March 31, 2011
March 23, 2011
(1979, UK TV series, 4 x 50 mins)
also called QUATERMASS
Creator Nigel Kneale's last series for his most famous character, Bernard Quatermass, presented the visionary rocket scientist as an old man simply obsessed with tracking down his lost granddaughter. There are two major obstacles: in near-future Britain, society has decayed into anarchy, and there's an alien force lurking in the sky that spirits away the young.
Watching this again I was shocked at just how cynically Kneale presented the future. Neither capitalism or communism has worked and society has descended into chaos, wreckage blocks the street, the elderly are hiding underground, goods and food can no longer be bought, only bartered or stolen. The streets aren't safe, unless you pay for protection from the 'cash cops'.
It struck more of a chord with me now than it did at the time. At the moment, it almost feels likely that this is how everything could go. With a little more more financial chaos, a few more ecological disasters, an escalation of tension between nuclear powers...
In retrospect, every earlier Quatermass story was also downbeat - The Quatermass Experiment was about the failure of his first space mission. Quatermass II presented an alien intelligence that could enslave humanity, infiltrating every level of society. In Quatermass and the Pit, an ancient intelligence reactivates mob rule and almost destroys London. Projects fail, things fall apart, the system is fallible, ordinary people die.
The Quatermass Conclusion shows humanity helpless in the cosmic scheme, by being regarded as little more than food by a new species from space. No chance of a friendly close encounter, we're nothing more than cattle.
Kneale ironically mixes in a quasi-hippy movement of 'Planet People', who think that the huge crowds of people disappearing have in fact been taken away to a better place. This echoes the real-life cults that were hoping to jump into visiting UFOs and tour the galaxies.
The downbeat story reflected the punk nihilism of the time, though the story had been written years earlier. By 1979, regular strikes by electricity workers and dustmen meant power blackouts and huge piles of rubbish in central London were reminders of how quickly chaos could hit life at home and on the streets.
While the BBC had decided not to make this story, an early independent TV production company, Euston Films, rose to the occasion. They'd had success with the similarly cynical and violent cop show The Sweeney. While the three 1950s Quatermass series were shot in BBC studios, The Quatermass Conclusion was all shot on film, mostly on location, giving this series a completely different look from both the BBC productions and the Hammer films.
The crowd scenes and locations (including the old Wembley Stadium) were impressive for TV. But the modelwork used for the space scenes were pretty primitive, especially compared to the earlier Space: 1999. But the practical effects are still good, make-up and melted remains looking uncomfortably realistic.
The cast is strong for TV, but some of the minor characters are more 'mixed ability'. Andrew Keir is my favourite of all the Professor Quatermass actors, but here John Mills is really very good, and the best thing in it.
The late Simon MacCorkindale (Sword and the Sorceror, Manimal, Jaws 3D) plays a young radio astronomer. His wife is played by Barbara Kellerman (The Monster Club). One of their assistants is a fresh-faced Brenda Fricker (an Oscar winner for My Left Foot, followed up with, gulp, Home Alone 2).
The UK DVD release is currently out of print and going for high prices, so at present the US set (pictured at top) is more affordable, also offering a second disc with the theatrical version designed for a cinema release. Kneale had to write the series to work as two different narratives, so the film could work at half the running time. The US DVDs have minor conversion errors (PAL to NTSC) but still look as I remember it. The boxset is simply called Quatermass. The quote on the cover is misleading and stupid.
March 21, 2011
Director Luc Besson previews his latest film in London
A great film while you wait for Spielberg's Tintin. This adaption of a French graphic novel will also make an interesting comparison in many ways. Besson uses actors to represent comic book characters rather than the far more expensive motion-captured, computer-generated people for Tintin.
That's not to say there aren't extensive visual effects in Adèle. CGI portrays impossible characters, like the pterodactyl. Digital compositing is used to present Paris and Egypt of a hundred years ago. For the more grotesque and bizarre human characters, prosthetic make-ups are used.
Adèle is on a trip to Peru to complete her latest book. That's what her publisher thinks. She's actually in Egypt raiding tombs. Why has she lied, and what has this to do with a pterodactyl terrorising Paris? The police can't believe that a prehistoric animal has killed a senior politician, they need to solve the case fast, no matter how much Adèle gets in their way.
Like the Tintin stories, there's a detailed and realistic presentation of the past, but with more magical and fantasy elements. Like Tintin, Adèle is also a writer, giving her the opportunity to travel. Her only real strength is her personality - she doesn't bow to convention. It may not be ladylike to ride a camel, but if she needs to learn, she will. With a burning desire to succeed, she overcomes the odds with little more than an umbrella and a bag of bird seed...
As a newcomer to the stories, I loved the completely unpredictable nature of the story, and it's always nice to see a guillotine in action. This wasn't as consistently funny as it wanted to be, but maybe I was missing out on the Frenchier in-jokes. It could almost be a family film, though some of the more intense drama and some casual nudity might not be for younger viewers. Film Forager has a tougher review, here. Personally we're holding out hopefully for a blu-ray with English subs.
Besson mentioned that this story was a childhood favourite of his. He spent many years gaining the trust of the author, Jacques Tardi, who'd already dealt with three film studios trying to adapt the story. While this isn't as dark or as adult as many of Besson's earlier films, I think that's because he's committed himself to being as faithful to the original story as possible. While he's more likely to be the producer nowadays, after writing the script he couldn't let another director make this one.
I haven't read the comics yet, but I will. Actress Louise Bourgoin is far more beautiful than the grumpy character in the comics. The first two stories (which combined to form the basis for the film) have been translated into English as one volume. There's a little more about Jacques Tardi's original stories here.
After the screening, Luc Besson held an informal question and answer session that touched on many stages of his career. Movies hadn't been a part of his childhood at all. His parents (both divers) didn't even have a TV. The nearest cinema was far away. But after seeing a movie on a daytrip to Paris, he immediately fell in love with the medium and left home to make movies for himself.
Subway (1985) was based on characters he actually met when he opened a maintenance door in the Paris Metro and disappeared for two days while meeting a whole community living down there. He didn't now think that the film was a satisfying 'whole', as much as a patchwork of several stories he'd written.
The diving experience he'd learnt with his parents led to The Big Blue (1988) and Atlantis (1991), though he doesn't think he'll ever do another underwater film now. He doesn't enjoy directing anything similar to previous projects, unless he thinks he can learn from them. This partly explains why he has been producing so many projects.
When asked if he was flattered by the (three) remakes of La Femme Nikita (1990), he said he would be if any of them had been any good (laughs). It also wasn't a favourite film of his because he had to rewrite and reshoot the ending at the last minute, and that wasn't a great way to make a film.
He dismissed the suggested idea of a sequel to Leon: The Professional (1994) unless a good idea for a story came along. He hinted that there was a demand for one because it would make money.
The films he'd made that he was most satisfied with were the ones that turned out the way he'd imagined them - he named The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) and Angel-A (2005).
He's currently finishing work on The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewliss, and said he was trying to get it ready for a November release. After that, he was interested in maybe another sci-fi story. He described the frustration of filming the intricate special effects for The Fifth Element, just before the digital revolution would have made them far easier. Being dependent on motion-control cameras and modelwork, he felt his camera moves were being too restricted.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is already out on DVD in many countries, having been released around Europe and Asia last year. Besson presented this screening on March 19th at BFI SouthBank to promote Optimum's UK release in April. Doesn't look like the film has yet launched in the US.
Here's an original trailer on YouTube, no English subtitles but not much dialogue either...
March 20, 2011
DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE
aka Dr. Black and Mr. White
Now on DVD
In the 1970s, low-budget 'blaxploitation' films took a stab at most movie genres, including horror. One of the more successful is this reworking of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…
A successful black scientist called Dr Pride, is trying to find a serum to cure liver disease. He has a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend, Billie, who’s also a scientist. Under pressure to get results, he starts cutting ethical corners by testing serums on human rather than animal subjects. Aslo developing a drink problem, he starts hanging out at low-life bars, where he befriends a prostitute, Linda.
Caught between two worlds, and taking the serum himself, his life splits into a black half and a monstrous white half. As 'Hyde', he’s unable to control his impulse to kill…
Many plotlines are introduced that lead to dead-ends, and it’s hard to believe Pride’s motivations, such as cheating on his girlfriend, played by Rosalind Cash, an actress who shone in The Omega Man as a tough cookie who could give Cleopatra Jones a run for her money. Unfortunately her part here is quite small, as Pride gets more interested in Linda.
As the title character(s), ex-footballer Bernie Casey doesn't clue us in much as to what’s going on in his head. He also muffs the crucial transformation scene, which relies almost solely on performance rather than special effects. Incidentally, the make-ups were provided by Stan Winston. But Casey’s physical scenes are very convincing - he excels at throwing people across the room!
Technically, I think this is the best of the blaxploitation horror films - it's better written than most, with the money to provide enough action. Despite William Marshall’s princely performances as Blacula, I’ve found the other 'black' horror films dull and too cheaply mounted. Dr Black, Mr Hyde is faster-paced, with an interesting if scattershot premise.
While various sub-plots are introduced, little is made of them. Dr Pride gets whiter each time he transforms, and he seems to be falling for Linda, but then chooses her as another test subject.
The film has political points to make, but these are unbalanced by the harsh treatment of the female characters (like pimps keeping their girls in line), nudity expected of the female cast, and comedy relief being provided by drug-pusher characters. Dr Pride and his girlfriend Dr Worth would be fine professional role-models if it wasn’t for his greed for success.
This has now been released by VCI Entertainment on region 1 DVD.
A Dr Black, Mr Hyde trailer is here on YouTube...
Thrillers like Shaft and comedy-dramas like Cotton Comes to Harlem were far more successful vehicles for empowerment than horror films could ever hope to be. However, they were part of a wave of films that provided all-black casts (with a couple of token honkys) for every movie genre.
My favourites from that era were the bigger budgeted affairs that crossed over into the mainstream – Car Wash, a slice-of-life comedy with a classic soundtrack, and the all-action Shaft’s Big Score, starring ‘black James Bond’ Richard Roundtree.
Blacula, Abby (aka Black Exorcist), or The Zombies of Sugar Hill will change my mind.
Do you want to know more?
Here’s a starter list of blaxploitation films from Wikipedia…
And a review of Sugar Hill that made me want to go back and re-watch it.
(This is an updated article from October, 2006)
March 19, 2011
also called NIGHT CALLER FROM OUTER SPACE
and BLOOD BEAST FROM OUTER SPACE
Now on region 2 DVD in the UK (October 2011)
The Night Caller is a low-budget British ‘B’ movie that I repeatedly revisit. Partly due to the nostalgia factor – I first saw this as a schoolboy in the seventies, only being allowed to stay up late once a fortnight to watch horror films on TV. It reminds me of the excitement and anticipation I felt for horror films back then – they certainly weren’t as easy to see as they are today.
More objectively, I think it's still enjoyable for the mid-sixties London vibe, the tight direction and effortless perfromances. It’s shot in crisp black and white with a creepy use of shadows and ‘dutch’ (slanted) angles when it gets a little crazy! This is before TV’s Batman wore out the technique the following year.
Starting with a UFO landing on wasteland just outside London. The army track it down and bring in three scientists from a nearby Government research facility. Convinced that it was a spacecraft, they're surprised to discover a small sphere, the size of a football, sitting on the ground. There’s no crater, so it must have been guided down. They hold it at their lab for further tests. Surrounded by the army, the scientists discover that, late at night, the object glows intensely and a dark, clawed figure appears.
In the panic, the figure disappears with the sphere, as do dozens of young women a few weeks later. Thinking that they’re going for an exclusive modelling job in the heart of London’s seedy Soho, they don’t realise they’re meeting the monster from the lab. As the kidnappings continue – how can the scientists help the police stop the creature from space?
I forgive the rubber claw that signifies the alien for most of the film. But when it's standing in the shadows completely swathed in rubber, the Soho connection takes dark new meanings. The slightly fractured narrative also logically and faithfully keeps to the original novel ‘The Night Callers’ by Frank Crisp, first published in 1960.
Its many moments of suspense are conjured up by the actors and the intense close-ups, rather than by showing much. Even with so little explicit terror, the film still warranted an X certificate in 1965. (This is a British 'X', only for over-16 year olds, rather than an American 'X' meaning hardcore porn).
Strangely, there’s a scene in the film, ‘blocked' (similar shots, action and set layout) the same way as one in Hammer’s later The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974) – where Drac poses as a millionaire in a swish futuristic room, backlit by anglepoise lamps so that his face can’t be seen. The same ‘long room and back-lighting’ subterfuge is used halfway through The Night Caller. I've been confusing these two very similar scenes for years without connecting the two.
Director John Gilling peaked in the mid-sixties with this and his Hammer horrors Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, which he shot back-to-back.
Hard to credit who the actual star is, with the story constantly shifting between characters dealing with the alien, though every actor plays this invasion-from-outer-space plot deadly seriously. A youthful John Saxon (far left) heads the cast, years before Enter the Dragon and Battle Beyond the Stars, or as cops in Argento’s Tenebre, Black Christmas (1973) and several Nightmare on Elm Streets. He’s accompanied by frosty blonde Patricia Haines, who I’m surprised didn’t make more movies. She worked steadily in top British TV series, including three episodes of The Avengers.
The third scientist is the stalwart Maurice Denham, whose most famous role was probably as the panicky recipient of ‘the runes’ in the opening sequence of horror classic Night of the Demon (1957).
Heading the police is Alfred Burke who recently passed away. He specialised in hard-boiled detectives on British TV, notably as the star of Public Eye for ten years. You might have seen him in Children of the Damned, in a very similar role. His last role was in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
There's a star cameo by Aubrey Morris as a creepy porn-merchant, flirting with a granite-faced Burke, "magic seeing you again”. Morris later played the abusive probation officer in A Clockwork Orange – talk about typecast. More recently he cropped up in Babylon 5 and Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood!
Another bit part has the always excellent John Carson representing the army. Carson played Dr Marcus in Hammer's Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter, and the squire in Plague of the Zombies.
For fans of John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, there's a rare straight role by Ballard Berkeley – the only time I’ve seen him onscreen where he's not the alcoholic 'Major'.
Warren Mitchell is in a single improvised scene with Marianne Stone, as parents of a missing teenager. Mitchell is famous in Britain as the bigoted Alf Garnett in TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, the original template for the character of Archie Bunker in All in the Family. Despite being typecast, he was versatile enough to play wealthy Russians in a couple of The Avengers episodes and Hammer’s space western Moon Zero Two. Marianne Stone holds the record for most movie appearances by a British actress, a familiar face in the Carry On comedies.
Seeing a good copy of The Night Caller is getting easier. The first DVD was the NTSC region 1 Image Entertainment DVD (pictured above). It's a slightly censored version, with an alternate shot that covers up nudie magazines in the Soho 'bookshop'. More damagingly, it has an awful and dated song over the opening credits, replacing the atmospheric ‘northern soul’ instrumental of the version that's been on telly for decades - one of my favourite movie theme tunes ever! The instrumental is coincidentally called "Image" and is credited to Joe Glenn, Larry Greene and Bob Sande.
Finally, in 2011, the UK had a DVD release, with the option of seeing the film colorised! It's a 'square' 1.33 full-frame release - I'd have preferred a 1.66 - the colour version is only optional. But this is the UK version that I've been hunting for, with the original instrumental theme tune and thematching title credit sequence. This is therefore the best DVD so far of the UK version - the seedy Soho bookshop scene is even the naughty version!
These 1.33 'fullframe' presentations on DVD cramp the composition, often cutting actors in half if they're at the edge of frame. There've been widescreen presentations on British TV and now there's one on YouTube and it's the entire film in one part. The trade-off is that it's also the version with the awful song. The choice is yours.
Of the many presentations I've seen, I've never run into the Blood Beast From Outer Space onscreen title. Never seen a trailer for the film either.
Lastly, here's how the opening instrumental track should sound, with the correct onscreen credits. This is only available in the 2011 UK DVD...
(This article updated November 12th, 2011)
March 15, 2011
After Zardoz and Meteor, Sean Connery made a good sci-fi film...
The year before sci-fi cinema started ripping off either Blade Runner or Mad Max 2, Alien was the strongest influence on outer space action for older audiences. Humanoids From The Deep, Alien Contamination, Galaxy of Terror, Titan Find all tried to cash in before the official Alien sequel in 1986. In the meantime, Outland (1981) duplicated so many elements from Alien that it could easily be mistaken for a spin-off. It was also serious sci-fi from the Alan Ladd company just before they produced Blade Runner.
Outland looks and sounds like Alien. But it's less of a cash-in than a concerted attempt to fit in with the Alien universe of the fairly near future, and matches the high production values. Extensive large-scale modelwork represents the mine and gigantic spacecraft. Functional, claustrophobic interior sets with huge chunky airlock doors add to the realism. Plus an unsettling soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.
A gigantic titanium mine on Io, a moon of Jupiter. O'Niel (Sean Connery) is the new sheriff in town, each tour of duty lasts a year. Two deaths coincide with his arrival and catch his interest. All witnesses say the miners killed themselves, so the mine supervisor (Peter Boyle) isn't happy when O'Niel decides to investigate further. He's only just arrived and has no friends or allies. If he causes any trouble, he'll have even fewer...
I'd recommend Outland to anyone who's overdosed on Alien sequels but still wants more. Like Alien and Aliens, this was shot in Britain, all filmed on studio soundstages. There's a mostly British and American cast, with a feisty female character to remind us of Ripley. Maybe it is Ripley, or her daughter.
When I first saw this on release, I was hoping that there would be a monster somewhere in the mining complex. The trailer and publicity had teased some mysterious, messy death scenes with exploding heads. So, I was hoping for an alien cause...
Outland is a good thriller with solid characters and a great cast, but not solid sci-fi. The confined sets are convincing, but even a slim knowledge of science could spoil it for you. As always, there's no attempt to portray the (one-sixth) gravity until the characters are in a depressurised zone. And who in their right mind uses shotguns in outer space?
Peter Hyams directed this between Capricorn One and the 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel 2010. It's far and away better than his more recent sci-fi offerings like Timecop and, gulp, A Sound of Thunder...
Sean Connery had missed out on a trip into space as James Bond in You Only Live Twice, and this is the only other time you'll see him in a spacesuit. He's excellent here, and the script, dialogue and supporting cast keeps it all dramatically strong. He shares the best scenes with a wry Frances Sternhagen (Communion, Misery), playing an incurably cynical, overworked doctor. I thought she looked old in this, so I was surprised to see her again in The Mist 26 years later.
Always a treat to see the late Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver, Young Frankenstein). Hard to understand why his film work dwindled after the seventies. James Sikking (Star Trek III) was also underused in movies. Here he plays O'Niel's right-hand man in the police force. The actor's greatest role remains Howard Hunter, trigger-happy commander of the armed response team, in ground-breaking TV cop show Hill Street Blues.
So far, any DVD releases keep on repeating the same faults. Outland desperately needs remastering. There's weaving picture movement and film dirt. The 1997 DVD is anamorphic widescreen but doesn't look much sharper than the laserdisc.
Here's an original trailer, cropped from 2.35 to 16:9, and it's far murkier than the DVD...
March 06, 2011
Kill, baby, kill, kill!
Hollywood movies usually have an A-list cast, beautiful cinematography, superb production design and state-of-the-art special effects. It's Alive has none of these. But director Larry Cohen still provides a unique horror concept and a script rich in ideas. It still keeps me interested right to the bloody finish where many mainstream movies fail to. Anyway, why bother with production values when you can make it cheap, make a profit and spawn a couple of sequels?
The first of the three is easily the best - don't feel compelled to watch the sequels...
A newly born baby slaughters five doctors and nurses in the delivery room, before escaping into the night. As the parents struggle to cope with why they've given birth to a monster, the police try to track 'it' down. The newborn craves milk, toys, and its parents. If anything gets in its way, it has teeth and huge claws...
Unlike traditional monster movies where our heroes are isolated or trapped (at sea, in space, in a remote mansion), this attempts a realistic portrayal of a menace in a modern city, including nosy media, tired cops, and the politics of putting down killer babies. Cohen, who also wrote this, depicts the media as especially insensitive, intruding on the family during their crisis. The use of gentle irony and satire is similar to his later films The Stuff and Q - The Winged Serpent.
Presumably It's Alive was inspired by Rosemary's Baby and a desire to see what happened next. The poster even repeats the image of the pram (though there isn't one in the films). But rather than link this mutant baby to religion, Cohen switches the probable cause of abnormal size and psychosis to manmade - suggesting food additives, pollution, and radiation.
The opening images are simple but disorientating - a growing multitude of flashlights in the night. But even for the 1970s, the low production values are very basic - stark lighting, sometimes scenes are underlit, with bizarrely wide camera compositions and very shaky tracking shots.
While it looks cheap, most of the acting manages to convince that this is all happening to a real couple of people. The late John P. Ryan (Runaway Train, Death Wish 4), as Frank Davis, holds most of the film together, with a transition from happy prospective parent to a reluctant hunter. Some of the supporting actors are on the clumsy side of naturalistic, but the key roles are solid, with Frank's wife (Sharon Farrell) particularly well played.
The film is also blessed with one of the last soundtracks to be composed by Hitchcock favourite Bernard Herrmann.
While the drama is consistent, it's less successful as a seventies monster movie, and especially lacking now. While Jaws succeeded in gradually revealing the monster, It's Alive barely ever shows us the goods, despite the excellent photos of the creature that were published. While the larger-than-lifesize model may have looked good, it couldn't move convincingly. Some quick cuts look like someone waving a plastic monster baby around. There were stories of the young make-up artist Rick Baker dressing up his (then) girlfriend as the creature and tricking the scale down, but again, these shots are so brief, most of his hard work isn't in the film. It's a classic design, but it's not showcased onscreen.
All the films under-deliver in showing us the title character. It's hard to even get a sense of its size. The horror content relies on the repetitive throat wounds, without showing the actual attacks.
Cohen's cheeky script for Maniac Cop, gave us the ultimate in police brutality and a inarguable reason for the public not to trust the police (any of them could be the maniac killer!). It's Alive also plays devil's advocate with a hard decision to make - surely a baby should be terminated if it's going to kill the moment it's born...
If the baby was seen more, like in all the classic monster movies, this would be better known. As it stands, it's a rewarding cynical horror with real people and some substance.
At the time, with very little competition, this was a sufficiently powerful monster movie and audiences wanted more...
It's Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978) kicks in soon after the first, with another couple about to have a monster baby (an echo of the events of Village of the Damned). The young couple, played by Kathleen Lloyd (hot off The Car) and Frederic Forrest (Coppola's The Conversation) are lucky to get advice of Frank Davis (John P. Ryan again).
Coincidentally Ryan, Lloyd and Forrest had just appeared together with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando in a western The Missouri Breaks. Demonstrating how good Larry Cohen was assembling his casts.
After an unlikely escape from a heavily-guarded hospital, there's an even nuttier storyline - a group of idealists trying to protect this 'new line of evolution', with unsurprising results. While there are plenty of fresh situations, the carnage is slow to kick in, with very few glimpses of now three monster babies. The camerawork is often so poor as to be mystifying. The drama is uneven and often implausible, but it's closer in tone to the original than...
It's Alive 3: Island of the Alive (1987), Cohen released the monsters again, with a project perfect for the lucrative VHS market. While the world had changed considerably, Cohen's increased special effects budget didn't deliver anything more realistic, and the next generation of child mutations mostly keep to the shadows, even when battling very-eighties post-punk troublemakers. Michael Moriarty bounces between over-acting and going for laughs. Karen Black and Gerrit Graham act their socks off in a project that's gotten silly.
It's Alive is still around on DVD (don't get it confused with Larry Buchanan's 1969 It's Alive!), the two sequels are available together on DVD, and there's also a set of all three (above). It would make more sense to keep the first two films as a pair, and leave the third for fans of the 80s...
OK. Now should I face the 2008 remake?
An original trailer for It's Alive (1974) is here, from YouTube...