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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Judd’

I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe are only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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Given some of the talent involved and a premise which is pretty solid, you might very well end up settling down to watch Terence Fisher’s Island of Terror (from 1966) with reasonably high expectations. This low-budget British SF film is exactly the kind of thing that people automatically assume is the product of Hammer Films, or perhaps Amicus, but it isn’t: it was made by the obscure Planet Film Productions, whose only other movie of note appears to have been the similarly-themed Night of the Big Heat (which, in some territories, revelled in the much better title of Island of the Burning Damned).

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There’s a touch of burning and possibly some damning in Island of Terror but the film’s focus is really elsewhere. Events unfold on one of those remote little islands off the coast of Ireland, where – mysteriously enough – you can hardly ever see the sea, and everywhere looks like the English countryside just outside Pinewood Studios. Present among the locals is the reclusive Dr Phillips, who is working on a radical new cancer cure along with his team. But just as the credits are rolling, there is a non-specific accident and the soundtrack goes all ominous.

A short time later the local policeman finds himself in search of a missing person, whom he rapidly finds in a deceased and somewhat bemusing condition. The corpse has, to be blunt, gone all floppy, as its entire skeleton seems to have dissolved. The island’s doctor is as baffled as the cop, so he calls in ace pathologist Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) from London.

Cushing gracefully declines the leading man role and passes it on to ace bone disease specialist David West, who’s played by Edward Judd (a serviceable 60s leading man, now rather forgotten). When we first meet West he’s clearly about to get down to it with a former patient (Carole Gray), but he is quite happy to fly off to Ireland with Cushing anyway. The demands of the plot mean that Gray’s character comes along anyway, even though she has no real reason to (possibly she’s a nymphomaniac or obsessed with Judd) and her role is almost exclusively that of a decorative screamer. (Your heart may well sink a bit as minor characters take great care to laboriously explain at great length to the leads how they will be Totally Cut Off On The Remote Island With No Way Of Contacting The Outside World.)

Cushing and Judd visit the lab on the island in search of its facilities, but are startled to discover a load more floppy corpses. Even a floppy dead horse turns up at one point. What can be happening? Well, the boffins soon tumble to the truth, aided by Dr Phillips’ notes and the sighting of some odd creatures in the area. The cancer cure research has gone horribly wrong and created an artificial life-form, a silicon-based predator that exists by dissolving people’s bones and sucking them out. Even more alarming is the fact that, given enough sustenance, the silicate creatures reproduce by splitting into two, effectively doubling their number every six hours. (For some reason the fission process also appears to involve a tin of spaghetti, but this is not much delved into.) Can Judd and Cushing find a solution to the menace of the silicates when the shotguns and petrol bombs of the local Irish farmers prove ineffective? Or will the bone-melting swarm wipe out all vertebrate life on the island?

On paper it sounds like a reasonably solid SF B-movie, which may be the reason why Island of Terror was able to attract a decent cast (Niall McGinnis also appears as the headman of the island). However, as wiser heads than mine have observed, appearing in a monster movie is rather like going on a blind date: often you’ve no idea just what the monster itself is going to look like until you’ve finished doing the actual shooting, by which time you’re in the hands of the special effects team. This wasn’t quite the case with Island of Terror, which uses exclusively practical effects, but I expect when Cushing et al were reading the script and thinking about signing on they didn’t envisage the silicates looking like squashed lumps of rubber with a single rather wobbly pseudopod wafting about in front of them.

Believe it or not, it looks much better in a photo than on film.

Believe it or not, it looks much better in a photo than on film.

It’s not just that Island of Terror has one of the least-impressive, least-threatening monster designs in the history of SF and horror cinema, it’s that the actual monster props are so clearly incapable of doing half the things that the script indicates they should do: they are forever crawling over cars, slithering over the roofs of buildings, and pouncing on people out of trees, and the fact they are very visibly just being pulled along by wires (or, in the case of their arboreal activities, have obviously just been nailed up there) makes the whole thing rather ludicrous.

Bearing this in mind, I’m not sure whether it’s a mistake or not for the rest of the film to take itself quite so seriously. This is a very old-school SF B-movie, with wisdom and salvation to be found in the form of the learned and mature (Judd, supposedly the young genius in the film, was 34 when he made it), and everyone’s mostly quite sober and grave throughout it (Cushing, to be fair, has a go at inserting a little lightness and wit). There’s even a coda sequence which is clearly meant to be ominous and doomy, but just suggests the film-makers were worried the ending wasn’t strong enough. Frankly, they were right: Fisher tries hard to make scenes of Cushing and Judd doing things with radioactive isotopes and injecting cattle tense and exciting, but even he really struggles.

The result of all this, coupled to a decent budget and production values, is that Island of Terror is a decent, reasonably taut monster movie, as long as the monsters themselves aren’t on screen: the moment they appear it becomes, at best, faintly risible. There are obviously many other films which meet that description, but I can’t think of many that go down the practical-prop monster route as full-bloodedly as this one. This is one of those films that starts pretty strongly but inevitably goes downhill as the story is forced to replace a mystery with some form of plot resolution. It’s not quite a bad film – by a whisker – but you’d be forgiven for expecting something slightly less absurd-looking.

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It’s quite common, when people make their start-of-year lists of the films they’re anticipating mostly keenly, for these things to be heavily loaded with sequels, follow-ups, and remakes – generally, there seems to be a lot more excitement about Age of Ultron than Jupiter Ascending, for instance. Sequels are respectable, at least with studio bean-counters. They have money thrown at them and are often planned well before the initial film comes out.

It was not always thus. There was a time when the follow-up was a slightly disreputable beast, and those that got made generally had to work with rather lower budgets and less impressive material, with correspondingly less stellar results. Such is definitely the case with The Vengeance of She, a Hammer sequel released in 1968.

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Directed by Cliff Owen, this movie is set fifty years on from the original She (i.e., the late 60s, when it was made) and mainly concerns the travails of Carol (Olinka Berova), a young woman from somewhere in Europe (she claims to be ‘from Scandinavia’, but no-one seems very convinced by this, mainly due to Berova’s Czech accent). As the movie opens, Carol is wandering south through Europe, driven by impulses she doesn’t fully understand, and – it seems – subject to harassment by virtually every man she meets.

The movie indeed opens with an episode of spurious and rather iffy Fem Jeop, with Berova discovering the perils of lone hitch-hiking, which concludes with her assailant managing to run himself over. Following this, things take a more Mediterranean bent, as Carol ends up on the slightly pokey yacht of a shady millionaire (Colin Blakely), which appears to be crewed exclusively by fringe figures from British telefantasy – the captain is George Sewell from UFO, while the first mate is firebrand producer and general grumpy-trousers Derrick Sherwin, in what must have been one of his final acting roles before becoming script editor on Doctor Who.

Anyway, everyone soon realises that Carol has got issues: she has bad dreams and is obsessed with travelling south, for some reason. This is because she has had the ‘fluence put on her by a cabal of sorcerers in the fabled lost city of Kuma, which has really gone downhill since the 1965 film.

The back-story here gets a bit tangled. In charge of Kuma in the late 60s is Kallikrates (Hammer hunk and jammy git John Richardson), an immortal in a dodgy costume, who is awaiting the reincarnation of his lost love Ayesha. The implication seems to be that Kallikrates is really the Leo character from the first film, who in the intervening time has lost his original identity – they’re both played by Richardson, for one thing, although his haircut is radically different this time – but this isn’t gone into. Basically, Kallikrates has hired the sorcerers to find his girlfriend’s reincarnation so they can be together again, in return for which he will tell their not-at-all-sinister leader (Derek Godfrey) the secret of immortality.

Well, Carol eventually arrives in north Africa and heads for Kuma, but in pursuit of her is a psychiatrist friend of the millionaire, who has taken a bit of a shine to her. (The psychiatrist is played by Edward Judd.) Will he be able to save her? Will the evil sorcerers learn the secret of eternal life? And, perhaps most importantly, is Carol really the reincarnation of Ursula Andress…?

I’ve said some pretty lukewarm things about the original She in the past, but one thing guaranteed to make it look like a classic is watching this sequel to it. All the problems which She has – a less-than-powerful central performance, an unengaging plot which takes forever to get going, zero chemistry between the romantic leads, and so on – recur here, but with the additional issue that this film was, relatively speaking, made on the cheap.

Oh, okay – they did do all the location filming in Spain, I’ll grant you that, and it does fill in for north Africa surprisingly well. But for something which is supposed to be a grand romantic adventure, everything looks depressingly washed-out and mundane, and totally lacking in glamour. There’s a reasonably lengthy sequence on the yacht, which is – I presume – supposed to conjure up the excitement of the international luxury lifestyle, but it’s just dull, and you wonder if it’s there to serve any purpose other than padding out the film to a frankly overlong 100 minutes.

The same is true of most of the other exploits Carol wanders into on her way to Kuma, beset by lechers and unconvincing back-projection every step of the way. The most bemusing of these, for the savvy viewer, is her encounter with a benevolent scholar and magician who tries (unsuccessfully) to aid her against the evil sorcerers. Again, it feels very much like filler, except for the fact that the guy is played by Andre Morell. Morell was, confusingly, in the original She, of course, but here he seems to be playing a totally unconnected character. Given these films are actually about reincarnation and the same faces reappearing throughout history, reusing an actor this way is a bit of a mis-step, but a relatively minor one.

(And if we’re going to be super-critical about this film’s links with the other one – a spoiler approacheth – what’s going on with the ending? Kallikrates has his immortality revoked and instantly reverts to a raddled skeleton, which crumbles into dust. If he really is meant to be Leo from She, then he would quite possibly still have been alive in 1968, albeit at the age of 80 or so, and time catching up with him might not have been so instantly and spectacularly fatal. But I digress.)

The original She hugely benefited from lavish production values and a strong cast of charismatic performers, which just about compensated for its other weaknesses. Vengeance of She is much more slipshod by comparison, which means that the problems with the story are thrown into sharper relief. And like the original, it’s a fantasy film in which very little that’s actually fantastical happens – there’s hardly any horror, not much in the way of action, nothing really dramatic to speak of, just people talking near-gibberish to each other very earnestly, other people wandering the landscape, and a slightly turgid romance. You can make a reasonable movie out of this sort of material, but you need to have style, ideas, and the money to put them into practice. Vengeance of She has none of the above – and, by the way, it doesn’t even have any vengeance in it worth mentioning. One for the bottom drawer.

 

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It occurs to me that I have never hosted one of your actual parties, which is probably just as well as I have no confidence in my ability to administer one effectively. That said, one thing I think I would be quite good at is mixing different people up to get sparky and interesting results. A, meet B! I think you’d get on really well! C, here’s D – have a drink together! Keep it clean!

Having said all that, putting interesting names together doesn’t always necessarily produce the results one might have hoped for. Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie as a couple on screen? How incendiary would that be? Well, as it turns out, not at all. When it comes to a more fantastical genre, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Ray Harryhausen, genius of stop-frame animation, and Nigel Kneale, famously sour author of horror-SF screenplays, to be natural collaborators, but you would at least expect the results to be memorable.

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Well… of course, they did both work on the same movie, Nathan Juran’s 1964 First Men in the Moon, based on HG Wells’ planetary romance of the same name. Like Mark Gatiss and Damon Thomas’ 2010 adaptation of the same book, the movie makes a virtue of the fact that lunar exploration has shifted from science fiction to science fact since it was written. It opens with an only moderately implausible manned UN mission landing on the Moon in the mid 60s – but they are, to put it mildly, startled to discover a tattered Union Jack already there, together with a document claiming the Moon for Queen Victoria and the British Empire.

Back on Earth, the document is traced to Bedford (Edward Judd), an extremely old man who when questioned is happy to discuss this ‘lost’ moon voyage, which took place in 1899. In the flashback which constitutes most of the movie, Bedford, a financially-embarrassed young man, discovers his neighbour, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), is secretly developing a gravity-shielding substance, the potential value of which is incalculable. They strike up a partnership on the understanding they use Cavorite to construct a gravity-resistant sphere and explore the Moon. Along for the ride, as it turns out, is Bedford’s fiancee (Martha Hyer), who really doesn’t make any contribution to the plot and is basically just there to glam proceedings up a bit.

Arriving on the Moon, Bedford and Cavor discover an advanced native civilisation in place: that of the insectoid Selenites. The Selenites seize the sphere and seem intent on learning all they can about the visitors from Earth…

Well, given that Nathan Juran’s earlier films included The Deadly Mantis, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, the least you can say about First Men in the Moon is that it has a touch of class about it, what with Wells, Harryhausen and Kneale all making a contribution. And it’s a perfectly decent, family-friendly genre movie – very dated by modern standards, of course, but that’s inevitable given the film’s vintage and subject matter. The problem with it is that it doesn’t feel like the work of any of the trio.

Mostly this is down to the first half of the movie, which is knockabout filler set firmly on Earth. It takes a very long time for the sphere to launch, and this is filled by some broad slapstick with gravity-defying chairs and comedy yokels, and a somewhat laborious subplot about Bedford swindling money by selling a cottage he doesn’t actually own (as well as simply filling time, this appears to be here to set up some tension between Judd and Hyer, not that they are a particularly dynamic screen coupling).

It’s a bit of a trek to the point where the sphere lifts off, but at this point the film perks up considerably and becomes rather more faithful to the source. The tone becomes surprisingly dark, and the previously jokey relationship between Bedford and Cavor becomes fractious: Cavor is appalled by Bedford’s instinctive violence when they first encounter the Selenites, and Bedford’s concern for Cavor’s wellbeing seems largely motivated by selfishness, given the fact that he’s the most experienced in the workings of the sphere. One senses Kneale’s own natural misanthropy rushing to the fore here: the movie is by no means pro-Selenite, but it certainly doesn’t depict the humans positively, either.

The lack of a real hero marks this out from the jolly adventure films that Ray Harryhausen usually worked on, but then this is one of his films that never contributes much to the ‘Best of Harryhausen’ YouTube compilations, simply because there aren’t that many creatures in it, and no memorable big set-pieces like the cowboys roping the allosaur from Valley of Gwangi or the skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts. The modelwork of various spacecraft arriving and departing from the Earth and the Moon is well-executed, of course, but it’s not really what you expect from Harryhausen. When the giant moon-caterpillars turn up, they’re not exactly a premium piece of work either, although the stop-motion Selenites towards the end of the film are quite nice. (The film switches between man-in-a-suit aliens and Harryhausen animations, presumably depending on how many Selenites they needed in any given shot.)

Another issue is the lack of a strong climax – although this is something inherited from the novel, which concludes with a series of enigmatic radio messages. The Gatiss version got around this very neatly and satisfyingly, but here there is more of a struggle – there isn’t quite the conclusion you might expect, and what is here is suspiciously reminiscent of that in another extremely well-known Wells novel. This is a bit more clodhopping than one might expect of a writer with Kneale’s reputation, and one wonders just how much of the script is actually the work of credited co-writer Jan Read.

Still, the art direction is pretty, the score has its moments, and Lionel Jeffries in particular gives a well-rounded and engaging performance. But the fact remains that this is a film with serious pacing and structural problems, and in which none of the big-name creators  seem to have brought their A-game.

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