X the Unknown: Low Key Hammer Sci Fi

I first watched the black & white X the Unknown (1956) in my early teens.  This is the period when I sought out every science fiction and monster movie I could find.  I stumbled across this one on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  The movie was (forgive the irony) a complete unknown to me.

My ignorance probably contributed to my enjoyment of it.  This is the type of movie where one needs to see as little of the monster as possible.  Instead, the horrific effects it has on the growing number of victims helps build the tension.  The creature itself is essentially a glowing, radioactive blob.  Unlike The Blob, you don’t see it for most of the movie.  Even when it does appear, it isn’t kept on the screen long.  I imagine much of this is due to budgetary restraints, but much of it must have been deliberate.

My best stash–ruined!

Although it’s ostensibly science fiction, the movie falls solidly in the horror category.  Like many movies of the fifties, it involves radiation.  Radiation was the go-to McGuffin to explain at least 90% of the monsters roaming the celluloid of the time.  Wanted a giant monster?  Just add radiation.  It’s a trope that lasted at least through the seventies, but its heyday was the fifties.

The basic story is that a bottomless crack opens up in the ground near Glasgow, Scotland.  This happens (coincidentally?) during a British Army exercise using a Geiger Counter to locate radioactive materials.  The radiation goes off the scale and there’s an explosion that opens the crack, injuring several  from radiation burns.

The plucky atomic scientist protagonist, Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) is called in to investigate, along with Mr. “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern–who I will always remember as the priest from Ladyhawke) who is an investigator from the UK Atomic Energy Commission.  The tension builds that night when a couple of local kids encounter the creature (although the audience never sees it) in a desolate part of the woods.  Then, Dr. Royston’s lab is ransacked and all radioactive material is rendered inert. 

You may notice some slight swelling . . .

(Note: the movie was intended to be a sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment, but Hammer couldn’t get Nigel Kneale’s permission to use the character.)

You get a slow, steady build of tension as the creature goes after every local source of radioactivity and burns everyone in its way to a crisp.  A nice, creepy scene occurs in the local hospital when it goes after a radiation lab and melts a hapless doctor to a puddle of flesh. 

Dr. Royston does the standard trope of the genre and gives everyone a “crazy theory” about radioactive creatures beneath the earth.  Which naturally–everyone is skeptical about.  Then there’s the obligatory scene of someone descending into the crack in the ground to investigate.

This is perfectly safe, right guys? Guys?

When the audience finally gets a look at the creature, it’s a little anticlimactic.  The special effects aren’t bad, per se, but I suppose you can only make a blob of living radioactive mud look so threatening.  A greater special effects budget might have helped, although maybe the limited budget actually helped.  I’m undecided.  I do know the effects did what was required of them and no more.  The actors and writers really carry the heavy lifting in the movie.

You’ve got some real drainage problems with your roof.

I don’t want to give away all the details, since it’s well worth watching.  If you’ve every seen a fifties monster movie, there won’t be a lot of surprises, but it works well and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The whole film is available on YouTube.  Enjoy.

 

 

The Blob: (1958) A Glorious Cheese

When I was a young little nipper, I first saw The Blob on late night television.  I sought out each and every monster and science fiction movie I had ever read about.  Unfortunately, this was before the VHS and then DVD boom.  Finding movies to watch consisted of me combing through late night television schedules and crossing my fingers.

Along comes The Blob.  I had read its description in my geek literature (mainly Famous Monsters of Filmland) but hadn’t seen it.  So I spot it being played on a late, late movie and girded my loins to stay up late enough to watch it.

I expect this is an animate version of the muck on the floor of theaters.

Watching this movie as an adult and it’s pretty cheesy.  As a kid, it kinda scared me.  I didn’t see the bad acting, dubious cinematography or corny dialogue.  I just saw a blob monster that dissolved you like acid.  Which, if you think about it, is pretty horrible.  This movie didn’t go into graphic detail like the 1988 Blob remake (which I also enjoy,) but it suggested enough for my youthful, warped mind.

Basic plot is simple enough.  Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) spot a meteor crash to earth.  Our plucky protagonists drive off to find the meteor.  Unfortunately an old man hobo-type has discovered it already and the

No way this goes wrong.

Blob inside it has attached to his arm.

What follows is a classic “nobody believes us” story where the teenage protagonists try to convince the authorities that there’s something wrong.  The authorities, naturally, thing they’re just a bunch of punk kids causing trouble.  It ties into a lot of the teen rebellion style movies coming out in the fifties and sixties.  There’s a lot of ‘hip’ forgettable dialogue and marginal acting, but I don’t go into a movie like this expecting Ben Hur.

A note about Steve McQueen.  This was Steve’s first starring role, so I can forgive the miscast.  Sure, I like Steve, but he’s supposed to be a teenager in this movie when he was

The doctor will see you n–OH GOD!

in his late twenties.  He doesn’t look much like a teenager.  Still, I forgive a lot and hey, it’s friggin’ Steve McQueen!

People also might recognize Aneta Corsaut from her later role as Helen Crump from The Andy Griffith Show.   I believe only Steve and her ever had any roles of prominence after this film.

The special effects in the movie are decent.  They’re nothing Oscar-caliber, but they do the job well enough on their meager budget.  They mostly consist of matte shots and miniature sets involving a blob of silicone colored with red dye.  A few brief bits of animation and set paintings and the occasional forced perspective.

Does Obamacare cover this?

The Blob’s weakness (and there always is one) is cold and it’s defeated by the use of CO2 fire extinguishers that freeze it solid.  The final shot is the creature being dropped in the Arctic.

Anyway, this film is far from perfect.  Often scenes appear to be lit using a penlight.  There are long, dragging bits of “cool teen” dialogue that do little to move the plot forward.  Everyone except Steve and Aneta apparently read about acting in a book once.  No, it has warts.

Still, the concept is creepy enough and the setting is campy enough that it’s hard to hate this movie.  The goofy title song Beware of the Blob (composed by Burt Bacharach and Mack David) became a top forty hit in 1958.  For your listening pleasure:

There was a sequel to The Blob called Son of the Blob or Beware! the Blob which I haven’t seen.  Larry Hagman directed it.  The tagline was “The Film J.R. Shot!”

 

Why I Hate Independence Day

Most people seem to love the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day.  I am not one of those people.  I can’t stand it.  I’m also not a fan of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who crafted this “masterpiece”.

When I started this blog, I wanted to concentrate on things I actually liked.  Many friends complain to me that “I hate everything”.  So I figured I’d go with a positive vibe.  However, I have come to realize that occasionally I need to clear the air about my hates.  So I’ll start with a big one.  This damn movie.

The first time I watched this movie (in the theater) I didn’t think it was awful. It wasn’t that impressive, but I just shrugged.  I watched it on the Fourth of July with a bunch of friends in a jovial atmosphere.  Many months later, I noticed it playing on cable late night and thought “what the hell, let’s give it a second watch”.  It was only this time, as I watched it without the hype and the group of friends I had seen it with the first time, that I realized just how awful it is.  I remember thinking: “Jesus!  Was this really this bad before?”

Here is why.

Technical Stupidity

Let’s start with the easy stuff–the technical flaws.

We’re here with evidence that will lead to the arrest of Hillary Clinton.

Okay, first we get this super-advanced alien race coming to Earth to conquer it in mile-long spaceships.  They’ve mastered anti-gravity, force fields and projected energy weapons.  Apparently, however, they haven’t figured out satellites, because they didn’t bring any of their own.  They have to use terrestrial satellites to coordinate their attack.  Sure, apparently they have thousands of smaller craft they could use for this, but instead want to use Earth satellites because . . . reasons?  Apparently so the plucky Earth scientists could figure out what you were doing.

Second, if you have this level of technology and all you want to do is level the planetary civilization, why enter the atmosphere?  Hell, why exert yourself at all?  Drop a few hundred small asteroids and watch the fireworks.  Easy as pie.  You don’t even have to look at those pesky Earth vermin.

Third, if you have a force field which can withstand a hydrogen bomb, why would you need to send out a bunch of fighters to deal with primitive Earth fighters, armed with lesser weapons?  Just ignore them.  Seriously.  This is like an aircraft carrier flying a sortie with fighters because pelicans are smacking into the side of the ship.

I should punch out Iron Man now! I am GOOD!

Fourth, if you have a force field around your smaller ships which is apparently just as impervious as the one around the big ship, why would running into the ground damage it?

Fifth, if you have an alien with an exoskeleton battle suit, how does Will Smith knock it out with a punch?

Sixth, hacking an alien computer language in a day with a Mac?  Really? 

The Character Void

Now we come to the harder stuff.  Characters.  Or lack thereof. 

Don’t worry, honey. Mom will die, but she’ll die to give this movie the illusion of depth.

This movie has the emotional depth of a puddle.  There is absolutely nothing beyond the surface.  Nothing.  Zero, zip, Nada. I’ve seen public service announcements with more gravitas.

The aliens blow up cities in a dramatic fashion, killing millions.  At what point do we see flash-burned survivors digging through rubble, trying to find their loved ones?  People succumbing to despair and perhaps committing suicide?  Genuine horror and shock?  The only inkling of real emotion is when the First Lady croaks.  That’s it.

Millions of incinerated people almost makes us mad. Or sad. Something.

When the pilots get ready to attack after cities have been incinerated, do they pray, scream to heaven, panic, etc.?  Any of them?  No, it’s “Let’s light the fires and kick the tires!” to go kick alien butt!  Wee-hoo!  Everybody reacts like this is just a minor thing.  Compare this with the 2011 Battle Los Angeles reactions from the Marines.  They’re all obviously scared and confused, but go out to face the enemy anyway.  That movie has flaws and cliches, but at least I actually believed the emotions of the characters.  I could identify with them.  They felt real.

In Independence Day, I might as well have been watching robots. 

Don’t get wrong, there are some decent actors in the movie.  Will Smith does his best with what he’s given, but it’s thin and he’s not a wizard.  I also doubt he minded much, since this movie catapulted him to super-stardom, but you’ll notice he wisely declined to participate in the sequel.

Take that, Star Whackers!

Nobody reacts like people.  They react like animated cut-outs that superficially resemble people.  It’s actually a little creepy.  Remember when Randy (“I’ve gone crazy”) Quaid suicides into the ship?  His son witnesses this.  His son, who finally discovers his father isn’t crazy and was right for years, so now he has a chance to reconnect with him.  How does he react to this ironic tragedy?  He says something to the effect of how proud he is of him and he smiles.  Are you kidding me?!  How about some tears?  Deep regret?  Something?!

I hope you gentlemen are here to extract me from this shitty movie.

And finally, the aliens.  They’re a complete blank slate other than “We’re bad and we want to kill you”.  Nothing that wrong with a cryptic enemy if that fits.  Unfortunately, it usually fits with a grim or horrific motif.  Independence Day isn’t trying to be grim . . . I think.  I honestly don’t know what kind of tone they were shooting for.  Some kind of depth of motivation would have helped with the aliens.  Something.  Anything to flesh them out or make them interesting.  But we got nothing.

There are a few other annoying details, but they’re minor.  This covers the main, hideous flaws.  This movie was the beginning of my hatred for Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (or as I like to call them, the “Twins of Satan”) but their rape of Godzilla (1998) was the last time I paid a penny to see their abominations.  (shudders)

Battle Beyond the Stars: A Forgotten Gem

 

Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, riding the coattails of Star Wars.  Every studio was scrambling to find an equivalent franchise after SW hit the movie scene like a nuclear bomb.  Roger Corman, the king of low-budget schlock, slapped together this movie in short order.

The results were . . . surprisingly, not too bad.  Subtle?  Not so much.

Battle is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven in space.  Seven was also a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai.  So it’s a remake of a remake.  Which sounds terrible, but the initial premise is still strong and Battle has decent actors and production values.

A wholesome couple and their android.

The setting is the far future planet Akir.  Akir is inhabited by peace-loving space Amish . . . or something.  Anyway, the Akira (a nod to Akira Kurosawa) get a visit from an unpleasant character called Sador.  (Yes, Sador.  A subtle name.)  Sador (John Saxon) packs a giant battleship, an army of mutants and a “stellar converter” that can blow up planets.  Not having an army or experience in fighting, they send out Shad (Richard Thomas) to look for help.  Richard at this point had just come off playing “John-Boy” on The Waltons for five years.  I suspect he was attempting to find any role that would break out of that typecasting.

See? Boobs.

Shad flies off in an intelligent ship with a sarcastic personality named Nell.  And the ship has boobs.  Seriously, the ship is stacked.  Through various encounters, Shad manages to dig up a group of fighters who are willing to defend Akir.

He loves it when a plan comes together.

First is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who doesn’t bring any weapons except a battle computer, however she is Shad’s love interest.  Second is Space Cowboy.  Yes, his name is Space Cowboy.  Did I mention this film isn’t subtle?  Space Cowboy (George Peppard) doesn’t have much of a ship, but has plenty of ground weapons to fend off troops. 

Typical college life these days.

Nestor, a group-mind of clones, volunteer for the fight because they’re bored with their sameness.  Next comes Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin whose success has made him too many enemies.  All he wants is a place to live peacefully, without watching his back.  Vaughn essentially plays the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, only with a spaceship. 

Next is Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) from the race of Valkyries.  She shows up in a tiny, super-fast ship and wants to fight because she comes from a warrior race and loves it.  For you younger folks, Sybil was the go-to sexpot in every B film in the 80s.  She’s wonderful eye candy in this.

She can carry my spear. Rowwr!

Finally we get a lizard alien named Cayman (Morgan Woodward).  Yes, he’s named Cayman.  Just let it go.  Cayman has a massive warship and wants to fight because Sador destroyed his race.  Although unrecognizable in his makeup, you might know Woodward from Cool Hand Luke, and two appearances on the original Star Trek series.

The group of fighters meet Sador in battle and . . . well, you can guess how this goes if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven. 

I enjoyed the hell out of it as a kid and when I rewatched it recently, it held up pretty well.  It doesn’t hurt that you have real actors and decent special effects (by none other than James Cameron).  The spaceship designs are nifty and John Sayles‘s script is damn solid.

I am eeeevil!

It has since become a bit of a cult favorite among aficionados.  It still pops up from time to time in pop culture references.  If you’ve ever played the classic PC game Master of Orion II, you’ll recognize the “stellar converter” technology reference.

If you like science fiction and have never seen this, I recommend it without reservation.

The whole movie’s available on YouTube.  You’re welcome.

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Obscure Indie Film: The Deadly Spawn

The Deadly Spawn is an oddball sci-fi/horror movie from 1983.  I hadn’t seen it myself until just recently.  I’d seen the poster and a few stills, but that’s all.  Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet and YouTube, hence my ability to watch it.

First, I’d like to make sure you realize this is a ‘B’ movie.  The entire budget of this film was a grand total of $25,000.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, this was in 1983 dollars, but . . . that’s a shoestring budget.  To give you an idea, note that Night of the Living Dead’s budget was $114,000 in 1968 dollars, and that was a tight budget.  And Night didn’t have much in the way of special effects aside from some makeup effects.

Ignore my phallic shape and kiss me.

Second, the late, great Tim Hildebrandt is one of the film’s producers.  Yes, that Tim Hildebrandt.  Lord of the friggin’ Rings Tim Hildebrandt of the Brothers Hildebrandt.  The brothers responsible for most of the LOTR artwork for a couple of decades, not to mention the original poster art for Star Wars.  (Also note that the youngest protagonist and science fiction fanboy in the movie is Charles George Hildebrandt–Tim’s son.)

The Brothers Hildebrandt also did the artwork for the Deadly Spawn movie poster.  Which is pretty damn cool.

Last time I go to that dermatologist.

The plot is straightforward and familiar to any science fiction or horror movie nerd.  A meteor falls in the woods and is discovered by a couple of campers. The toothy spawn from inside the meteor make a quick meal of said campers.  The spawn takes up residence in a rural house’s basement and proceeds to start eating the inhabitants and visitors.  It also releases multiple tiny spawn with oversized teeth and jaws.  The spawn do what evil alien spawn are supposed to do–they try to eat everything they find.

This little piggy went to the SLAUGHTER!

The gore is both graphic and solidly done, especially considering the minuscule budget available.  Interspersing the graphic effects are several cutaway scenes involving what I kind only assume was a squirt gun with stage blood.  The main creature has some nicely overdone dental appendages of sinister design.  It’s no man in a rubber suit.  It’s accomplished with puppetry effects and judicious use of dark lighting, cutaways and close-ups.

The acting?  All I can say is that for a college production, the acting is decent.  Not exactly Shakespearean, but this isn’t exactly Othello, either.  I will say the acting is better than most of the SyFy Channel’s cheese movies.  Which admittedly, isn’t hard.

Feed me, Seymour!

I could go into more plot details, but honestly, you know everything you need to know.  Alien spawn picking off victims.  Deadly game of cat and mouse.  Plucky young protagonist figures out the spawn’s weakness.  Deadly vegetarian food party.  Don’t go in the basement.

Party on.  Go check it out.  It’s available on YouTube for free.  Enjoy.

*- Please note, there is a quasi “sequel” called Deadly Spawn II or Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor.  Apparently it has little to do with the first movie.  I have never seen it.

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Movies That Need More Love: Real Steel

I love Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy.  I simply adore this movie.  It earned my love the first time I watched it and it has never diminished.  Just to let you know my bias.

Is it formulaic?  Oh yes.  Real Steel owes a great deal to the Rocky movies in its formula.  It’s a (very) loose adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” which appeared on The Twilight Zone in 1963.  Elements of that story are still there, but mostly serves as the kernel of a new story entirely.  The TZ story was more serious and depressing.

Anyway, you’ve got Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as a former boxer turned robot boxer promoter.  Backstory reveals that human boxing languished as robot boxing started, as mere humans couldn’t give the type of spectacle the fans wanted.  Charlie reconnects with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after Max’s mother dies.  Charlie cynically sells away his rights to Max for enough money to continue robot boxing, only to lose again and again.  Part of the deal is that Max stays with Charlie over the summer.

Charlie gets more than he bargained for with Max, as he’s a robot boxing fan and knows more about robots than Charlie.  More than that, Charlie begins to care about his son as more than a moneymaking scheme.  He’s alternately encouraged and chastened by Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who is the daughter of his deceased former boxing coach.

After all of Charlie’s expensive robots are destroyed, Max literally falls over an older robot called “Atom” in a junkyard.  They fix Atom up and discover he punches well above his weight class.

Kid, let me tell you about this time my plane crashed on an island . . .

Every actor in this movie punches above his or her weight class.  Hugh Jackman gives a typically great performance.  He manages to portray a burned out loser who isn’t an idiot, but constantly does stupid things by impulse.  I normally loathe child actors, but Dakota Goyo is a joy to watch.  He’s precocious, but not annoyingly precocious, like too many child actors.  He still shows expected, childish gaps in his knowledge.  Evangeline Lilly is also wonderful.  She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she packs a lot of heart in the few minutes she slips in and out.  (On a personal note, I find her to be absolutely gorgeous, in a ‘girl next door’ kind of way.)  Kevin Durand is hilariously great as the over-the-top heavy with an exaggerated redneck accent and sneering smile.  (Compare it with his Brooklyn/Ukranian accent on The Strain.  The guy’s got some range.)

(Side note: Sugar Ray Leonard advised the fight choreography.)

I would be amiss in not mentioning the Academy Award nominated robot effects in this movie.  The effects people outdid themselves.  The CGI interacts with the human actors

If you were a vampire, I’d so kill you.

and practical effects in a well-choreographed and very believable fashion.  Contrast it with the awful interactions in pretty much any Transformers movie and you’ll see that people who complain about too much CGI don’t understand.  It’s not the effects–it’s how they’re used.  Real Steel uses them like a maestro.  You can easily fool yourself into thinking these robots are real.

The filmmakers show the science fiction elements of this near-future setting, but don’t cram them down your throat.  Multiple, logical progressions of existing technology linger in the background.  The obvious ones with the robots are still handled in a mundane enough manner to suspend disbelief.

I love all of the above, but the part that really ties it up into a bow is that this is a guy’s movie.  No, not a guy’s movie–a father’s movie.  This entire movie is love letter to fatherhood.  So often these days fathers are mocked and/or shown to be shitheads or simply unnecessary.  (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.)  This movie does everything but put a banner in praise of fatherhood over the top of the screen.  Fatherhood really matters in this movie and isn’t the least bit shy about showing it.

I’d make a joke about the scene, but I love it too much.

Are there predictable, cliched elements?  Absolutely.  But cliches become cliches because they work. If you have good writing, dialogue and heart, I don’t care if something has been done before.  Real Steel has enough heart for two movies.  I defy any man to not get a little misty-eyed during the Zeus shadow boxing.  Go on, I dare you.

If you’ve never seen this movie–what are you waiting for?!  Go find a copy and watch it!  Immediately!

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The Hidden: An Oddball 80s Movie

The Hidden (1987) is an obscure science fiction film starring Kyle MacLachlan after his role in Blue Velvet, but preceding his Twin Peaks fame.  Despite several tropes, the skewed plot line makes it an enjoyable distraction. 

Essentially a warped version of the “buddy cop” genre, Michael Nouri plays L.A. detective Thomas Beck.  Beck pursues and (apparently) fatally injures spree killer Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) during the chase.  FBI Special Agent Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan) later confronts Beck, saying DeVries is still a threat.

“Mr DeVries, we think you might have a throat infection.”

Meanwhile, in the hospital, DeVries jumps up and attacks a heart patient Jonathan P. Miller (William Boyett).  DeVries pops opens his mouth and out crawls a hideous, slug-like alien.  It crawls down Miller’s throat and takes him over, letting its old host collapse.  Miller runs off to commit more of the random violence in the same manner as DeVries.

After this starts, Gallagher tries to convince Beck that Miller is a partner of DeVries who is every bit as dangerous, despite no criminal record.

You can probably guess how the rest of this goes.  The evil alien continues to jump through host bodies while the authorities struggle to catch up. 

Aliens are teatotallers.

It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that Gallagher is another alien.  MacLachlan does a brilliant job of being “not quite right”.  He conveys a vibe of alien without much scenery-chewing.  Not only his weird questions, but MacLachlan’s deliciously “off” mannerisms.  There’s an especially amusing dinner scene with Beck’s family, where Gallagher gets tipsy.  Bloody hilarious.  My favorite part is when Beck asks him where he’s from.  Gallagher points straight up.  “From up north?” Beck asks.  Gallagher nods.

It turns out Lloyd is an alien “cop” (named Alhague) and the evil alien is a criminal who killed Alhague’s family.  Yes, it’s a cop revenge story.

That’s a damn fine ray gun.

If all this sounds cheesy, it’s actually not.  Or not much.  The performances in this are wonderful, despite the bizarre premise.  William Boyett has a wickedly good time being the heart patient turned evil alien.  His murder spree is both amusing and horrifying.  Of special interest is when the alien possesses a stripper named Brenda (gorgeous Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame).  She fondles herself in front of a couple of cops before shooting them with an assault rifle.  This is after she humps a drunken lecher to death.

Claudia’s role is . . . I’m sorry, was I saying something?

There aren’t many special effects in this.  I suspect it’s deliberate–a combination of shrewd writing and budget considerations.  The few that do appear are pretty effective.  The alien slug switching bodies is skin-crawlingly impressive.  I think it’s a case of “less is more”.

MacLachlan’s freaky acting in this is worth it, even if you don’t care about the rest of the film.  Go dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Krull: A Flawed Movie That Could Have Been Great

In the ancient days of yore (1983) I viewed a movie called Krull.  It is a strange tale.  Neither science fiction nor fantasy.  Not great, but not terrible.  I weep for the movie it could have been.

This chimera of a movie is the tale of an alien invasion of a fantasy world.  Sort of.  Details are a little fuzzy. 

Essentially, a big bad called “The Beast” invades the planet Krull with an interplanetary castle called The Black Fortress.  The fortress disgorges a bunch of (literally) faceless bad guys called “slayers” (no, not the band,) armed with one-shot blasters called “neon spears”.  The slayers run around conquering Krull for The Beast apparently has a bit of a hard-on for Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony).  I can almost see his point, as she’s a fine-looking woman, but planetary invasion seems like overkill.  The Beast apparently thinks that the way to woo her affections is by kidnapping her and slaughtering her family.  Not exactly progressive.

“Hey, could you hold onto this nuclear weapon for a bit?”

Standing in the way of The Beast’s incredibly violent nuptial plans is Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall). Slayers interrupt  their wedding ceremony when they nab Lyssa.  Their wedding is meant to unify their two kingdoms against The Beast.  Instead, we get to see pretty much every soldier they have die in one night.  Anyway, in what would be an important plot point in a better movie, the wedding ceremony involves a ceremony where Lyssa hands Colwyn a magical flame.  Or rather, she tries to before the slayer wedding crashers arrive.

Fear the Death Frisbee!

Lyssa gets abducted, Colwyn gets injured and everyone else in the castle dies.  Along comes Ynyr, the Old One (no, not Cthulhu.)  Ynyr (Freddie Jones) is a kind of Obi-Wan mentor to Colwyn, and leads him to find a magical weapon called The Glaive.  Colwyn finds this magical, edged Death Frisbee after a very boring climbing sequence which ends with him pulling The Glaive out of lava.  I think it’s meant as a “test of faith”, but I’m not sure.

Armed with the Death Frisbee, Colwyn and Ynyr set out to find The Black Fortress.  The snag is that the fortress teleports every morning to another place on the planet.  Now, how The Beast maintains any logistics with that setup, I don’t know.  I do know it makes it pretty hard to storm the evil headquarters.  Probably pretty hard to receive any mail, too.

“Fred, did you notice a black fortress there last night?”

Along the way, Colwyn and Ynyr pick up a gang of followers.  Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley) is a magical faerie-type fellow, who has a running joke of trying to transform others into animals, only to become the animal himself.  Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw) tags along with the backstory of how The Beast cheated his people of an eye to see the future–but the only thing they can see is their own deaths.  Finally, a group of outlaws led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) joins up.  Liam Neeson, in one of his early roles, plays an outlaw named Kegan.

This motley band sets out to find the Black Fortress in a series of encounters with a body count akin to a Friday the Thirteenth movie.  Torquil’s outlaws serve admirably as redshirts and have worse life expectancy than V.A. patients.  There are a couple of decent fight sequences and a memorable stop-motion giant spider with the “Widow in the Web”.  Unfortunately, slow pacing and ponderous editing neutralize a lot of the good stuff.

The actors are all very British–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  The actors are all very competent–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  Seriously, Ken isn’t strong enough to carry a movie.  The guy’s a block of wood, made worse by the solid actors around him.

My biggest complaint is probably the ending.  The Glaive/Death Frisbee finally gets used against The Beast (and why he didn’t use it in previous fights isn’t explained) only to be useless.  Then suddenly Lysette hands Colwyn that marriage flame and now Colwyn can shoot friggin’ Godzilla-sized flames!  Apparently nobody at the wedding party mentioned “Oh, by the way, you can use that marriage flame like a super-flamethrower.  I mean, if you wanted.”

(beats head into wall)

Can you foresee me in better movies?

I can’t help but wonder who decided this ending made sense.  It could have been fixed to make sense.  I can think of a half-dozen ways off the top of my head.  But no, they decided “Nah, this is good enough.”

That’s what irks me the most about this movie.  There are several moments throughout where it starts to work, only to slam into a wall.  The production values are excellent.  The acting (with one glaring exception) is solid.  The musical score by James Horner is outstanding.  With a rewrite and somebody other than Ken Marshall, this movie had a lot of potential.  Hell, even with Ken Marshall they could have muddled through.

I can still enjoy parts of this movie.  The points which rise above.  Mostly, I just mourn for the movie it could have been.  It might be why I’m an aficionado of Spelljammer and similar fanboy nonsense.

It’s worth watching once for the oddball nature of it and those moments I mentioned.  Check it out.

Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit, or as it’s known in the U.S., Five Million Years to Earth, is a Hammer Film production of a BBC serial.  The phenomenon of Quatermass is a uniquely British craze.  It has had influences on science fiction for decades, but most Americans are completely ignorant about it.

The original Quatermass series on the BBC was tremendously popular in Britain in the 1950s.  It would not be unfair to compare their popularity during their period as something akin to Star Trek in the U.S.  Only three were produced: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit.  Their influences echo, as both Stephen King and John Carpenter cite them as influences.  In fact, King’s book The Tommyknockers is nearly a remake of The Pit (or perhaps a ‘homage’.)

Hammer made the previous two serials into films, titled The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) and Quatermass II (Enemy From Space in the U.S.)  The Pit is the first one in color and the first to use Andrew Keir as the main character.  The first two films are well, mediocre.  The scripts and acting are solid enough, but the production values are weak–especially with The Quatermass Xperiment.  They’re not much above the production values of the original, live serials.  They feel more like serials uncomfortably squashed into movies.  Pit, however, feels like a big screen movie, and in color to boot.

The film starts out with a discovery of humanoid fossils in a London Underground dig site at Hobb’s End.  Paleontologist Matthew Roney (James Donald) is brought into to supervise the site.  Roney discovers a buried metallic casing.  He believes  it to be an unexploded bomb from The Blitz.

Professor Quatermass is brought in, along with his new ‘compatriot’–Colonel Breen (Julian Glover.)  Quatermass loathes Breen, as the military forced the colonel into his rocketry program.  The two men investigate the supposed bomb, only to find it something else.  It appears to be an ancient spacecraft.

A workman tries to drill into it, only to have his strongest drill bounce off.  The vibration it creates causes a reaction which opens up a sealed area.  Within are the bodies of several giant, tripodal insects.  Roney and Quatermass examine the decaying bodies and decide they must have come from the Mars of five million years in the past. 

Meanwhile, the workman is struck by a kind of ‘psychic fit’ while working in the spacecraft.  He runs in fear, throwing objects around with telekinesis.  Through investigation, Quatermass finds all sorts of folklore and legends surrounding Hobb’s End.  The ship’s effects activate anytime the ship is disturbed in the ground.

Roney uses a device that can record dreams (just run with it) to try to record impressions from the ship.  His assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) has the strongest reaction to the ship and they record her dreams.  The images captured shows the Martians purging hives in a racial genocide.  They wipe out all that are ‘different’.  (This is probably the weakest part of the movie, as the special effects consist of grainy images of bugs on sticks.  It’s bad.   A bit more spending on visual effects here would have helped.)

Quatermass and Roney conclude that the Martians manipulated ancient apes to evolve into modern man.  They tried to have a ‘colony by proxy’ since they couldn’t survive on Earth.

When presented with this evidence, Breen and the government officials dismiss it.  Breen convinces them that it’s a Nazi propaganda weapon and there’s no danger.  The government allows the press in, over Quatermass’s strong objections.  A workman’s blunder accidentally gives the ship a huge burst of electricity.  It comes to life and begins manipulating all human minds in the vicinity.  A gigantic, glowing Martian face explodes out of the Pit visible over the city.  The Martian ship makes the Londoners it influences wipe out every life form that is different, including other humans.  They can do so with the psychic powers at their disposal, thanks to the ship.  The Martians want humanity to inherit all their behaviors, including the need to ‘purge the hive’ of all differences. 

Quatermass tries to kill Roney, but manages to overcome the Martian influence.  Roney is one of the few unaffected (hence ‘different’.)  The two men come up with a plan to ground the Martian image to the ground with iron, dissipating the energy.  Roney climbs a nearby crane, meaning to use it, but the energy causes the base of the crane to crack, sending it careening into the image.  Roney neutralizes the Martian ship, at the cost of his life.

The movie ends on a very quiet, introspective note, with none of the survivors speaking.  Nice, melancholy denouement.

Overall, the movie maintains a good level of tension and uneasiness, despite the odd and esoteric nature of the menace.  It’s another good example of the ‘less is more’ school of tension building.  The series and movies do a good job of merging science fiction and horror, without clubbing you over the head with either. Other series copy these themes in later years, including Doctor Who.  In fact, episodes such as Image of the Fendahl can’t be anything but direct descendants. (Although the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale, had great distaste for Doctor Who, as he felt that the series was nothing short of a rip-off of his work.)

The themes of the movie are meant to reflect the growing racial tensions in the U.K. of the fifties, but they fail to resonate.  Perhaps it’s simply too far removed from the events surrounding the original series.

Check it out. 

Also, the entire run of the original BBC series is available online.

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Island of Terror: A Nifty Horror Movie

Island of Terror scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.  In fact, I only made it through a few scenes before running to the other side of the house and hiding.  I didn’t remember the name for years.  Only with the advent of the internet could I track it down and watch it all the way through.  Even that took a lot of keyword searches.

This doesn’t make it a great movie.  It’s decent because of some atmospheric tricks, pacing and passable acting.  Honestly, I’ll watch anything with Peter Cushing–the man turns in a solid performance in every movie.  If Peter appeared in an insurance infomercial, I’d watch it. 

Terence Fisher is a veteran director of Hammer horror movies.  He turns in a decent showing with this, even with its flaws. 

The basic plot is familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with science fiction movies of the 50s.  Scientific researchers on a remote island accidentally create monsters.  Said monsters run amok.  Heroic scientists come to the rescue.  The monsters are unstoppable, until the heroes discover that one weakness.  Monsters are defeated.  Roll credits.

A rather unpleasant and unusual form of demise helps to sell the beasts.  Bodies start turning up with no bones left.  So they look like Silly Putty in clothes.  Slow reveals also help to maintain the tension during the first half.  Nobody gets a decent look at the critters until the halfway point.  You merely see their handiwork and hear creepy sounds.  I’ve seen better movie monsters, but then again I’ve also seen worse.

Turns out these nasties are “silicates”.  They’re composed of silicon and chow down on humans for the calcium in the bones.  The special effects team did their best to make them look like single-celled animals with flagellum.  Unfortunately, they come across a bit more like tortoises with tentacle heads.  I suspect they did the best they could with a limited budget.

The silicates are slow, but unstoppable.  The island’s single boat isn’t available, trapping everyone.  (This is a bit contrived.  How many island communities only have one boat?)  Like amoebas, the silicates divide to reproduce, growing at a geometric pace.  The breakthrough occurs when a silicate is found deadpoisoned by snacking on an irradiated test dog.  Being a 50s formula, one can expect radiation as a staple.

The scientists dose up a bunch of cattle with strontium-90 and feed them to the silicates.  All of the island survivors hole up in the town hall, hoping the strontium will work.  The silicates close in, followed by much screaming and panicking.  Until the creatures succumb.

We have the obligatory denouement, where the heroes talk about the dangers of science.  Then we have a: “If it hadn’t been an island, we couldn’t have stopped them.”  As it turns out, scientists in Tokyo were cooperating and performing identical experiments.  The movie ends with a Japanese scientist entering a lab after hearing creepy sounds.  Screams follow.

The movie did leave me with one or two questions.  One is the idea that an island community only has one boat.  Another is how do cancer researches end up accidentally creating silicon monsters?  Seems a rather roundabout method of research.

Despite its flaws, it’s enjoyable enough.  Check it out.

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