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Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Connor’

Over forty years on, all the movies that Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made together have coalesced in the cultural collective memory into one disreputable, slightly garish lump: probably with a rubber monster of some kind sitting on top if it. They flow together in the mind as well: which is the one with the bi-plane? Which is the one with the giant octopus fight? Which is the one with the iron mole?

The first of the set, The Land That Time Forgot, isn’t any of those. Made in 1975, it is the one boasting a screenplay co-written by legendary author Michael Moorcock (based, of course, on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). As a long-time admirer of Moorcock and his work, I am perhaps biased when I say that his contribution gives the film an element of class and intelligence not present in the various follow-ups – the way the film opens and closes with the same sequence gives it a pleasing symmetry and indicates some thought has gone into it.

This material relates to a vestigial frame story which is not much gone into – it is mainly present to recreate the structure of Burroughs’ novel. The tale itself begins in 1916, with a German U-boat sinking a British cargo vessel. This is portrayed entirely from the point of view of the German crew, mainly because the submarine set is essential to the film and the cargo ship is just in this one scene: one of the hallmarks of the film is the way it manages to be thrifty without it being obvious too much of the time. Amongst the survivors are beefy American engineer Bowen Tyler (McClure) and comely English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).

Having his ship torpedoed out from under him isn’t much of a problem for a guy like Doug McClure, though: together with the captain of the ship (Keith Barron) and a few other crew members, they board the U-boat when it surfaces to refresh its air supply and take it over, rather to the annoyance of the German captain (John McEnery) and his second in command (Anthony Ainley). (The captain is one of those decent, noble German officers one so often finds in this kind of story, while Ainley is honing the performance as a fanatically malevolent psychopath that would stand him in good stead throughout the 1980s.)

So far the film has been solid, gripping stuff, but now we encounter a significant wobble, as the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans is followed in fairly short order by the Germans seizing control of the ship from the British. And this in turn is followed by the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans, again. This inelegant plotting is all to get the film to where it needs to be: the U-boat ends up lost in the southern Atlantic, low on fuel and supplies.

However, there are glimmers of hope when they come across a mysterious new landmass, surrounded by towering, icy cliffs. The German captain suspects it to be Caprona, discovered centuries earlier by an Italian explorer who was unable to make landfall due to the cliff barrier. The existence of an underwater passageway means the U-boat could penetrate the interior of Caprona, thus possibly giving them access to the supplies they so desperately need.

Well, after a tense passage and a few dings to the sub, the voyagers find themselves in a lush, tropical paradise. Finally we get the first of the rubber dinosaurs we have been impatiently awaiting, and rather superior they are too. This is no consolation to the crew of the U-boat, who find themselves on the lunch menu of the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs infesting the river they are on.

Still, at least the skirmish provides the hungry sailors with some fresh provisions. ‘Should one drink red or white wine with plesiosaur?’ wonders Keith Barron. More pressing concerns supplant correct etiquette, however: there are places in Caprona where crude oil springs from the ground, raising the possibility of refueling the sub. However, in addition to the dinosaurs, there are ape men here too – and the natives may not be friendly…

Well, regular visitors may recall my recent cri de coeur about the BBC non-adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which effectively threw away all but the most fundamental details of the original novel and ended up being almost wholly unsatisfactory as a result. Here, perhaps, we have an example of the opposite situation – an adaptation which on the whole stays remarkably faithful to the source text, to the point where it impacts on the film’s success as such.

The issue is that this is a pulp adventure – superior pulp, to be sure, but still pulp. Burrough’s plot is episodic, consisting of a series of exploits and adventures undertaken by a group of thinly-characterised individuals. There’s no sense of it building to anything, or a central issue heading towards resolution – just a series of set-piece action and special effects sequences. These are often well-mounted, but the film still feels more like a theme park ride than an actual narrative.

The closest thing to a big idea the film contains is the revelation of how life functions on Caprona. To say that this is non-Darwinian is to rather understate the matter: populations don’t evolve in the usual manner here, but individual creatures progress through the different stages of evolution in the course of their lifetime as they travel across the landscape (they apparently feel compelled to constantly travel northward towards the sea). It’s a curious idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it – we never see it happening and it doesn’t inform the plot in any meaningful way. Full marks to Moorcock and co-writer James Cawthorn for retaining it, but you almost wish they’d found a way to do something more interesting with the notion.

However, while the film’s weaknesses may have been inherited from the source novel, its strengths are all its own. This is a classy looking movie, not nearly as garish or silly as some of its successors (At the Earth’s Core, I’m looking at you) – the period detail is well done, with a nicely grimy feel to it. The presence of many solid British actors (there are many familiar TV faces scattered through the cast list) gives the movie a further touch of class.

Even the dinosaurs, usually the weak link in this kind of movie, are a cut above what you might expect. They are the work of Roger Dicken, a man with a relatively brief but nevertheless hugely interesting CV as a special effects technician – we can overlook the rubber bats he provided for Scars of Dracula, given that a decade later he created the facehugger for Alien. Doubtless for cost reasons, Dicken doesn’t go with the traditional stop-motion dinosaurs, or even men in suits, but opts for glove-puppet dinosaurs instead. I fear I may be damning Dicken and the movie with faint praise if I say that these are some of the best glove-puppet dinosaurs in the history of cinema. The only time the special effects really aren’t up to scratch comes in a sequence where McClure is menaced by some implausibly rigid and stately pterodactyls, but even Ray Harryhausen struggled to make this sort of thing work.

It’s a sign of the general quality of the movie that the dinosaurs only feel like one element of a bigger adventure, rather than the sine qua non of the whole thing. It’s true that the acting is not great, but then it doesn’t really need to be: the movie sets out to be a pulp adventure, and on those terms it’s a successful one: you can see why it was such a commercial success. You still have to wonder if there was some way of preserving the essentially Burroughs-iness of the story while coming up with a more dynamic and satisfying plot, but I still think a film like this is far preferable to an in-name-only updating of the book.

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There is something remarkably comforting and familiar about sitting down to watch one of the Amicus portmanteau horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is because this subgenre is so strictly defined by its conventions – you know there aren’t going to be many startling innovations, you know there’s going to be a pretty good cast, and you know that none of the component stories are going to hang around too long. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of a sushi train – if what’s currently going past isn’t really to your taste, well, maybe the next course will do the trick.

1974’s From Beyond the Grave is normally listed as the last of the Amicus anthology horrors, which I suppose is true if you’re going to be quibbly about it, although my own feeling is that 1980’s The Monster Club is really the last of the line, sharing the same format and producer (Amicus’ moving spirit Milton Subotsky). There is another connection in that both films take their inspiration not from other horror movies or American horror comics, but the works of veteran horror author Ron Chetwynd-Hayes.

The movie is directed by Kevin Connor, who went on to have a moderately good line in low-budget genre movies like Warlords of Atlantis. The linking device on this occasion is an antiques and junk shop named Temptations Limited, run by Peter Cushing’s character (Cushing is in camp mode throughout and gives a very funny performance which nicely sets the tone for much of the movie). As the film reveals, the shop has an interesting gimmick (‘a novelty surprise with every purchase!’) and an even more interesting line in customer aftercare.

First story out of the traps is that of David Warner, who plays an arrogant young man who railroads the proprietor into selling him an antique mirror for a fraction of its actual value. No sooner has he put it up in his flat than one of his bright young friends shouts ‘Let’s have a séance!’, and Warner, for reasons best known to the plot, enthusiastically agrees. Well, it turns out that the mirror is a repository for an ancient, dormant evil which now wakes up, thirsting for the blood of – well, anyone it can persuade Warner to kill for it. He starts off with a prostitute (‘Five pounds and no need to rush,’ she says, which if nothing else I imagine says something about the impact of inflation since 1974), moves on to girls he picks up at parties, but draws the line at one of his actual friends (his neighbour seems to be fair game, though).

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of Warner waking up in blood-splattered pyjamas wondering if it was all a dream, but this is quite acceptable on the whole: Warner is always a class act and manages to lift some slightly schlocky material, and the piece has an unusually eerie and effective conclusion. The only thing that makes it sit a little oddly in this film is the unleavened darkness of the story – most of the film feels like it’s pitched as black comedy, but this seems to be aiming for a more serious tone.

The next segment is rather less predictable and feels rather shoehorned into the movie – Cushing and his shop only play a very marginal role. Ian Bannen plays an office drone, unhappily married to Diana Dors with a young son (John O’Farrell, later to find fame as a writer), who strikes up an odd relationship with an ex-army street hawker (Donald Pleasance) and later his daughter (Angela Pleasance). In order to cement their friendship, Bannen steals a medal from the shop, which is the link to the rest of the format. The Pleasances eventually seem to be offering Bannen a way out of his grim situation – but do they really have his best interests at heart…?

Once again, some slightly suspect material is lifted by the skill of the perfomers (Bannen and the Pleasances in this case), although this is much more of a bizarre, whimsical fantasy than a conventional horror story (though the story certainly scores bonus points for its voodoo wedding cake sequence). This is one of the stories which has no real reason to be in a film titled From Beyond the Grave, but it is an interesting change of pace and certainly stands out.

Ian Carmichael turns up playing another one of his posh silly-ass characters in the third section of the film, which opens with him attempting to swindle Cushing by switching the price tags on a couple of snuff boxes in the shop. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it,’ says Cushing, deadpan, as Carmichael departs the scene. In the peculiar cosmology of the Amicus horror movies, switching price tags is a sufficiently awful crime to mark you down for vicious karmic reprisals, and Carmichael discovers he has acquired a malevolent (but invisible and thus cheap) elemental companion, who seems to have it in for his wife in particular. Luckily he makes the acquaintance of medium and exorcist Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), who offers to assist…

Probably the weakest part of the film, probably because the plot hasn’t got a lot going on, and the segment is forced to rely on the comic performances of the actors involved. Once again, they are good enough to make the film watchable and entertaining (some good work from the set dressers in the scene where the elemental demolishes Carmichael’s living room), but it’s not really clever or striking enough to be memorable.

And so to the final part of the film, in which young writer Ian Ogilvy buys, somewhat improbably, an imposing old door to put on the stationery cupboard in his study. You can probably write the rest for yourself, particularly if you’ve been paying attention, not least because it does bear a certain resemblance to the David Warner story at the top of the film – the door turns out to be a gateway to a domain of ancient, dormant evil, which now wakes up, thirsting for the souls of… well, you get the idea, I think.

Still, the production values aren’t bad and the story also manages to distinguish itself by having the closest thing to a genuine plot twist you’re likely to find in an Amicus film – the audience is invited to assume that Ogilvy has ripped off the till at the shop, thus marking his card for a sticky end, but it turns out he’s a decent, honest chap, and thus has a chance of making it out of the film in one piece. If nothing else it provides an upbeat conclusion.

There is, of course, still time for the final twist with the frame story of the shop. This is not the usual ‘everyone is actually already dead!’ twist as deployed in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but something very nearly as obvious. Still, Cushing gets another chance to camp it up, being funny and menacing at the same time, and the film does conclude with a couple of good gags. Probably not the best or most colourful of the Amicus anthologies, but still an enjoyable piece of comfort viewing.

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I hate to say it, but since the Horror Channel went to Freeview I am getting a lot less done than I used to, especially in the evenings. Where I would once have stuck on Radio 4 or one of the BBC channels as a backdrop to whatever it was I was doing, now the teatime default is Horror and an episode of TNG (or possibly CBS Action and original series Trek if the TNG on offer is especially irksome), followed by Incredible Hulk (more recently Highlander: The Series) and then a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, bizarrely scheduled so a four-part story always runs over three evenings. One effect of this has been to turn Doctor Who into an element of the background hum of my life: I’m routinely watching most of two or three stories a week without even thinking about it, so I’ve stopped sitting down and watching the DVDs in a state of (oh dear, sorry) mindfulness, which is why the Who content on the blog has dropped away a bit (apologies to the two or three people who actually enjoyed reading that stuff).

Still, set against this we have the opportunity to enjoy a range of classic old horror movies – Quatermass and the Pit, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Asylum, all on at relatively accessible times (even as I type they are showing Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde) – and also some pretty terrible films to snigger at too. Just the other day was a triple-bill of Stonehenge Apocalypse (wherein someone snaps ‘Get me authorisation for a nuclear strike on Stonehenge!’, and this is far from the stupidest bit), Grizzly (a showing of this on ITV twenty years ago was preceded by an apology from the network ‘for the poor quality of this film’), and Warlords of Atlantis, which…

Well, hang on, I’m not sure whether Warlords of Atlantis shouldn’t go into the ‘classic of yesteryear’ category. This is very far from being a respectable film nowadays, but it was the 15th highest-grossing movie in the UK for 1978 – I know times have changed, but being 15th in 2014 would have put you ahead of proper big movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Interstellar – so there’s clearly something going on here that audiences liked. On the other hand, this is what some members of my family always used to call a ‘Trampas movie’, by which they meant that it features Doug McClure having a fistfight with someone while a rubber monster waddles around in the distance.

woa

Like the other Trampas movies, this one was directed by Kevin Connor, though the series’ previous association with Amicus was perforce concluded by the winding up of the company. Beyond the fact that this is an original story rather than a raid on Edgar Rice Burroughs, any changes in content are not immediately obvious. On this occasion McClure is playing two-fisted bathyscape engineer Greg Collinson, who has been retained by marine archaeologist Charles Aitken (Peter Gilmore, famous at the time for The Onedin Line) and his dad, who are secretly searching for… well, the movie’s called Warlords of Atlantis, take a wild guess (the setting is, as usual, vaguely late-Victorian). Not entirely surprisingly, given the pedigree of the series, their diving bell is soon under attack by a rubber monster, soon after which they discover a mysterious golden statue.

When the statue is winched aboard the ship chartered by the Aitkens, the avaricious deckhands plot to get rich quick by killing Collinson and the archaeologists and keeping it for themselves, but before the mutiny can properly get going the ship is attacked by a giant octopus (no, really) and the crew are dragged beneath the waves – Collinson and Aitken get pulled along in the diving bell, too.

They all wake up in, you guessed it, Atlantis, which on this occasion looks rather like Malta, mainly because that’s where the location filming was done. Atlantis turns out to be an oppressive sort of place, with human slaves under the thumb of a ruling elite from, and you may not have seen this bit coming, Mars. One of the main duties of the slaves is to defend the outlying Atlantean cities from marauding rubber monsters called Zaargs (the titles include the wonderful credit ‘Monsters by Roger Dicken’).

I don’t know, what’s wrong with our culture today? I can’t imagine anyone having the nerve to feature monsters called Zaargs in a new movie. People are just too concerned about being laughed at and would rather be all post- and meta- when it comes to that sort of thing. I may start a Campaign for Proper Monsters (or possibly Real Zaargs) in new movies. More Zaargs, less meta!

Anyway, the Martians whisk Aitken off to join their intellectual elite, which is Atlantean for ‘have his mind painfully extracted’, while Trampas and the rest are slung in a dungeon for fraternising with local slave girl Delphine (Lea Brodie) who was abducted off the Mary Celeste with her dad (Robert Brown). A fortuitous attack of the Zaargs allows them to escape, but naturally they have to attempt to rescue Aitken before going back to the diving bell and trying to get back to the surface.

Well, all right, much of Warlords of Atlantis definitely falls into the ‘unintentionally amusing’ camp, with camp very definitely being the operative word. But I find it almost impossible to be too hard on a movie which features a scene in which the principal cast wander stoically across a sound-stage while crew members hurl flying piranha fish at them from behind the camera, while the giant octopus attacks which bookend the film have a sort of kitsch grandeur to them. The fact that this is one of the very final examples of a certain kind of earnest British fantasy film also predisposes me to like it, too.

Of course, this is also a movie made with an eye on the lucrative American market, hence some of the more bizarre casting decisions: not just McClure in the lead, either. Prominently cast as the senior management of Atlantis are Daniel Massey and, most preposterously of all, Cyd Charisse, in one of her final movie appearances. Charisse was of course best-known as a dancer and for her spectacular legs, which may be why the fashion sense of the Atlanteans tends towards the extremely brief hemline. Further down the cast list are a couple of actors well-known for playing Americans in British productions, Shane Rimmer and John Ratzenberger, making this the only film in which Scott Tracy from Thunderbirds and Cliff from Cheers wrestle a rubber octopus together.

All that said, this is a surprisingly lavish-looking movie, mainly due to the location filming on Malta and some half-decent matte paintings of the Atlantean interior. On the other hand, the script (by Brian Hayles, at one point a noted Doctor Who scribe) is clumpingly obvious and possibly even a bit primitive in places. The script started life under the title Seven Cities to Atlantis, and the cities have embarrassingly obvious names like Troya (the third city), Vaar (the fourth city), Chinqua (the fifth city) and so on.  The Martians stick a sort of glass bucket on Charles’ head at one point to show him the hellish technocratic superstate they plan to engineer on Earth, and he has visions of… a commercial  for a British Airways Concorde and a British Rail Intercity 125. Hmmm. I wonder what the Atlantean word for bathos is.

Oh, but I’m kicking it again and I don’t want to. Of course it doesn’t make any sense, and of course it’s wildly silly and – if we’re honest – more than a bit all over the place. There’s a lot here to enjoy and very little to offend or upset, and it is, as I say, pretty much the last of its breed, so cherishable in its own way. It’s a bad movie, true. But it’s a good bad movie.

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When I was but a lad, one of the joys of public holidays and the dog days of summer was the tendency of the TV programmers to fill gaps in the schedule with low-budget SF and fantasy films from the 60s and 70s. (These days you would probably get a programme about antiques or a repeat of the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final, and this is supposed to be progress.) As a lad, I always used to turn up to these things wide-eyed and undemanding, but even so there was a subset of the films which I always suspected weren’t quite up to scratch. These were what my elder male relatives would refer to as ‘Trampas movies’.

At the time I had no idea what they were on about, but now of course I understand this is a reference to the character in the TV show The Virginian played by Doug McClure, and it’s McClure who’s the face of the films I’m talking about: The Land That Time Forgot. The People That Time Forgot. (But not Creatures The World Forgot, a Hammer dinosaur movie which omits to include any dinosaurs.) Warlords of Atlantis. And, in 1976, Kevin Connor’s At The Earth’s Core, perhaps the most perfect time-capsule of mid-70s pop culture imaginable.

core

Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, on this occasion McClure plays David Innes, who with his old mentor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) is testing their new invention: the Iron Mole, basically a big metal drilling vehicle (the model is, by the way, beautiful). Things inevitably do not go according to plan and the machine goes out of control. The intrepid duo eventually find themselves in a barren wasteland populated by hostile, savage, subhuman creatures. It obviously takes them a while to figure out that they are not in the Welsh countryside (their intended destination) but Pellucidar, a vast subterranean otherworld.

After a somewhat underpowered action sequence with the first of many extraordinary Pellucidarean beasties (most of them realised through the wonders of suitamation), Trampas and Cushing are nabbed by the Sagoths, homuncular thugs intent upon enslaving the local human tribes. Cushing is surprised by the fact that the Sagoths seem to be in charge, declaring that the humans are clearly intellectually superior, but as the only innovation they seem to possess over the Sagoths is their mastery of the bubble-perm hairdo, it’s unclear what he is basing this on (maybe the doc is just speciesist). Present among the slaves is Princess Dia (Caroline Munro, an iconic actress if ever there was one), but things between her and Trampas are not allowed to get soppy.

Everyone is dragged off across the soundstage to the City of the Mahars, the Mahars ruling the roost in Pellucidar. This is literally true as the Mahars look awfully like birds (strictly speaking, awfully like stuntmen in extremely ambitious bird costumes) – Cushing identifies them as ramphorynchi, and as it’s Peter Cushing I would not dream of arguing with him. The Mahars seem to have mesmeric powers (possibly everyone is just knocked into a stupor by the dreadfulness of the monster suits), which they use to dominate the lesser races and be generally gittish to everyone in Pellucidar.

Anyway, soon enough Trampas manages to escape, though not before stumbling upon a scene of the Mahars ravaging some attractive some tribeswomen (cue many gobsmacking shots of the Mahars ‘taking wing’, i.e. swinging inelegantly across the set on the ends of wires). Trampas solemnly swears he will liberate the humans from the oppressive Mahar regime, and then (one can only guess) sack his agent. But first he’s got to rescue the lovely Dia from her captors, Hooja the Sly One and Jubal the Ugly One…

Yes, as you may be able to tell, this script is the work of Milton the Unsubtle One, or Mr Subotsky as he was actually listed on Amicus’ letterhead. The thing about Milton Subotsky is that here we’re talking about someone who had a reasonably successful career as a producer of genre movies, but whose ability as a screenwriter was not, er, always apparent. He seems to have had only the shakiest grasp of either SF or fantasy as genres, though this does result in the charming ‘bit’ recurring in his work where, preparatory to any kind of scientific undertaking, someone solemnly announces that they’re going to ‘check the gyroscope’. Possibly this was just a favourite euphemism in the Subotsky household.

Anyway, the script for At The Earth’s Core is not really what you remember the film for. (Though it’s not a million miles away from that of the more recent, more notorious ERB-adaptation John Carter of Mars.) It just about services in terms of getting the various characters from place to place and inserts to required sequences of mayhem and jeopardy, but it certainly doesn’t linger in the memory and it’s very hard to shake the sense that the whole thing is a bit juvenile: for instance, there are many significant looks exchanged between Trampas and the princess, but never the slightest indication that he has actually got around to checking her gyroscope.

Seemingly sharing this view as to how the movie should be pitched is Peter Cushing, who goes all out as the comedy relief character. Cushing, of course, has a well-deserved reputation as a consummate professional with a near-miraculous ability to lift dodgy movies through sheer force of will. Except here: in this movie he’s just plain bad, the most jaw-droppy-open moment coming with his delivery of the line ‘You can’t mesmerise me, I’m British!’ followed by a comedy cross-eyed gurn.

Doug McClure, on the other hand, actually seems to be taking proceedings seriously, which is rather sweet. He’s really a good leading man for these films – he’s big and inelegant and unsubtle, but then so are they. McClure alone is not a good enough reason to watch this film, and neither is the garish art direction or Mike Vickers’ prog-rocky score. The special effects are striking, as I’ve said, but not really in a good way.

And yet, and yet: by any objective measure, At The Earth’s Core is thorough-goingly terrible, but the fact remains that it’s a hard film to actively dislike, and it was a substantial box-office hit back in those dim pre-Star Wars days. (It was #18 on the UK chart for 1976 – a position held in more recent years by respectable films like The Great Gatsby, War Horse, and Black Swan.) Nothing with this kind of kitsch grandeur is made any more, and so it has a certain charm simply as a period piece. But I would be reluctant to recommend it any more enthusiastically.

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