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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

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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When a film opens with a bunch of characters arriving at a place called the Hill of Death, you can be quite sure that one of two things is on the cards: a film with a potentially smug sense of its own ridiculousness, or something which is going to be painfully on the nose from start to finish. When the main character, a sickly-looking Jared Leto, is told ‘Maybe you should see a doctor!’ and responds ‘I am one,’ any hope that we may be in for Option One quickly fades.

For yes, this is Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius, here to tide over anyone who objects to having to wait four-and-a-half months between proper Marvel comic-book movies. Leto is playing Morbius, whom we quickly learn is a polymathic genius afflicted with a genetic disorder causing agglutination of the blood cells (or something like that, anyway). We even see him getting a Nobel prize for his work on artificial blood. It is also established, without a great deal of subtlety, that he is largely motivated in his studies by his desire to save his best friend (Matt Smith), and that the pair of them have been mentored by the doctor who’s been looking after them since childhood (Jared Harris – this is a good movie if you drew ‘Jared’ in the name sweepstakes).

Well, this being a Marvel movie (even an ‘in association with’ Marvel movie), Morbius’s plan is to pop off to the Hill of Death and capture a load of vampire bats, which in the world of this movie are apparently savage, pack-hunting apex predators, not the mostly-harmless and actually quite altruistic little creatures you and I share a biosphere with. He then decides to inject his own body with vampire bat DNA in the hope it will cure him. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, it’s not the dumbest superhero origin story in history, but still. Even the fact that the human tests have to take place in secret, on a freighter in international waters, does not lead the brilliant brain of Morbius to clock that this is a bad idea. On the other hand, this does enable a bit of early mayhem as we are invited to assume the freighter crew are all despicable bad guys whom Morbius, now afflicted with the curse of blood-lust (not to mention the curse of being followed around by intrusive CGI swirls), can off with a clear conscience.

Yes, Morbius now has superhuman speed and strength and some of the powers of a bat, though IP law means the film tiptoes very carefully around what the obvious code-name for him would be. He has bigger issues than plagiarism to worry about, however, as the synthetic blood he is using to keep his hunger at bay is losing its efficacy, while his best friend has got his hands on the serum too, and quite fancies all the superpowers and CGI too…

So, just to recap, Morbius has speed and strength and can (somehow) fly, and he has sonar, which soon develops into full-blown super-hearing. I imagine that for most of the film the main thing his super-hearing is picking up is the sound of Sony frantically grabbing at every Marvel character they still have the rights to and shoe-horning them into this film.

For the uninitiated: Marvel Studios (the makers of the ‘official’, and generally pretty good Marvel films) have managed to reclaim the rights to most of their characters, in some cases by simply buying the companies that had previously held them. However, Sony have managed to hang onto the Spider-Man characters, and Spider-Man’s appearances in MCU films have been the result of finicky horse-trading between the two companies. Hence the two Venom films with Tom Hardy, and now this vehicle for Morbius, a character declared by one website to be no less than the nineteenth-best Spider-Man villain.

Needless to say, they crowbar a reference to Venom into this movie, from which I suppose we are invited to assume that this is set in the same world as they are. There is also some multiversal madness with a late showing by Michael Keaton, well-known for playing another kind of bat man, but here reprising his role as the Vulture from an MCU movie a few years back. It all feels rather contrived and put me much in mind of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which seemed so obsessed with setting up spin-offs and cross-overs it almost forgot about the movie in hand. It is clear that linking to the massively popular MCU films is very important to Sony’s plans, but also that they’re quite prepared to abandon sense and logic in order to do so.

It’s not like Morbius doesn’t have its own problems, not least that he isn’t an especially interesting character to begin with. He laments his fate and broods on rooftops a lot, and frankly it’s been done before, a lot. He gets the line ‘Don’t make me hungry, you won’t like me when I’m hungry,’ which made me laugh if only for its sheer impudence, but apart from that this is a fairly earnest film populated by dull characters who never do or say anything unexpected, saddled with borderline-inept storytelling: great chunks of exposition are handled by more on-the-nose voice-overs.

The biggest problem is that the film’s script serves its structure, rather than vice versa. Stuff happens for no real reason other than to progress the very thin plot – the disposable mercenaries on the freighter is one example of this, Matt Smith’s character deciding to go all in on being evil is another. Police check the surveillance cameras in a car park, but apparently not the ones in a hospital. Even the structure itself is not that great – it vaguely reminded me of Josh Trank’s reviled Fantastic Four movie, in that watching it I had the odd sense of having missed a big chunk of the story – it seems to have part of the second act missing. Suddenly we were in the final battle of the film and I was genuinely wrong-footed, but not entirely ungrateful.

It probably sounds masochistic of me to say this, but sometimes it’s nice when a really bad superhero movie comes along, because it surely makes one appreciate how solidly entertaining the Marvel films usually are just that little bit more. This has a silly story, thin characters that even a good cast can’t do much with, too much intrusively garish CGI, and a general refusal to acknowledge its own daftness. Morbius is definitely not of the first rank, and is comfortably quite as bad as the last couple of X-Men movies. The degree to which it succeeds or fails should tell us something interesting about quite how far the magic touch of the Marvel marque extends.

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I had an evening to myself. I could have done anything. They were showing the 50th anniversary revival of The Godfather just fifteen minutes’ walk away. I really had no excuse not to enjoy this classic of American cinema again, beyond piddling little concerns like already having been out to the movies twice that week. So I stayed in and watched Zombeavers instead. What can I say? I don’t know what came over me.

Zombeavers, directed by Jordan Rubin, doesn’t so much have a plot as a collection of bits nicked from other genre movies and repurposed for this one. (In case you were wondering, in genre terms I’m pretty sure this is attempting the tricky challenge of being both a horror movie and a comedy film.) There’s a sense in which watching it for the first time doesn’t really feel like watching a new movie at all, because virtually no element of it is actually unfamiliar.

It opens with a couple of low-comedy stereotyped rednecks failing to notice a barrel of industrial waste falling off the back of their truck when it hits a deer (which gorily explodes all over the windscreen) – this is essentially the first scene of Eight Legged Freaks, too. The barrel drifts down a river during the opening credits, coming to rest in a peaceful lake, not far from the dam of some cute looking, obviously fake beavers. At this point it springs a leak and starts spraying green slime.

Ho, ho. Genre boxes continue to be ticked as we meet three college girls about to set off for a quiet break in the country. As you might expect, one of them is sensible and studious (she wears glasses), one is essentially defined by her boyfriend problems, and the other is kind of a bee-hatch (as I believe the kids nowadays put it). They are respectively played by Rachel Melvin, Lexi Atkins and Cortney Palm. Off they go to the countryside, engaging in the obligatory modern sexually-explicit banter all the way.

But something is up at the peaceful lake which is their destination. We the audience have already figured this out, as we have seen a fisherman have his rod dragged out of his hands by something in the water, and then be set upon by something lurking in the bushes. Some sort of quota is met as Palm provides some T&A by taking her top off when the girls go swimming.

You can’t do much of a horror movie with just three main characters and a few supporting yokels, so the boyfriends all turn up despite being told not to. This is because Atkins’ boyfriend has just cheated on her, a subplot designed to create tension within the group – this is about the most subtle element of the film and it’s still something of a genre cliché.

The sense of déjà vu becomes crushingly relentless as Atkins prepares to take a shower, but finds herself ambushed by a beaver. But it is not a beaver as we know it, as it has milky eyes and a taste for flesh. In short, it is an undead beaver, which the assembled young people only just manage to stuff into a bag and batter into submission.

I expect that most people, at some point in their lives, have asked themselves the question, ‘If I were making a low-budget movie featuring undead beavers as a major plot element, how would I go about realising this?’ The makers of Zombeavers decided to go with glove puppets. The glove puppet zombie beaver is actually a reasonable success, as this is supposed to be a comedy film and it is almost certainly the funniest thing in it so far. However, it is not that funny.

It turns out the industrial waste has produced a whole lake full of undead beavers, which are now hungry for the flesh and blood of blandly attractive young American folk. Even worse, they find themselves trapped, as the zombie beavers have blocked the road back to civilisation by felling trees across it. Barricading themselves into the cabin is not an ideal solution as the beavers show every sign of being able to chew their way through the walls. What are a bunch of extremely thinly-scripted young people to do in this situation?

Well, anyway: this is a crappy movie. In my defense, and it’s a thin one as I will freely admit, I was lured in by the commercial, which focused very much on the glove puppet zombie beavers. These are, I will say again, the best thing in the movie. Are they sufficient reason to watch the whole thing? I suspect not. I would say, just watch a clip, maybe one of the sequence where they start gnawing up through the floorboards and get splattered by two of the surviving cast like a gory version of whack-a-mole. Just watch that and then do something more worthwhile with the rest of your evening, like staring at the wall.

You can see that the intention with this movie was to do something along the lines of The Evil Dead meets The Killer Shrews. The Killer Shrews, I should say, is not a great movie. It has bad acting, risible monsters, and contains problematic racism. But not only is it just as funny as Zombeavers, it also works better as a horror movie, because it’s doing its best not to admit to being a lousy low-budget film. It confesses to its weaknesses because it has no choice. Zombeavers, on the other hand, doesn’t include rubbish glove-puppet monsters because it has no choice, and then try to work around them as much as possible. It has rubbish-glove puppet monsters because it thinks this will be funny, and the camera dwells on them cheerfully for this reason. What’s killingly funny in an unintentional comedy doesn’t work nearly as well in an actual comedy.

Part of the problem is that Zombeavers can’t decide whether it wants to be a spoof of low-budget horror films or an actual horror-comedy itself, because they’re not the same thing. It’s much more committed to traditional elements of the form, like excessive gore and gratuitous sex and T&A, than a film like The Final Girls (a genuinely funny and inventive take on horror movie conventions), but this feels like an attempt to impress through excess, something which is an extension of the film’s attempts to get laughs by shocking the audience. There are times when it’s just trying to be funny, but there’s never a moment when it’s sincerely trying to be genuinely scary.

It kind of stumbles through its hour-and-a-half or whatever the run-time is; the glove-puppet beavers run out of mileage before this and so they have to resort to a gag where anyone bitten by a zombie beaver doesn’t just turn into a zombie, they turn into a zombie with huge buck teeth and a big flat tail. Again, once you’re past the initial gag this doesn’t really go anywhere, and the human-beaver hybrid prosthetics are a lot less funny than the glove-puppets were.

The problem, finally, is that Zombeavers is so knowingly and carefully stupid that it doesn’t work as anything but a trashy, lowest-common-denominator comedy, but it’s not consistently funny enough to work as one of those, either. You can see the cast trying to do their best with it, and the gag reel at the end certainly indicates they had fun making the movie, but even including the gag reel was probably a mistake. It’s never a good thing when the people making a movie are clearly having more fun than you are watching it. This movie is just about as stupid as the title suggests, but a lot less entertaining.

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One of the things about a certain kind of lowest-common-denominator mainstream movie-making that always elicits scornful laughter from me is when the scene suddenly changes to an unmistakable cityscape showcasing – for example – the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe, and M. Eiffel’s noted tower, and the producers still feel obliged to hedge their bets by sticking a massive caption saying ‘PARIS’ (or even worse, PARIS, FRANCE) in front of it.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that not all cities are quite so instantly recognisable, and while the opening sequence of Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction is obviously going on somewhere in Switzerland (when comes to clues to help figure this out, the flags are a big plus), it’s not immediately clear exactly where. I was wondering about this all the way through the opening credits, as a man whose choice of a leather hat makes it very clear his character is a) shady and b) minor wanders about doing various suspicious things. (It eventually turns out that this is happening in Zurich.) The man in the leather hat, sure enough, does not long survive the opening titles, as he is the victim of a fairly nasty throat-slitting.

From this downbeat, gritty murder we are transported to the world of American academia where we meet Clint himself, who is playing the outlandish figure of Jonathan Hemlock, art history professor, expert mountaineer, retired government assassin, and monumental snob (not that any of this seems to have inclined Clint to modulate his usual performance style much). After informing his graduating class that none of them actually really appreciate art, Clint gets a classic bit where a wide-eyed young student sidles up to him and tells him she would do absolutely anything to get a good grade in an upcoming test. Having ascertained she has an apartment to herself that night, and no other engagements, Clint advises that she ‘go on home, break out the books, and study [her] little ass off.’

Yes, Dr Hemlock is one of those alpha-males who is afflicted by the curse of being utterly irresistible to women, the kind of man who gave impressionable young men in the 70s and 80s wholly unrealistic ideas about how to be successful with the opposite sex. But Clint has other problems, as the clandestine government department he formerly worked for are keen to get him back for One Last Job (or, more accurately, two last jobs, as they want him to kill the two men who murdered leather-hat-man at the start of the film).

Running the operation is a guy called Dragon (Thayer David), who – not to underdo things – is a raspy-voiced ex-Nazi albino. Dragon persuades Hemlock to come out of retirement by offering him not just a big pile of cash, but also tax exemption on his collection of priceless and questionably-acquired paintings. (We are meant to believe that, at the end of a long day’s art-historying, Clint will retire to his basement and contemplate his Pissarro all night, but personally I don’t buy it.)

It all feels very much like Clint has wandered into Bond movie territory and is giving us his take on the kind of persona Roger Moore was affecting around the same time, but the film keeps straying back into grittier territory throughout this opening act, and even seems to be going for a kind of blaxploitation vibe at times (Clint’s main love interest is a character named Jemima Brown, played by Vonetta McGee).

Anyway, once Clint has popped over to Europe and killed his first target (as befits a master of the stealth elimination, Clint ends up throwing him out of a third-floor window onto the verandah of a bierkeller below), it turns out the second man on the list will be participating in an attempt to climb the north face of the Eiger in a few weeks’ time. How fortunate that Clint is an ace mountain climber himself! And what dreadful bad luck that Clint’s handlers can’t actually tell him which of the members of the climbing team is the bad guy – he’ll just have to keep his eyes open and hope to spot a telling clue.

It’s a horrendously contrived plot, but a lot of the movie is fairly horrendous. The next section concerns Clint’s preparations for the climb, which involves him hiring old buddy George Kennedy as a trainer, and yomping around Arizona and Utah for a while, occasionally pausing for more whoa-ho-ho with Brenda Venus. There’s a subplot about him getting revenge on an old enemy, whose essential worthlessness is presumably meant to be implied by the fact that he’s a stereotypically camp homosexual – anyone who isn’t a young and virile alpha-male like Clint is basically treated with utter contempt by this movie.

Finally, and perhaps not before time, Clint and Kennedy head off to Switzerland for the actual attempt at climbing the Eiger. The saving grace of this movie – although it only goes some way to mitigating its flaws – is the scenery, and the footage of climbs in progress. (This applies to the sequences of Hemlock climbing in the south-west of the USA, as well.) Clint is clearly doing a lot, if not quite all, of the climbing himself, and the backdrops are also breath-taking. People who know their stuff when it comes to climbing apparently rate The Eiger Sanction very highly when it comes to authenticity (although hopefully not for its sexual politics).

There is certainly potential here for an effective thriller, with the natural tensions that exist between near-strangers forced to rely on one another during a potentially life-threatening ascent only being heightened by the knowledge that more than one of them is a ruthless killer, out for one of the others’ blood. Unfortunately, the film has taken so long to get to this point, and has generally been so crass and silly, that this whole concept never really gets going: the other climbers never really develop into fully-rounded characters, and there’s no real suspense in the later stages of the film. (Though many characters spend time in a state of suspension, or more accurately dangling.) The identity of Clint’s target is eminently guessable, and the eventual revelation leads into an underpowered climax that doesn’t quite work – the intention seems to have been to imply that Clint is really a much more ruthless killer than has previously been suggested, but not only does this idea feel like an afterthought, it also doesn’t really feel like it matters either way.

Clint emerges from it all with his dignity more or less intact, and his direction is also competent (it’s hard to believe he was on the verge of making a run of movies which were popular and critical successes – his next film was the brilliant Outlaw Josey Wales). Also on the cusp of rather bigger things was composer John Williams, who on this occasion seems to have been rather influenced by Jerry Goldsmith.

Nevertheless, it’s a film which skews haphazardly between Bond pastiche, cynical espionage drama, blaxploitation thriller, conventional action movie, and Bergfilm. It only really comes close to genuine success as the last, but this comes too late to really save the project. A rare example of Eastwood putting his name to a duffer.

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Proof that you can take anything too far comes as we look at yet another pseudo-Arthurian movie (must be about the fifth since the summer). Frankly, I have nobody but myself to blame: a little research into the personnel of The Spaceman and King Arthur would have revealed that leading man Dennis Dugan went on to receive no fewer than four nominations for Worst Director at the Golden Raspberries, winning once (for his work across the entire year of 2011, impressively enough), while actual director Russ Mayberry was the man who went on to be sacked from the proverbially dreadful TNG episode Code of Honour, mainly due to his casting decisions (the main actors later tried to have the episode removed from re-runs).

I should mention that this film is currently available on Mouseplus under its original title, Unidentified Flying Oddball, which is a perhaps appropriately rubbish title, but gives little sense of what it’s actually about. The title was changed to something more like the British one even for an American re-release.

Anyway, unless you have very small and undemanding children, or enjoy the sight of distinguished British actors trying to hide their embarrassment, there is little here to detain you, I suspect. The film opens with a reasonably decent and slightly meta gag, as what has appeared to be a model pretending to be a space rocket turns out to just be an actual model space rocket, at a NASA demonstration.

Even the poster is so embarrassed it’s pretending to be Italian.

The UK production base for this film is instantly apparent to those of us in the know, as playing Air Force generals and senior US politicians are familiar faces like Robert Beatty (guest artiste in too many British TV series to mention) and Bruce Boa (assured of a certain kind of immortality by his performance as Mr Hamilton in Fawlty Towers, but he was also a rebel general in the best of the stellar conflict films, too). A top NASA boffin (Cyril Shaps, another ubiquitous character actor) demonstrates their concept for a new spaceship capable of travelling at close to the speed of light, but the politicians refuse to risk the lives of brave young American men (or women).

Nevertheless, a brainwave strikes the boffin and he gets on the phone to one of his technicians, Tom Trimble (Dugan) – Trimble is presumably some sort of robotics expert, but he honestly comes across as an all-purpose idiot savant. Anyway, Trimble builds an android to fly the spaceship, and for reasons best known to plot contrivance makes it a duplicate of himself (cue dodgy split-screen effects and a chance for Dugan to show his – what’s the opposite of range? Anyway, that – as an actor).

Well, the mission is nearly scrubbed when the android has an attack of nerves, and Trimble is sent into the capsule to deliver a pep talk. At this point the launch vehicle is struck by lightning and, er, launches, sending both of them into space. Trimble decides he doesn’t fancy experiencing thirty years’ worth of time dilation and turns the ship around, only to notice that something very odd is happening to the clock…

Yes, there is a reason why the credits suggest this is based (very loosely, one suspects) on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Trimble lands in 6th century England, where he soon meets good-hearted local girl Alisande (Sheila White) and shortly afterwards is captured by scheming knight Sir Mordred (Jim Dale). Off they are taken to Camelot, where King Arthur (Kenneth More) is holding court, in the presence of (most notably) Sir Gawain (John le Mesurier) and Merlin (Ron Moody) – in this version of events, Merlin is just a rather wily conjuror, having no actual magic powers.

There follows a chunk of film in which Trimble must avoid Mordred’s various attempts to do him in, in the course of which he uncovers some of his enemy’s nefarious plots; with Mordred now banished but planning to conquer Camelot and usurp the throne, it once again falls to Trimble to save the day. Needless to say, he achieves all this through a combination of advanced technology, scientific knowledge, and slapstick mugging.

There’s the odd funny moment or sequence in Spaceman and King Arthur – the fight between Trimble and Mordred, with the latter using a magnetised sword, is probably the best of them – but the main problems of the film are that it’s just not funny enough to succeed as a comedy and too contrived and silly to work as a more straightforward adventure. Some really shonky special effects don’t help the film’s cause much.

The main reason to watch it, as noted, is the cast, which is quite remarkable for something which is essentially a frivolous piece of fluff: Jim Dale is best known for appearing in ten of the better Carry On films in six years, but has also had a distinguished career in the music business and on Broadway; Kenneth More was one of the biggest movie stars in Britain for a while in the 1950s; Ron Moody won all sort of awards and nominations for playing Fagin in Oliver!; and Sheila White was in Oliver! too,  but for my money was most memorable for her brilliant performance as the crazed Messalina in I Claudius. Pat Roach, reliable British heavy, is here as well. And all of them do battle with the material as best they can.

The results are rather endearing, if not as entertaining as you might wish. Moody, you feel, is a little underserved; Jim Dale manages to find some sort of sweet spot between playing the villain ‘straight’ and servicing the slapstick required of him. White really does have a thankless task, though, playing a character who’s not only apparently quite dim, but also required to do things almost without motivation. All of them outperform Dugan, though.

You can just about imagine how this film might work as an incredibly whimsical piece of entertainment, given a lead performance of sufficient charm and comic skill and with some of the more contemporary gags taken out (Trimble takes a girly mag back in time with him, which inevitably causes a stir amongst the peasants). I’m thinking, really, of something like Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, which is a very silly film, but still rather watchable. Dennis Dugan, however, is to Danny Kaye as a paper plane is to an F-15: he’s nowhere near good enough, although to be fair the script is giving him no help whatsoever. This film probably looked very dated and primitive back in 1979 and the passage of time has done it few favours.

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Just as every family has its oddballs, its black sheep, and its estranged relations, so every long-running film franchise has its weird outliers – its equivalent of Licence to Kill, or Godzilla’s Revenge, or Terminator Salvation. In the case of the Halloween series, the film that probably never gets invited round to dinner by the others is the third one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, simply because they have so little in common.

What makes it even odder, perhaps, is that this was the intention all along – nine sequels further on, it seems hard to believe, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill had concluded there was no further mileage to be extracted from the doings of Michael Myers. Their idea was for Halloween to become effectively an anthology franchise, each film introducing new situations and characters.

Hence this film, which is not a slasher movie, and only refers to the original diegetically (characters in Halloween III are seen watching Halloween on TV, where it is modestly referred to as a ‘classic’). Looking for a new angle, Carpenter made the inarguably smart move of hiring Nigel Kneale (writer of The Stone Tape, amongst other things) to produce a script – but an intervention by the producers to add more gore and violence led to Kneale disowning the film, and the screenplay is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace.

Perhaps this was a typically smart move by the veteran scribe. The film opens a week or so before Halloween and counts down towards the night in question. We initially see a man being pursued by sinister figures in grey suits, from who he barely escapes, wandering into a man’s shack and then collapsing. The man has one of those handy exposition TVs, which only shows things which have some bearing on the plot of the film, and so we soon learn that Halloween masks made by the Silver Shamrock company are important to whatever’s going on, along with the fact that someone has apparently managed to pinch one of the blocks from Stonehenge (yes, I know your disbelief is turning a funny colour, but just keep it suspended anyway).

The man who was being chased is whisked off to hospital where he is placed in the care of Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), a slightly boozy doctor with a failed marriage behind him. One of the grey-suited men manages to sneak into the hospital and crush the patient’s skull, which I would describe as evidence of negligence, but Challis at least chases after him – the grey man immolates himself in the hospital car park.

It turns out the murdered man was a toy store owner, who was last seen heading to the small town of Santa Mira to collect a load of – oh, is that a bell ringing? – Halloween masks. So Challis, largely because the plot requires it, goes up there to investigate, in the company of the victim’s rather striking young daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin, who as a teenager was in a brief relationship with Woody Allen and claims Manhattan is partly based on this). Despite there being no discernible chemistry between them, Challis and Ellie get it on: this happens like someone turning a switch, and is presumably just there to meet some kind of assumed audience expectation. Needless to say, Nelkin gets a couple of nude scenes, Atkins (thank God) doesn’t.

I’m guessing the setting of Santa Mira is one of Wallace’s amendments to the original Kneale script, as it’s a very obvious call-back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this seems in part to be a rather clumsy homage to. The parallels between the two films become much more pronounced as it continues, anyway, not that there isn’t always a lot of other stuff going on.

Santa Mira is a company town for a Halloween mask-making outfit run by wealthy old Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and he and various other characters turn up to pad out the plot a bit. Cochran is obviously a bad ‘un and the other characters are there to meet sticky ends of various kinds – someone gets zapped by the maker’s tab off the back of a Halloween mask and their face falls off, someone complaining about Cochran has their head removed by two grey men, and so on. Cochran clearly has special plans for this year’s Halloween…

The act of reviewing some films does make demands upon your critical judgment and ability to articulate complex philosophical concepts. Halloween III is not one of those films. Halloween III is the kind of film that only really requires you to describe what happens in it, in order to provide a very clear picture of the kind of quality involved.

That said, simply describing the plot does not quite do the film justice. As the plot concerns an insane toymaker with an army of android duplicate henchmen, who steals part of Stonehenge and grinds it up to hide the dust in Halloween masks, which will then respond to a particular TV commercial by killing the wearers and causing poisonous vermin to erupt from their corpses, all because of a sentimental fondness for the traditions of Halloween, this is no small thing. The basic synopsis does not cover the quality of the playing, which is basic, to say the least: the closest thing to an acting performance comes from Dan O’Herlihy, who seems to have nicked it from Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Tom Atkins resembles someone who has wandered onto a film set, possibly to make a delivery or do some maintenance, and accidentally ended up being cast in the lead role. Stacy Nelkin is better, but grievously underused.

I can imagine a version of this film in which the sheer lack of narrative cohesion worked in the film’s favour – where it had something of the accelerating quality of a hideous unfolding nightmare, with a succession of bizarre images (mutilated faces, masks erupting with snakes and insects, characters revealed to be androids) piling up on top of one another to a disorienting cumulative effect, rather as in Hellraiser II. Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the skill or narrative control to pull something like that off, and he takes a very meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. At the very end, when the film’s debt to Body Snatchers is clearest, it does acquire a certain kind of energy, but it’s really too little, too late.

It would be interesting to speculate on a parallel world where Halloween III was, well, good, and the series went off on the anthology tangent Carpenter and Hill originally envisaged (in our world, the relative failure of the film meant that every subsequent episode has been firmly Michael Myers-centric). But it’s hard to imagine that world, based on this film. Halloween III isn’t just poorly assembled, it’s weird and tonally inconsistent, often mixing unintentional camp with stodgily-presented B-movie staples. This may have been quite a good idea, but it’s also an extremely poorly executed one.

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After being almost-unseen for decades and seemingly like a prime candidate for ‘lost movie’ status, Ray Cameron’s Bloodbath at the House of Death, released in 1984, has recently turned up on the UK incarnation of the world’s biggest streaming service. If ever a comparatively recent film has languished, it is this one. Perhaps the distinct lack of enthusiasm for it, even amongst some of the people involved in its production, may give us a clue as to why. ‘It’s a fairly terrible film,’ recalled the producer in a 2008 interview. ‘It’s not the film I want on my headstone, or in my obituary when I die.’

Well, there’s a refreshing sort of honesty there, anyway, and the movie does have the kind of bizarre cross-genre conception and eclectic cast list that usually indicates it may be on the road to cult status. As you may know, being ‘fairly terrible’ is not the kind of thing to put me off a film, and the thing is only a brisk 90 minutes or so long. So: how bad could it be?

Well, the producer was possibly being a bit over-generous. The film opens with the first of many swipes at horror cliches: we start with a shot of a big old house in the countryside, as seen via a POV shot from someone creeping towards it through the undergrowth. The watcher pulls back the branches to get a better look – only to lose his grip, and them to spring back into his face, painfully. It’s a better gag than it sounds (the first time they use it, anyway) and a promising start.

Anyway, a mob of robed figures with axes, spears, shotguns, nooses, and so on, break into the house and kill everyone inside, leaving a scene of absolute carnage, in which none of the other attempted jokes have been very funny. British comedy legend Barry Cryer (who co-wrote the film with Cameron) briefly appears as a cop investigating the slaughter, but doesn’t manage to uncover any clues (or any more decent lines).

Then we are nine years later, and rather than death by stabbing or shooting we are threatened with death by exposition as the main cast all make their way to ‘Headstone Manor’, scene of the massacre, carefully telling each other who they are and why they’re going there. Most prominent are top-billed DJ-turned-comic Kenny Everett, in his only movie lead, and comic-actress-turned-latterday-sex-therapist Pamela Stephenson; the rest of the ensemble is not unimpressive as it includes the likes of Gareth Hunt, Sheila Steafel, Don Warrington, and John Fortune; appearing as the juvenile leads are Everett’s regular stooge Cleo Rocos (who brings big hair but no discernible acting ability) and John Stephen Hill (a fairly nondescript young fellow whose Wikipedia page claims he stopped acting the year before he made this film; maybe there is sometimes truth in Wiki after all).

Apparently they are all scientists, sent to the spooky old house to investigate reports of supernatural phenomena and high levels of radiation. The cognisant viewer will by this point essentially be expecting something along the lines of Carry On Up Hell House, given the broad low comedy on display and the premise thus established, but the film doesn’t even have the coherence and focus to hit this rather low target. (The censor, when showed the film, apparently thought it wasn’t especially problematic and indeed had its moments – generous fellow – but thought there’d been a mix-up and he’d been shown the reels in the wrong order. He had not. The plot makes that little sense.)

What you end up with is an increasingly baffled and/or desperate-looking cast, flailing about for a way to get laughs – Stephenson opts for a silly voice, while Everett starts off doing a silly walk and then also goes for a silly voice. Nothing, by the way, makes it apparent that Everett is a TV star doing his first movie more clearly than the over-the-top mugging he indulges in throughout. Some of the dialogue would struggle to get into even a late Carry On film, as when Rocos and Hill are exploring the kitchen: ‘Could you pass me a spoon?’ – ‘I suppose a fork is out of the question?’ – ‘Maybe, but let’s get dinner out of the way first’. Much of the rest of the film is made up of scattershot parodies of other films from around the same period – there’s a Carrie spoof, a very problematic Entity skit with some gratuitous T&A from Stephenson, a scene apparently referencing American Werewolf (which was partly a spoof itself), and even a gag based on E.T. (Inexplicably popular – if you ask me – comedian Michael McIntyre apparently appears in the E.T. segment, due to his being the director’s son.)

The vast majority of this movie is dreary, awful rubbish, one of the signs of the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1980s; it’s actually quite surprising how it manages to take normally capable performers and seemingly drain all the talent and charm out of them. The occasional flash of directorial cleverness, or a decent special effect, doesn’t come anywhere close to rescuing it.

However, there is a reason to watch this movie, and that reason is the presence of no-foolin’ horror legend Vincent Price, making his final appearance in a British film. I have often written in the past of the remarkable ability of stars like Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee to lift dodgy material through sheer talent and presence, but what Price achieves here is truly exceptional: to say this is a game piece of self-parody is a huge understatement. Price’s scenes are genuinely very funny: he plays the leader of the local Satanic cult, saddled with a bunch of insubordinate and incompetent followers (he’s off by himself and never interacts with the rest of the main cast). He gets a magnificent speech about his centuries-long career of evil, delivered in the classically arch Price manner, concluding with ‘…and you tell me to piss off? No, you piss off!’

That said, Price is only in the movie for about ten minutes, and it’s a near thing either way as to whether this is enough to justify watching the rest of it, which is really and truly properly dire. I have considerable tolerance for and fascination with bad movies, and even I found most of it tough going, so go in prepared and don’t be ashamed of bailing out. I can’t imagine anyone genuinely liking this movie, and even those who can get through the whole thing will probably only do so once.

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I earned various gasps and envious mutterings from my friends the other night when I casually let slip that the next day I had a ticket to a showing of Dune on the big screen. This naturally abated somewhat when I made it clear this wasn’t the delayed, and now even-more-eagerly anticipated new version of the story directed by Denis Villeneuve, but another outing for David Lynch’s 1984 crack at the story, courtesy of the Prince Charlie near Leicester Square.

(Ah, the Prince Charlie: looking back I’m startled to realise I’ve only been there two or three times in the past, and not since 2013, but every time I even go past I feel like it’s somehow my spiritual home. It’s almost enough to make me contemplate moving to London just so I can go to this one cinema more often. Very odd.)

‘I become very happy, because the film is terrible,’ said Alejandro Jodorowsky, describing his own first experience of seeing Lynch’s Dune on the big screen. As is now quite well-known, Jodorowsky spent years planning a lavish ten-hour-plus version of the book, starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali (amongst others), with music by Pink Floyd. Strangely enough, no studio was willing to finance this project, and the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel fell into the grasp of Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis. Meanwhile, if you believe the folklore, Jodorowsky’s pre-production work went on to inspire the great wave of blockbuster SF-fantasy films that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s kind of ironic that the Lynch Dune is part of this wave itself. I was vaguely aware of it at the time it came out, when it was definitely marketed as a sci-fi blockbuster not unlike the previous year’s Return of the Jedi, complete with Panini sticker album given away free with the comic 2000 AD. But I don’t remember anyone ever really being very excited or interested in Dune, hardly anyone bothered collecting the stickers, and I’m not even sure it showed near me. The only person I knew who’d seen it (much older than I was) said it made no sense at all unless you’d read the book.

But, hey, there was a pretty good turnout for the Prince Charlie revival, so what were we all there for? Presumably a few sci-fi die-hards, and David Lynch completists, and people wanting to refresh their memories ahead of the new film (across the way they were showing a thirty minute preview of the Villeneuve version; hopefully nobody got confused and went to the wrong one). And I suppose this is a sort of cult film, which only goes to show that cults can crop up in all sorts of places.

The film gets underway with an introductory monologue from Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor of the Universe. This actually does a pretty decent job of setting the scene is very broad strokes, establishing that we’re in for an epic tale of ruthless galactic politics, all based around control of the planet Dune, source of the most important substance in existence. The titles and music crash in, it’s all very impressive and stirring, and it’s only much later that you realise that pretty much all that Madsen does in the rest of the film is stand around in the background; her character is completely insignificant.

Things stay visually impressive, in terms of costuming and set design and a lot of the special effects, as we get a brief gazetteer of important planets in the story (Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, Kaitain), and the various factions attached to them (the Fremen, the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Imperial House, the Guild of Navigators) and we are privy to an audience between the Emperor of the Universe (Jose Ferrer) and a third-stage Guild Navigator, telepathically overheard by his Bene Gesserit advisor (Sian Phillips), where the Emperor’s plan to use the Harkonnens to destroy his Atreides rivals is outlined, while the threat posed to the Navigators by Duke Atreides’ son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) is also touched upon.

And all this is just in the first scene. Are you baffled yet? If not, you are either some kind of a savant, or have read the book, or aren’t really bothering to pay attention (all of these are equally acceptable excuses).

The thing about Dune, the novel, is that it is essentially a straightforward, even archetypal tale of a young man born into privilege who loses everything but undergoes various trials through which he attains superhuman faculties, which he uses to avenge himself on his numerous enemies. Nothing wrong with that; that’s a perfectly solid framework for a story.

The other thing about Dune, however, the one that makes the book so extraordinary and has ensured its reputation as a masterpiece of SF, is the complexity of the world of the story, and the way it is filled with intricate background detail. The main problem with the film is that Lynch concentrates on all the throwaway detail and back-story so much that the actual central narrative disappears from view.

Names of people and things pile up: Mentat, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Shadout Mapes, Shai-Halud, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, weirding modules, Gom Jabbar, the Waters of Life. Introducing all of this (all without ever quite explaining what much of it is) causes the film to grind to a halt and buckle under the weight of its own baffling exposition. Characters like Irulan are introduced as if they’re going to be significant, only for them to barely appear again.

That the film makes any sense at all is because of Lynch’s lavish use of voice-over as an aid to explaining what’s going on. We are frequently privy to the thoughts of many characters, mid-scene, even when we could likely figure out for ourselves what they are thinking, while the progress of the story is usually accompanied by a bit of voice-over explaining what’s happening or has just happened.

I can’t stress enough how important this is: I’ve read Dune several times and some parts of this film are still impenetrable. You can usually tell when something important is happening in a scene – the appearance of the stirring main theme is usually a clue, especially if the electric guitars kick in – but quite what it is or its significance is frequently a mystery. Everything that’s wrong with this film is encapsulated in the final moments, with the last line of the film being an unlikely cry of ‘For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!’ Who or what the Kwisatz Haderach actually is has only been touched upon in the vaguest of terms, rendering this moment both momentous and deeply obscure. This doesn’t feel like an attempt at a slingshot ending or an enthymeme, where lack of traditional closure is part of the intended effect – it’s just bad scripting from Lynch.

You can see why they employed someone with Lynch’s kind of visual sense on a grandiose project like this one, but the narrative utterly escapes his control and he seems more interested in small details  – Baron Harkonnen’s disgusting pustules, for instance – than epic storytelling. I think it’s telling to compare Dune with the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, another lavish De Laurentiis extravaganza – Dune’s climax, where desert warriors riding on gargantuan worms do battle with imperial terror troops as atomic weapons go off in the background, is broadly akin to the Hawkman attack on the rocket ship in the earlier film, but where Flash Gordon is lively and colourful and thrilling, Dune is subdued and ponderous.

Most of the cast (McLachlan, Sean Young, Francesca Annis) are good looking but bland. Even very fine actors like Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (yes, it’s our week for discussing early Patrick Stewart fantasy movie roles) end up just standing around doing the best they can to make an impression. Well-drawn characters simply vanish into the art direction (which, to be fair, is consistently good); Baron Harkonnen, one of the great villains of SF, is reduced to being simply a ‘flying fatman’, in charge of a family of slavering perverts.

Perhaps Jodorowsky was right and it’s impossible to do Dune justice as a conventional movie; you either need to do it as a TV mini-series or an absurdly long mega-epic, or a series of films. Jodorowsky opted for the mega-epic; Villeneuve, I understand, has opted just to do the first half of the book and hope the film is successful enough to allow him to finish it off in a second movie. We shall see; the audience is certainly there for a really good Dune movie, the question remains whether such a thing is even really possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots of positive press in the media this week about Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, which – obviously – is the perfect way of starting a review of something completely different. Well, mostly different. (The wildlife documentary genre has diversified a bit in recent years.) One of the most vivid TV memories of my youth was watching Attenborough’s Life on Earth in 1979, the show which really began his ascension to the position of global icon which he now occupies. This was not inevitable, however: the American networks which helped to fund that first series were a bit uneasy about the fact it was fronted by a then-obscure British TV executive and suggested that, for the US transmission, Attenborough’s on-screen appearances be cut back to an absolute minimum and his inimitable voice-over be replaced by those of someone more familiar to the good people of Boise, Idaho – Robert Redford, maybe? Attenborough checked the contract and refused. Nevertheless, the influence of the US backers on the blockbuster series persists, and has – if you ask me – become rather more pernicious.

The first few big Attenborough series had all the big images and breathtaking photography you would expect – but coupled to this you actually learned something, about ecology, animal behaviour, deep time and how evolution functions. The world being as it is, you won’t hear much talk about evolution in the new, blockbuster shows. Lots of beautiful images, stirring music, and powerful narratives about animal lives – but actual science? Not so much of that. The emotional response has supplanted the intellectual.

It’s a trend fully on display in Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary My Octopus Teacher, available on that big old market-leader streaming site. Now, you might just possibly be drawn in to watching this film by the thought that it is about some wealthy eccentric who hires another person to teach his collection of cephalopods something. (Is this the time or place to get into that knotty ‘what is the correct plural for octopus?’ question? Apparently, it’s octopuses, but I’m not expecting it to come up that much.) There’s actually some potential there – another good title gone to waste. Or it could be about someone who is educated by an octopus, which likewise invites the potential viewer to engage in some productive speculation.

(Foster is the one at the bottom.)

Well, it turns out to be the latter, sort of, but I do suspect most people will conclude the title of the film is a bit of a chiz. It concerns the activities of one Craig Foster (apparently some sort of documentary film-maker, m’lud, and also the producer of this film), who seems like an intelligent and intense fellow, though perhaps not a man one would wish to be trapped in a lift with. The story as the film tells it – and the only voice you will hear throughout the film is Foster’s – is that Foster was having some kind of existential crisis, many years ago, when he decided to start swimming every day in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. It was during his daily briny sojourn that he first made the acquaintance of, um, a little octopus. (At the time of writing this film’s Wikipedia page lists the cast as ‘Craig Foster’ and ‘Little Octopus’.)

Foster says he was gripped by a sudden idea: what if he spent time every day swimming with Little Octopus and really got to know her and the kelp forest? Which is what he obviously did, as it’s the subject of the film. The documentary goes on to recount the growing bond between Foster and Little Octopus, their increasing fascination with each other, Foster’s grief and trauma when Little Octopus is partially-eaten by a pyjama shark (not as cute as it sounds), his joy at her recovery, and his gradual acceptance that the two of them are just not destined to be together. (I think there’s scope here for a companion piece – maybe The Man with the Octopus Teacher’s Wife – in which Mrs Foster’s feelings about her husband’s activities are made clear.) 

At least, that’s what we’re told. Recently, though, the issue of just how extensively the narrative of this sort of documentary film has been massaged has become a live one, and it seems to me that there’s something fishy about this octopus. The whole thing is framed as Foster looking back on his time with Little Octopus and her impact on his life – and vice versa, I suppose – and yet it is accompanied by suspiciously high-quality footage of the events he’s talking about. Was he filming it all at the time? If so, who’s doing all the second-unit stuff showing him swimming around? Are we actually seeing reconstructions of what happened, using a different octopus? If so, does the octopus know it’s just participating in a reconstruction? It seems unlikely.

Frankly, it all comes across as a bit one-sided, too, and would be greatly improved by some input from Little Octopus herself, giving her side of the story. ‘I was just overwhelmed by my feelings for her,’ confesses Foster at one point. Was this a reciprocal situation, or was he just the latest in a long line of men to have their heads turned by a much younger and impressively flexible female? Sadly the technology is not there yet for Little Octopus to make a proper contribution concerning how she felt about this whole situation.

(One of the odder things I’ve been involved in recently was a protracted and slightly combative discussion over the philosophical issues involved in translating communications between human beings and intelligent cephalopods – we weren’t even talking about that film in which Amy Adams teaches alien squid to speak English rather badly – particularly when it comes to proper nouns. But it has been that sort of year overall, I suppose.)

In short, I found the whole thing to be rather suspect simply on a conceptual level, but then it’s pretty clear that the film is not intended to be especially rigorous when it comes to objective fact. The nature of cephalopod cognition and the possible inner lives of octopuses is a fascinating topic, on which books have been written, but it’s one which is barely touched on here – although Foster does mention that one of the differences between Little Octopus and him is that her brain is largely distributed throughout her body – this film is only really educational in a ‘look at these wonders of nature!’ sort of way. The real focus of the thing is on Foster talking about Little Octopus in a brazenly anthropomorphic way, often accompanied by stirring violin or piano music. As previously mentioned, the whole film is intended to work on a sentimental rather than an intellectual level.

If you were to design a documentary intended to leave me cold, I think you would find it hard to do a better job than My Octopus Teacher – although I must confess to deriving a sort of pleasure from shouting at the screen, which I did on a regular basis throughout. The camerawork and images of the sea life in the kelp forest are, needless to say, very beautiful to look at – but most of the rest of it is borderline irritating. It might actually be a bit less annoying if they released an alternative version with all of Craig Foster’s pieces to camera edited out, along with his voice-over. It would be nice to look at and still emotionally fairly stirring, I expect, and the most egregiously questionable bits would be excised, so I think that might be a great improvement for everyone.

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