Saturday, 30 November 2013

Swamp Women (1959)

Roger Corman made a lot of 'women criminals' films, probably because he recognised the allure of a 'bad girl' to the average male film-goer. Swamp Women (aka Swamp Diamonds or Cruel Swamp) is one of his earliest efforts in the genre. It tracks the efforts of the New Orleans police to recover a fortune in stolen diamonds. The only ones who know the location of said diamonds are the gang who stole them. The men of the gang are dead; executed for their crimes, but their girlfriends are doing time at the local jail.

And thus a policewoman is sent undercover as an inmate at the jail. Her job, to help the criminal trio break out, go with them to the diamonds, then signal the watching police to move in.

Naturally, the plan hits a few snags along the way, whether it be a handsome oil man who ends up as their prisoner, the swamp's ubiquitious alligators, or the women's own rivalries and tempers. Some of this feels a lot like padding (which is exactly what it is), to drag out the journey to the diamonds. I will give them some points, though: when the rivalries between the women turn physical, the fights (though not very well staged from a technical perspective) are fist-swinging western style brawls, not 'sexy cat fighting' in the slightest. It's a nice subversion of the usual exploitation tropes. Most of the hostility remains verbal, though: fight scenes are more difficult and time-consuming to shoot than dialogue, after all, and that means 'more expensive'. Corman always has his eye on the bottom line.

Over-reliance on dialogue is something of a weakness in the film: we more often see people talking about things happening than we actually see them happen, and it's not like the writing or the delivery is polished enough to make all the chitter-chatter compelling. The refreshingly punchy fight scenes are really the only thing out of the ordinary for this entry from the cheapie-treadmill.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Horrors of Spider Island (1962)

The (West) German film Horrors of Spider Island was released in its home country in 1960, but did not make it to the US until two years later, initially under the title It's Hot in Paradise. Those two titles sound like very different movies, and that's not an unfair assessment of the film itself. Something like 80% of the run time is more or less a campy castaway film, with barely-clad women swimming, dancing, squabbling and catfighting. The remaining 20% features the most hysterically ill-advised giant spider puppet I've ever seen (and I've seen "Giant Spider Invasion"), and the only slightly less awful man-spider who is the film's main antagonist. Though honestly he's a rather lacklustre adversary, given that he only attacks one woman in the entire month they're on the island, until the 'climactic' encounter at the end of the film (I guess before that he didn't want to interrupt their skinny-dipping).

The version of the film I saw is the nominally "all audiences" 75 minute cut, though as noted it's still pretty sleazy; the original release was 85 minutes and a bit of googling indicates it was a straight-up sexploitation film, something for which producer Wolf C. Hartwig was well known.

Despite the uneven acting, laughable effects, and very silly plot, I enjoyed my time watching this film.  It's so unabashed about its goofy mix of inept horror and only slightly more polished titillation that I can't help but like it.  I'm not sure I would enjoy the longer cut as much: I don't think it would feel quite as lovably naff.

She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)

After a run of four pretty good Roger Corman movies, I probably shouldn't be too surprised to come across a clunker. This film tells the tale of two brothers (one blond and noble; one dark and wicked) who are shipwrecked on an island full of beautiful maidens.

The old woman who reigns over these maidens wants the men gone as soon as possible, presumably because she wants the term 'maidens' to continue to apply. Naturally, Chris the Noble Brother falls into a romance with one of the young ladies, thereby earning the enmity of the 'Queen', while wicked brother Jim further complicates matters with his need to leave the island before any authorities turn up, and his tendency to turn to theft and violence whenever it seems like it will profit him.

We get some tepid 'fights' with sharks, and a whole lot of talking, before the two men and Chris's lady love make a break for freedom on a boat they've repaired. Jim's villainous ways come back to complicate matters once more, however, and before the film ends, one of the two brothers will be shark bait ... I bet you can guess which one.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

With Lon Chaney Jr and Raymond Burr on the cast, Bride of the Gorilla has much more name recognition than most of the films in my SciFi Classics box set. It also features journeyman Woody Strode, whose career - if IMDB is to be believed - stretched 56 years.  And finally it features the as-of-1951-hot-prospect Barbara Payton, fresh off a well received role opposite James Cagney. Quite what all these people were doing in this goofy little horror-melodrama, I don't know. Payton's career never recovered, though her wild lifestyle probably had more to do with that than this movie did. She would be dead by 40.

The film has Burr as the foreman of a rubber-tapping estate. He murders the owner and marries the man's beautiful wife (Payton), but his actions are witnessed by the local wisewoman. She curses him to become a beast. For much of the movie, the script avoids definitively saying whether this transformation is literal or just in Burr's head. Some other elements of the writing are a lot more clumsily executed. All in all, it's a pretty hokey film, and some of the 'jungle' scenes are pretty blatantly in sound stages, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Wasp Woman (1959)

Although I'm a big fan of B-movies in general, I'd rarely call one of them - especially one from the master of cheapness, Roger Corman - a 'good' film. And yet, The Wasp Woman (aka The Bee Girl or The Insect Woman) genuinely deserves that praise. Sure, it has the laughable monster makeup you expect of a movie with an Ed Wood level budget, but it has a good script (some scientific nonsense aside) and a fine lead in Susan Cabot.

The film introduces us to Dr Zinthrop, who is studying the use of royal wasp jelly (a substance that does not actually exist) as a youth serum. Fired from his job with a honey farm, he approaches Janice Starlin, the CEO and former 'face' of a cosmetics company. The corporation's sales are in a slump since the aging Janice stepped down as their spokesmodel in favour of younger women, but she is now too old for the role and sees everything she built beginning to crumble. Thus she eagerly seizes on Zinthrop's work as a chance to rebuild the fortunes of her ailing company. She offers to fund him, as long as he makes her his first human subject. Zinthrop is reluctant, but has no choice. Even then, he shows a pleasantly sensible approach to human experimentation, insisting on very limited dosages. Unfortunately, Janice is not above taking additional doses behind his back - doses that will soon have deadly side effects for those around her.

Eschewing the usual mad scientist schtick for Zinthop was a good call, and casting Susan Cabot in the lead was a better one. The script and her performance combine admirably to make her pursuit of youth understandable, if foolishly dangerous. The Wasp Woman is definitely a cut above the average 50s monster fare.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Kong Island (1968)

Despite its title (or indeed the alternate title, King of Kong Island), this film has nothing to do with King Kong, and isn't set on an island.

It does feature a bad guy who uses mind controlled gorillas to do his bidding, though, and I think we can all agree that that's the best kind of bad guy.

So, leaving aside the blatant attempt to steal some shine off the classic 1933 movie, and the delightfully absurd plans of the villain, how's the film as a whole? Well, it direly lacks a likeable character. The protagonist is handsome and buff, but something of a jerk. Less of a jerk than most of the other characters, but still a jerk. It could also do with a bit more action, I think. There's a gun-toting opening and some fisticuffs and shooting at the end, but between these two bookends is an hour of not much happening, unless 'guys dressed in gorilla suits abducting women' is your idea of a excitement. And if it is, we don't need to know :)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Chocky (1984)

For people growing up in the UK (and Commonwealth countries) during the 70s and 80s, the names Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People are synonymous with TV science fiction. Both have virulent fan bases (though I can only assume fans of the latter have never re-watched the show, as it's pretty terrible). I'm not sure why Chocky didn't strike the same chord with audiences. Maybe because it came out in 1984, and there had been a generational change by then. More likely, I think, it was that Chocky (and its sequels) were self-contained six episode mini-series, rather than ongoing serials that ran for many years.

Whatever the reason, it's a shame that Chocky isn't better known, because - despite some hammy acting from secondary characters, and a rather slow-paced narrative - it's a solid show. It focuses on Matthew Gore, the adopted son of David and Mary Gore, and what happens when 12-year old Matthew finds himself unexpectedly bound to an alien intelligence, which seeks to learn about our world. This intelligence is the titular 'Chocky', and much of the show is taken up with Matthew's parents and their concerns about their son's 'imaginary friend'. Chocky's arrival is clearly effecting Matthew, causing him to ask strange questions, paint strange paintings, and so forth. Yet none of the changes seem malevolent, and of course for much of the show it's assumed they are coming from Matthew himself, rather than another

I guess the introspective, family-centered narrative is another possible explanation for the lack of people nostalgic for Chocky. The other two shows were very much adventure based, while this is squarely a drama. Even when shadowy figures become interested in Matthew, we don't get chase scenes and action. It will be interesting to see if that changes in the sequel series (which I will watch over the coming weeks).

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Amazing Transparent Man (1957)

Clocking in at a mere 57 minutes kind of opens this film up for jokes about being 'vanishingly' short. Apart from such puntastic commentary, however, what does it offer us? Well, honestly, not a whole lot. It's a very cheaply made film, and that shows through in the acting and 'effects'. I've definitely seen worse films, though.

The plot revolves around a safecracker named Faust, who gets half bribed, half blackmailed into assisting one Major Kenner in the theft of an experimental radioactive substance named X13. Kenner has kidnapped a scientist's daughter and is using her to blackmail her father into helping him develop a means of turning people invisible via 'super x-rays' (so much better than the regular kind of x-rays!). However, the process is not perfected, and the X-13 is necessary for further research. So they turn Faust invisible so he can go steal stuff so they can ... make more people invisible.  It's not the world's best thought out plan really, but apparently Kenner has dreams of conquering the world with an invisible army.  So he's not the sanest of employers.

Faust's not too keen on the whole thing, as he'd really rather use his invisibility to steal lots of money and then run off to Mexico with it. The ongoing power struggle between him and Kenner is a major part of the narrative.

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but the brevity of the film helps it not outstay its welcome too much.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Return to Oz (1985)

Making a sequel some 40 years after the original is always going to be something of a risk. Doing so while also adopting a very different tone to the original film is verging on asking for trouble. So it's probably not surprising that Return to Oz received mixed reviews and a disappointing box office. This is a shame, because it is a far, far better film than its more famous predecessor.

There are three main reasons I make that claim. The first is the tone of the film. Return injects a sense of menace back into Oz, after the saccharine sweet first film with its laughably inept villain ('I'll use the pollen of flowers to drug my enemies ... two of whom don't breathe!'). This makes the film feel more true to the books, even if the specific events of the films vary wildly from the original text. The darker tone was one of the reasons for this film's poor reception, with critics accusing it of being too intense or scary for children. I wonder what these critics thought of Watership Down, Plague Dogs and The Dark Crystal? Kids like a little edge to their entertainment, in my experience, and I think Return judges it nicely, with villains that are a great mix of madcap and macabre.

The second is plot. Good grief, The Wizard of Oz makes no sense. Not even the nonsense kind of sense that Oz is supposed to make. Glinda banishes the Wicked Witch of the West from Munchkinland, saying 'you have no power here', which begs the question of why she doesn't just deal with the witch right then. It also begs the question of why the munchkins fear the witch, and there are many other head-scratching moments, plot-wise. In Return, however, the actions taken by the various characters recognisably stem from their motivations and the situations they're in. There's plenty of whimsy in the script, but things don't just happen because the plot needs them to.

The final and most important reason is Dorothy herself. Oh man, Dorothy in the original is a terrible character. She completely lacks agency, never acting directly to achieve her own goals. Her house falls on the wicked witch of the east ... by accident; she melts the wicked witch of the west ... by accident. She's continually saved or instructed by others throughout the film. In Return, however, Dorothy comes up with plans, and then enacts them. She looks to her friends to help, and she has a little luck along the way, but it's her plan that gets them out of Mombi's jail, and she's the one who solves the Nome King's riddle. She's a much stronger, smarter heroine, and I applaud the movie for that.

If you've never seen this one - or not seen it for a very long time - hunt it down and give it a watch.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Gammera the Invincible (1966)

The first film in the Gamera series is the only one to be made in black and white.  The English language release also changed the spelling of the turtle-monster's name, apparently so that it was obvious that the 'a' was as in 'hat', rather than as in 'hate'.

It's also likely that it's the only film in the world to feature a father tell his son 'stop obsessing about turtles and focus on your schoolwork' in the sort of tone that suggests a drug abuse intervention.

This scene is presented entirely straight-faced, and is one of two sequences in the film that gave me the giggles (I may have been saying things like 'You gotta get off the turtles son, before they fry your brain, or you'll never get your life back on track!').  The other giggle-worthy scene is the conclusion, but I won't spoil that: you'll have to see it for yourself.

The film's final point of uniqueness is being the only one in the franchise that pits Gamera against humanity. In later films, the rocket-powered turtle is generally benevolent. Not that he's actually malevolent here, either. He's just very big and very hungry, and his food-source happens to be energy (especially fire) which leads to a lot of destruction as he snacks on power stations, fuel depots, and dams.

All in all, the film's a fairly transparent Godzilla knock off, though as a kaiju, Gamera's quite a bit goofier than the OG.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

I've seen the 1986 movie musical Little Shop of Horrors a couple of times. That's based on the off-Broadway show, which is in turn based on The Little Shop of Horrors. The original work apparently began as a lark, when Roger Corman decided to see if he could beat own speed record for shooting a film. That record had just been set at 5 days, but The Little Shop would blow it out of the water: being filmed in a mere 2 days, using recycled sets from two other films. The script, too, was produced at a run, and specifically tailored to make use of the sets available. That a halfway decent movie emerged at all is a testament to writer Charles B Griffith and the efforts of the cast (also recycled, being basically the same people as appeared in A Bucket of Blood).

Of course, 'halfway decent' is a long way from 'good', and in many ways this film is a zanier but sloppier and less engaging re-tread of A Bucket of Blood. You have the same downtrodden social outcast who moons over a girl (though in this film his interest, when revealed, is at least initially welcomed). You've got the same more or less accidental discovery of something that will make him popular and successful at last. You've got the same accidental violence leading to greater success, the same mentor figure who dicoveries the grisly secret but whose greed stops him from saying anything, and the same escalation to more and more intentional violence before the protagonist is undone by his own creation. But it seems clear that in the long run, zaniness won out, as The Little Shop of Horrors remains the much better known picture, despite not being as good overall.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)

This is the second English language adaptation of Soviet film Planeta Bur. It's also right after the first adaptation in my SciFi Classics boxed set. Not sure that was such a great idea on the compilers' part.

Anyway, this version re-structures the narrative a lot more than the previous adaptation. We now have two astronauts and their robot lost on Venus, and another team sent along later to rescue them. A lot of the 'talking to mission control' scenes are dropped this time, and the time taken up with numerous scenes of attractive blonde women in skimpy tops. These are the Venusians you see, psychic aliens who interpret the astronauts as hostile and try to use their powers to drive them away, even going so far as to trigger a volcanic eruption. The addition of a motivating force behind the planet's various dangers makes a significant improvement to the film, in my opinion. It makes events much less happenstance. Even watching this right after the first adaptation, with which it shares some 50% of its footage, I enjoyed this more.  That's not to say that it is good, however.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)

The Soviet SF film Planeta Bur has been converted to an English language release on at least two occasions. This was the first. As far as I can tell from a synopsis of the original film, this release follows pretty much the original story, with the only significant difference being the addition of a few new scenes featuring Basil Rathbone (who was either hard up for cash or owed someone a favour, I guess). These new scenes don't really add anything to the film other than a moderately famous name, but that was probably all they were meant to do.

Anyway, the plot sees two teams of astronauts (Soviet in the original, multinational in the US film), along with a robot, land on Venus. As the film's title might suggest, however, this is a highly romanticised Venus: it has oceans, dinosaurs, and signs of a former civilisation. One of the team is particularly taken with these remnants, insisting a strange voice-like sound may be the calls of the people who live there. Various dangers, both creatures and environmental, confront the astronauts as they explore.and eventually they blast off from the surface as the termors shake the ground. Once they are gone, a human-like reflection is caught in a pool of water.

It's a pretty slow and clunky film, honestly, with lots of explosition cluttering up the place. Even the action sequences tend to be loaded with dialogue. The lack of a strong narrative beyond "explore the dangerous planet" also hurts it, I think.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

In 1959, Roger Corman went to Puerto Rico to film two movies. At the end of the process, he discovered that he had quite a lot of unused footage. Corman, always with an eye on the bottom line, was not about to let this go to waste. He grabbed a script he'd already filmed, had writer Charles B. Griffith make some edits (changing the location so it fit the footage and locations they could use, making the script a spy/horror spoof instead of a horror film) and then spent five days filming enough extra material to scrape together a 70 minute movie. The result was Creature from the Haunted Sea, which would finally be released two years later after a few extra scenes were filmed back in the mainland US.

The re-used script that formed this film's base was that of Beast from Haunted Cave, so even the title was more or less recycled. Also recycled was the music, the score being used in no less than 7 Corman films (though in this case that's apparently the composer putting one over Corman, rather than Corman being cheap).

The film follows the inept efforts of CIA agent Sparks Moran, aka "XK150" to recover stolen Cuban treasury gold before a gangster can make off with it, and his equally inept efforts to woo the gangster's girlfriend. Said gangster has an improbably complicated plan for smuggling the gold off Cuba, involving pretending that a hideous monster is on the loose. This plan will be complicated not so much by XK150's efforts to thwart it, as by the fact that a very real monster is lurking in the area. Said monster is one of the most slapstick elements of the film, however: and really needs to be seen to be believed.

So how good is the movie that comes from all this re-used material? Well honestly, it's about as good as a movie can be, when its monster is made from a wetsuit covered with brillo pads and ping-pong balls. The humour is very broad and farcical, but it did get a laugh or two out of me. I was also amused by the football throwing scene - I wonder if Tommy Wiseau ever saw this film? It would explain a few things about The Room.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Attack of the Monsters (1969)

Gamera is kind of like the Bucks Fizz to Godzilla's kaiju Abba: clearly modelled on the bigger franchise, and reasonably successful for a while, but fundamentally a bit naff.  That's Gamera on the cover of the Sci Fi Classics box set: he's a giant fire-breathing turtle thing with tusks and rocket propulsion (he retracts all limbs and flame jets out of them, allowing him to fly like a spinning disc.  It looks as ridiculous as it sounds)

Attack of the Monsters (aka "Gamera vs Guiron") is the fifth of Gamera's twelve (to date) celluloid adventures.  It's also the first of two Gamera films in the set.  The other is the very first film, so of course the set has this film first and that film second.  It's almost like the people who compile these ultra-cheap box sets don't take much pride in their work.

As usual for the series, Attack of the Monsters revolves around Gamera's efforts to protect a couple of "cute" (read: very irritating) children from danger.  In this case, the danger is brain eating aliens and a sword-headed monster named Guiron. The joke's on the aliens though, because the brats in this film surely don't have a brain cell between them, which will make them mighty poor eating.

During the course of the film, Gamera fights Guiron a couple of times, repairs a spaceship with his superheated breath, and indulges in a little gymnastics ... in other words, the usual utterly insane stuff.

Worth a look if the idea of a giant turtle doing calisthenics amuses you as much as it does me, or if you're a kaiju fan in general.  Otherwise, skip it.

Friday, 15 November 2013

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

The first of three comedy-horror collaborations between Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith, A Bucket of Blood was filmed on sets that would be re-used in their second such collaboration: The Little Shop of Horrors.  The latter title has become much better known, though generally due to the stage play and movie musical that were adapted from it, rather than for Corman's own version.

A Bucket of Blood is a fun bit of dark satire. Socially awkward busboy Walter Paisley dreams of becoming a famous artist, winning the praise of the poets and poseurs in the beatnick cafe where he works. Only a crippling lack of talent is holding him back. But it's amazing how life-like a sculpture you can make when you're just slathering clay over a dead body ...

The script does a good job of making us feel sympathy for Paisley at first.  Actor Dick Miller does a good job of making his character likable, and Paisley's initial kills are accidental, or panic-inspired, respectively. You can almost forgive him for making the best of a bad situation.

As his 'art' wins praise, however, Paisley becomes more and more twisted: killing a woman who was rude to him, then a complete stranger. When he sets his homicidal sights on a woman who has (gently and politely) refused his advances, his fall from sympathy is complete. His fall from artistic acclaim is also rapid, as his macabre methods come to light.

Competently acted and written, this film is a cut above the low budget average, and worth a look if such darkly quirky films are your cup of tea.  Corman may be best known for his cut-price methods, but he did also have some skill as a filmmaker, which projects like this reveal.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

Ed Wood may be the most famous of the 50s microbudget mavericks, but Tom Graeff would definitely be up there if mental health issues hadn't limited his output. Teenagers from Outer Space (aka The Gargon Terror) is Graeff's best known picture, and a film which he not only wrote and directed, but also shot, edited, and played one of the main supporting roles.

This film was shot on a paltry $14,000 budget (that's about 1/4 of the cost of Plan 9 from Outer Space; in today's money, it works out to about $110,000). So Graeff was definitely able to walk the Wood walk. But Teenagers isn't just even more microbudget than Wood's films: it's also much better than them. It's not a good film, you understand - the writing is very clunky and trite, the acting even worse - but it's still an astonishing achievement given the constraints upon it and the ambition of some of the scenes. It also makes me love The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra even more, as some of the elements of the latter were clearly inspired by the dialog and effects of this film.

The film features aliens who come to Earth in search of a place to raise 'Gargons', which are a food animal for them. They raise the creatures on other worlds because full-grown Gargons are very dangerous. Initially it seems Earth is not suitable, but then it turns out it is. By that time, however, one of the aliens has realised that this world harbours intelligent life. He attempts to dissuade the others from continuing with the plan, but they don't give two hoots about creatures not of their own race. This prompts the lone rebel to run off in search of natives to warn. The most violent of the aliens remains on Earth to hunt him while the others go to fetch their fleet.

Teenagers from Outer Space features spaceships, ray guns, and even a battle with a giant monster. It's a fantastically ambitious movie for the resources on hand, and while it falls well short of those ambitions, I cannot help but feel that Graeff deserves a biopic far more than Ed Wood does.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Some movies are notorious for their badness, which gives you forewarning of what to expect. This is one such film, which the collators of my SciFi Classics box set saw fit to include. I do not think they understand what 'classic' means. Though at least this is actually a science fiction film, unlike several of the other movies in the set.

So anyway ... is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as terrible as is commonly claimed? Honestly, not really. Sure, it's a buffoonish, slapstick film with terrible acting, laughable effects, and an absurd, nonsensical plot, but it's also pretty clearly aimed at 5-10 year old kids. And judged purely on that basis, it's merely poor. A good kids' film also works for adults, after all, and this certainly doesn't except as something to ridicule.

The plot, such as it is, is that for centuries, Martians have been raised only to be productive and useful.  This always worked fine, but the latest generation of Martian kids have grown up being able to watch TV broadcasts from Earth, and they've become listless and depressed.  The Martian leader consults the most ancient and wisest of his people, and learns that children must have joy in their lives.  So he decides to kidnap Santa Claus to give it to them.

Now if this film had the wit to be a Galaxy Quest-like bit of tomfoolery where the aliens grabbed a department store Santa, it might have been better than it is, but the target audience still believes in the Father Christmas thing, so it's off to the North Pole we go, after first picking up two Earth children as ... well, as Santa-sniffing devices, basically.

The quest to capture Santa, and what happens after he gets to Mars, are the basis for the rest of the movie's allegedly humorous shenanigans.  And you may occasionally laugh ... generally at how lame it all is, but a chuckle is a chuckle, right?

For all it's vaunted awfulness (and it is twee and silly) this is at least a movie which has a plot and a purpose.  It's ten times as entertaining as say White Pongo.  Of course, that's still not very entertaining.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Desert Trail (1935)

Like most of the low budget films John Wayne made in the lean years before his breakout success in Stagecoach, The Desert Trail is a pretty slight film, though it rollicks along just fine for its slender 55 minute run time.

Wayne is a rodeo rider, en route to a new event with a companion.  The two men share a rivalry as well as a friendship: the film will see them regularly squabble and try to one-up each other, especially if a woman is in the picture.  These add a comic element to the film which generally work quite well: I especially liked some of the more subtle sight gags.

Wayne and his associate squabble over a woman, get framed for murder, escape, squabble over another woman, get framed for a stagecoach robbery (by the same men that framed them for murder), escape again, and ultimately have their names cleared when one of the real crooks has an attack of conscience. Wayne, of course, wins the battle over the (second) woman.

This is formulaic, mass-produced stuff, and very clearly a B-picture.  It's very much a supporting act, not a film that would headline a bill and actually attract the crowds.  Still, it's a lively film that does not outstay its welcome, which puts it a cut above the average for this sort of thing.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Hitman (2007)

It's my understanding that the Hitman series of games are stealth-focused.  Players are supposed to use disguises, hide the bodies of those they kill, and generally do their best to avoid drawing attention to their murderous antics as they assassinate their way through the game.

So I imagine fans of the series were outraged by the movie, in which a bald Timothy Olyphant slaughters his way through 90 minutes of action scenes that start at 'over the top' and only get more and more ludicrous from there.

Fortunately, I've never played the games (I don't generally find stealth-based games fun), so I had a blast with this loud, crass, ridiculous bit of celluloid fluff.

Many movies adapted from computer games are pretty silly. This one, on the other hand, is extremely silly. Gleefully, gloriously, unrepentently silly. I'd give it two thumbs up, but I'm too busy pretending to dual-wield M60s to do so.

If you enjoy the Fast and the Furious movies and like the idea of a film where the outrageous car-based stunts are replaced by similarly over-the-top fight scenes, you should see this film.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Menace from Space (1954)

Although there were 12 'movies' created from compiling episodes of the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger serial, my SciFi Classics boxed set contains only two. Menace from Space (aka Bobby's Comet) is the second, despite it preceding "Crash of the Moons" in the series chronology. Nice work, boxed set compiler!

The sets and the effects in this film are generally more ambitious than those of Crash of the Moons. They're not necessarily better - in fact a few of them are hysterically ill-advised - but they are trying to do more spectacular and varied things. Such elements were probably toned down in later episodes to save on costs.

The story begins with not one but two mysterious rockets launched at Earth from one of Jupiter's moons. The moon is named Fornax in the show, though I'm not aware of a moon named that in real life. Everyone is excited at the idea of life on Fornax, as it had always been considered too hot to sustain living creatures. Rocky Jones and his crew of archetypal companions promptly decide to fly there and investigate. I note that on their arrival, no mention is made of the place being hot at all. The human characters wander around quite freely without any form of protective clothing or breathing apparatus. I know such conceits are common to science fiction serials in general, even today, but perhaps you shouldn't make a big deal about how hot a planet is and then make it, you know, not hot at all.

Anyway, it turns out the people of Fornax have been fed evil anti-Earth propaganda by a wicked human who previously crashed there. However, on meeting Rocky & Co the Fornaxian leaders are smart enough to start having doubts about what they've been told. Soon, everyone is talking about trade and peaceful co-existence and kumbayah. Various bad guys do attempt to prevent this move toward lovey-doviness, or to conquer Fornax for themselves, but frankly their efforts are so ineffectual they probably got laughed out of the next meeting of the Villains Union.

There's not much else to say about this, really. Like Crash of the Moons it's not terrible, but it is pretty formulaic and lacking in any real sense of tension. About the most entertainment you could get from it would be by instituting a drinking game where you had to take a shot everytime someone made a goofy space-based exclamation ("Shining Stars, what a sight!"). Though it would also destroy your liver in pretty short order.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

When I was a kid, growing up in the UK, The Wizard of Oz would be on TV pretty much every Xmas.  I saw it a couple of times back then, but by the time I was eight or nine, I was far too grown up for such things.

As an adult, of course, I've learned that there are very few things I'm too grown up for (which is why Fraggle Rock and H R Pufnstuf are on my DVD shelves). However, I never did see The Wizard of Oz again.  So a few years (yes, years) ago, when I saw the "special edition" available cheaply, I picked it up.  And then it sat on my shelf, unwatched, until now.  I told you I had too many unwatched DVDs, right?

Anyway, I doubt I'm spoiling anything about the movie if I tell you that it involves a young woman who is swept away to another world, where she encounters an evil witch, makes friends with a motley crew of weirdos, and eventually finds her way home after a lot of musical numbers and other such antics.  On her return to Earth, her family are pleased to see her, but discount her tales of her strange adventure as fevered dreams.

I had two main take-aways from watching this film as an adult. The first was an appreciation for just how many cultural references come from it. I knew "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too", and a couple of others, but there were dozens, small and large, throughout the film. The second was that the film makes a lot more sense if you accept Aunt Em's version of events: Dorothy hit her head, had strange dreams, and then woke up. Under that interpretation the movie's events become symbolic rather than literal, and they become considerably less nonsensical that way.

It's useful to see The Wizard of Oz in order to understand how influential a work it has been on popular culture, so I recommend seeing it on that basis, but I would not recommend it purely for its entertainment value.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Crash of the Moons (1954)

Fifties SF serial Rocky Jones, Space Ranger got less than 40 half-hour episodes before being cancelled, apparently due to the cost of the effects. This should not be taken as an indication that the effects in this are good, but rather of an indication of how bad/minimal they were in other such such serials at the time.  In what was likely an effort to wring a little more cash out of the show, all of the three-part serials were combined into 'movies'; a dozen in all.  Crash of the Moons is one of the twelve, and is comprised from episodes around the middle of the serial's run.

It turns out Rocky Jones is your pretty generic two-fisted space hero, and he's surrounded by a cast that's just as generic: a comedy sidekick, an attractive young woman of unspecified role (other than 'Short Skirts, the Wearing Of'), an allegedly 'cute' and precocious youngster, and brilliant but absent-minded professor.

In this adventure, they discover that a 'gypsy moon' is going to crash into a planet. Despite roaming around the galaxy and not having you know, a sun, said moon has human-like inhabitants.  These people are friends of Rocky's and amusingly, are led by the guy who played Sergeant Schultz in Hogan's Heroes.  Rocky needs to evacuate them, and the inhabitants of the planet, before the kaboom.

Alas, while Schultzy and co are fully cooperative with these evacuation plans, the planet they're going to hit is led by an evil queen who naturally

  1. utterly refuses to cooperative; and
  2. secretly lusts after Rocky Jones
Naturally, this complicates the job quite a lot.

This is a fairly pedestrian film all up.  It's like a blander version of the old Flash Gordon serials.  Not terrible, but not really worth your time, either.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Assassin Next Door (2009)

A movie's title can really shape your expectations, especially if you know nothing else about it.  The title of The Assassin Next Door led me to expect a comic mob film in the style of The Whole Nine Yards. And that's really, really not the film it is.  I can see why they changed the name from the original Hebrew title of Kirot, since it wouldn't mean much to English-speaking audiences, but they really should have gone for something that didn't sound quite so 'light'.

Because this film is a drama, and not a terribly happy one.  There's an action sequence or two, but they are really not the focus, and - until the final, rather unlikely sequences of the film - they aren't glamorised in any way. 

The film follows two women; the first is a Ukrainian whose attempt to escape a life of prostitution impresses her mob handler enough that he offers her the choice of killing people for a living, instead.  The second is a young wife whose husband frequently beats her.  A grim look at domestic violence was not something I expected from the film when I sat down.

In any case, the two women become friends, and ultimately attempt to escape the lives that are slowly crushing them.  Of course, the men who've been abusing them (because the assassin is as much the victim of threats and violence as her neighbor) are not about to let them go without a fight.

So this was not at all the film I expected, but I am glad I picked it up.  Worth a look if the overall bleakness doesn't sound like a turn-off, to you.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Preaching to the Perverted (1997)

Like horror films, romantic comedies have pretty defined tropes.  And after you've seen a few of them, you can probably recognise the story beats: meeting, initial attraction, then misunderstandings and complications to keep them apart until the movie ends.

The predictability of the form can make it tough to have your film stand out unless you have a 'hook', such as giving the film an unusual setting, or an uncommonly inventive idea for complicating things (such as Grosse Point Blank's 'one of them is a hitman', for instance).

In British rom-com Preaching to the Perverted, this 'hook' is that our star-crossed lovers are a fetish club dominatrix with an aversion to penetrative sex, and the (male) government agent secretly trying to gather evidence she's breaking decency laws.

Which is a pretty high level of complication for the relationship to overcome, really!

Unfortunately, the film singularly fails to overcome those complications in any believable manner.  I mean, I can't comment on the movie's authenticity to fetish clubs or the BDSM scene in general, but I do know when a narrative relies too heavily on contrivance, and that's definitely the case here.  The events of the last 15 minutes of the film happen because the writers needed them to in order to have a happy ending after the government agent's treachery is revealed.  If you want to watch a rom-com about a criminal and the agent pursuing her falling in love, watch DEBS instead.

I do need to call out the supporting cast of Preaching to the Perverted, though.  Both Tom Bell, as the moral crusader who employs the male lead to infiltrate the fetish scene; and Julie Graham as the dominatrix's right hand woman, turn in very entertaining performances.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

Known in the US as Hercules and the Captive Women, this film was released in the UK as Hercules Conquers Atlantis. This latter title is more accurate both to the original Italian name for the film, and to the plot. There's only one captive woman (though she does get captured three times) and she's pretty ancillary to Herc's plot (the 2nd and 3rd times she is captured, it isn't even Herc who rescues her, but his son, Hylas). Apparently it was renamed in the US to avoid confusion with another Atlantis-based film. One that wikipedia assures me was much worse than this.

I submit that the film should have been retitled Hercules and the Atomic Nazis because

  1. who doesn't want to see that movie? and
  2. it's actually an accurate title.
You see, the plot of the film has the Greek gods send omens of a terrible threat to Greece. Herc is a reluctant member of the team sent to investigate the threat, and he discovers it lies in Atlantis, where the evil queen (because there is always an evil queen who must lust after him) exposes her soldiers to a glowing rock. This exposure either transforms them into black-clad, blond, blue-eyed supermen, or leaves them with lesions, blistering, and other signs of radiation poisoning. Naturally Herc overcomes these adversaries, with the help of his son and their dwarf companion (who for much of the film seems to be the only one with a brain).

This is the last of the four consecutive Hercules films in my SciFi Classics Boxed Set. It would probably be my favorite just from relief of being through the quartet, but it definitely cemented this position on its own merits. I mean, seriously, it has atomic nazis.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Parent Trap (1961)

After recently re-watching the 1998 remake, which I enjoyed immensely, I decided to pick up a copy of the original 1961 version of The Parent Trap.  This version stars Hayley Mills as the identical twins with the scheme to re-unite their parents.  Which ironically means that it has a British actress pretending to be two American girls, whereas the remake has an American actress pretending to be an American and a Brit.

Overall, this is certainly a less expertly-crafted film than the remake, with the major plot moments being less adroitly handled in general.  Compare the Chessy/Annie scene (which Lisa Walters completely nails) to the original's Verbena/Sharon, or the way the twins first meet in each film.

The humour of the original also hasn't aged very well in some places, with a few scenes inducing winces rather than laughs.  However, the last forty minutes or so have a gleeful mischief to them that gives the film a strong ending and makes it hard to dislike.  Hayley Mills is good in the main roles, and Maureen O'Hara is lots of fun as their only slightly less mischievous mother.

If you're just going to watch one version, see the remake, but it's easy enough to see why this was well received when it came out.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Hercules Against the Moonmen (1964)

Some film-makers are not content to pit Hercules against such mundane foes as sorcerors or mythical beasts.  They want their Hercules to face a challenge that is truly out of this world.  Or at least, that's how I like to imagine this picture came about.

In this film, Herc's enemies are ... well, if you can't work it out from the title of the film, then I sincerely hope you don't operate heavy machinery for a living.  The lunar invaders aren't any little green men, though: they're giant rock creatures.  Or at least, 'slightly larger than human' rock creatures.  Alas, some of the menace of these otherworldly invaders is lost when it becomes clear how cumbersome and slow their costumes make them.

Only the rank and file moonmen have this craggy appearance, however.  The nobles - that is, the ones who have to deliver dialogue and do more acting than lumbering around - appear basically human.  This becomes a plot point as they ally with a wicked queen, promising to make her the most powerful human on the planet if she hands over her sister to them.  The sister, you see, is a spitting image of their own lost queen, and they plan to place the queen's spirit in this new body.  The human queen agrees, presumably because she is too foolish to wonder how powerful the 'most powerful human' will actually be, once the moonmen take over.

Most of the actual film itself is relatively average low budget sword and sandal stuff, and not very memorable.  Sadly, the one truly noteworthy thing about is not a positive one: at about the 70 minute mark most of the cast gets stuck in a sandstorm, from which they don't emerge until the 83rd minute ... of an 86 minute film. Suffice it to say, the actual "climax" of the film is a bit rushed!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Angel and the Badman (1947)

After catapulting to stardom with 1939's Stagecoach, John Wayne rapidly became one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men. So much so that when he made made no effort to avoid being classified as draft eligible during World War 2, Republic Studios threatened a lawsuit for breach of contract if he were to actually join the armed forces.

In those circumstances it's perhaps unsurprising that in his later years, Wayne formed his own production company.  That didn't happen until the early 50s, but in 1947 he made his first foray into producing a film with Angel and the Badman.  It seems he had a good eye for projects, as I feel it is definitely above average for a western of the time.

Wayne also stars in the film, of course, as the handsome and dangerous loner Quirt Evans. The Angel to his Badman is a young Quaker woman, whose love eventually leads the gunslinging Evans to change his ways. If that all sounds pretty formulaic, it is, but it's deftly executed by the director/scriptwriter James Edward Grant, who would earn an Oscar nomination 12 years later for The Sheepman.

This isn't going to be a film for all tastes, however.  Despite the presence in the script of several outlaws and desperadoes, it's pretty light on action, focusing instead on the romance between Evans and his Angel.  The film also wasn't to the taste of Wayne's then-wife, who believed him to be having an affair with his co-star and attempted to shoot him when he came home late from the wrap party.  Wayne divorced her ... seven years later.

Check this one out if you're in the mood for a quieter kind of western.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hercules Unchained (1959)

This is the second of four consecutive Hercules movies in my "Sci Fi Classics" boxed set.  Unlike most of the films in the set, however, Hercules Unchained was an international hit for its Italian film-makers at the time of release.  Quite why the film was such a success is a bit more perplexing. Perhaps it was simply that it was a sequel to the previous year's hit film (simply titled Hercules in English).  Perhaps it was a combination of the very handsome leading man and the plethora of very attractive women in short skirts. It's definitely not a result of the acting or the writing.

This was the second and last time leading man Steve Reeves would play Hercules.  The financial success of these films, coupled with his physique and good looks would ultimately lead him to become the highest paid actor in Europe during the early 60s.  Reeves claims to have turned down the role of James Bond in Dr No because it didn't pay enough.  Probably not his smartest choice.  I know of him mostly because he gets a reference in Rocky Horror.

So how is the film itself?  Well, in what I find a rather perplexing theme for Hercules films, it has old Herc be a bit of an ass in the early going (I like to call him "Jerkules"), but eventually he agrees to try and help stop an incipient war between two brothers, each of whom craves the throne of Thebes.  Alas, while journeying on this quest, Herc picks the wrong fountain to drink from: his memory is magically erased, and he becomes the captive and love slave of an evil Queen.

Normally this Queen dallies with a man for while, then turns him to stone, but of course she falls in love with Herc.  And they might have been very happy together if not for Ulysses, who reminds Herc of his true identity (and his wife, cough cough).  From there, the film moves into its end game as the two brothers hatred erupts into open war, Herc rushes to save his wife from enemies, and so on.  I doubt I am spoiling anything if I say that the film ends with Hercules triumphant.

This is not a terrible film, and if you enjoy these sword and sandal flicks, you might get a kick out of it.  There are better Hercules films, though.