Sunday 28 February 2021

Beast-Human Snowman (Half Human)

Yeti’s Berg Addressed

Beast-Human Snowman
aka Jû jin yuki otoko
aka Half Human
Japan 1955
Directed by Ishirô Honda

Warning: Some very slight spoilers but probably not enough to warrant stopping interested readers from pursuing this review, I suspect.

Although not his next film after his original Godzilla, Beast-Human Snowman was the second of a steady stream of sci-fi, horror and /fantasy films made just one year after Ishirô Honda’s most famous behemoth, The Big G, was released onto Japanese screens.

It’s also a lost film.

Yeah... so this film was released to cinemas for a short while by Toho in Japan before being 'unofficially banned’ by them, due to various misconceptions (and possibly the nation’s collective guilt), about the depiction of the mountain tribe in parts of the film who, like the title character,  live on and around Mount Fuji...  many of whom appear deformed due to in-breeding. As such it’s never been released onto any home video format (it was almost released once on VHS tape but got pulled at the last minute) and has remained largely unseen apart from a print which, very occasionally, gets screened at Ishirô Honda film festivals in Japan. I can only assume that’s the source for this blurry transfer of, what looks like a pretty good print, which I purchased from one of the ‘usual kind of places online’, because I didn’t want to end up dying at some point before ever being given the opportunity to watch this film.

It’s true, the usual truncated recut for American audiences, called ‘Half Human’ in this case, was released into cinemas in 1958 but, from what I can understand, this is probably the most compromised version of a Japanese film recut for American release that I’ve ever heard of. Reportedly, between various scenes utilising footage of John Carradine in a new, grafted on and tonally changed story, only half an hour of footage from this original Japanese version found it’s way into that re-cut, by all accounts. So, frankly, I was willing to take a punt on the possibility that the print here might be totally unwatchable in the hopes of being able to see this at last. As it happens, the print is pretty much like one of those bad transfers of old movies at the dawn of DVD so... yeah, quite watchable depending on your expectations, I suspect.

It’s also, as it turns out, another early masterpiece from Honda and, frankly, it’s a crime against filmanity that a film this good has been left to wallow unseen for, so far, 66 years. This needs a decent Blu Ray print released on the double but I suspect the chances of that happening in my lifetime are slim to nothing.

The film starts off in a grim setting... a kind of station waiting room in the rain where a reporter finds a small group of Alpine Club members deep in gloom. They have been to find out what happened to another party lead by a professor who is a brother to one of them. A woman in part of this second expedition, played by Momoko Kôchi, also has... well, had... a brother on the first team but they find his remains a little while into the movie. Apart from one brief cut back to this scene a third of the way through... and then back to it at the end of the movie, the entire film appears as a flashback as told to the reporter. And what a film it is.

After finding the remains of one person, they wait and go back after the ‘spring thaw’ to resume their explorations. Meanwhile, another outfit trying to discover the ‘big foot’ creature that lives there for exploitation purposes, in the tradition of King Kong but more ruthless and unrelenting, are keeping an eye on them without them being aware of their presence. And also, the mountain tribe I mentioned earlier, with the beautiful village daughter played by Akemi Negishi (who was discovered by Von Sternberg and who you might remember from roles in such films as Lady Snowblood and the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies), is a third ‘interested party’ in that they help feed the bigfoot and his son, worshipped as deities in the village.

And there are a lot of shenanigans and twists to the story which I won’t relate or spoil here but, I will say that, at no time, is the title creature presented as anything other than a pacifistic, non-threatening and tranquil creature, completely worthy of our sympathies. Indeed, when one of the characters is being held prisoner and left dangling over a mountain for vultures to finish off, the creature pulls him up and then frees him from his bonds before going peacefully back to what he was doing. Indeed, the only time the creature becomes aggressive and wilfully violent is when, upon regaining consciousness after his son attempts to rescue him, he sees his young ‘un shot to death. So he first kills the people involved with the murder before going to the village of the local tribe and tearing through it in a frenzy of revenge (the tribe actually had nothing to do with the death of his offspring but, he has no way of knowing that as he now obviously sees humans as treacherous and dangerous).

It’s a beautiful looking film shot with a group of actors who are all highly convincing (even the larger than life, evil stereotype of the fortune seeking entrepreneur serves the film well) and also, it has to be said, very familiar. I think I recognised a few members of Akira Kurosawa’s stock company of actors here including the ‘morale booster’ character from Seven Samurai.

There are some great compositions in the 4:3 aspect ratio and Honda uses the frames well, especially in the group shots where everyone seems to be on the screen without the shots seeming over crowded. Also, there are some great skiing shots where big, diagonal swathes of snow take up a lot of the composition as the team of the Alpine Club glide across the frame. There’s even one shot which reminded me a little of a moment in a Kurosawa film called Stray Dog, where he goes to an extreme amount of non-action space on a frame. In this case, we see a big mountain valley and, at the very bottom of the shot, like ants and taking up less than a 20th of the vertical space, the small group of the expedition are walking from one side of the frame to another, almost hidden before the eye is attracted to the movement.

Added to all this, there’s some interesting stuff where the camera shoots through undergrowth and we can just make out the movement of a figure behind it all. Are we watching one of the party or a bigfoot, seems to be the challenge of shots like this and, I have to say, they fit in really well.

The film is genuinely intriguing and atmospheric too, primarily in the way the tension is ratcheted up before the audience is let in on the true, peaceable nature of the title creature.

One such scene is when the expedition first go to find out what’s going on and are staying at a log cabin (where they meet Akemi Negishi’s character the first time). In one sequence where the gloomy tension and mood of the expedition is dominant, the silence of the room is first shattered by the hourly warblings of a cuckoo clock before immediately being followed by the sound of a phone ringing. When one of the party answers it, we hear yelling, the wailing of a beast and a shot, heralding an ominous atmosphere of a potentially hostile creature (later we find that the creature was trying to rescue and care for an injured party but, by then, things have escalated).

Another great sequence full of creepiness is when we first meet the bigfoot. Momoko Kôchi’s character is sleeping in her tent when, in the window of the canvass just above her sleeping form, appears the face of the creature. It then reaches inside an opening in the tent with its hand and, out of curiosity, starts feeling around her face before she wakes up and screams in terror. It’s a nice moment and also our first inkling that the ‘Beast-Human Snowman’ is not the aggressive creature one might expect in this kind of genre movie.

And that’s me more or less done on this one. Masaru Satô’s score is perhaps less striking than I would have expected from him but perfectly suits the mood and tone of the picture. There’s a bit of an error when you may realise that many of the events being told by the returned party and conveyed to the reporter are not anything the Alpine Club members could have possibly had any knowledge about but, I think I’ll kindly put that down to framing the whole story for the audience as opposed to the first hand knowledge the reporter is getting. Artistic license and all that.

Whatever its very minor faults though, make no mistake, Beast-Human Snowman is one of Honda’s best films and, like I said earlier, it’s a real crime that this one has not had a release and that, at time of writing this article, most people haven’t seen the film and a lot of people are probably even unaware that this film exists. So, in the end, yeah, I was glad I paid the money on this one and am really happy to have been given the opportunity to see it. If you are a fan of Japanese fantasy films of this type, you may well want to try and track down a source for this one. Great movie. Deserves a proper release.

Thursday 25 February 2021

The Ghost Of Frankenstein

Surgical Terror

The Ghost Of Frankenstein
USA 1942 Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

It was never meant to be so but The Ghost Of Frankenstein, these days, acts more as a ‘link in continuity’ kind of movie (just like the atrocious Back To The Future II links two far superior films). It’s the last of the Frankenstein movies which had an A list budget (although it was still significantly slashed from the previous installments) and perhaps a sign that, with the B-movie status bestowed on pretty much all of the Universal monster movies that saw out the rest of the 1940s, the box office returns were perhaps less spectacular. Universal would attempt to do something about that in the very next Frankenstein movie but... I’ll get to that when I review Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman.

This one is an odd one... it’s the only one in which Lon Chaney Jr dons the Frankenstein’s monster make-up in the proper continuity of these films... officially that is. Unofficially he also doubled up a few shots in a couple of the upcoming movies but, this is the one where Chaney Jr (billed here at the end of the credits but without the Jr) started to become the man who had the honour of playing four different Universal signature monsters. This was filmed just over a month after his starring role in The Wolf Man (reviewed here) and he would later go on to play The Mummy and, arguably, Dracula (yeah, it’s a hard call on that one but I’ll get to it when I review that particular movie).

It’s starts being odd straight off, when several characters who were killed in the last one are all clearly fine again here. So two of the council men, murdered by the monster in Son Of Frankenstein (reviewed here), seem none the worse for wear. Alive too is Ygor, once again played by Bela Lugosi, even though Basil Rathbone’s character had shot him dead in the last film. The one excuse given for this spoken is, and I quote, “Ygor does not die that easily!”

Another odd thing is that the film kinda starts off in reverse, in that it plays out what seems like it should be the final scene of a typical Frankenstein movie first, with the villagers following the advice of a cameo appearance by Dwight Frye (who would appear twice in this film but only once with new footage as this uncredited character), by raising pitchforks and lighted torches and blowing up the now deserted Castle Frankenstein with TNT. Unknown to them is the fact that the TNT has helped dislodge some of the hardened sulphur encasing the Frankenstein monster (remember, he was knocked into the put of sulphur by Rathbone in a heroic moment at the end of Son Of Frankenstein) and Ygor rescues the now ‘alive again’ creature, the white of the sulphur covering his body and helping the trailers no end with the footage to sell the idea that the actual ghost of a Frankenstein monster is in this film to justify the title to the audience. It doesn’t but, they do have a proper justification later in the film, as ridiculous as that is (yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get there).

The creature loses his white covering fairly early on but of the things which always worries me about this film is the costume he’s wearing when he comes out of the sulphur. It’s just the typical suit the monster always wears but, if you remember, when the monster went into the sulphur as Boris Karloff, he was wearing a snazzy, furry waistcoat. Does sulphur discriminate and dissolve such cool fashion statements? Only the costume department at Universal knows for sure, I guess.

So, anyway, the basic plot of this is Ygor and the monster go to another village where the hitherto unknown ‘other son of Frankenstein’, “Ludwig Frankenstein MD - Diseases Of The Mind”, has his psychiatric practice. He is played by Cedric Hardwicke, is assisted by the nefarious Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill returns to the franchise here as another character) and lives with his daughter Elsa Frankenstein (presumably named after Elsa Lanchester but played by Evelyn Ankers, straight off of The Wolf Man), who is in love with the local police chief played by Ralph Bellamy (fresh off the same movie). Ygor wants the Doctor to put his brain into the monster and, by a strange twist of fate and treachery, actually gets his wish... so really, in all the appearances of the Frankenstein monster in the rest of the franchise, Ygor’s brain is in it... although this is pretty much ignored after the end of the next movie.

I said Dwight Frye appears twice and he does, as Fritz alongside Colin Clive in flashback footage from the original Frankenstein (reviewed here), as Elsa reads the notes of the original creator. This must be a way of filling up screen time cheaply but it’s kind of a stupid way of doing it because, in order to really justify the title, there’s a scene which probably doesn’t last more than two minutes where Ludwig is visited by the blurry ghost of his father. And he’s blurry because he is also played by Cedric Hardwicke but, frankly, even though he’s blurry, he both looks and sounds nothing like Colin Clive... so why they took the time to remind the audience of Clive’s performance I’ll never know. Well... I guess the answer to that is... they just didnt care. After all, nobody was going to see the film ever again after 1942 right? Commercial television was not around, as yet.

And the film trundles along to its inevitable conclusion and it’s entertaining enough, although not as great as any of its predecessors. It was nice seeing Richard Alexander again as an uncredited villager... people will best remember him, perhaps, for playing the original version of Prince Barin in Flash Gordon (reviewed here) and Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here... he was replaced by another actor for the third serial)... but there’s not much more to recommend it. In a nice touch of symmetry (and perhaps I’m being kind here), the villagers burn down the institution with Frankenstein and the monster in it. The monster’s optic nerves have failed him because when Atwill’s character switched brains on the doctor, he hadn’t realised he was a different blood type. The creature does know how to talk now, though and, he does so in the voice of Bela Lugosi... something which would be a casualty of post-production on the next film, if memory serves.

And that’s about all I have to say about The Ghost Of Frankenstein, to be honest. A necessary and fairly entertaining watch in the series but this definitely doesn’t reach the heights of the films which came before. Great title... so so movie but, certainly enjoyable at worst. The next film in the Frankenstein series would, of course, see the humble beginnings of the Universal ‘monster rally’ film, being a sequel to both this and The Wolf Man.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Marvel Comics - The Untold Story


Treasury Edition

Marvel Comics - The Untold Story
by Sean Howe
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 9780061992117

Around about a year ago, I read and reviewed (right here) a book called Slugfest - Inside the Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker. It was a pretty good read and I wanted to follow it up with another look at something about one of the comic book companies. Marvel Comics - The Untold Story by Sean Howe more than fits the bill. In fact, there’s not a lot of crossover at all between this and the earlier book I’d read. I mean, sure, there’s mention of DC but, when it comes to professional rivalry, Howe’s book looks as much at some of the more threatening independent labels like Image and Malibu as it does at DC.

So, as I started to read with a certain amount of trepidation, it soon became clear that I wasn’t just going to be reading a load of legendary and well told anecdotes about the long history of Marvel Comics. I mean, sure, they’re there but, at well over 400 pages, this book really gathers a lot of first hand research and the writer weaves it into a rich tapestry of many things I didn’t know about the comic book company (some of which I may have been happier not knowing, truth be told).

He does, however, start off with a revisitation of a famous point in Marvel Comics history, that of the day in 1961 when the lonesome Stan Lee, having been ordered to fire most of his staff and now working almost alone, decided to make one last grab at the market by publishing some superhero characters his own way while, at the behest of publisher Martin Goodman, coming up with something that could compete with the new Justice League Of America super group book that DC were cleaning up with. Thus, with Jack Kirby and also Steve Ditko on board, we had the birth of the Fantastic Four followed by The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor. At least that’s the way Lee tells it... the way Kirby remembered it was a lot different, as I’m sure long term fans of the comic world would know and, yeah, this book certainly addresses all that stuff later on too.

And it was at this point where I began to question things and say to myself... why the heck is this guy starting so late in the game? After all, Marvel started out as Timely (among others) with the 1939 issue which introduced characters such as The Human Torch (the original), Namor - The Sub Mariner and The Vision (the original) etc. Not to mention Jack Kirby and Joe Simon working on a Captain America comic during the war. And then I realised, like a typical Marvel Comic from a certain era of my youth, Howe was playing the game of starting off on a major action scene and then flashing back to the beginning of the adventure before catching back up with the tale and then moving forwards from there. So already I could tell he was really thinking about the way he structured this thing to resemble the subject matter he was exploring but, also, it turns out he’s a really great writer of this kind of stuff.

I mean, it’s one thing to do the research, organise all the facts into some kind of timeline and then diligently report them to the reader in as accurate and fair a manner as possible (I won’t say unbiased because, no piece of writing ever truly is but, you know, he probably comes close to that too). What the writer does here, though, is to go that one step further and takes you right into the details and action of the true life incidents like you’re reading a fictional tale come to life. Okay, it does get a bit more listy as the tome wears on when everything gets to be about deals and legality and office politics but, Howe impressed me with his knack of taking all those facts he’s had to crunch through and putting me right into the heart of the story with people like Bill Everett and the aforementioned Kirby.

And, because space and economics played against me for the last 30 years, he also goes into what is, for me, totally unknown territory and explores the changes and challenges of the company right through to around about ten years ago when this book was written. So, Stan Lee was still alive and, it would seem, available for comment (along with a whole host of creators and executives, many of whom have passed on now and it took this book to let me know about the deaths of the names behind the comics I used to see printed on pages regularly in the 1970s and 80s) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe had just started to get really successful with the first Avengers movie.

So, yeah, you’ll get stuff like that legendary, infamous weekend in the 1940s where all the artists and writers holed up together for a 48 hour period in a hotel room, working through the night and not sleeping (or sleeping in shifts) with the radio blaring as they quickly put together a 60 paged length Human Torch VS Sub Mariner tale which would rack up huge sales. But then, some 200 or more pages later, he’ll come up with an echo of that exact same behaviour in the 1990s or 2000s which was the equivalent, almost, of the same burst of creative energy from the early days in the 1940s.

He’ll highlight the things which made Lee and Kirby’s heroes different and appealing - the teenage angst, the insecurity, the fact that the Fantastic Four didn’t have secret identities - and he’ll also deal with the little things which would lead to injured parties having inflated negative feelings as the decades grew... such as Kirby assuming Lee got him fired from Timely at one point (while Kirby was moonlighting for DC as a kind of therapy for not being given proper profits shares for the amounts of money Captain America was raking in).

So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff which was new to me here and the writer takes you by the hand and leads you through Marvel history - Claremont’s X-Men, the arrival of John Byrne and Frank Miller, the split with Todd McFarlane, the issues with Steve Gerber - as well as all the politics and office wars along the way which resulted in many people walking away from the ‘house of ideas’ and into either a rival company or to start up a new one. And I have to say, it gets a lot darker than I thought it would.

Marvel and, even the likes of Stan Lee, are not painted in the best light here and you have to question a lot of the unbelievable stupidity on the part of the different management teams over the years who really, it seems to me, knew little about comics and were more concerned with the money than actually being true or even sensible to the characters in the Marvel stable. There are grudges aired, friends and colleagues betrayed by one another and even a few deaths, most likely from the stress of the situation that various managers made, that fill these pages and sometimes make the policies of the famed comic book company seem a little like a road accident. You know, those times when you pass a particularly bad one and curiosity compels you to look.

But you’ll also get insights into a lot of things such as the way in which Stan Lee wrote the stories... I still think writing using ‘the Marvel method’ is certainly still a topsy turvy way of doing things but it seems a lot less loose and random now that I think I understand the process a little better, for sure. I can also see how Stan’s ‘method’ could easily imbue everyone working on a title, including himself, with a sense of ownership which was much more of a team situation than various people might like to imagine.

So yeah, that’s me done dwelling on this stuff for a while, I think. Marvel Comics - The Untold Story is a dark but honest and, perhaps more importantly as far as the reader is concerned, hugely entertaining and fascinating insight into the behemoth that is the legendary comic book company. Not quite modern Marvel because, well, they weren’t owned by Disney then but, even then, there were some insights the author conveys about the idea of Disney looking into buying Marvel which, perhaps, he’d be less able to get away with now. But don’t take my word for that, read the book. It’s a great thing. My only real complaint, at least for the one I was gifted, is that there are pages of fascinating notes relating to each chapter in the back but, somehow, the numbers are left off the actual pages in the chapters so you’ve got no idea which note hooks up with which piece of text. Apart from this bizarre oversight though (I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen that particular mistake in a publication), it’s a stupendously interesting book and if you’re into comics and the state of the various environments behind them (art, writing, publishing, printing and, very importantly, distribution), then you will get a lot out of this one.

Sunday 21 February 2021

Willy’s Wonderland

Willy Make It
Through The Night

Willy's Wonderland
USA 2021 Directed by Kevin Lewis
Signature Media

Warning: Some basic plot set up spoilers reside within.

It took me a while to get into Nicolas Cage as an actor. I never used to like him much until the film Wild At Heart was released into cinemas back in 1990 and he was absolutely perfect in it. So I’ve kept an eye on him, off and on and, certainly in the last ten or fifteen years, he’s really done some outstanding work and I have a lot of respect for him now.

Willy’s Wonderland is basically what happens if you take Cage, remove any lines of dialogue from his character and... drop him into a similar scenario as The Banana Splits Movie (reviewed here) to have him fighting off cute looking animatronic characters with evil intentions. Of course, that sounds like a crazy scenario right there so, yeah, obviously, this is perfectly suited for the actor.

And it’s a wild ride.

The back story is that, years ago a cadre of serial killers who owned the local themed kids restaurant, Willy’s Wonderland, started killing off the odd guest and, when the police figured out what they were up to, instead of being taken alive, they all killed themselves in a black magic suicide ritual which embedded their spirits into the various animatronic animals in the restaurant (such as Willy Weasel). However, they went on killing and the local people in the small village where this film is set did a deal whereby the characters wouldn’t leave the shut down restaurant and kill everyone in the village as long as the townsfolk would lock the odd ‘customer’ in there with them to feed their lust for killing. So, every now and again, they spike the tires of a passing car and feed the occupants some story to get them to stay the night in Willy’s Wonderland... where a violent death by cute animatronic critter awaits them.

That’s the basic plot set up (revealed over the course of the movie in flashbacks) and the film starts off with one of those sequences which shows a family of three ‘experiencing’ Willy’s Wonderland for themselves, so the audience knows how dangerous it is when Nicolas Cage’s unnamed character, just referred to as ‘The Janitor’ on the end credits, is left in charge of Willy’s for the evening. There’s also something else the set up shows but, it’s a little surprise reveal for later in the movie and I’m not going to spoil that for you here.

So Cage has his car spiked and is talked into staying the night in the restaurant, cleaning the place up for a grand re-opening in return for the owner paying the local mechanic to repair his car. And then he’s locked in for the night with the animatronics and the fun begins. However, there’s also a local bunch of teenagers, lead by Liv (played by Emily Tosta) who want the constant slaughter to stop and so they are trying to a) burn the place down and b) get ‘the janitor’ out before he’s killed. The trouble is... the janitor doesn’t want to come out. He just wants to finish cleaning and if he has to battle and dispose of the animatronics to do it, he will.

Actually, one of the key things about what makes this movie so watchable is Cage’s character. He seems to have no real motivation for staying and barely listens or communicates with anyone other than on his own terms. Also, he has gazillions of cans of his favourite drink (Punch) from his car and every hour or so his watch alarm will go off and he will stop for a break and to finish up another can of Punch. And I mean anytime! He can be in the middle of battling a mechanical antagonist or saving the life of somebody but, as soon as his watch alarm goes off again, he just stops whatever he’s doing and goes off to drink and kick back by playing the wonderful Willy’s Wonderland pinball machine which they’ve made for the film. Damn... we need one of those in real life. I’m disappointed you can’t download an app of the table.

Anyway, the film is beautifully shot and has the usual ‘bug nuts crazy’ kind of intensity that Cage brings to his roles when he’s allowed. Most of the kids are there just to be animatronic fodder but that’s okay. There’s a little bit of blood but there’s a whole lot of oil spray and grease laden machine innards to take the place of the red stuff for the action scenes and it all seems to work well, with Cage obsessively changing into another new Willy’s Wonderland T-shirt every time he gets spattered. Actually, I’ve since read that the character Cage plays is supposed to be slightly autistic and I guess that makes a kind of sense because, there’s no other explanation for the frequent drink breaks... but it’s not actually made clear in the body of the movie that this is the case.

And it’s a nice film. The pacing is just right and there’s the occasional Easter egg such as, when one animatronic is violently decommissioned by the janitor, you can just make out the same sound effect as the Millennium Falcon hyperdrive malfunction from the Star Wars films mixed into the background. So, lots of violence plus some nice performances from a lot of the actors (especially Cage, Tosta and Beth Grant as the local sheriff). It also does that nice thing of taking a happy tune... “It’s your Birthday and we want you to have fun”, sung by the animatronics in this case... and pitching it against the dark, violent and sinister scenes to enhance the unsettling nature of the film in its deliberate juxtaposition.

So, yeah, if you’re an admirer of Cage movies like Mum and Dad (reviewed here), The Colour Out Of Space (reviewed here) and Mandy (reviewed here), then Willy’s Wonderland should give you your next best fix of similar craziness. I loved this movie and this certainly won’t be the last time I watch it. And it would make a really great double bill with The Banana Splits Movie too so, yeah, get watching.

Thursday 18 February 2021

Fantômas VS Scotland Yard

Licence To Kilt

Fantômas VS Scotland Yard
(aka Fantômas Contre Scotland Yard

France/Italy 1967 Directed by André Hunebelle
Kino Lorber Blu Ray Zone A

Fantômas VS Scotland Yard is the third and final of the trilogy of 1960s Fantômas movies, based on the character who appeared in Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre popular novels. And, this will be a short review because it’s also my least favourite of the three, a real step backward from the previous movie... although I do know someone who absolutely loves this one, to be sure.

Once again we have Jean Marais playing both newspaperman Fandor and Fantômas (and, of course, various disguises of Fantômas who are always easy to spot). Mylène Demongeot returns again as Hélène, Fandor’s girlfriend and, again we have the bumbling Inspector Juve, played by Louis de Funès, along with his comical assistant, Inspector Bertrand, once more portrayed by Jacques Dynam.

And, I guess you would suppose from the title that the film is set in London with Fantômas taking on the UKs finest police force at Scotland Yard but... you’d be wrong. In a blindingly clueless move by the film makers, this movie is almost exclusively set in a castle in Scotland, with hardly any mention being made of the English police until the end of the movie, where they all come in (presumably in their bizarrely left hand drive cars, like everybody else in the movie), kitted out with something similar to, but not quite, sten guns. Because, yeah, that’s obviously what a British bobby would carry around with them.

Actually, the plot is another one played for comedy hijinks but it eschews the Pink Panther-like animated title sequence of Fantômas Unleashed (reviewed here) and instead goes for a car driving around Scotland (ish) with bag pipes playing on Michel Magne’s score (yeah, I know, let’s not talk of this again). The comedy of the movie, with Inspector Juve constantly finding dead bodies in his room which disappear before he can show them to people, is set against a plot which involves Fantômas delivering ‘living tax’ contracts to various rich and powerful figures in an elaborately fanciful and blisteringly stupid version of a protection racket. Yeah... let’s not talk of the plot again either, such as it is.

And it’s pleasant and has a lot of Louis de Funès running around like a madman, if you like that sort of thing. And I guess people probably did because he seems to be the reason most people are watching this. A fourth film, Fantômas In Moscow was planned but, according to popular knowledge, the combination of Jean Marais getting fed up playing second fiddle to de Funès and the fact that the three leading actors were getting rather expensive to employ in their success, meant that the planned follow up to this one was scuppered. Actually, that might not be a bad thing because.. well, it’s just generally less interesting than the last one.

For me, the comedy comes from the bizarre mistakes found in the astonishing assumptions that the French writers obviously had about life in England. So, for instance, you have a fox hunt (with a nice moment where a dog is disguised as a fox... don’t ask) but instead of the traditional, English costumes, the cast all seem to be dressing up in something reminiscent of the Napoleonic wars for this sequence. And, get this, instead of the leader of the hunt playing his little horn... we have four horsemen carrying massive French horns and playing those. Seriously, this is way past just getting it wrong now... I couldn’t help but think there was some deliberate ‘winding up’ of potential English viewers on this one.

In a similar matter of pushing the bounds of credibility beyond what they could possibly be expected to get away with, when Juve and Bertrand find themselves being transported around the castle on a remote controlled bed, they go into an elevator in the walls and down into an elaborate, Ken Adams style criminal underground lair. But this is not the castle of Fantômas... he’s just quickly borrowing it. How in heck did he have any time at all to have a massive, labyrinth of a high tech lair built under the castle with electric access points installed into the walls? This thing makes no sense!

One good thing about this movie is that Jean Marais really does get a chance to shine. There’s not too much of Fandor in the film but his turn in various disguises as Fantômas really shows what a good actor he could be. He has a wonderfully sinister presence here and his bluer than blue contact lenses when he is in his normal guise help complete the look very well.

Ultimately, without the gadgets and dynamic chase sequences of the previous films, Fantômas Vs Scotland Yard tends to drag a lot and, though it’s nice seeing the cast reunited one last time, I’m kinda glad they didn’t make anymore. Ultimately, I think Louis Feuillade’s very early 20th Century silent serial is the best version of the character I’ve seen committed to screen but, that being said, I’m sure there have been some other, probably better, productions over the years. Alas, trying to get a hold of most of that stuff in the UK (or, indeed, in the US) can prove difficult.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Fantômas Unleashed

Juve Delinquent

Fantômas Unleashed
(aka Fantômas se déchaîne)

France/Italy 1965
Directed by André Hunebelle & Haroun Tazieff
Kino Lorber Blu Ray Zone A

Once again ‘inspired’ by the popular Fantômas novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas Unleashed is the second of the trilogy of films which, not so much reinvented the central antagonist but transformed the milieu in which he operates to a 1960s sensibility. The plot on this one is much more straight forward and more a rip off of something you’d see in a typical espionage or super villain movie of the time... be it James Bond, Derek Flint or, very much so, a Fu Manchu film... in that this one is the usual master criminal kidnaps a bunch of scientists in order for them to construct him a super weapon with which to threaten the world. In this case, the plot device in question is a telepathic ray with which you can cause people to do your bidding through the power of your mind.

However, while the story line is pure spy stuff, the overall tone of the movie betrays, even more, it’s partial basis on the success of The Pink Panther movies of the time. Once again we have Louis de Funès playing the put upon Inspector Juve who has the task of capturing Fantômas, although Fantômas and the newspaperman Fandor (once again played as a dual role by Jean Marais) are very much the sturdy, serious characters they always were in previous incarnations of the property, the tone of this one is even more comic with the emphasis now more on Juve than Fandor. Funès plays the part of the bumbling police inspector quite well but there’s not much room for anything else in the movie when you have his larger than life antics filling up most of the scenes as he utilises a number of special gadgets and not so clever disguises in his unending failure of a quest to bring Fantômas to justice. Even the opening title sequence is a Pink Panther style cartoon sequence starring Juve, which gives us a humorous recap of the previous story as scenes from the 1964 movie are recapped in animated form.

Once more, Mylène Demongeot plays Fandor’s photojournalist girlfriend Hélène but, this time, a young juvenile delinquent of a brother is thrown into the mix and you just know he’s going to come under the grasp of Fantômas by the end of the movie, as the villain tries to use his life as leverage. Incidentally, the young brother is played by the son of Louis de Funès and this was the first time they’d worked together on screen.

It’s another film that could have been fantastic but kinda plays the comedy a little too broadly in parts for my liking. That being said, it’s a much more even film (it doesn’t feature a chase scene that lasts for nearly half an hour, thank goodness) and I’d say it’s an improvement over the previous one (reviewed here), in pacing at least. There’s also a lot of points of interest in this one, most notably in terms of the secret agent 'Q branch' style gadgets that Juve employs in his pursuit of the villain. These are all played for laughs, naturally but, unusually for instruments that seem to be there only to get a laugh for the audience, Juve actually manages to use each gadget to get him out of a tight spot and put one over the enemy when needed so... yeah... they’re not just throwaways.

The first ‘gadget’ is a mechanical fake arm which allows Juve to have his real arm hidden under his jacket and holding a gun when he’s in trouble. Despite the comic shenanigans which ensue from the use of the moving fake arm, he does gun down two of Fantômas’ men when they are not expecting it. Similarly, he uses some cigar guns to have two guards shoot each other so he can free himself from Fantômas’ clutches. Lastly... and I’m so pleased I’ve seen this now... he makes use of a fake wooden leg which doubles as a machine gun. Yep, Cherry Darling’s machine gun leg from Planet Terror (which I’d thought was an original invention), actually makes its debut here in prototype. So now I know.

There are some other quite interesting things too, which put it a little ahead of Bond at the time (Thunderball, reviewed here, was released the same year as this movie). For example, when Fantômas is making his getaway at the end of the movie, he uses a Citroen which converts into a flying car at the flick of a couple of switches (I don’t believe the Bond series had a flying car until The Man With The Golden Gun... reviewed here). Another thing which is special about this movie is that it contains the first large format cinema filming of a skydive stunt where a man catches up to another before operating his parachute. This is for a sequence where Fandor has to catch Juve in mid-air because the bumbling police inspector has accidentally put on a ruck sack instead of a parachute and, well, like I said, it’s pretty much the first time this was done for a feature film, predating the stunt’s use in the Bond series, in Moonraker (reviewed here), by over a decade.  

So, Fantômas Unleashed is an ingenious film but perhaps just a little too much slapstick in some areas... indeed, there are even a couple of ‘silent movie’ style comedy sections, one of which, frankly, I couldn’t make head or tail of. All in all, though, the film is quite entertaining and, frankly, Jean Marais still looks great as the blue headed title character... although, the best gadget in the entire movie is Fandor’s frilly fronted shirt. I wish more people wore those these days, so I can bring my own one out of retirement. These should definitely make a come back because, as far as I’m concerned, they should always be considered the height of fashion. Hopefully there will be another fantastic, frilly shirt in the third and final film of this series, the review of which you can catch in a couple of days on this blog.

Sunday 14 February 2021


Fandor Snatch

France/Italy 1964
Directed by André Hunebelle
Kino Lorber Blu Ray Zone A

Fantômas is a very popular master criminal character who appeared in a series of over 40 best selling books by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, written between 1911 and 1963. I’ve only ever read two of them myself because translations from the French are especially hard to come by over here in the UK but in the original stories he’s a pretty ruthless and vicious criminal who is more of a terrorist and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

And that’s the tone director Louis Feuillade took with him in his excellent, silent, Fantômas film serials, which in some ways are more a series of interlocking shortish films but, yes, pretty much in the serial format and, of course, he’d later go on to direct two more very famous serials (internationally famous, that is, he churned out a lot of interesting stuff)... Les Vampires (with the original Musidora incarnation of Irma Vep... played by Maggie Cheun many decades later) and Judex (who also resurfaced in 1960s movies). Since Feuillade’s serials, many versions of Fantômas hit the silver screen (and television) in various incarnations and this one I’m now seeing for the first time on an American Blu Ray release of the 1960s trilogy (these still haven’t been released in the UK, can you believe?), is a more lighthearted take on the master criminal.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s still quite ruthless but the other characters in this play it more for laughs and, surprisingly, they all just manage to get away with it without harming the movie... too much. So we have Jean Marais in a dual role here both as Fantômas himself and the main protagonist Fandor, the newspaper man originally created by Fantômas in the first book but, well, that part of the story doesn’t come into play here at all, Fandor starts off as his own man here. We also have Louis de Funès playing Inspector Juve completely for laughs (and it’s a fairly charming performance), Mylène Demongeot playing Hélène (Fandor’s girlfriend and news photographer) and Marie-Hélène Arnaud as Lady Beltham, whose husband, if I’m remembering correctly, was killed in the first book but, again, not much mention is made to her origins as the current girlfriend of Fantômas here.

And it’s a bit of a romp. It’s well paced (for the first half of the movie, at least) with a certain competence behind the shot design, without being all that spectacular. Looked at now it seems a little clumsy in places but you can see the director and producers were just finding their legs with it and I suspect they got a little wilder as the series progressed (I hope). It’s also very much, it seems to me, to be a reaction to the current cinema trends in which the James Bond films had started making waves. Dr. No and From Russia With Love (and possibly Goldfinger) would have preceeded this film and you can certainly see the influences here. The set for Fantômas’ underground lair is absolutely taking a page from the Ken Adams school of 'evil villain power base' design and this is coupled with a kind of slightly underplayed (but still quite over the top in terms of most films) homage to the The Pink Panther films, regarding the incompetence and bumbling of the policemen lead by Juve in the movie. Indeed, even the smooth, secret agent style scoring from Michel Magne seems a bit like a pastiche where John Barry meets Henry Mancini from their respective, famous franchise scores.

It’s a bit uneven in terms of on screen action, especially for the last half an hour of the film which is pretty much just one, long ridiculous chase. An over the top (especially in terms of length) sequence where Fandor and Hélène try to negotiate their car down a mountain without breaks really outstays its welcome and then leads into an equally lengthy pursuit by car, bike, train, helicopter and submarine scene which, frankly, gets a little dull in places but, overall, it’s not a bad movie and I think I’m maybe being a little too harsh and not allowing for the historical context of the release of the film to make an impact. This would have been quite well received at the time and you can certainly see why.

Marais looks older here than in anything else I’ve seen him in (which just amounts to some of his collaborations with Jean Cocteau, to be honest) but he shows a certain versatility in various guises here, not least of which is the harsh title antagonist who, bizarrely, they’ve chosen to give a blue face to. The ‘mask’ of his face is actually quite cleverly put together and I reckon it’s a half mask prosthetic blended with his ‘blue skin’ because it’s a lot more mobile around the mouth and completely dead and sinister in the upper part of his face. This is not, by the way, what Fantômas looks like but, it’s a nice idea and, well, it was the 1960s... I’m happy to accept it.

My biggest criticism is, perhaps, the softening of Fantômas. Don’t get me wrong, he seems utterly ruthless here and somehow ‘gets away with it’ amongst all the comedy hi-jinks but, well... for instance, there’s a caper where he steals a load of ‘unstealable’ jewellery from under the police commissioner’s nose during a presentation. To do this he gasses a load of models who were wearing the jewellery in their dressing room but, later, it’s revealed that this was a sleeping gas from which they all awake. All I’m saying is that, in the books, I’m pretty sure Fantômas would have just killed them all with the poison gas... he has no regard for human life, as I recall and it wouldn’t have been a big deal for him. Indeed, it would just feed his reputation as a terrorist before whom the world should tremble even more so, yeah, I can half see why they’ve done it here but, I still think he’s a little bit of a compromised version of the character, nonetheless.

And that’s me done with this one. Really glad I’ve started to catch up to the 1960s cycle of Fantômas movies and I’m looking forward to watching the next one in the series. That review will be coming in a couple of days.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Saint Maud

Burning Faith

Saint Maud
UK 2019 Directed by Rose Glass
Escape Plan Productions

Well, this film is absolutely amazing.

Saint Maud is the feature debut (after helming a few shorts) of the writer/director Rose Glass and, it has to be said, I’m a little worried for her. Simply because, whenever a first time director debuts with a film this perfect, you have to wonder when in their careers they are going to come up with the inevitable dud and how it will affect them. This is, frankly, an astonishing piece of art. Not least because, in some ways, it doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to challenging the audience to bring their own baggage to the party. Indeed, the final shot of the film, which I won’t go into here because I don’t want to drop any major spoilers, doesn’t pull the rug away from the audience... or even tries to have it’s cake and eat it at the same time... it just forces you to reflect inwards on your personal interpretation of the events that take place in the movie. Or maybe it doesn’t and I’m just reading too much into it so, apologies to the director if there is supposed to be a clear stance on this movie and I just didn’t see it.

The film stars Morfydd Clark as Maud (and when I say ‘stars’, I really mean it), who is a private carer coming to look after a dying dance choreographer called Amanda, played by Jennifer Ehle. Following on from an opening sequence giving us our first look at a troubled back story for Maud, which will become more apparent as the movie progresses and flashes back to it a few times, she accepts her assignment along with her new found religious visions of a loving but testing God. And that’s where the doubt creeps in for the audience because, at first, it’s easy to take Maud’s heavily religious slant as a possible mental aberration of the character but, as the film unfolds, you’ll find the imagery the director chooses to confront the audience with quite pointed in some ways but, similarly, also quite untrustworthy in it credibility as soon as we see possible signs that Maud is in some way God’s chosen one.

And, I really won’t say anything more about the story barring that initial set up because a) I really don’t want to ruin anything about this one and b) there’s more than enough other stuff to talk about in terms of how the film has been shot and presented that I don’t have to resort to concentrating too much on the story.

Right from the opening prologue I could tell I was in good hands. The director seems to have an obsession with junctions creating central vertical lines such as... well, especially... the corners of rooms. But the other thing she does is either look down or up slightly at the content of the frame for quite a lot of the film (surely at least half the shots of the film are taken from a viewpoint slightly above or below the subject of a shot). It also pulls you into the picture even more when the shot changes to another scene and you are suddenly looking down at the character in a deeper shot, such as walking up or down a big flight of stairs in the surrounding neighbourhood. And it’s this, I believe, which is one of those things, completely subconsciously, that starts to nicely unsettle the viewer as the film unfolds.

You know how Arthur Penn deliberately withholds the establishing shots in Bonnie And Clyde so that, when you do finally see a decent one, the relief for the audience is coupled to a sense of empathy with the central outlaws of the film? Well, I believe that’s very similar to what Glass does here, where the majority of the establishing shots are at an angle so that, when the occasional shot does come from straight on in front of a subject... and they get more frequent as the film progresses so might well be, I suspect, a metaphor for Maud’s ‘spiritual journey’ as told in the choices of angles... you do get a sense of ‘finally, something which isn’t off kilter’ when they happen.

And as I say, they’re frequent at first but they’re not the only device the director uses to unsettle us. She seems to display a penchant for those corner angles and reflects them excessively in the use of geometric patterns on screen, with the wallpaper in Maud’s bedroom at the place she is working really throwing it up there from early on. This all comes to a head about ten minutes into the movie, when Maud sits in a cafe and the angular verticals of the windows seem almost overkill and really pushing the visual point... by which I mean, the shot looks exquisite and, once again, made me grin.

There’s a big ‘bam’ of a moment which starts off what I shall simply refer to as the ‘Christ’s temptation in the Judaean Desert’ sequence, where Maud falls into the darkness which is almost comical in its resemblance to Taxi Driver. You know that shot where, if memory serves because it’s been decades since I last saw it (mental note... re-watch it for this blog), Scorcese suddenly cuts to the ‘street musician’ banging on the drums to give us this jarring edit? The same thing happens here and then the scenes, filmed around areas of Scarborough which I remember from holidaying there over the years, almost takes on the browns, reds and oranges of ‘Scorcese-land’ for the rest of the sequence.  

And even when the shots are taken straight on, there is usually something just slightly off about them. For example, in a conversation between Maud and Amanda at one point, we see Maud’s head in the centre of the frame but then realise it’s just a little over to the left of the shot. After cutting to Amanda, we see she’s just a little right of the centre of the shot. From then on though, when we cut back to Maude, we see she’s framed quite a bit more to the left than earlier in the shot and this kind of pitching of elements against each other in places where the eye needs to play catch up (which is a trick I wouldn’t want to brave in a widescreen aspect ratio for fear of popping the audience out of the movie), forces the viewer to adapt to the constant visual shifts and its an uneasy alliance between viewer and film-maker. At least that’s how it felt to me.

There’s even a moment when a slab of a rectangle of an alleyway, with Maud walking down it and black screen on either side, is presented initially as a horizontal strip within the shot before we see it, very slowly, turn 10 or so degrees anti-clockwise within the frame. The director is really making  our minds work throughout this movie and, frankly, I was pleased to have the exercise.

Added to this, the director uses deliberately arresting imagery which almost teases the audience. So a close up on a bubbling bowl of soup recalls the bloody incident as yet fully unrevealed at the start of the picture (and it’s a shot which comes in the first minute or two as a segue into a time shift). Similarly, the angle of a head on a gurney, the long hair hanging down to the ground and dripping with blood, is beautifully echoing the angle of Amanda’s head and hanging hair in one of her old dance routines, even used as a poster to promote one of her shows. These nice visual echoes occur throughout and, even if this thing had no story, I’d still call it the best new film I’ve seen in the last 12 months because the imagery is so rich in terms of the design and placement of objects against the environment within each scene.

And, all those visuals are complemented by some good sound design and an absolutely blisteringly great score by Adam Janota Bzowski which, alas, is not available on a proper CD. So, you know, I won’t get to listen to it away from the movie, which is a shame (hey film companies... don’t try and foist your lousy vinyl and digitally lacking downloads at me, we need this released in a real format please).

The music just adds to the way the director builds tension by pitching our expectations of the character of Maud against the powder keg we know she can become. This makes for some very suspenseful scenes and you will possibly, like me, be fearing for the lives of some of the other people in the movie because you really can’t always keep track of where Maud is, mentally (although the settling down of the visual design should maybe help at certain points). Of course, some of that credit is due to the sheer brilliance of the performance of the central character. When I first started watching Morfydd playing Maud as the repressive, disciple of God she presents herself to us as, I thought to myself, “Yeah, quite a good actress... she’s doing a good job here.” However, when you see her become a normal, screwed up person during her ‘last temptation’ sequence, the one I mentioned earlier, you realise just how brilliant an actress she really is playing this part. If somebody this year deserves some kind of award for acting (and regular readers will know I really hate awards so don’t take this stuff lightly), then Morfydd Clark wholeheartedly deserves to get one. This is an amazing performance.

But then again, Saint Maud is an amazing film and Rose Glass deserves a huge round of applause for this and, yeah, I really want to know where she is going to go next with her art. This is a film I will certainly be visiting again over the years. I can’t really class it as a horror film (although some people will definitely go there with their genre classifications) because I’m just not sure that the ‘Maud’s eye view’ of the reality of the situation in certain scenes is necessarily the real story and, like I said, the very last shot of the film compounds that uncertainty to an extent. Frankly, though, I don’t care what genre people want to stick the film into... it’s enough for me that it’s plain brilliant. If you’re into the art of cinema, then this is truly one you won’t want to miss.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

1900th Post - The Traveller

For my 1900th post I thought I’d try my hand at a very short piece of fiction. Hope you like...

I was nine years old when I first met the traveller.

It was around the end of August 1962. He spotted me in the street and we got to talking. He had one of those faces which always seem familiar and I kinda trusted him from the start. Good move by me, for sure.

He bought me a coffee in a local cafe and started to tell me about his talent for prediction. He must have been in his fifties and we hit it off straight away. At the end of what, even for me, was a most unusual conversation, he looked down at the comic I was reading. It was an issue of Amazing Fantasy and it featured the first tale of a brand new character called Spider-Man. I didn’t expect the comic to last but I kinda liked the story on this one. Anyway, I digress, he looked at the comic and pulled out two £10 notes which, frankly, was more money than I’d ever seen at the time... and told me to buy a few more copies of the comic and to save them for later. To take real good care of them and then he gave me a list of other comics which, he said, his contacts in publishing told him would be coming out in a few years. He told me to buy a few issues of each and to keep hold of them and to never forget. Just keep them safe. Put them in an attic or something but save them until I could sell them for some real cash. And after that it was a few years before I saw him again.

I don’t know why I trusted him then or, well, what made me do it anyway but I did what he said and didn’t think back on it. But then, every few years, I’d run into him in the street in exactly the same place and every time he’d have a hot tip for me. Like who to bet on in an upcoming Grand National or, as I got older, which artist to invest in. And, after a little while, I got used to him being right. I started looking forward to these random encounters and, though I didn’t see him every year, he usually had a good piece of financial advice with him. I managed to get the fees to pay for college to study the sciences, all off of the money made from buying the things he told me to procure. I mean, it took a while for the comics to suddenly become worth a fortune but, other stuff had a quicker pay off and, after a while, I stopped questioning him about why or how he knew this stuff because I’d figured it out by then, of course.

I mean, I didn’t know who Damien Hurst was but I know investing in his art helped me pay my way for a better house and the money I made meant I was doing my own research for myself. I was my own boss and the things I was interested in were what I got to study every day, in my own laboratory which, due to my mysterious (seemingly ageless) benefactor, I set up not far from where we’d first met.

And when those comics paid off in the late 70s and early 80s... which amazed even me (nowadays everyone knows who Spider-Man, The Hulk and The Avengers etc are)... I was able to use the money I’d invested in them to buy shares in a new computer company he told me about called Apple. It took a little while but, honestly, not too long before... well, you know Apple I’m sure?

Of course, by now I had a pretty good idea of who my mysterious benefactor was and, I suspect you do too, right? I mean, my scientific research into things that interested me was going pretty well and though I didn’t outright say much about it, I think he knew I had figured things out by now too... just as he’d figured things out back then, so to speak.

What I hadn’t expected was for the visits to not stop when I’d caught up with him... or we'd caught each other up.

I mean, sure, the visits slowed down a lot... the intervals when the traveller came to me were now sometimes as much as six years apart but, once I’d finished inventing the time machine (my chrono-perambulator, as I called it) which... well let’s still call him 'The Traveller' shall we? When I’d finished my time machine, which 'The Traveller' had told me never to tell anyone about, I expected the end goal had been reached but no, even as I went back to visit my younger self and advise him... um... me... about the comics and the art and everything else, I was still getting visits from myself. So I did what I always did and kept taking my own advice... or rather, his own advice. Gets confusing sometimes. 

 So there I was in 2012. I was 59 years old and, honestly, The Traveller seemed like he was getting slightly younger every time he popped up. Or, at least, the frequency of his trips, from his point of view at least, were obviously getting less spaced apart and I was really catching up with myself, if that’s the right way to say it.

I never once questioned the paradox I was living. I guess a more philosophical man might have stopped to wonder how this cycle got started in the first place but... well, I have no room for philosophy. I am a man of science or I would have never invented my chrono-perambulator in the first place.

But, I’m getting away from myself again... so there I was in 2012 and he tells me to start building a big storage warehouse out of town and to start filling it with canned foods and then, he tells me, start storing water around about mid-2019 and also... you know those little surgical masks you see people wearing in countries where they’re worried about infectious diseases? Get some of those, he says. So, since I know enough to trust myself, I did what he... is ‘he’ the right word? I did what 'I' said.

So now it’s 2020, right? I’m just getting the first reports of the new breed of Coronavirus in China and I figure, this is it, we’re going to have a pandemic this year... just like The Traveller implied...

I was hoping to see him again just to make sure we’d survived this whole Covid 19 thing okay but, I tell you, now I’m self isolating with my stash of water, tinned goods and, yes, loo rolls... well, I really worry when I think about when he last came to see me a few weeks ago. I’d gone back and advised myself to stock up on these things as soon as I had a spare minute, of course.

However, when I last saw him he was looking decidedly dishevelled... a far cry from the impeccably dressed, older version of myself I had been used to seeing over the years. I even think I noticed a rip on his sleeve but I didn’t say anything about that... nor about the bruise on the left side of his head, either. He said he couldn’t have more than a few minutes stay this time because he had to get back to... well wherever... make that whenever... he came from but he just wanted me to know that, 2020 was just the start of our problems and, stupid as it may sound, I should try my best to gather some of the things on the list he handed me as soon as possible. He knew I was good for the money, he'd... okay, we’d... been investing in profitable items for almost sixty years but he warned me I needed to keep an open mind about how things were going to go.

He then went his merry way but... I don’t know... I’m not so certain I’ll be seeing him again. He bounced back to his own time quicker than usual (the shorter the length of the journey the shorter the duration of the visit before the physics of the situation mean that it’s a good idea to bounce back to your point of departure or... untested things might happen to you... don’t ask me to explain the technical stuff unless you can keep up).

Anyway, I hope I see him again someday but, in the meantime, I have the latest shopping list to get to. The machine guns and ammunition shouldn’t be a problem. But the amount of timber and the necessity for crossbows might take a little longer. Goodness knows how I’m going to be able to get all that Holy Water from the church though... I wouldn’t even believe in such a thing if it wasn’t on this list. I wonder what happens to make me become all religious in the future? Only time will tell, I guess. Like I said, I hope I see that traveller again soon... there are some pointed questions I’m just going to have to ask him.

The End

Sunday 7 February 2021

The Bride With White Hair


The Bride With White Hair
(aka Bak fat moh lui zyun)

Hong Kong 1993 Directed by Ronny Yu
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some definite spoilerage here.

The 1957/58 serialised novel Baifa Monü Zhuan by Liang Yusheng has been the subject of a fair few movie versions over the years. The only one I’d seen before watching this new Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray edition of The Bride With White Hair was a preview screening of the 2014 version, The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom (reviewed here), which was quite spectacular and impressive but, alas, apparently not impressive enough to find any kind of distribution in the UK other than at that London Film Festival screening.

This 1993 version is at least the third movie version of the tale and, though I don’t like Shakespeare all that much, I can at least recognise that it does indeed play like a version of Romeo And Juliette to some extent, although a version where most of the two warring clans (including the clan which the famed Wu Tang Clan are based on) are dead and the hero and heroine both survive and go their separate, tortured ways due to their own misunderstandings that each betrayed the other.

So, yeah, if there’s anything The Bride With White Hair is not, it definitely isn’t a barrel of laughs.

The film is very much a wuxia in the way in which it stages its fight scenes like some kind of ballet choreography (which really makes the flow of the bigger action pieces in this one seem a bit too artificial, in my opinion) and also uses a lot of wire work. So if you like movies that have a lot of people leaping into the sky with their swords ready like some kind of homicidal Superman for no apparent reason... then you’ll probably get a kick out of this.

The violence is typically stylised but, at the same time, manages to seem quite tame, even though mutilated characters are spraying gouts of arterial spray and depositing their jet propelled innards randomly around the frame. Indeed, the level of the violence perhaps, where The Bride quickly slices a man into nine pieces with her whip, to have him land in a pile of body parts on the ground before her, for example, may sound quite graphic and bad but, somehow the colours and artificiality of the shots in which this hyper-real violence is escalated makes the film seem somehow quite sedate and comfortable in comparison to much less grisly deaths in other movies. The various scenes are infused with some nice colour palettes to liven up the shots, where the warm blues and reds of one scene will follow on from the icy cold, snowy wastes in neutral pale colours of another. It all looks very nice although, I’d have to say, the new Blu Ray transfer does, I suspect, show up more faults on the film than one might expect. By that I mean to say, although the transfer is excellent, certain scenes seemed both a little too bright but also washed out at the same time, like someone decided to hit the ‘saturation toggle’ just a little too much to inadvertently make the people on the screen seem to be not much more than just a collection of pixels at some points. It’s possibly to do with the way certain characters are lit or possibly something to do with the film stock it was shot on. Possibly it was even shot on video for all I know but, that’s just a guess based on what I’m seeing here. Sometimes a good transfer will bring out the best in a movie and, sometimes it will show up more of its faults which, I suspect, is the case in point here.

The two leads, though, played by Brigitte Lin (The Bride) and Leslie Cheung (as Cho) are absolutely brilliant and imbue the characters with a certain emotional charm which immediately endears them to the heart of the viewer... or at least this viewer. The ‘over the top’ villains who are causing all the grief in the movie for these two are, quite deftly and gradually at first, revealed by the director to be a conjoined siamese twin brother and sister. These martial arts demons are, it has to be said, equally impressive in some ways but also quite over the top in their joint hysteria. I didn’t really enjoy their performance nearly as much as their two co-stars and, their very existence in this does give the obvious foreshadowing that, at some point, somebody was going to slash the two apart with a sword. This kinda happened as expected but, by this point, I wasn’t really caring about the villains so much as the state of mind of the two lovers who have been torn apart by the evil twins’ jealous desires.

Also, the whole plot device about Cho guarding the flower that blooms rarely in the snowy wastes which will restore the youth and life of the dying seems to get lost quite early on and, since the novel was apparently so voluminous, I’m suspecting we only get a ‘highlights’ version of certain aspects of the story here. That being said, I know there was a sequel made to this version (which apparently is nowhere near as well thought of as this one) in which both the leads returned so, it might well pick up that element of the story at some point. I’ll need to see if Eureka Masters Of Cinema decide to issue a version of that as I’d certainly be interested in seeing where the story is headed.

All in all I’d say I generally enjoyed The Bride With White Hair although, not nearly as much as the 2014 version of the story. I found the music a bit less impactful than it perhaps should have been too, to be fair... a little bit like audio wallpaper in this case... and I thought the action scenes could have been longer and more impactful in contrast to the many dramatic scenes but, yeah, it’s not a bad little movie and the highly stylised look and feel of the film is certainly of interest. Worth a look, especially, perhaps, if you’re not all that familiar with the genre (so will perhaps be more impressed with it if you have nothing to compare it to).

Thursday 4 February 2021

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

Zeman By Proxy

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
aka Baron Prásil
Czechoslovakia 1962
Directed by Karel Zeman
Second Run Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Many story spoilers.

Baron Prásil is the Czechoslovakian name for Baron Munchausen. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is the third of the six feature films by this wonderful director to utilise live actors pitched against various animation styles. It’s a film which was on TV a lot when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s but which seems to have dropped off the radar a bit over the last few decades. Like a lot of great films we were used to being exposed to back in the day, kids now, among them up and coming filmmakers of the future, just aren’t getting the opportunities to easily see the classics of cinema like they used to. For sure, there are still some modern classics shown but, honestly, TV stations are just not educating people with quality product like they should do in these dark times.

So, anyway, of the three Karel Zeman films I’ve watched since Christmas, this is probably my least favourite. That being said, it has all the usual Zeman charm in abundance and is certainly as inventive and entertaining a spectacle as his previous two features, for sure. This one is very similar, stylistically, to his previous cinema release, Invention For Destruction (aka The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne, reviewed here) and uses a lot of matte paintings and sets built which are based, somewhat, on Gustave Doré’s illustrations for one of the more popular 19th Century versions of the legends based on the real life Baron. The difference being that this one is shot in colour... although it’s not a colour film as is typically understood by that term these days. Rather, the live action scenes, starring actors such as Milos Kopecký (Munchausen), Rudolf Jelínek (Tony the moon man, who is actually not in any way such a thing) and Jana Brejchová (as Princess Bianca... although she was a bought woman sold to ‘The Sultan’ by pirates) and, indeed, the majority of the animations and drawings in the film, are obviously shot on monochrome stock and then tinted. The difference between the same process here than in most silent films where colour tinting was more common, being that sometimes a few colours are assigned to different sections of the screen simultaneously.

The film starts dramatically on Earth with shots of nature turning to aviation via butterflies, birds, various aeroplanes (including something like a jumbo jet) and then to rockets headed to the moon (the reality of which would not come to fruition for another seven years). Then, Tony the astronaut sees footprints on the moon. He follows them and finds the original rocket from Jules Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon and is then, astonishingly, greeted by the three central protagonists of that book who, like their companions, don’t need space helmets like Tony to be able to breath the atmosphere. Cyrano De Bergerac also greets them (he had some adventures on the moon in one of his literary incarnations, if memory serves... although my old English translation paperback of his lunar adventures is either up in the loft or donated to charity a couple of decades ago) and, lastly, Baron Munchausen adds his welcome.

The five of them obviously mistake Tony for a moon man and the good Baron decides to fly him back to Earth in his ‘star galleon’ (my term) flown by geese for Tony to see how Earth dwellers live. Of course, by the time they get to Earth the clock has flown back and the two have various of the Baron’s famous misadventures, picking up the ‘princess’ in the palace of The Sultan where, in a wonderful moment of satire, the Baron starts talking in comically abrupt woodwind sounds very similar to the sounds used by the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Tony remarks (in this translation, other versions referenced on the documentaries included are obviously taken from a much different subtitle translation) that the Baron’s conversational tones in this manner are... “Musical but hard to follow.” “The language of high diplomacy!” retorts the Baron and, yes, I couldn’t agree more.

And the adventure continues as the Baron and his two companions escape the sultan but, after using a smoke screen made up of Turkish tobacco, which everyone on the ship they are in puffs to summon up said smoke screen (even the ship’s figurehead has a puff), they end up in the belly of a giant fish and, later, during a battle scene, we also have a version of the famous cannon ball ride (there and back) so the Baron can gain the advantage of seeing what the enemy are up to. When Tony is slung into prison for stealing all the gunpowder for one of his scientific ‘fantasist’ inventions, the Baron lights the gunpowder which was hidden in a well in the castle for just such a purpose and the three of them are blown back to the moon.

It’s a nice flight of fancy from beginning to end and, along the way, you’ll see the usual Zeman inventiveness such as the Baron riding a sea horse which actually does have four legs with flippers for feet to swim with, accompanied by a swordfish on which the Baron hangs his clothes and dresses while riding said sea horse, a captivating but perhaps over used red smoke (the old coloured droplets in water trick) and even a battle being conducted like a piece of concert music.

Like I said, it’s not my favourite of his works but it’s still an excellent film and, like the other two Blu Rays in this series from Second Sight, there’s a hefty bunch of extras on the disc including a feature length documentary on the life and work of Zeman, which includes complimentary comments and interviews from some modern directors who have been influenced by Zeman’s works such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam (whose own, even more wonderful film of the Baron’s tales certainly stole a few things from this version, as well as others). These are found alongside a wonderful featurette by Michael Brooke of facts and figures about both the many and varied film and TV incarnations of the Baron’s adventures, plus his interesting insight into the musical score for this version. This featurette in particular was a real eye opener for me... I mean, we’ve all heard of the medical terms Munchausen Syndrome and Munchausen By Proxy but stuff like Munchausen By Internet was new to me and, well, I loved the mathematical uniqueness of Munchausen Numbers for sure. Although, how you discover something like that last, where a specific four figure number is broken down into separate digits, each number multiplied by a factor of itself and then added to the previous to end up with the sum being the original number you started out with, is beyond me.

And there you have it. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is certainly a fabulous film with a fabulous director and with another fabulous batch of extras from Second Sight. And now I’ll have to track down some more of this director’s work at some point soon. And also some more Czech cinema. I’ve seen a couple of other interesting films from Czechoslovakia in the last couple of weeks (which will show up in review on this site at some point fairly soon) and I’m really enjoying what I’m seeing from the cinema of this country. I’ll get back to you on those.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Invention For Destruction



One Good Verne
Deserves Another

Invention For Destruction
aka Vynález zkázy
aka The Fabulous
World Of Jules Verne

Czechoslovakia 1958
Directed by Karel Zeman
Second Run Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Invention For Destruction is the second Karel Zeman film I’ve seen in a couple of weeks and, once again, I’m pretty impressed. This one sees the Czechoslovakian surrealist going more and more artificial with his world view and I can see how future directors such as Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson (bringing the Zissou) may well have been influenced by his style.

It’s based on For the Flag, a novel by Jules Verne (one of my favourite writers although, I have to say, I’ve not read this one) and while I was initially disappointed that the director had chosen to shoot this in black and white, I soon realised this is because the whole film is supposed to look like one of the original woodcut illustrations of that book come to life. So it was filmed in Zeman’s brilliant hodge-podge process which was energetically touted at the time as mysti-mation. Frankly, mysti-mation is about as useful and honest a movie making bit of hyperbole as terms like Tohoscope, Supermarionation or Dynamation but, that’s okay, I love silly terms like this and can’t get enough of them.

So basically, the film is a combination of stop motion animation, puppetry, flat cut out illustrations and live action on sets made to look like those illustrations. And I have to say, it’s so well done that I was completely taken in, at first, as to how the man managed to get the actors to move around the drawings without any matte lines or whatever showing. It was only after a minute or two, when I realised a shadow was being cast by an actor's arm on the drawings, that I realised that a lot of it was a built set with giant sized versions of the illustrated cut outs for the actors to move around in. Also, there are clever and cost effective combinations where some of the cutouts in, say, the foreground layers of the frames are obviously smaller drawings put in front of the sets and actors before the camera and, well, it somehow all looks like it’s the same scale, or certainly gives the illusion of it. It can’t have been easy to do to get all those crosshatched lines and details to match up as well as they do here. There’s some amazing sets with a wonderful homage, at one point, to a certain shot in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (no, not the shot you’re immediately thinking of when I say that) and the costumes worn by the actors and actresses are wonderfully flat and patterned and also completely blend in with the wonderful sets and illustrations (the sets and costumes were painted with the lines from specially made roller brushes).

I was totally bowled over by this small tale of a plot by a Nemo-like Count to kidnap a professor and bankroll the scientist’s new explosive energy force invention so he can use it for a super canon to threaten the world with. The actors are all superb in this, reacting quite naturally to their ‘beyond artifical’ environments and it includes, despite what I said in my earlier review of Zeman’s Journey To The Beginning Of Time (read that one here), that sense of the appreciation and wonder of certain parts of the environment by a couple of the adult characters, that was a more natural reaction for the kids in the previous film... but which manages to carry over a little into this one too.

Also, the score by Zdenek Liska works very well with the action of the thing... almost like it’s doing old style Hollywood Mickey Mousing with the cues but often responding to the camera movement within the environment, rather than necessarily trying to catch any action captured within the content of the frame. For instance, there’s a truly wonderful series of establishing shots by Zeman, at one point, of the camera zooming into an illustration of the building, then cutting and doing a similar zoom of the building from a different angle and... then again a third time and going through a window into the next scene. Each time the camera swoops towards the building, Liska catches those with musical flourishes of his own. It’s a nice moment.

It’s also a very inventive and the surrealistic ideas which are presumably added in, a lot of the time, by Zeman’s fertile imagination, are charming pieces of on-screen surrealism which make the film a pleasure to watch. For instance, there’s a scene where the head bad guy aims his flintlock and it misfires. That’s because it’s a clockwork flintlock and, as soon as he winds it up with the key on the handle, a steady stream of shells are projected from the weapon like it’s a miniature, hand held machine pistol. Yeah, lots of great ideas here such as strange, floating air tanks kitted out to be underwater bicycles (with little bells ‘a ringing’), an underwater sword fight between two divers and, worth the price of admission alone, a small group of roller-skating camels. I mean, wow, what more could you ask for.

There’s even a nice sequence when the hero’s oxygen tank is running out, as he’s trying to escape his captors underwater, where two fish swim together and both hit a vertical, invisible join and swim behind it so only the ends of their tails remain. Those two halves of juxtaposed tails have then formed a butterfly which flies away under the ocean... this flight of fancy used to underline that the character is hallucinating while running out of oxygen. Again, lovely stuff.

Not much more for me to say about Invention For Destruction except that I wish these movies were better known over here because they’re perfect to catch children with at a certain age. I was totally blown away again by this one and Second Run have included some nice extras on here including two of Zeman’s short films. I’m really looking forward to seeing his 1962 film, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen next and the review of that one should be appearing here in a couple of days time. Meanwhile, if you’re a fan of cinema and the way live action and animated work can be combined effectively on screen, definitely check this one out sometime.