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Sometimes, the desire to do or possess something can become so overpowering you almost forget the reason why you wanted to do or own that thing in the first place, or even exactly when and where it first gripped you. So it has been with me and Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, which I must have heard of back in the mid 2000s – I honestly have no idea. The sheer staggering misconceivedness of a central element of this movie, and the weirdness of the rest of it, seized my imagination in a vice-like grip; this same elements, ironically, mean it has virtually been obliterated from history. Long-suffering readers may recall my oft-expressed hope that my DVD rental service would, sooner or later, send me a copy of Tiptoes (they never did; I’m not even sure it’s available on disc in this country); since that company folded I may have still occasionally expressed a vague desire to see the film, but never with any great expectation of it coming to pass. Tiptoes became a kind of chimerical beast or cultural legend: I would hear vague rumours of it, and there was enough hard evidence to convince me that it really did exist, but there was no more chance of actually watching it than there was of encountering Bigfoot or a sea serpent.

Nevertheless: post-pandemic, major life changes loom, with the outcome still uncertain in many ways. And so I decided I would be damned if I did not make a proper effort to finally see Tiptoes before all of this came to pass. Is it on any of the streaming sites? It is not. Is it available to rent through the Main Big River service? Only if you live in the States, apparently. All seemed lost until a search of a prominent video-sharing site turned up the entire movie, which had been there for nearly six months. It was dubbed into Polish or Russian, in the crushingly artless way that former-Soviet Bloc countries normally do their dubbing (a gravelly male voice intones all the dialogue in a monotone), but it was better than nothing; and I have always felt that with a proper movie you don’t really need the dialogue to follow the story. So off we went, Tiptoes and I, together at last (albeit in Polish or Russian).

There’s a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol’s nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve’s entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol’s studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve’s decision to keep quiet about his family’s shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it’s not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory). It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause to let that sink in is probably appropriate at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not the most obvious choice for the part. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a role, but admits that playing a short person was ‘a stretch’ (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it’s still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it’s Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it’s like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

Gary Oldman is on the left, in case you were wondering.

I’m not normally one to get too exercised about the whole issue of ‘appropriate casting’, but in this case it’s a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it’s trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers’ possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat looks like I’m not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner’s art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It’s hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It’s not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it’s the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it’s a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you’re a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps,  but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists. It does: it is every bit as magnetically weird and appalling as I had suspected (and hoped). I don’t have much of a bucket list, and the one I do have is now appreciably shorter.

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A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of floatation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

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The pre-titles sequence of Robert Young’s 1971 film Vampire Circus has a lot of heavy lifting to do, exposition-wise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t completely hang together. We find ourselves in the usual Hammer evocation of an 18th or early 19th century Osten-Europ (resembling, as ever, woodland a short drive from Pinewood Studios), where a young girl is playing under the kindly eye of local schoolteacher and upstanding citizen Muller (Laurence Payne). But wait! A young woman (Domini Blythe) appears and entices the girl away with her, luring her off to the local castle. Muller is sent into an awful tizzy by this.

All very well, I suppose, until it becomes apparent that the woman is actually Muller’s surprisingly young wife. At this point the characters’ behaviour and reactions, and thus the whole sequence, more or less stops making sense. Oh well. It turns out that Mrs Muller has been having a fling with the local nobleman, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, who has a bit of a look of a young Timothy Dalton). Mitterhaus is, unsurprisingly, a vampire, albeit one with a uniquely non-frightening name (in English he’d be Count Middlehouse). The count polishes off the little girl (initial gore quotient met), which Mrs Muller enjoys watching rather too much. ‘One lust brings on the other,’ smirks the count as she slips off her costume (initial nudity quotient met) and the two of them get down to it.

Well, not entirely surprisingly, Muller has been organising an angry mob with flaming torches and a cartful of barrels of gunpowder, and they all turn up at this point. Not having bothered to bring any crosses or garlic, however, the count carves a bit of a swathe through them before he is finally staked and the castle blown up – but not before he can whisper a few dying commands to Mrs Muller (who flees into the forest) or promise a terrible revenge on his assailants and their children.

Yes, this is another of those vengeance-of-the-vampire movies that Hammer had a few goes at in the early 1970s. At least one of these, Taste the Blood of Dracula, is from near the top of the Hammer Horror stack, so perhaps it’s understandable that they should keep going back to it. This is from a lower bracket, though. Fifteen years later, the town of Stitl (home to Muller and the rest) is suffering from an outbreak of a mysterious plague, and the place has been encircled by armed men who shoot anyone trying to get out.

The local doctor, who’s new in town and has the thankless role of being the guy who says ‘Don’t be absurd! Vampires don’t exist!’ at the start of Hammer vampire movies, thinks this is normal plague-type plague, but the Burgomeister (Thorley Walters), Muller the teacher, and everyone else who was there when Count Middlehouse was disposed of have other ideas.

Spirits are briefly lifted with the arrival of the enigmatic and glamorous Circus of Night rolls into town, having somehow got past the circle of armed soldiers. Running the enterprise is a gypsy woman credited as Gypsy Woman (she is played, with considerable oomph, by Adrienne Corri). Everyone rocks up to the circus and enjoys looking at a few caged animals, some slightly tacky exotic dancing, and some more peculiar acts.

Now, here’s the thing that basically turns Vampire Circus into a melodrama you have to indulge rather than a film you can take completely seriously. Senior figures in the community are worrying that the plague is the result of a curse laid on them by Middlehouse the vampire. You would think that all things vampirical would be playing on their minds a bit. And yet no-one seems to find the fact that the circus acts include a man turning into a black panther and acrobats turning into actual bats remotely suggestive. Furthermore, the fact the gypsy woman is credited as Gypsy Woman is presumably to conceal the revelation that she is actually Mrs Muller, come back to exact revenge. It’s not really clear why no-one recognises her – or, alternatively, why her appearance has changed so much. Nor is it quite clear why it has taken her and the count’s cousin Emil (Anthony Higgins, credited as Anthony Corlan) a decade and a half to get round to avenging him.

Then again, all of these films are somewhat melodramatic. Some of the narrative shortfall in Vampire Circus may be down to the fact that it was Robert Young’s first film as director, and his inexperience meant the production overran to the point where the producers shut it down and simply told the editor to do the best he could with the available footage. This may be another reason why the storytelling occasionally feels a bit strained; it’s probably also the best explanation for a sequence in which a group of minor characters are savaged to death by a panther which seems to be realised in the form of an astonishingly manky-looking hand puppet.

Once you get past the obviousness of the title and plot (George Baxt, credited for ‘story’, claims he was paid £1000 just for coming up with the title and had no other involvement with the film), this is a reasonably solid horror fantasy with an agreeably dreamlike atmosphere and impressive visual sense – it’s lurid and garish and a bit surreal in places, but engagingly so.

On the other hand, the main villain is woefully weak, even by late-period-Hammer standards, and none of the performances are particularly strong. You kind of come into these films expecting the juvenile leads to be wet and forgettable, but Vampire Circus is lacking the strong character performances so many Hammer movies benefit from – Thorley Walters is okay, but not in it enough; Adrienne Corri has presence and charisma to spare, but is hampered by the fact she’s playing the sidekick of other characters.

One thing about this movie is that for what feels like a production-line exploitation movie, it has an unusually interesting cast, even by Hammer standards. Quite apart from Walters, Corri, Payne, Higgins and the rest, lurking around the circus are Dave Prowse (one of many pre-Darth Vader fantasy and horror roles), Robin Sachs (another prolific fantasy and horror actor), and the Honourable Lalla Ward in pretty much her first professional acting engagement. It’s not entirely surprising the movie has become something of a cult favourite.

Vampire Circus is a bit of an oddity in the classic Hammer canon, as it’s a standalone vampire film with no particular connection to its series about Dracula and the Karnstein family – if you discount Countess Dracula (which this was released in a double-bill with, and is really a Dracula film in name only), the only other example is Kiss of the Vampire from 1963. I suppose the central notion and its execution is strong enough to justify the film’s existence, but it would have been interesting to see that double-bill fifty years ago: two very different films, one vibrant, lurid and almost impressionistic, the other chilly and measured and rather more thoughtful. Vampire Circus is a flawed movie and not even the best film about bloodsuckers Hammer Films made that year, but it has enough novelty value to be worth watching even so.

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There’s a game you can play, if you find yourself at a loose end (and, who knows, over-endowed with the will to live): it’s called ‘Foreign Movie or Not-Foreign Movie?’ It works like this: someone says the name of a movie and you have to decide if it’s foreign or not (complex rules, I know, but give it a chance).

It almost goes without saying that this game relies on a rather flexible definition of what actually counts as a foreign movie: in this situation, ‘foreign’ actually means ‘not in the English language’. Given the American, British and Australian (etc) film and movie industries are so radically different, you might very well think that this is stretching a point beyond the bounds of reason and off into the realms of the uncomfortably insular, but so it goes. Every more-accurate title I can think of is hopelessly unwieldy.

Cinema is a business, in the end, and it’s a fact that English is the closest thing to a lingua franca that the medium possesses – if you want your movie to get a decent international mainstream release, doing it in English smooths the way considerably. Perhaps the most notable exponent of this kind of thing is the French hyphenate Luc Besson, responsible for a string of largely fun-but-disreputable action thrillers like The Transporter, Columbiana and Lockout, all of which are technically French, but all of which (to paraphrase one critic) disguise their national origin to appeal to a wider international audience.

You don’t have to be making trashy genre movies to play this game, of course: Besson has done it with slightly more elevated fare as well. Even so, it doesn’t necessarily work in helping a film to cut through: which is just a rather circuitous way of saying that I don’t recall Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer getting much of a UK release when it came out back in 2013. This is a Korean-Czech co-production, but made in English and with a predominantly British and American cast; the subject matter, as we shall see, is essentially mainstream. And yet for some reason it still seems to have slipped through the cracks, round my way at least. Or maybe I was just distracted. So it goes.

Proof we are in traditional SF movie territory comes in the opening few minutes, where a bit of audio, some captions, and footage of chemtrails establish the premise of the film: in an attempt to halt global warming, a new chemical has been released into the upper atmosphere with the intention that it will cool the planet down a bit. This works much better than expected: far too well, in fact, with the planet transformed into an icy, uninhabitable snowball. The only remnant of civilisation is the Snowpiercer, a train which functions as a sealed, apparently self-sufficient habitat as it endlessly circles the planet.

Seventeen years on from the cataclysm, all is well aboard the Snowpiercer, as the passengers enjoy a pleasant lifestyle with all the amenities they have come to expect – passengers in first class, anyway. Back in third class, at the rear of the train, it’s a squalid, overcrowded hell, with no facilities and extreme discomfort (insert your own joke about the UK rail network here, should you wish). However, as the money and power of the third-class passengers is greatly exceeded by that of the people up front, no-one important really cares about them.

However, revolt is stirring at the back of the train, led by brooding, reluctant hero Curtis (Chris Evans), who is guided by a wise old man named Gilliam (Gilliam is played by John Hurt, and as there is a distinctly Gilliamesque feel to much of the movie, one wonders if there isn’t a little tip of the hat going on here). Their plan is to get past the gates and armed guards and reach the front of the train, where its creator Wilford (Ed Harris) is to be found, at which point a profound social realignment will take place. But it’s a long way to go, with many nasty surprises on the way…

So, yeah: missed Snowpiercer on the big screen, then Former Next Desk Colleague gave me a copy on a hard drive (hardly ethical, I know, but I was looking at two months’ solitary in Kyrgyzstan, so to speak) which I managed to bust before I watched it; sometimes it seems like the stars are just set wrong and you’re never going to see a film (still haven’t completely given up on Tiptoes, though).

But what do you know, I finally managed it, and this is certainly a superior example of what it appears to be trying to be: a proper science fiction film with genuine ideas in it, a touch of visual innovation, and plenty of violence to keep the mainstream punters happy.

It’s well-written, well-played, well-paced, well-designed and well-edited and meets every requirement of being an impressive movie which is worth your time, if slightly brainy SF action movies are your cup of tea at least (I can imagine some of the more graphic elements of the story may not be to everyone’s taste). One could probably take exception to a few elements of the plot as being slightly contrived and implausible, but this would be to miss part of the point of the piece.

This is that there is a limit to how literally we are intended to take the film: it seems to me to be a kind of existential fable or allegory, and this informs the story on a fundamental level. Rather like Ballard’s High-Rise, in which the tower block becomes a metaphor for society, so in Snowpiercer the train becomes a microcosm of the wider civilisation which initially created it, with the social divisions and inequities of the train reflecting those of our own world. This is hardly some deeply-buried subtext: this feels like an angry, insurrectionist movie, and one wonders if some of the more comic-grotesque elements (Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary apparatchik, for instance) have been included just to make the film more palatable as entertainment as well as a piece of agitprop.

On the other hand, beyond being a call for revolution, the movie also has a rather topical concern with the state of the world, and its sustainability: the train isn’t just a symbol of society, but for the world in ecological terms – the need to maintain a balanced and functioning closed system turns out to be one of the main drivers of the plot, and indeed is the main reason for the status quo on the train at the start of the film. The antagonists of the film suggest harsh measures are required to achieve this; the protagonists have no response beyond breaking open the system, not really an option available in the real world.

It’s not surprising, then, that Snowpiercer eventually comes across as a rather existentially bleak and ambiguous movie, certainly not an example of the traditional Hollywood ending. If it reminded me of anything, it would be The Matrix Reloaded – there is a similar mix of visual flair, elaborate violence, and philosophy – Curtis’ journey to visit Wilford recalls Neo’s quest to find the Architect, and both heroes are in for something of a surprise when they arrive. But Snowpiercer is a more coherent and satisfying film, and it’s not surprising Bong Joon-ho has gone on to become such an acclaimed director. Not perfect, but an impressive movie nevertheless.

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They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news).  Perhaps it’s just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I’ve been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn’t release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year’s Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz’s personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst’s by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film’s thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles’ film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz’s motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix’s motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked.  One of the best bets is the box marked ‘Make Film About Hollywood Itself’ (the ‘Shoot In Black And White For Added Artsy Gravitas’ box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film’s favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what’s still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane’s greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What’s particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst’s palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane’s retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz’s name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn’t really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It’s not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz’s legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn’t brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the ‘history’ presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn’t made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It’s a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex and occasionally fraught issue.

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Rumours were rife a few years ago that the revered Canadian auteur David Cronenberg was considering retiring from film-making, simply because trying to find financing for his projects had become too much of a grind. Whether or not this is true (the current rumours are of a possible film noir-ish movie, shooting this year with Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen), there has been a bit of a gap, and Cronenberg seems to have filled his time by writing a novel, Consumed.  Some might be surprised that the acclaimed director of such historical dramas and psychological thrillers as Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method should choose to go into print with what’s essentially a horror novel about cannibalism and techno-fetishism, but there is a reason why Cronenberg is still routinely referred to as a cult horror director and the high priest of body-horror in particular.

This is a label Cronenberg picked up back in the 1970s and early 80s, off the back of a string of films with titles like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. I think it’s fair to say that early Cronenberg has a very strong and distinctive taste, and one which still lingers in certain aspects of his later work: it might not be going too far to suggest the main theme of the Cronenberg canon is a fascination with all things psycho-sexual, an interest which initially manifested in a string of no-foolin’ horror movies.

The psycho-sexual element is present front-and-centre right from the start of Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, which opens with unorthodox mental health professional Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) deep in a therapy session with a clearly troubled man. Raglan’s favoured method is something known as psychoplasmics, in which the patient’s repressed emotions manifest through physiological changes in their body: tiny lesions erupt all over the skin of Raglan’s subject as the psychoplasmic demonstration continues.

Watching this is architect Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is currently receiving intensive treatment from Raglan. The relationship between Frank and Nola is acrimonious, to say the least, and much of the trouble centres around the question of who gets custody of their five-year-old daughter Candy. When Candy returns from a visit to see her mother with scratches and bruising, Carveth is naturally concerned and starts looking for legal grounds to block Nola’s access to her, or at least keep Candy away from Raglan’s clinic.

Meanwhile, Raglan continues Nola’s therapy, encouraging her to work through her repressed anger and resentment towards various people in her life, including her mother. It is quite clearly not coincidental, then, when Nola’s mother is brutally bludgeoned to death by someone or something (Cronenberg makes it quite clear the killer is not a normal human being) while baby-sitting Candy.

The tragedy repeats itself when Nola’s father, visiting the house while drunk and grieving, meets a similar fate. Carveth himself confronts the killer, who expires in front of him: a deformed, sexless midget, with no digestive system or umbilicus. But what is the connection to Nola and Raglan, and why does the creature bear a slight but disturbing resemblance to Candy herself…?

Well, and needless to say spoiler alert, it seems that Nola has proven an exceptional subject for psychoplasmic therapy, and her body has been sprouting cysts or sacs, each of which produces one of these homuncular creatures: born of a deeply troubled psyche, they act upon Nola’s subconscious desires without her being aware of it. Raglan, who despite his serious and urbane demeanour is clearly a lunatic mad scientist of the classic type, has getting on for a dozen of these things locked up at his clinic, but they have started breaking out and articulating Nola’s repressed emotions in an actually physical way…

A response of ‘Ewwww,’ is entirely acceptable, and may in fact be obligatory for the scene where Eggar produces yet another of her psychoplasmic spawn, tearing open the birthing pouch with her teeth. (Cronenberg complained that a lengthy shot of Eggar licking the newborn creature was edited by the censors with the result it gave the impression she was actually eating it, ‘much worse than I was suggesting.’) To be fair, though, apart from a little bit of bloody violence, this is a relatively restrained film prior to the climax: indeed, until the first murder, the focus is almost domestic, with Carveth and Nola more concerned about their family situation than anything else.

Bearing this in mind perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cronenberg himself had recently been through fraught divorce proceedings, to which this film formed a response: the director suggested it was a variation on the same theme as Kramer Vs Kramer, ‘only more realistic’. Perhaps it says something about the essentially cerebral nature of Cronenberg’s work that this never really feels like a personal story, the director working out an issue of his own – indeed, the characters are quite thinly presented, just adding to the sense this is on some level an allegory or fable. There is perhaps something problematic in this interpretation: Carveth is the loving, misunderstood father; Nola a vindictive loon.

Cronenberg himself has suggested this is the closest of all his films to being a ‘classic’ horror movie, and if I was going to be harsh I would suggest The Brood certainly features a lot of horror movie acting as it is stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) understood, by which I mean that Hindle is a bit wooden and Eggar is over the top, and the best performance comes from the mad scientist. At this point in his career Oliver Reed was just transitioning from (ahem) brooding, saturnine leading man to brooding, silver-fox, borderline-unemployable character actor, and he is unusually restrained but as effective as ever as Raglan. You kind of wish he was in the movie a bit more; if nothing else he provides serious gravitas.

The classic-horror-movie-ish-ness of The Brood extends beyond the presence of a mad scientist doing weird experiments; the homicidal midgets inevitably recall the killer from Don’t Look Now, and there is something of the slasher movie in the way the creatures sneak into their victims’ home or place of work before suddenly unleashing bloody slaughter upon them (though ‘basher movie’ might be more apropos given their clear fondness for blunt force trauma). There is inevitably some tonal unevenness when it comes to the combination of schlocky, slightly camp horror and intense psychological drama, but on the whole this just gives the film a distinct identity of its own. This may not be one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious or visually striking films, but it’s satisfyingly intelligent and repulsive in a way he manages uniquely well.

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For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway from a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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The line between inspiration and plagiarism can be a thin one sometimes. Occasionally one comes across a movie which, shall we say, wears its influences very openly, and the question is – did the makers see another movie and genuinely enjoy it so much they felt compelled to create their own homage to it, regardless of brazen this appeared? Or were they simply just cashing in?

The thing about Bert I Gordon’s 1957 film Beginning of the End is that you sort of want it to be the former even while you find yourself regrettably compelled to conclude it’s the former. This is a film which is virtually a beat-for-beat remake of Them!, the granddaddy of a certain subgenre of 50s monster movies – but on the other hand, director Gordon operated extensively in this same area – this wasn’t his first take on this kind of material, nor his last (he became known as Mr BIG not just for his initials, but for his fondness for making giant monster pictures).

(The poster even looks like a knock-off of the one from Them!.)

The beginning of Beginning of the End opens in time-honoured style with a young couple enjoying the classic 1950s pastime of sitting together in a parked car. You know this is going to end badly for them, for we are not quite yet at the point where young adults are allowed to be the protagonists in this kind of film, and so it proves, for the end of the beginning of Beginning of the End sees something terrible but obscure descend upon them (she screams, helpfully establishing the tone).

After the end of the credits which are at the beginning of Beginning of the End (oh, yes, I can keep this up all night), we are briefly with a cop car which comes across the wreckage of their car, but soon find ourselves with plucky young reporter Audrey (Peggie Castle), who really is the protagonist – for a bit at least. The disappearance of the young couple is soon eclipsed by the fact that a whole town in the vicinity has been flattened and its entire population has vanished. The National Guard has surrounded the location and are trying to keep the whole thing quiet. This naturally involves keeping Audrey well away from the ruined town, which is a bonus for the producers as they don’t have to spend any money on a ruined town set. This kind of consideration weighed quite heavily on the minds of the producers of this film, I suspect.

Audrey, however, has sufficient pluck to keep on investigating, which leads her to the research laboratory of Dr Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves, deploying his usual gift for unwarranted gravitas). Sadly she doesn’t have sufficient pluck to keep Graves from stepping in and assuming the role of lead character at this point, and she rather vanishes into the background from this point on. Despite being an entomologist, Graves is working on solving the problem of feeding the world by growing giant radioactive fruit and veg, with the help of his assistant. His assistant has been rendered a deaf mute by a radiation accident, which may be to create pathos and increase representation, but is more likely because this means they don’t have to pay the actor for a speaking role.

Graves, Castle, and the mute dude head off to investigate a nearby grain silo which was destroyed some time before the town, and are startled, to say the least, when a badly-composited grasshopper the size of a bus rears into view. (The movie tends to use grasshopper and locust interchangeably, but as you can perhaps tell, precise scientific rigour is not Beginning of the End’s strongest suit.) Graves’ assistant is gobbled up by the grasshopper and the other two flee the scene, possibly to call their agents.

Yes, the bugs have been nibbling on the radioactive veg and as a result have turned into insatiable giants, and the local woods are infested with the things, as the National Guard learn to their cost when they investigate. This isn’t the most flattering presentation of the Guard, or at least its leadership, as the plot demands they basically ignore all of Graves’ very sensible warnings and act like idiots throughout. But there is an even more pressing problem than the public image of the National Guard’s command: the giant grasshoppers have eaten everything in sight and are swarming in the direction of Chicago. Are the authorities going to have to drop a nuke on the city, or can Graves come up with a way of dealing with the colossal pests?

So, as noted, another giant bug movie very much in the same vein as Them!. I think Them! is a genuinely great movie, and one positive thing you can say about Beginning of the End is that it does make the virtues of the earlier film much more obvious: it works very hard to be gritty and realistic, has a real sense of looming disaster, and makes good use of decent production values – lots of extras and some relatively good giant ant puppets. Beginning of the End couldn’t actually afford any of these things and so it concludes with Peter Graves firing a tommy gun out of a window at live-action grasshoppers which have been persuaded to sit on a photographic blow-up of a Chicago tower block.

Alarm bells may ring for some viewers when the screenwriting credit (which, lest we forget, comes towards the end of the title sequence at the beginning of Beginning of the End) is given to Fred Freiberger, working with Lester Gorn (his only venture into screenwriting). Fred Freiberger has a notorious reputation as the man who was on the scene when Star Trek, Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man all got cancelled; he once favourably compared being a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp to having to deal with incensed Trekkies. (We have discussed his special screenwriting talents before.) This time, however – well, the script doesn’t exactly shine, but neither is it completely terrible.

If the script has a problem it’s that it calls for the giant grasshoppers to do all sorts of things the special effects department is just totally incapable of realising. They can just about manage a moment where a grasshopper rears into view from behind a low obstruction in the foreground; when they have to start attacking buildings or chasing people through woods, disaster looms, and not in the way the script wants: ropey back-projection battles obvious stock footage to a standstill. It is this which launches Beginning of the End into the realms of camp and is responsible for its dismal reputation.

I have to say, though, that I found it pretty watchable on the whole: it’s formulaic from start to finish, and not especially well-made in any department, but there’s something oddly comforting and enjoyable about it. Graves in particular is obviously taking it very seriously and, largely as a result, the movie has a sort of kitsch grandeur to it which I found very entertaining. A bad movie, but not quite a total waste of time.

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There have been many notable and occasionally great one-and-done Draculas in screen history: Klaus Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella. The list is extensive. What’s perhaps a surprising is how close Bela Lugosi comes to appearing on it. But it’s true: while the actor racked up a long list of genre and horror movie roles (including playing Frankenstein’s creature, one of Dr Moreau’s creations, several other lookalike vampires and appearing in a very early picture from Hammer Films), he only played Dracula twice – and one of those films was a spoof (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). And yet he remains Christopher Lee’s only credible rival for the title of One True Dracula (Lee played the character in nine movies).

Maybe it’s because he originated the role – or perhaps the original 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is just that good? Certainly it establishes the ground rules for anglophone versions of Bram Stoker’s novel, mainly by taking a very flexible approach to the text. Several characters are dropped entirely, others have their roles switched around, and the end result is that in this film it’s Renfield (Dwight Frye) who’s on his way to Castle Dracula to finalise the sale of a house.

It almost feels a bit redundant to summarise the plot of Dracula, but I suppose every version is a little bit different and – in any case – it’s just possible some people may not be familiar with it. The locals are appalled to learn Renfield will be visiting Dracula, giving him a crucifix for protection. Renfield, poor sod, wanders up to the gloomy old pile anyway, finding it to be oddly infested with what look like possums and armadillos (some very odd choices from the art department here). Dracula (Lugosi) issues his usual warm welcome and they conclude the sale of a ruined abbey near London before the brides of Dracula descend on Renfield. (As usual, the film doesn’t address the real question of why Dracula has decided to up stakes – ho, ho – and relocate to England. He hardly fits the usual profile of an economic migrant.)

After a brief interlude depicting the not-exactly-untroubled voyage of the ship Dracula takes from Romania to England – the crazed Renfield has now become his servant – we’re into the main part of the film. After a brief but strikingly effective interlude of a top-hatted Dracula stalking through the metropolis’ fog, pausing only to snack on the occasional match girl, this primarily concerns Dracula’s dealings with Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the asylum next door to the ruined abbey, and his nearest and dearest: his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).

Best not to get too attached to Lucy, for she is soon no more: her plot function is basically to be a sort of demonstrative victim of Dracula’s M.O. (The subplot from the novel about Lucy rising as a vampire and preying on children is mentioned, but not really developed.) From this point on the film is about the battle to stop Mina from going the same way – luckily, Dr Seward is able to call in his old friend and expert on all things peculiar, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who very quickly realises just what’s going on here.

The status of Dracula as an important and iconic film is indisputable by anyone with a passing knowledge of and interest in modern culture, but in recent years a sort of critical push-back against it has developed, suggesting it is simply not a very good movie (and the Spanish-language version made on the same sets at the same time, starring Carlos Villarias, is often cited to be a much more effective take on the story).

Well, I can see where critics of Dracula are coming from, because nine decades on this iconic piece of cinema often feels barely cinematic at all. The reason for this is, in a sense, very straightforward: it’s not quite a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a filmed version of the 1924 stage version (with occasional moments lifted from Murnau’s unauthorised adaptation, which genuinely is a classic movie). This explains the talky and largely static nature of the piece, although given the film is only about 75 minutes long, probably not its sluggish pace – I get a sense that the stage play may have been a gruelling ordeal, just not in the way that its makers may have intended. Certainly, as a horror movie this film is seriously restricted by the censorship of the period: this is a wholly bloodless vampire movie, some might say in more senses than one.

Then again, neither sensationalist spectacle nor studied naturalism were really in the toolbox of American cinema in the 1930s; many films were basically just filmed theatre, with an accordingly theatrical and camp air to them. There’s something very theatrical, and indeed practically Shakespearean, about the way most of the major roles are played dead straight, while the supporting parts are often comic grotesques (apart from Frye’s wildly over-the-top turn as Renfield, I’m thinking of Charles Gerrard as the asylum attendant, who seems fond of telling his charges they are ‘loonies’).

On the other hand, there is Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Again, this is a very theatrical performance, with a lot of rather studied posing going on, not to mention some stilted line readings. But there’s something else here too – particularly in close-up, where he brings a real intensity and charisma to the part. It’s just a shame that Tod Browning elects to shoot most of the movie in rather static long- and medium-shot. You can perceive, perhaps, why this performance effectively set the template for screen Draculas – virtually every other take on the character is a reaction to it, either an emulation or a modulation.

You can say the same about the movie as a whole: it may hardly be a great Dracula movie itself, but you can sense it incubating the seeds of many other Draculas and vampire movies to come. For every scene which is a bit of a dud, there is another which either really lands, or is at least brimming with potential. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing one can say about this movie – it’s almost like an extended sizzle reel for Dracula and the vampire movie genre as a whole. Perhaps the movies weren’t quite ready for Dracula in 1931, but this movie did a fine job of giving them plenty of motivation to revisit this story time and time again.

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