’t be cut any other way. Hawks agreed with the idea and that’s why there are very few close ups in the movie... and it really doesn’t hurt it at all.

So in terms of responsibility for the movie... let me say I think it’s time we gave Nyby his due as the man listed as the director on the credits. It’s my belief it’s him to whom the ownership of the film belongs... as much as a collaborative venture like the piecing together of a major motion picture could be birthed as anything like the work of an auteur anyway, that is.

Lastly, and many people are really going to disagree with this one too... of the three adaptations (or two adaptations and one prequel, if you prefer) of this story, this 1951 version is by far the superior version. Yes, I do love John Carpenter’s remake, The Thing... I think it’s an utterly brilliant movie and, although he threw out a lot of the story points (he kept a couple of nice homages to this one in, more on those when I review that version), his version addresses the shape shifting nature of the alien. In this original version it’s just James Arness (future Sherif Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke) in a pseudo-Frankenstein monster suit. However, as much as I absolutely adore Carpenter’s version with it’s gory and surrealistic, body horror tone and paranoia... I find this 1951 version much more entertaining on every other level. The Carpenter version is an absolutely brilliant, classic piece of sci-fi horror... and so is this one. They’re just very different and, for me, the 1951 marginally scrapes to first place for the win in terms of sheer watchability.

The film starts off with a slowly materialising piece of typography saying The Thing (followed quickly by From Another World once it’s done it’s... err... thing). Carpenter’s version totally echoes this typography and the way it materialises in his version. The first of a few very blatant homages to this original. Here’s it’s underscored by Dimitri Tiomkin’s fine score, which was the first of two very important science fiction films in this year to make use of the infamous electronic instrument the theremin (the other would be Bernard Herrmann’s score to The Day The Earth Stood Still, which used a whole bunch of them). This popular 1920s musical instrument (which has a whole story of intrigue and 'long game' espionage attached to it in its own right, due to the antics and shenanigans of the musical inventor from which it takes its name) was popularised in film by Dr. Miklos Rozsa, who used it in two of his scores for 1945 movies, The Lost Weekend and Spellbound.

Then we get to meet some of the main players. Kenneth Tobey as Captain Hendry and some of his men are sent to an Arctic research station to check up on an unexplained air crash and some strange magnetic field readings. He takes with him his new acquaintance Scotty, played by Douglas Spencer, who is a newspaper reporter he meets in the opening scene, while playing poker with two of his men. There’s a terrible cut in this scene, actually. I’ve seen this film maybe five times now in my life and this time I noticed that Hendry deals out two rounds of cards for a hand and then it cuts to them picking up five cards each. So what went on between cuts (or retakes or alternate cuts) I guess we’ll never know. It’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment because the conversation continues over the cut as normal.

We then follow these people as they fly to the arctic and meet the team... including lead professor and ever-so-slightly human villain (misguided by science, I guess you would say) Professor Carrington, played by Robert Cornthwaite and, in her debut movie, Margaret Sheridan as his assistant Nikki. Actually, she didn’t make that many movies or TV show appearances after this but, somehow, she is first billed in the cast list and, all I can say is, good job too. I can’t believe this lady didn’t make major stardom because she’s an absolute hoot in this movie. Her personality really shines through and, although a female presence was not in the original novella, she is not just a fifth wheel here. Asides from an early BDSM reference where she ties Hendry’s arms behind him to a chair to have a drink with him... it’s she who comes up with the idea of what you do to a vegetable when the creature of the title is found to be an advanced form of humanoid plant life (it even grows a new arm back after one of the husky dogs it kills bites one off). She’s just amazing and I wish she’d been in many more movies.

After more introductions and slow burn character enhancement we get the scene where the crew find the crashed saucer and, in a famous moment, determine its size by circling the shape under the ice (another thing Carpenter homages on a video diary of what happened to ‘the other’ base camp in his version). After inadvertently destroying the saucer, the crew chop a block of ice carrying ‘the thing’ free and take it back to base. Then, the inevitable happens and a mistake with an electric blanket accidentally thaws the creature out and it wants to conquer the earth, using the blood of two hanging, slain scientists (a visceral image we never see but hear described) to feed some native vegetation the plasma to create an army of creatures like itself. From then on it’s humans versus thing as the alien enemy tries to freeze our heroes out from the base while they try to defend and destroy.

And it’ a really great film. Most especially because of the razor sharp, witty dialogue which has a lot in common with some of Howard Hawk’s screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s such as the excellent Bringing Up Baby (on which Nyby didn’t work but, then again, Hawks didn’t write this script either, okay?). The dialogue in this film is very slick and the other thing... and I’m always impressed with this each time I watch it because it’s a trick which has always been attributed to what Robert Altman was doing in film in the 1960s and 70s... is that there’s lots of overlapping dialogue in the movie as different groups of people in the same shot hold different conversations. It’s absolutely brilliant for giving the scenes a naturalistic feel and it really helps to ground a film which, in the words of Scotty, involve the bloodthirsty, rampaging shenanigans of ‘an intellectual carrot’.

And because of the way the characters are built up and, additionally, because they’re all such nice and pleasant people who you would happily hang out with in a bar (even Dr. Carrington), it really helps you to identify with them and root for them against the title villain as the film accelerates to its electrifying climax. It really is one of the best science fiction/horror movies of the 1950s and I think more people these days, especially those who worship the Carpenter classic (which is also a good thing to do), should check this out because it’s fun, doesn’t outstay its welcome and is just so expertly crafted. Even Dimitri Tiomkin’s B-movie style score, which nobody could ever accuse of being subtle (not a term I’d ever associate with this composer), works towards unsettling the viewer and even ramps up some red herring moments which are totally created by the music to sow unease where they wouldn’t be seen as such by another composer, maybe.

So, yeah... that’s my take on a film that, with it’s much quoted ‘Watch the skies!’ end monologue from Scotty, has become so well loved and so influential to other directors... you can’t get to Ridley Scott’s crew of the Nostromo tracking down the Alien by counters recording micro changes in air density without the main protagonists here using a Geiger counter to track down the creature, I suspect. Yeah, I know, a Geiger counter to an H. R. Giger counter, for sure. But there you have it, The Thing From Another World is still one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies of the 1950s and absolutely one I will continue to watch over the years as death approaches. A masterpiece of cinema monster movies... as is the remake.

The Thing at NUTS4R2

The Thing From Another World (1951)
The Thing (1982)
The Thing (2011)

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD


Raw Steel

Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD
(The Gold Key and Whitman Years)

Gold Key Issues 1 - 46 USA 1963 - 1977
Whitman Issues Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom
Back Up Strip 28 - 31 1981 - 1982


I never read or, I think, even saw these Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD comics when I was a kid. We certainly had a few of the Gold Key titles on the UK news stands back in the early 1970s but they were mostly titles like Lost In Space, Boris Karloff Presents or Star Trek and, even those were fairly scarce among the gazillions of DC, Marvel and Harvey comics which dominated the racks here. The few Gold Key titles which were here did tend to stand out, though, because the fully painted covers were absolutely brilliant compared to any of the rival companies mentioned above.

That being said, I did read at least one Magnus comic strip and I was interested in the character because of that. The strip in question was from a second hand TV Tornado annual I had somehow acquired in the 1970s. TV Tornado was a comic that I didn’t get or know about but I somehow had an annual and the Magnus strip I read when I was a nipper would have been, like all the Magnus strips included as part of that comic, a reprint from one of these Gold Key issues. The look and feel of the character, from what little I saw, really appealed to me but, obviously, those were the decades before the internet so any information about the character was really not forthcoming like it would be today.

But now I’ve read these, I am a little more clued up on him... at least from his original Gold Key era. Like a couple of other of the ‘original’ Gold Key characters, Magnus has had a longer life after the company folded in various other comic companies over the years and, I guess I’ll get around to reading those ones too at some point. These ones though are... kinda interesting but a very simplistic presentation of a complex issue, it seems to me.

The strip was created by famous comic artist Russ Manning, who would also work on titles like Tarzan and who would be also well known in the US in his later years, just before he lost his battle with cancer, for drawing the Star Wars newspaper strip. He drew the first 21 issues of the Gold Key title until other artists took over for issues 23 - 28 and also the short lived revival as a back up strip in the revived Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom (which I reviewed here). Manning’s art is pretty clean and you can tell from his storyline that he was obviously interested by the challenge of Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. So much so that he even quotes it in the first issue. Another sign of a good artist is the fact that the page layouts don’t ‘strictly’ follow the Gold Key style of panel counts with more dynamic layouts and splash panels/pages which Manning throws into the mix.

Issues 29 - 46 are all, regrettably, reprints of earlier issues... I’ve got no idea how Gold Key got away with pulling stuff like this off but I think they got rid of the letters page around about the same time so there was nobody complaining about it. At least not visibly.

The first issue tells of Magnus’ first day in North Am, a vast city which unites all of the North American continent in the year 4000AD (and beyond). This is an origin story and tells how he was rescued as an orphaned baby by the robot 1A, who took him to his ocean lair and trained him, as a toddler, in the arts of robot fighting... allowing young Magnus to hone his body like steel so he can smash robots with his bare hands. On this day in the first issue, Magnus must be in his early 20s and he returns to North Am to enlighten mankind that they have come to rely on robots too heavily... turning them into a weak race. So he fights any evil or malfunctioning robots, falls in love with a senator’s daughter who is a regular on the strip, never lets anyone know that he has a receiver implanted in his head so he can pick up transmissions between robots and get a jump on any alarming activity... and is somehow welcomed into the hearts of the people and the upper echelons of North Am, without having much of an actual job to sustain him other than being, it would seem, a permanent ‘live in guest’ of the senator and smashing bad robots.

So, yeah, interesting premise of a world gone weak through over reliance on robots but brushed away in a simplistic strip which, I suspect, Russ Manning probably left because he’d realised it had run its course in such a short time. After all, how many evil robots can there be?

There are recurring villains from time to time, mostly humans controlling robots of death... but things get fairly ridiculous quite quickly with not much to add to the initial concept, I felt. Not that the writers didn’t give it a try. For instance, exploring the concept of highly intelligent, telepathic animals to try and expand out the narrative or even... and this is a bit fraught with peril... having a group of what amount to a fan club of teenage sidekicks called The Outsiders to get into trouble and, just occasionally, get Magnus out of harm’s way.

But then you also get stuff like the mental consciousness of a robot planet that Magnus destroyed in an earlier issue coming back to take over two of the title character’s human enemies by thought control and having them harnessing robots through the power of black magic... it just gets a bit silly. There’s even a hollow reference or two in that particular issue to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos if you look carefully at the spells they are chanting.

The comic also had a back up strip called The Aliens which was fairly unfocused and tried to preach on the subject of racial tensions dressed up as a kind of aliens/human exchange programme.. but with lots of ‘problem solving’ action. However, the strip wasn’t that great and it kinda gets cancelled half way through the run on a cliff hanger so... I guess I’ll never know (not too worried about that, to be honest).

So yeah, when it does have good things to explore, such as the anti-robot sentiment operating through a robotic society or the different classes and status of the inhabitants of North Am, it does kind of throw them away so we can see more things involving Magnus smashing robots but, to be fair, it is entertaining enough and I am wondering if the later incarnations of the character, written and drawn in decades which were a little more sophisticated than the comics audience was in the 1960s/70s, had time to look at some of the more interesting side effects of the main premise than the original comic did. I guess I will have to get around to reading some of those at some point in the near future but, for now, I’ll just say that I did kinda enjoy perusing the adventures of Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD and I will come back to this character at some point, I’m sure.

Sunday 19 July 2020

The Earth Dies Screaming


Signal And I

The Earth Dies Screaming
UK 1964 Directed by Terence Fisher
Signal One/20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B


The Earth Dies Screaming is a film I accidentally discovered not so long ago... maybe only 15 years ago at most... so I am, admittedly, a latecomer to the party but I remember how overjoyed I was when I first saw it. It’s absolutely brilliant but it’s also a very short film, clocking in at literally just a few minutes over an hour. Which is fine if it’s part of a double bill DVD like my first copy of this, on the old US Midnite Movies label but, honestly, I would be loathe to pay full whack for a Blu Ray of the thing and so, when a sparkly new restoration was released a couple of years ago... I didn’t. Then comes HMV to the rescue with one of their Covid 19 induced, almost daily ‘special offer’ sales and this one was in their two for £12 sale so, lucky I waited on it as I got to pay a price more suited to the running time. Also, watching this under corona virus lock down is just right for this film.

And it’s a real humdinger of a movie, right from the opening hook of a pre-credits sequence. The film is shot in a nice, crisp black and white 1.66:1 aspect ratio and it’s directed by Hammer alumni Terence Fisher. It starts off with, for my money, a most spectacular series of shots depicting an out of control steam train derailing. Now, the guy on the commentary track (which I also listened to but... well, I’ll get to that later) says that this opening shot is a miniature and I’ve no reason to doubt him but, honestly, it’s easily the best miniature I’ve seen, if it is. The grass blown in the wind and the steam rising from the funnel as the train goes down and everything is in exactly the right proportion to the model... all I can say is I could have sworn they did it for real. It’s that good.

This is followed by a shot of a car crashing into a brick wall, various people just dropping dead in the street and a plane falling out of the sky. I remember the first time I saw this I thought... wow, it’s just like the opening of Village Of The Damned. That film had, of course, been released into cinemas four years earlier and, as I’m sure you’ll remember if you’ve seen it, it starts off with a whole village full of people just passing out and staying unconscious for a day or so. Well, thanks to the guy on the commentary track here, I now know that the train shot is pilfered footage as, indeed, is the majority of the pre-credits sequence and it turns out that most of the footage used here consists of alternate takes at different angles from the exact same sequences in Village Of The Damned. So there you go... I learned something.

After the title and credits roll, we get my one big problem with the film... sure, we’ve just seen the majority of the planet fall dead but... not a one of them were screaming. They just passed out and died. So why the film is called The Earth Dies Screaming is anyone’s guess. No screaming here.

We then go to the little village square in which the majority of the film takes place (in an interior which is said to be a copy, which matches perfectly, the inside of the actual village inn used for the exteriors) and the American star, Willard Parker turns up. Yes, this is one of those curious 50s/60s British sci-fi/horror movies which used to import a somewhat lesser known or somewhat washed up US actor in the hopes that it will attract audiences overseas. So the first two Quatermass adaptations had Brian Donlevy, X-The Unknown had Dean Jagger, The Trollenberg Terror (aka The Crawling Eye) had Forrest Tucker and... The Earth Dies Screaming had Willard Parker.

Here he’s joined by an absolutely wonderful cast of six other actors, comprising Parker’s real life wife Virginia Field (who is, more or less, the implied romantic interest for Parker here), Dennis Price (playing the kind of ‘human villain’ role he was known for), Thorley Walters, Vanda Godsell, David Spenser and Anna Palk. These are all people who accidentally come together and surmise they have survived what they believe to be ‘an attack’ by not being in a place where they were able to breathe the same atmosphere as everyone else at the time... Parker as test pilot up in an altitude not affected, Field in an oxygen tent etc. They also have the standard dramatic plot roles to fulfil... for example Godsell playing the first post-earth dying victim, Walters the alcoholic, Spenser the sassy youth and Palk his heavily pregnant girlfriend etc. You just know that the birth is going to come on at just the wrong time, right?

Now the film is excellent and, after the introduction of roving space robots (who apparently elicit a lot of laughs from youngsters but, frankly, I’ve always been terrified of them) and also the resurrected zombie bodies of people (shades of The Trollenberg Terror), their white eyes staring as they attempt to visit death upon you... it's all just hugely suspenseful. At just over an hour it never outstays its welcome but, honestly, I could easily watch two or three hours of this stuff. I remember the first time I saw the scene where most everyone is asleep in the inn and the pregnant Palk is fixing herself some milk halfway through the night, blissfully unaware of the robot monster observing her from the other side of the kitchen windows. I was on the edge of my seat, as I was for most of the movie. This is a really nice yarn and, in some ways, foreshadows a little the kind of slow moving zombie films which were popularised by George A. Romero just a few years later.

Part of that is due to Fisher’s direction and shot design, part of that is due to the cast who make a nice ensemble and do a good, efficient job of allowing their character stereotypes to come to life with broad strokes... and it’s also helped by Elisabeth Lutyen’s (daughter of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens) rather wonderful score of ‘weird suspense’ which I would love to hear on CD some day. Alas, the majority of this avant-garde composer’s film work is unreleased and mostly it’s her more famous concert hall work which has been let out into the wild. It’s a nice score though, delicately spotted and certainly adds to the natural tension of the movie.

One of the things I love is the fact that, apart from being able to identify that the robots and zombie humans are being controlled by radio signals boosted by key radio towers on Earth (to allow for a bit of a deus ex machina end game which knocks the robots in the surrounding area out), we are given no explanation of the why or who this mysterious alien presence is. It’s very much like one of those many zombie films where the reason for the outbreak is unknown and never explained enough to get in the way of the drama of the situation. I can’t help but feel that this film has been a little influential on certain directors over the years.

This Blu Ray is nicely put together and has a lovely transfer. Extras include a short, not that great, documentary account about the experiences of three ‘behind the scenes’ staff working with the producer and a commentary track which, although it gave me a little information, I felt was a little vulgar and maybe just a little inaccurate in places too. It also felt a bit patronising at times but, maybe I’m a little sensitive... he did pick up, as I do believe myself, that these robot monsters may well have been the inspiration for the Cybermen in Doctor Who, who made their debut on the show just two years after the release of this film. It’s probably one of my least favourite commentary tracks for films of this sort but I’m glad it’s there because, how else would I have known about the alternative footage from Village Of The Damned making its way into the picture? So, yeah, for the princely sum of £6 I’m really not complaining because this is a film which has a lot of rewatch legs (this must be maybe the fourth time I’ve watched it) and I know this Blu Ray should get a lot of play in the upcoming years too.

And that’s me done with the somewhat contradictory titled The Earth Dies Screaming. If you’ve never seen this and you like nicely done, mid-60s sci-fi and horror then you really do owe it yourself to set that to rights immediately. It’s a fantastic movie.

Thursday 16 July 2020

Ghidorah - The Three Headed Monster


Ghidorah With Excitement

Ghidorah - The Three Headed Monster
Japan 1964 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Criterion Blu Ray Zone B


So this next kaiju movie, which I am reviewing as part of Criterion’s lovely Spine 1000 box set of The Showa Era of Godzilla films, is very much a direct sequel to the previous film in the series, Godzilla VS Mothra (reviewed here). That’s not to say things haven’t moved on a little in this entry, Ghidora - The Three Headed Monster, as we’ll soon discover but some of the characters (human and kaiju alike) recur and many references are made to the original film.

This one is directed, once again, by Ishirô Honda... who was responsible for kick-starting the series with his original movie Godzilla (reviewed here), as well as directing other films starring both The Big G and a variety of other monsters, such as Mothra (reviewed by me here). And like his previous kaiju eiga, this one has a very slow build up but, where that really seemed to hamper the previous film in the series, this one has a very entertaining plot which is developed over a half an hour before the first monster even turns up... in the form of Rodan (or Radon as he was know  in Japan... wish a legitimate Blu Ray release was available for this monster’s debut feature). In fact, this is probably the best in the series so far since the original Godzilla movie and it never once gets dull.

The opening titles are a bit strange, showing a series of 'moving to freeze frame' monster moments from the forthcoming movie and I can only assume that this was done because of the slow build up on this one (much like the inclusion of ‘home video footage’ of Godzilla in Godzilla Raids Again, reviewed here). In this case, the decision is not the best because, as I said before, the plot development on this one is quite interesting and holds its own against the forthcoming attraction of battling behemoths.

Okay, so lets get to that plot then. Characters and their relationships with each other are established very economically with some nice, catch all lines which make any subsequent patter redundant, so it cuts to the chase very quickly compared to some of the other dialogue writing in the series... for instance, the line when a character is asked if there’s "anything up" is followed up with the answer... “If so, your paper would be on it before us cops.” Stuff like this really moves things along nicely and cuts a lot of extraneous material which might have been there in an alternate approach.

Primarily, the film centres around the princess of a fictional country called Sergina, played by Akiko Wakabayashi. She was in a few of these kinds of films but Bond fans may remember her for her performance as Aki in You Only Live Twice, three years later. Everybody in Sergina seems to dress with big Elizabethan ruffles around their necks, making them look totally out of place in the modern world in which this movie is set. Even their briefly glimpsed military look completely strange, as they all appear to be dressed in bright red Santa suits. Thankfully, not many of the princess’ scenes are set in her home country and she is the unfortunate victim of an assassination plot as her plane explodes from a bomb planted within. Or, at least she would have been if a strange alien voice in her head hadn’t urged her to leave and caused her to jump out into a bright light outside the aircraft before it explodes... could this have something to do with the mysterious UFOs that Naoka, the other female lead played by Yuriko Hoshi, has been researching for her job on the upcoming TV show, Mysteries Of The 20th Century? Pretty likely, I would say.

Confusingly, Yuriko Hoshi was in Godzilla VS Mothra playing a similar but totally different character. It’s puzzling since another of the main protagonists, Professor Miura played by Hiroshi Koizumi, reprises his role from that same film. He is studying one of the ‘mysterious meteors’ with strange properties that have crashed in the area. Meanwhile, the Princess resurfaces as an uncannily true prophet, who walks around in an almost trance-like state warning people to flee, as she believes she is a Venusian who can see into the future. Which she kind of is actually, because the Venusian light thing that rescued her from the plane is obviously controlling her actions.

She warns people to keep away from a mountain, for example, just a short while before Rodan busts his way out of it. Then, after Godzilla goes on the prowl again, out of the blue, she also warns about the creature that's the instigator of the destruction of the Earth, King Ghidora, the three headed monster of the title... who promptly hatches in a strange, phoenix like manner from the mysterious meteor.

Meanwhile (again), Mothra’s tiny guardians, played once again by the pop duo The Peanuts (their third and final appearance in a Godzilla film), are in town for a TV appearance and we are informed that, of the two surviving Mothras from the previous movie, one has passed away. Which is a shame. However, when Ghidorah starts his rampage, The Peanuts summon Mothra (who stays in larvae state for the entire movie) to talk sense into the warring Godzilla and Rodan, in a sequence in which we see Mothra talking to them while The Peanuts translate for the benefit of the audience... and so the stage is set for an epic battle at the end of the movie where Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan team up to battle King Ghidorah.

While all this is going on, we have the cop trying to protect the transformed princess from a group of hit-men who have been sent from Sergina... so we have a Godzilla movie with some proper gun battles in it too, which wouldn’t, it has to be said, look totally out of place in a Seijun Suzuki movie. The second half of the film also features legendary actor Takashi Shimura in his last appearance in a Godzilla film, as yet another new character, Doctor Tsukamoto.

And... it’s a really entertaining movie and a lot better than how I’d remembered it.

The special effects on this one are great and even the scenes where live action and miniature work are blended look pretty good (as opposed to the previous movie). There’s a lovely shot too, where Godzilla rising up out of the sea is preceded by the backs of fleeing whales rippling the surface of the water... this is really nice stuff.

The sound design is a mixed bag though. Nice work with the silenced guns of the villains, so the heroes louder gun shot sounds have their own signature and you can hear just who is doing the shooting at any one time in a gun battle. I’ll never understand, though, why Rodan always seems to sound like a jet engine. That just never works for me.

Akira Ifukube provides a magnificent score for this one and uses his big, ponderous Godzilla main theme a lot. There’s even something like a theremin used for some of the UFO/meteor moments. Curiously, though, his big Godzilla march still doesn’t make a reappearance here, at least that I could hear. There’s a wonderful musical build up when we first see King Ghidorah attack a city and we see the people shutting up shops and fleeing.

There’s a big musical misstep here though, as far as I’m concerned and, yes, I know selling records would have been a priority here... but there’s a brand new Mothra song which The Peanuts perform in two scenes and, well, it’s just not good... although matched visually by some nicely montaged shot compositions, such as the heads of the two blown up large on either side of the frame, superimposed with the chanting natives on Infant Island sandwiched between them.

All in all though, Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster is a really entertaining and rewatchable entry into the series and brings in the concept of space aliens and space monsters to the films, acting as a great prelude/set up to the next movie in the series the following year, which was always one of my favourites, Invasion Of The Astro-Monster.

It also marks a great turning point in the series because Godzilla starts off as a menace but, when talking to Mothra and revealing his reasons for his former behaviour... and then agreeing to team up and help protect the earth from King Ghidorah... he finally takes on the mantle of heroic protector of Tokyo which would pretty much stick with him for most of the following films in The Showa Era. There’s also a hint at how whacky and comical the character would become as his laughter and amusement at Rodan getting equally covered with Mothra’s semen-like silk is plain old slapstick, pantomime acting... it’s quite hilarious, as are some of the reactions the monsters have to each other during the fights. This is one of the best movies in the series, for my money but... the best was yet to come.

Tuesday 14 July 2020

My 1800th Post


Thou Shalt Not Covid Thy Neighbour’s Life

My 1800th Post


My mate survived corona virus and all I got was this dry, persistent cough.

Well, that’s not true actually but it would make a great t-shirt.

So here we are, 10.3 years into my blog and on my 1800th Blog post. I usually do something to celebrate each 100 posts but I figured I really don’t have anything that special to say because we are, most of us, still currently in the midst of our cora-nora virus pseudo lock down. So I figured I might as well say a few words about that here now since, when else am I going to get the chance? After all, it will all be over by the time I hit the next 100, won’t it?

I mean, the current UK government seem to be doing such a good job that I’m sure we’ll all be safe and ‘out of it’ soon. Or, you know, the absolute opposite.

I’ve always been pretty much a political atheist throughout my life... don’t care who is in power because they’re all as bad as each other and they all seem to be corrupt as hell and lie to the public while doing a bad job. I’m not sure what the viable alternative to governments is, by the way... I’m not suggesting a solution, just looking at the basic truth as I see it.

That being said, looking at what the current government have been doing in the face of the cora-nora blues, I’d have to say that they seemed to have screwed up way worse than I could imagine anybody in power screwing up right now (unless, as I can’t help but thinking, they’re trying to thin out the population deliberately so they don’t have to pay out of the pension pot). I mean... I get it... it’s been a while since we’ve had something as threatening as the great plague was to this country back in times of old and people have forgotten how to cope or are just unprepared for it but... honestly... I wake up on a daily basis now not even bothering to check out what the news is because it’s just one life threatening ‘peoples lives vs the economy’ shambles of a bad decision after another. The economy is more important it would seem, to those in power, so can you all just die now please? Oh wait, if you all die we don’t have an economy. Let’s all just take pot luck then. It’s enough to make you get in a taxi and head out for Barnard Castle because, well, my local optician still hasn’t opened their doors again and I’m definitely due a check up.

So, yeah, at the moment I am, like a number of people in the country, working from home and trying to stay indoors. And that’s where I’m staying for a while I suspect because, let’s face it, I don’t want to risk going back to a prematurely opening cinema and kill myself and the people I am shielding. This is just madness.

But let’s look at the cinemas for a minute because... well... this is, after all, mostly a film blog (with some book and TV reviews too, as you’ll know if you’ve ever scrolled down my long and unwieldy index). So... I know the cinemas, like everybody else in the UK, are in danger of going under. However, people, for the most part (those who don’t go to pubs and crowded beaches or hop on a riot bandwagon because they’re bored of lock down), have got more sense than going out while this virus hasn’t even nearly gotten properly started yet. I mean, I hope I’m wrong about that but something tells me that, I’m possibly not... we’ll probably get a second wave, it may be much more deadly than the first wave and... I suspect the government won’t mandate any proper lock downs any time soon. So let’s look at what could happen to cinemas if we’re not careful (to pick on just one sector).

If a cinema opens now, regardless of the fact as to whether they’ve got anything new to show (they don’t appear to have, to be honest), they’ve got to pay for heating the building and whatever other overheads they have when said buildings are open... so they’re paying out way more money than if they were closed during the ‘night of the living covid’... and they’ve got to put in some kind of social distancing measures which, if they do it properly, will reduce the number of seats available for each performance to somewhere between a half and a third of what their normal take for a movie screening would be... plus turn off a good deal of the audience who might have risked it but don’t want to bother with all that social distancing malarkey. So, surely, with no covid vaccine and the rate of deaths and infection not really subsiding all that much and, possibly, going up (from what I can tell... it seems to be doing lots of things I was told was bad at the start of lock down but which now the government seems to be saying is perfectly acceptable)... it’s surely going to be more cost effective, as the lesser of two evils, to keep your gateways to our celluloid dreams...um... doors... shut for a fair while longer. If, of course, the government can come up with a way out of this mess.

And this already seems to be true, from what I can understand, of some comic book shops in the country. They can all open their doors now according to the powers that be... so they did and some of them have gone under because they’re getting less physical customers walking into their shop a day than you can count on one hand. People are staying away in droves and this is a niche market, don’t forget, of passionate comic book collectors and readers who care about this stuff a lot. It’s all a bit hard at the moment and I think we’re going to see a fair number of businesses start going under very soon. It will be a changed world.

So, yeah, cinemas probably shouldn’t open but I’m hoping that doesn’t mean certain movie companies will start releasing stuff digitally. Frankly, if a movie is limited to digital download then there are enough ‘ahem, free’ sites where you might as well watch it like that. If you’re not being provided with a proper cinematic or even Blu Ray experience... what’s the point in paying out for it? We can all just go and do our lock down jigsaw puzzles for much cheaper than the price of a subscription streaming fee. Actually, I’m not going to get started on the evils of non-physical media on here now and get myself all worked up. If you don’t understand why physical media is the only option in a post-cinema world then maybe you’ve not been thinking things through or observed what’s been going on with people who rely on streaming services. Let’s not go there now.

So anyway, lets all be keeping our fingers crossed not just for the survival of cinema but also, actually, the survival of governments. Much as I hate governments.

And I say that because I can’t believe some people are all that surprised but the sudden appearance of this virus (in an overpopulated world where usually a big war has helped cull the unwieldy population by now so, hey ho, nature needs to come up with its own solutions quick... nature finds a way, right?). Scientists have been warning us for... what... ten to fifteen years? Antibiotics have lost their usefulness and they have been telling us that a whole batch of super viruses will be coming for us soon and then we will be in big trouble as a species. And I suppose this Covid 19 is the first one of those and... yeah... if this is just the opening salvo then goodness knows how the various governments will cope when we’ve got three or four (or more) of these loose at the same time exhibiting different behaviours. So... yeah... I think the world leaders and the clever people of this world really need to start thinking out of the box sometime soon because all the response so far means the economy is crippled by the survival measures so... we need to stop relying on a bartering system to live together. I don’t know what that alternative is or if it’s even possible but... time to think on alternative ways of living and surviving on this planet methinks. Because if we don’t...

Let’s just say that I hope you’re the kind of movie lover who likes post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man or Waterworld or Mad Max 2 or The New Barbarians because, if we’re not careful, this time ten years from now we’ll all be hunting in packs trying to fend off the people riding motorcycles in chain mail who are out to kill us for a flask of precious water.

And if you’re still with me at the end of what I thought was only going to be a couple of paragraphs... may I just say thank you so much for reading and spending some time on this blog. I do appreciate it and am always humbled by the blog statistics. Cheers. Normal review service will resume in a couple of days.

Sunday 12 July 2020

Le Mans ‘66/Ford V Ferrari


My Sweet Ford

Le Mans ‘66/Ford V Ferrari
USA 2019 Directed by James Mangold
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B


I’m not really into motor racing to be honest... heck, I didn’t even know, until watching this film, that the Le Mans race runs for 24 hours non-stop with relays of drivers. However, I don’t mind the odd movie about the subject such as Grand Prix or Rush (reviewed here) and my dad certainly loves the sport. So, you know, I missed this one at the cinema but caught up with it on Father’s Day.

I honestly wasn’t expecting great things from Le Mans '66 (Ford V Ferrari) but I was expecting it to be a competently made, heavily dramatised story about ex-driver and car designer Carroll Shelby (as played by Matt Damon) and English driver Ken Miles (played here by Christian Bale). Mangold is a pretty solid director too so I wasn’t expecting anything less than an okay time with it. Having seen the trailer it looked like one of those films which ‘does what it says on the tin’, as the saying goes and, certainly, if you have talent like Damon and Bale in a movie... then you’re certainly stacking the deck in your favour as a director.

So, yeah, it absolutely did the ‘tin thing’ and what we have here is a nice looking film with an aesthetic of making what could be fairly standard, boring shots of driving look both beautiful in certain places and downright gritty and ‘in your face’ for a lot of the time. It feels like you’re right in the seat next to the drivers in this and Mangold has an absolute knack for giving this kind of subject matter the excitement it needs.

Now, a film like this is normally going to be the standard collection of Hollywood clichés and blown up dramatic moments and with a plot like this... which retells the story of how, in the wake of an unsuccessful merger bid by Ford to buy out Ferrari, the head of Ford (the grandson of the original Henry Ford) hires Shelby to make a car that can run in Le Mans and beat Ferrari at their own game... you should probably be expecting a lot of them to turn up. So, yeah, a film ripe for all those things like the story of the people getting the car ready, arguing, bonding, the son and spouse (in this case) of the driver and his relationship with them, the trials and tribulations as one of them is sacked but then proved right etc. and... yep... I can confirm that all those kinds of clichés and dramatic summits are there.

This is a movie of terrible old clichés and souped up dramatic moments to be sure but, it’s also so well put together that it's the very epitome of all that makes the best of those kinds of films so successful. Yeah, there are no real surprises (even less, I’m sure, for those of you who know how one of these two people met their untimely demise in real life) but it’s a heck of a well put together piece and just as entertaining as you’d expect. The cast are all excellent, especially Bale and Damon but also people like Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe playing Miles’ wife and son. I was especially impressed with Tracy Letts playing the grandson of the original Henry Ford, who comes across as totally ruthless a lot of the time but also someone who is not necessarily going to be totally swayed by the grand standing idiots in his employ... he really won me over in a scene where he has a bit of a breakdown after Shelby takes him for ‘a little spin’ in his new racing car. This couldn’t have been that easy to perform and it comes across as a surprisingly powerful moment which, given the specific condition that hinges on the outcome of this scene, it really needed to be. Letts really nails it here.

Two other people who really nail it are Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders. The soundtrack uses a lot of needle drop pop songs from the era (and also some in cover versions which weren’t yet around at the time, it has to be said) but the actual score itself is powerful stuff and, sadly, not available in CD form other than a couple of cuts on a song compilation (who wants a bloody song compilation?). The full score is only available in far inferior formats such as digital download or fragile vinyl but, alas, not on the medium of choice for people who care about stuff like this. So, yeah, as brilliant as it is, it looks like I’m destined to never hear it away from the film and that’s a shame because, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s quite driven and has a relentless, pounding rhythm to it which really makes the scenes fly. Also, when the grueling scenes of the race through rain and thunder during the night are on, the way the music orchestrates and muddies up and attacks the rhythm with a kind of scuttling percussion (yeah, I’m not good on musical description but hopefully you know what that means), it completely complements the idea of rain hitting the windshield as wipers cut across the surface trying to swoosh everything out of the way. This is really great music and it’s yet another great crime against filmanity that the score is not available on CD. The record companies have got to stop doing this to us.

Okay, so great cast, well shot, great music and, also, nicely edited. You really aren’t going to get lost in the edit during the race scenes here and this is no mean feat when it turns out that the big race scene at the end was shot on multiple different courses all sewn together to ensure it matched the look of the real Le Mans course in 1966. That must have been somewhat challenging.

So, yeah, that’s me about done on this except to say that if you’re into the odd Hollywood style docudrama then Le Mans ‘66 (aka Ford V Ferrari, depending on which country you are watching this in) is a pretty good example of that kind of film-making and is certainly a fun ride, miles ahead of some of the other racing movies. If you’re expecting something unusual or quirky then this may be the wrong picture for you but, even for someone like me who doesn’t worship these big Hollywood box office follies like some, this is a solid film, well made and about as good as you’d have a right to expect from this kind of project. I’m really glad I saw it and I’m sure it’s going to be a staple of TV stations for many a Christmas or Easter to come. Definitely a big holiday movie for sure. Worth a look.

Thursday 9 July 2020

High Noon


From Miller To Post

High Noon
US 1952 Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B


High Noon really is one of the all time great American Westerns. It’s been a fair few decades since I’d watched it last (I used to love it as a kid) but I recently bought my father the new Eureka - Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray and, of course, I sat down to watch it with him. I was blown away all over again by it’s stark, black and white photography, the driven Dimitri Tiomkin score with the important song Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling and some interesting actors doing their thing - including Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly (later Princess of Monaco), Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney Jr (the monster man is billed here as simply Lon Chaney, for some reason), an uncredited Jack Elam and, not forgetting, the screen debut of one Lee Van Cleef... as one of the four men gunning for Cooper’s Marshal character Will Kane.

Actually, I have to say, I didn’t realise this was Van Cleef’s debut until after I watched it again and looked him up. I mean, it’s a pretty rare debut. Okay, so he’s not the bad guy... Frank Miller (played by Ian McDonald) or even the main villain of the three gunfighters waiting for Frank to return to town on the noon train (that would be Frank’s brother Ben, played by Sheb Wooley)... but he has a large portion of the opening credits solo, while he gets ready and joins the other two gunmen to ride to the railway station. He really looks like a villain and, with his scarred face and wild eye reactions, which feature a couple of times in the film, I have to wonder if Sergio Leone maybe looked at this film long and hard over the years before making the actor a household name and using him in two of his famous Spaghetti Westerns. When we think of those Leone movies, we think of the stylised poses, the expressive eyes and the constant waiting and... well, it’s all here in High Noon, long before the Italians started doing it, mostly, better than the Americans. Or at least as interestingly. As the three wait for the train, you will certainly be reminded of Leone’s later masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West and I would bet this is one of the films he looked at for inspiration.

The plot, if you’ve never seen the film before, goes something like this...

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his quaker lover Amy (Grace Kelly) but finds out that the murderous Frank Miller has just been released from jail (from up north!) and is returning on the noon train to get together with his fellow thugs to gun down the marshall in an act of revenge and then, as implied, take over the town with their hoodlum ways. The town’s folk try to get Mr and Mrs Kane to leave in a buckboard but Kane soon turns back to pick up his tin star (the new marshal doesn’t get into town until the day after) and try to get help to fight off these four cold blooded killers in an attempt to protect the community. Amy doesn’t understand this course of action and tells him she will be on that noon train when it arrives. His former girlfriend, the Mexican Helen Ramírez (played wonderfully by Katy Jurado) also ends things with the marshal’s deputy, played by Lloyd Bridges. She is also set to leave on the noon train.

Meanwhile, in a searing metaphorical indictment of the Hollywood anti-communist black list as experienced by one of the producers about to be put on that list, Kane calls on the various friends and acquaintances in town, only to be met with inaction or untenable conditions to the required help. Bridges character quits over the matter and, even the one man qualified enough to help, changes his mind just before the villains show up. Which leaves just Kane and, as one of two strong female characters in the film, his wife Amy... who shows up to aid him in ways which I won’t spoil for you here if you’ve never seen it.

And it’s a staggeringly good movie. There are probably a fair few moving camera shots in the film but the absolutely beautiful 1.33:1 black and white photography set ups coupled with the pacing make the film appear static and, it has to be said, feel somewhat claustrophobic, as the characters and audience count down the minutes until the train gets into town. Which is something the audience can actually do in this film because, aside from some stuff at the start (and we’re only talking minutes), the entire film is shot... or at least edited... in real time. The various shots of clocks of all shapes and sizes included in the visuals to give you a constant reminder (and surprisingly accurate one, considering how a Hollywood movie is shot) of just how long you’ve got until the shooting starts... underlined by the fairly regular, tick tock percussion of the main title theme which, actually, I think was the first time a movie song had been written into the actual score to add emphasis. Can you imagine a Bond film that didn’t do this? Well, okay, there have been a few of them over the last decade but they’re all the poorer for it.

It’s also a film of mounting tension and unsaid or understated plot points. Nothing is directly said and, though there are some dense sections of scenes heavy with dialogue, a lot of the film plays out like a silent movie in terms of lack of conversation and it’s stronger for it (something else I suspect Sergio Leone learned from films like this). For instance, it’s never explicitly stated that Helen is the marshal’s ex but, as various comments are thrown about a picture is painted that she has history with the main antagonist of the film and you can piece together that the main protagonist, Will Kane, got her out of some problems before hitching up with her himself. It’s something an audience can sew together in their mind, just as Will’s new wife Amy does about half way through the film.

So, yeah, brilliantly minimal but carrying a lot of meaning in a way which almost seems a forgotten art in Hollywood nowadays, where teen audiences have lit a fire which ignorantly blazes through the subtlety of the art of cinematic implication and helped boil things down to a lowest common denominator of clear but stifling explanations and clarifications before the latest heroic incarnations can even get their clothes on. In this way the film is, perhaps, of its time but, honestly, it also feels strikingly timeless, especially with it’s criticisms of the common people on the street failing to do their duty and arguing their way out of harms way by justifying their stance in inventive rhetoric which never, quite, seems all that convincing.

And that’s me done on High Noon. One of the all time great movies that Hollywood ever put out and as entertaining a film as you’re likely to see. It holds up really well over the years and this new Blu Ray from Eureka is stacked with some interesting extras which, alas, I probably wont have time to watch for a very long time, if ever. But, as a recommendation, my dad absolutely loved it too and so do I and I reckon it’s a ‘must see’ for any fans of the art of the medium in general. Do not forsake this new release of an all time classic Western because, honestly, you’d be missing out.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Thale


I Wanna Huldra Haaaaaaand

Thale
Norway 2012
Directed by Aleksander Nordaas
Metrodome DVD Region 2


Warning: Very slight spoiler you will see coming  a mile off anyway.

This one’s a quite charming film which, while billed as a horror film, is more of a darkly cute monster movie than anything else. The title character, Thale, is played by Norwegian beauty Silje Reinåmo and she’s definitely not a character you can lack any empathy with... but I’m getting ahead of myself.

After teasing the audience with a short pre-credits sequence where the camera is focused on one wheel of a tape recorder, as the sounds of a possible violent encounter with the characters on the recording happens... the film starts off with the two main human protagonists, Leo (played by Jon Sigve Skard) and Elvis (Erlend Nervold). Elvis is the sensitive one of the two while Leo is the pragmatic master of deadpan humour and he runs what I can only describe as a clean up crew for violent crime scenes. So if you want someone scraped off the floor, Leo’s firm is the one who will do this for you. Elvis, who is just filling in for an absent member of the team, kinda stands by the side and throws up a lot.

And then, after their characters have been established, they are asked to find the other half of a body which is probably in a cabin, deep in a Norwegian wood. It’s while they are clearing this cabin that they find a secret entrance to what is an underground bunker (all shot in the director’s parent’s basement, by all accounts) with the remnants of what look like a mad scientists experiments on genetic transformation... along with the tape recorder we heard in the pre-credits sequence.

And then, up from a milky bath pops the title character, wearing only a a gas mask, both vulnerable and formidable as she is shown to be in the next five minutes. So the film is about the three characters interacting while Elvis and Leo try to feed the young 'lady' and discover what was her tail, kept in some kind of safe, so the smell won’t draw her fellow Huldra to reclaim her. A Huldra, by the way, is a Norwegian kind of wood nymph who, in its more more beautiful female form, inspires empathy with any humans it gets near as a defence mechanism. That defence mechanism certainly reaches out from the screen to lure in the audience too, as far as I’m concerned.

And then the three try to lock themselves in the bunker as a malevolent presence invades this world... but I don’t want to say more about that because, well, because it’s not what you are expecting from the way the film is set up... which is certainly a refreshing element to the movie. A movie which sets up a lot of tension and surprise while, sadly, occasionally telegraphing certain moments of the narrative.

For instance, I’d defy anyone to be actually surprised by the ‘reveal’ of the tail as... well... what did you expect? Similarly, a flashback which shows Thale as a child and bringing a dead flower back to life is going to absolutely give away the end punchline scene of the film much later to anyone who has been paying attention to Leo’s personal problem (which I won’t reveal here but you’ll see the formulaic way that one plays out, for sure).

However, I can forgive it the occasional obviousness in the way the story is written because the way the film is performed and also shot, in a fusion of bright and colourful (if sometimes bleached out) frames while simultaneously being almost completely done hand-held, is absolutely brilliant. He does things like a point of view ‘Huldra vision’ where the colours get bleached out slightly towards the focus of a frame and also, have little forward motion blurs on a lot of the picture to give those specific sequences a kind of ‘tunnel vision’ to the creatures.

Other things I caught the director doing are sometimes deep focusing on certain areas of a shot while everything else is a blur (not just in the Huldra sequences) and also a tendency to shoot his characters sometimes from a distance, looking into a room or corridor from outside another one... a bit like Roger Corman always leaving the doors open to make the locations in his films feel bigger but, here, it gives the bunker a more kind of claustrophobic feel.

The musical score is good too... with some traditional sounding stuff that more often than not transforms into the ‘atonal sound design meets dissonance’ which a lot of modern horror scores seem to use. Alas, the score itself is only available on download and not on a proper CD, so it looks like I won’t be getting to hear it away from the movie. Rather no score album at all than a watered down, compressed, electronic facsimile, I reckon.

But, yeah, the film is entertaining and certainly follows a traditional path in terms of the central creature of the narrative structure. This is why I say it’s not a horror movie but, rather a monster movie, because the film evokes the same kind of acceptance of the monster as movies such as King Kong (reviewed here) or Creature From The Black Lagoon (reviewed here). Similarly, the real villains of the piece are pulled from the human element in the film... but I’ll not say much more than that, at this point. I suspect you’ll probably figure all that stuff out before it’s revealed in the narrative anyway, to be honest.

So that’s me done on Thale. An impressive little horror movie which has some surprisingly good CGI effects, some great humourous, deadpan acting and a central female character who will undoubtedly win your heart. If you’re a fan of fantasy cinema then you’d probably do well to check this one out. Isn’t it good? Norwegian Wood.

Sunday 5 July 2020

Blood and Flesh - The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson


What Lay Beneath

Blood and Flesh - The Reel Life
and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson

USA 2019 Directed by David Gregory
Severin Films  Blu Ray Zone A/B
As part of the Al Adamson -
The Masterpiece Collection 32 film Blu Ray set


I’ve only, at time of writing this, seen one of Al Adamson’s movies before. That was the incredibly bad but hugely entertaining Dracula Vs Frankenstein (reviewed, succinctly, by me in my early days of this blog here). However, there were a few I had on my list to try and get hold of but then Severin, who are a label worth reckoning with, released this limited edition, very long term project they’ve been working on for... well something like a decade, I think. And it’s really expensive too... probably the most expensive set I've ever bought. I finally pulled the trigger on this thing right before it sold out because... well I’d saved money from not travelling during the coronavirus lock down and it was likely that I would never again have the opportunity to see these films unleashed all in one place at the same time... 32 movies. So I wept into the remains of my tattered wallet, bit the bullet and ‘done the deed”.

This set also features this brand new feature length documentary film... Blood And Flesh - The Reel Life And Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which was directed by David Gregory, who had made Lost Soul - The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau, which I watched and reviewed earlier this year (right here). Now, normally I would leave the documentary in a new set until after I’d watched all the other films but I figured, in this case, since I knew so little about Adamson (but had heard some disquieting rumblings), that it might be worth watching this thing so I could get an overview of his career and the strange way he finished his life.

Turns out Adamson was the son of an old, early Hollywood cowboy star/director called Denver Dickson (Victor Adamson) who turned down an offer with Universal studios in favour of making his films for his own production company. He had numerous movies coming out just at the tail end of the 20s and into the 30s, 40s etc as well as appearing uncredited in many movies and TV shows over the years up until his final appearance in the aforementioned Dracula Vs Frankenstein (he appeared in 285 productions according to the IMDB). So I guess the world of B-movie show business was somehow in Al Adamson’s blood when he started trying to direct/produce and also appear in his own films.

He was very much one of those kings or princes of the American made exploitation films and I guess you would think of him in the same breath as people like Herschell Gordon Lewis or, in some ways, a poor man’s Roger Corman, with even smaller budgets than Corman but making pictures which did very well on the drive in circuits in the 1960s and 1970s. This documentary details his story with interview footage from producers, friends, co-stars and even some of his stars, such as the legendary Russ Tamblyn, who was in a few of his movies like biker gang film Satan’s Sadists, Black Heat and the Dracula Vs Frankenstein movie. It also has appearances by Adamson himself in archival interview footage which must have been taken not too many years before the ghastly death mentioned in the title.

It shows many of the people who he worked with in some capacity or another such as... well lets just do a little list to whet your appetite...  Colonel Sanders (the real one, promoting his Kentucky Fried Chicken in one of Adamson’s shoots), Charles Manson (he shot one of his movies on the ranch shortly before, or possibly during, the famous murders), John Carradine, Jim Kelly, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carrol Naish, George Lazenby and even Forrest J. Ackerman. Some of these are seen only in clips from the director’s movies and some of them in archival footage. And it’s a rare treat listening to some of the stories his friends and crew tell... many of them who were working for ‘experience’ and no fee on Adamson’s shoots. It’s also amazing to discover that he was working with the likes of such famous cinematographers as Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács very early on in their careers too.

Additionally, there’s the tale of the unseen footage, enough for three movies, where Adamson was called in to make a dramatised documentary film about UFOs. He was a total non-believer in the stuff until, it’s alleged (and then the various interview subjects clam up when they realise the camera is still running), he was taken to meet a fully documented alien/human hybrid person and that, after a while, everyone backed away from the film they had been making because they all thought it was too dangerous because... yeah, government and ‘other worldy’ intervention.

It’s also tells of the tragedy of his losing his wife Regina Carrol, who starred in most of his films, to cancer a few years before Al’s untimely death. Followed by that tragedy itself as Al was hammered to death by a friend who he was hiring to work on a ranch he was living at, only to be buried in a bag under where the old jacuzzi was, which had been ripped out and replaced with his corpse before being cemented in and having tiles laid out over the top of him. The last part of the documentary plays like a police procedural set of interviews as friends, relatives and various law enforcement officials talk you through the details of how the missing director was finally ‘discovered’ and how they found the culprit living in Florida with his latest girlfriend and her young child, safely bringing the killer (who denies it to this day but the evidence seems pretty damning) to justice (of a kind).

And, yeah, it’s certainly an interesting narrative... usually when a documentary of this kind surfaces, it doesn’t end with the director getting murdered in a way which wouldn’t look out of place in one of his own, sometimes gory movies. It’s a hell of a way to finish up a movie which suddenly takes a turn in a different direction from the way it started out and, of the two documentary films I’ve seen by David Gregory, as interesting as that other one was, I think this one is even better. It really is a nicely put together, informative and straight-on look at one of those ‘maverick’ directors, if I may use the term, who probably wouldn’t be remembered in a lot of people’s top ten movie lists but who certainly gave the backdrop of American cinematic culture an added layer of questionable texture and who is... unforgettable in his own way.

Of course, it goes without saying that Severin’s amazing new box set is crammed full of extras for each and every film (including this documentary) and is beautifully packaged as a book in a slip case with the fourteen Blu Rays housing the 32 films in a series of double page spreads including poster artwork from the films, not to mention a sizeable bound book talking about these, also housed within the slipcase. And if you don’t want to shell out for this full retrospective career of the man’s work, painstakingly restored by Severin in ways that you wouldn’t expect films like this to be enthusiastically resurrected, then this documentary can also be bought as a stand alone release from the same company. If you are into the history of exploitation films of all kinds... secret agents, blaxploitation, horror, sexy stewardesses and various examples of ‘niche’ moviemaking, Blood and Flesh - The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson is probably something you’re going to love. Definitely worth checking out, that’s for sure.