Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

There is something remarkably comforting and familiar about sitting down to watch one of the Amicus portmanteau horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is because this subgenre is so strictly defined by its conventions – you know there aren’t going to be many startling innovations, you know there’s going to be a pretty good cast, and you know that none of the component stories are going to hang around too long. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of a sushi train – if what’s currently going past isn’t really to your taste, well, maybe the next course will do the trick.

1974’s From Beyond the Grave is normally listed as the last of the Amicus anthology horrors, which I suppose is true if you’re going to be quibbly about it, although my own feeling is that 1980’s The Monster Club is really the last of the line, sharing the same format and producer (Amicus’ moving spirit Milton Subotsky). There is another connection in that both films take their inspiration not from other horror movies or American horror comics, but the works of veteran horror author Ron Chetwynd-Hayes.

The movie is directed by Kevin Connor, who went on to have a moderately good line in low-budget genre movies like Warlords of Atlantis. The linking device on this occasion is an antiques and junk shop named Temptations Limited, run by Peter Cushing’s character (Cushing is in camp mode throughout and gives a very funny performance which nicely sets the tone for much of the movie). As the film reveals, the shop has an interesting gimmick (‘a novelty surprise with every purchase!’) and an even more interesting line in customer aftercare.

First story out of the traps is that of David Warner, who plays an arrogant young man who railroads the proprietor into selling him an antique mirror for a fraction of its actual value. No sooner has he put it up in his flat than one of his bright young friends shouts ‘Let’s have a séance!’, and Warner, for reasons best known to the plot, enthusiastically agrees. Well, it turns out that the mirror is a repository for an ancient, dormant evil which now wakes up, thirsting for the blood of – well, anyone it can persuade Warner to kill for it. He starts off with a prostitute (‘Five pounds and no need to rush,’ she says, which if nothing else I imagine says something about the impact of inflation since 1974), moves on to girls he picks up at parties, but draws the line at one of his actual friends (his neighbour seems to be fair game, though).

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of Warner waking up in blood-splattered pyjamas wondering if it was all a dream, but this is quite acceptable on the whole: Warner is always a class act and manages to lift some slightly schlocky material, and the piece has an usually eerie and effective conclusion. The only thing that makes it sit a little oddly in this film is the unleavened darkness of the story – most of the film feels like it’s pitched as black comedy, but this seems to be aiming for a more serious tone.

The next segment is rather less predictable and feels rather shoehorned into the movie – Cushing and his shop only play a very marginal role. Ian Bannen plays an office drone, unhappily married to Diana Dors with a young son (John O’Farrell, later to find fame as a writer), who strikes up an odd relationship with an ex-army street hawker (Donald Pleasance) and later his daughter (Angela Pleasance). In order to cement their friendship, Bannen steals a medal from the shop, which is the link to the rest of the format. The Pleasances eventually seem to be offering Bannen a way out of his grim situation – but do they really have his best interests at heart…?

Once again, some slightly suspect material is lifted by the skill of the perfomers (Bannen and the Pleasances in this case), although this is much more of a bizarre, whimsical fantasy than a conventional horror story (though the story certainly scores bonus points for its voodoo wedding cake sequence). This is one of the stories which has no real reason to be in a film titled From Beyond the Grave, but it is an interesting change of pace and certainly stands out.

Ian Carmichael turns up playing another one of his posh silly-ass characters in the third section of the film, which opens with him attempting to swindle Cushing by switching the price tags on a couple of snuff boxes in the shop. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it,’ says Cushing, deadpan, as Carmichael departs the scene. In the peculiar cosmology of the Amicus horror movies, switching price tags is a sufficiently awful crime to mark you down for vicious karmic reprisals, and Carmichael discovers he has acquired a malevolent (but invisible and thus cheap) elemental companion, who seems to have it in for his wife in particular. Luckily he makes the acquaintance of medium and exorcist Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), who offers to assist…

Probably the weakest part of the film, probably because the plot hasn’t got a lot going on, and the segment is forced to rely on the comic performances of the actors involved. Once again, they are good enough to make the film watchable and entertaining (some good work from the set dressers in the scene where the elemental demolishes Carmichael’s living room), but it’s not really clever or striking enough to be memorable.

And so to the final part of the film, in which young writer Ian Ogilvy buys, somewhat improbably, an imposing old door to put on the stationery cupboard in his study. You can probably write the rest for yourself, particularly if you’ve been paying attention, not least because it does bear a certain resemblance to the David Warner story at the top of the film – the door turns out to be a gateway to a domain of ancient, dormant evil, which now wakes up, thirsting for the souls of… well, you get the idea, I think.

Still, the production values aren’t bad and the story also manages to distinguish itself by having the closest thing to a plot twist you’re likely to find in an Amicus film – the audience is invited to assume that Ogilvy has ripped off the till at the shop, thus marking his card for a sticky end, but it turns out he’s a decent, honest chap, and thus has a chance of making it out of the film in one piece. If nothing else it provides an upbeat conclusion.

There is, of course, still time for the final twist with the frame story of the shop. This is not the usual ‘everyone is actually already dead!’ twist as deployed in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but something very nearly as obvious. Still, Cushing gets another chance to camp it up, being funny and menacing at the same time, and the film does conclude with a couple of good gags. Probably not the best or most colourful of the Amicus anthologies, but still an enjoyable piece of comfort viewing.

Read Full Post »

The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

Read Full Post »

In the early 70s the Japanese film industry was feeling the pinch, with collapsing audience figures, not least due to the increased popularity of television. This included the kind of genre movie that Toho and others had been making so successfully for nearly two decades – even here, the impact of TV was felt, mainly due to the appearance of shows like Ultraman. There was a certain irony to the fact that Ultraman was the work of a company created by Eiji Tsubaraya, the master special effects artist who had overseen many of the most celebrated Toho monster and SF movies.

The monster movies Toho was making in the early 1970s clearly show the influence of TV shows from the period. The Godzilla movies of the time are notably more juvenile, with weirder, more colourful adversaries. 1973’s Godzilla Vs Megalon includes a robot character named Jet Jaguar who bears a suspicious resemblance to Ultraman himself.

A year earlier, things had got even more confused with Toho distributing a movie directed by Toshihiro Iijima for Eiji Tsubaraya Productions (the great man himself had passed away a couple of years earlier). This movie, the title of which roughly translates as Tough Monster Battle – Daigoro Vs Goliath! does look rather like the monster movies Toho was making at the time – but there’s another sense in which it looks unlike anything other than the product of the most lurid cheese-spawned dream.

It’s a little while before it becomes clear what the hell is actually going on in the movie, which opens with a contest to find an exciting new invention, the most notable entry to which is a flying bicycle known as the Aerobike, created by an absurd Heath-Robinson-ish inventor. It turns out he’s doing this so he can give the prize money to a fund seeking to buy food for Daigoro.

But who or what is Daigoro? Here we enter marginally more familiar territory as some back-story is laid in. Some time earlier, apparently, an atomic accident at sea revived an enormous, destructive monster. So far, so formulaic – but, in a possibly unique occurrence in the annals of the JSDF, the military shoot the monster in the head with a missile and kill it. All seems well, until a search of the rampage zone reveals the monster was female and gave birth shortly before she was killed. The baby monster is christened Daigoro and placed in the care of some scientists and a zoo-keeper.

The problem is that Daigoro, being a giant monster, has a bit of an appetite, much more than the budget of the group charged with looking after him can cope with. The upshot is that Daigoro is hungry and miserable all the time, and (it is implied) has had so little to eat he has had no cause to use the monster-sized privy installed on his island. Yes, there really is a giant monster-sized privy in the film, and it says something about the general tone of Daigoro Vs Goliath that it does not feel at all out of place. The authorities are considering dosing Daigoro with a drug called Anti-Grow which will hopefully limit his future appetite, rather to the outraged despair of his keeper (this film is so obscure I have struggled to find out the names of any of the actors involved).

Hence the army of youthful Daigoro fans determined to raise money to feed the unfortunate monster, assisted by the useless inventor, and also by an alcoholic carpenter named Kumagoro. As mentioned, I don’t know the names of most of the performers in this film, but I am quite certain that the actor playing Kumagoro delivers one of the broadest comic turns I have ever seen from a professional thespian. Various whimsically comic scenes ensue, until the appearance of a second monster, which has apparently come to Earth in a meteorite. Conventional weapons prove useless against the newcomer (those tropes just keep on coming), who is initially known as the Great Stellar Monster and then as Goliath. Inevitably someone realises that Daigoro could potentially be sent into battle against Goliath, even though he is a young, inexperienced and undernourished monster. Can he be persuaded to play ball? One thing is certain: he’ll need a good feed first.

I suppose you could argue that where Japanese monster movies are concerned, there’s a spectrum, with more serious, mature, dark films like the original Godzilla and Gamera: Incomplete Struggle at one end and whimsical fantasies made for a younger audience at the other. Well, if so, the whimsical end of the spectrum stretches off much further than I had anticipated, extending off into the distance solely to accommodate the gentle silliness of Daigoro Vs Goliath. Quite apart from the joke about the giant monster privy, the sheer sight of the Daigoro suit is gobsmacking: it looks like a sleepy bulldog, even down to having whiskers, and appears to have been designed by a six-year-old. The panel in the back admitting the suit actor is clearly visible. The limbs appear to operate on the concertina principle. It is a ridiculous suit for a ridiculous movie.

The actual clash between Daigoro and Goliath hardly troubles the script much. Most of the first half of the film is taken up with a succession of roaringly overacted slapstick sketches concerning the inventor, the alcoholic carpenter, the squabbling between Daigoro’s keeper and his boss over what to do with him, and so on. The regular appearance of droves of cute Japanese kids waving ‘Save Daigoro’ signs make it pretty clear that this was intended as a children’s film, although I have to say it’s an extremely weird one even by Japanese standards – I’m assuming that all the profanity in the subtitles is just down to dodgy translation, but there are still a lot of jokes about beer for a kids’ movie.

It isn’t even as if this is actually spoofing the giant monster movie genre – it’s just using the tropes of the form in a slightly different way. My minimal research even suggests this actually started life as a movie entitled Godzilla Vs Redmoon, although it’s hard to see how Godzilla would actually fit into this plot. It’s not all that far from the tone of the original Gamera movies, based on what I’ve seen of those. Nor is it a million miles away from the previous year’s Godzilla movie, notable for its environmental message – there’s one of those here, too, and remarkably coherent it is. Society’s disregard for Daigoro mirrors the lack of consideration shown the natural world, which inevitably leads to problems, of course. The message is clear: look after the environment and take good care of your monsters, as they are not just decorative. To back this up there is a montage of clips of crabs, insects, flowers and horses.

The temptation is to say that Daigoro Vs Goliath is simply a terrible, weird old film made by people who all seem to have been off their heads on acid when they were making it. It is primitive in many ways, but there is an intentionality to it which is unmistakable – it’s deliberately whimsical, cutesy and comical. Being sophisticated, gritty and credible was never on the agenda for the film-makers. And I would be lying if I said it is totally lacking in a certain bonkers charm. Not a film to show someone you’re trying to persuade of the merits of tokusatsu movies, more one for when you’re trying to see just how deep the genre rabbit-hole goes – it is awful, but also somehow quite likeable. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

Read Full Post »

Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is a eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

Read Full Post »

As I have suggested before, most western viewers’ exposure to Russian SF cinema is limited to the considerable but imposing films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Solaris and Stalker. This is obviously far from ideal, not least because Tarkovsky himself was no fan of genre as a concept, and the fact that Solaris contained so many conventions of the SF genre meant that it was his least favourite of his own films. Stalker, certainly, shuffles backwards into the SF genre, ending up there because it resembles anything else even less. Russian SF movies did not begin and end with Andrei Tarkovsky – so what do some of the others look like?

Marek Piestrak’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx was released in 1979, the same year as Stalker, and features one of the actors from that film; it also shares a sort of connection with Solaris, as both films are based on stories by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (I should mention that while this is a Soviet film, it is technically a Polish-Russian co-production). One should always be wary of speculating based on too little evidence, but one wonders if the late 70s SF boom extended behind the iron curtain?

Certainly much of Inquest suggests that its makers were aware of what was going on in western SF films. It opens in what looks like some kind of laboratory, with technicians in ‘clean’ suits working on what look very much like parts of human-like robots – androids, in other words. We are clearly in the same kind of narrative territory as Westworld, although the film (like many others) seems a bit unclear about the nature of its synthetic humans – on the one hand, we are told that the androids are so similar to people that only detailed medical tests can identify them; on the other, it is suggested that if you cut one of them open bits of wire and plastic fall out.

Perhaps the first big surprise of the film comes when it is revealed that the android construction facility is in the United States (or so it is heavily suggested), although everybody still speaks Russian there (in the same way that Russian characters in Bond films speak English to each other). Given SF often functions as a critical or satiric commentary on the society that produced it, one wonders if the authorities insisted that the USSR not be featured in the film? (Another possible parallel with Stalker, which had dialogue added to it to make it clear the film was not set in Russia.) We see a meeting between the android construction company and people from the UN, discussing a new space mission – the title character, Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is chosen, mainly for his good moral character, although the android makers are not very happy about this.

Soon enough Pirx meets up with someone from UNESCO who explains the job they want him to do: androids (‘non-linears’ in the film’s parlance) are on the verge of going into mass production, and could potentially have a major impact on society. However, before this can happen, the authorities are going to have a little test – there will be a mission to Jupiter, with the ship crewed by a mixture of humans and androids, to see which perform better under the stresses of the flight. The twist is that Pirx will not be told which of his men is organic and which is not, and they are under orders not to tell him. Which could prove awkward, if one of the androids should turn out to be mad and decide to try and kill all the human crew…

This is not an especially long film and one of the problems with it is that the first half of it is resolutely earthbound, taking place in a variety of offices, factories, streets – there’s even a glimpse of a branch of McDonalds. This is fairly drab stuff, it must be said, only marginally recognisable as SF, and the pace of it is leisurely, to say the least. Much of it concerns a cack-handed attempt by the android builders to assassinate Pirx so he can be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their agenda: this is pure filler, not informing the second half of the film at all.

The second half of Inquest is at least easily obviously a science fiction film, as Pirx and his crew set off into deep space to carry out their mission. Again, parallels with western SF are almost inescapable – we are in the same kind of territory as Alien and Blade Runner (although, given the rather primitive special effects and model-work, some people may be more reminded of Blake’s 7). It soon becomes apparent that someone on the ship is up to no good and planning the failure of the mission, although who it is remains a mystery (the film achieves this through the somewhat awkward expedient of having the traitor shuffle around with his back to the camera so his face cannot be seen). Pirx, rather in defiance of his orders, sets out to figure out who is who, or more accurately what, amongst his crew – some of whom, such as ship’s doctor Nowak (Alexander Kaidanovsky, the stalker himself), and pilot Calder (Zbigniew Lesien), happily inform him without needing much pressing – but can they be trusted to tell the truth?

Much potential here for tension and paranoia, of course, along with all the jeopardy of a deep-space mission, but unfortunately it mostly goes unrealised. There are many dour discussions about what’s going on, along with some abstract talk about the nature of what it means to be human (or an android) – at one point it seems like Pirx has reached the conclusion that all androids will necessarily be atheists, and starts asking members of the crew what their religious beliefs are. The conclusion, one of the few things recognisably derived from the original Lem story, is that the main difference between man and machine is that man is fallible, but that fallibility itself can be a virtue under some circumstances. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem with Inquest is that it fails to dramatise it in a consistently engaging way. Too much of this film is slow and talky, with a meandering and underpowered story.

Much of The Inquest of Pilot Pirx is heavy-going, unengaging stuff. It makes an interesting contrast to the more lightweight SF action-adventure films being made in Europe and America at around the same time, and it curious to see the parallels in how it handles the same kind of material and ideas. But as a film in its own right, it’s hard to get particularly excited about: it has a certain novelty value, obviously, but not much more.

Read Full Post »

My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

Read Full Post »

I love a really famously bad movie, me, but the problem is that a lot of the actual famously bad films don’t turn up on TV a lot. There’s a class of bad movie which has become celebrated for its badness – the much-discussed ‘so bad it’s good’ type of film, usually made on a low budget and often belonging to a disreputable genre – but the real stinkers of years gone by tend to vanish into obscurity. Luckily, the rise of the high-number movie channel means that obscurity isn’t as obscure as it used to be. Which was how I came to happen across a screening of Charles Jarrott’s 1973 movie Lost Horizon. I think I must have heard hushed, shocked whispers about this film, but the reality of it still came as rather a shock.

I think I must have read James Hilton’s hugely popular original novel, many years ago, but it’s the 1937 version of this story (directed by Frank Capra) that I’m most familiar with. The 1973 version opens in a broadly similar manner: there is unrest on the cards in the remote Asian city of Baskula, with everyone trying to get the hell out of Dodge before some guerrillas arrive. This includes a bunch of foreigners, most prominent amongst them being Richard Conway (Peter Finch), who is some sort of diplomat or trouble-shooter for the UN. Conway manages to get on the last plane out of Baskula, along with the kind of mixed-bag of fellow travellers that puts one in mind of a disaster movie of sorts – there’s gruff engineer Sam (George Kennedy), jaded journalist Sally (Sally Kellerman), out-of-place vaudeville comedian Harry (Bobby Van), and Conway’s own brother (Michael York). Little do any of them suspect that their pilot has been replaced by a mysterious stranger…

(I suppose the 26 year age difference between the two Conway brothers is just about explicable – maybe they’re not full brothers, or one of them is adopted. But you do wonder that nobody took one glance at Finch and York together and said ‘Father and son, I could maybe believe, but brothers? You have to be kidding me.’ Then again, as we shall perhaps see, whoever was in charge of preventing bizarre missteps and misjudgements on Lost Horizon seems to have been asleep on the job, or possibly even to have died there.)

Soon enough the refugees notice that their plane, rather than heading east to Hong Kong, is going the other way, and eventually crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. But Conway is clearly the kind of chap who gets kidnapped in planes that then crash all the time, and stays remarkably cool. This is justified when a group of locals in thick furs turn up, led by the enigmatic Mr Chang (John Gielgud, whose preparation for playing someone Asian basically extended to sticky-tape on the eyelids).

Chang leads them all back to his home in an idyllic valley, protected from the snow and ice by circling mountains, and the location of Shangri-La, a lamasery devoted to the creed of kindness and politeness. Shangri-La is almost totally isolated from the outside world and so the party will have to stay there for a while at least. So far, as noted, the film has vacillated between seeming like a low-rent disaster movie and a somewhat tepid adventure film, but the middle section of the film gets underway with the first of many songs. In amongst all the singing and dancing, various subplots play out for most of the refugees, while Conway Major discovers that they were kidnapped and brought here: the current boss of Shangri-La, who is two hundred years old and has one leg, is trying to recruit him as a successor. Meanwhile, Conway Minor has fallen in love with a local (Olivia Hussey) – well, given she looks and sounds European and is called Maria, you have to wonder exactly how local she is, but I digress – and is keen for them all to leave. Will Conway Major choose the outside world or Shangri-La?

Now, normally, Lost Horizon would have ended up as just a fairly bad movie, because this is one of those stories that’s very much of the era in which it was written. The film is shot through with problematic attitudes and assumptions that, even worse, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of. Viewed as a film of its era, the Capra version is still charming and engaging entertainment, but for a Hollywood movie from the early 1970s to treat the whole of Asia basically not as a place but as something that happens to westerners – well, as I say, problematic doesn’t really begin to cover it. We have already touched upon the issue of Gielgud playing someone called Chang; we should probably also mention that all the genuinely Asian characters in the movie are basically obliged to stay in the background – when the westerners require love interest they either find it with each other, or conveniently European residents of Shangri-La turn up. Perhaps one should not be surprised, for the fabled lamasery of Shangri-La resembles a second-rate resort hotel more than anything else; I can’t imagine the place getting an especially good score on TripAdvisor though.

What raises, or more accurately lowers, Lost Horizon to a whole different level of badness is the decision to do it as a musical. Now, I’m not saying that grafting songs onto an existing story is a necessarily bad idea – that’s basically the principle of opera, after all – but the way in which it is done here is compellingly horrible. For one thing, the pacing is just plain weird: there are no songs at all for the first forty minutes of the film, then about eight in the space of an hour. It’s a disconcerting shift in emphasis. The closing section of the film is likewise resolutely non-musical, leaving all the numbers sandwiched together in the middle. But there is more, much more than this. It is rather noticeable that most of the cast can’t sing: there is extensive use of dubbing for the actual songs. They can’t dance worth a damn, either: the film’s big numbers are mesmerisingly cack-handed in their staging.

As I mentioned, all the songs are crammed together in the middle section of the film, and the fact that most of them are genuinely grim (working on this movie split up Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and nearly put Bacharach into retirement) makes this a peculiarly gruelling film to watch. The succession of blandly upbeat songs essentially espousing hippy virtues – peace, love, family – could almost drive a person to violence, even without watching some of the accompanying routines – often, these do not resemble choreography as much as people undergoing rehabilitation after joint replacement surgery, while at one point ‘Living Together, Growing Together’ is paused while a large group of men in tangerine nappies perform massed rhythmic gymnastics. The overall effect is extraordinary: just a few seconds of ‘The World is a Circle’ or ‘Question Me an Answer’ and I find the will to live starting to leave my body. It may be best not to watch Lost Horizon without a defibrillator on standby.

Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about Lost Horizon is that I don’t really see how it managed to lose the $51 million ascribed to it by one website (it only cost $6 million to make in the first place), but this is more about basic mathematics than any intrinsic quality of the film. It is dim-witted, patronising, weirdly paced, very variably acted, consistently badly sung and danced, poorly directed, and has nothing to say for itself that doesn’t feel trite and obvious. Apart from that, though, I suppose it is not all that bad.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »