Monday, 17 July 2017

Malibu High (1979)

When you watch a movie made in the 70s with a title like Malibu High you know what to expect. In this case your expectations are going to prove to be dead wrong. This is not a teen comedy, or a sex comedy. It’s not a teen melodrama. Deciding what it actually is presents a bit of a problem. There is teen melodrama here and the central character is a high school senior but mainly this is a crime thriller - although you won’t know that until about halfway through the picture. 

Kim Bentley (Jill Lansing) is just your average high school student but things are starting to go wrong for her. This is 1979 and the American Dream is still alive and this is southern California, the very epicentre of the American Dream. If you’re a bright, pretty high school student and you have rich parents the world is your oyster. Unfortunately Kim is not exactly a bright student. She’s flunking every class. And her parents are not rich. Her father killed himself and her mother struggles to keep things afloat financially. Worst of all her boyfriend Kevin (Stuart Taylor) has dumped her. To rub salt into the wound he’s dumped her for spoilt rich girl Annette Ingersoll (Tammy Taylor).

Everything Kim wanted seems like it’s being taken away from her. She had desperately wanted to graduate from high school, and she is still madly in love with Kevin. Kim decides that something has to be done and she’s going to do it. The first thing is to do something about her grade point average. That’s not too difficult. If her teachers won’t listen to her she’ll just sleep with them and then blackmail them.

Kim also decides she needs to earn some money. For a girl with her modest accomplishments being a hooker seems like the best bet. Tony (Al Mannino) is a sleazebag dope dealer who operates from a van which also serves as a kind of mobile mini-brothel. Kim is soon the star attraction. In fact she’s the only attraction but she’s a major drawcard.

Soon Kim has attracted the attention of a big time pimp, Lance (Garth Howard). This is a chance to earn real money and to show up that snooty bitch Annette. It’s not quite as simple as that however. Kim has taken a step into another world, the world of organised crime. At this point the movie changes gears and Kim starts to change as well, discovering a side of herself that she might have been better off not discovering. Lots of good girls go bad but very few do so quite as spectacularly as young Kim.

It’s hard to say just how seriously we’re supposed to take this picture. It’s not played for laughs at any stage but the plot is utterly outrageous. In some ways it’s more like a 1950s juvenile delinquent movie than a 70s teen exploitation movie. Everybody’s playing it straight but the content is totally off-the-wall.

This was the last of the handful of films directed by Irvin Berwick and while his approach is straightforward and conventional it’s effective enough. The scenes of violence in the latter part of the movie are handled well. He also knows how to pace a movie.

The acting is pretty average for the most part (sometimes below average) which is not surprising for a low-budget movie released by Crown International and destined for the drive-in circuit. The one exception, and it’s a major exception, is Jill Lansing as Kim. She gives the character real depth. Kim is not exactly a sympathetic character but at least we can understand how she got to where she is and we can see that her emotional wounds are very real and very raw. This was Jill Lansing’s only movie role and she then dropped out of sight never to be heard of again. Which is a pity since this performance should have landed her parts in more prestigious movies.

As an added bonus we get to see a very great deal of Miss Lansing’s naked breasts and rather lovely they are too. For the late 70s this is a movie that (despite the subject matter) is fairly restrained on the sleaze front. Apart from a brief glimpse of pubic hair early on all we see is breasts (admittedly with great frequency) and the sex scenes are positively coy. Miss Lansing’s breasts were however presumably enough to keep the attention of young male viewers at drive-in screenings and they also get a fair amount of violence. Unusually though for this type of movie there’s also enough to keep female viewers interested with Kim’s romantic woes and her vendetta with the self-satisfied rich girl Annette.

Kim’s confrontation with the headmaster is the film’s most bizarre episode. It’s bizarre in a good way. I think. It’s definitely bizarre in an interesting way.

A very pleasant surprise is the extremely good anamorphic transfer included in Mill Creek’s Drive-In Cult Classics: 32 Movie Collection. I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release!

Malibu High is a strange one. I can’t decide if it’s a bad movie with a good movie inside it struggling to get out or if it’s a good movie with a bad movie inside struggling to get out. It is original and it is entertaining. It’s perhaps too dark in tone to qualify for camp status, but much too outlandish for the arty crowd. And probably too weird for mainstream audiences at the time. It was popular enough with its intended audience. If the story is too over-the-top for you you can always just wait for yet another topless scene from Jill Lansing. 

Movies like this are the reason why it’s worth delving into the strange and often murky world of drive-in fodder. Every now and then you come across a classic of the genre such as this. Highly recommended.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Teenage Bride (1974)

Teenage Bride is one of those movies that should not be judged by its title, given that there are no teenagers in the movie and no brides! It’s a softcore sex comedy with its main drawcard being its star Sharon Kelly, one of the legendary stars of adult movies in the 70s and 80s.

The mention of the term sex comedy might well scare off some viewers. 70s sex comedies  can be among the most dire movies ever made. Teenage Bride however has several things going for it. There’s an enormous amount of pretty intense sex. There’s a lot of comedy and quite a bit of it is genuinely amusing. And it has Sharon Kelly.

Charlie (Don Summerfield) is a loser. He can’t hold down a job for more than a few weeks and his latest position, as a typewriter salesman, is already hanging by a thread. As his boss points out to him, after two weeks on the job he’s already three weeks behind on his work.

Charlie’s marriage is also in trouble. His wife Sandy (Cyndee Summers) despises him and she has taken to being rather generous with her sexual favours - not to Charlie but to other men. Now Charlie’s stepbrother Dennis (Ron Presson) has arrived to stay for a few days. Dennis is a straight arrow bur Charlie is convinced that Sandy will seduce him in short order. And he’s right.

Meanwhile Charlie is having an affair with Marie (Sharon Kelly). Marie in fact is the woman he really loves. He made the biggest blunder of his life in marrying Sandy instead of Marie.

Charlie might be a schmuck but he has some cunning. If he hires a private detective to prove that Sandy is bedding Dennis he could get a divorce and marry Marie. Unfortunately the PI he hires (played by Elmer Klump) is a drunk whose main interest in life, apart from booze, is having sex with his glamorous secretary Abigail (Cheri Mann). Nonetheless the PI assures him that he can get the photos Charlie needs, no problem.

Of course hiring an alcoholic to do a job is always a bit of a risk and the PI makes a mess of things while the erotic tangle of Charlie, Sandy, Marie and Dennis gets more and more tangled, complicated even further by Charlie having sex with his secretary (played by Jane Tsentas).

The plot summary is necessary because there is an actual plot and while it’s not fantastically deep it does provide a rationale for the sex scenes. It even does a little more than that. There is a certain poignancy to the story. Sandy might not be a model wife but she did really love Charlie once. Charlie and Marie are genuinely in love. These are not bad people, just weak people who made poor decisions. They do have emotions and we do get at least the occasional hint of those emotions. The intensity of the first sex scene between Charlie and Marie does have a point to it - they do want each other desperately.

This is also, for a softcore sex movie, surprisingly wholesome in some ways. There are no orgies or threesomes, not even the usually obligatory lesbian encounters. This is a very heterosexual movie. All of the sex is clearly completely consensual. Most of the sex has at least some slight emotional charge to it (even the PI and his secretary have some weird bond between them).

The acting isn’t too bad. There are, interspersed between the constant couplings, scenes in which a couple of them are required to do at least a modicum of acting. Apart from Dennis, the only dull character in the movie (admittedly he’s supposed to be a bit dull) they all prove to be reasonable capable at comedy. Sharon Kelly has considerable presence. The combination of her stupendously voluptuous body with her rather angelic face is pretty enchanting. She would get the chance to display her comic talents more fully in The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, made at about the same time.

Cyndee Summers is able to give Sandy a bit of depth. When we’re told that Sandy really did try to make her marriage a success Summers manages to make us believe her. Charlie is a loser but Don Summerfield makes him an amusing loser. Elmer Klump as the PI gets many of the best lines and his comic timing is quite adroit.

Director Gary Troy isn’t called on to do much other than to make the sex scenes sexy, which he does, and to vary them a bit, which he also does. The PI and his secretary having sex on the desk in his office is a minor triumph in the sex comedy genre - it’s fairly hot sex combined with some actually amusing funny lines. The sex scenes featuring Sharon Kelly steam up the screen, as you would expect. This is softcore porn but as softcore goes it’s pretty hard.

The screenplay has the odd witty moment.

Of course this is the 1970s. Being voluptuous was considered to be an asset. And of course they have pubic hair. They don’t all have the same body type. Jane Tsentas and Cheri Mann are kind of skinny while the charms of Sharon Kelly and Cyndee Summers are rather more ample. In other words they all look kind of like actual women.

Something Weird paired this one with The Dirty Mind of Young Sally in a Sharon Kelly double-header. The transfer is OK. There’s a tiny amount of print damage but these types of films haven’t exactly been preserved like national treasures and we’re lucky Something Weird found surviving prints in pretty good condition. As usual there are various extras.

Teenage Bride isn’t a great movie but it delivers what it promises to deliver - lots of steamy sex and some comedy that provides some actual laughs. It’s obviously a type of movie that won’t be to everyone’s taste but if this is the sort of thing you enjoy then it’s a very good movie of its type. Recommended.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Love Merchant (1966)

The Love Merchant, which came out in 1966, is a fairly early Joe Sarno sexploitation outing. It’s been released on DVD by Something Weird, paired with a 1969 Sarno film, The Layout.

Sarno has been described as the Ingmar Bergman of sexploitation films. That might be hyperbole but Sarno certainly did approach the genre in a surprisingly thoughtful way. 

Sarno’s career falls into two distinct periods, the early black-and-white sexploitation films made between  1961 and 1969 and the later glossy colour softcore films of the 70s. His 1970s movies have their virtues but personally I think his 1960s output is more interesting. 1960s Sarno is more about the price of decadence than the glories of free love.

Sarno approached sex as something that went far beyond the soulless mechanical couplings that characterise so much of so-called erotic cinema. Sarno was interested in the emotions unleashed by sex, and in the effects on personal relationships. Despite the ultra low budgets and the often rather dodgy acting there’s always a certain intelligence to Sarno’s work. People in his movies have reasons for doing the things they do.

The Love Merchant introduces us to Bobbi (Joanna Mills), a small-town girl who has transformed herself into a bohemian New York artist. She’s not a major artist but she makes a living. Her old school friend Peggy (Patricia McNair) comes to visit and to show off her new advertising executive husband Roger (George Wolfe). Bobbi’s boyfriend Click (Louis Waldon) is a far cry from the ultra respectable Roger. The leather-clad Click is a grifter with ambitions.

Click sees his big chance when he meets Kendall Harvey III (Judson Todd) in a night club. Kendall Harvey III is very very rich. He likes exquisite things. When he sees something exquisite that he likes he buys it. This includes women. Now Click does some thing. Bobbi paints lots of nudes and she has a reputation for finding exceptionally beautiful models. She has a whole roster of these beautiful models. By making use of this convenient fact Click should be able to supply Kendall Harvey II with all the feminine pulchritude he could possibly desire. Click might be able to turn this opportunity into a full-time job supplying the millionaire playboy with pliant bed companions (and Bobbi’s models are mostly very broad-minded girls).

All goes well until Harvey decides he’d like Peggy as one of his bed companions. Peggy and Roger are rather old-fashioned. They believe in marriage. Peggy is not to be bought. Kendall Harvey III however firmly believes that everybody can be bought and he’s sure he can take certain steps that will persuade Peggy to see reason. Harvey’s passion for Peggy will have momentous consequences.

Harvey’s private secretary Polly (Patti Paget) has her own problems, involving her obsession with the statuesque blonde Dixie (Penni Peyton). Polly will discover that her willing participation in Harvey’s woman-collecting will have consequences for her as well.

The performers in a Sarno movie had to do more than take their clothes off. They were required to act as well, and this they attempted to do (with varying degrees of success). In this case Patricia McNair does a pretty fair job. Judson Todd as Kendall Harvey III has the most demanding role in the film and he gives a very creditable performance. Harvey is superficially a bit of a monster but there’s an edge of despair to his character. He’s a man who thinks that everything can be bought - sex, beauty, happiness, fulfillment. There is a part of him though that has its doubts about whether life can really be so simple. There’s a key scene in which he has just spent the night with a luscious young ballet dancer but in the morning, instead of triumph, he feels only emptiness. Todd really proves himself to be quite a capable actor.

One of the joys of 60s sexploitation cinema is the women. They don’t look like models or pornstars. They look like real women. They don’t look like they’re more silicon than woman. They’re pretty but they still look like the sorts of women you could actually meet in the real world. 

This is by later standards very mild stuff. The sex scenes are brief and very very tame and there’s not much nudity, just the occasional topless shot. Today the film would have no difficulty getting a PG rating at most. What it does have is emotional intensity. Buying and selling women has emotional consequences, both for the woman who is being bought and for the man who is doing the buying. 

The movie has intelligence and emotional depth but it has one other major asset - it has go-go dancing! Lots of go-go dancing. Bliss!

Something Weird have demonstrated their usual uncanny ability to find excellent prints of obscure 60s sexploitation titles. The Love Merchant looks pretty good. It’s fullframe but it’s probable that the movie was shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Love Merchant is most certainly not a softcore porn film. It’s all about sex but it’s really a psychological melodrama and a fairly effective one. The low budget is very much in evidence but Sarno’s characters are complex enough that the viewer is unlikely to be bothered by this. On the whole this is a fine Joe Sarno film. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of an outlier among the classic Universal monster movies. It came out in 1954, some years after Universal’s monster cycle had ended. It’s also in some ways a typical 50s sci-fi horror offering but it still has some features that link it to the great Universal horror films. It has a sympathetic (or at least partly sympathetic) monster, there’s an emphasis on atmosphere and there’s an emphasis on achieving an impressive visual impact. It’s a movie that looks classier than most 50s sci-fi/horror flicks.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was actually shot in 3D. 3D is a silly idea that Hollywood periodically gets obsessed with. I watched this movie in good old 2D and it looked just fine.

The movie opens with an odd but mercifully brief prologue about the creation of the Earth which is purely an excuse to show off some gimmicky 3D photography.

The actual story begins in the Amazon Basin with the discovery by middle-aged scientist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) of an exciting fossil. His former student David Reed is excited as well. Perhaps he might persuade Mark Williams to fund an expedition to look for more such fossils. Mark Williams is David’s employer. Mark is always willing to fund research if the results are likely to attract plenty of public attention and enhance his own reputation. Mark is keen and an expedition is soon assembled.

A decrepit river steamer, the Rita, is hired and they set off. They are not dismayed by a disturbing tragedy involving a couple of Carl’s Indian assistants. The expedition initially seems like it is going to be a washout until someone suggests that they might find something if they’re prepared to push on into the unexplored reaches of the river to find the so-called Black Lagoon. 

What they find is not quite what they expected. Fossils are one thing, but finding a previously unknown ancient life-form is something else when it’s very much alive. The gill man is not just alive but he’s going to be quite a challenge to deal with. He’s probably not going to take kindly to any attempts to capture him and that of course is exactly what the scientists are hoping to do. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Director Jack Arnold would go on to helm some of the more entertaining science fiction movies of the 1950s including the excellent The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The characters are what you expect in a sci-fi B-movie but the relationships between them are slightly more complex than you might expect. There’s professional tension between the ruthless Mark and the more ethical David but there’s also tension between them over Kay. David and Kay are very much a couple but it’s obvious that Mark isn’t entirely happy about this and that he some interest in Kay himself. Kay seems quite happy to have two hunky young men both lusting after her.

The acting is just a little better than standard B-picture level as well. Richard Denning makes Mark an interesting character, a wealthy successful man who is still driven by uncontrolled ambition and whose ethics are somewhat flexible. Richard Carlson as David is a perfectly adequate hero. Julie Adams plays Kay as mostly a nice respectable girl but also as a girl who is aware of the effect upon men of her sexual charms and gets a certain amount of enjoyment from this.

Of course the great thing about a movie in which scuba diving plays a major role is that it provides plenty of opportunities for the leading lady to cavort about in a bathing suit (and Julie Adams fills a bathing suit more than adequately). And of course the two leading men get to spend much of the movie with their shirts off so there’s eye candy for the ladies in the audience as well as for the men.

The key scene in the movie has Kay going for a swim. Unbeknownst to her the gill man is just below her, following her every move. While he tries to kill every man he encounters he does not appear to be interested in killing her. It’s reasonable to assume that he sees her swim as some kind of mating signal and it’s a signal he’s eager to respond to her. There are some obvious parallels here to King Kong of course. There also seems to be only one creature, obviously male, which further suggests that he is desperate to find a mate and he knows Kay is female and would therefore be (from his point of view) the most suitable mate he can find. The instinct to perpetuate the species cannot be denied, although Kay was hoping to perpetuate the species with someone other than an amphibian swamp monster.

The gill man of this movie inspired countless guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters over the next couple of decades but at the time he was a striking enough monster and he still looks rather impressive in the underwater scenes especially.

The underwater sequences (credited to James C. Havens) were the movie’s big selling point and they are exceptionally well done. On the whole the special effects stand up well.

The pacing might seem a bit leisurely but Jack Arnold knows what he’s doing. He shows us the monster early on because he’s in the happy position (for a B-film director) of having a monster that looks impressive and it makes us sense to give us a look at the said monster as early as possible. We’ve seen the creature but nothing much of a menacing nature happens for quite a while. The creature is there and sooner or later it’s going to come into collision with the expedition members but Arnold builds the suspense slowly.

Having the expedition run from a decaying but picturesque old steamer rather than a modern research vessel is a nice touch.

Creature from the Black Lagoon looks rather splendid on Blu-Ray. It’s a well-paced and quite exciting monster movie with a bit more substance than most and better made than most. Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Fail-Safe (1964)

Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe was released in 1964, some months after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and it's basically the exact same story but treated with deadly seriousness rather than black comedy.

Lumet's movie is definitely the lesser of the two films but it is intriguing to compare it to Kubrick's masterpiece and it's worth seeing if you're fascinated by the Cold War.

Here's the link to my review of Fail-Safe.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Dr Strangelove (1964)

In the early 1960s Stanley Kubrick had become obsessed by the subject of nuclear war. He had been particularly impressed by a novel called Red Alert by Peter George. The idea of a nuclear war breaking out by accident seemed like a horribly real possibility. Kubrick’s original intention was to film the novel as a straight thriller. In 1964 he changed his mind and decided to treat the subject as comedy. This represented an enormous risk and there were those who thought he was about to throw away his career. In the event of course Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a huge hit when it was released by Columbia in January 1964.

The basic idea is that the commander of a Strategic Air Command airbase, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), decides that he can no longer stand by and watch communists steal the nation’s precious bodily fluids so he launches his own personal nuclear strike. He orders the thirty-four B-52 bombers under his command to attack targets in the Soviet Union. Ripper believes that once the president realises the bombers cannot be recalled he will have no choice other than to launch an all-out nuclear war. The Soviets will launch their missiles and bombers in a retaliatory strike so the US might as well get in the first strike.

Due to a series of blunders and misfortunes there seems to be no way to prevent General Ripper’s B-52s from going ahead with their strike.

The President, played by Pete Sellers, is appalled. He’s even more appalled when his scientific adviser, Dr Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers), conforms that the Soviets have a doomsday device. If General Ripper’s bombers reach their targets the doomsday device will be triggered and it will be the end of life on Earth. 

Sellers also plays the stuffy Group Commander Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer on secondment to the Strategic Air Command and acting as Ripper’s executive officer, is horrified also and quickly realises that Ripper is quite mad. Unfortunately Ripper is smart as well as mad and he’s seemingly thought of every counter-move that could be made to stop the bombers from launching their attack.

General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is horrified but also oddly excited by the prospects. He knows Ripper is mad but Ripper’s twisted logic makes sense to him. Why not take the opportunity to start a nuclear war? He’s confident that US casualties can be limited to only ten or twenty million dead which seems to him to be perfectly acceptable.

The decision to play this as a mixture of satire and black comedy mostly works. It works because the performances mostly work. George C. Scott is an absolute delight as the excitable Buck Turgidson, swinging wildly between sanity and his own kind of madness. Sterling Hayden is a joy as the terrifyingly insane Ripper. Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano (who is ordered to attack Ripper’s airbase and capture the mad general) and Slim Pickens as Major Kong, the pilot of one of the B-52s and a man who treats war as if it’s a rodeo event, are both wonderful.

Now we come to Peter Sellers. I’ve always had serious reservations about Sellers as a comic actor. He’s not bad here although his performance as Dr Strangelove seems to me to be too over-the-top and threatens to nudge the film over the line into mere silliness. 

One  can only be thankful that Kubrick was prevailed upon to drop the pie fight scene. Treating this kind of subject matter as comedy was risky but apart from that mercifully cut aberration it succeeds.

The first time I saw this movie I wasn’t overly impressed. The Cold War was still going on and the movie seemed to me to be a bit silly. The idea of people in a position to start a world war being maniacs or bumbling fools (or both) seemed implausible. Today it all seems very plausible indeed.

It’s also undeniably very funny. The gamble of playing it as comedy not only pays off, in retrospect it’s hard to see how it could have achieved its impact in any other way.                       

The highlight is undoubtedly George C. Scott’s inspired performance. And whatever misgivings I have about Peter Sellers he is very funny here (and apparently improvised most of his dialogue).

Mention must  also be made of the superb War Room set designed by Ken Adams. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning and the social effects still hold up pretty well.

While Dr Strangelove was in production Columbia was also making Fail-Safe, a straight thriller with an eerily similar plot. So similar that Kubrick promptly sued. Dr Strangelove beat Fail-Safe into the theatres and was a huge hit while Fail-Safe did only modest  business at the box office. Which was hardly unjust since Dr Strangelove is by far the better film.

Dr Strangelove is a rare political film that manages to be wonderfully entertaining as well. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Quatermass II (1957)

Hammer had spent the early 1950s making a large number of reasonable enjoyable B-movies. These were mostly crime movies but they included a few science fiction films. All of these films were very low-budget productions. The big change in Hammer’s fortunes came with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. This was Hammer’s first genuine box office hit. The formula was perfect for the times, combining science fiction and horror. Quatermass II followed in 1957 and Hammer were now a force to be reckoned with.

Both Quatermass films were adapted from BBC television serials. 

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is head of the ambitious British rocket program. Their objective is not merely to launch a rocket into space but to send dozens of rockets to the Moon and to establish a permanent base there. He has constructed a scale model of the proposed base. Unfortunately he faces two major obstacles. The first is that his rocket’s atomic engine is disastrously unstable. That can of course be rectified in time. The second problem is more serious - the government does not want to give him the money to make his scientific dream into a reality.

Quatermass is therefore understandably under considerable stress. He does not need another drama to cope with but he’s stumbled onto something that could be a drama of literally cosmic dimensions.

It starts when he almost has a collision with a car. The passenger in the other car is suffering from some strange burns which he apparently got from handling some rocks. The story doesn’t make much sense but Quatermass does take some samples. When he gets back to his project headquarters he finds that his chief subordinate has been tracking some strange objects that are falling out of the heavens. They don’t behave like meteorites and their nature is a complete mystery. They appear to be coming to earth in the same area in which Quatermass had his near-collision with that other car.

Quatermass, being a scientist, is naturally very curious and decides to have a closer look at the area. What he and his assistant find is both extraordinary and shocking - it’s Professor Quatermass’s proposed lunar colony, complete with gigantic metal domes, sitting in the English countryside.

Quatermass is now not only intrigued but worried. The whole area is sealed off with armed guards and all his enquiries on the subject of the base run into brick walls. Quatermass is starting to suspect that there’s something sinister going on but even though he has top-level connections in Whitehall he just keeps running into those brick walls. Quatermass is however not your usual polite self-effacing British boffin - he’s a fast-talking American and when he’s set on something he goes at it like a bulldozer. The more obstacles he encounters the more determined he gets. 

There’s more than a hint of paranoia to this story. The atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which had been released a year earlier). There’s also a bit of an X-Files feel with suggestions of government cover-ups and conspiracies. 

Not everyone likes Brian Donlevy as Quatermass but I think he does a great job. He plays him as the kind of cantankerous single-minded totally obsessive visionary who gets things done because he never takes no for an answer. He’s bad-tempered and often rude but he’s aware of his faults and on occasions even apologises for them. He’s a hero who commands respect and you can’t help developing a certain affection for him.

Look out for Hammer favourite Michael Ripper - and yes he plays an innkeeper! There’s also Sid James as a drunken but courageous newspaper reporter.

The special effects are not particularly elaborate but this is a story that relies on atmosphere and suspense rather than special effects. The lunar colony scenes were obviously shot at a chemical plant but they work. On the whole it’s a movie that achieves the necessary visual impact without spending a huge amount of money. 

Val Guest was always a competent director and he gives this film the right sense of both urgency and menace.

Both the 1950s Hammer Quatermass movies were shot in black-and-white. Hammer were not yet in a position to be able to afford the risk of incurring the costs of filming in colour but the success of the Quatermass films would change that. I think the black-and-white cinematography is quite effective and meshes well with the rather stark production design.

Quatermass II provides some thrills and some chills, a great deal of action and plenty of old-fashioned entertainment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

House of Darkness (1948)

House of Darkness is a 1948 British movie that is sometimes labeled as a horror movie. In fact it’s a melodrama with gothic overtones. It does however have some claims to be a ghost movie so it’s at least understandable that it’s been given the horror label.

There’s a framing story which is, as unfortunately framing stories often are, quite unnecessary. The music is provided by George Melachrino, a popular orchestra leader of the time, and the framing story is an excuse to bring Melachrino into the film. Admittedly music does play a fairly important role in the story.

The actual story takes place in 1901 (we know this because the events of the film take place shortly before the coronation of King Edward VII). A rather gothic-looking house is inhabited by a very troubled family. The middle-aged, querulous and ailing John Merryman (Alexander Archdale) inherited the house from his stepmother. The much younger Francis Merryman (Laurence Harvey) is extremely resentful that his mother did not leave the house to him. Francis is irresponsible and willful, and financially extravagant, and being dependent on John for money inflames his resentment even further. John’s timid and nervous brother Noel (John Teed) worries a good deal and conspires with his brother.

Things seem to be about to come to a head over the matter of a forged cheque which offers John the chance he has wanted for years  to force Francis out of the house. John’s steadily declining health (he has a very weak heart) means that his policy of forcing a confrontation with Francis is perhaps a little unwise.

Francis has a beautiful and devoted wife, Elaine (Lesley Osmond) who does her best to keep the peace. Noel is engaged to Lucy (Lesley Brook) but this seems likely to cause more problems - Noel wants Lucy to come and live in the house and Francis is not at all happy about having to share what he considers should rightfully be his house.

It’s an ideal setup for a murder thriller but this isn’t a murder story. What it is is a delightfully overheated melodrama. It does have murderous hatreds and hatred can kill in various ways. It has guilt and it has envy and in fact all the prime ingredients for fine gothic melodrama.

Such fame as director Oswald Mitchell has rests on his prolific output of comedies but in the same year as House of Darkness he also directed another full-blooded melodrama, The Greed of William Hart, which starred Tod Slaughter (probably the greatest melodrama star of them all). Mitchell does a perfectly competent job.

John Gilling wrote the screenplay. Gilling did some good work in crime films in the 50s but his most notable achievements were as a writer-director of gothic horror films for Hammer in the mid-60s.

This was Laurence Harvey’s film debut. He looks absurdly young, because he was absurdly young - he was 19 when he was cast in this film. His extreme youth works in his favour since many of Francis’s character flaws are due to the combination of immaturity, irresponsibility and simmering adolescent resentment and jealousy. Laurence Harvey is not everyone’s cup of tea as an actor. He had a very narrow range and usually came across as emotionally disconnected and cold. In the wrong roles these flaws were fatal, but on the rare occasions when he landed just the right role he could be remarkably effective (an example being the very underrated 1968 spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic. Fortunately he’s perfectly cast in House of Darkness and his performance is odd but compelling.

This is one of those movies which is deliberately ambiguous about the supernatural elements. Are there ghostly forces at work in the house? Or are the ghosts merely a product of over-stressed imaginations twisted by guilt, envy and hate?

Network’s DVD release offers a very good transfer with no extras.

House of Darkness probably has just enough ghostliness to qualify as a low-key gothic horror movie in the style of the 40s. It’s melodrama that is the predominant ingredient though, and as melodramas go it’s fun in its deliriously overheated way. Plus Laurence Harvey’s strange but intriguing performance is a bonus. Recommended.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet was perhaps the most ambitious of all 1950s Hollywood science fiction movies. It was ambitious in terms of visuals, being made in colour and in Cinemascope with a big budget and special effects that were cutting edge at the time. It was also ambitious in terms of ideas. This is not just a space adventure movie or a western transferred to outer space. It really does try to say things about the human condition, and despite some moments of Freudian silliness it doesn’t embarrass itself too much in doing so. And of course it’s ambitious in its choice of source material - Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A United Planets cruiser captained by Commander Adams (Leslie Neilsen) arrives at the distant planet Altair-IV in the early 23rd century, its mission to search for survivors of an earlier expedition. There’s only one survivor from that original spaceship (the Bellerophon) and that’s Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), but he’s certainly made himself comfortable. He lives in luxury, pursuing his scientific work, and he most definitely does not want to be disturbed. He’s especially keen to keep his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) away from contact with visitors from Earth.

It seems like Morbius has turned Altair-IV into a paradise in outer space but there is a serpent in this Garden of Eden. Something killed everyone on board the Bellerophon except for Dr Morbius and that something could return, and Morbius suspects that it has returned. 

It’s a long wait for the action to start but then this is not an action-oriented science fiction film. The action is there because the studio knew the audience would expect it in a sci-fi movie. When the action does begin it proves to be quite satisfactory.

Cyril Hume’s screenplay is workmanlike. There are some big ideas here but while they’re treated intelligently enough they’re not developed in very great depth, which is perhaps just as well. MGM took a big risk with this film and it was important to keep the right balance between ideas and entertainment, and Forbidden Planet does in fact strike just about the perfect balance.

Director Fred M. Wilcox enjoyed his greatest success with family-oriented fare like Lassie Come Home. He was probably the wrong director for this movie - it needed a bit more of a sense of urgency and excitement. Wilcox’s pacing is a bit leisurely and his overall approach is just a little on the bland side. We know that there’s going to be some kind of climactic action scene but the tension possibly needed to be built up just a bit more gradually.

The alien landscapes are rendered using matte paintings and they do look like matte paintings. That’s a characteristic of the technology of the time that you just have to accept, and personally I think they look pretty cool. They do look artificial but that’s not as much of a problem as you might think - this is not a movie that is obsessed with realism, in fact it’s a movie that deliberately chooses to eschew realism, aiming instead for a hint of the dream-like.

The sets are simply marvelous. This is 1950s futuristic style at it its most awesome. The Krell complex is extremely impressive. There’s some truly dazzling production design here.

Dr Morbius, based on Shakespeare’s Prospero, is played with class by Walter Pidgeon. Anne Francis as his daughter (based on The Tempest’s Miranda) looks gorgeous and is quite convincing as a girl who has lived her whole life apart from all human contract other than her father. The role of Ariel in the play is fulfilled, not entirely successfully, by Robby the Robot. He’s a very cool robot but he’s used almost entirely for comic relief. Leslie Neilsen (who was a decent enough dramatic actor before turning to comedy late in his career) does a fine job as Commander Adams.

Forbidden Planet was the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the 50s. It has the big ideas, it has the sense of epic scale (in both space and time), it has the same emphasis on achieving a stunning visual impact. And like 2001: A Space Odyssey it’s a movie that gets better with repeat viewings.

Warner Brothers have done a terrific job with their Blu-Ray release. It looks superb and this is the kind of movie that can only be appreciated if it’s given this sort of treatment. It’s definitely worth the money to have this one on Blu-Ray. There are also plenty of extras.

Forbidden Planet tries to be intelligent sci-fi that is also fun and on the whole it succeeds. It’s a bona fide classic and a must-see movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was, in retrospect, too young to appreciate it. I remember being wowed by the visuals but bored by the story. I saw it again years later and was rather more impressed. Now having seen it once again after the lapse of even more years I can finally see it as a masterpiece.

Arthur C. Clarke was in the mid-60s one of the three biggest names in science fiction. He did not merely co-write the screenplay - the film was very much a collaboration between Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, to the point where it’s often difficult to know where Clarke’s vision stops and Kubrick’s begins.

Clarke was an atheist and very hostile to religion but oddly enough his fiction often had a certain quasi-religious element to it. The atheist conception of a universe that is random and purposeless is in fact explicitly rejected by this movie. In this movie humanity has a destiny. Whether this destiny is part of God’s plan or whether it is part of the plan of hyper-intelligent aliens doesn’t really matter. For all practical purposes hyper-intelligent aliens might as well be gods.

The central theme of the movie is human evolution, but evolution guided by outside forces.  These forces, unimaginably advanced aliens, first intervene in mankind’s story four million years ago. Our distant ape ancestors are peaceful vegetarians until a strange black monolith teaches them to use tools, and to kill. The movie’s approach is however considerably more subtle. The famous jump cut linking prehistoric tools with space age tools is more than just a striking piece of imagery. The monolith may have unleashed human aggression but it also unleashed human inventiveness and imagination and creativity and the implication is that these qualities are all inextricably linked.

Fast forward to 2001 and this brings us to the second intervention, with the monolith being discovered on the Moon. It has been left there for four million years, until such time that humans display their readiness for the next step in evolution by being able to find the buried object. A single radio transmission points in the direction of Jupiter and eighteen months later a spaceship is on its way to that planet, with a crew of five (three in suspended animation) plus the HAL 9000 super computer.

HAL, the computer that has become such an iconic feature of the movie, really is one of the central characters. Whether HAL really does have emotions and consciousness, or whether he has simply been programmed to mimic those qualities, remains uncertain (at one point we hear the astronauts discuss that very question with an interviewer from Earth). It doesn’t really matter - whichever is true the end result is a computer that behaves as if it has emotions and consciousness, which for all practical purposes may actually amount to the same thing.

HAL is one of the reasons that this is a movie that can only be fully appreciated after multiple viewings. On your first viewing you will undoubtedly  look at the HAL sub-plot from the point of view of the human astronauts. On subsequent viewings you may (as I did) start to look at these events from HAL’s point of view, in which case his actions become much more comprehensible.

What’s interesting is that the astronauts have been so carefully selected and so thoroughly trained to maintain an absolute discipline over their emotions that they come across as less human than HAL (which is why the deliberate underplaying of Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea which is off-putting at first comes to make perfect sense). If HAL has achieved consciousness and the ability to experience emotion then these are very recent developments and he has not had the time or opportunity to learn how to deal with these things. He is in some ways a super-intelligent child.

One of the emotions that HAL has developed is anxiety. There’s a crucial scene in which HAL expresses his anxieties about the mission to Dave. Dave assumes that HAL’s questions are simply part of a routine test of the psychological well-being of the human crew and fails to realise that HAL may in fact be expressing actual anxieties of his own.

HAL also shows signs of acquiring another human characteristic - a sense of self-preservation.

Anxiety and insecurity can of course lead to paranoia, and HAL certainly starts to exhibit paranoid tendencies. What’s really intriguing is that while Dave and Frank are becoming concerned that HAL might be a threat to them HAL is simultaneously becoming concerned that the human astronauts might be a threat to him.

The famous scene in which Dave decides he must de-activate HAL’s higher mental functions achieves a real poignancy. We’re obviously disposed to be on Dave’s side but we do really feel HAL’s fear.

The HAL sub-plot is not a mere plot device introduced to add danger to the Jupiter mission. The subject of the evolution of machine intelligence (to the point where it might well become artificial life) is one of the movie’s major themes, dovetailing nicely with the other main theme of human evolution.

This is an insanely ambitious movie. There had been big-budget sci-fi movies before this (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Woman in the Moon were very big productions indeed in the 1920s) and there had been intelligent thoughtful sci-fi movies as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey aims not only to be an intelligent sci-fi epic it also does something more - it creates a whole new aesthetic for sci-fi films. It looks radically different from every previous sci-fi movie and every sci-fi movie made since has been to some degree influenced by this aesthetic.

It also aims at a level of realism never previously approached in a movie. All the technology in the film not only looks like it would really work but is, within the limitations of what was known in the mid-60s, entirely plausible. The fact that we don’t have giant space stations that rotate in order to achieve artificial gravity doesn’t mean that the idea was implausible. If we failed to achieve the future predicted by this movie that is due to our loss of confidence in ourselves rather than any failing on the movie’s part.

Those who don’t like the film often complain about its length and its slowness. Personally I think the leisurely pacing works and many of the slower scenes actually tell you a great deal about the world of the film - and it is a fully realised world. It’s also been criticised for being pretentious and obscure. I actually think the plot is fairly straightforward, although the first time you see it you can be distracted by the visuals and misled into thinking it’s obscure when it isn’t.

2001: A Space Odyssey may have been immensely influential aesthetically but it was less influential as far as content is concerned. For a while it did look as though it might be the precursor of a run of intelligent provocative science fiction movies, movies like Planet of the Apes (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Westworld (1973), but that run soon dried up. This was perhaps inevitable. Big-budget science fiction movies are an enormous risk for a studio. They’re an even bigger risk if they’re long on ideas and short on action. Shoot ’em ups in outer space were to be the future of movie science fiction. 

2001: A Space Odyssey still stands up as one of the great science fiction movies. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Mad Ghoul (1943)

The Universal horror movies of the 1940s are a bit of a mixed bag but The Mad Ghoul does have quite a few things in its favour. Most notably it has the right cast. It has George Zucco as a mad scientist, it has famous scream queen Evelyn Ankers and it has Turhan Bey to add the necessary touch of exoticism.

Zucco plays chemist Dr Alfred Morris who has been researching some strange aspects of ancient Mayan rites. He believes that the Mayans may have used a type of poison gas to induce what he calls a state of death-in-life. He also has a theory about the Mayans’ rather unpleasant custom of tearing out the hearts of living sacrificial victims. He believes they had a means of reversing the state of death-in-life.

With his eager young student and assistant Ted Allison (David Bruce) Dr Morris is determined to prove the correctness of his theory.

At first we assume that Dr Morris is the kind of movie mad scientist who is led into evil through his single-minded pursuit of science without any moral grounding. He scornfully dismisses the idea of morality. He is a scientist and believes there is no good or evil, only true or false. There is however another factor at work in this case. Dr Morris knows a good deal about science but he is a fool when it comes to women. 

The worst thing is that he thinks he knows all about women. And as the old saying goes, there’s no fool like an old fool. Dr Morris’s foolishness about women will lead him to use his knowledge of science for evil rather than good.

Young Ted is also somewhat naïve when it comes to women, and this will have equally disastrous results for him. Ted is engaged to be married to popular singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) but he has an unknown and formidable rival in the person of her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey).

Soon a ghoul is on the loose, robbing graves all over the country. There seems to be some mysterious link to Isabel Lewis. Of course Isabel herself cannot possibly be involved. Reporter Ken McClure (Robert Armstrong) has a theory but he will need some hard evidence before he can go to the police. He has an idea he knows how to find that evidence.

George Zucco is in fine form. Dr Morris is the kind of mad scientist who doesn’t struggle very hard against the temptations of evil but he’s smooth and clever and he’s able to maintain an outward appearance of respectability. People trust Dr Morris. Zucco doesn’t overdo his performance - Dr Morris is a villain but he’s a victim of his own delusions and he’s not entirely unsympathetic.

David Bruce does an excellent job as the hapless innocent Ted Allison. Evelyn Ankers makes a sympathetic and glamorous heroine. Turhan Bey is as suave as ever as her handsome lover.

While the term zombie is never used this can be seen as a type of zombie movie, with a scientific rather than mystical explanation.

One of the great things about this movie is the lack of comic relief. I just can’t tell you what a joy it is to encounter a 1940s Universal horror flick without irritating comic relief. Even the smart aleck reporter is mostly played very straight.

The movie includes many of the staples of Universal horror films with some nicely atmospheric graveyard scenes. The makeup effects (by the legendary Jack Pierce) are effective without being in any way excessive. Universal’s horror films of this era might have been uneven but they always looked good.

The script, by Brenda Weisberg and Paul Gangelin, is serviceable and in fact surprisingly intelligent and has some original touches. Director James P. Hogan spent his career in B-features but he knew his business and his work here can’t be faulted. He gets the most out of the material and the results are quite classy by B-movie standards. Sadly Hogan died of a heart attack shortly before the film’s release.

The Mad Ghoul is one of the five movies included in TCM’s excellent (although hard to find) Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. Sound quality is just a little uneven. On the other hand the image quality is superb. There are a few extras. The Mad Ghoul is a neat little horror movie that has been unjustly neglected and is highly recommended. As for the TCM boxed set, it’s pretty much a must-buy for classic horror fans.