Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

The desert, somewhere in the American south-west; a figure on horseback materialises out of the heat-haze, apparently travelling with purpose as the credits slowly appear and disappear. We are watching High Plains Drifter, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood (his second film as director and his first western in charge, although some would argue that the issue of the film’s genre is open to question), screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (if not quite hot in Hollywood after the success of Shaft, then certainly agreeably warm to the touch). The music, by Dee Barton, is rather mournful and eerie.

It soon becomes very obvious that Eastwood is not in the business of tearing up the form book as far as the western genre is concerned – although, as we will see, he is certainly not averse to playing with it a bit, in a mordant sort of way. The Stranger (for we never really learn his name, although on-the-ball viewers will certainly have an idea or two in this direction by the end of the film) rides into a small town named Lago, a desolate little place on the edge of a lake. The local tough boys are not pleased to see him; they follow him from the saloon to the barber shop, where Eastwood gets his retribution in first by gunning all three of them down in short order.

So far, so very much in the spirit of A Fistful of Dollars, with Eastwood as the enigmatic, ruthless antihero. He seems intent on pushing the archetype here as far as he can go, however: a woman from the town (Mariana Hill) is rather snooty towards the Stranger, not long after the shooting. He decides she needs a lesson in ‘manners’ and proceeds to drag her into a stable, where he rapes her.

It’s fair to say that this is still a shocking moment, almost unparallelled in Eastwood’s movie career – it’s still deeply uncomfortable to watch today, perhaps more than it was when the film came out in 1973. All kinds of nasty tropes swirl around it, not the least being the implication that after putting up some resistance, Hill’s character yields and finds herself actually rather enjoying it. Later on she tries to kill Eastwood (though not especially hard) and the jokey suggestion is that this is simply because he didn’t come back for a second helping. The fact that the Stranger is still the closest thing the film has to a hero is also a problem, while the eventual revelation that Hill bears some moral responsibility for nasty things herself hardly excuses what Eastwood’s character does to her: virtually everyone in Lago is guilty (with the possible exception of the town dwarf), but it’s only the attractive women that the Stranger gives his special attention to.

Anyway, the story rolls on: everyone in town has other reasons for concern, as it is revealed that three proper villains are due to be released from prison, and are sure to be heading this way in search for revenge (they were arrested in town, though it’s implied there’s something more going on, too). Who will save the town from evil? Who is that good with a gun? The cogs of archetype tick and click and the town elders approach the Stranger – will he accept the job of defending the town? Naturally, he demurs at first, but eventually agrees to take the gig, provided everyone does what he says. Black comedy ensues as the various worthies realise just what they’ve done by effectively giving Eastwood absolute power as the Tyrant of Lago: he appoints the dwarf (Billy Curtis) as mayor and sheriff, gives everyone a free drink at the saloon owner’s expense, clears out the general store getting materials for defence, and so on. Very soon the blanched townfolk are wondering if the sickness wouldn’t be preferable to the cure…

As westerns go this is a sour one and a dark one: the classic western, the western of John Ford, is a tale of self-realisation and individualism, out amongst the wide open spaces of a new land bursting with promise. High Plains Drifter isn’t anything like that, as befits a film made by someone who rose to stardom in Sergio Leone movies (Leone’s name apparently appears on a headstone in the cemetery at the end of the film) – it’s a cynical tale of darkly moral retribution, set in a wasteland. It’s a western for the Nixon generation, not Eisenhower’s. And this was noted at the time – John Wayne wrote to Eastwood complaining that the film misrepresented the West and the people who lived there. (Other films that Wayne took exception to included 1941 – not only did he turn down a part in it, he asked Spielberg not to make it at all.)

This is the kind of Clint Eastwood western where, come the closing credits, the whole town is either in ruins or actually on fire, and most of the major characters have been shot, usually by Eastwood himself. It’s a story pattern which resonates throughout his career in the genre, from the very beginning to the very end. High Plains Drifter is perhaps its most harsh and uncompromising treatment; though it is playful too, in its way. One thing it is not is tremendously subtle, compared to the other films it resembles.

One of the criticisms made of Eastwood’s 1985 film Pale Rider is that it is essentially a remake of High Plains Drifter, or at least High Plains Drifter mashed up with Alan Ladd’s Shane. And both of these assertions are substantially true. Pale Rider is probably a better film – or at least a more comfortable one – but it certainly has the same central conceit, concerning the identity of the main character. The Stranger, in his quieter moments, has visions – or perhaps memories? – of the town’s former marshal being whipped to death by the three villains he’s been hired to kill. The marshal (played by Eastwood’s own regular double, Buddy Van Horn) was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere outside the town. ‘The dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind,’ says one of the townswomen, ominously. Gradually the truth emerges that the marshal discovered the town’s prosperity derives from an illegal gold mine on government land, and that rather than face the consequences the people of Lago arranged to have him killed, and then had the assassins sent to prison to avoid paying them off. In short, the Lagoites have it coming to them, and the Stranger is… well, Eastwood has played an exterminating angel of justice often enough over the years – on this occasion he may literally be a spectre of vengeance.

It’s a great premise for a film and Eastwood handles it confidently and competently (this was still very early days for him as a director, after all). Drama, black comedy, and action are deftly interwoven, and there is always Eastwood’s potent charisma at the heart of the film. But for all that, I find it to be a tough film to really warm to – it’s not a patch on Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales, certainly. There’s a cold, formal element to it, almost as if the allegorical aspects of the story are resting just a little too close to the skin of the thing. Pale Rider buries them more successful, and is more successful as a film as a result. But you still couldn’t call High Plains Drifter a member of that select club, of which membership is limited to bad Clint Eastwood films. At the end of the film the Stranger rides out into the desert, and – the opening in reverse – appears to simply fade out of existence. Maybe it’s the heat-haze. Maybe it isn’t. But a harsh kind of justice has been done, a circle has been closed – and if it’s been an ambiguous experience for the viewer, perhaps there’s a kind of truth in that, too.

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Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Psycho and producer of much of The Outer Limits, had a rule for most of his tenure on the latter: every episode had to have a ‘bear’ – i.e., a big scary creature, which would preferably show up just before the mid-episode ad break (round about the same time as the first Hulk-out in an episode of The Incredible Hulk). I suppose it’s sound enough as a principle, though it sounds quite creatively limiting to me.

The whole issue of ‘when you show the bear’ is fairly important when you’re doing a monster movie, and the consensus seems to be ‘not too early, not too late’ – too early, and you run the risk of running out of things to do with it, not to mention you have less time to build suspense; too late, and the audience will get bored. (Although Hal Chester, who was involved in the making of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Night of the Demon, ensured that the monster got wheeled on very early in both of those, albeit only for a sort of appetising cameo.) Just after the mid-point seems to be the sweet spot, structurally speaking, though of course this isn’t necessarily a good thing if your monster is no good. I think it was Jeff Morrow, star of The Giant Claw, who observed that acting in a monster movie is a bit like going on a blind date: you’re relying on the special effects department to come up with a co-star that isn’t going to make you look stupid.

The movies and TV we’ve been discussing so far all date back to the 1950s and early-to-mid 60s, but some truths are eternal, as the makers of Prophecy discovered in 1979. This was the year that the big studios all bet heavily on horror and monster movies – it was the year of Alien, Nightwing, John Badham’s Dracula, and The Amityville Horror, to name but a few of the more prominent releases, and Prophecy was amongst them. (If you ask me, the most successful films from that year came from elsewhere – let’s not forget this was also the year of Herzog’s Dracula, and the one in which Dawn of the Dead got its American release.)

Everyone’s heard of Alien and Dracula, and some of the other names are vaguely familiar, but Prophecy (like Nightwing) seems to have vanished into movie obscurity, mentioned only as a joke or as a camp cult movie. I don’t recall ever coming across it on British TV – in fact, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it until I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he writes affectionately about it at some length. Looking at that book again recently, it seemed to me that there was an obvious gap in my knowledge of cinema – and all sorts of old movies are now available on t’interweb if you know where to look.

Prophecy is directed by John Frankenheimer, who also did The Manchurian Candidate, and is clearly not a low-budget movie. We open off in a forest somewhere (we later learn this is Maine) where some search-and-rescue types are being dragged along by their dogs. Something has got the dogs so riled up they run literally off the edge of a cliff, and have to be lowered down into the ravine below. When the actual search-and-rescue guys go down into the ravine as well, there is some roaring, some screaming and then an ominous silence. Here the film shows the first sign of wanting to be more than just schlock: arty shots of the corpses of the search team strewn around, or in one case still hanging from their harness, are accompanied by light classical music, in a slightly obvious but still decent attempt at juxtaposition.

The light classical music turns out to be coming from an orchestra which includes Maggie (Talia Shire), a nice lady who lives in Washington DC. Her main problem is that she would like to have a baby – and indeed is in the early stages of having a baby – but her husband is oblivious to this, and opposed to overpopulating the planet any further. He is Dr Rob Verne (Robert Foxworth, with hair and beard that make him look like Christ after a perm and some highlights). Verne is the epitome of the scientist as envoy of Apollo – Foxworth is doing principled stoicism non-stop for most of the movie – driven to despair by the awful living conditions of so many in the city. Someone offers him a change of scene and a job which may end up making an actual difference – the Environmental Protection Agency has been called in to mediate in a dispute between a paper mill and the local Native Americans up in Maine. Go for two weeks! Make a holiday of it! Take the wife!

So they go, collected by the representative of the paper company (Richard Dysart), who is initially very agreeable. Here we get the film’s first major misstep – an unforgivably laborious bit of exposition where someone starts talking about something called Katahdin, the legendary supernatural protector of the forest (according to the Indians anyway), not long after Dysart has let Verne know that people have started disappearing in the woods. We also meet the fiercely proud leader of the Indians (played by Armand Assante, who is every bit as Native American as his name suggests), and there is a symbolic axe-vs-chainsaw fight between the paper mill people and the locals, who are blocking access to the forest.

Soon enough Dr Rob is discovering signs that not all is well in the forest – the locals are acting like they’re drunk even when they’re not, showing reduced sensitivity to pain, and there is some freakishly big wildlife too – fish the size of canoes and a tadpole the size of a small dog. An argument with his wife about having a child gets interrupted when he is attacked by a demented raccoon. It takes a committed performance to sell a savage raccoon attack to the audience, and Foxworth… well, maybe he was saving himself for the climax of the movie.

Anyway, the signs are clear – the paper company, who are on the payroll of the more Dionysian branch of science, have been dumping mercury in the water, causing genetic damage throughout the local ecology. As Maggie and Rob have just enjoyed a fish supper from the local lake, there is a real possibility they may not just be taking their work home with them, but keeping it in the family for generations to come. The discovery of squawking, deformed creatures like half-melted bear cubs is an unpleasant indication of what may be to come (Stephen King found the mutant cubs more effective and unsettling than I did).

Well, Dr Rob calls in the authorities, thinking that the mutant cubs are pretty good evidence of environmental wrongdoing, but in the middle of a dramatic confrontation between all the concerned parties, the cubs’ mother (or father) turns up, looking just as messed up as they do. Dr Rob, Maggie, and some sympathetic Native Americans are faced with the problem of how to get back to civilisation before Katahdin the half-melted mutant bear catches up with them and mauls them to death…

So when do they decide to (literally) show the bear in Prophecy? At about the usual point, halfway through – some townie campers are set upon in the woods and quickly despatched. An alternative answer would be ‘much too soon’, however. Most of Prophecy is a B-movie creature feature, an update from the 1950s with the atom age paranoia sifted out and some environmentalist concerns mixed in – this sort of thing is seldom great art, even with someone like Jack Arnold in charge, but it can be effective enough in its slightly naive way. The thing that destroys the movie, totally and utterly, is the monster, which is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen put on screen. Every scene with the creature is reduced to unintentional farce by the sheer low quality of the monster suit and the desperate tricks Frankenheimer is obliged to use to try and hide this fact. It’s hilarious. The fact that everyone else is still trying hard to sell the beastie as a terrifying menace just makes it funnier and funnier. (Talia Shire, then having a career spike off the back of Rocky – she is top-billed here – must have felt she was reliving her American-International Pictures apprenticeship, when she appeared in films like The Dunwich Horror.)

Set against how bad most of the special effects are, most of the other problems with Prophecy – the slightly corny presentation of the Native Americans, the weak climax, the fact that there’s a reproductive rights angle to the story which never seems to get fully developed – melt away. Unfortunately, those elements of the film which show promise also vanish like mist when the sun comes out. It’s an interesting companion piece to Nightwing, even sharing a cast member (George Clutesi plays a semi-unhinged Indian elder in both). Prophecy is a worse film, but also more entertaining, too – Nightwing‘s just stuck in a middleground of being stolid, with some duff effects, while Prophecy shows real signs of being genuinely nuts, terrible effects or not.

I can see why Prophecy has become a sort of cult favourite, for the same reasons it has vanished into obscurity. It’s really, even by 1979 standards, a very old fashioned monster movie, driven along by that brand of technophobia which closely resembles the nature-in-revolt horror film. There are plenty of monster movies these days which are just as bad, but there’s often a knowingness to them. Prophecy is never less than very serious-minded and earnest. You have to admire it for that even as it makes the film even more ridiculous. Hardly even a Good Bad Movie, but nevertheless oddly cherishable in its way.

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Today’s topic for discussion: historical accuracy – worth bothering with or not? Cripes, that’s a big question for a fairly trivial blog mostly concerning itself with fairly trivial movies. It probably depends on the history involved – is it recent or not, and is the movie involved actually about the history or just using it as a convenient backdrop? I seem to recall being quite trenchant about films like Bombshell, which proposed to make a serious comment about real-world events while cheerily mixing historical figures with entirely made-up characters. She Said, which caused me to emit such a wail of nihilistic angst recently, largely gets away with it, but then again its real people are playing themselves in some cases.

At the other end of the scale is a film like Don Chaffey’s Creatures the World Forgot, which is… how can I put it…? …inherently and irredeemably trivial. It does occur to me that talking about historical accuracy in connection with a film like this is to start heading up a gum tree, for it’s not as if this is a historical movie; it’s a prehistorical one, the last (and, many would have you believe) least of the Hammer cycle of prehistoric pictures. The previous entries were One Million Years BC (which is the one with Raquel Welch), Prehistoric Women (with Martine Beswick), and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (with Victoria Vetri). This, in case you were wondering, is the one with Julie Ege; the fact these films are most easily differentiated in terms of their female lead may be significant.

What’s the plot like, you may be wondering. Well, it’s a Hammer caveman movie, what do you think the plot is like? The cave folk in this one even seem to be a more degenerate bunch, compared to the ones in the other movies – not only have they not invented language yet, they don’t seem to have even invented names – while some places will tell you the characters in this film have got names like Rool and Noo and Mak, the credits at the end of the film just go with descriptions like ‘The Fair One’ and ‘The Mute Girl’ and so on.

Basically, the cave people – this is actually a bit of a misnomer as they don’t spend much time in caves – wander about in the desert grunting at each other a lot, dying in hunting-related incidents, and so on. At one point there is a fairly substantial volcanic eruption, although to my eye this looks suspiciously like re-used footage from one or other of the previous films (different film stock and more voluminous furs on display). They wander about a bit more, going across a desert, where there is a fight to the death over an egg-shell full of water. An encounter with another tribe results in a sort of prehistoric wedding, the most memorable feature of which – the most memorable feature of the film, perhaps – is a bit where some young women get flogged across the breasts (kinky stuff, this). Twin sons turn up, one with very dark hair who is a rum character, and one with absurd peroxide blonde hair who is obviously a bit more heroic. There is strife between the brothers, mainly concerning who gets access rights to Julie Ege’s character (we are geological ages before #MeToo at this point, so nobody thinks of asking Ege what her thoughts on the topic are – though given what we see in the rest of the movie, her answer would probably be ‘Grungh’.) There is a spot of fraternal death-struggling and a hint of ancient magic, and then the film stops (probably occasioning a sigh of relief from all but the least-demanding of viewers).

Your kind of amateur-level reviewer of this sort of tosh would have you believe that this is the Hammer caveman movie distinguished by the fact that they made it on the cheap and didn’t bother to put any animated dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures in it. Well, there aren’t any dinosaurs in Prehistoric Women, either, if we’re going to be precise about this, but then the whole point of that film is that it’s a bargain-basement cash-in. Certainly it looks like a reasonable amount of cash has been spent at various points in the making of Creatures the World Forgot, so perhaps the absence of dinosaurs (etc) is a bit more noticeable. The nickname the film has acquired – Creatures the Producers Forgot to Have Animated – is a fun and appropriate one.

As a result the film feels a bit like that apocryphal Korean edit of The Sound of Music in which, to keep the thing to a more manageable length, they dispensed with all the songs, or possibly a pornographic film reedited for a PG rating and entire bereft of naughtiness as a result. The bits without dinosaurs in a Hammer caveman movie are mainly there to fill time and extend the film out to a respectable length (if anything about this genre is particularly respectable). There’s a case to be made that a Hammer prehistoric movie without any prehistoric monsters is, quite literally and precisely, pointless.

In the absence of the monsters, the film is obliged to rely much more heavily on the other big attraction of this kind of film, which is women in scanty chamois-leather outfits. By 1971 moral standards in society had collapsed to the point where unashamed T&A had become much more a part of the Hammer repertoire, and there are indeed a great many prehistoric knockers on display throughout the film, flogged and unflogged. But it almost seems like Chaffey is trying not to be too salacious, as he doesn’t really dwell on this fact – Val Guest somehow managed to ensure that Victoria Vetri’s nude scenes in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth packed a significant erotic wallop (or so it seemed to my febrile teenaged self), but here? Not so much. It’s a bit like one of those documentaries about nudism or semi-nudism – a lot less fun and exciting than it sounds.

On the other hand, the scenery and cinematography on the film is really quite good – locations were filmed in Namibia and South Africa, and are the best thing in the movie. The whole thing only really functions on a visual level anyway, and so this is more of a bonus than it might be in a conventional movie. But even so, the story is dull, lurching from one mildly exploitative moment to another, never managing to transcend its own absurdity, or the painful absence of dinosaurs, ahistorical or otherwise. I doubt anyone could make a genuinely good caveman movie – the closest you could probably find is the opening movement of 2001, and that’s a very different beast – and while this one has a sort of vague visual appeal, in every other respect it is completely forgettable, and probably not worth watching in the first place.

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There are two reasons why the horror movie briefly became a respectable genre and the subject of ‘quality’ studio releases for a while in the late seventies; the first of these is The Exorcist and the second is Jaws. Most of the films I am thinking of stick pretty close to the template of one or the other – either Satanic forces are at work in the present day (see Gregory Peck in The Omen) or wild animals have grown unhappy with their lot in life and are staging an uprising (see Grizzly, Orca, Tentacles, etc). I suppose there is also a small but robust subgenre of paranoid suspense thrillers based on Ira Levin novels which are also horror-adjacent, too.

As ever, Hollywood studios love a formula and the more respectable cash-ins feature many of the more striking features of whichever film they are knocking off. Then again some of them are more original. Which category Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing falls into isn’t immediately apparent.

On the one hand, it opens with some rather striking landscapes of the American Southwest, depicting the Grand Canyon, what looks very like Montezuma’s Castle, Monument Valley, and so on. (I enjoyed a coach tour of this region a few years ago and this montage brought back some very pleasant memories, which may have predisposed me to like the film – to begin with anyway.) It’s all very atmospheric. Then we find ourselves in the company of police officer Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), a member of the Maski tribe (my extensive research – Googling and Wikipedia – indicates that the Maski may be a fictionalised version of the real-life Hopi people, but the evdiecne is oddly inconclusive on the topic). Duran is called to the scene of a dead cow, which is not usually police business except for the fact that the creature is covered in strange, inexplicable wounds and stinks of ammonia. (It is also quite obviously stuffed, a fact which started my opinion of Nightwing on a slow but irreversible decline.)

The plot kind of ambles around for a while after this not-unpromising opening, the most pertinent point being that one of Duran’s friends, a mad old shaman named Abner (George Clutesi), says he has grown sick of the corruption of the modern world and has basically cast a spell to bring about the apocalypse. Not long after he is found dead with his body drained of blood, which starts fewer alarm bells ringing than you might reasonably expect. Meanwhile the local tribal council leader, whose only character trait is sliminess, reveals he is selling mineral rights on sacred land and wants all strange events kept hushed up to avoid a backlash in the media. Duran also bumps into the obligatory British scientist, Philip Payne (the great David Warner, displaying his usual ability to be better than the movie around him), who has something of a mania for exterminating vampire bats. Payne is convinced that a swarm of vampire bats has moved into a cave somewhere in the region – and the news gets even better, for he believes the bats to be carrying plague, as well!

With all this suddenly kicking off, it is of course very unfortunate that a young doctor with whom Juran has a bit of a thing going on (she is played by Kathryn Harrold) is off in the desert with a group of missionaries (presumably they’re on holiday). Everyone is sitting around the campfire having a chat when one of the missionaries says words to the effect of, ‘Wait, did you hear that?’ as something flutters by in the darkness. Right on cue, a cloud of winged pests appear out of nowhere and commence sucking on the evangelical posse.

Up to this point the film has been essentially stolid, nothing very special, but not without points of interest. As soon as the bats turn up on screen, however… well, chief fake bat wrangler was the noted Italian technician Carlo Rambaldi, who is celebrated by those who know about special effects, mainly because he designed the animatronics for both Alien and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. I should also point out that he did some decent monsters for bad films like the original version of Dune, and not-great monsters for films that only I seem to like (the 1976 version of King Kong being the obvious example). This, on the oher hand, is Rambaldi doing really bad monsters for a film which has largely been lost to history. It’s not just the bat puppets which kill the film, though – the whole array of techniques that Hiller wheels on to try and make this sequence work fall completely flat and render it comical rather than remotely scary. The back-projection is risible, the use of speeded-up film is obvious, and the actors understandably struggle to look convincingly frightened.

It may indeed have been the case that they edited one set-piece bat attack together, took one look at it, and then attempted to restructure their killer bat movie so the actual killer bats have the minimal possible time on screen. It makes you realise how lucky Spielberg was to be making a film about a shark – you can film a shark attack without actually putting the fish on screen, it just stays under the water and you get the actor to splash about and scream. This is not an option with an attack by a swarm of killer bats. You either leave the whole thing to the imagination and just show the aftermath, or it’s rubber bat time.

Certainly, the bats are used sparingly throughout the rest of the film. Juran shakes off the venal tribal leader and teams up with Warner’s character and his girlfriend to track down the bats and wipe them out. This is fairly pedestrian stuff, with set pieces that don’t quite pop – at one point the three of them are stuck in a chickenwire cage with the bats trying to gnaw their way in, while Warner tries to shoot a dart with a tracking device in it at a tiny little bat. Warner’s performance is one of the more memorable elements of the film, mainly because of the monomaniacal hatred he constantly displays towards desmodus rotundus: ‘they’re the quintessence of evil… the destruction of vampire bats is what I live for.’ I know that Jaws has drawn criticism for giving sharks a bad name, but Nightwing arguably misrepresents vampire bats (small, inoffensive, surprisingly altruistic creatures) even more severely.

The other mildly distinctive thing about Nightwing, within its subgenre at least, is the mystical angle, though this is left carefully ambiguous: have the bats been whistled up by the shaman’s curse, or is it just a coincidence? The question is left open. Juran does keep seeing the spirit of the dead man during the closing stages of the film, but as he is full of hallucinogenic roots by this point, this hardly constitutes a definitive answer to the question.

Nightwing hangs together as a narrative, and clearly has potential to be a competent movie, but commits the cardinal sin of being quite boring most of the way through. It’s a horror movie about nature in revolt where they barely show any revolting nature, and all the characters are stock figures whom the actors struggle to bring to life. The bats drag this down to the level of being a bad movie, but even without that crushing drawback it would still be an extremely tough film to recommend.

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Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (released in 1974) is not a film which appears to be overly concerned by the attention span of its audience, which in our age of hyperactive, attention-grabbing gimmickry l actually find rather refreshing. It opens with a series of very long, slow, static takes of plants sprouting and developing (courtesy of the magic of time-lapse photography), over which the credits play. Grab-you-by-the-throat stuff this is not. Even when the credits conclude and we are off into the story proper, it doesn’t exactly burst into life, for we are at a scientific lecture delivered by university boffin Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, who indicates that Nolter is a mad scientist by doing an ever-so-slightly Germanic accent). His talk is on the development of life, and in particular the key role played by mutants. He also seems very keen on talking about carnivorous plants (that old staple of the dodgy low-budget horror movie), and proceeds to do so in some detail.

Watching all this are a bunch of they’re-a-bit-too-old-to-be-students, amongst their number Scott Antony, Olga Anthony, Jill Haworth, and Julie Ege (who had already done at least one Hammer movie by this point and had another one either lined up or just finished). They all watch fairly attentively as Nolter lays in the plot and themes of the movie, culminating in his belief that induced mutation could be used to bring about the next step in human evolution – specifically, a plant-human hybrid – an idea he seems to have nicked off Michael Gough in Konga. (Yes, so we’re already cutting the movie some slack, for it absolutely beggars belief that any credible university would keep someone on the payroll who is so clearly as mad as a mongoose – not that British horror movies don’t have form in this department, of course.)

The students depart the lecture and head off into mid-70s London, where the movie is set. However, something alarming befalls Olga Anthony, as she finds herself pursued across a park by – what’s the term we’re supposed to use these days? Dwarves? Midgets? Persons of restricted growth? Anyway, there are a few of them in The Mutations. Anthony manages to outrun them, as you might expect, but is grabbed by a looming figure anyway. This is Lynch, the hideously deformed man the short people are employed by; when not kidnapping young starlets he runs a freak show. The most notable thing about Lynch is probably that he is played by Tom Baker in one of his last pre-Dr Who roles; possibly this was the film that led Baker to temporarily pack in acting and work on a building site until destiny came calling – you could certainly understand why.

Anyway, it turns out that Lynch has done a deal with Nolter – he kidnaps young starlets and drags them off to Nolter’s lab, where Nolter performs his fiendish experiments and transforms them into hybrid mutants. Once Nolter has perfected the science he will fix Lynch’s face for him, and possibly help out the other members of the freak show too. In the meantime he transforms Anthony into a half-alligator hybrid mutant (don’t get excited, we barely see this particular monster).

It takes a while for the other mature students to notice their friend has gone missing, but perhaps they are distracted by the arrival of visiting American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris) – in the finest traditions of this kind of movie, the imported foreign star is enormously wooden and playing the least interesting character in the film anyway. Quite by chance, while showing him the sights of London, they end up taking him to Lynch’s freak show (maybe Trafalgar Square was full or something). They’re not allowed in to see the alligator girl, but they do get the regular freak show – which features people with genuine anatomical and genetic anomalies, and as a result is distinctly uncomfortable to watch.

The odd thing about The Mutations is that while there’s always something going on, it doesn’t really feel like a movie with an actual plot – it just seems to go from one lurid and provocative set-piece to another, strung together by some rather pedestrian connective tissue. Nolter goes on with his experiments, Lynch torments and is tormented by the side-show performers (when not out kidnapping), and Julie Ege wonders why her friends keep dropping out of sight. You know where it’s going; the pleasure (if that’s the right word for it) comes from the incidental horrors of the movie.

Or, to put it slightly differently: Donald Pleasence plays a mad scientist who hires a deformed freak-show owner to kidnap young people and transform them into monsters for largely spurious pseudo-scientific reasons. It’s not the most outlandish premise for a horror movie, I suppose, but it’s getting there.

Or, to be even more reductive – it’s The Island of Doctor Moreau meets Freaks, set in mid-1970s London. You know, when you put it like that it actually sounds like this might be an interesting and even fun movie. But I have to report that the finished product, though possessed of a sort of grim capacity to fascinate, is actually quite hard work.

Mind you, the same could obviously be said of the original Freaks, which I have already written about. The link between the two films is obvious, and openly acknowledged – there’s a scene reprising the famous ‘we accept you – one of us’ sequence from the Todd Browning film, although Tom Baker is less than delighted to be accepted into the side-show fraternity. The curiosity of seeing one of these early Baker performances is possibly one reason for watching The Mutations, though I must insert a strong caveat here – not only does the heavy make-up he’s under render the great man almost unrecognisable, it also severely impairs his performance (he can barely open his mouth). Nevertheless, power and presence shine through, and he easily holds his own against Pleasence.

At the time Pleasence was in the process of carving out the horror niche that would eventually lead to his being cast in Halloween – he did this movie, Deathline, and Tales That Witness Madness in the space of a few years. This is actually a lot like Deathline, to be honest – it has the same nondescript group of youths in peril, takes place in a down-at-heel, seedy version of modern London, and seems to be trying harder to be disturbing rather than genuinely scary. This is the sillier film by some way – by the time Nolter’s half-man half-Venus fly trap creation starts rising from the Thames and bothering tramps, it’s quite quite clear that this is just exploitative schlock.

It’s an ignoble end to Jack Cardiff’s directorial career, and while it does exert a strange hold, this is mainly because it’s so determinedly grotesque and repulsive. To a modern viewer it looks unpleasant and exploitative on a dozen different levels, to say nothing of cheap and tacky. And yet in the 1970s you commonly found actors of note appearing in this sort of thing. The Mutations is not alone in this – but few low-budget horrors even of the 70s have such a sense of tawdriness about them.

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The default position a lot of people writing about the horror genre tend to take is that H. P. Lovecraft is (obviously) a massively influential figure in that genre’s development, but one whose own works have not been well or frequently adapted into other media – not until quite recently, at least (you could argue that the appearance of things like The Color Out of Space and Lovecraft Investigations mark a change in this).

Nevertheless, there are a few Lovecraft movies from yesteryear still kicking around, some of them featuring unlikely people. Most of them predate the recent boom in Lovecraft’s profile and thus widespread ideas about what the term ‘Lovecraftian’ actually means, which if nothing else makes them interesting; they are also prone to try and find a way to make Lovecraft’s stories work in the style of horror movies of the time when they were made, which can also have interesting and curious results.

Two of these movies were directed by Daniel Haller. The first of them, Die, Monster, Die! (another swing at Color Out of Space) we have already discussed; the second came along a few years later, being made in 1969 and released in 1970. This time the film retained the title of the source material, and is called The Dunwich Horror.

Certain terms and names are so loaded with significance for the seasoned follower of Lovecraftiana that it can be a shock when something comes along and starts using them in (what seems like) a shockingly off-hand manner. So it is at the start of this film, which – after a fairly lurid and gothic opening sequence featuring an, erm, unusually challenging delivery for a pregnant mother – takes place on an American college campus somewhere in New England. One would naturally expect this to be the famed Miskatonic University, and indeed it may be so, but – so far as I can tell – it’s not actually named as such on-screen. Everyone seems to assume it is, quite understandably.

Anyway, here at maybe-Miskatonic U, esteemed academic Dr Armitage (Ed Begley) has just finished lecturing, using as a visual aid a copy of the dreaded Necronomicon (in the literature: an incredibly dangerous, sanity-blasting tome packed with awful secrets of the true nature of the cosmos, in this film: a handy old spellbook). He sends university secretary Nancy (Sandra Dee) off to pop it back in its display case, but she and her friend encounter a strangely intense young man intent on having a look at the Necronomicon for himself. He turns out to be the weird and unearthly Wilbur Whately (played by Dean Stockwell in a weird and unearthly moustache), descendant of a long line of occultists and wizards.

Despite the fact that Wilbur’s ancestors apparently tried to blow up the world by summoning the ancient and powerful Old Ones back into being (they are malevolent residents of another dimension), Wilbur and Armitage get on quite well, but a peek at the grimoire is not on the cards. So Wilbur winds up being driven home to the town of Dunwich by Nancy, who seems rather taken with him.

Scholars of the Lovecraftian canon would be justified in suggesting that so far this only bears a vague resemblance to the original text of the story. In the end, though, it’s more a case of the pieces having been shuffled around a little bit, largely for emphasis, than this being an entirely different game. Stockwell’s version of Wilbur isn’t a repulsive, satyr-like aberration with extra eye sockets in alarming places, but he is still the product of inter-dimensional intercourse and has an inhuman twin who is kept locked up in the old Whately house. His aim is still to use the Necronomicon to open the gate to the realm of the Old Ones.

What makes the film perhaps seem very divergent from Lovecraft is in the way that it is so obviously a product of its time and context. This is another American-International Pictures movie; perhaps inevitably, Roger Corman is credited as Executive Producer. Under Corman, not to mention credited producers James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff, AIP were by this point in the business of making exploitation movies aimed at a youthful audience – the Hammer-adjacent stylings of their earlier movies (including The Haunted Palace, which was based on another Lovecraft story but marketed as a Poe adaptation) had largely dissipated into something a little more lurid and freewheeling. In many ways, AIP’s audience in 1969 was members of the counter-culture, and this is reflected by the film.

There is, for example, something very psychedelic about the drug-induced visions than Nancy experiences after being slipped some drugged tea by Wilbur – there’s a lot of writhing flesh and body paint, although the effect is less one of incipient cosmic horror and more of an am-dram reconstruction of people who took the wrong acid at Woodstock. It is also somewhat entertaining to consider what the appalled reaction of an 80-year-old Lovecraft might have been, had he lived, to the emphasis on matters sexual in this movie – it’s not especially graphic, but neither is it particularly subtle. The producers admitted to having one eye on Rosemary’s Baby when making this movie, but it feels like more of a general aspiration than a specific attempt at being derivative.

The thing is that, while the film is schlock, it’s functional schlock – it’s a melodrama and not remotely scary, but it moves along and stays entertaining while it does so. It even manages the occasional moment when it’s rather better than you might expect – veteran watchers of vintage horror may be inwardly bracing themselves for the moment when Wilbur’s inhuman twin is finally revealed, the expectation being that it’s going to be some dude in ropey make-up. But no: when Nancy’s friend unwisely ventures up to the attic to see what lies within, the results are, if not exactly shocking, genuinely startling: the screen is transmuted into flashes of garish primary colours, tinting what happens, as the girl staggers back, shrieking – an amorphous mass, glimpsed so briefly it barely registers, entangles and engulfs her; her screams continue as the clothes are flayed from her body. Her final fate is left to the viewer’s imagination. The film sticks with this effect – with admittedly diminishing returns – as the dark twin marauds its way across town (one of its victims is Tally Coppola, aka Talia Shire, who went on from AIP to a fairly respectable career in more mainstream cinema).

In the end the film abandons any attempt at getting down with the kids, as the story is resolved in the traditional, conservative style – rebellious young Wilbur (and it must be said that Dean Stockwell’s performance is nicely underplayed and reasonably effective) is defeated by the intervention of an older and wiser authority figure. The climax isn’t the film’s strongest moment, but it just about does the job, and the final twist, such as it is, could have been handled worse.

I’ve found myself being much kinder to The Dunwich Horror than I expected to be, given this is a low-budget AIP movie that takes quite a few liberties with the original story. But the bones and heart of the story are still there under the surface, and the brooding mood of the story does feel like it comes from Lovecraft – it’s not Lovecraft dressed up as Poe, like The Haunted Palace, or Lovecraft crossed with B-movie sci-fi, like Die, Monster, Die! It may not be a terribly good film but it still feels unexpectedly authentic, which is uncommon enough when dealing with adaptations of this particular author and his work.

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Cultural hegemony operating in the way that it does, the American remake of a successful non-English movie is a well-established phenomenon – there’s a very long list, including films as diverse as True Lies, Vanilla Sky, and The Magnificent Seven. Foreign-language takes on Hollywood are a little thinner on the ground, but they are still what is technically known as ‘a thing’, especially if you include somewhat unofficial versions of popular hits – we’ve already talked about Turkish Superman, for instance. (Just as an example of something completely different and rather curious, at some point this year we will hopefully get to see the French-language remake of the Japanese meta-comedy One Cut of the Dead.)

Mohammed Hussain’s 1973 film Khoon Khoon doesn’t seem to be one of those knock-offs – for a long time it was available to view on a major streamer, rather than in the depths of YouTube, and it does has a vague patina of quality about it: signs of a respectable budget and established actors. Should you be wondering, Khoon Khoon – so far as I’ve been able to work out – means Bloody Murder in Hindi. (Or possibly Bloody Blood. Or indeed Murder Murder. Bloody Murder isn’t exactly a brilliant title, but it’s better than the other two.)

A psychopathic killer is on the loose in a major city, picking off targets at random from the rooftops, and taunting the police commissioner with his demands for money – so it falls to one tough police detective to lead the hunt for the killer, and yes, you’re right, this is the plot of the classic 1970 Don Siegel movie Dirty Harry, one of the films which established Clint Eastwood as a major star. Start talking about ‘the Bollywood version of Dirty Harry‘ and people are likely to start trying to have you sectioned, but this film exists and it’s a lot better than you might expect.

The weird thing is the extent to which this seems to be a genuine fusion of American genre moviemaking and what most westerners would recognise as the classic Bollywood sensibility. I should point out that this isn’t just a film which is vaguely inspired by or derived from Dirty Harry: it really is a genuine remake, including most of the same plot beats, and with some scenes – even individual shots and camera moves – replicated in detail. The resemblance is compounded by the fact that Khoon Khoon, in a move more commonly associated with unlicensed knock-offs like Turkish Superman, reuses significant elements of the soundtrack from its progenitor. (I should also mention the appearance of pieces of music from Bullitt, at least two Bond films – Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, if my ears don’t fail me – and the original Planet of the Apes.)

The most obvious sign of the Bollywoodisation of Dirty Harry is also musical – or, to put it another way, Khoon Khoon itself is a musical. Initially the movie is relatively restrained about this element – the Clint-analogue, Anand (Mahendra Sandhu), and his comedy sidekick Pancham (Jagdeep), are working the case, and Anand pauses to sigh about the strain this is placing on his marriage and other family relationships (needless to say, Anand is not an unorthodox loner like Harry Callaghan, but a relatable family man). Before you know it we are into a flashback/dream sequence between him and his wife, complete with verses and choruses. ‘A cold rain is falling,’ trills Mrs Anand, alluringly. (The rain machine, always a sign of something raunchy on the cards, is going at nearly full blast.) ‘The weather is very pleasant. You are very pleasant too,’ croons Anand in response. Whether it’s a sultry interlude or a weather forecast with music is not always clear, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing you find in a Don Siegel movie.

Having thus taken the plunge, the movie goes off at a bit of a tangent for the next musical number, which is delivered by one of the Scorpio-analogue’s targets, a wise old holy man. He delivers a rather nice song – diegetically, this time – about the inescapable truth of mortality and the iron hand of fate, even as Raghav, the killer, is lining up his rifle to kill him. Needless to say, the musical wisdom leads Raghav to question his life choices and not shoot the holy man – presumably it was unacceptable to show a senior cleric being gunned down, although Khoon Khoon has no problems with small children and innocent young women being offed, sometimes on-camera.

Of course, as any fule kno, it’s not as if Dirty Harry itself is entirely bereft of musical accompaniment – there is of course the scene in which a busful of school children sing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ while being held hostage by Andy Robinson. Clearly recognising this as a fundamental element of the film, the makers of Khoon Khoon double down – Raghav (Danny Denzongpa) and the hostage children get their own production number (still on the bus), singing about what good friends they’re all going to become – at least until the children sing some rather rude lyrics about him and he starts slapping them about mid-song. I wonder if I am managing to communicate to you just what an extremely strange experience watching Khoon Khoon is?

Songs aside, Khoon Khoon is a less obviously challenging movie than its forebear – it certainly works hard to stay accessible, including lengthy scenes of slapstick comedy centred around Anand’s egg-loving sidekick Pancham, and some borderline soap-opera storylines concerning Anand’s slightly strained relations with his in-laws. Anand’s an establishment figure in a way Callaghan isn’t – not so much a man on the edge as one in the very middle of the road.

And, of course, something completely absent from Khoon Khoon is the whole subtext to Dirty Harry, which for me is a film about conservative America recoiling in alarm and disgust from the counter-culture of the late 1960s. The reference points just aren’t there, of course – Raghav isn’t the ambiguous character that Scorpio is, he’s just a greedy nutter who was thrown out by his parents as a child after trying to knife his baby sibling (Scorpio has no background, almost like Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker; Raghav gets his own flashback to establish his character). The vaguely fascist politics and ambiguous ending of the Siegel film are likewise notably absent – Anand may disobey orders and trick Raghav into attacking him, so he can gun him down like a dog, but the moment where Clint Eastwood throws away his badge is gone: the police commissioner turns up and makes a point of telling Anand what a good job he’s done, and that he’s probably going to be promoted.

I have no idea if Khoon Khoon would seem as strange to an Indian audience as it does to me: but I suspect not, because they’ve clearly worked very hard at the Bollywoodisation of it. I really like Dirty Harry – but the weird thing is that I rather enjoyed Khoon Khoon too, partly because it is so similar, but also because it is so very, very different. To me at least, it seemed like a genuine oddity, a somewhat primitive and certainly dated film, but also one with real energy and colour to it. It’s very entertaining, in all sorts of ways, and most of them are intentional.

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When we talk about something being dated, it’s inevitably meant negatively: intended to distinguish between things which just look better and better with the passage of the years (or at least, not appreciably worse) and those which appear increasingly clumsy, problematic and irrelevant. Everything gets older, of course, but some things carry the weight of years better than others.

And then there are things that date more quickly and obviously. Is it fair to say that more rooted in the concerns of the time they were made, the more likely it is that they’re quickly going to seem like quaint products of their period. (The converse of this is that period pieces have a sort of built-in resistance to this same effect – hence why, for example, the sitcom Dad’s Army has lasted so well, being set thirty or so years in the past, and probably seeming quite old-fashioned even when it was made.)

I suspect that the film we are here to discuss felt very dated within only a few years of its original release. The film was released in 1970 and directed by the great Roger Corman – although he had a rough time making it, and, after completing his passion project Von Richthofen and Brown shortly afterward, effectively retired as a director. Exactly what it’s called is a bit of a question, as the title on the poster and most likely in the TV listings guide is Gas-s-s-s; in the actual opening credits the name given is Gas, or, It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. Irritatingly fiddly or annoyingly unwieldy? Take your pick. (The latter title is a reference to a quote from a US army officer made during the Vietnam War a couple of years earlier.)

The film opens with a rough-and-ready animated sequence, played for broad satirical laughs, in which a senior army figure and a senator oversee the opening of a new military facility which contains a stockpile of chemical weapons; due to a mix-up, the champagne supposed to be used in the ceremony is mixed up with a flask of a new nerve agent, which is released into the atmosphere as a result. (This is my interpretation of the scene, anyway; it’s a fairly allusive sequence and not meant to be taken any more naturalistically than the rest of the film.)

What matters is that there has indeed been a leak of a gas weapon, which is apparently 100% lethal, but only against anyone who is over 25 years of age. (Yes, a faintly ridiculous notion, but interesting films have been made with thinner premises.) The young people of America are left to determine the future of their nation as the old structures of society begin to crumble and fall.

Most of the film concerns a couple named Coel (Robert Corff) and Cilla (Elaine Giftos), who discover that a fascist regime is planning to take over Dallas, where they both live. They flee the city with a group of their friends (the only actor you’ll possibly have heard of is Talia Shire, who’s credited here as Tally Coppola) and set off on a journey across the country, having heard of a settlement where some of the survivors are trying to build a better society…

It sounds like a blueprint for any number of post-apocalyptic dramas – swap out the gas for a plague and the resemblance becomes acute. And indeed some of the elements of the film would be very much at home in that kind of drama. The format of the film is essentially picaresque, with the main characters travelling from one settlement to another and having various encounters and adventures along the way: they most meet brutal raiders and people trying to set themselves up as tyrants in the new world. This in itself is a problem for the film, as it precludes the development of any kind of conventional plot – it’s just a series of episodes, which all start to blur together after a while. It’s almost like a post-apocalyptic version of Easy Rider; it does seem very clear that this was another influence.

Perhaps skits or sketches would be a better word than episodes to describe the components of the script, for the intent of Gas-s-s-s is to be a satirical black comedy, very clearly aimed at the youth counter-culture of the period – in a way, it’s a sort of a weird second-cousin to The Omega Man, but while the Heston film is obviously informed by the death of the hippy dream, that death was still in progress when Corman was making this one. The director later said that his own misgivings about some of the values of the counter-culture (he was 44 when the film was released, making him an improbable hippy) were part of his conception of the film.

The script is by George Armitage (also acting in a small role), who went on to be a director himself – his work is rather variable but he did make the terrific Grosse Pointe Blank many years later. Early on there are indeed some good gags and moments that made me sit up and give the film my full attention: Coel is pursued by cops into a church, who announce they are looking for a man with long hair and beard, a real trouble-maker. ‘No-one like that here,’ comes the reply, while the camera is pointedly directed at a picture of Christ. Later on a character suggests they visit a music festival playing the sounds of the sixties – the suggestion comes that the real sound of the sixties was gunfire.

Unfortunately, it feels like the film started shooting with an unfinished script, or that there was a lot of improvisation, because the quality of the ideas and dialogue drops off quite severely as the story gets underway. To the modern viewer, a lot of it isn’t just dated, it’s problematically dated – too many casual jokes about rape, for one thing. Perhaps this is just the film trying too hard to be provocative and challenging; it feels very tame now. The same goes for the various attempts at surrealism – there’s a gun battle where, instead of firing their guns, the participants shout the names of famous cowboy actors at each other (this may also have been a device to avoid spending money on blank charges for the guns). Edgar Allen Poe keeps turning up on a motorbike to comment on whatever’s been happening (the presence of Poe may be a sort of in-joke, given all the Poe movies Corman made with Vincent Price a few years earlier); the voice of God also makes a few contributions.

The results are visually interesting but generally quite forgettable; even as a document of where American culture was at fifty-odd years ago it doesn’t feel particularly authentic, almost like a piece of hippisploitation. Corman’s place in the annals of American film-making is secure beyond a shadow of doubt; that his directorial career should have begun to wrap up with a film as confused and clumsy as this one is a shame. But it’s probably not worth your time, even so.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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George McCowan’s 1972 film Frogs doesn’t exactly have a fridge title, as our amphibious friends are certainly heavily featured throughout it – but at the same time it really feels somewhat misnamed. Certainly for a horror movie, which is what this theoretically is – it doesn’t achieve quite the immortal bathos, title-wise, of The Killer Shrews, but it’s getting there, especially when you consider the poster is theoretically attempting to communicate that this film is supposed to be a scary one, jokey slogan notwithstanding.

Now I don’t think much of the poster for Frogs, and yet it does seem to have embedded itself in the minds of people who’ve seen it, even if they haven’t seen the whole movie. I mentioned I’d seen Frogs to a couple of friends of mine, quite independently, and they both mentioned the poster and – in one case – they were able to describe it in some detail. It is certainly eye-catching but I would suggest that it doesn’t quite capture the tone of the movie, which is admittedly rather odd.

The movie itself starts off looking more like a wildlife documentary, as various swamp creatures are given their close-up; within the film itself, their snaps are being taken by photojournalist and ecology expert Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), who is canoeing around the swamp in question. Snakes, lizards, frogs, all of them get their picture snapped. But gradually the images change to ones of pollution in the swamp: garbage, pollution, and chemical waste. Yup, we are in one of those nature-bites-back eco-horror films.

Now, let’s be fair, while this is a cinematic tradition going back quite a long way, it is also one which it can tricky to pin down. One very accessible list of eco-horror films includes things like the original Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of which are  – I would say – rather different animals (sorry). I’m thinking of things without your actual monsters, just normal creatures which have become extremely irascible, and with some sort of obvious message about the environment incorporated into the story, although this is possibly optional – most people would credit Hitchcock’s The Birds as having a significant influence on this sub-genre, although part of that film’s eerie atmosphere comes from its refusal to explain just exactly what is really going on.

Frogs is a bit more on-the-nose in this department, as well as many others. Pickett Smith gets dumped into the swamp by a speedboat driven by a couple of the ugly rich, but they are duly apologetic and take him back their family’s palatial plantation house, where the whole clan is gathering for the birthday of the patriarch, a fierce old man played by Ray Milland (whose presence in a film of this calibre is somewhat mystifying).

It turns out there are various elements of toxic family politics in play, to say nothing of the fact that the family business has been dumping pollution into the swamp on, for want of a better expression, on an industrial scale. It’s a miracle that the croaking of the frogs surrounding the house is as deafening as it is…

This is the kind of movie which has a slow build-up, or would have if it ever felt like it was actually building up to anything – the pacing remains stolid and stately throughout. Various scenes of family members engaging in soap-opera bickering are intercut with Smith wandering about doing odd jobs for Milland’s character, and of course numerous close-ups of frogs: these appear at the top of many scenes, with the camera pulling back to reveal the human beings going about their business and blithely ignoring the ubiquitous amphibians. But Smith discovers that one of Milland’s gofers has met with a mysterious death in the swamp…

To be honest, the movie is just marking time until it is able to get busy with the set-piece deaths of various unsympathetic rich people, and finally this moment arrives. One young man is out in the forest when he accidentally shoots himself in the leg; strange animate moss appears to engulf him, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s tarantula-infested moss. Another of the family is working in a greenhouse when a lizard deviously knocks over several containers of poison, creating a toxic miasma which bumps him off. A butterfly-loving matron unwisely chases a rare breed and ends up falling into leech-infested waters, from which she emerges only to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Her husband, when he goes in search of her, falls in the swamp and is attacked by an alligator. And so it goes on.

The astute reader may well be reading this and thinking ‘moss, tarantulas, lizards, leeches, snakes, alligators… there’s something missing from this picture.’ And this is absolutely the case: for a horror movie called Frogs, which features an apparently man-eating frog on the poster, all the heavy lifting when it comes to actually killing off the cast is done by other herptiles and species resident in the swamp. In other words, the characters may be croaking, but they’re not being croaked by the frogs. I can only assume that the frogs had a much better agent than the rest of the wildlife in the film.

The one positive thing about this anomaly is that it does make Frogs marginally more interesting than would otherwise be the case. This is a movie without many (or perhaps even any) layers of subtlety to it. The subtext and a general sense of how it’s going to go are obvious to the switched-on viewer very early on, and it’s not even as if the story is especially well-executed: there’s a lot of lousy acting, especially during the death scenes, and while Elliott has presence, it’s not as if he does a great deal (he may just be trying to keep a low profile so people don’t mention his presence in this film in a disparaging context should he get all tetchy and start grumbling about Jane Campion movies many years later). Milland’s okay, but clearly knows he’s slumming it. Bits from near the end of it jump out at you – someone gets killed by a turtle, for God’s sake, Elliott hands a pump-action shotgun to a small child during their low-octane escape from the frogs, and the film’s three non-white characters all apparently die together off-screen –  but this is a film with only one real idea to it, and one which it doesn’t communicate with much in the way of grace or deftness.

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