Saturday, 30 July 2011

Never Too Late To Mend (1937)

Never Too Late To Mend is a Tod Slaughter melodrama, and if you’re familiar with his movies you’ll know that there is going to be much fun to be had.

Like all his classic movies this one emanates from George King Productions and captures perfectly the spirit of Victorian melodrama.

This time Slaughter plays the wicked Squire Meadows. Squire Meadows wants to marry Susan, the beautiful daughter of Farmer Merton. Farmer Merton is not against the match, but Susan is in love with impecunious farmer George Fielding. Farmer Merton tells George that he will never gain his daughter’s hand until he can produce a thousand pounds.

George’s only chance of obtaining such a vast sum (and in mid-19th century England this was a very vast sum indeed) is by going to the colonies to seek his fortune. He intends to take ship for New South Wales.

This will leave the field open for Squire Meadows, but given that he is twice the age of George Fielding and that George Fielding is a handsome young man Squire Meadows decides it would be wise to take no chances. He concocts a scheme to have George arrested for poaching. The plan miscarries when George’s friend Tom bravely confesses to the crime to save his friend from prison.

While George is in his way to Australia the unfortunate Tom finds himself in the local prison, the administration of which is largely in the hands of the visiting Justices of the Peace, one of whom is none other than Squire Meadows. The brutal treatment of the prisoners is encouraged by the squire. He claims that he regards the prisoners as his children, but in reality they’re simply a convenient means for satisfying his sadistic impulses and his greed.

The only person at the prison who stands up to him is the prison chaplain, who was formerly the local parish priest.

Squire Meadows’ plotting is about to come undone however. He has finally, largely as a result of financial pressure exerted on her father persuaded Susan to marry him but on the eve of the wedding George Fielding suddenly reappears. And he has on his person not just one thousand pounds, but no less than seven thousand pounds. He has struck gold, literally, in New South Wales.

Of course Squire Meadows is not going to give up so easily and the stage is set for a classic melodramatic finish.

As with most of his movies there’s a bit of social comment, and a generous helping of sentimentality. It all works extremely well.

Tod Slaughter was always tremendous fun in these roles and in this one he’s at his wicked best, even indulging in actual moustache-twirling.

The support cast is perfectly competent but no-one is going to notice the support cast in a Tod Slaughter movie.

Tod Slaughter’s 1930s British movies are probably the purest cinematic expression you’ll ever find of Victorian melodrama. He played these roles on stage as well and having been born in 1885 and having made his stage debut in 1905 he must have had some first-hand experience of seeing the genuine article. He was almost 50 before he made his first movie so his whole acting style is very stagey. For this kind of material that’s a major asset.

If you’ve never seen a Tod Slaughter movie then you’ve missed out on a exceptionally enjoyable experience. Never Too Late To Mend is a good place to start, although Sweeney Todd is perhaps better.

Alpha Video’s DVD release (from their Tod Slaughter boxed set) is reasonable enough quality by Alpha Video standards - a bit faded and grainy but perfectly watchable.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Dr Renault’s Secret (1942)

The 30 and 40s saw a tremendous vogue for horror movies dealing with ape-men and other assorted animal-human hybrids. Dr Renault’s Secret, released by Fox in 1942, is one of the classier examples of this sub-genre.

The source material was Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel Balaoo. Leroux is best known today for Phantom of the Opera but he was a prolific and highly successful writer in both the mystery and horror genres.

Dr Larry Forbes is a young up-and-coming neurosurgeon, engaged to Madelon Renault, daughter of the famous brain surgeon Dr Renault (George Zucco). Dr Forbes arrives at the chateau in France where Dr Renault both lives and conducts his research, and is met by Dr Renault’s rather strange-looking servant Noel (J. Carrol Naish). Noel has a vaguely simian appearance and this being a horror movie we immediately wonder if he might not be quite fully human, especially as he seems to have some rather animal-like instincts.

Dr Forbes is not a terribly inquisitive chap though and doesn’t give the matter too much thought. A murder that occurs soon afterwards does raise further suspicions. Noel is not the only unsettling character at the chateau - there’s also the ex-convict Rogell (Mike Mazurki). He’s definitely up to no good.

The horrifying truth about Dr Renault’s experiments eventually comes to light, but not before Madelon’s life has been placed in great danger.

If you were going to make a mad scientist movie in the 1940s then George Zucco was going to be one of your first choices to play the role. And he does a splendid job, combining a very real rather avuncular charm with real menace. J. Carrol Naish does the sympathetic monster thing to perfection as Noel. The other players are quite adequate but they’re inevitably overshadowed.

While this was definitely a B-picture, it was a B-picture made by a major studio so the production values are quite high. It looks classy. It’s also exceptionally well made. Director Harry Lachman never really moved beyond B-movies but in Dr Renault’s Secret he shows himself to have been a highly proficient craftsman.

The make-up effects are subtle but very effective.

All in all this is a slick and highly entertaining little horror flick.

It’s one of three movies included in the Fox Horror Classics volume 2 boxed set. Picture quality on the DVD is superb. There’s a brief but informative featurette.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Things To Come (1936)

Things To Come, made in 1936, was one of the most ambitious productions of the British film industry of the 1930s, and the most spectacular science fiction movie made in Britain until Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 30 years later.

With a screenplay by H. G. Wells, based on his novel The Shape of Things To Come, this is science fiction about ideas. Not always sensible ideas, but ideas nonetheless.

The movie deals with a century of future history. It begins with a war that breaks out in the late 1930s. The war drags on for decades. By the 1960s the world has broken up into countless petty states run by local warlords. Science and technology have come to a standstill, and existing technology is slowly decaying. The warlord of Everytown (known simply as the Boss and played by Ralph Richardson) thinks he’s pretty formidable because he has an air force. In fact he has a couple of dozen 30-year-old biplanes, none of them airworthy. And there’s no fuel to make them fly anyway. But his prestige still rests on the fact that he has an air force.

The world has been ravaged by plague as well as by war. The plague has ended but civilisation remains in ruins. Then in 1970 something extraordinary is spotted in the skies over Everytown. An aircraft. An aircraft actually flying. A sleek modern aircraft, obviously not a relic from the past. The pilot, John Cabal (Raymond Massey) informs the warlord that he represents Wings Over the World, an organisation of scientists which now runs the world. There is a new world order, and all petty states are being brought under the control of this new world government. Resistance is futile.

Of course the Boss does try to resist, but he is powerless against the Gas of Peace that puts everyone to sleep while the scientist rulers move in and take over.

We now cut to the year 2036. The scientists still control the world, and are about to undertake the conquest of space. They have built a gigantic space gun that will launch a manned projectile to the Moon. This is the brainchild of Oswald Cabal, grandson of John Cabal. But there is opposition. There is an anti-progress movement that believes that technology has advanced far enough and that a halt must be called. The mob is incited to storm the launching facility to destroy the space gun but they may be too late. The space gun is already primed to launch its two astronauts to the Moon.

The technocratic socialist world government is the sort of thing that appealed to idealists like Wells in the 30s although today many viewers may well see it as sinister and unworkable rather than utopian. The scientist-run state may be portrayed as basically benign but it’s hard to see it as anything other than a totalitarian state.

More interesting is the clash between the prophets of progress and the anti-progress forces, a conflict that shows that Wells could be remarkably prescient at times.

The movie steers clear of some of the more controversial elements in Wells’ thought that were reflected in his novel, such as his belief that human progress required the total abolition of religion. In common with so many social visionaries Wells tended to regard human nature as a minor detail that could be simply ignored. The movie does make it clear that all the peoples of the world joyously embraced the rule of the wise scientists, which certainly indicates a staggering lack of understanding of what makes humanity tick.

Whatever the movie’s weaknesses in the realm of ideas, visually it is extraordinarily impressive and was immensely influential. Director William Cameron Menzies was also a noted production designer and art director and although he’s not credited as such on this one he would certainly have had a major influence on the look of the film. The sets and costumes are superb and the miniatures work is magnificent. The blending of futuristic styling with costumes based on the ancient world was still being copied decades later in TV series like Doctor Who and Star Trek.

This movie’s influence can be seen in some other rather more unlikely places. The atmosphere of the warlord’s petty kingdom in Things To Come is remarkably similar to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of George Miller’s Mad Max II: the Road Warrior. Given the number of times that Things To Come has been screened in Australian television over the years I’m inclined to think that’s no accident. Even the warlord’s glamorous girlfriend with her barbarian queen look would not have been out of place in most 1980s post-apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers.

There’s not a lot of characterisation so there’s not much of a challenge for the actors, although that doesn’t stop Ralph Richardson who is in full flight as the seedy, cowardly, bullying warlord.

This is a movie that occupies a central position in the history of cinematic science fiction and is really one that must be seen.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules (1983)

Luigi Cozzi’s 1983 Hercules is certainly not your average sword & sorcery movie. In fact it’s one of the most truly bizarre experiences that cinema has to offer.

How many Hercules movies can boast bears hurled into orbit? How many have Hercules battling gigantic mechanical children’s toys? Which just shows how pitifully inadequate previous Hercules movies were.

The madness is there right from the start in this movie. It begins with a prologue, giving the viewer an overview of Greek mythology. Except that there’s very little an ancient Greek would recognise - this
is Luigi Cozzi’s own private mythological cosmogony, where the Olympian Gods live on the Moon.

Then we move on to the actual plot. Hercules, after witnessi
ng he deaths of both of his adoptive parents, travels to Thebes where he attention of the evil King Minos and his equally evil daughter Ariadne (Sybil Danning). They were responsible for the deaths of his biological parents, the rightful king and queen.

Hercules falls in love with the beautiful Cassioppea (Ingrid
Anderson), and of course he has to be set impossible tasks, in this case to cleanse the fabled stables of 1,000 horses, stables that have not been cleaned for years. He does this in the simplest possible way, by changing the course of a river. This impresses Cassioppea considerably. Useful dating tip for guys: if you really want to impress a girl on your first date then changing the course of a river should do the trick. Well it worked for Hercules anyway.

By falling in love with Hercules Cassioppea provokes the anger of both King Minos and sundry goddesses. She is imprisoned by King Minos, who intends to sacrifice her to the firebird he has trapped in a volcano on the island
of Thera. To rescue her Hercules finds an unlikely ally - the witch Circe (Mirella D'Angelo). She looks like an old lady but when Hercules retrieves her lost talisman for her he makes a surprising discovery. She is not an old lady at all. In fact she’s a total babe. His heart belongs to Cassioppea but in the meantime he’s happy enough to hang around with the bodacious and scantily clad sorceress.

Meanwhile King Minos has unleashed his secret weapon to destroy Hercules. He has employed the services of Dedalos. In Greek mythology Dedalos was a man and an inventor of genius. This is pretty boring, so Luigi Cozzi
makes Dedalos a woman and a total babe, and also completely evil. She’s a kind of evil disco princess/mad scientist. Her specialty is mechanical toys. Mechanical toys that can be made gigantic and that are armed with things like death rays.

This is not the end of the craziness of this movie. There’s also the chariot. Circe and Hercules find a magic chariot but not the magic horses that go with it. No problem. Hercules simply get Circe to use her magic to tie a rock to the chariot, then he hurls the rock into space. The chariot, with its two passengers, then becomes a flying space chariot.

As you might have gathered the plot is not the main attraction here. You watc
h this movie for Cozzi’s insane imagination and for the assorted visual treats on offer.

Apparently Olympian goddesses usually dressed as if they were just about t
o go to the disco. They were also heavily into 80s big hair. The costumes are as mad as everything else. The special effects are often bad but they’re always entertaining and weirdly effective. There’s no nudity although some of Cassiopea’s costumes are very scanty indeed.

The acting is B-movie standard but fun. The absurdly muscle-bound Lou Ferrigno works well enough as Hercules. Sybil Danning as A
riadne and Eva Robins as Dedalos have fun as B-movie beautiful but evil villainesses.

Luigi Cozzi was the man behind Starcrash, the 1978 movie that stands as one of the must outrageously enjoyable space operas ever made. Hercules is much much stranger but just as enjoyable. We’re talking Alfonso Brescia levels of cinematic insanity here, but I certainly don’t have a problem with that. This is the sort of delightful weirdness you only get in Italian science fiction.

MGM have released this piece of movie mayhem as a double-sided DVD with the sequel, Adventures of Hercules, on the flip side. As usual with MGM releases there’s a lack of extras but it’s a lovely print. Highly recommended as long as you have a taste for high camp extravaganzas.



Thursday, 21 July 2011

Barbarella (1968)

Barbarella is a movie I’ve seen a number of times but oddly enough until now I’ve never gotten around to seeing it on DVD. Or in its correct Cinemascope aspect ratio. Which makes a wonderful movie even more wonderful.

I also suspect that I’ve never seen this film completely uncut before. I certainly don’t recall seeing quite so much of Jane Fonda before. Her opening credits striptease in this version is certainly guaranteed to get your attention.

It has to be said that this Franco-Italian co-production is a movie you either love or hate. If you don’t appreciate high camp silliness then you’re well advised to sit this one out. And if you have a thing for Serious Film-Making that has profound things to say about the human condition, this is not the movie for you. Jane Fonda was later embarrassed at having made this movie which just shows how humourless you can become when you start taking yourself way too seriously. In fact it’s arguably her best ever performance.

Based on a French adult comic book, and directed by Fonda’s then-husband Roger Vadim, the plot is slight to say the least. Barbarella is 41st century Earth’s top astronavigatrix and she’s just been assigned to a vital mission to track down missing Earth scientist Durand Durand who has disappeared taking with him he ultimate weapon, the positronic ray. Unfortunately Barbarella is forced into a crash-landing when her spaceship is damaged.

After being menaced by feral children she is rescued by a hirsute stranger in a weird wind-powered sled vehicle. She ask what she can to repay him and he tells her they could make love She naturally assumes he’s referring to the civilised 41st century version of sex where you first make sure your psychocardiograms are aligned and then you each take an exaltation pill and then touch hands. She is shocked to find out that he means sex in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a practice long abandoned as being too distracting. But she’s willing to give it a try. And she discovers that she likes it. She likes it a lot. Even if it is very very distracting. This is perhaps the key to the film - Barbarella’s sexuality drives pretty much the entire plot.

Barbarella has another astronautical mishap and finds herself in the Labyrinth. The enemies of the Black Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) are consigned there for all eternity, including a hunky angel named Pygar (John Philip Law). Pygar has lost the will to fly. There’s no physical reason he can’t fly; it’s just a matter of morale. Luckily Barbarella knows a surefire method for restoring morale and after a roll in the hay (or in this case a roll in the feathers) with Barbarella his morale is fully restored. Barbarella finds that old-fashioned sex really can be remarkably useful.

Pygar and Barbarella journey to the notorious city of SoGo, the headquarters of the Black Tyrant. SoGo is a city dedicated to evil, and to sexual depravity. The Concierge runs the city for the Black Tyrant and he turns out to be none other than Durand Durand. The stage is set for a confrontation between two contrasting views of sexuality. The Black Tyrant and Durand Durand represent sex as a destructive force, while Barbarella represents the positive life-affirming side of sex. This comes to a rather effective climax (if you’ll pardon the pun) when Durand Durand imprisons Barbarella in an infernal machine, a kind of musical orgasm machine, where she is destined to die of pleasure. But Barbarella’s healthy and innocent but alarmingly prodigious sexual appetites overload the machine.

SoGo is fueled by a monster called the Mathmos but it will be no match for Barbarella’s essential goodness.

Many of the criticisms levelled at this film seem to miss the point. Comparisons to Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik are misplaced. Bava and Vadim were making very different films. Danger: Diabolik remains the best comic-book action/adventure movie ever made but Vadim’s movie is a high camp erotic psychedelic fantasy and must be judged on its own terms. Terry Southern’s involvement in the script is a major clue here to the importance of camp in the appreciation of this movie.

The most delightful surprise in the movie is David Hemming’s very funny turn as an inept revolutionary. Anita Pallenberg isn’t given enough to do. She certainly looks suitably spectacular though. But the movie belongs to Jane Fonda. She has never been more gorgeous, and she has never been sexier, but this is also a delightfully witty performance showcasing her considerable gifts as a comic actress.

Barbarella remains a unique film, and one that has had little direct influence on the evolution of cinematic science fiction. Its mix of whimsicality and kinkiness had more influence on some of the more offbeat European exploitation movies of the 70s than on mainstream science fiction, but then it never tried to be mainstream science fiction in the first place.

One of the true masterpieces of camp, and immensely enjoyable if you accept it for what it is.

Paramount’s DVD release is barebones but quite impressive. Perhaps one day we’ll see special edition, or even a Blu-Ray release?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Trog (1970)

Trog is included in Warner’s Cult Camp Classic 2: Women in Peril collection and there can surely be few movies more deserving of the camp tag. Its other claim to fame is that it was Joan Crawford’s final feature film.

It’s almost impossible to guess what anyone connected with this movie thought they were doing. Were they all drunk? Drugged? Did they do it on a dare? As a joke? We’ll never know.

In the peaceful English countryside three students are exploring a series of caves. Their expedition ends in disaster with one of them dead, one seriously injured and the other babbling in terror. What horror lay concealed in the cave?

The director of the nearby Brockton Research Institute is determined to find out. Dr Brockton (Joan Crawford) sets off for the cave with the surviving student. She takes her camera with her and the photo she snaps sets the scientific world light. Could this creature that seems half man and half ape be the Missing Link?

I was never quite sure what exactly the mission of the Brockton Research Institute was or what Dr Brockton’s field was. It’s the kind of movie where this doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that she is a Scientist. When she returns to the cave she takes her trusty hypogun with her and pretty soon the mysterious creature is locked in a cage at the institute. He is named Trog, since he’s a troglodyte (a cave-dweller).

If you thought the movie was strange early on it’s about to get much weirder. Dr Brockton is determined to teach Trog to communicate so that he can reveal the secrets of the dawn of humanity. She uses toys to train him. In a rather surreal and oddly disturbing scene Dr Brockton and her daughter and assistant Anne teach Trog to play with a doll. This seems to bring out Trog’s nurturing side. He’s very fond of his dolly.

There’s another bizarre scene in which Trog is drugged and shown slides of skeleton of prehistoric beasts. This triggers visions of scenes of dinosaur fights from a 1950s movie. It’s like Trog is having a bad acid trip.

The villagers are not happy about the goings-on at the laboratory. This brings us to another odd feature of the movie. Although it has a contemporary setting the villagers behave like superstitious peasants straight out of a Hammer gothic horror flick. The town’s leading citizen, the violent-tempered Sam Murdock (Michael Gough), demands that this unnatural creature be destroyed. A public inquiry is held which turns into a kind of evolution vs creationism debate.

Dr Brockton teaches Trog to speak but her research project is not destined to be allowed to continue unmolested. The anti-Trog forces are on the warpath. Trog has survived since the dawn of humankind but can he survive the world of 1970?

At times the movie plays like a whimsical cute-monster kids’ movie, but then you suddenly get a couple of very gory violent scenes. At times the story seems to be played for laughs, at other times it’s absurdly sentimental, and then on occasions it gets into philosophical and ethical musings. Director Freddie Francis had a pretty reasonably track record with horror movies but he allows this one to get badly out of control. Perhaps he just read the script and gave up.

Joan Crawford was made of sterner stuff. She takes it all quite seriously and delivers a perfectly straight performance. She was apparently a friend of producer Herman Cohen but whatever led her to take the part she was too much of a trouper not to give it her best shot. Michael Gough on the other hand treats the movie as it deserves and his performance is, as usual, great fun.

Yet another jarring aspect of the film is Trog himself. The facial makeup is quite good but that’s the only attempt to make the actor playing him look like a ape-man. So, inevitably, he ends up looking like a sort of joky pantomime ape-man. And he just isn’t convincingly scary.

In fact the movie itself fails utterly to produce any scares but fortunately it has so many wtf moments and so much weird wrongness that it’s really extremely entertaining in spite of itself. And it’s worth seeing just for the scenes with Crawford, Trog and Trog’s dolly.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Die Sklavinnen (1977)

Die Sklavinnen (Slaves) dates from the period when Jess Franco made a stack of movies for Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich. These movies were mostly high on sleaze but often very entertaining, and made on reasonably generous budgets (by the standards of exploitation films).

Die Sklavinnen sounds like it’s going to be another variation on the women-in-prison genre, a genre Franco explored in depth. In fact it’s more of an erotic crime thriller, although with certain affinities to the WiP genre.

Lina Romay is Madame Arminda, a ruthless but very successful brothel owner. She recruits her girls by methods that are somewhat less than ethical. Her thriving business is threatened when she kidnaps Marine Radeck, the daughter of wealthy industrialist Amos Radeck. The plot becomes rather complicated here with rival criminals trying to gain possession of Martine and attempting to extort five million dollars from her father for her return.

Madame Arminda keeps Martine drugged to keep her in line. The situation is not quite do simple, however, since Arminda has fallen in love with her captive. There are numerous double-crosses and attempted double-crosses. Amos Radeck has in turn kidnapped Arminda and his sadistic henchman (played by Uncle Jess himself) has guaranteed that he’ll make her talk.

It’s a reasonably entertaining thriller enlivened by immense quantities of nudity and generous helpings of sex both straight and lesbian. The torture scenes are fairly restrained, perhaps surprisingly so.

Martine is played by Martine Stedil whose entire brief career was spent in Jess Franco movies. She was an extraordinarily attractive young woman and both she and Lina shed their clothes at the slightest provocation, if that sort of thing interests you.

Lina Romay gets to do her evil psychotic bitch thing, which she does rather well. We also get to see Lina in a sari, which is not something you’ll see very often. Naturally we also get to see Lina out of her sari.

Vitor Mendes is fun as the obese and quite nasty father of the unfortunate Martine.

The German Ascot Elite Entertainment DVD is an all-region PAL release and looks extremely good. The bonus materials in this two-disc release include an entire additional feature film, another Erwin Dietrich production called Julchen and Jettchen which stars Brigitte Lahaie (a favourite of cult movie fans for her performances in various Jean Rollin horror films).

This is not quite first-rank Franco sleaze but it’s still enjoyable enough, and certainly worth a look for Franco fans.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Black Cat (1941)

By the 1940s Universal was becoming more and more convinced that the public no longer wanted horror movies. They wanted horror comedies, preferable with the supernatural elements eliminated. As a result the 1940s saw Universal produced some of the dullest B-movies ever made. Their 1941 The Black Cat was one of the worst.

The opening credits tell us the movie was suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s story. In fact there is not a trace of Poe in this movie, apart from the title.

Henrietta Winslow is dying, but she’s not dying fast enough for her family’s liking. They are all gathered at her house, hoping that this time she really will die. To taunt them she reads her will to them, but she doesn’t tell them the final clause, the one that specifies that none of them will get their hands on her money until her housekeeper Abigail (Gale Sondergaard) dies. Until then the house will effectively belong to Abigail and to Henrietta’s vast collection of cats.

Other vultures have gathered as well. Real state agent Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford)and antique furniture dealer Mr Penny (Hugh Herbert) are also hoping for a share of the spoils. These two will provide some of the most cringe-inducingly unfunny comic relief in movie history. And unfortunately in The Black Cat there’s more comic relief than actual movie.

Pretty soon the first murder occurs. Although it’s difficult to imagine any viewer actually caring. There’s lot of pointless running about, secret passages are discovered, more murders occur, and there is no escape from the remorseless onslaught of feeble humour.

Basil Rathbone is completely wasted as the old lady’s greedy nephew Monty. Alan Ladd plays a supporting role in an entirely forgettable manner.

Bela Lugosi is there as well, in an insultingly insignificant minor role. No wonder that when Monogram offered him a contract he jumped at it. His Monogram movies weren’t great but they were better than this stinker and he got to play lead roles again.

Meanwhile the audience prays that the next murder victims will be Broderick Crawford and Hugh Herbert.

The 70-minute running time seems like an eternity. Finally, mercifully, the movie ends. I’ve already forgotten how it ended, all I know is that I’ve never been so relieved to see the end credits.

There’s not even any camp factor to make this one an entertaining bad movie. It’s just deadly dull.

The DVD presentation in the Univeral Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set is infinitely better than this film deserves. Picture quality is extremely good. This set includes five films. So far I’ve watched four of them, and a generally very disappointing experience it’s been.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators (1964)

If you’re anticipating an accurate historical account of the slave revolt against the Romans led by Spartacus then you may Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators (Gli invincibili dieci gladiatori) a disappointment. But if you’re a true peplum fan then historical accuracy is certainly not what you’re expecting. You’re expecting silly campy fun, which this movie delivers.

It was apparently one of series of films featuring the titular ten gladiators. In this film a young gladiator finds himself pitted in a fight to the death with his own father. His father begs his son to kill him so that the son’s life will be saved but instead the struggle triggers off a rebellion by a whole school of gladiators.

Because of their unsporting refusal to kill each other the ten gladiators find themselves unemployed. They take to the road and encounter a group of bandits attacking a senator’s daughter and her retinue. They rescue her, which earns them the gratitude of Senator Varro. Varro is however not a very nice man. In fact he’s a particularly brutal master and his ill-treatment of his slaves has resulted in a revolt. A group of his slaves, under the leadership of Spartacus, has taken to the hills and are now being hunted as bandits.

The ten gladiators find themselves in the middle but their sympathies are clearly with Spartacus although their situation is complicated by the fact that their leader has fallen in love with the senator’s daughter.

There’s plenty of action and director Nick Nostro delivers some rather impressive visual set-pieces, especially the scene with the gladiators being crucified by one arm. There are also quite a few visually witty moments.

Helga Liné could always be relied on to add some glamour to movies such as this. The acting in general is pretty much what you expect in a peplum.

For those who like that sort of thing there are massive quantities of half-naked beefcake. Our ten muscle-bound heroes are shirtless for the entire movie.

I saw it as part of the Mill Creek Warriors 50-movie pack of public domain peplum titles. The presentation is fairly standard for this company - the movie is pan-and-scanned and dubbed in English and picture quality is less than stunning but when the price works at around 40 cents a movie there’s no cause for complaint. And there’s very little chance we’ll ever see any of these movies looking much better than this since most don’t survive in any better form.

It’s an entertaining mix of action, comedy and romance and fans of this genre should be well satisfied.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Live and Let Die (1973)

The first attempt to find a replacement for Sean Connery in the role of James Bond met with mixed success although today On Her Majesty's Secret Service is regarded by many as the best of the Bond films. At the time it did moderately good business at the box office but failed to equal the success of its predecessors. When it came to making a second attempt with Live and Let Die in 1973 the producers were more or less betting on a sure thing. No-one seriously doubted Roger Moore’s ability to play the part.

Live and Let Die, based on the second of Ian Fleming's Bond novels,  put the series back on track at the box office. There are some slight changes to the established formula, presumably introduced with the intention of giving the first Moore outing a fresh feel, but it’s still very recognisably a classic Bond film.

The first noticeable change is the absence of the familiar Bond theme tune, replaced by a rock song courtesy of Paul McCartney and Wings. It’s an obvious attempt to appeal to a young audience but it’s a great song though and suits the mood of the film beautifully.

It’s also one of the few Bond movies in which Q does not appear. In fact there’s not much in the way of gadgets in this movie. The budget was somewhat lower than the previous few films so there are no gadget-filled cars.

The plot is fairly simple. A number of British agents have been killed and there appears to be a link between these killings and the president of the tiny Caribbean island nation of San Monique. Bond picks up the trail in Harlem and his initial encounters with drug baron Mr Big give the movie a bit of a blaxploitation feel. With blaxploitation movies being the flavour of the month at the time it’s a smart commercial movie. From there the action movies to New Orleans and then to San Monique as Bond uncovers a fiendish plot to flood the US with heroin.

The villain of the piece has a secret weapon, in the form of a beautiful white girl named Solitaire (Jane Seymour). She has the gift of predicting the future with extraordinary accuracy by the use of tarot cards. This gift only works as long as Solitaire remains a virgin. Of course once she meets Bond we know she’s not likely to remain a virgin for very much longer. With the loss of both her virginity and her gift she has little choice but to throw in her lot with 007.

Actually the bad guy has another secret weapon as well - he uses voodoo to maintain his control over his island drug empire.

Yaphet Kotto makes a fairly effective Bond villain. Jane Seymour looks gorgeous and she manages to look convincingly exotic as well. She’s a perfectly acceptable Bond girl.

There’s also some splendid comic relief courtesy of Clifton James as Sheriff J. W. Pepper.

The movie does have some minor weaknesses. A couple of the action sequences don’t quite pay off as well as they might have done (especially the crocodile farm scene).

The success of the movie hinged entirely on whether audiences would accept Moore as Bond. He didn’t really need to adapt to the role - he simply played Bond the way he played Simon Templar in The Saint TV series. He’d already demonstrated his ability to deliver witty dialogue with style and tongue-in-cheek humour and he has no problems at all playing Bond. This is a slightly less dark and cynical Bond compared to Connery’s interpretation of the role which helps to establish a slightly different flavour for the new-look Bond franchise.

With spectacular action sequences (the speedboat chase is particularly memorable), a sparkling script and exotic locations, with Guy Hamilton doing his usual more than competent job as director and with Roger Moore suave, smooth and highly amusing there’s really very little to complain of in this movie. When you add voodoo to that mix you have a definite winner.