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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

One day, I’m sure, I will have written about all the portmanteau horror anthology movies made by Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Films in the 1960s and 1970s; one day I may even have written about all the knock-offs copying the Amicus style (things like Tales that Witness Madness and The Uncanny). But not yet, obviously: it still feels like I am trapped in some kind of recurring nightmare, where my bad deeds have condemned me to endlessly revisit an eclectic range of movie stars hoist by their own petards in inventive but slightly thrifty ways…

Freddie Francis’ Torture Garden (NB.: contains very little actual torture, but no actual gardening either) was made in 1967 and thus comes very early in the lineage. Whereas some of the other films were either written by Subotsky himself (drawing quite heavily on common horror-movie tropes) and/or derived from things like American horror comics, Torture Garden is scripted by the distinguished writer of horror and crime fiction Robert Bloch (Bloch is perhaps best remembered for writing the original novel that Psycho was based on, but also contributed a few well-remembered episodes to the original run of Star Trek). Bloch wrote a few movies for Amicus; this isn’t the best, but it has its moments.

The setting for the frame story (there’s always a frame story in this kind of film) is the Torture Garden of Dr Diablo, a circus sideshow being visited by a mixed group of British and American characters (Amicus wanted to use more British actors – Christopher Lee was inevitably in the frame – but the film’s American financiers insisted on big names from the States). Overseeing events is Diablo himself, played with enormous relish by Burgess Meredith. Meredith starts off in a variation on his Penguin outfit, with top hat and cigarette holder, but soon adopts the persona of an American gangster (for some reason).

Well, after the main show, a few of the punters stick around for the ‘special tour’ (only a fiver extra) and Diablo shows them his waxwork of Atropos, Goddess of Destiny, and wielder of the Shears of Fate. (I am tempted to say that shear terror ensues, but probably best not to). Each of the five visitors – Michael Bryant, Beverly Adams, Barbara Ewing, Jack Palance and Michael Ripper – must take it in turn to gaze upon Atropos’ Shears and be given a vision of their own destiny…

And off we go. First up is the tale of an unpleasant and dissolute young man named Williams, played by Michael Bryant (a very fine actor, well-remembered for The Stone Tape and his guest role in Colditz), who visits his wealthy but sick uncle (Maurice Denham) to try and shake him down for some cash. Well, uncle doesn’t play ball, and Williams decides to bring his inheritance forward a bit. Searching the house, he discovers a coffin buried in the cellar, and inside the coffin is a rather peculiar cat. Needless to say Williams soons find himself becoming very familiar with the kitty – or perhaps that should be the other way around…

Pretty basic stuff, this one, but a strong performance from Bryant just about holds it together: at various points he has to declaim exposition to the cat, basically repeating things the cat has just telepathically informed him of. Normally this would be a recipe for the most ridiculously eggy nonsense, but Bryant manages to ensure it’s all just bad rather than disastrous. Decent direction and a very Hammer-ish score help too.

We continue with a story subtitled ‘Terror Over Hollywood’, which strikes me as overstating things a bit. Beverly Adams gets to be the first woman to lead an Amicus segment as actress Carla Hayes. How good an actress she actually is is debatable, but she quickly demonstrates an enormous aptitude for two-faced ruthlessness in pursuit of success in the movie business. One thing about this segment is that it’s arguably just a little bit over-plotted, with a lot of faffing about before we get to the heart of the matter: Carla’s co-star (Robert Hutton) is apparently killed by the mob, but whisked off to a mysterious clinic where he makes a miraculous recovery. What gives?

There’s a nice idea here, sort-of anticipating The Stepford Wives (there’s a bit of a giveaway) and with great potential as a satire of Hollywood and the superficiality of movie stars and their relentless appetite for celebrity, but the reveal comes a bit too abruptly and the story isn’t properly developed. As a result it comes across as a nice idea, not particularly well-realised, but Adams isn’t bad and there’s a cameo from Bernard Kay as an evil doctor.

Barbara Ewing is up next, playing journalist Dorothy Endicott. She meets a famous pianist (John Standing) for an interview and the two of them become romantically involved, despite the concerns of his manager that this will be a distraction from his practising and touring. He does seem very devoted to his work, especially the beautiful old grand piano his mother gave him, which he calls  ‘Euterpe’ (the Greek muse of music). But who will win if it comes down to a contest for his affections between Dorothy and Euterpe?

One thing about this movie is that the different segments all do have their own visual style, and this one is particularly distinctive, with a certain minimalist look to it and mostly black-and-white costumes and sets. The story itself is fairly routine stuff, though, building up to a delirious moment of kitsch nonsense where Ewing is attacked by the piano. It’s not quite up there with Fluff Freeman grappling with the killer vine, but it’s about as close as Torture Garden gets.

Following this it’s Jack Palance’s segment. Palance is in the role initially earmarked for Christopher Lee, playing a obsessive collector of Edgar Allen Poe memorabilia (given Bloch’s mentor was H. P. Lovecraft, himself an enormous admirer of Poe, one wonders if there isn’t a subtle sort of tribute going on here). Palance’s character, Wyatt, meets another collector, Lancelot Canning (the always wonderful Peter Cushing) – Canning really does seem to have every possible piece of Poe material, including some original manuscripts – even a few which are completely unheard of. Can Wyatt resist the temptation to let his envy of Canning’s collection get the better of him?

Well, once you know the background to the film, you can’t help but imagine what this bit would have been like with Lee and Cushing playing the two lead roles. As it is, Palance makes an unusual dance-partner for Cushing, but it’s still an interesting little piece with Palance not disgracing himself opposite the great man. Palance seems to have relished the chance to play more of a character role than one his usual tough guys and perhaps indulges in a bit too much business with his pipe and glasses, but this is an engaging tale with a good twist to it.

Which leaves us with Michael Ripper. Ripper is an actor who gets pigeon-holed as the chap who plays all the inn-keepers and local constables in classic Hammer Horror movies – and, to be fair, he did play a lot of these parts – but he was a performer of considerable range and ability (see, for example, 1964’s Every Day’s a Holiday, where he is required to do a song-and-dance number opposite Ron Moody and is in no way outshone). I was rather looking forward to seeing his chance to shine in this movie.

Well, suffice to say it doesn’t really happen, for we are in twist ending territory. The good thing about the twist ending of Torture Garden is that it isn’t the same one as in all the portmanteau horrors written by Subotsky himself. The bad news is that, like most of the punchlines to the stories in this film, it somehow doesn’t quite connect with the viewer as well as it might, with the result that the movie is a just a bit underwhelming.  Bloch is a very fine writer, but the segments here don’t have the same cartoony power and colour as the ones in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, to name but one. If memory serves, Bloch’s script for Asylum (1972) was rather an improvement – but that’s a set of stories for another day. If you like the Amicus anthology films, this is fun, but not one of their best.

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If you have any experience of the work of the director Daniel Haller – which, if you are of a certain vintage, may not be unlikely – it is most likely to have something to do with his association with Glen A Larson, the TV impressario responsible for Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Knight Rider, amongst others. Haller did a handful of episodes of all these shows, but sci-fi appears to have not been his thing – he appears to have enjoyed working on the more down-to-earth pleasures of The Fall Guy far more, directing dozens of episodes.

I find this a bit surprising, as it is certainly not what one would expect from a man who started his movie career as the art director and production designer on a whole range of baroque and generally good-looking American International movies: he did one or other of these jobs on virtually all of the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Whatever else you want to say about these films, they do look good, and you could see why the company decided to give Haller a go at directing a movie himself. The fact that Haller spent the last few years of his career directing episodes of The Fall Guy may lead you to suspect that his career as a movie director did not really work out – and this suspicion would not be unfounded, certainly not based on the evidence of his debut.

This is Die, Monster, Die!, released in 1965. I know – that’s a hell of a title for a movie, isn’t it? If perhaps not one that promises the utmost level of subtlety and refinement. There are a number of other hellacious things about this movie, which we shall come to in the fullness of time, but just bear in mind – lurking in the director’s future is the refrain ‘I’m the unknown stunt-man that makes Eastwood look so fine‘.

The movie opens with one of those not-quite-psychedelic title sequences of swirly colours which were briefly fashionable for budget-conscious genre movies in the 1960s (cf. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD). Is that the name of legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft we espy in the credits? It is! No wonder this film came out in a double bill with The Haunted Palace, likewise based on one of his short stories.

Hang on, though: rather than being set in Lovecraft’s traditional New England milieu, Die, Monster, Die! is just set in – well, England. A train pulls into the quiet village of Arkham (which must have amused punters at the double bill: The Haunted Palace is set in Arkham, too, just an entirely different one) and disgorges our first imported American star, Nick Adams. Unlike Haller, Adams did his TV work at the start of his career, before switching to playing the American lead in genre films – in the same year as this movie, he went over to Japan, where (billed as Nikku Adamsu) he co-starred in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Here, Adams is playing Steve Reinhart, who has come to Arkham to see his love-interest, a young lady named Susan Witley. Reinhart wants to get out to the old Witley place (as most people seem to refer to it), but there is a problem. None of the surly local yokels will go anywhere near the place. The taxi driver gets positively aggressive at the suggestion. The owner of the local bicycle shop refuses to even contemplate renting him a bike. Subtle stuff this is not – and, to be honest, there is something slightly awkward about this whole sequence, which is set in the present day (the mid 60s) but plays like something that should really be taking place the best part of a century earlier. But that’s low budgets for you.

But where did all the budget go? Well, when Reinhart yomps out to the old Witley place, he meets his girlfriend’s father, Nahum Witley (there’s a typical English name for you), who is played by Boris Karloff. I never really know what to make of Boris Karloff, to be honest: he’s not obviously a brilliant actor who somehow ended up typed in horror movies in the same way as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price. I mean, he’s very good in the Frankenstein movies he made, obviously, but he just seems to have traded on that fact for the next three decades or so: I always find him just a bit hammy, and this film is no exception.

All is obviously not well at the old Witley place: Mrs Witley (Freda Jackson) appears to have become bedridden and very light-sensitive, and the servants aren’t looking well either. Still making an effort, however, is the girl Reinhart has come to see: Susan Witley, played by Suzan Farmer in her film debut (Farmer is perhaps best known for the films she made for Hammer the following year). But what is afoot? Why is everyone so scared of the place? What odd affliction has befallen the Witleys? And what’s making all those weird noises that are coming out of the greenhouse…?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you may be scratching your head and wondering which H. P. Lovecraft story this film is actually based on, because so far it sounds like any one of half a dozen of them. A fair point, and I should probably make it clear at this point that this film is based on a Lovecraft story in the sense that it really bears very little relation to it. In theory, and I only really say this because it’s what’s in the credits, Die, Monster, Die! is based on The Colour Out of Space (the same story recently brought to the screen by Richard Stanley, with Nicolas Cage). The story is about the ghastly fate suffered by a decent family of farming folk, after a strange meteorite falls on their land. You can just about make out the vestiges of that tale here, but it has had all manner of other story elements piled on top of it until it is almost unrecognisable: a romance, the spooky old mansion, a family with a history of trafficking with the powers of darkness, and so on.

Even so, there is still probably potential here for something engaging and vivid, and certainly meeting the usual criteria for being Lovecraftian: there is the terrible influence of heritage and pedigree, not to mention some reasonably well-realised octopus-monsters at one point (can’t be proper Lovecraft without tentacles, or so the consensus would have you believe). The octopus-monsters are certainly better than the jug-eared mannequin that Karloff transforms into at the climax.

The problem is that the film is just too slow: there are differing reports as to what the exact duration is (the US version seems to have been 10% shorter than the UK release), but none of the suggestions are that long, and the film plods along in all of them. There’s a lot of atmospheric walking about with not much else going on: if only the cycle shop had rented Reinhart a bike, the whole business could have been finished in under an hour. Even when things are happening, they’re often just re-stressing points that have already been made – filler, basically.

It’s a shame, because as I have alluded, the film has an interesting cast and is based on a classic short story, to say nothing of being directed by a man with an intriguing visual sense. But none of these things make it into the film wholly intact, somehow. If you’re a serious fan of Lovecraft you will probably find this film of interest, but for everyone else, AIP were making better films in the UK around this time, to say nothing of outfits like Hammer and Amicus. Die, Monster Die! is a fascinating curiosity, but just not a very good film.

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You may recall that last week we talked about the Roger Corman-produced movie Humanoids of the Deep, on which occasion I concluded that, despite appearances, the film’s similarities with the Lovecraft short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth were probably just coincidental. I still stand by that, on the whole, but just the other day I saw another old movie which did give me pause and reason to possibly reconsider: 1963’s The Haunted Palace, directed by Corman himself.

The movie opens in the 18th century New England village of Arkham, where rum doings are a-transpiring, as young women are being lured to the palatial residence of wealthy local grandee Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, naturally). The music is stirring, the production values classy, and the sense that these AIP movies were the closest thing to Hammer horror in American domestic cinema is only intensified when the local villagers grab their blazing torches and decide to pay Curwen a visit, declaring him to be a necromancer and magician. This is bad news for Curwen, and also for the tree that they decide to tie him to before setting fire to him (presumably they didn’t have a stake handy). In true malevolent warlock style, though, Curwen declares that he will have his revenge – if not on the men present there that night, but on their descendants…

Cue fade out and a quick quotation from Edgar Allan Poe; this was (rather spuriously, as we shall see) promoted as being part of the series of Poe adaptations Corman and Price were engaged upon at the time. Before we know it, it is the 1870s, but Arkham is still blighted by its dark past. Clearly unaware of all this is Bostonian gentleman Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget). Ward has just inherited his great-great-grandfather’s house in Arkham, and this turns out to be the ‘palace’ that Curwen had imported stone-by-stone from Europe. It almost goes without saying that Price is playing his own descendant, but who exactly he’s inherited the house from is left a little obscure.

The Wards get an unfriendly reception from the Arkhamites, but in this circumstances this is not entirely surprising: since Curwen’s day the town has been plagued by horrific deformities, with some families having to keep their less-human members chained up for the safety of everyone. (There are various people with webbed fingers, missing eyes and homicidal dispositions, but also one man who appears to have been born without a mouth, which does raise some questions). Ward decides it would be best just to stick around long enough to organise the sale of the house – an encounter with the ‘housekeeper’ of the palace, played by Lon Chaney Jr, may contribute to this – but is in much greater peril than he realises. The portrait of Joseph Curwen still hanging in the house exerts a strange influence upon him, and it soon becomes clear that Curwen’s spirit has been hanging around ever since his untimely cremation, waiting for a suitable vessel to occupy.

The local doctor is friendlier than the other villagers and explains some of the back-story to Ward and his wife: Curwen managed to lay his hands on a copy of a dreaded book entitled the Necronomicon and used it to summon dark otherworldly beings, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, so they could breed with human women and create a hybrid race which would go on to dominate the world. With Ward increasingly under the possession of Curwen, and his wife not really any the wiser, this project is back on – as soon as Curwen exacts a little revenge on the descendants of his executioners…

As I may have said before, I only really became aware of the Corman-Price-Poe cycle of films when the BBC showed a season of them in 1990 (prime time BBC2, each with a special introduction from Corman himself, how very different the world was then): The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and (of course) The Masque of the Red Death. The Haunted Palace was notably absent from this run, though – but I can think of a couple of possible reasons why.

Firstly, it may just have been that this was a bit too much for BBC2 at 9pm: it’s not what you’d actually call scary, but it has a profoundly effective brooding and doomy atmosphere, and some of the sequences – particularly those with the mutant, hybrid villagers – are very unsettling even today. There are strange notes being struck here which are not present in any of the other Poe movies Corman was involved with.

Of course, this may be because it’s not actually based on Edgar Allan Poe in any meaningful sense (which is another possible reason why it wasn’t included in a season of Poe movies). The title is Poe, the main ‘based on’ credit goes to Poe, and there are a couple of Poe quotes inserted into the film, but the actual plot is from elsewhere: as the script’s references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the Necronomicon suggest, this is really an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and the first credited Lovecraft-derived movie, which makes this a landmark in horror cinema). But Lovecraft was virtually unheard-of back in the 1960s, and it was Poe’s name that would sell tickets.

Nevertheless, as a modern viewer, used to nudge-wink references to Lovecraft and his mythology in various movies and TV shows, it’s startling to come across a movie from so long ago which so openly makes use of iconic Lovecraftian props and concepts: the only slight disappointment is that we don’t actually get to hear Vincent Price say ‘Cthulhu’, as that dialogue goes to Frank Maxwell’s character. One thing which slightly irritates me is the way that anything which features a slimy tentacle lazily gets described as ‘Lovecraftian’ by default, when the writer really worked from a wider palette. But The Haunted Palace captures much of the essential Lovecraftian feel – the pervasive atmosphere of gloom and despair, the obsession with the influence of the past upon the present, the almost-instinctive revulsion connected to notions of heredity and miscegenation. This may have been one of the first ‘official’ Lovecraft movies, but it remains one of the most authentic.

Even if you’re not particularly bothered either way about the origins of the story, this is still an effectively creepy movie – Price is on top form in what’s effectively a double role, as you’d expect, but there’s also a very good supporting turn from Lon Chaney Jr, as you might not. That said, this is a movie filled with good performances, made with impressive production values and capable direction. Several times during this film I was struck by how much it resembled the kind of Gothic horror which Hammer Films were making in the UK during the same period. The Corman-Price films often had a slightly lighter touch and a little more colour about them, but the best of them are as good as any classic Hammer film, and The Haunted Palace is amongst the best.

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For a film directed by a relatively obscure journeyman, 1969’s Doppelganger (perhaps better known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, especially in the US) has a remarkably distinctive creative identity to it: I imagine that many people, of a certain age at least, could be shown a rough cut without credits and still come away with a very firm idea of who exactly the prime mover behind it was. From the very start, the music is instantly recognisable as the work of the composer Barry Gray, and the model work (which is extensive) is equally obviously the work of Derek Meddings and his team. Even if you don’t know these names, you will recognise the style from dozens of episodes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and other TV shows originated by Gerald Alexander Anderson (Gerry to the world).

It has become one of those quite-well-known stories that, at some point in the middle 1960s, Gerry Anderson was taken out to lunch by Stanley Kubrick, who offered him the chance to do the model unit filming for 2001: A Space Odyssey. History does not recall exactly why, but Anderson turned Kubrick down – however, it looks like the eventual success of the film clearly had an impact on Anderson, who always seems to have wanted to be taken seriously as a film-maker, and it sometimes feels as if much of Anderson’s subsequent work was an attempt to make up for this missed opportunity and somehow show the world what the Gerry Anderson version of 2001 would have been like.

Doppelganger was directed by Robert Parrish, completed in 1968, and then sat on the shelf for a year before its eventual release. By this point Anderson had a string of successful puppet shows under his belt, but, as ever, was aching to get into live action, and a meeting with an executive from Universal Pictures gave him his opportunity: this film was the result.

The plot is initiated by surprising results from a deep-space probe sent to the vicinity of the sun: photos indicate the existence of a hitherto-unsuspected planet on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, in the same orbital path and travelling at the same speed, hence the other planet has remained hidden from terrestrial observers. Tough, hard-bitten head of European space research Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark, basically reprising his role as tough, hard-bitten mogul John Wilder in TV’s The Power Game) uses all his wily skills to get the penny-pinching governments of Europe to club together with NASA to pay for a space flight to survey the new planet (this will cost one billion dollars, or apparently three thousand million pounds: what this says about exchange rates in the film’s near-future setting I leave to others to decide).

As part of the funding deal (for the movie as well as the space mission), the chief astronaut is veteran American pilot Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes, fresh from his stint as architect David Vincent in The Invaders), while there to do the science, provide character support, and turn up drunk on set is British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry). Soon enough – actually, not nearly soon enough, for we are nearly half-way into the movie already – the ship blasts off for its three-week trip to the new planet (the two astronauts spend it in a primitive form of suspended animation). Finding the new world to have a breathable atmosphere, a landing gets underway – but it goes badly wrong, and the lander is destroyed as it crashes into a bleak and rocky landscape.

But just when things look terminally bleak for Ross and Kane, they are surprised to find themselves saved, by what appears to be an Air-Sea Rescue vehicle. Apparently they have crash-landed back on Earth, in Mongolia. Kane has been grievously injured, but Ross finds himself dragged in front of Webb and his associates, demanding to know why the mission turned back and has returned to Earth rather than surveying the new planet as planned. Ross has no answer to this – but begins to get an inkling of an explanation when he notices that all the writing around him now appears to be reversed, as if appearing in a mirror…

The good news about Doppelganger is that it displays all the technical skill and inventiveness of the operation that Anderson had put together over the preceding decade: the model-work is superb and innovative, resulting in a deserved Oscar nomination for special effects. At this point in time, it’s fair to say that no-one was doing better model effects than Derek Meddings and his technicians. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the script for Doppelganger was largely written by Gerry Anderson himself, with the assistance of his wife Sylvia.

Now, I have a great and enduring fondness for Anderson and his work (I will even watch the odd episode of second-season Space: 1999 if there is nothing else on TV), but only the most devoted fan would deny there were limitations to his talent. Anderson’s genius was as an originator of ideas and as a producer – when it comes to actual story-telling and the scripts he wrote himself, one is likely in for a very bumpy ride, not least because, as the producer of his own scripts, he generally had the power to stop the directors from making any changes (improvements) to them.

The basic premise of Doppelganger (the existence of a mirror- or counter-Earth which is a near-perfect duplicate) was probably approaching the status of SF old chestnut even in 1968, and part of the problem is that Anderson seems to have thought the notion itself was strong enough to carry the movie. It’s not: the film doesn’t seem interested in the philosophical or metaphysical possibilities of the idea, and why the other Earth differs only in that everything seems to have been reflected is never explained. And as the central idea of the story, it doesn’t really go anywhere or lend itself to a compelling plot – the climax they come up with here feels very contrived and abrupt.

Of course, there is also the issue of the sluggish pacing and structure of the film. It’s almost a hallmark of many Anderson productions that he seems to be much more interested in process than in plot – you remember all those elaborate sequences in Thunderbirds of people rotating through walls, going down ramps, etc, all leading up to the launching of one of the Thunderbird vehicles? That’s the kind of thing I mean. There’s another one at the start of the movie Thunderbirds Are Go, where we see the Zero-X spacecraft being assembled prior to launch: this goes on for about five minutes, without any dialogue. No matter how much you love model effects, it is slow and adds nothing essential to the plot. And it’s the same kind of material that hobbles Doppelganger: it turns out there’s a spy in the European space agency (this is Herbert Lom, basically doing a cameo), and there’s a pointlessly long and involved sequence detailing how he develops the photos he takes with his secret bionic-eye-camera. The sequence of the astronauts transferring to their lander before attempting touchdown on the other Earth is a similar offender.

That said, as a new kind of venture for the Anderson organisation, Doppelganger introduces some innovative varieties of mis-step to the repertoire. Most of these seem to derive from Anderson’s fierce desire to be seen as more than just a maker of children’s TV programmes. He was apparently desperately keen to establish this as a movie for an adult audience by including a nude scene for one or both of the female stars (Loni von Friedl and Thinnes’ real-life wife Lynn Loring), and ructions ensued on set when the director wanted to go in a more subtle direction. There’s something similarly odd and jarring about scenes concerning tensions in the Rosses’ marriage and their apparent inability to have children, which may or may not be due to radiation he was exposed to in space. You think, aha, when he gets to the mirror-Earth his counterpart will be happily married with kids – but no. This goes nowhere too.

Doppelganger is not great in all kinds of ways, but for the dedicated follower of things Andersonian it is obviously of some interest – not least because of the number of ways it anticipates the way the rest of his live-action career would develop. The interest in slightly laborious metaphysical SF would find its fullest expression in the first season of Space: 1999, while on a more practical level, one is immediately struck by how many members of this film’s supporting cast turn up as regulars or semi-regulars in Anderson’s first fully live-action TV series, UFO: Ed Bishop and George Sewell, most obviously, but also Vladek Sheybal and Keith Alexander, almong with many others.

I do think that the craziness of the scripts of Gerry Anderson productions is as much a part of their charm as their visual appeal and the quality of the special effects. The special effects in Doppelganger are good, as previously noted, but the script is lumpy and frustrating throughout, with no single element being completely satisfying. The actors do their best with the material, but there’s really very little to work with. Only worth watching for Anderson completists, I would say.

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My taste in movies is broader than most people’s, but that doesn’t mean I expect all of them to be good. I find it is important to bear in mind that, no matter how talented or discriminating someone is, the chances are they have participated in at least one piece of complete garbage in the course of their careers: successful movie actors just have a much higher hit rate than most. I am reminded of something Michael Caine said, about how one needed to make sure only one film in five was a genuine stinker – Caine’s legendary willingness to appear in virtually anything may have constituted an attempt to stack the odds in his favour.

Much as I have attempted to impress this principle on others, it has not always taken. It would have been in the late summer of 2005 that my father approached me and enquired if I would be recording a showing of Joe McGrath’s 1969 film The Magic Christian, due on TV that evening. I had not planned to; reviews in the TV listings were unenthusiastic and it didn’t look like my kind of thing, let alone his. Nevertheless, he asked if I would tape it for him. I agreed, but asked why: ‘it’s got lots of good people in it,’ was his response. This I cannot argue with: the film’s most distinguishing feature is an astonishing cast list, starting with Peter Sellers and going on to include Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Hattie Jacques, John le Mesurier, Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, along with many other well-known faces, some of them playing themselves. That the film does not seem to recognise the value of its assets, and fritters them away rather, is thematically appropriate but still bad film-making.

(NB: staring at the poster for three minutes will mean you probably have a longer exposure to Raquel Welch than her entire actual screen-time in the movie. Caveat emptor.)

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire, who at the start of the film decides to make up for his childless state by adopting an heir: he chooses a tramp from one of London’s parks, played by Ringo Starr (there have been suggestions the part was actually written for John Lennon, and you can imagine him in it). The duo set out to perpetrate a series of insanely lavish practical jokes puncturing the pomposity of the society they see around them and exposing the venality of the great and the good. As Sellers’ character puts it at one point, ‘Grand’s the name, money’s my game – would you like to play?’

What follows is an almost entirely plotless series of skits and sketches, most of which concern the Grands bribing people to sabotage various aspects of mainstream society. They pay the actor Laurence Harvey to do a striptease in the middle of a performance of Hamlet, pay one of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams to ram their opponents and wreck the contest, get someone to enter a black panther (farcically disguised as a dog) at Crufts, and so on. Eventually the Grands set out on a cruise to New York on the liner The Magic Christian, where all manner of strange events start to occur – but is all as it seems? (Hint: no it isn’t, but by this point you will have stopped caring anyway.)

Apart from Sellers and Starr, most of those big names in the cast list turn up for only one or two scenes, and it is a general rule of thumb that the less time they have on screen, the better they come across, as the script for this movie is so slapdash and lousy that hardly any of them can do much with this material. I suppose this excuses most of them, with the possible exception of John Cleese and Graham Chapman: they wrote an earlier version of the script (later replaced by one written by McGrath and Terry Southern, author of the source novel), but the only scenes from this which survived are the ones they appear in – so in a very real sense they are the authors of their own misfortunes here. (This clearly left its mark on Cleese and Chapman: an episode of Monty Python made a couple of years later features an insane, incompetent Scottish film director, and the stage directions in the script drily make clear that he ‘in no way resembles J. McGrath.’)

Some of the more lavishly silly sequences in The Magic Christian do kind of anticipate Python at its most absurd – there’s a bit where Grand goes partridge hunting using an ack-ack gun and a flame-thrower – but the film has a kind of laboriousness about it that takes away most of the fun; much of the humour also comes across as rather problematic, too (many jokes seem racist, sexist, or homophobic).

This is because it seems to be battering away at a supposedly subversive message about how money-obsessed the great and the good of society are. (This is possibly not the most dazzlingly original insight in the annals of British satire.) One has to remember the film was made at the end of the 1960s and does embody, awkwardly, something of the hippy ideal of not being materialist or acquisitive. However, if this film was a person, it would be Sid James dragged up as a hippy at the end of Carry On Camping – the costume is just about right, and he’s saying some of the right words, but it is plainly a disguise and a deeply unconvincing one. It feels more like a hippy exploitation film than a genuine attempt to make a satire embodying the philosophy of the counter-culture – even if it is, it is hopelessly naive and unsubtle.

There is the odd mildly amusing moment scattered through the film – the scene where Roman Polanski encounters a rather unexpected cabaret singer is perhaps the closest it gets to being laugh-out-loud funny – and I suppose Peter Sellers deserves some kind of credit for delivering a solid comic performance that does as much as anything to hold the film together. But even so, this is one sixties artefact which has not aged well, mainly because it was never any good at the time. Paul Merton once went on TV to defend The Magic Christian, suggesting it has a reputation as a bad movie because it has been smeared by various establishment film critics offended by its all-purpose irreverence. Paul, I hate to contradict you, but I have to disagree: The Magic Christian‘s reputation as a bad movie stems mainly from the fact it is a bad movie.

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Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) starts off looking like a conventional thriller of its era: a plane makes a night-time landing, someone in a hat that screams ‘spy’ observes a distinguished-looking older gentleman getting off, pausing to shake the hand of Stephen Boyd as he does so, a motorcade zooms away, enemy agents attack it, and so on, and so on. Only with the onset of the opening credits does one get a sense that this movie is going to be a little further out there: the camera zooms in on the egg-like dome of the older gentleman, now receiving medical attention, teletype rattles across the screen, there are radiophonic pinging and boinging noises. It’s still very sixties, but in a rather different mode.

Soon enough we are back in the plot, with Boyd being picked up by some spooks and delivered to a secret underground base. Keeping the underground base a secret is no small feat (literally) as it is a whopper, as secret bases go. Most people working there travel around on little buggies rather than walking about: that’s how big it is. This is particularly ironic as it turns out it is the secret base of the Department for Shrinking Things (they have another name in the script, but it basically means the same thing). Too bad the Department for Shrinking Things couldn’t shrink their own HQ a bit.

Well, it turns out the chief problem with the Department for Shrinking Things’ shrink-ray is that it only works for an hour before things revert, potentially messily, to their original size: one of those conveniently precise drawbacks one so often finds in pulp SF. The secret of extending the miniaturisation period has been discovered by the older gentleman, but a blood clot in his brain threatens to kill him before he can share his breakthrough with the west.

All this proves to essentially be maguffinery, designed to get us to the high concept for this particular movie:  to remove the clot and save the patient’s life, a small submarine is going to be made considerably smaller and injected into the man’s bloodstream, this allowing a brilliant brain surgeon to carry out an operation as an inside job, so to speak. The brain surgeon is Arthur Kennedy, his winsome young assistant is Raquel Welch (in her movie debut), commanding the mission is Donald Pleasence, and Stephen Boyd will also be going along to keep an eye on things (there are some suspicions that there could be a traitor on the team).

And off they all go: the shrink ray even works on Raquel Welch’s hair, although it remains proportionately about three times bigger than one would expect for a woman her height and build. This is one of those SF movies aimed at a general audience for whom, it seems to be assumed, the simple fact of something science-fictional going on will be endlessly fascinating. So the actual shrinking sequence lasts about ten minutes, for no very obvious reason.

Then, before you can say ‘whoosh’, they are underway, cruising through the bloodstream. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan: one so rarely comes across Hollywood movies where a fistula is crucial to the plot, but this is one of them. Given the batty nature of the story, it hardly seems fair to single any particular moments out as being especially contrived, even though they seem it: they have to travel through the heart, which has to be briefly stopped while they do so; there’s a stop-off in the lungs to refill the air tanks; a detour through the lymphatic system results in the sub being covered in loft insulation. Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies which cover her in plasticky crystals – she is nearly trampled in the rush as the rest of the crew surges forward to peel the stuff from her wet-suited person. And so on, and so on. In the end the traitor is revealed; his identity should come as no great surprise, given the presence of Pleasence, who sometimes seems to have a genuine problem not being icily sinister in any of his roles.

There was a popular misconception floating around, for a number of years at least, that Isaac Asimov was somehow involved in scripting Fantastic Voyage. Apparently the limit of his involvement was writing the tie-in novelisation, in which he duly did his best to fix some of the problems with scientific accuracy and various other plot holes. There are, as you can probably imagine, many of these, the main one being that come the end of the film, no-one has bothered to extract the submarine from within the patient – which means it should revert to normal size somewhere inside his head, with presumably messy results. Apparently there was a line supposedly explaining this which didn’t make it into the final edit – the operation turns out to be successful, in that the defector survives, but he suffers minor brain damage from having a wrecked submarine in his skull and forgets the bit of information everyone was after to begin with.

The finished movie isn’t big on this kind of irony, or indeed humour of any sort. It takes itself very seriously, and I imagine the makers would say that this is the only approach to be taken with this kind of outlandish story – you can’t run the risk of appearing to send yourself up. Well, there is something to be said for dour naturalism, but it is not the easiest of bedfellows when put next to the visual component of this film: naturalistic is hardly the word for this.

There’s a difference between presentational and representational storytelling: the representational kind apparently ignores the audience and strives for absolute realistic naturalism. Presentational storytelling acknowledges the presence of the audience (and, implicitly, its own existence as a piece of fiction), either explicitly or implicitly. Musical theatre and pantomime are usually presentational; so, arguably, is a lot of genre fiction, simply because it adheres to genre conventions. The script and performance style of Fantastic Voyage are both working hard to be representational and naturalistic (or as close as they can manage in a genre movie). The visuals and special effects, however, are something else again – the garish, surreal visions of the interior of the human body may have won an Oscar fifty years ago, but they just seem trippy today. The consequence is that the film feels camp more than anything else – not intentionally camp, but nevertheless camp.

In the end, it’s a watchable kind of camp, and it does help you overlook all the various plot holes in the story. Most of the performances are not especially memorable (Pleasence is the predictable exception), and Raquel Welch is about as ornamental as you would expect, although she does seem to be working hard to find places to act. Fantastic Voyage passes the time agreeably enough, but whatever reputation it has derives more from its memorable visuals and the strength of its concept than any real distinction in the rest of the film.

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If you’re going to make a rip-off fantasy-horror movie about a giant gorilla on the rampage, then you’re basically ripping off King Kong. One might have thought that this was obvious enough, but the makers of 1961’s Konga clearly thought otherwise, as the title of the film demonstrates. (This is not quite the utterly brazen rip-off that it might appear to be: the producers of Konga paid RKO $25,000 for rights to the Kong name.)

That said, the funny thing about Konga (directed by John Lemont) is how little it actually resembles King Kong, until the closing sequence at least. The opening moments of the film appear to be the work of people who have vaguely heard of the principle that the secret of good storytelling is to show, not tell, but don’t have any experience of actually applying it: we see a plane, flying over Africa. The plane explodes, unconvincingly. We then see a newspaper seller announcing the death of famous botanist Dr Decker in a plane crash, and then a news broadcast announcing he has re-emerged from the African Bush after a year. It is all a bit laborious, or so it seems to me at least, but the following sequence makes up for it a bit by squeezing in record amounts of exposition – setting up the whole film, in fact – without being completely on the nose about it. We learn in fairly short order that a) Dr Decker (Michael Gough) has returned with some interesting new ideas about the hidden biological connections between people and carnivorous plants, b) he has brought back a cute baby chimp called Konga with him, and c) he is not afraid to be outspoken when it comes to his bold ideas about society and the value of human life.

From here, however, we’re back to scenes which mainly progress through characters telling each other in great detail things which they both already know: we meet Decker’s housekeeper, Margaret (Margo Johns), who clearly carries a torch for him (this is not reciprocated). She is devoted to him to the point where she happily overlooks the fact his time in Africa has clearly left him as mad as a stoat – he even puts a bullet in the cat when it threatens to disrupt his experiments, and this doesn’t seem to bother her that much; nor does the fact that the greenhouse is soon filled with huge, absurdly rubbery carnivorous plants. Decker reveals his master plan, which is to create giant human-plant hybrids using a serum derived from the carnivorous plants. He decides to test the science involved in this wholly reasonable scheme by injecting the serum into Konga, which initially turns him into a rather larger chimpanzee, and then (after a subsequent dose), a full-grown gorilla – or, to be more precise, a man in a gorilla suit. (The script seems genuinely confused as to what sort of ape Konga is supposed to be, referring to him as a chimp and a gorilla at different points.) Needless to say, Decker hypnotises Konga to become his mindless slave.

Round about this point we learn that Decker has kept his old job as a botany teacher (you can tell this film was an Anglo-American co-production, for despite supposedly being set near London, the depiction of Decker’s college resembles an American university far more than anything in England at this time), who entertains his students by showing them films he made in Africa. (The script hurriedly gives him a line where he explains how lucky he was to be able to save his camera and film-stock from the exploding plane. Mmm, quite.) But not all is well. Quite apart from the fact that all the students at the college are visibly much too old to still be there, it is clear that Decker has a rather inappropriate thing for Sandra (Claire Gordon), one of his students, and the dean of the place is ticked off with Decker for making outrageous claims in newspaper interviews about his work, and thus potentially making the college look bad.

Well, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist to do but go on a murderous spree bumping off anyone who threatens to deny him, well, anything he wants? Although in this case it is, obviously, Konga who is charged with doing the actual dirty work. So we say goodbye to the dean, and to a rival scientist threatening to publish ahead of Decker (wait, there are two famous botanists trying to create giant hybrids using carnivorous plants…?), and even to Sandra’s jealous boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad, who probably deserves it for This Pullover alone). When Margaret takes him to task for this homicidal outburst, Decker first claims it was technically Konga who did all the actual killing, and then that it was scientifically necessary to test the limits of his control over Konga. Yeah, sure, no jury would possibly convict.

But a fly has managed to dodge the enormous rubbery carnivorous plants and is threatening to settle in Decker’s ointment. Margaret has rumbled to the fact that Decker is letching all over Sandra and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. Although a man in a gorilla suit, blown up to ginormous size by another dose of the serum, can come pretty close. Cue rampage! Cue soldiers! Cue dialogue like ‘There’s a monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’

That line is delivered with an admirably straight face, by the way, and one of the things about Konga is that it does manage to take itself rather seriously, despite all the odds – there’s no hint of tongue-in-cheek knowingness to most of the film, despite how ridiculous it is. I know it’s customary to praise Michael Gough for a long career of fine performances in everything from Dracula to Batman, but I think that managing to keep a straight face throughout this film may be one of his greatest achievements, even if there are moments when his performance seems to be on the verge of anticipating Kenneth Williams in Carry On Screaming.

As alluded to earlier, one of the less obviously odd things about Konga is the fact that despite all the references to King Kong in the title and advertising, this more obviously resembles a mad-scientist film than a proper monster movie. It bears a sort of resemblance to something like Captive Wild Woman, with perhaps a touch of the botanical horror to be found in a number of British films from the late 50s and early 60s. Only at the very end does it actually start openly ripping off King Kong, with Gough in the Fay Wray role (and much as I admire Gough as a performer, I think this is really asking too much of him). It feels like a contractually-obligatory afterthought, without enough money available to do it properly (you don’t get to see Konga climbing Big Ben, for instance, he just stands there and lets soldiers shoot at him a lot). It also mostly fails when it comes to generating pathos: Konga has been a murderous plot device for most of the film, and Decker is just a nutcase, so it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them.

It would be wrong to say this spoils the film, anyway, although what ‘spoil’ means in this context is difficult to say for sure. One thing you can say about Konga is that it manages to find a consistent level of extreme badness and stick to it remarkably successfully for an hour and a half. If any of it were actually conventionally good, that would somehow make the film less enjoyable. So: this is a thoroughly silly and terrible film, but that is the main thing that makes it worth watching. I seldom have truck with the ‘so bad it’s good’ notion, but I would suggest that Konga is one of those films where such a claim is justified.

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Until a very short time ago I would have sworn to you that the five Fu Manchu movies Christopher Lee made in the late 1960s were products of his relationship with Hammer films. They have the same kind of period setting which gives so many Hammer horrors their atmosphere, they have the same mixture of pulp and class, and, well, they have Christopher Lee in them.

Apparently not: these films were made by the British producer Harry Alan Towers, and while they still look a lot like Hammer films, they generally tend much more towards the pulp adventure genre than actual horror per se. This is not to say that elements of these films are not shocking, just that this is probably not in the places intended by the film-makers themselves.

1966’s The Brides of Fu Manchu is the second of these films, following the previous year’s The Face of Fu Manchu. Face is rather stolid; Brides is much more confident, colourful and preposterous. For a film ostensibly about a Chinese supervillain, it opens in a surprisingly Egyptian-styled lair (possibly Towers just bought a lot of second-hand Egyptian props off the set of Carry On Cleo). A sequence briskly unfolds involving various nubile damsels in distressed clothing, a snake pit, and death by haircut, which sets the tone of the film quite nicely. We meet Professor Merlin, a French scientist, played by Rupert Davies (Davies opts for the inevitable allo-mah-Briteesh-chooms accent, but we are in for a feast of dubious accentry as the film continues). Merlin’s daughter has been kidnapped by the evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, of course) and Merlin is coerced into helping him conquer the world.

How is he going to do this? Well, Fu Manchu has a death ray, but as this is the 1920s he needs a set of relay stations to transmit the ray to wherever it needs to go. Hence all the kidnapped young women: their fathers have been busily building relay towers all over Europe (without anyone taking much notice, it would seem).

Next on the list for a kidnapping is Marie Lentz, daughter of a German scientist (Marie is also German for the first twenty minutes, then reverts to using the natural French accent of Marie Versini, who plays her. This is that sort of film). The first intimation that Fu Manchu may not be the machiavellian genius everyone says he is comes when it is revealed that his preferred kidnapping technique is for his dacoit henchmen to jump out on people from behind cars and other everyday objects and try to overpower them by brute force. This goes somewhat amiss as Marie’s companion Franz (Heinz Drache) drives about four dacoits off single-handed and beats one of them to death in the process. Franz is not a heavyweight boxer or commando, by the way, he is a research chemist. (The reason why there are so many German characters in this film is because it was a co-production with a West German company.)

The dead dacoit in London is enough to put Fu Manchu’s dogged nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), on the trail, accompanied by the faithful Dr Petrie (there is a very obvious Sherlock Holmes vibe going on here, only added to by the fact that Wilmer played Holmes on TV the previous year). Can Nayland Smith and his associates figure out what Fu Manchu is up to before he takes over the world?

There are things which are non-ironically good about The Brides of Fu Manchu, principally some of the production values – the recreation of 1920s London is handsomely done, incorporating many vintage cars, decent numbers of extras, and even a biplane for one sequence. (I should also say that there are also quite a few rather duff props and sets on display, with some distinctly wobbly death ray transmitters turning up before the end). Don Sharp’s direction is pacy and energetic, giving the film something of the feel of a Bond film with a period setting.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the various absurdities of the script, which above all else is heavily reliant on some outrageous plot devices to function. Most glaring of these is a character called Abdul (played by Salman Peerzada), one of the hospitality staff in Fu Manchu’s lair who decides to betray him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Nayland Smith may march around a lot looking dour and determined, but it’s Abdul who does most of the donkey work of helping the hostages escape before the end of the film. Other delights include lookalikes who bear no resemblance to the person they’re supposed to be, and an uproarious truth-drug sequence.

One comes away with the impression that Fu Manchu would have got away with it all, if not for some very bad recruitment decisions. Quite apart from hiring Abdul to do the catering, he is also saddled with a chief technician named Feng (Burt Kwouk), who has the bad manners to have a nervous breakdown and collapse onto the big red self-destruct lever in the secret lair (the fixtures in the secret lair have a lovely steampunky charm to them). His henchmen also leave a lot to be desired – German research chemists are quite capable of beating them up in droves, and at one point there’s a massed brawl between the dacoits and the escaping young women in which the guards seem to be distinctly hard pressed. Ancient Chinese saying, Fu Manchu: you just can’t get the staff.

It is, as you may have guessed, impossibly to take remotely seriously, but still hugely entertaining if you’re in the right sort of mood. That said, I fully expect that many people will be shaking their heads and sucking their teeth at the very idea of enjoying a Fu Manchu movie in our enlightened present-day society. Sax Rohmer’s original novels were allegedly directly inspired by a racist agenda, after all. (My mother was in the room while we were watching this and complained that she couldn’t tell the good and bad guys apart. ‘Anyone Chinese is a bad guy,’ I said, which is not strictly true (Nayland Smith’s house-girl seems to be on the level) but a good rule of thumb.) There’s also the fact that this racist stereotype Chinese supervillain is portrayed by a notably un-Chinese looking actor in yellowface make-up. (Students of pop culture will enjoy spotting several familiar actually Chinese actors in minor roles: apart from Burt Kwouk, these include the ubiquitous Vincent Wong and a young (ahem) Ric Young, of Transporter fame.)

Well, I’m going to do my usual thing and say that it is entirely possible to take a film like this too seriously. If it was a serious, well-written, thoughtful drama, it would certainly be unacceptably racist. But it’s none of those things – it’s an absurd knockabout pulp action movie. If you come away from it genuinely convinced that Chinese people represent a menace and want to take over the world, well – you’re so suggestibly gullible you probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies at all. Obviously you couldn’t make a film remotely like this one nowadays. But it’s still a mistake to judge old films by modern standards. Even if The Brides of Fu Manchu was intended as a piece of bigoted propaganda, we should also remember it was also probably meant to be a serious thriller. The fact is that it succeeds at being neither, but as an absurd unintended comedy it is immensely entertaining.

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Watching Japanese tokusatsu movies, you almost instantly get a sense that these are films made in accordance with a very different cultural and artistic sensibility: non-naturalistic, stylised, more concerned with visual appearance than absolute realism. You see a few of these films and decide you’ve managed to get your head around this – you watch Mothra Vs Godzilla and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and start to relax, feeling you’ve got the basics down. This may not in fact be the case – sure, you may have become acclimatised to the Godzilla series, but this is a distinct set of films with its own tropes and conventions; it is not the beginning and end of wacky Japanese genre cinema.

Which brings us to a film like Dogora (aka Dagora the Space Monster and Giant Space Monster Dogora), directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda, of course, is synonymous with the Godzilla series, and the rest of Toho’s A-team is also in the building for this film: it is produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the script is by Shinichi Sekizawa, the music is by Akira Ifukube, and the special effects are by Eiji Tsuburaya. The crew were being worked pretty hard in 1964, starting the year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, moving on to this film, and concluding with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. It is startling to consider that the period when these films were basically being made on a production line also marks the time of some of Toho’s greatest successes in the genre.

Should we include Dogora in this group, though? Well, the most obvious thing about it is that there is a distinct whiff of Hamlet without the prince going on here, in that it looks and sounds almost exactly like a Godzilla movie, even including many of the same repertory cast members, but there is never even a glimpse of a man in a suit. This is the first way in which the film marks out its own rather peculiar territory.

Events get underway at the ‘Electric Wave Laboratory’, where scientists are overseeing orbital satellites. But then the instruments begin to register strange blobby shapes in the path of one of the satellites. Cue credits and a slow zoom from orbit down into urban Tokyo. Are we about to see some more scientists? Or perhaps a tenacious reporter?

No, we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this film with a gang of very unconvincing jewel thieves, some of whom have highly eccentric wardrobe preferences (one guy spends the whole film in a white suit with a black bowler hat). We find the gangsters attempting to break into a bank vault while the female member of their gang keeps watch outside in the car. She is played by Akiko Wakabayashi, best known to western audiences for her role in You Only Live Twice, and as breathtakingly beautiful in this film as usual. No wonder the local cops are so easily fobbed off. But then something else grabs their attention – a drunken salariman floats past, with no visible means of support. Shortly afterwards, the gangsters around the vault also find themselves having seemingly gravity-related issues and drifting off the floor.

In the midst of all this chaos some diamonds disappear from the bank, part of a string of diamond robberies taking place around the world. On the case is Inspector Komai (Yasuke Natsuki), who in addition to chasing the gangsters finds his time also taken up talking to expert crystallographer Dr Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura) and chasing around after Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), a foreign diamond broker who also seems to be mixed up in all this. There is a lot of chasing about between the cops and robbers, to be honest, including a fair number of double-crosses and various characters not proving to be whom they initially claimed.

Meanwhile, other weird events continue, most of them concerning unlikely objects being drawn up into the sky: coal-heaps, trucks, factory chimneys, and so on, all to the bemusement of whatever cops or scientists happen to be in the vicinity at the time. Someone eventually has a brainwave and figures out the connection: all of this mysterious levitation is somehow connected to carbon – coal and diamonds, most obviously, but also other things associated with them. Komai comes up with his own theory as to why all this is going on – ‘I’m not one to jump to conclusions,’ he says, ‘but I think a giant space monster could be responsible for this.’

Naturally, this being a tokusatsu movie, he is correct, and soon enough Dogora itself materialises in the skies over Japan, pseudopods trailing menacingly downwards as it guzzles all the carbon in sight. Apparent it is the result of floating space cells being exposed to radioactivity (just for a change). Cue the usual scenes of the JSDF opening up with their full arsenal at the monster and it having no effect whatsoever, while scientists and their other associates stand around looking concerned.

Now, the danger when writing about Dogora is that you focus too much on all the stuff with the giant floating monster and the wacky pseudo-science, as this is the most immediately striking and outlandish element of the film. You would expect Honda and his team to do the same thing, after all. But no. The really weird thing about Dogora is the way in which all the material about the monster is essentially shuffled into the background while the film maintains a firm focus on the frantic convolutions of the cops and robbers plot about the Japanese police and the gang of diamond thieves. It is almost as if the creative team of the movie were determined to do their thriller runaround and only included the scenes with the levitation and the tentacles under duress.

It can’t really have been this way, though, for if nothing else the effects show no trace of being the work of people who don’t really care about their craft – the special effects in Dogora are amongst the best of any Toho film from the 1960s. Now, the fact the film doesn’t include any suitamation probably helps, as far as a modern audience is concerned, but the model-work, cel animation and optical effects are all excellent, even when the subject matter is as weird as it often gets here.

It certainly helps to keep the film engaging even when the plotting with the gangsters and cops becomes a bit, well, corny (perhaps I should say ‘even more corny’). But Shinichi Sekizawa’s script deploys his usual cheerful inventiveness and wit, which helps here too. That said, by the time of the climax everyone involved seems to be off their medication – the scientists cook up a plan to petrify or crystallise Dogora using wasp venom fired from tanks (no-one seems to have thought that petrifying a giant monster while it’s floating over your country might just lead to some collateral damage), while the cops and robbers have a gunfight that turns into a dynamite-throwing contest. Just another day in Japan, I guess.

Dogora is such a weird movie that it’s actually quite hard to compare it to anything else – the reliable monster-rasslin’ pleasures of the Godzilla series are not quite there – but it’s colourful and good-natured and knows not to out-stay its welcome. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like oddball Japanese movies, oddball sci-fi, and weird stuff in general it’s a fairly safe bet for an entertaining hour and a half.

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I have occasionally written in the past of the distinct pleasure of going to see a film knowing very little in advance about it, especially in a genre I particularly enjoy. This is why there are a bunch of Russian SF movies lined up on my hard-drive, waiting for a day when it is too sunny for me to comfortably move around outside, and also why my interest was piqued when the UPP’s vintage slot was taken up by Czech director Jindrich Polak’s 1963 film Ikarie XB-1, which it billed as a ‘pioneering and much-imitated cornerstone of contemporary sci-fi’. This was particularly intriguing, as this is a film I had never been aware of before.

One thing about old SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain is that they seem a bit more likely to be based on a respectable piece of literature than their American equivalents – you still get terrible, low-budget knock-offs like Space Cop, but also lots of movies based on the works of the Strugatsky brothers and especially Stanislaw Lem. Ikarie XB-1 is apparently a loose adaptation of a Lem novel entitled The Magellanic Cloud, but it seems to me to have a much greater and somewhat surprising significance within SF as a cinematic genre.

The film has a slightly disconcerting in media res opening, with a clearly troubled and somewhat disfigured crewman (Otto Lackovic) in the process of running amok on the ship with a blaster, wailing about the Earth never having existed. The stark black-and-white photography and camerawork instantly puts one in mind of continental art cinema from around the period, even though the sets and costumes are still to some extent in the glitzy pulp SF tradition. From here we launch into opening credits powered along by a memorably jangly and discordant musical score.

We flash back to the beginning of the mission which the film is concerned with, and the departure into deep space of the Ikarie XB-1, effectively a small space colony dispatched on a decades-long mission to the Alpha Centauri system – however, due to the mysterious effects of time dilation, only a couple of years will pass for the crew. The craft is mostly crewed by strapping young men and young women with a certain exotic something about them; there are also a couple of distinguished-looking character actors in command, most obviously Zdenek Stepanek as Captain Vladimir Abajev. There is also the ship’s robot, an extraordinarily clunky and unconvincing prop – this is the single biggest weakness in the whole picture.

The ship heads out into the great darkness, and various members of the crew reflect on their position, some in an existential sort of way, others contemplating more personal concerns – one of them, for instance, has left their pregnant partner back on Earth, and is struggling to get his head around the fact his daughter will be fifteen when they meet, even though for him only a fraction of that time will elapse. They also encounter various hazards, such as derelict spaceships from the 20th century (this film does that thing of being set exactly 200 years into the future, with the XB-1 setting off in 2163), and a ‘dark star’ emitting lethal radiation.

If the slightly episodic nature of the plot is an attempt to evoke the feeling of an epic journey across space, then this scheme is somewhat undercut by the fact the film is just shy of being 90 minutes long: as a result it just feels like a movie which is lacking in a strong central narrative. Now, it is certainly possible to try and do this kind of SF film as a mood or character piece, but it is unusual to find it being attempted in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, regardless of whether or not this is a film based on a novel.

Watching the movie, you are much more aware of it as a piece of cinema anyway – I have occasionally wondered about the extent to which Communist film-makers were influenced by their western counterparts, especially when it came to genre movies, and Ikarie XB-1 suggests they were certainly aware of what was going on. Quite apart from the fact that some of the effects shots come perilously close to evoking 1930s Flash Gordon serials (the XB-1 is just a little bit too wobbly on its plunge across the stars), it seems a no-brainer that the makers of this film had watched Forbidden Planet, if nothing else – the plot bears no real similarities to that of the American movie, but there is something there in the aesthetic of the film, especially in that awful robot, which has an exposed brain like an miniature fairground attraction, obviously based on Robbie the Robot.

Despite all that, Ikarie XB-1 never actually feels like a piece of kitsch, derivative B-movie cinema – not in the Czech-language version, anyway. It has a rather downbeat, naturalistic quality that I wasn’t expecting at all, the performances are serious, and it isn’t afraid to touch on some more thoughtful ideas  and psychological issues along the way. The ending does come a bit out of nowhere, but it concerns humanity making unexpected contact with a totally unknown, clearly very alien civilisation or intelligence, and this is epochal event is presented not as something to be terrified of, but a source of wonder. Perhaps one is looking too hard for connections which don’t actually exist, but it is not really surprising to learn that when Stanley Kubrick was assimilating the SF genre in the early 1960s, looking to make ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’, this was apparently one of the films that really influenced him.

It is a bold move to suggest that Ikarie XB-1 is, in fact, the missing link in the development of the SF movie between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do think there is an element of truth to it. I suspect most of this is obscured in the US version of the film, which was inaccurately re-titled Voyage to the End of the Universe and had a different, feeble-sounding, Twilight Zone-ish ending foisted on it by the American distributor. As usual, the original version is much more interesting. I still think the Czech version has issues when it comes to the script, but in many other ways this film lives up to the claims made for it as a significant entry in the genre’s history.

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