King Kong Escapes
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Universal Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: This one has spoilers.
So I took some time out from the Criterion Godzilla set to pop this one in. King Kong Escapes is a muddled but entertaining movie... alas, entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Now, I’ve no idea what the proper Japanese cut of the film is like but I suspect it’s not all that different because, although the film has actors like Rhodes Reason and Linda Miller in it, it was an American co-production and they all appeared in scenes with many of the Japanese actors such as Godzilla veterans Akira Takarada and Mie Hama (Hama was also a big star for the Bond film You Only Live Twice, reviewed by me here, by this point). Hama plays the main female villain who, in a fit of conscience towards the end, double crosses the main male villain of the piece, Hideyo Amamoto as the nefarious Dr. Who. Yeah, okay... not that Doctor Who. Another one, although, it has to be said, the costume and look of the character seems very much based on the William Hartnell incarnation of everybody’s favourite timelord at the time.
That being said, Who is a carry over from the source material of this film... which isn’t really, as many may suspect, a sequel to King Kong Vs Godzilla (which it’s often marketed as and which you can find reviewed here). Instead, it’s a big screen adaptation of a Rankin/Bass King Kong cartoon of the time... it’s also the last time Toho had the rights to use the character, unfortunately.
The film is... well it’s kinda terrible, despite being directed by Godzilla veteran Ishirô Honda and having a, somewhat slow and ponderous score by Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube. It’s fun though but, alas, the humour on this one is completely at the expense of the cast and crew, it has to be said. The dialogue and plot are... well I guess like something you’d find in a cartoon of the time and the effects work is, surprisingly, mostly abysmal.
I mean, take the ‘not so bad’ actress Linda Miller (she only appeared in three movies and one TV episode but, one of those movies was The Green Slime... reviewed here). Here she is being picked up by a badly 'matted in' giant hand against a live action plate but, as soon as we see her in the hands of the, truly ridiculous looking King Kong man in suit (possibly even worse than the version from King Kong VS Godzilla) in long shot she is a lifeless, plastic doll which, throughout the movie, only has one costume. Now, Ms Miller gets picked up by her new pal Kong fairly frequently throughout the movie, it has to be said but, although one of her costumes does look a little like the one on the rigid doll in the hands of the ‘suit-mation’ Kong, most of the time she’s wearing something different. It doesn’t matter to the special effects guys though... if she’s wearing white or some other colour, when it cuts back to the doll in the hand... she’s back to wearing yellow. Not only that but, through the course of the movie (and depending how wet she gets in a scene... she takes a dive into the ocean before being picked up by Kong at one point), she has a kind of ‘dirty blonde’ hair. However, when she’s seen in long shot in Kong’s fist, that really is going to change to a vibrant redhead on the doll, for sure.
Other things about the ridiculous effects are the fact that, when our heroes go to check out Kong’s island near the start of the movie, the strange hover ship they use is nicely designed but, honestly, you can clearly see the wires as it’s lifted over the tank of water standing in for the sea. Added to some truly boring fight scenes and this iteration of Kong really is nothing to write home about. The fight Kong has with a dinosaur is fairly ludicrous but I think that one, at least, was played for laughs. However, there’s a big set up battle in the movie and you’re waiting for it to happen and, when it does... well, more on that in a moment.
So the other big hangover from the cartoon series was the invention of the giant robot Kong facsimile, Mechani-Kong. He’s introduced into the plot line to mine for ‘Substance X’ for the villains before the ‘real’ Kong even enters the movie and, all the way through you’re just waiting for the battle between these two titans to unfold. When it does... well it takes place in Tokyo, mostly with a kind of ‘climbing dual’ as the two Kongs climb something which looks remotely like the Eifel Tower (except we’re in Tokyo) and... well... it’s a bit anti-climactic, it has to be said. But, even so, there’s a lot of fun to be had about the idea of this head to head and, ridiculously bad as it is, it still holds a curious entertainment value (this is like the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched this movie in different formats over the decades).
The Mechani-Kong from the cartoon show and made flesh... err... steel here was presumably the inspiration for the similar looking, semi-regular villain Mecha-Godzilla who made his first appearances in the Showa Era films Godzilla VS Mecha-Godzilla in 1974 and the final film in that first cycle, Terror Of Mecha-Godzilla. So some good came out of this movie in regards to that element at least and, either way you look at it, Mechani-Kong certainly looks great and makes for some good photos and artwork. More than his hairy co-star at any rate... who seems to have a permanently manic look about him with his huge, staring eyes.
And... yeah, that’s really all I’ve got to say about King Kong Escapes. A fun but insubstantial piece which has so far been given, it has to be said, a truly insubstantial Blu Ray release. The transfer is okay but you can only watch this in the English dub and, talk about bare bones. I’d moan about the extras if there were any but... remember some of those early DVDs which, when you put the film in the player, didn’t have any kind of menu and just went straight into ‘the movie is now playing, deal with it’ mode? Well let’s just say that this is the first Blu Ray I’ve had which does just that. No menu, just a quick copyright notice and then the film starts playing. Universal really should take a leaf out of the book of Criterion, Severin, Arrow, Indicator, Blue Underground and various other labels who know how to market films like this. I’m hoping somebody will get the smart idea of releasing limited edition kaiju sets with the proper Japanese versions of films like this and Frankenstein Conquers The World in them, crammed with extras pertinent to the subject matter. Until that time comes, alas, we’re stuck with what I would call substandard releases like this and, yeah, I’m glad I only spent £6 on this edition is all I’m saying. If you can get it cheaper, it’s worth a quick look.
Sunday, 29 November 2020
Friday, 27 November 2020
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
and James McTeigue (uncredited)
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B
Okay, so here we are at the tail end of ‘Body Snatchers Week’ on the blog with the fourth and, at time of writing, last of the big screen adaptations of Jack Finney’s serialised sci-fi novel, The Body Snatchers. At least, the final ‘official’ adaptation at any rate, there have been a lot of movies suddenly springing up over the last few years which have more or less stolen the basic concept and did their own thing with it. So yeah, this is the fourth version after the 1956 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (reviewed here), the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (reviewed here) and the 1993 Body Snatchers (reviewed here). This one is just called The Invasion and, I guess if this is the trend now of sequel titles, when they decide to do it again the only word they’ll be left with is... Of. That’d make a great title for a film about duplicates replacing humans... better than Us at any rate. ;-)
Now, I understand there were problems on this in terms of the suits (or shall we just call them what they are, ‘pods’) at Warner Brothers not liking the cut that Hirschbiegel delivered. So there were rewrites and reshoots with another, uncredited director in the form of McTeigue. This may explain why, at least over here in the UK and from what I can remember, there was no fanfare or publicity for the movie and its cinematic legacy. I think I may have seen a trailer for The Invasion the week before at the cinema or, most likely, saw the title of a new science fiction film starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig listed in my local paper... and decided to go along as there was nothing better on.
I remember sitting in the cinema as the movie opened on a scene from towards the end of the film which is foreshadowing the action to come before putting the title card up and then going back to... how it all started. So I was sitting in the cinema and not expecting any familiarity with the story but, I get about ten seconds into the film when I realise Nicole Kidman’s character is looking for drugs to keep herself awake, I put two and two together with the title of the movie and think to myself... ‘No way! Surely this isn’t yet another remake... I didn’t know it was even being done again?’ So I sit tight and wait for about 5 mins and, yep, the main character names confirm what I already suspected a few minutes earlier... this was definitely a fourth version of The Body Snatchers. Except, and I loved this, they flipped the genders so, instead of Kevin McCarthy playing ‘Miles’ Bennell and Dana Wynter playing ‘Becky’ Driscoll, we had Nicole Kidman playing psychiatrist ‘Carol’ Bennell and Daniel Craig playing her doctor friend ‘Ben’ Driscoll. Which, given the fact that we were now onto the fourth version of the story, I was not bothered by in the least.
Other notable people in the film are Jeremy Northam, playing Carol’s ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (presumably named after director/writer Philip Kaufman, who helmed the 1978 edition) and future Felix Leiter, Jeffrey Wright, as a chemical doctor friend of Ben. When the film was being shot, Daniel Craig was given the role of James Bond and had to halt filming for a few days to fly over and do a press conference about it over here in the UK.
Now, I know this film is probably the most hated by fans of the Body Snatchers movies but, honestly, I don’t think this is a bad film and it’s no worse... possibly even better... than the previous version directed by Abel Ferrera. It does, however, have its problems. It does things a little differently too, while staying almost exactly the same and... I don’t think this is a bad attempt. I do wonder, though, at the hasty soul who typed in a big paragraph in the trivia section of the IMDB listing all the ways this film adds new ideas to the original concept... before listing almost entirely ideas that were already there in the previous versions. It’s almost like the person who wrote that entry didn’t actually see any of the other films. Bit strange.
The one thing this does do slightly differently... and this is a bit of a loss to all the people who loved the prior three... is to get rid of the actual seed pods. These aren’t space spores drifting and finding our planet before growing clones of us and absorbing our intelligence... instead, after a space shuttle that has somehow come into contact with the source in space before crash landing back on Earth, it spreads itself as a virus and replaces our body ‘on site’, as it were. However, it does still need the host human to go to sleep before it can take it over and so the mechanism is essentially the same, just the delivery is a little different. When a human goes to sleep and is cocooned within its own biological material, it also looks just like the unfinished pod people from the 1978 version too.
So instead of growing a huge, novelty seed pod in your immediate vicinity, the alien versions of us here just vomit into our coffee or even onto us to get the dormant aliens into us. This gives us the bizarrely ‘out of place for commercial cinema’ moment where we have Jeremy Northam vomiting all over Nicole Kidman’s face and in her mouth, which also makes her the second Bennell in the movie versions to be actually ‘infected’ by the aliens... although with a much different result to what happened when Donald Sutherland was ‘podded up’ nearly 30 years before. And, of course, Jeremy Northam, who I always think of as the modern Cary Grant, plays a pod person quite well. Although, it has to be said, the aliens in this movie seem really dumb and easy to detect.
The writers and directors haven’t forgotten their long cinematic heritage either. For starters, one of Carol’s patients is played by Veronica Cartwright, who was in the 1970s incarnation of the film (and who is also famous for appearing in such films as The Birds and A L I E N). There’s also the nice moment where an old lady does the whole Kevin McArthy thing of running through all the cars and screaming about the aliens as a foreshadowing technique, before being run over and killed. It’s a shame they didn’t tap McCarthy to pick up this scene again but, you can’t have everything. There’s a nice moment later in the film where Nicole Kidman almost repeats the entire scene, which is a nice moment... from one Bennell to another. And another nod to the original is a scene which is a fourth version... although with people and not pods this time around... of the town square distribution scene. So that’s always nice.
The direction and editing is... somewhat problematic but there’s some nice cinematography in this, with some nice colours and framing, especially in the exterior city scenes when it’s raining at night. There’s also a bizarre, Dario Argento kind of moment where, when Nicole Kidman’s character starts to succumb to sleep a few times and the director switches to close ups of the white cells in her blood being swaddled by the alien virus.
The paranoia of the piece is fairly well done too, with a camera walk with Kidman’s character following her on her way to the office, taking in all the hustle and bustle of the people clashing against each other on their daily routine, contrasted later on in the film with more or less exactly the same sequence of shots... but showing all the people nicely behaved, to indicate that by now the majority of the people on the streets are alien hosts. There’s even a tense moment where the director resorts to using the old, boiling, whistling kettle sound in the background to ratchet up the tension... which works pretty much as well as it always does in these kinds of movies.
One of my biggest problems with the film is in the editing. There are four or five moments in the movie where they just start crosscutting between various scenes showing bits from earlier in the movie, bits which are happening now and bits which will happen later on in the movie, in fairly extended but rapidly edited pieces. Maybe its another stab at giving us some foreshadowing but I suspect it’s more a way of excluding bits of explanatory footage which were either missing and not shot... allowing us to get the jump on the next scene as we slide into the middle of the action on that next sequence... or the shot footage was just too slow and boring and they needed to ramp up the pace. Either way, it looks like the editor is trying to be Nicolas Roeg and, honestly, as much as I appreciate that particular directorial genius and his editing decisions, resorting to it here in an almost random manner really doesn’t serve the film and makes you pop out of the experience, as opposed to letting you make visual, metaphorical connections. It just doesn’t work well.
It’s not a total let down though because John Ottman’s score serves the film quite well and is appropriately sinister, helping to build the suspense when the colliding visuals let things down on occasion. Alas, fans of the previous versions of this may find the ‘magic bullet’ of the ending a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, it has to be said. Actually, being as we’re all now in a kind of magical and somewhat ineffective pseudo-lockdown from Coronavirus at the moment, I found it a nice idea that the aliens come up with the plan a third of the way through the picture to infect everybody under the guise of it being a vaccine. That’s a nice idea. I still prefer giant seed pods though, if I was given a choice.
Not much more to say on The Invasion other than... it’s not a terrible film, it’s quite a good one hobbled by some problems which may well have been exacerbated by the reshoots and re-editing job, I suspect. If you like the various Body Snatcher movies and the ideas in them, then there should be no real reason why you shouldn’t have an okay time with this one. I’d have to say, though, that I’m probably not going to rewatch the third or fourth ones as frequently as I’ll revisit the first two in years to come. But still... this is not a bad shot at it.
Thursday, 26 November 2020
I’m Podster Syndrome
USA 1993 Directed by Abel Ferrara
Warner Archive Blu Ray Zone A
Body Snatchers is the third of, to date, four adaptations of Jack Finney’s serialised novel The Body Snatchers, following on from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956 - reviewed by me here) and Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1978 - reviewed by me here). Although, with the tag line to the movie, still used on the latest Blu Ray packaging, of “The Invasion Continues”, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a sequel to the previous versions. However, that’s not really possible given both the timeframes and outcomes of those previous films, obviously.
Now, I didn’t have fond memories of this one from the previous time I saw it but, looking back at it again, I have to say that it’s not nearly as terrible as I remember. It actually, in its kind of watered down way, has some interesting things going on and it is relatively entertaining, once it begins to pick up the pace a little (the first 20 mins to half an hour are somehow deadly dull compared to pretty much any other version of the story).
There are strengths and there are weaknesses to this version and, I’d have to say (if my memory of the fourth one is anything to go by... it may not be but I’m revisiting it again soon for this week’s reviews), that this third one is the least interesting or watchable of the four. But, like I said, it does have its moments and some of it hangs together quite well. I’m not sure what, if any, of the blame for the content of this film lays with the director or with the studio heads so, I’m not going to point any fingers here. I will refer to it as the director’s film throughout but, take that with a pinch of salt is what I’m saying.
So this version really does ditch a lot of the story while drilling into the heart of Finney’s original concept. None of the character’s names and personal situations are the same as the original (and this version is unique in this, even in the gender swapped version that came next, the last names of the characters were retained). This one features a family of ‘sometimes protagonists’ and ‘sometimes antagonists’ (as so happens in these kinds of movies), headed up by Terry Kinney as Steve Malone, an inspector for the Environmental Protection Agency who is sent to a military base (where the entire film is set) for a month to check out that they are storing their toxic chemicals safely. So he moves there with his family... his wife Carol (played by the underutilised Meg Tilly), his little boy Andy (played by Reilly Murphy) and his teenage daughter, Marti (played by Gabrielle Anwar), who is the lead protagonist of the film. Indeed, one of the elements that the film brings back from the 1956 version is a voice over narrative, as given to the audience by her character.
After an unnecessarily long opening credit sequence featuring possibly the least interesting use of moving typography in the history of cinema, we have a sequence where Marti gets accosted in the toilets of a garage on the outskirts of the base. Here, a military guy comes up to her and starts dementedly telling her... “You're scared, aren't you? Good! They're out there, they're everywhere! They get you when you sleep! They get you when you sleep, you hear? Get out, get out or you'll be next!” It’s one of the few times the movie ties in with the ‘56 version as this is, obviously, very similar to what Kevin McCarthy was yelling in the road near the end of the original (and also, in his cameo in the 1978 one too, of course). It’s a shame they actually didn’t get McCarthy back for this version because I’m sure the fans would have loved it. That being said, I get annoyed when Marti says to the audience that we spend half our lives asleep because, honestly, it’s more like a third of our lives asleep so... yeah... just a thought.
At some point, the pods start replacing people and it all happens very quickly with all the usual clichés being touched upon and escalating into a chase movie but, being as it’s set on a military base, with more gunshots and explosions. Although Anwar is excellent as Marti, the story seems somehow less interesting from a teenage point of view (and I don’t know who the target audience was supposed to be but why have those wretched pop songs playing over bits of the movie?) and even Forest Whitaker’s performance, as a surviving paranoid human (doing the old “How did you know my name?” gag from the previous two movies, to the telephone switchboard operator) can’t really dial this film up from... okay attempt to great movie.
There are some nice ideas added into the mix in this version, though. There’s one scene where the little boy is in a military school and they are all doing some abstract finger painting. The teacher gets everyone to hold up their painting and every kid in the class apart from Andy has painted the exact same picture. This is interesting because it shows us quite conclusively for this film that the writers are thinking of the aliens as a collective hive mind and this is pushed further and made quite implicit in some lines of dialogue emphasising the concept of ‘collective’ versus ‘individual’ (aka pod versus human).
Apart from the pods’ psychology and the life cycles of the aliens, though, there are one or two other things which have been brought back from prior versions. One is a nice little nod to the town square seed pod distribution scene, which made its way into the previous two cinematic versions. The other two things are much more blatant though and are both strictly hangovers from the 1978 movie...
One is the ever present garbage trucks, collecting what are obviously the decayed human remains of the original human bodies. A moment made quite explicit when Meg Tilly’s character, who we’ve already seen disintegrate and reborn as a pod person, throws in the black bin bag containing her prior self. The other is the finger pointing screeching made famous by the ending of the previous version. This is used in a similar fashion to indicate the pod people are on to the humans but... it’s perhaps overused a little, truth be told.
I did find it somewhat astonishingly sexist (in a bad way), that one of the pod’s specific way of testing whether the male lead and love interest of Marti (played by Billy Wirth) is an alien like himself is for him to tell him that he’s “f*cked his girlfriend”. As if it’s established among the aliens that a human pretending to be one of them would not be able to contain his rage at such a notion and lash out in a human way. It’s a pretty preposterous and almost offensive notion, especially since the narrative has already expressed the idea of a hive mind at work so... they should know if he’s one of them or not anyway, shouldn’t they? And no need, then, for all that screeching and finger pointing either, I suspect.
The film is nicely shot and framed. Ferrara seems to know what he’s doing but it seems to be a competently made movie rather than a truly great one. He seems to favour dingy blue washes on this a lot and I’m wondering if this kind of palette manifests excessively in any of his other pictures (I’ve only seen one other of his, I think, although a friend of mine is an absolutely devoted admirer of his work).
I don’t think Body Snatchers did very well at the cinema but my understanding is that it wasn’t really given a chance to, receiving a delayed and limited theatrical release (I’m guessing the producers didn’t like it) before going straight to home video. So, in some ways it never really had a chance to make a dent and, yeah, I guess it didn’t. At the moment I’m thinking this is the least watchable of the adaptations of The Body Snatchers but, I have to rewatch the version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig next... which will be my next review this week.
Tuesday, 24 November 2020
A Pod's As Good As A Wink
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
USA 1978 Directed by Philip Kaufman
United Artists/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
Okay so, hot on the heels of the original, it was time for me to rewatch the first of the official remakes of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I say ‘official’ because, I think there were at least three horror movies which came out in 2019 which had kind of absconded with a variation the same concept and not acknowledged it (in the hopes nobody would notice presumably, one of them very high profile). This version of the story, which I would have first seen on television around 3 - 5 years after its initial cinema release (which was the earliest a TV show would have been allowed to show it back in those days), is one of those few remakes which is almost as good as the original (which I reviewed here). Don’t get me wrong, the original is always going to be the one I watch to death but this one looks and feels like a 1970s film, which is in its favour anyway but, also, kind of takes its own things from the original and makes them its own by adding stuff and just treating the whole concept from a slightly different angle. Highlighting some of the ideas of the basic template in a slightly different way.
The opening credits has a quite nicely done look at the tendrils of the alien seed pods drifting through our solar system and then landing on earth. Danny Zeitlin’s music on this part is ‘full on’ 1950s B-movie in tone before suddenly transforming, for the first hour of the movie at least, into something far more subtle and unsettling, or, if not subtle, at least less prescriptive to what some of the other horror films were using in those days.... although, I have to say, for a professor of psychiatry who only ever scored this one movie, I could honestly have done without the old cliché of the heartbeat on the soundtrack at one point. There’s even a ‘mickey mousing’ moment when we jump cut to one of a series of establishing shots to relocate the audience on Earth. I’ll get back to Zeitlin a little later on.
This version stars Donald Sutherland as ‘Matthew’ Bennell, rather than ‘Miles’ Bennell, which is the version played by Kevin McArthy in the original. Also, he’s not a doctor in this but a government health inspector who seems to take great glee in his job of closing down restaurants. As his ‘almost love interest’ we have the wonderful Brooke Adams playing, not ‘Becky’ Driscoll but ‘Elisabeth’ Driscoll, who works in the same Department of Health that Bennell works in. Wow, they certainly seem to have a problem with first names in this version of the film. At least they had no trouble with Bennell’s writer friend, who is once more Jack Belicec, here played by Jeff Goldblum in one of his earlier, feature roles. Alas the curse of the first name does extend to the character of his wife, instead of ‘Theodora’ Belicec like in the original, she’s ‘Nancy’ Belicec, played here by genre queen Veronica Lambert, who you will probably best know from her role in Ridley Scott’s A L I E N or, perhaps, in her role as the young girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Actually, she’s the only other member of the cast, besides Kevin McCarthy, who has been in two versions of this story (she was also in the fourth version of the film, which should get a review on here towards the end of this week).
And talking of the great Kevin McCarthy, here he appears in a wonderful cameo scene earlier on in the film, more or less playing the original Miles Bennell role, wearing pretty much the same costume and still running down the street, banging into cars telling everybody to “Watch out! They’re here already!”, just as he did in the pre-bookend scene of the original, which was where that version was supposed to end. This time, though, there’s a chilling end game to the scene which is one of the first things that tips off Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adam’s characters that, yes, there really is something worrying going on. It’ a lovely homage and one that McCarthy would repeat again a couple more times, just not in remakes of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Another cameo in this movie is a taxi driver, played by director Don Siegel, who helmed the original film.
Right from the outset of the film, though, we’re way ahead of the lead protagonists and, if you’re already familiar with the story and not a 'Body Snatchers virgin' when you go in, you can’t help but notice little non-sequitur sequences like an uncredited Robert Duvall cameoing as a priest on a swing in a children’s playground as being an example of a pod person not interacting correctly with his new environment. We also have Elisabeth finding a flower that she calls a ‘grex’, which is perhaps a little more of a complicated term, from what I can make out, than what she describes it as here... which is a hybrid of two plant organisms to create a third one. She’s basically found a flower which grows into one of the alien seed pods but it’s also, of course, a perfect analogy for what is about to happen when the seed pods drain their human victims to become facsimiles of them. So, yeah, nicely done.
Other nice tell tale signs that the aliens are ‘already here!’ are the constant shots of garbage trucks hauling away what obviously are, if you’re already familiar with the concept of the story, the leftover remains of the humans who have been replaced.
Actually, there are a lot of nice things the director does here to really push the paranoia inherent in both the original story and the first movie adaptation. For instance, there are a lot of roving camera shots which are made to feel like chaotic ‘point of view’ shots... so you kind of sense a presence of a great number of ‘antagonists’ observing things. Ditto when the camera constantly catches groups of people just staring from the background at what our main protagonists are doing in the foreground of various shots. Just, people watching people and, I wonder how many of these were really just people watching the shooting, which the director managed to utilise into the concept or, if every extra in these sequences was, indeed, placed there deliberately.
Another nice way it ramps up the tension is with unusual angles, overlapping dialogue (like you’d get in an Altman movie or, you know, the original The Thing From Another World, reviewed by me here) and shadows. For instance, Bennell’s psychiatrist friend, who is important to the way the story moves forward... and who is, in fact, played here by Star Trek’s most famous Vulcan actor, Leonard Nimoy... is having a book release party and the atmosphere at that party, where you get the impression that there’s a lot of pod people in the crowd, is somewhat chaotic with lots of things going on, conversations clashing with each other and, in a wonderful moment of in-camera distortion, Jeff Goldblum talking to Donald Sutherland on either side of him. That is to say, Donald Sutherland is on the middle of the screen talking into a phone while Goldblum is talking at him (rather than to him), with Goldblum three quarters turned away from us on the left of the screen... and his features hugely distorted and in close up on a trick fairground type mirror to Sutherland’s left. It’s an amazing shot actually and must have been somewhat difficult to set up.
Also, the scene where Bennell breaks into Elisabeth’s house to whisk her sleeping form away from her pod husband and the seed pod spawning next to her is filled with so many dutch angles combined with very dark, shadowy shots that it just drips paranoia. It’s a well thought out film and must have been fun to shape in the editing room.
There are also some less than subtle things about the movie, for sure.
For instance, the whole hand cut scene with Belicec to reveal the pod is replaced in this version by... Jeff Goldblum having an unmentioned (a casualty of the cutting room floor?) but fairly visible nose bleed. Also, Danny Zeitlin’s score does, towards the end of the movie, roam back into 1950s B-movie territory again with some nice nods to Carmen Dragon’s score from the original, I think... and it’s much more frenetic against the images. Indeed, the whole film has an almost intoxicating quiet to it for a lot of the movie but, in the final reel, it feels like, to borrow from a famous, fictional pop group... the sound is almost turned up to eleven.
Another moment in the original where Becky gives herself away because a dog is almost run over is much less subtle although, to be fair, it’s one of the iconic moments of this film. In an earlier sequence, Sutherland’s Bennell has accidentally damaged a seed pod as he goes past it, which is next to a tramp/busker sleeping on the street, his dog laying next to him. Later on, instead of the moment from the earlier movie, we have a pod version of a hybrid of the dog with the tramp's face chasing after them. It’s a nice addition, though and, I remember at the time in the school playground, one of the talking points of the movie.
A nice addition to the Body Snatchers concept is the ‘alien screech’ and pointing finger when one of the pod people recognises a human. This is used to good effect in a key moment of the film but I’m not going to mention where because, although a certain scene is actually quite heavily telegraphed (no matter how much the director tries to sell us about the absolute opposite being the final fate of one of the characters), it’s such a nice moment and goes some way to bringing the film back in line with the intentions of Don Siegel when he was directing the 1950s version.
So that’s that one. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) is certainly no substitute for the first movie but it is a lovingly rendered version which exists as it’s own thing, with the occasional nod back to the original (such as the town square scene where the crowds of aliens are distributing the seed pods). If you liked the 1950s version then you’ll probably love this one too and vice versa. Definitely the first two versions are things every genre fan should watch at least once. For my next review this week, I shall be revisiting the 1993 version of the film so, check back with me if you want to see what I made of that one.
Sunday, 22 November 2020
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
USA 1956 Directed by Don Siegel
Olive Signature Blu Ray Zone A
So I finally got around to re-watching one of my all time favourite horror movies for the blog. With certain reservations, I mostly like all four official cinematic versions of Jack Finney’s serialised novel The Body Snatchers, made in various guises over the decades. A lot of people feel the second version, the 1970s one, is the best and, while I’d have to say that it’s indeed a truly great film and follows the tough act of the 1956 version with a certain amount of style, this original one is always going to be, for me, the better movie. It’s also the one closest to Finney’s novel, as I remember it from reading it in a tie-in version with the second cinematic version in the late 1970s.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is such a good film that I almost don’t know where to begin to review it. I first saw this version back in the 70s sometime and then hooked up with it more thoroughly when it was released as one of the very first ‘budget priced’ VHS cassettes back in the 1980s. It blew me away then and... whenever I’ve re-watched it over the years (I must have seen it something like 20 times over the course of my life... so far), it's never failed to entertain and amaze me.
I’m not the biggest fan of director Don Siegel, who’s most famous film is probably Dirty Harry, as he’s not one of those film makers who I can see an easy cinematic signature from but, in spite of that, there’s no argument that he did an amazing job here.
The film starts off with the first of two book ends where a slightly energetic Kevin McCarthy (he’s brilliant in the main body of the film itself but, for the book end scenes, which were shot six months later for reasons I’ll go into in a while, he’s very... well... extreme in the way he plays it) is pulled into the care of a psychiatric doctor (played by the one and only Whit Bissel) and tells the story. The film then segues into the proper tale, as told by McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell, who arrives back in his home town of Santa Mira after being away for a month or so at a convention. Here he is reacquainted with his high school sweetheart Becky Driscoll, played by the lovely Dana Wynter and the two strike up their old romantic interest, once it’s established that both of them have recently been to Reno to get divorces. Which, now I think of it, is a mite unusual in terms of the background of an on-screen romance between two characters at the time but, I've never really questioned it before now.
However, while he’s been away, Bennell has been sought out by a lot of patients who, when he’s back, mostly seem to have ignored the fact that they wanted to see him. Then he gets wind of something which has been afflicting the town in his absence, where people think their close friends and relations are, somehow, imposters. He talks to his psychiatrist friend Dan Kauffman (played in this version by Larry Gates) and is told that it’s nothing more than a mass hysteria which has been plaguing the town over the last few weeks. And he buys the story until...
His friend Jack Belicec (played by the always watchable King Donovan) and his wife Theodora (played by Carolyn Jones, who would go on to fame as Morticia Addams) find a body on their billiard table. Miles and Becky go around to take a look and the ‘corpse’ has ‘vague’ features and no fingerprints. When it’s noticed by his wife that the ‘corpse’ bears a striking resemblance to Belicec, he cuts his hand and, later that night while he sleeps, the corpse develops the same cut on its palm. From then on, it’s chase shenanigans as Miles and Becky attempt to get out of Santa Mira before they are replaced by emotionless, alien seed pod facsimiles in their sleep. Which sounds kinda silly but I can assure you, this film is extremely well made and has a very intelligent script which plays on the paranoia invoked by the ‘are they or aren’t they pods’ attitude of anyone they meet as they try to flee town and also to stay awake.
And it’s amazingly well put together. Incidents that might telegraph future moments in the film they are setting up are completely disguised here by the naturalistic acting style (everyone is good in this... even director Sam Peckinpah in a little cameo scene has a small contribution). For example, the moment where Jack cuts his hand and Miles bandages it up is so brilliantly played that, the first time you watch it, you forget to think that it might well be a key plot detail a little later in the story.
The biggest ‘what if’ of the film, which had a lot of the humour removed from it by meddling and misunderstanding executives after a preview, is the addition of the bookend sequences and the narrative voice over. This is a powerful film and the ending is where it truly deviates a lot from the source material. In the original cut, the conclusion which leaves the aliens winning and about to take over the world was deemed to be so bleak that a happier ending and narrative were added six months after the original 1955 shoot to soften the blow for it’s proper cinema release. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari in 1920 had suffered the same fate, where a book end set in an insane asylum which threw the credibility of the central characters added narrative tone and, years later, Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner was similarly deemed too downbeat and also confusing, so a similar ‘happy ending’ and voice-over narrative track was added (actually, I much prefer that original studio cut in the case of Blade Runner). It seems to be a thing in certain areas and genres of movie making where a powerful ending is destroyed by studio executives losing confidence in the product.
In all honesty, although the original ending is still present before it cuts to the... “no, it’s going to be alright after all” bookends and you can see just how powerful and devastating it would have been to leave it there with no follow up. The new material doesn’t really do much harm to the film and doesn’t detract at all from the sheer brilliance of the movie. Of course, the 1970s version would go a little further than the bleaker ending here but... that’s for another review.
Carmen Dragon’s score for this is pretty good and, by modern standards, might be thought of as a little heavy handed. But, you know, it actually does its job very well (and is great as a stand alone listen on the beautiful, limited edition CD that La La Land records put out five years ago). Think, for instance, of the scene where Miles first looks at the half formed pod person on Belicec’s billiard table. The music is almost completely over the top but, if you take it away then nothing much is happening in the scene and it’s certainly not scary without it. Dragon’s score may well be considered over cooked here but it certainly sets up a creeping menace warning the audience that something here is basically wrong... alerting us, in no uncertain terms, quite effectively. It’s good stuff and it’s interesting that Dragon didn’t do much film work, he was mostly noted for conducting classical music concerts at the time. He seems to have had a real grasp of what was needed from the score here though.
Kevin McCarthy would, of course, not escape the role throughout his life. He turns up in a reprise of his original ending to the movie in a moment early on in the 1978 remake and has been in a few cameos as the character as time has drifted on, notably in the films of Joe Dante, who talks to both him and Dana Wynter for one of the commentary tracks to the movie on this particular, fully loaded, Olive Signature Blu Ray edition.
The film is commonly believed to be a comment on the growth of communism in Hollywood at the time but both the actors and writers say that this wasn’t intended. Indeed, when the film was first released, it’s said on one of the many extras here that audience members and critics of both political extremes thought the film was parodying them and were objecting to it equally. So that’s something to think about.
And there’s really not much more I’d want to say about the 1956 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers because I really don’t want to spoil all its wonder for first time viewers. It’s rightfully regarded as one of the all-time classic science fiction horror movies and I don’t think you’d find many film makers disagreeing with that. A truly brilliant movie and one I’ll probably go on watching again and again over the years without getting bored. A truly remarkable piece of cinematic art.
Thursday, 19 November 2020
UK 1967 Directed by Freddie Francis
Amicus/Columbia Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some story set up spoilers.
Torture Garden is not, as I’d once assumed as a teen, an adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s late nineteenth century novel (from which I can only assume the famous fetish night club takes its name) but is, in fact, the first kind of ‘follow up’ portmanteau horror film from Amicus, riding on the success of their tremendous Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (which I reviewed here). Now, I have to say, I was very taken with that first one when I watched it fairly recently. Alas, the same can’t be said of Torture Garden which, asides from having the same director and one of the original stars, I’d have to say is a very mixed bag indeed.
The film’s opening credits are all superimposed over footage of various fast moving fairground rides and, once these finish, we are introduced to one of the fixtures of the fair, the horror museum of Dr. Diabolo. Yeah, if you’re right in thinking they replaced the train in Dr. Terror with the fairground attraction of Dr. Diabolo, you’d be right. It’s another device to open up the narrative into four separate, short(ish) horror (again ish) stories. We are presented with Dr. Diabolo showing off his exhibits and then, after the ‘official’ show, he invites members of the audience into his private rooms to see, if they so dare, the real horror they carry inside of them... for the price of a fiver each, which was a lot of money in those days (to some of us it still is). Five ‘victims’ agree and he leads them to a wax figure of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny (played by Clytie Jessop), whose countenance turns up in the odd place throughout the movie. Of course, she’s not really a waxworks figure in real life and, in the long shots, she is having a hard time keeping still. I suspect, in some of the close ups of her, a static image is inserted. Anyway, the five victims (well four of them anyway, I’ll get to that soon), have to gaze between her shears and see their ultimate fates, in the form of a short story.
Now, like Dr. Terror, there are some famous people turning up in this one but they’re not all in the bookend scenes. Dr. Diabolo himself is played by Burgess Meredith and this would have been around the time he was playing The Penguin in the Batman TV series. Which is interesting because he has a couple of costumes in this and the first one includes a top hat and cigarette holder just like the ones he used as Penguin. Also, you know he’s not quite what he seems because, when the five ‘customers’ aren’t looking, he burns the five pound notes they gave him. Of course, Meredith is one of those very interesting actors who are easy to watch, so it’s a shame he doesn’t actually appear in any of the four segments... just the binding story between them and bookending them. I’ll go through a few more of the actors as I get up to them but let me give you just a brief flavour of them as I go through the film.
Unlike Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors, the four segments here are all adapted by the same writer who actually wrote all of the short stories on which they are based... Robert Bloch, who’s name may be familiar to some of my readers as being the man who wrote Psycho. Although not titled on the screen, the four shorts are called, in order as they appear in the binding narrative... Enoch, Terror Over Hollywood, Mr. Steinway and The Man Who Collected Poe.
The first sequence, Enoch, shows a young man (played by Michael Bryant) who goes to visit his sick uncle (played by Maurice Denham) in the hopes of getting money out of him. He causes a heart attack which kills the uncle and then searches the house for the old gold coins which the uncle seems to be paying for everything with. It turns up, alright when he unearths a coffin in a dungeon beneath a trap door. There’s a cat trapped inside the coffin with the skeleton and the furry fiend houses the spirit of an old witch, which takes over the young man’s mind and makes him kill so she can feed off the victim's energy. Now, this may sound quite interesting but, honestly, this overly long segment (and the next one) is incredibly dull and not worth watching for anything other than for seeing director Freddie Francis’ various shot set ups. Indeed, there’s a remarkable shot taken from just next to the underside of the bed with the action going on in the far end of the shot, which alerts us to the presence of a trap door long before the central protagonist sees it. Also, when the cat is filmed in close up, it’s done so with the kind of bright red and green lighting scheme which instantly reminded me of the way Mario Bava used to light his movies.
Segment number two, Terror Over Hollywood, tells of a ruthless young lady played by Beverly Adams, who blags her way into being an actress in a substantial role in an American movie but, to her cost, finds out the terrible secret as to why the top ten movie stars of Hollywood look so young for so long. Out of the four segments here, I’d have to say that this one is more of a science fiction story with a possibly slight horror tinge but, even though it deals with an interesting subject matter, it didn’t exactly grab me and we were maybe an hour into the movie by this point (not leaving too much time for what I thought would be another three segments but... there’s a great little trick when you get up to the fifth person... I’ll get to that in a minute). And it was an extremely dull and hard to watch movie up until now, I thought. Not a patch on the previous Amicus portmanteau movie.
Things turn around for the last two, briefer segments, though. The first of which, Mr. Steinway, tells of a female reporter who falls in love with a successful pianist, only to find the Goddess who lives inside the piano, gifted to him by his long deceased mother, harbours a grudge and is jealous of her. So, yeah, it’s a short but sweet segment and, wonderfully, includes a killer grand piano. It’s nicely done and the combination of Francis’ shot compositions when coupled to a less dull story seems to work wonders.
The fourth segment, The Man Who Collected Poe, concerns the man who has remained wordless in the linking scenes until now, letting his presence add mystery to the proceedings until he explodes into speech for this final segment. This man is played by the wonderful Jack Palance and it’s essentially a two hander between him and the even more wonderful Peter Cushing. Oh yeah, by this point you know you’re in really good hands with a story about two collectors of paraphernalia associated with the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Palance is the jealous guy in awe of Peter Cushing’s collection and, when he gets him drunk, he gets Cushing to show him his 'even more private' collection in the basement. Here he finds brand new stories written by Poe and a surprise in store as it’s revealed that Cushing, once he has been ‘done away with’ so to speak, is from a family which has used powers of black magic, ensuring he is the owner of what I will only say here is... the ultimate Edgar Allan Poe collectible. This is a terrific piece and Palance’s nervy, 'threatening to explode in his fanaticism' performance is a joy to watch... as is Cushing’s. Anyone who thinks of Cushing as someone who is just a solid character actor should watch his performance as a slightly drunk collector in the last part of this sequence. It’s an amazing turn and really calls to attention to just what a great performer he could be, when the script gave him the chance.
And then we have the bookend scene, where the fifth victim, the great Michael Ripper (who you will probably know from damn near every other Hammer film which was made), completely flips out and... no I won’t spoil that for you other than to say... when you think you know how it’s ended, stick around for a few more minutes... not everything is as it appears and I was immensely pleased with this because, for once, I didn’t see the coming twist reveal until it was almost upon me.
The score for the film is a double hander between two composers who I only really know from Hammer film productions, Don Banks and James Bernard. I suppose they both got one or more segments to score and, I have to say, that whoever scored the first sequence, wrote a great score which I would gladly listen to as a stand alone experience (if it were possible and actually got a release) but in terms of being a back up to the ‘on screen’ images... well it just comes across as a little heavy handed, is all.
And, that’s more or less that. I couldn’t get into Torture Garden nearly as much as I could with Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors but, having said that, there were things which made it worth sticking around for. Asides from the quirky and sometimes brilliant third and fourth sections, there’s also the odd interesting idea here and there. Such as a night club scene which had a giant sized snow globe with a Christmas scene inside, with real people in it. So I’m glad I saw it but I’m very glad this wasn’t the first of these films I watched. Definitely worth persevering with if you are into 1960s British horror movies though and, once again, Indicator have done a truly marvellous job with this Blu Ray restoration. As is usual for them, it has a fistful of accompanying extras included. Not one to miss if you’re a fan of these kinds of productions.
Tuesday, 17 November 2020
Silver Tongued Devil
Fear - The Autobiography
(Limited Collectors Edition 0184/1000)
by Dario Argento
There are, of course, a number of books on Dario Argento that have tried... and sometimes succeeded... in doing justice to a director who, for me, is one of the most interesting Italian directors around (more so than, say, the wonderful Fellini, the impressive Antonioni or the sublime Bava). A couple of my favourites would be Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento by Maitland McDonagh (I have the old edition with the ‘Opera’ cover) and any one of numerous ‘just that little bit better than the previous one’ editions of Dario Argento - The Man, The Myth & The Magic (as it’s currently subtitled) by the great Alan Jones. This look at him, however, is a little different to previous books exploring this iconic, cinematic figure.
This time it’s the turn of Argento himself to tell his own story and I snapped up a copy of the first edition English translation of this tome put out by FAB Press last year... which is a beautiful, limited edition hardback with silver edged pages (Argento translates as Silver in English), its own cloth strip bookmark and a nice, silver embossed image of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage on the cover, beneath a dust flap depicting the writer/director himself. This edition also has, I’m pleased to say, the great man’s signature on a book plate inside... this is the second time I think I’ve got a book with his signature in it... the other was one of the Alan Jones' editions, which Jones also signed for me.
Now, if you’ve been reading my more ‘bookish’ reviews on here for a while, you’ll know I find autobiographies a bit of a hit and miss affair. The worst ones leave you with none of the questions about the work of the author explored at all whereas, the best ones will be so well written and breezy that they will just leave you wanting more. Which is, of course, somewhat of the same thing... but I’ll take the speedy, witty read any day and, thankfully, that’s just what we get with Mr. Argento’s biography.
One of the things I noticed right away is that, while it covers all the usual things about growing up and the major relationships of the central figure... it never stays anywhere for very long and, although it certainly isn’t jumping around like some of these kinds of books (far from it), it certainly goes through things at a fair pace. Starting with Argento’s childhood and telling of how he used to hob nob with the film stars as a young ‘un in his parent’s photographic studios... it runs right through to where he is now in life (or where he was a few years ago at any rate, when the Italian edition was first published).
One of the things which surprised me is that he does so in quite a candid fashion. For instance, after a lovely forward by Alan Jones, the book starts off with a written snapshot from 1977 with Argento in his hotel room, waiting to see how the new film he is working on, Suspiria, is going to turn out. He is not shy in admitting his suicidal tendencies and, as he goes to throw himself from the hotel window, he can’t get past the dresser which he’s had placed in front of said windows to stop exactly this thing from happening. After this teaser, he then starts from the beginning of his life and goes through until, roughly two thirds of the way through the book, he catches up to this point and passes it.
He’s also not shy in mentioning various things about his love life with a variety of women over the years. Some of them are left unnamed (including his latest lover) and some of the more high profile ones, like Daria Nicolodi, who starred in many of his movies and gave birth to his second daughter, Asia Argento, are also included in his quite honest assessment of the state of things. Saying that, it seems to me that he’s never disrespectful of them and he certainly gives Daria full credit for helping him write and research Suspiria. He also, finally, tells of the misunderstanding around the central casting of the lead actress in that film, which pushed them apart for some time.
I found out, or perhaps was reminded, that while a voracious reader as a child his real first loves were the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and these certainly infused his imagination in his later career, I suspect. I also discovered that we have the same favourite episode of The Twilight Zone in common, so that’s nice (Time Enough At Last).
One of the problems with autobiographies of famous people, at least as I’ve found, is the tendency to shy away from talking about their work. Thankfully, Argento doesn’t do that and, although I was very much wanting more from his priceless anecdotes, he does manage to touch upon one or two little gems from most of the films and TV series in which he’s had a hand. So you’ll hear in his own words how he and Bernardo Bertollucci (both yet to start their real careers) worked with another of my favourite Italian directors, Sergio Leone, to write Once Upon A Time In The West. You’ll learn stuff like how the aquarium of the producer of The Five Man Army (which Argento wrote) inspired one of the ideas that manifested in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, how much he and Tony Musante didn’t ‘get on’ working on that movie... as well as how much he did ‘get on’ with Michael Brandon on Four Flies On Grey Velvet and with David Hemmings on Deep Red (Profondo Rosso).
You’ll learn just how he got those intense colours on the actors faces in Suspiria, by shining light through velvet and just what things happened to him in real life to birth his ideas on movies like Tenebrae and Phenomena. I was spellbound as I read how he’d used lots of life size mannequins manipulated by neighbouring extras in the audience in Opera to keep the cost down, a story which reminded me of similar movie magic trickery used in both the chariot race in Ben Hur and the pod race in Star Wars - The Phantom Menace (cotton reels, if I remember the model I saw exhibited years ago correctly).
Above all, the book feels like it’s fresh and relatively unfiltered. He is, perhaps, a little less critical of his least successful films than I had suspected, given the candor which he shows in all the other aspects of his life but it doesn’t really harm the book at all. You just get a sense that it’s not that important to him... or, at least, to his public facing image. Ultimately, its a fun read, informative in the way he releases little nuggets of information about his work and also, I found out that he actually spent a day or two locked up in a jail cell (for something he didn’t do, I hasten to add). He even gives a little hope that there may be material enough left for a second book at some point (which would be nice). So, yeah, if you’re a fan of the work of Dario Argento and want to know a little more about the man behind the magic, a man who hugely popularised the Italian giallo movie in the wake of Mario Bava, then his autobiography, Fear, is something you should read as there are lots of little details about his life and work which you won’t easily find anywhere else. Definitely get this one onto your book shelves if you are of a mind to.
Sunday, 15 November 2020
To HAL And Back
2010 - Odyssey Two
(aka 2010 - The Year We Make Contact)
USA 1984 Directed by Peter Hyams
MGM Blu Ray Zone B
2010 - Odyssey Two is the movie adaptation based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name... being a sequel to both the first full length novel (originally a short story) and, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s amazing masterpiece of the cinema, 2001 - A Space Odyssey (reviewed by me here). I remember seeing this when it finally came to the UK in cinemas in 1985 and, even though it’s very different in atmosphere to Kubrick’s milestone, I remember enjoying it a lot.
This one follows character Dr. Heywood Floyd who, with two other American specialists... Dr. Chandra (played here by Bob Balaban) who invented the HAL 9000 computer (voiced again by Douglas Rain) and Dr. Walter Curnow (played by John Lithgow)... accompanies a Russian expedition to the original Discovery, still stranded in orbit above Jupiter by the monolith but with that orbit decaying, which kind of forces the collaboration between the USA and USSR. So the film has a couple of objectives... find out why the HAL 9000 computer malfunctioned and killed all those people; find out what the heck happened to David Bowman (played once again here by Kier Dullea); find out what is going on with the monolith... all the while keeping up good relations with the Russians (led by a young Helen Mirren) who are particularly icy due to the downward spiral with relations between their two respective governments back on Earth.
Floyd is played here by Roy Scheider, who was played by William Sylvester in the original movie and I’m not sure why Sylvester didn’t reprise his role here. Perhaps because of the 16 year time difference between the first film and the sequel but, even so, Roy Scheider is actually 10 years younger than Sylvester in real life... playing a version of Floyd who is obviously supposed to be ten years older than the character as depicted in Kubrick’s odyssey. However, the casting was certainly a good choice because Scheider does wonders with the role, managing to deliver an electrifying performance where not a lot of physical action is required... just talk.
The director makes great use of a variety of shots to give us some great staging and although there is some camera movement, I noticed very early on that the film is primarily made from cutting around static shots but Hyams still manages to get a lot of movement out of it... from scenes which might be very boringly handled by other directors. The beautifully shot opening sequence, for example, where a Russian scientist goes to tell Floyd about the decaying orbit of the Discovery and proposing a joint venture is absolutely electrifying as presented here, when it really is just a bit of, admittedly well written, dialogue between two men talking science and politics.
Similarly, when there are more visually dynamic scenes in the movie such as a spacewalk, Hyams concentrates on the way the characters interact by showing the nervous American being helped through the spacewalk by the Russian, which is followed by a scene where the Russian panics onboard the Discovery. So the approach is reversed by having something visually more interesting pulled back to an emotional sequence of character interactions, which also helps build up a quick relationship with this particular Russian so that, later on in the story, when this Russian character is ‘lost’, it means more to the audience. Again, when the whole set is shaking as the crew of the Russian craft are attempting a possibly perilous way of getting to their destination, Hyams makes it about characters again as one of the young female Russians gets into Scheider’s bed/cabin area with him out of fear... again concentrating on emotion in what is, like the movie before it, a film about a very sterile set of events.
Added to this, the film has some very nice, almost casually introduced shot set ups which, like that opening sequence of the conversation, add the interest to the story where it isn’t necessarily in the main text. For instance, a meeting scene around a table in one shot has one guy with his back to us in silhouette making up a big, vertically blocked area in the centre of the screen with the opposite side of the table on either side of him... Floyd on the left of screen and two Russians on the right... which also serves as a way to keep the ‘them vs us’ international divide as a constant reminder in a visual fashion, to help maintain the underlying sense of tension within the narrative.
Actually, the idea of using static shots works a treat with one of the film’s less scientifically grounded scenes. There’s a wonderful moment where HAL9000 is delivering a message to Floyd and after a while, when HAL is unable to identify the other person relaying the messages, Floyd is asked by HAL to turn his head and look behind him. It’s a great moment as he sees Kier Dullea as David Bowman manifested before him. He follows him to the pod bay room and has a conversation with him but, as he talks to him, Bowman shifts through multiple appearances taken from his final scenes in 2001 - A Space Odyssey. All the transformations are revealed, however, via Scheider’s face reacting to something off screen and then we have a static cut back to Bowman where he’s changed appearance again. If this had been simply tracked with a camera and some computer effects work (which weren’t really available at that scale when this movie was made anyway), then it would have looked incredibly unconvincing. Here, because Hyams has been using a lot of cuts from one shot to another rather than move the camera around, he manages to sell the transformations of this sequence with the aid of the lead actor’s reactions. Well... mostly. There’s a corny bit where ‘the star child’ from the end of the first movie is manifested and... that moment has dated a bit, I think and just seems a little over the top now. But it worked at the time and it’s kinda charming now when you look back on it.
Also, the musical score is quite sparse... and also quite rare still, from what I remember. I have an old Japanese import CD of the score which I bought back in the 1980s that had somehow made its way into Tower Records but I don’t think it’s ever been properly commercially released in either the US or the UK. The score is basically a synth score by David Shire and, it’s used very sparsely and it’s not bad but I think this was ultimately the wrong kind of scoring to have for this film (the first score by another composer had already been rejected). So it’s kind of good that it’s not used that often.
The film opens with a recap following David Bowman’s final transmitted words... “My God... it’s full of stars.” which is a static reminder of the events of 2001 and this is scored with Ligeti music which, as far as I’m concerned, makes any visual accompaniment sound interesting. After this, there is no music until a good ten or more minutes into the film, as David Shire’s score kicks in when Floyd tells his wife that he’s going up into space for a few years. After that, as I say, it’s very sparsely spotted with occasional hits of Shire’s score plus one more (I think) very brief use of Ligeti and a quick nod to the famous Thus Spake Zarathustra in the film’s closing scenes.
I remember loving the ending of this when it was released but looking back on it now, although it’s still a great, if different, kind of film to 2001, I think the ending of this could now maybe have used a little more gravitas and less ‘wonder’ in its end game. It does feel a bit anticlimactic to me now but, then again, I’m much more older and jaded by these things than I used to be so... yeah, that might not be true for a vast majority of the audience.
Asides from the odd ‘things of note’ then, there’s not much more I have to add to this one. Those things to note, though, would be the appearance of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick as illustrations on an issue of time magazine a nurse is holding, Clarke’s cameo as ‘man on bench’ in front of the White House and, just maybe, the interesting fact that Kubrick destroyed all the models and blueprints of the spaceships from the first film to stop anyone ever being tempted to make a sequel (I think, ultimately, I’m with him in terms of not making a sequel but not in destroying models) and so the Discovery had to be rebuilt from looking at the original movie... which must have been a pain.
At the end of the day, if you liked the first movie and don’t mind the less clinical atmosphere of the sequel, 2010 - Odyssey Two is probably something you might quite like and, while in no way comparable to Kubrick’s masterpiece, it’s actually quite a good movie which holds the interest of the subject matter in a very different way to the previous one. Definitely one I will revisit again some day. If you, like me, live in the UK, you won’t be able to get a Blu Ray of this from the likes of Amazon. If you want one, go to either Fopp or HMV where the Blu Ray can be purchased as an HMV chain exclusive. Like a few other films which should be made more widely available in this country.
Thursday, 12 November 2020
Of Goddesses And Monsters
The Lady From The Black Lagoon -
Hollywood Monsters And The
Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick
by Mallory O’Meara.
Hanover Square Press
Regular readers will know that I’ve read more than my fair share of books about the shenanigans involved in various aspects of movie making over a number of decades (a few more decades than I’d like to admit). There are some really terrible ones out there, some really good ones and, just occasionally, a really great one. And when I say great ones, I mean the final outcome of all the research or the way in which the book is structured or the unprecedented archival nature of the material makes it an absolute belter of an essential addition to any film lover’s bookshelves. And, when I say bookshelf, I obviously mean the ‘too many piles of stuff on the floor’ of your daily environment through which it takes a minute to remember the correct path to navigate around all that movie memorabilia.
Yeah, I’m talking about the real cream of the crop, top tier books which have something extra special tucked between their pages. I’m talking about tomes like Mario Bava - All The Colours Of The Dark (Tim Lucas’ hefty and amazing bible on the late, great director), House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (reviewed here), Scala Cinema 1978-1993 (reviewed here), The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy (reviewed here), Saul Bass - A Life In Film and Design (reviewed here) and A Thousand Cuts, The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies (reviewed here).
Mallory O’Meara’s astonishing The Lady From The Black Lagoon - Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick... is just such a book. One of the essentials for any movie afficionado’s book shelf/movie shrine/miniature book Everest. I had originally planned to have a review of a famous giallo/horror director’s autobiography in this spot this week* but, when I finally got around to reading this book, which I bought sometime last year, it just floored me. This one was special and it’s still percolating in my mind so, you know, I wanted to get this one up on here as quickly as possible because you all need to read it.
Now, I’d never heard of Mallory O’Meara before but I had, only vaguely, heard of Milicent Patrick. When I was a young ‘un, sometime between the early 1970s to early 1980s, my parents took me to a sex cinema off Piccadilly Circus to see, in 3D and complete with green and red glasses, a proper double feature of IT Came From Outer Space and Creature From The Black Lagoon (a movie I reviewed here). I was thrilled and loved both movies, with the Gill-Man’s cinematic debut rating high on my list. A number of years ago, probably via the internet, I got wind that the creature had been designed by a lady named Milicent Patrick. That’s cool, I thought and then, you know, thought no more of it. So Mallory O’Meara’s thankless quest to bring to light the wonders and personal horrors of one of her heroes (she even has a tattoo of Milicent with the Gill-Man on her arm which, alas, we don’t see in this book, at least not in the edition I bought). is a very welcome publication And it’s a long quest on which she journeyed to give us this incredible account.
So all I knew before going into this one was that Milicent had designed the creature (although I’d also heard other stories and, frankly, now I know why) and that the guy who ran the head of the make-up department got jealous of her credit and basically ruined her career in Hollywood, after which she kind of dropped out and disappeared. So we should all be thankful that this O’Meara gal came along and decided to painstakingly dig a little deeper and do the detective work.
This story didn’t come easily and it’s possibly not a 100% complete picture of Patrick’s life but, one of the nice things about this book, unlike some other biographies, is that Mallory is completely honest about what she writes and she doesn’t seem to give in to wild speculation and present it as fact. There are maybe tiny holes (there always are) but you won’t find them glossed over or filled in here, they’re presented as they are... and obviously that means certain things we’ll never know but, from what I can see, the important stuff is somehow now with us.
And when I say she did the detective work, I mean just that. This isn’t just about Milicent Patrick’s life... take a look at that subtitle and you’ll see Hollywood Monsters mentioned here too and, spoiler alert, she’s not just talking about the beloved beasts you see on the silver screen, she’s talking about some of the less palatable Hollywood predators that have come to light in recent years and were, as we kinda always knew, prevalent in Milicent Patrick’s time too. You know the kind I mean. This book is as much about O’Meara as it is about Patrick. Mallory works on film production, has encountered some of these other monsters first hand and, as you simultaneously read her account of how she managed to track down all the information piece by piece, as she reports the continuing story of Milicent’s life, you realise that there are also some parallels, to some extent, between the biographer and her subject.
And there’s some fantastic stuff Ms. O’Meara turned up. As a taster only, because I really don’t want to spoil the content of this book for first time readers... Milicent Patric was a daughter to Camille Rossi, an architect who eventually worked a long time on William Randolph Hearst’s private castle and grounds (if you’re into Citizen Kane... which you kind of should be if you like to look at astonishing film technique... then Xanadu is based on this and, obviously, Kane is a satirical view of Hearst). Camille was the guy who even managed to turn around an oak tree! Milicent eventually went to study art at the Chouinard Art Institute which, because of an opportunity by the lady who ran the institute, was a direct pipeline into the Disney studios. Patrick was asked to work for Disney in 1938 and became one of the first female animators for the studio on films such as Fantasia. She also took small parts in films and eventually got hired by make-up legend Bud Westmore, whose name I’d heard from time to time, to work in his make up department at Universal, where she designed things like the aliens in their non-human form for It Came From Outer Space, the wonderful Metalunan Mutants from This Island Earth and, of course, The Gill-Man from Creature From The Black Lagoon. Then she got her 15 minutes of fame doing a whirlwind promotional tour for Universal studios but, as O’Meary says in her own, quite witty and wonderful words... “While Millicent was in the skies, filled with excitement, Bud Westmore was in his office, simmering with resentment.” Then Westmore took all the credit for himself, fired her and made sure she would probably never work for a make-up company again. And then she completely dropped out of public consciousness but, her new biographer was having none of that and she followed the few leads she had to finally hit the jackpot and flesh out the rest of Patrick’s life... much of which was spent in a long term, on/off relationship with the original radio incarnation of The Lone Ranger. I should probably insert a joke here about somebody who worked on movie monsters marrying someone who used to make silver bullets to load into his guns but, yeah, it’s not quite coming to me.
And the absolute cherry on the cake here is, it’s not just a well researched book... it’s also both a) an important one when it comes to women standing their ground against the various examples of toxic masculinity that permeates the film industry (and all the other industries and, no, 'toxic masculinity' is not a phrase I thought I would ever need to write in one of my reviews) and b) a really entertaining account of her journey to find this story. This isn’t good in that ‘academic explains things in layman’s terms and gives you total understanding of the subject matter’ kind of way. I mean, yeah, okay it is... you’ll certainly know the score here. Each important person that Milicent Patrick encounters in her life is given a mini biography by the writer as they enter her story and it’s very informative...
But what I really mean is, this girl is funny and she can write in a really entertaining and, towards the end of the book, moving manner. I love that she mostly uses her footnotes not just to inform but to crack extra jokes. So, for example, when she writes the phrase “Los Angeles still has never been devastated by a major earthquake.”, you’ll get the footnote “I’m nervous even typing that.” Or when she writes “There was a massive flood that devastated the crops, followed by a drought, which devastated the cattle.”, she can’t resist adding the footnote, “As in, lots of cattle died. Not that the cattle were like, so devastated about it being dry.” And she comes out with some absolute gems like, when she’s in the Universal archives and pulls out a note about the swimsuit actress Julie Adams should be wearing in Creature From The Black Lagoon, she comments that “My eyes rolled so hard that I was afraid they would get stuck in my frontal lobe.” I’m sorry, I don’t often quote directly from the books I review but, this one is so good I had to share some of these.
As the book continues, you can feel the author's joys and disappointments as new facts are gleaned or claims made by the subject disproved and discounted. And it’s a real journey and, despite the oodles of humorous quips and nuggets of cold hard fact dripping from the pages, she did move me to tears by the end of the book too. Proper, manly tears, of course... as should be expected from a hard hearted individual such as myself.
And, that’s as much as I really want to say about this one because, I really don’t want to spoil it for you. The Lady From The Black Lagoon - Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara is a really cool book and a solid recommendation from me if you’re into Hollywood, monster movies, feminism or, you know, that thrilling combination of all three. This one’s a creature feature you won’t want to miss.
*Yeah, don't worry, the Argento autobiography review will be coming to this blog very soon.
Tuesday, 10 November 2020
The Fear Hunter
The New Mutants
USA 2020 Directed by Josh Boone
20th Century Fox
The New Mutants is the latest and last of the 20th CenturyFox X-Men movies, by way of being a spin off, much like the original comic was. I can’t talk about the original source, though, because I’ve never read it. It’s also had a very troubled production history. I first saw the trailer three years ago in cinemas as a ‘coming soon’ and then it was pulled and there were reshoots and it continued to get pulled and rescheduled around other tent-pole superhero movies until, the last time it was moved, was because coronavirus hit. It finally got a cinema release, for the few cinemas still open, in August of this year but it wouldn’t have done much at the box office, I would have thought, because, you know... Coronavirus guys!
The film follows the adventures of five new mutants who are being held prisoner, under the guise of being treated medically to find their powers and determine whether they are a menace to others (spoiler, that’s obviously not the real reason they’re being held there... well, not quite). The five are played by Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Henry Zaga and, the newcomer to the ‘patients’, Blu Hunt. The ‘questionable’ doctor who seems to be the only person locked in with them and who has mutant powers herself is played by Alice Braga (I'm not sure where the cleaners are supposed to be). However, a day after Blu Hunt’s character comes to stay, things start going wrong for the mutants and it looks like their collective pasts are catching up with them in the form of various fears and, frankly, some very cool looking creatures which look a little like the Slender Man but with big, gnashy Venom teeth. Can the five learn to work together to defeat their mysterious foes?
Well, yeah, of course they can. And, as it happens, it turns out to be a quite entertaining movie. Not bad at all, though, certainly it is a troubled film, as you can see from the number of times it got pulled and rescheduled. Even further reshoots were required at some point which, due to the teens having aged since the original footage was shot, didn’t happen in the final instance.
Like the other X-Men films put out by Fox, the time frame continuity on this is shot to hell. There is evidence to suggest it was supposed to take place during the events of X-Men: Apocalypse (reviewed here) and, also, evidence on screen to support it taking place after the events of Logan (reviewed here... even though I’m still not sure how the heck these films even join up credibly themselves). It makes no sense at all and... well... I’m not sure what year it’s supposed to be set but I do know they have my old Cathode Ray Tube TV up in their attic so... yeah, your guess is as good as mine.
Unfortunately, it’s not just timeline continuity that’s the problem here. There’s a scene early on in the film where Blu Hunt slams into a force field at full pelt, causing her to bash her nose in, starting it bleeding from both nostrils. Unfortunately, there’s a couple of close up shots in the same scene where the blood from her nostrils has gone. Her power is she’s a quick healer then? Oops, no, apparently not because, in the very next scene, her nostrils are back to bleeding from the accident. Hmm... I don’t know if this continuity was a casualty of the reshoots or was just slack the first time around. No clue but... it’s very noticeable. Maybe they'll digitally correct this for the Blu Ray release.
Another thing which puzzled me is when the gang of five start bonding and get all The Breakfast Club on the audience. They find a polygraph in the attic and start playing a kind of non-dare version of 'truth or dare' with it. I just can’t figure out where they suddenly got all the paper from to keep the polygraph running? Quite strange, in all honesty.
Now, you may remember the film was pitched, very definitively, as a horror film when the trailers came out and... well it’s kind of like that, in a way. It certainly uses the cinematic language of the horror film to weave its simple story but, the problem is, the source of the evil things that go bump in the night is pretty obvious after the first ten or twenty minutes... so it all seems somewhat less concerning. I honestly thought the director was trying to lull me into a false sense of security and that he was suddenly going to pull the rug from under me at the last minute but... no, alas. The source of all their problems is actually the one you figure out from the start so, yeah, it could maybe have strived to be less obvious, to be honest. It kind of takes the dark sting out of things.
There were a couple of nice little things in it though. At one point, Blu Hunt is told that she’ll get out of there... “Probably before the rest of us cuckoos.” This is almost a double reference, I felt. One, because the five are being held in something like a psychiatric facility (which is where some of it was shot in real life, apparently)... and so it could be considered a reference to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. However, given the special talents of the teenagers, I couldn’t help but think it might also be a reference to John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos so, yeah, a nice double reference, I reckon.
And there’s also some nice stuff happening with the music (including a very Glass-like end credits piece). Going from X-Files to X-Men, we have a nice score from composer Mark Snow (sadly not on CD at time of writing), which is pretty good. There’s a lovely moment when Charlie Heaton’s character notices something up with one of the washing machines and as the sound design of the washing machine continues, you notice a rhythm which blends into the percussion on the score. So, yeah, as obvious as this film is, it still has some nice ideas and moments like this that elevate it to a point farther than some of the shoddier X-Men films.
And, yes, not much else to say about The New Mutants other than, it doesn’t get dull and I liked it enough to hopefully buy the Blu Ray when it hits the mid-year sales. It has a wonderful bunch of actors doing their thing and, although it doesn’t quite get into the realms of horror as much as it seems to want to, it manages to entertain and I would have liked to see where the other two parts in what was supposed to be a trilogy might have gone. Alas, before this film was even finished, the director nixed the idea of a post-credits teaser because, by then, the rights to the X-Men had reverted to Disney when they bought 20th Century Fox so, while I’m sure this is not the end of the X-Men movies, I’m guessing they’ll be redeveloped to dovetail into the main Marvel Cinematic Universe and recast with new faces and adventures. So we’ll never get an actual sequel to this one... which is a shame because it’s quite enjoyable, for the most part.