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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

The fact that season four of Blake was assembled in a considerable rush probably has something to do with the fact that the first half of the run relies heavily on writers whose work we have previously enjoyed (or not). There’s something to be said for employing people with a proven track record, but how you start with that premise and then end up giving more work to people like Ben Steed (and, on the strength of Dawn of the Gods, Jim Follett) I really don’t know. Hopefully the nadir of the series was early in season three, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it, for here comes Allan Prior’s final contribution to the show, Animals.

If we cast our minds back to last summer you may remember I actually was fairly gentle about his first script, Horizon, but too much time in the Blake’s 7-reviewing trenches has an effect on a person. I believe I saw Animals on its 1983 repeat showing, but under sub-optimal conditions (then again, what the optimal conditions for watching a Prior episode are, I’m not sure, given that at the end of the day you’re actually watching the damn thing in the first place), and then again at university about ten years later. I make no great claims to precocity but I do distinctly recall clocking it as being sodding awful on both previous occasions.

The episode opens with the crew about Avon’s big scheme to recruit experts to help battle the Federation – although, TV production limitations being what they were, said experts invariably end up dead by the end of the episode. This week’s prospect/victim is Justin (Peter Byrne from Dixon of Dock Green – younger readers, ask a medium), who was Dayna’s tutor at some point in the past. He is doing some research on the planet Bucol 2 (there may be a ghastly pun on bucolic here, given how peaceful the place supposedly is).

Unfortunately at this point Scorpio comes under attack by stock footage from previous episodes and Tarrant is forced to run away, the ship being severely damaged in the process. Dayna is stranded down on the surface, where she soon discovers what Justin has been up to: weird experiments in genetic engineering! We have reached another of those moments where the written word falls short and only a visual aid will do:

Need we bother talking about the rest of the episode? I suppose we should, because Allan Prior didn’t know the monster suit was going to be quite so absurd. Even if a masterpiece of make-up and prosthetics had bounced into view, this would still be a sodding awful episode; the daftness of the beast-man costumes is just a kind of additional decorative badness, bad gravy on top of an already bad meal.

Yes, Justin has been breeding these things; apparently they are completely immune to the effects of radiation, which could make them useful to Avon’s project. Justin’s genetic skill could also apparently be useful in finding an antidote to Pylene-50. But he’s not interested in choosing a side – he’s worked for the Federation in the past and doesn’t anticipate working for the rebels to be any more rewarding. But he does offer Dayna a job as his assistant, despite her revulsion at the nature of his work.

Meanwhile, Scorpio has limped home and is being repaired by the crew; this feels very much like obvious comic filler, with Vila being repeatedly obliged to climb into the glycolene ballast channel (aka a gunk tank). The other filler subplot feels like an odd little echo of Prior’s Countdown, as the great Kevin Stoney comes on for a scene with Jacqueline Pearce. This time he’s playing someone who knows about Justin’s work (the presence of Scorpio over Bucol has got her antennae twitching), but it turns into something more about Servalan’s ‘disguise’ as Commissioner Sleer, a plot element which makes less sense the more you think about it. Why does no-one recognise the former Supreme Commander, President, and Empress of the Federation apart from one blind dude? Simply wearing black instead of white isn’t that good a disguise.

There’s a curious little suggestion here that the Intergalactic War lasted longer than the single battle which we appear to see on screen – something is reported as happening ‘towards the end of the war’, implying it took place over an extended period of time. Maybe the gap between the end of Star One and the beginning of Aftermath is longer than it seems to be.

Anyway, Dayna tries to help Justin recapture his prize specimen, Og (why has Justin named him Og? Is that the best name he can think of?) but gets thrown off a cliff and captured by Servalan, who ties her to a chair. Suddenly it is revealed that Dayna and Justin are deeply in love with each other, despite this not being at all apparent when they were alone together for the first time in years. So Servalan brainwashes her to hate him (this basically involves flashing a light in her face and saying ‘You hate him. You hate him. You hate him’ a lot) and sends her off to facilitate his capture…

Eventually there is a low-octane gun battle and all the significant guest characters are killed, followed by Servalan’s ship blasting off with the main characters standing directly underneath it: all this does is ruffle their hair a bit. Dayna, who is in love with Justin again at this point, is left sobbing over his body in what was probably meant to be a poignant downbeat ending. Instead the main emotion I was feeling was relief that it was over. What makes it even less effective is the fact that, like Barbara Shelley last week, they clearly couldn’t afford to take Peter Byrne on location and all his exterior scenes are filmed on a studio set on videotape. The switching between VT and film gets quite jarring.

So it’s essentially a sort of idiot’s version of The Island of Dr Moreau mashed up with a rather icky and unconvincing May-to-December romance plot for Dayna, with some of the silliest monster suits in BBC history and a lot of obvious filler. What positive things can I find to say about it? Well, there’s Paul Darrow – even though he isn’t in it much, he decides that this week he will deliver a kind of situationist deconstruction of bad acting. The moment where he bursts through a door, goes out of his way to gratuitously kick over a chair, and nearly falls over, is probably the most entertaining one in the episode. But mostly it is just turgid and irritating.

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I’ve actually reached the point where I switch on the DVD player with my fingers crossed that this week’s episode was written by Chris Boucher (which is not a surprise) or Terry Nation himself (which is, to be honest). The temptation to say ‘anyone but Prior’ is strong, but then of course one remembers Martin Worth is still out there somewhere. Dawn of the Gods, which is up for consideration this time, is a case of ‘none of the above’ as it is the work of James Follett, who is a new writer to the show.

At the moment we are still presented with the awkward, existential question of what the show is actually about on more or less a weekly basis. This episode dodges it by opening with the ship on the way somewhere, but never bothers to explain where or why (suffice to say they never get there). Flight times in the first series tended to run into days, weeks, or even months; these seem to have come down a lot (flight time from the heart of Federation space out to Star One seemed to be only a few hours), but on the other hand it’s more the case that the scripts are talking about this sort of thing a lot less. Suffice to say that this voyage seems to be particularly long and onerous, as most of the crew are passing the time by playing a board game.

Hey, I love a board game, me, it’s not like I have anything against board games as a pastime. It just seems a bit jarring that the disparate bunch of recidivists, outcasts, renegades, psychopaths and general scallywags crewing the Liberator at this point should be board gamers at all. I mean, following the events of Gambit we can probably assume that Vila has at least a functional grasp of the rules of chess, and it’s the kind of game you can imagine Avon enjoying as well. But – would they actually want to play each other? Whose idea was this, anyway? My money would be on Cally or Dayna, but how they persuaded Avon to take part is beyond me.

Instead, the chief board-game refusenik on this occasion is Tarrant, who is nevertheless hanging around on the flight deck occasionally barking an order at Zen. Follett doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong grip on the new dynamic and in places seems to be writing for the original cast – Tarrant is much more of a dominant Blake-clone than he has been previously, with Avon a less significant presence too. Still, one is forced to wonder why Tarrant has been identified as the one least likely to play along.

So, they are playing a board game – not an actual board game you might have heard of, but one made up for the purposes of the series. The ‘sci fi boardgame’ tends to fall into one of two categories – the ‘exotic variant of an existing game’, such as Star Trek‘s 3D chess or klin zha (Klingon chess), and the ‘completely made up new game’, which is rather less common (drawing again from Trek, we find kadis-kot, kaltoh and kotra – lots of Ks, for some reason). The crew have plumped for something from category A, a game clearly based on Monopoly, but apparently including space shuttles and battle fleets as well as hotels.

The first question which obviously leaps to mind is where they got this game from. References to previously-mentioned locations like Space City would seem to suggest it’s of Federation, or at least human, manufacture, rather than being part of the ship’s standard equipment (although the image of various Systemoid cyborgs sitting around for a board game during their off-cycle is obviously a pleasing one). So what happened? Have we missed the point at which the crew beamed down to a toy shop to pick up a few bits and pieces just to pass the time on those long voyages? That’s a scene I’d like to see at least as much as the one explaining why nobody cares about what happened to Blake or Jenna any more.

If the game is of Federation manufacture, then I suppose it gives us a valuable insight into the underlying principles of Federation society. Here of course I am indebted to the genius of Philip K Dick, who addressed this theme in his 1959 short story War Game: potentially hostile inhabitants of Ganymede want to export toys and games to Earth, resulting in an examination of the items in question. A war simulation which is actually a confidence-building device is banned, along with a potentially-addictive VR-type game, but a game rather like Monopoly is passed as safe. The punchline, of course (and spoiler incoming, by the way), is that the way to win the game is by surrendering as much of your territory and money as possible, and the implicit aim of the Ganymedans is to condition the children of Earth to accept and aspire to defeat.

Traditional Monopoly is all about triumphing as an entrepreneur and financier; it’s about acquisition, and capitalism, with the implicit theme that being a good capitalist is something to aspire to. Some of this seems to have survived in Federation Space Monopoly, but there’s clearly also a military-simulation element to the game as well. We’ve briefly touched on the nature of the Federation economic model before, but this is potentially further evidence that the Federation, while apparently totalitarian, also retains some kind of market-based economy – in addition to a firm attachment to military supremacy (see also Avon’s comments about it being a military dictatorship at the start of the year). It’s interesting to see how the underlying principles of a society or civilisation even bleed through into its recreational pastimes.

There’s a lot of other stuff in Dawn of the Gods we could potentially talk about, but most of the episode is complete nonsense, I’m afraid, and not really worth the effort – I know people go on about how Disney’s The Black Hole is the least scientifically-accurate movie ever made, but they’s clearly never seen this. The Liberator flies into a black hole and gets stuck in a cave full of scrap metal, where some sort of ancient god-like creature who doesn’t like computers is in charge, served by a man in a top hat. It’s almost unbelievably silly and annoying, apparently the work of someone who has had science fiction described to them but never actually bothered to read or watch any. It’s another shockingly poor episode in a season which isn’t really hanging together on any level so far. Where’s a Chris Boucher script when you need one?

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1. A Tour Bus, en route to Cornwall, 2011. Possibly a Thursday.

JIM (James Purefoy) and his fellow singing Cornish fishermen are heading home at the end of a gruelling tour.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Here we all are again. Seeing as how the last film did so well, they’ve got us all back again to do a follow-up.’

LEADVILLE TREBILCOCK (Dave Johns): ‘What, all of us, Jim?’

JIM: ‘Well, not quite all of us, Leadville (your name is completely ridiculous, by the way), as some of the younger actors from last time round either didn’t want to come back or wanted too much money. So their characters have gone off to Australia for a holiday which will conveniently last for the entire movie.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrr.’

JIM’S GHOSTLY DAD: ‘However, I will be appearing in this film, despite my death being a major plot point in the last one. I am proud to say I was both willing and cheap.’

JIM: ‘I’m quite sad about my dead dad, which could well turn out to be a plot point.’

LEADVILLE: ‘I have just outraged a metropolitan female journalist with my rough-hewn but authentic Cornish humour, which may also have some story potential. Let’s see how it turns out.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We’ve made this film with care and skill, though there is a possibility / That you’ll notice problems that we had with cast availability.’

 

2. Record Company Offices, London, which is depicted as just as horrible as in the first one, though I bet the producers still love living there.

The president and various other executives sit around smugly.

PRESIDENT (Ferdy from This Life back in the 90s, but he seems to be turning into Alan Partridge): ‘Well, here we all are, doing our best to represent the metropolitan shallowness and insincerity which is the opposite of what those singing fishermen embody, just like last time.’

RECORD EXECUTIVE: ‘Weren’t you Noel Clarke last time around?’

There is a lengthy and awkward silence.

PRESIDENT: ‘Anyway. This film needs some conflict so I am going to decide that the singing fishermen are a bit of a liability due to their rough-around-the-edges authenticity.’

RECORD EXECUTIVE: ‘Won’t that just turn us into ridiculous stereotypes of mirthless politically correct killjoys out of touch with so-called normal people?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Yes, but it’s in the script.’

 

3. A house in Cornwall.

LEADVILLE: ‘Well, I’ve just been to the toilet during a conference call with hilarious results, not the least of which is that we’ve all had to do media training with an absurd straw-man caricature of a soulless feminist.’

JIM: ‘You’ve got a funny idea of what’s hilarious, Leadville. Thank God, however, the film seems to have abandoned the idea of being some kind of culture-war vehicle for an assault on political correctness and wokedom and whatever else the right-wing media will like to keep banging on about in the distant year of 2022.’

LEADVILLE: ‘So what is it going to be about this time?’

JIM: ‘Well, I’ve got a mysterious Irishwoman staying in my B&B who clearly has a bit of a past.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘I’ve been slung out by my partner over a misunderstanding about something that happened on the tour.’

LEADVILLE: ‘We need to find a replacement for your dead dad in the band, and it looks likely to be a Welsh farmer who you will hate for political reasons the script will avoid going into.’

JIM: ‘I’m still clearly grieving for my dead dad and drinking too much because of it.’

LEADVILLE: ‘It’s a bit all over the place this time around, isn’t it? It almost makes you wish for a trite and hackneyed tale of a metropolitan visitor discovering about The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘What did you say? There’s a lot of stuff in this film I’m struggling to find rhymes for.’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘A film without much focus / Will now occur before your eyes. / With Cornish farmers getting stick / Because their trade is subsidised.’

JIM: ‘Also Welsh farmers who happen to live in Cornwall, of course.’

 

4. Another house in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to AUBREY (Imelda May), the mysterious Irishwoman.

JIM: ‘… and so now the film has turned out to be about me having a sort of personal crisis, hitting the bottle, falling out with the band, and neglecting my grand-daughter. If only there was someone around here who could teach me about the pitfalls of fame.’

AUBREY: ‘Well, as it happens, I am actually a reclusive ex-rock star who has been there and done that and has lots of quiet wisdom to share. Also, while I am still young enough to be attractive, I am old enough for the two of us to get it on and it not to seem icky or inappropriate.’

JIM: ‘Oh. Shall we get it on, then?’

AUBREY: ‘May as well.’

SINGING FISHERMEN (over scenic shots of Cornish coastline): ‘Now with her help our good friend Jim will climb back on the wagon / Just as soon as the pair of them are finished with their sha… ring of their emotional baggage.’

 

5. Yet another house in Cornwall.

JIM’S MUM (Maggie Steed): ‘All this emotional growth and late-life romance is all very well but it’s not helping us find a climax for the movie.’

LEADVILLE: ‘I think there was an implied climax in the last scene.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘Well, the band’s been dropped by the label due to Jim’s wild behaviour, will that help?’

JIM’S MUM: ‘Perhaps, if it turns out we can only persuade them to re-sign us by finding a way to play at Glastonbury.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘And maybe you and Jim’s grand-daughter can have a moment of personal jeopardy which brings everyone together and reminds Jim of what The Important Things in Life are.’

JIM’S MUM: ‘I’m game.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘And how about a trip down to London to sing for the record company executives on an almost wholly spurious pretext?’

LEADVILLE: ‘Sounds like pretty desperate padding to me, but if it’s all we’ve got…’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘We’ve got a pretty dodgy script / It’s hardly writ’ by Schiller / There really would be nothing left / If you took out all the filler.’

 

6. Glastonbury festival 2011, though nobody famous is ever visible.

JIM: ‘Well, here we are at the end of the film at last, about to perform at Glastonbury.’

LEADVILLE: ‘How come the film implies we’re performing in the afternoon, when actually we were the first band on in the morning?’

JIM: ‘Oh, I’ve given up worrying about this script, I get the impression the writers did too.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘So what moral premise and lesson has this film been attempting to impart? Something about the importance of authenticity and old-fashioned values in an over-sophisticated and over-sensitive world dominated by snowflakes?’

JIM: ‘No, thank God, though it seemed like a near thing for a bit.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘Something about the plight of the Cornish economy, particularly the fishing industry?

JIM: ‘Bit too political.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘Well, how about that you felt really sad when your dad died and struggled to cope, but thanks to your friends and family you eventually got through it?’

JIM: ‘I suppose that’ll have to do.’

LEADVILLE: ‘Pretty slim basis for a movie, though.’

ALL PRESENT: ‘Arrr.’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘The last film did extremely well, so they’ve gone and made a sequel / Here’s the main thing we have to tell: the quality is faecal!’

Fisherman’s Friends – One and All (dir. Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard) is, at the time of writing, still taking up perfectly good screens in cinemas all over the UK. Don’t go near it, you’ll only encourage them.

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You know how you can be completely oblivious to something for a really long time, but then (once you become aware of it) it suddenly seems to be everywhere? That’s how I’m starting to feel about some of the script problems with Blake’s 7. I say ‘problems’ because that’s very much how they appear, four decades on; I suppose there are people who might disagree and insist on calling them ‘tropes’ or ‘conventions’, but, you know, when it comes to the splitting of hairs there’s a time and a place. Last week’s episode was Killer, in which Blake, Avon, and Vila got to beam down to the planet and have all the fun. This week’s episode is Hostage, in which.. I think you may be ahead of me. (The current tendency for Blake episodes to be named after New Avengers episodes does not last and is probably just a weird double-coincidence.)

Hostage is another episode from Allan Prior, coming fairly closely on the heels of Horizon, about which I was mildly positive: the episode had a heavy-handed staginess about it which I found hard work, but at least it was genuinely trying to be about something. Watching this one, one gets the impression that Prior was thanked for his work and invited to the production office, where David Maloney and Chris Boucher very gently strapped him to a chair and forced him to watch fifteen Terry Nation episodes in a row, just to help him catch the style of the show. The results are… well…

The episode opens with a major space battle as the Federation sends in a fleet of twenty pursuit ships to destroy the Liberator. This is about as exciting as one could hope for, given the palpably low budget and shortage of models involved; needless to say our heroes eventually manage to escape after pulling off the requisite death-defying feat. Unfortunately you could tune in just after the big battle sequence and not really feel like you’ve missed much: it doesn’t inform the plot at all.

What does get things kicked off is a message the crew receive in the next scene: it’s from Travis, who is on the planet Exbar, a former penal colony and home to Blake’s uncle and his cousin. Travis wants to team up with Blake (or so he says) and asks Blake to come to Exbar so they can talk. If he doesn’t come, then Travis will kill his cousin Inga (Judy Buxton). This is not how I would go about convincing someone of my bona fides, but there you go. ‘It’s a trap!’ shouts everyone but Blake, but our hero is not swayed by Avon’s talk of unacceptable risks. ‘The risk is not unacceptable because I accept it,’ says Blake, and while everyone is trying to work out that cryptic bit of semi-logic the ship gets under way.

The script’s odd habit of including quite nice bits that don’t actually connect with the plot continues, as back at Space Command HQ Servalan has a meeting with Councillor Joban, a man we must assume is very near the top of the Federation pyramid. What gives the scene that cachet of quality is the fact that Joban is played by the wonderful Kevin Stoney, a peerless character actor who in his time delivered terrific performances in shows ranging from I, Claudius to Space: 1999. Sadly he’s only in the one scene here, which largely consists of him and Jacqueline Pearce purring implied threats at one another – once again, it barely informs the plot. Once Joban clears off, however, she gets a mysterious message telling her that Travis is on Exbar.

Blake, meanwhile, beams down to Exbar, which he apparently visited as a boy. We should probably consider this rare insight into Blake’s formative years more closely, but it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by the fact that the episode reveals Blake has close blood relatives still alive and (prior to this episode) unmolested by the Federation. The Federation obviously knew they were here (Travis has hardly stumbled upon them by chance) so why have they not been interned or used as leverage? Why are they still alive at all, given what we learned of the fate of Blake’s immediate family in the first episode of the series?

These are all questions which firmly go unanswered as the first person Blake meets turns out to be Uncle Ushton. Ushton is played by John Abineri, another terrific character actor – this episode comes in the gap between his roles as action-yokel Hubert in Survivors and mystic shaman Herne the Hunter in Robin of Sherwood, but his CV also includes a Bond film, one of the Godfather movies, a guest spot as Rimmer’s father in Red Dwarf and – perhaps most iconic of all – playing the butler in the only Ferrero Roche commercial that matters. (Apparently Abineri was a last-minute replacement for Duncan Lamont, who passed away shortly before – some even suggest during – filming.)

Travis contemplates calling his agent.

Ushton knows exactly where Inga is being held by Travis and his henchmen (who are all ‘crimos’, or criminal psychopaths, which doesn’t seem like the best recruitment strategy), but he’s got a bad leg and so packs Blake off to rescue her unassisted. Needless to say, he soon gets into trouble with the crimos (who wear rather fetching colour-coded tops and balaclavas for some reason), as do Avon and Vila, who have followed him down – this is because Avon feels guilty for secretly sending the message summoning Servalan, a slightly confused bit of storytelling the script seems to be trying to bury.

This is largely because Uncle Ushton is selling Blake out to Travis, on the grounds that his first loyalty is to his daughter. This isn’t an impossible sell as a plot development goes, but everyone is just a bit too forgiving of Ushton once they learn of it and he rejoins the side of the angels. This episode is all action and plot in the second and third acts, with not much attention paid to anything resembling character or emotion. It really is a very shallow and rather unrewarding watch, at least as the kind of entertainment the production team were doubtless aiming for.

The bits of it that I enjoyed were the misjudged or silly ones – the bad costuming, the running about, supposedly heavy boulders bouncing like beach balls as they supposedly crush the bad guys. It plays rather like a bad, foolish western, without a great deal of depth or subtext to it. The only real interest in the episode is the opportunity it has to reveal some of Blake’s background – and what’s striking is how little of this potential gets realised. The only exception comes when it addresses Blake’s relationship with his cousin Inga. According to Blake, ‘she meant a lot to me once’ and when he eventually says goodbye to her, it takes the form of mouth-kissing. I repeat, it’s his cousin (admittedly, she’s rather comely), and just to drive the point home Jenna is allowed to beam down just to look jealous of her. It’s a very appropriate conclusion to the episode – which is another way of saying it’s clumsy, thick-headed, and just feels not quite right. Perhaps we get a glimpse not just of Blake’s past, but of the future Blake is fighting for – a future where the Federation is gone, where people are free, and where the childrens’ toes are webbed.

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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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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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