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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

We tend to think of cinema as an essentially modern art form – Terry Gilliam presented a TV series on the birth of the medium entitled The Last Machine – something quite different from the other visual arts like painting and sculpture. Great paintings and statues go back into the mists of time, usually hundreds of years, whereas most people tend to dismiss any film which is more than half a century old as unacceptably primitive. As time progresses we may have to change our perceptions on this topic. Unless the direst of predictions about the future of civilisation come to pass, a day will come in which people will look at the classic films of two or three centuries earlier, just as we look at the art of the Renaissance and other periods from long before living memory.

There are already films which have passed beyond living memory – I don’t just mean the legions of lost films, known only by their names and descriptions, although there are certainly enough of them. I mean films where everyone involved in their making has moved on to whatever comes next. Realistically, this probably includes nearly everything made since about 1940, by which point commercial cinema was already a quarter of a century old. The oldest of films do seem to come from an oddly different world, their difference and strangeness only heightened by the different sensibility that often shaped them and the differences in production methods.

Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem was first released in 1920. Just to suggest the lengths of time involved, this places it almost equidistant between the present day (as I type, anyway) and the Peterloo massacre. It is closer in time to the deaths of Lord Byron and Beethoven, to name but two events, than it is to the present day. Perhaps one is getting carried away by the peculiar, medieval qualities of the story, but it does feel like a strange relic of a lost age. The irony, of course – and perhaps our first inkling that maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as we might imagine – is that The Golem isn’t exactly The Golem. Rather, it is effectively Golem 3, final film in a loose trilogy.

Survival rates amongst films of the 1920s being as they are, the original Golem from 1915 and the spin-off The Golem and the Dancing Girl have both been lost, and the title of The Golem has now passed to the second sequel, which was originally released as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World). (You can see why people would opt for a less unwieldy title.) Even the 1920 version of Golem was a lost film for some time, eventually being reconstructed from various alternate versions of the negative which survived piecemeal in different locations.

One stroke of luck is that the 1920 version of The Golem is – in the modern vernacular – a prequel to the original film, which had a contemporary setting and concerned the title character being unearthed in the modern era. As the subtitle suggests, this is an origin story, set in the middle ages. The implication is that the story unfolds in Prague, which is the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor (portrayed here by Otto Gebuhr). As the story starts, the Emperor issues a decree announcing that the Jews of Prague are to be expelled from their ghetto, causing understandable consternation amongst them.

One of the community leaders, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), has seen this coming (he is the local astrologer and expert in arcana), and requests an audience with the Emperor so he can try to talk him out of his decision. In order to have a little more leverage at the coming meeting, Loew sets about crafting a massive human figure out of clay. His plan is to use magic of a questionable hue to animate this being, known as a Golem – if nothing else it will be nice to have another pair of hands about the place. (The situation is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the Emperor’s envoy, Florian (Lothar Muthel), instantly takes a fancy to Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and commences to woo her, assiduously but discreetly.)

Well, the rite is performed and the Golem comes to life (the creature is portrayed by Paul Wegener himself), although his initial trips down to the shops are a marginal success at best. The Emperor and the royal court are duly impressed and a bit alarmed when the Rabbi turns up to see them with the Golem in tow, but when the creature saves the Emperor’s life the grateful ruler agrees to think again about his edict expelling the Jews.

All seems well, until Loew discovers an ominous warning that the Golem’s initial helpfulness may not last, and the dark magic that animated it will lead to it eventually becoming malevolent. Bearing this in mind, the Rabbi ‘deactivates’ it. All seems well, and he goes off to a service of thanksgiving for the survival of the community. But then his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) discovers what has been going on between Florian and Miriam, and angrily reanimates the Golem, telling it to get rid of the amorous nobleman…

You can probably guess what happens next, because despite the fact that its production values, pacing, and performance style are wildly different from those in modern movies, this is still very recognisably the progenitor of a noble dynasty of fantasy and SF movies – the similarities to Frankenstein are particularly pronounced, and there’s a scene near the end where the Golem encounters a small child with some flowers which faintly anticipates one from the famous James Whale version of the story. If this film is less successful, it’s possibly because Wegener’s performance as the Golem is considerably less nuanced than Karloff’s would later be – the lumbering about is acceptable, but there’s a lot of eye-popping and pouting which is pretty much guaranteed to get laughs from a modern audience (a lot of the more, er, expressive acting in The Golem has the same effect).

The themes of hubris are less pronounced, however, and Rabbi Loew remains a sympathetic figure despite his role in creating the Golem and his dealings with dark powers. It’s probably a coincidence that for two weeks in a row the Weimar movie season has shown gloomy fantasies about people forced into deals with dark forces in exchange for different kinds of power, but The Golem does acquire a strange historical irony considering the plot is ultimately driven by anti-semitism. The Jewish characters in the movie are sympathetic, as noted, but at the same time everyone takes it for granted that the Rabbi has various mystical powers at his disposal. The movie itself hardly seems anti-semitic, but the depiction of Judaism is probably not one a director could get away with nowadays.

In the end The Golem is another fairly entertaining movie – I would say there is probably a bit too much blather near the start, and not enough rampaging and carnage at the end (by the standards of a modern horror movie it is almost absurdly innocuous). Obviously it is of great historical interest, for both cinema in general and genre movies in particular: not the biggest or the best monster movie ever made, but probably the earliest that’s still with us. Worth seeing if only for that reason; not just because it is so different, but also because much of it is so recognisable.

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We have, of course, previously discussed the question of the Optimum Period Before Sequel, and whatever your personal views may be, I think most people would accept that waiting forty years to do a follow-up is really pushing the boundaries of common sense. Then again, it might be somewhat more excusable if the sequel wasn’t exactly a sequel per se. Which of course brings us to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, based on a novel by Stephen King, which was itself a sequel to his earlier book The Shining. This means that Doctor Sleep is, by some metric at least, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of the novel. King famously hated the changes that Kubrick made to the story and disregarded them in the second novel. So where does this leave the film? Is it going to stay faithful to King, make the most of its connection to the iconic and very well-regarded Kubrick film, or somehow try and split the difference and risk satisfying no-one?

The prospect of a potentially pedestrian cash-in on The Shining made my heart sink, and it’s not even as if I’m a particular fan of that movie; the fact that Doctor Sleep actually manages to be slightly longer than its sizeable forebear did not help lift my apprehension as I approached the movie. And the opening of the film hardly seems designed to dispel these sorts of concerns – straight away they reuse one of the most famous music cues from the older film, and there is a sequence with a painstaking recreation of the hotel set, right down to that very distinctive carpet (which may or may not intentionally replicate the layout of the Apollo 11 launch pad).

The story proper gets going with young Danny Torrance struggling to come to terms with the frightening ordeal he and his mother went through in the snowbound Overlook Hotel in Colorado, something made only worse by his burgeoning psychic ability. Helping him in this respect is Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), the former chef at the hotel. Here, of course, the film hits its first real crunch point – is Hallorann a living mentor or a ghostly apparition? (He survives in the novel, but is axe-murdered in Kubrick’s version.) Suffice to say the early scoreline is Novelists 0, Film Directors 1.

Danny eventually grows up into Dan (Ewan McGregor), a lonely drifter haunted (sometimes literally) by his past, who tries to suppress his psychic gifts through drink and drugs. Eventually he pitches up in a small New Hampshire town, where the kindness of one of the locals (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis) allows him to settle and build a life for himself, using his power while working in the local hospice. (Here he is known as ‘Doctor Sleep’.)

However, he is not the only gifted individual in the world, and the film also follows a group of others: a pack of vicious and sadistic vampire-like killers who devour the souls of psychic children. The fact that they resemble Fleetwood Mac on tour may make them slightly less terrifying, or perhaps not. Their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), eventually identifies a powerful young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) as their next victim.

However, Abra is a sort of psychic pen friend of Dan’s, and she recruits his aid in helping stop the hunters’ reign of terror. Faced with an enemy whose powers may outstrip his own, Dan is forced to choose the ground for their eventual confrontation carefully. Could it be time to make a reservation at a certain hotel he was once a resident in?

Making adaptations of Stephen King books is hardly a time-honoured path to sure-fire success, and doing films derived from Kubrick movies has likewise been a slightly dodgy prospect in the past. This, together with the enormous duration of Doctor Sleep, gave me some trepidation as I approached the film – but, rather to my surprise, it turned out to be a very superior dark fantasy movie, filled with the traditional narrative virtues and with a great deal to commend it. It may not have the magisterial clarity and formal brilliance of The Shining, but neither is it quite as oblique and impenetrable – The Shining is an undeniably impressive piece of work, but Doctor Sleep is possibly a lot easier to like, simply because it is so much more conventional.

I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with being conventional when it results in a film as satisfying as this one: the story hits all the right beats, the story is well-told and resonant, and the characters are well-drawn and given space to breathe and come to life. As well they might, given the film is over two and a half hours long – but we will come back to the issue of the film’s duration. Quite how effective it is as a pure horror movie is another question – as noted, it mostly resembles a thriller or a dark fantasy more than anything else, but there are moments where it does get very nasty, and does so very quickly. I imagine there is enough here to keep fans of the genre satisfied.

The acting is certainly of the standard you would hope to find in a reputable movie: McGregor is on fine form, and there is a remarkably self-assured performance from Kyliegh Curran. The only one who really puts a foot slightly out of place is Ferguson, whose performance is just a touch too affected to really convince – then again, she is given a character with a trademark hat, an Irish accent and a lot of hippy-dippy stylings, so it’s hardly the easiest of gigs.

Does it really need to be quite as long as it is, though? Well, frankly, I’m not sure. It certainly gives you the sense of reading a King novel, where a lot of time and space is often devoted to establishing characters and settings before the action proper kicks off, but even so the film sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit. You know that traditional scene where someone comes to the hero for help, but he initially refuses, before changing his mind and engaging with the story? The one which marks the start of the narrative proper? Well, that one is in this film, it just happens over an hour into it. It’s not like the film actually feels padded or boring, but it does feel like it could have been shortened without losing too much of its impact.

One impressive thing about it is that once the opening is out of the way, it works very hard to stand on its own two feet without constant call-backs to The Shining. This means that when the film does finally head in this direction for its final act, it feels almost as if it has earned the right to do so: it is an undeniably thrilling moment when the nature of the climax becomes apparent. The recreations, when they come, are every bit as good as the ones in Ready Player One. It looks for a long time like the film is going to dance around the whole issue of Dan’s father, but the utterly thankless task of trying to reproduce Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance is eventually given to (if my research is correct) an uncredited Henry Thomas, who does the very best he can in the circumstances.

I have to say that, along with the length, it’s the climax of the film which would cause me to knock off a star, if I awarded such things – it feels appropriate and isn’t ridiculous, and no doubt Stephen King will be delighted by the fact it is partly drawn from the original Shining novel. But something about it just doesn’t quite ring true, and you do get the sense the film is wallowing just a bit too much in the chance to revisit Kubrick’s take on the story. But this is still a fairly minor quibble. Doctor Sleep is still a cut above the majority of Stephen King adaptations, and a very satisfying piece of entertainment. Provided you can handle the nastier moments, this is well worth seeing.

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One of the many good things you can say about the Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley, they seem to have a thought-through screening policy, and usually some decent movies for Halloween too – even if their choice of special events seems to be just a little wilfully obscure at the moment. They currently have several screenings of the Argentinian art-house movie La Flor in progress at different times in the week (La Flor is far too long to be shown in fewer than three or four sittings), while the current Sunday afternoon vintage season is of silent movies from the Weimar republic. (Still, I suppose it’s better than yet another season of Studio Ghibli revivals, which is what’s in progress elsewhere in Oxford – I know it’s a bit of a banker, but even so.)

Nevertheless, we are coming up to that time of year when horror and dark fantasy are usually prevalent on the screen, as I indicated near the start – and silent German movies do provide quite rich pickings in this department. For starters, there’s the famous Cabinet of Dr Caligari (sadly not showing as part of the current run), and the remarkable original version of Nosferatu (likewise not making an appearance). But the list does have on it The Golem: How He Came Into the World, and FW Murnau’s 1926 version of Faust.

(Showing straight after Faust, by the way, was the documentary Hail Satan?, which is as droll a piece of scheduling as you are likely to find all year. Hail Satan? is on again on Halloween itself, in another kind-of double bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you really must, I suppose…)

I have been… what’s the best way of putting it? ‘Participating in’? ‘Enduring’? …going along to screenings of La Flor for the last few weeks (full review to follow when we actually get to the end of it), where a rapt crowd of anything up to six people (in a good week) have been enjoying the various segments of the film. So it was a bit of a shock to arrive at the UPP for Faust and find the place practically abuzz with cinemagoers; I had got used to having the place largely to myself. 93 year old black-and-white silent movies are clearly very popular in east Oxford (and Faust somehow manages to be both silent and subtitled, thus, you would think, making it even more of a niche proposition).

They were in such a hurry to show the film that they skipped the usual trailers and no smoking/talking/eating popcorn featurette and went straight into it. Faust opens with the world in tumult, beset by at least three of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (it seems to be Death’s day off). The forces of darkness are, naturally, overseen by the demonic figure of Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings), who spends most of the film going by the snappier name of Mephisto. However, a spanner is thrown in the satanic works by the appearance of an Archangel, who challenges Mephisto’s claim to be the master of the Earth.

Well, despite gambling nominally being a sin, the Archangel and Mephisto cook up a bet to settle the matter once and for all: far below them dwells the elderly alchemist and man of learning Faustus (Gosta Ekman), who prizes truth and purity above all else (or so the Angel claims). If that’s the case, ripostes Mephisto, how come he spends all his time trying to turn lower forms of matter into gold? If Mephisto can get Faustus to forswear God and sell his soul to the powers of Hell, then Mephisto will be able to claim the world as his own.

The horned one gets down to work by unleashing a terrible plague upon Faustus’ home town, one quite beyond the old scholar’s power to cure. Soon enough Faustus loses faith in his books and erudition, and hits upon the notion of calling upon darker powers to help him save the people around him. He eventually has second thoughts about this, but then it’s too late and Mephisto is camped out in his front room (and, in terms of Jannings’ performance, I really do mean camped). Can even such a wise old man resist the inducements of power, eternal youth, and various sundry pleasures of the flesh…?

It’s black-and-white. It’s silent. It’s 93 years old. It’s articulating a very hoary old story about the struggle between good and evil. It’s German. You would be forgiven for expecting Faust to be painfully slow and primitive, of interest only to scholars of expressionist cinema. But this would be a mistake, for this is – for the most part – a pacy, engaging, and unexpectedly dynamic movie, made with a real visual sense. You can see it has had an influence on the films of the Disney corporation, just for starters: the striking composition of the demon enfolding the town in the darkness of his wings obviously recurs in Fantasia, while the sequence in which a newly-rich and handsome Faustus turns up at a palace in a turban with a load of elephants is suspiciously reminiscent of a similar moment in Aladdin. It is true that this is a film which was made in a very different world, and it functions in a non-naturalistic, stylised mode quite unlike most modern films, but it is still clearly a part of the same tradition which has led to cinema as we know it today.

There is perhaps a danger, when considering the situation in which this film was made, to start reaching too far and drawing rather spurious conclusions. You can certainly look at Faust and see the story of a man in country facing great privation and suffering, who chooses to abandon morality and learning in favour of making a bargain with the powers of darkness, and assume this is somehow anticipating what would happen to Germany in the 1930s. But that would be to make Murnau into an actual prophet, rather than just a visionary filmmaker, and there is enough here to consider without making the film a prediction of the future.

As noted, this is primarily just a very well-told story, which practically rattles along for the first hour or so – there are some rather melodramatic longeurs near the end, but not enough to actually spoil it. It’s also helped by some (for the period) rather impressive special effects – these are still a bit variable in execution, and drew the occasional laugh from the UPP crowd, but you can see the care and attention that has been lavished on them. Also unexpected and rather impressive were the many intentional moments of comedy in the film. Ekman plays it very straight as Faustus himself, but Jannings isn’t afraid to give a gleefully sly performance as Mephisto. This is a performance which does occasionally stray towards the pantomime tradition (itself in the non-naturalistic, stylised mode I mentioned earlier), but it is extremely good value and does give the film a life and warmth some of its more metaphysical moments lack.

Most of the silent films from the 1920s I’ve seen have either been comedy one or two reelers, or German expressionist films. When it comes to the latter, at least, I have seldom been disappointed: they stand up extremely well, when sympathetically displayed, appropriately scored, and approached with the right attitude. I’m not sure Faust quite matches up to Nosferatu in terms of either quality or influence, but it is still a well-made, impressive movie.

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If you’re going to make a rip-off fantasy-horror movie about a giant gorilla on the rampage, then you’re basically ripping off King Kong. One might have thought that this was obvious enough, but the makers of 1961’s Konga clearly thought otherwise, as the title of the film demonstrates. (This is not quite the utterly brazen rip-off that it might appear to be: the producers of Konga paid RKO $25,000 for rights to the Kong name.)

That said, the funny thing about Konga (directed by John Lemont) is how little it actually resembles King Kong, until the closing sequence at least. The opening moments of the film appear to be the work of people who have vaguely heard of the principle that the secret of good storytelling is to show, not tell, but don’t have any experience of actually applying it: we see a plane, flying over Africa. The plane explodes, unconvincingly. We then see a newspaper seller announcing the death of famous botanist Dr Decker in a plane crash, and then a news broadcast announcing he has re-emerged from the African Bush after a year. It is all a bit laborious, or so it seems to me at least, but the following sequence makes up for it a bit by squeezing in record amounts of exposition – setting up the whole film, in fact – without being completely on the nose about it. We learn in fairly short order that a) Dr Decker (Michael Gough) has returned with some interesting new ideas about the hidden biological connections between people and carnivorous plants, b) he has brought back a cute baby chimp called Konga with him, and c) he is not afraid to be outspoken when it comes to his bold ideas about society and the value of human life.

From here, however, we’re back to scenes which mainly progress through characters telling each other in great detail things which they both already know: we meet Decker’s housekeeper, Margaret (Margo Johns), who clearly carries a torch for him (this is not reciprocated). She is devoted to him to the point where she happily overlooks the fact his time in Africa has clearly left him as mad as a stoat – he even puts a bullet in the cat when it threatens to disrupt his experiments, and this doesn’t seem to bother her that much; nor does the fact that the greenhouse is soon filled with huge, absurdly rubbery carnivorous plants. Decker reveals his master plan, which is to create giant human-plant hybrids using a serum derived from the carnivorous plants. He decides to test the science involved in this wholly reasonable scheme by injecting the serum into Konga, which initially turns him into a rather larger chimpanzee, and then (after a subsequent dose), a full-grown gorilla – or, to be more precise, a man in a gorilla suit. (The script seems genuinely confused as to what sort of ape Konga is supposed to be, referring to him as a chimp and a gorilla at different points.) Needless to say, Decker hypnotises Konga to become his mindless slave.

Round about this point we learn that Decker has kept his old job as a botany teacher (you can tell this film was an Anglo-American co-production, for despite supposedly being set near London, the depiction of Decker’s college resembles an American university far more than anything in England at this time), who entertains his students by showing them films he made in Africa. (The script hurriedly gives him a line where he explains how lucky he was to be able to save his camera and film-stock from the exploding plane. Mmm, quite.) But not all is well. Quite apart from the fact that all the students at the college are visibly much too old to still be there, it is clear that Decker has a rather inappropriate thing for Sandra (Claire Gordon), one of his students, and the dean of the place is ticked off with Decker for making outrageous claims in newspaper interviews about his work, and thus potentially making the college look bad.

Well, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist to do but go on a murderous spree bumping off anyone who threatens to deny him, well, anything he wants? Although in this case it is, obviously, Konga who is charged with doing the actual dirty work. So we say goodbye to the dean, and to a rival scientist threatening to publish ahead of Decker (wait, there are two famous botanists trying to create giant hybrids using carnivorous plants…?), and even to Sandra’s jealous boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad, who probably deserves it for This Pullover alone). When Margaret takes him to task for this homicidal outburst, Decker first claims it was technically Konga who did all the actual killing, and then that it was scientifically necessary to test the limits of his control over Konga. Yeah, sure, no jury would possibly convict.

But a fly has managed to dodge the enormous rubbery carnivorous plants and is threatening to settle in Decker’ ointment. Margaret has rumbled to the fact that Decker is letching all over Sandra and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. Although a man in a gorilla suit, blown up to ginormous size by another dose of the serum, can come pretty close. Cue rampage! Cue soldiers! Cue dialogue like ‘There’s a monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’

That line is delivered with an admirably straight face, by the way, and one of the things about Konga is that it does manage to take itself rather seriously, despite all the odds – there’s no hint of tongue-in-cheek knowingness to most of the film, despite how ridiculous it is. I know it’s customary to praise Michael Gough for a long career of fine performances in everything from Dracula to Batman, but I think that managing to keep a straight face throughout this film may be one of his greatest achievements, even if there are moments when his performance seems to be on the verge of anticipating Kenneth Williams in Carry On Screaming.

As alluded to earlier, one of the less obviously odd things about Konga is the fact that despite all the references to King Kong in the title and advertising, this more obviously resembles a mad-scientist film than a proper monster movie. It bears a sort of resemblance to something like Captive Wild Woman, with perhaps a touch of the botanical horror to be found in a number of British films from the late 50s and early 60s. Only at the very end does it actually start openly ripping off King Kong, with Gough in the Fay Wray role (and much as I admire Gough as a performer, I think this is really asking too much of him). It feels like a contractually-obligatory afterthought, without enough money available to do it properly (you don’t get to see Konga climbing Big Ben, for instance, he just stands there and lets soldiers shoot at him a lot). It also mostly fails when it comes to generating pathos: Konga has been a murderous plot device for most of the film, and Decker is just a nutcase, so it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them.

It would be wrong to say this spoils the film, anyway, although what ‘spoil’ means in this context is difficult to say for sure. One thing you can say about Konga is that it manages to find a consistent level of extreme badness and stick to it remarkably successfully for an hour and a half. If any of it were actually conventionally good, that would somehow make the film less enjoyable. So: this is a thoroughly silly and terrible film, but that is the main thing that makes it worth watching. I seldom have truck with the ‘so bad it’s good’ notion, but I would suggest that Konga is one of those films where such a claim is justified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One major religion tells us that when we die, we are summoned before a senior spiritual personage and asked to justify our existence – what did we contribute to the common good? Did we leave the world a better place than we found it? The cynical suggest that this is just a myth made up to encourage the oppressed and down-trodden to lead lives of dubious virtue, keeping their noses clean and generally being obedient in the hope of receiving a reward in the next life.

The question, of course, is one of how you justify your existence, and surely this doesn’t just apply to people. The simple and reductive answer, as far as films go anyway, is to say that a film’s purpose is to make money for its producers. I’m not so sure about that. Possibly my prejudices are showing but I don’t think the fact that the various Transformers films have added umpty-tump million dollars to the bank accounts of their makers comes close to making up for all the misery and horror they are responsible for. Conversely, though – could it be possible for a film not to do all that well at the box office yet still have made a worthwhile contribution to the sum total of human happiness, irrespective of how good it is?

Which basically brings us to John McTiernan’s 1986 film Nomads, one which seems to be promising a lot but ends up delivering… Well. The film is set in Los Angeles, where we initially encounter young ER doctor Eileen Flax (Lesley-Ann Down), recently moved to the city. In the ward one night she meets another new arrival, Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), although this is not immediately apparent, mainly because Pommier is a frothing, raving nutcase, who whispers in a mysteriously French manner in her ear before trying to bite her and then dropping dead. Zut alors.

Well, Flax is bemused by Pommier’s case, learning he was a distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist who recently settled in LA to teach in a university there. So what’s he doing turning up in ER, off his head and about to cark it? The answers, when they come, mainly take the form of strange visions which afflict Flax, allowing her to relive Pommier’s last few days and the strange mystery he uncovered that ultimately led to his death.

As everyone knows, you can’t trust estate agents and the house Pommier and his wife (Anna-Maria Monticelli) have bought was previously the scene of a horrific murder. As a result it seems to have become something of a magnet for the local weirdos, who dress like punks and goths and drive around in a big black van, never stopping anywhere for long. (One of them is played by Adam Ant, another by the cult actress Mary Woronov.) In the flashback, Pommier becomes fascinated by them (not, it must be said, for any particularly compelling reason) and ends up following them around the city. He witnesses them casually committing a murder and various other antisocial acts, and is disturbed to discover they don’t show up on film when he attempts to photograph them.

The answer is logical and obvious – it’s the 80s! They’re punks! They drive around in a van! They don’t photograph! They’re obviously vampires! Reader, mais non. (Although this might have been a better film were the answer mais oui.) Pommier eventually figures out, with the aid of a handy exposition-nun, that the gang of weirdos are actually evil Eskimo desert-spirits, infesting Los Angeles. Well, of course they are. It turns out you can have an Eskimo desert-spirit, you just have to be a bit flexible with your definition of a desert. And a spirit. And possibly an Eskimo.

The problem is that Pommier has now attracted the attention of the evil spirits (known as Einwetok, apparently), they are keen to claim his soul in order to maintain the secret of their existence. Can he and his wife escape them? (Anyone who’s been paying attention should already know the answer.) And will Flax’s own investigation imperil her life?

Nomads is, it must be said, a not especially good and honestly rather silly film, but it is clearly a second cousin to rather more impressive fare – it’s not a million miles away from other 80s fantasy-horror films, especially those with a James Cameron connection. There are various elements of this film which do recall The Terminator and especially Near Dark, even though it’s not anywhere close to the same standard. Elsewhere, it does incorporate all the things you would associate with a certain kind of laboriously stylish 80s movie – heavy use of drum machines and synth music, and indiscriminate slo-mo when you’re not expecting it.

All this, of course, is less noticeable to the average viewer than the fact that the film stars a fairly young Pierce Brosnan (this was his first lead movie role), playing a Frenchman. It is not entirely clear why McTiernan decided to make his protagonist French, but it certainly gives Brosnan a chance to have a go at an allo-mon-amee-ah-am-from-Paree accent. Now, I like Pierce Brosnan a lot; he was a very good James Bond and I find him to be a very likeable screen presence in general. But he does a convincing French accent about as well as he can sing. (And one has to wonder why the two French characters appear to spend most of their time speaking English to each other.) It is quite hard to get past the accent and assess the rest of the performance (one notes Brosnan was still young and keen enough to say yes to a nude scene, though it is tactfully lit and framed).

He kind of drops out of sight in the closing stages of the film, anyway, as the focus of the story switches more to Flax and Pommier’s widow. Again, one has to wonder what the merit is of the rather complicated flashback structure which McTiernan has opted to give the film – it doesn’t seem to be contributing much, cluttering the narrative rather than deepening it. I suppose it does enable the final twist of the movie (although this is using the word ‘twist’ very generously), but I’m not sure this is enough.

Nomads starts off showing signs of promise but unravels into incoherent silliness long before the end. You have to admire its attempts to be a gore-free piece of stylish, atmospheric horror-fantasy, but it just ends up being bemusing; it’s certainly not frightening in any way. Nor is it quite bad enough to be a fun slice of shock. However – it got Pierce Brosnan started in movies, and that’s no bad thing, and apparently Arnie was sufficiently impressed by it to hire John McTiernan to ┬ádirect Predator (which in turn led to him doing Die Hard and other rather distinguished films). So while this may be a bad movie, it did eventually lead to some rather good ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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