June 25, 2014

THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO and THUNDERBIRD 6 - blu-ray double-bill

(1966, 1968, UK)

Both on one limited edition blu-ray from Twilight Time

Gerry Anderson's many series have been a lifelong obsession of mine. But of all the times I've seen Thunderbirds Are Go, watching this blu-ray was one of the most thrilling. I could talk about this all day but I'll try and be brief...

The first mission to Mars is under threat from sabotage. International Rescue are called in to ensure the safety of the astronauts lift-off for Mars and their return journey too! Most of the Thunderbirds craft are needed and of course Lady Penelope is called in to tackle the villains, demonstrating a spectacular new feature of her fabulous Fab 1 Rolls Royce.

Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds TV series first aired in the UK in 1965 and really spoiled us as children. A puppet show with intricate models (that looked like the best toys ever), a weekly hour of special effects and explosions. Every set for the puppets had to be built and dressed in 1/6th scale. All the exteriors, every vehicle and aircraft and their surroundings, had to be built on an even smaller scale. As a child, it was a hugely exciting adventure. As an adult, the work that went into these illusions still fascinates, as does the high quality of the writing and the humour and inventiveness of the stories.

Thunderbirds was a huge phenomenon in sixties' Britain, so popular that it immediately spun off weekly comics, books, toys, model kits, records and more - a marketing phenomenon over a decade before Star Wars. As most televisions were still small, squarish screens in black-and white, Thunderbirds then burst into cinemas in two widescreen adventures in colour.

The puppets and models were all upgraded for their big screen appearance. Similar to when TV productions had to revamp their sets and make-up for the transition to HD transmission. None of the footage from the Thunderbirds TV shows was re-used - for instance, all the classic launch sequences of the Thunderbird craft had to be rebuilt and re-filmed.

Of course, Barry Gray (who provided the theme tunes and backing music for all of Gerry's shows from The Adventures of Twizzle to the first season of Space: 1999) composed and conducted the movie soundtracks, this time with a big orchestra.

While the two feature films weren't successful at the box office, I had no idea about that as a child. I'd got to see Thunderbirds in colour on a huge screen! The TV series then finished after 32 episodes, but continued to be repeated for many years on ITV. Eventually, there was home video, and then there was a second boom in popularity during the BBC2 repeats in the 1990s. 

I always double-dipped for the home video releases, through VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. But I think the new blu-ray release from Twilight Time, with both feature films on one disc, is the best presentation we're likely to see in terms of picture quality. Though I've read a few complaints about it...

Both films were shot on 35mm, but for some reason, in Techniscope - a lower budget alternative to anamorphic 2.35, where the widescreen image is squeezed onto four perfs of 35mm film. Techniscope was non-anamorphic, recording the 2.35 image onto two-perfs of 35mm. The result being that the features were filmed at half the visual quality of the TV series! 

As a result, any shots that involve 'optical' work, like when the opening titles are added over a moving image, the quality of the image has gone down a generation when the two elements were optically combined and copied onto a new negative - this makes it noticeably more grainy, which is unfortunately how Thunderbirds Are Go begins. After all the Thunderbird craft are introduced, and the assembly of the Zero-X (over which the opening titles appear), the picture quality improves greatly. But the visible grain might be a shock at the start of this blu-ray. It's not how the whole film looks, it's just during the title sequence, which is admittedly very lengthy.

Blu-rays use high-resolution digital scans of film elements, allowing us to see the quality of the original film even clearly than it was possible in the cinema. The puppet scenes look the best, with less grain and saturated colour. The exteriors, with models of spaceships and aircraft are grainier. I've also noticed this difference while watching the UFO blu-rays, where the actors' scenes have a different look than the miniature work. I'm guessing that they used different cameras, maybe even different film stock. The miniatures were usually shot at higher speeds, resulting in a slow motion to make the models appear to look heavy. But this increase in filming speed, and the need for very deep sharp focus so as not to give away the small scale, would demand much more light and wider lens apertures. Basically pushing the film stock it to its limit. The main problem would be more grain.

But I like the fact that I'm watching something that looks like film. After many years, I'm very used to seeing grain. I also know that it's not always welcome when watching a brand new film on blu-ray! But this isn't brand new and it wasn't shot digitally. I'll add that I'm against use of heavy digital grain reduction to amend this texture. It could add extra textural movement that wasn't on the negative and possibly obscure valuable visual detail. On this presentation, it's daunting to finally see (feint) support wires on the Zero-X spaceship. Derek Meddings and his visual effects crew would certainly have reshot those scenes if the wires were visible on a cinema screen. Proof that we're seeing the film at higher quality than ever before.

Twilight Time have included previously available DVD extras and added some new ones. Having both films on one disc makes this the best value of all their releases. The new transfers also improve on previous DVD editions with a less cramped aspect, revealing additional picture information on all sides of the frame. For the level of detail and richness of the colours, I couldn't be happier with it!

There are several high definition screengrabs from both films on this blu-ray here on DVD Beaver.

A special 1965 magazine about the story and the making of the film.

June 22, 2014

MISSING (1982) - a true story of modern horror

(1982, USA)

When the law means nothing any more, just obey the guys with guns...

A young American journalist (John Shea) gets cut off from his wife (Sissy Spacek) during a violent military coup in South America. With the army in charge and locking down communication and travel around the country, she knows that he might just be caught up somewhere, unable to get in touch. But as the weeks pass, his father (Jack Lemmon) flies down from the USA to help try and locate him.

The mystery drives the two through the shady activities of the new regime, based on the 1973 coup in Chile. It's recognisably a modern American city - but civilisation has some nasty cracks. As they talk to officials and journalists in embassies and restaurants, there are sudden loud bursts of gunfire outside. People are dragged away from busy public places, seemingly at random. Fresh gunshot victims lie in the empty streets, unattended.

The horrors of the new order are steadily revealed through the film. My first watch, over twenty years ago, shocked me. I couldn't believe that this was a true story. After a steady diet of news and documentaries, these events are now more familiar, but Missing still captures what it's like to be trapped inside this chaotic and terrifying situation, exposing the underside of the story that we don't get in news reports.

Director Costa-Gavras has always made political films, but here expertly balances his revelations with a well-told drama. Missing successfully reached a mainstream North American audience and won two Academy Awards (as well as two other nominations). It reminded me of The Killing Fields, with the constant verbal battles with armed authority, but this is a stronger story that hits harder.

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are both excellent, but so is the direction - keeping the momentum of the investigation going, while piling on terrifying detail. Soldiers burning books at night is an eerie indicator of the way the country is being controlled.

The lasting impression of this film was creeping depression! That this happened at all, and that it's probably still happening today. 

I watched the region 1 DVD that I bought years ago - it's anamorphic widescreen with no extras. There's now a Criterion special edition, with interviews with the people the characters were based on and more context about the Chilean coup.

June 15, 2014

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) - the doctor driven to new depths

(1969, UK)

The apex of the Hammer Studios' Frankenstein series...

Baron Frankenstein's latest experiment has been found discovered by the police. He has to leave town quickly and continue his grisly work elsewhere. With a new name and hidden better than ever, the doctor discovers an old colleague is now confined to an lunatic asylum. Frankenstein uses his unorthodox surgical skills to cure this doctor whose knowledge can further his own...

This Hammer horror stands above the rest of its Frankensteins because, this time, the human experiment can reason intelligently and speak their mind. While teenaged me was disappointed that it wasn't about a rampaging disfigured monster, the dramatic consequences proved creepy and haunting. That Frankenstein never hesitates to further his knowledge at the cost of any lives necessary.

It was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) that launched Hammer Studios in the new direction of horror for the next twenty years. They continued Baron Frankenstein's medical adventures with Peter Cushing every couple of years for another five sequels. There's no overall 'story arc' - each Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy film can be enjoyed as stand-alone films. Just as well, back when the only way to see them was when ITV or BBC decided to schedule one, always in a random order.

For me, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the most interesting of the Hammer Frankenstein's. It's not set in a castle and there's less emphasis on costume drama. Apart from riding around on a coach and horses, it could even be a modern story. This film also attempts to compete with the emerging violent cinema heralded by Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. Not as extreme as either of those, but notably more vicious.

From the very first scene, there's a beautifully executed pre-credits sequence, much like a Bond film, where it apparently begins with a finale from a previous adventure. A wordless, shocking, concise flurry of bloody action that sums up the Doctor's methods, before he has to set off on the run from the police, again. This is director Terence Fisher on top form, even though it was close to his last film.

Throughout the Hammer Frankensteins, there are many memorable moments, but this film packs in most of my favourites. Not just the tension of 'how much they'll show' of the surgical operations, but also the suspense of being discovered as the police close in on the Doctor's hideout, and a spectacular problem with a corpse that won't stay buried.

A particularly strong cast has Simon Ward co-opted into assisting the doctor. While he looks angelic, Ward was cast as both heroes (Young Winston) and psychopaths. Here his character gets our sympathy, despite the ambiguities of his character.

Veronica Carlson gives her best performance as his blackmailed girlfriend, with far better scenes than her usual 'waiting to be bitten' vampire victim.

Peter Cushing is excellent as Dr Frankenstein, surprising fans with his convincing portrayal of a vicious sleaze. This film, along with Corruption (1968) contain the actor's most controversial scenes.

Freddie Jones is the other standout performance. An actor capable of playing extremely eccentric characters or difficult scenarios such as this with invention and conviction. No wonder he became a favourite of David Lynch after being cast in The Elephant Man (and then Dune, Wild At Heart, Hotel Room, On The Air). His faltering voice conveys extreme vulnerability, but also an inner steel that can match Frankenstein's obsession with success.

This is a cleverer story than usual, less concerned with pseudo-science, and more interested in the insecurities of all the players. Deeper emotions and higher stakes make this gripping as drama and horror, regularly reaching frenzied highs, particularly the extended climax. Speaking of which, James Bernard's score (available on the above CD) evokes the sadness, suspense and excitement with one of his most memorable scores.

I watched the US region 1 DVD (above) - which is thankfully presented in the original anamorphic 1.85 widescreen. It's now definitely due for a blu...

Currently only available in the UK on a made-on-demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

June 08, 2014

DEADFALL (1968) - Michael Caine heist before THE ITALIAN JOB

(1968, UK)

Very sixties, very glossy, very repressed...

Michael Caine plays a jewel thief, drawn into an ambitious heist from a well-protected estate on the Spanish island of Mallorca. But the story spends more time on the psychological motives of his partners in crime, a mysterious husband and wife team (Eric Portman and Giovanna Ralli).

Based on a pulpy thriller by Desmond Cory, director Bryan Forbes adapts and streamlines the highlights of the story until its almost insubstantial. I was interested to see that the most unlikely physical aspects of the main heist are are taken from Cory's novel. 

Forbes seems distracted by the glamour of his cast, Caine at the height of his Alfie/Harry Palmer sexiness, as well as the beauty of the sun-drenched locations. It's often shot with a trendy variety of oblique, beautiful camerawork (framed through archways, out of focus/into focus...). 

It's interesting to see a sixties' drama in English using the relatively meaningless camerawork of French new wave. The sheen of the film would have been more attractive when the Mediterranean was a faraway glamorous location. A few years before it was overrun with affordable flights and package holidays.

But the style is very seductive, especially for late night viewing, when you can bathe in it, regardless of the pace of the story. Midnight is also a more suitable time for the sombre mood of the drama and the darkness in John Barry's lush soundtrack, the last of six collaborations with Forbes. For instance, Barry's theme when the diamonds are revealed hints at their dangerous allure. The theme song, belted out by Shirley Bassey, highlights the duality of several characters, 'My Love Has Two Faces'...

The musical centrepiece of the film is during a burglary, timed while a rich couple leave their mansion to go to a concert, conducted by John Barry himself! The performance doubles as the tense soundtrack to the heist. As Forbes explains in the DVD extras, they had the mindboggling task of filming the concert before the soundtrack was completed, when that music is normally added after the editing.

The soundtrack has always stuck with me, but so has the backstory of one the characters. As a young teenager, I was interested at the hint of a gay character, especially rare on TV in the 1970s. In my memories, I thought it only figured in one scene. But now I recognise the gay subplot as major rather than minor. It can also be the only reason for Deadfall being an X certificate in 1968. Note that the poster warns of "the perverse". There's no nudity, violence or swearing, what else could it be but a taboo subject?

It even makes me wonder that I missed some of the dialogue, or if several 'homosexual' references were removed when this played on Saturday night TV in the evening, rather than late at night. I'm thinking that the 'queer' in the dialogue might have been snipped out.

Deadfall reminds me of how homosexuality in the seventies continued to be represented, regarded as a dirty, dark secret that had to be carefully guarded and hidden at all costs. The story intertwines the shame and guilt with the plot. It's a dated representation, but a realistic taste of the anguish of closetted life.

The downbeat tone is leavened with a fun party scene where Nanette Newman inevitably cameos. Her character wants to be in movies. "Oh, you're an actress?" asks Caine. "No, I want to be in movies." she replies, absently.

Deadfall is at its core a heist movie. On the glossy surface, a variation on To Catch A Thief. A reminder of the lush music and cinematography of the decade. But it's also a tortured drama.

The US DVD (above) includes an isolated score, a 19 minute featurette interview with composer John Barry and director Bryan Forbes, both no longer with us, and the spoilerific original trailer. Optimum have also released a widescreen DVD in the UK.

Deadfall is also on a German blu-ray (as Die Todesfalle) with no extras, only a choice of English or German audio tracks.

There's a CD soundtrack from Retrograde Records that remastered and expanded John Barry's original vinyl soundtrack (shown at top).

Lastly, here are some inviting screengrabs from the US DVD here on DVD Beaver.

June 06, 2014

Judge Dredd speaks! (1985)

The first time ever I heard Judge Dredd...

Judge Dredd has always been coy about showing his face. In the early years, 2000 AD comic fans of all ages would send in drawings of what his face might look like. There was also on ongoing conversation in the letters page about which actors could or should play the character onscreen. 

At a time when we were desperate for Judge Dredd to be brought to life in some way, before there were any video games or movies, there was an initial thrill in hearing him speak for the first time. In 1985, ten years before he was first portrayed in a movie, Joe Dredd's voice was first heard in this unlikely project...

'Mutants In Mega-City One' by The Fink Brothers was released as a single in 1985. It alternates between an electronic saxy dance track and dialogue from a parade of different characters from the Judge Dredd stories, including the man himself.

Written as a mini-adventure, with mutants breaching the city walls, the soundscape to this track has sirens and screams that evoke the chaotic life of Mega-City One. Particularly like the robotic voice of Dredd's Lawmaster bike grimly reciting his percentage chances of survival.

On the back of the record sleeve, each of the character voices was identified in this unorthodox lyric sheet...

It was no secret that The Fink Brothers were actually Carl and Suggs of Madness who were huge 2000 A.D. fans - proof that the comic was already popular with adults (not even many graphic novels around back then). Despite the zany antics usually associated with the band, The Finks' track was played as seriously as the comic, post-apocalyptic with a hint of dark humour. It was released on their record label, Zarjazz, as a 7inch and 12inch single, but never on CD.

Brian Bolland drew a superb front and back cover for the vinyl sleeve, reprinted as a "What's Up Earthlets?" poster, free with some of the records (not mine, dammit!) and also used on the Prog 403 cover of 2000 AD to further promote the song.

Brian Bolland's original pencil art for the sleeve

Hear 'Mutants In Mega-City One' by The Fink Brothers

June 02, 2014

ISLAND OF TERROR (1966) - remastered and coming to DVD and blu-ray

(1966, UK)

Just when you think an old film is out-of-print and likely to be forgotten, it gets digitally remastered and struck on blu-ray! Odeon Entertainment are releasing Island of Terror in September and Night of the Big Heat on June 23rd. Both films are sci-fi horrors directed by one of Hammer Films' best, and both star Peter Cushing. 

Terence Fisher repeatedly proved that low-budget sci-fi was harder than low-budget horror, though it appears that he made these for less money than any of his Hammer Films. But he could still milk chills out of them, even The Earth Dies Screaming (1965).

That, Island of Terror and Night of the Big Heat are derived from the tradition of British science fiction in the vein of John Wyndham (The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids). Space invaders attacking isolated communities. Humanity retreating to defend itself in a mundane hotel bar or public house... 

Island of Terror is the most ambitious of Fisher's 'invasion trilogy' with an onslaught of slow-moving... things. Bulletproof things that quickly replicate themselves and can suck the bone out of anything they get their tentacles on. Not a great situation to be trapped on a remote island with.

Hard not to like, it has a brisk pace, even though our heroes spend a lot of time racing up and down the same dirt road in the same car. The monsters are quite unique, unlikely looking but sounding really creepy. They move slow but they can still creep up on you...

Edward Judd (First Men in the Moon) effortlessly plays a patronising, womanising hero, with barely any feeling for his dialogue, except that it's louder than everyone else and often begun over the others' lines. 

Carole Gray (Curse of the Fly) looks too classy and beautiful for b-movie monsters, and is far more convincing than Judd. There's also Niall MacGinnis (Night of the DemonJason and the Argonauts) given far too little to do. It's almost insulting that Peter Cushing isn't the romantic lead, though that doesn't stop him from hinting at it!

The rollicking Malcolm Lockyer (Dr Who and the Daleks) soundtrack is supplemented by Barry Gray's (Thunderbirds are GoSpace 1999UFO) creepy electronic sound effects.

Island of Terror - uncut German DVD

Island of Terror had a UK DVD release, which I've not seen. I'd opted for the German DVD because it has an additional, bloody censor cut. But the transfer is poor, overly contrasty, and the source print is jumpy. The aspect ratio looks like 1.66 stretched sideways to fill the 16:9 frame. I delight in watching it just for the extra shot, but the forthcoming remastering will easily look better.

Odeon's online store is already offering pre-order sales for Island of Terror on DVD and blu-ray the site says that these will be region-free. I'll update this article once I've seen the new blu-ray.

Terence Fisher's Night of the Big Heat (1967) starring both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is on pre-order at MovieMail.

More about Terence Fisher's other sci-fi horror The Earth Dies Screaming (1965).

An earlier look at Island of Terror and some Silicate fridge magnets!