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Posts Tagged ‘monster movie’

John Sherwood’s 1956 film The Creature Walks Among Us doesn’t get off to a very promising start, as we meet insanely wealthy, and likely just insane doctor William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his wife Marcia (Marilyn lookalike Leigh Snowden), whom you just know is going to turn out to be trouble. They are driving to his boat, berthed in Florida, where a gaggle of interdisciplinary boffins have been assembled for a very special, and somewhat nutty mission: they are going to hunt down and capture the gill-man, still on the run (if that’s the right expression – possibly ‘on the splosh’ would be better) despite being shot at the end of Revenge of the Creature. It’s all a bit flat and on the nose.

Sherwood worked on the two previous gill-man films as assistant director, but you really do miss the presence of Jack Arnold, who had been promoted to more prestigious projects by this point (it is, perhaps, significant that none of these ‘prestigious’ movies has anything like the reputation of his SF and horror work). You can’t help thinking that he would have found a way to lift the film out of the rather pedestrian furrow it pursues, for most of its first half at least. We get to know various scientists on the team, most of whom are quite dull, learn that the relationship between the Bartons is strained on account of his jealous nature, get suggestions that one of the team may have designs on Marcia, and so on.

Finally, and we must be about half-way through the film’s allotted 77 minutes at this point – the pacing is really shocking – the hunt for the gill-man bears fruit as the boffins contend with the creature in the Florida swamps. Someone chucks kerosene over the gill-man and it does seem to be a combination of third-degree burns and chemical tranquiliser which overcomes the proud but ornery beastie. As usual, he is dragged off to be examined, poked, and prodded.

The Creature Walks Among Us probably isn’t quite as good even as its immediate forebear, but it does have one curious idea to offer, which enters the narrative at this point. The gill-man’s, er, gills have been badly damaged when he was set on fire, but a medical examination reveals he does have lungs as well, he just needs encouragement to use them. And so, using the kind of complex scientific procedure known only to mad boffins in 50s SF B-movies, the gill-man is surgically converted from an aquatic denizen of the deep to a land animal. As a result of this, the creature’s whole physiognomy begins to change, losing much of his fish-like appearance and becoming rather more human. He also seems to have been put on a strict diet of those protein shakes gym bunnies live on, as he bulks up like you wouldn’t believe – the original incarnation of the creature had a rather sinous, sinewy appearance, whereas this mutated version is just a hulking tank of a monster. The scientists decide that the now more human creature will need clothes, so he spends the second half of the film wandering around in what look rather like medical scrubs.

Quite what the thinking was behind this transformation in the monster, I really don’t know – it doesn’t really have a material impact on the plot of the film. Perhaps the original gill-man suit was falling to bits after two movies, and the revised costume was cheaper to fabricate. What it does make for is an evem greater sense of the gill-man as a victim of human cruelty and callousness – never mind being stuck in a tank and then poked with a cattle-prod, in this film the poor old gill-man even loses his gills! What is a gill-man without his gills, I ask you? Perhaps he’s just a man. Perhaps that is the point after all.

Certainly the more humanised creature is a rather more subdued and less violent individual than he used to be, and much less prone to forming ill-judged romantic attachments to inappropriate partners. (Perhaps more than his gills got surgically taken off.) In this movie, the humans are quite capable of handling all that sort of thing for themselves, as Barton and Marcia continue to drive each other crazy and Jed the boatman (Gregg Palmer) continues to press his adulterous suit with her. It’s all a bit like something out of a melodramatic potboiler, only with a seven-foot-tall guy in a rubber mask in the mix somewhere, and you know it’s going to end badly for quite a few of the people caught up in it.

That’s the other slightly odd thing about The Creature Walks Among Us – in the first two film, the gill-man was the main menace and driver of the plot, mainly due to (as noted) his habit of fixating on the leading lady. Not only is he much more sympathetic in this film than even the previous one, but he isn’t even the main villain – that role goes to Barton. The gill-man’s role in the climax is a retributive one, as an agent of some kind of natural justice – he’s not really a menace, he’s the one who ensures the villain gets what he deserves. (And yet the film still ends on a sombre, ambiguous note, with the gill-man shambling towards an ocean where he can no longer survive, perhaps choosing death over the cruelty and unfairness of human civilisation.)

I’m probably making this film sound much, much better than is actually the case, because as an actual piece of film-making it’s fairly shoddy stuff, not even lifted much by the presence of competent performers like Morrow and Rex Reason (the two of them also appeared together in Jack Arnold’s classic flying saucer extravaganza This Island Earth). As noted, the pacing is rotten, the budget is clearly very low, and Sherwood just doesn’t have Arnold’s way with the camera. But it does have a couple of mildly interesting ideas to its credit, and one thing about the gill-man trilogy I’ve never seen much commented on is the fact that it really does feel like it has a kind of unity of conception – the three films are all about human beings screwing around with nature in general, and the gill-man in particular. He steadily becomes less of a monster and more of a victim as the three films continue – this is possibly the weirdest and least expected bit of sustained character development in the whole of Hollywood cinema. Or perhaps I’m just clutching at straws. In any case, there are just enough interesting ideas here to make the film worth watching – at least, if you enjoyed Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, you’ll probably won’t regret watching this one, either.

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These days, doing a series of sequels is so often part of the game plan when a movie is made that the key personnel are frequently signed up on multi-film contracts right from the outset. Sequels weren’t always so respectable, nor profitable, and so it’s rare to find all the major cast members coming back in older films of this type. Sometimes, the reappearance of even a relatively minor cast member can feel like a pleasant surprise.

So it is when Nestor Paiva reappears as Lucas the boat captain in Jack Arnold’s 1955 movie Revenge of the Creature, reprising his performance from the same director’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Paiva’s the only speaking character to come back (Ricou Browning is still in the monster suit for the underwater sequences), but it’s still a welcome touch of continuity when he does. Following all the shenanigans of the original film, word has got out of the existence of the prehistoric gill-man, supposedly a missing link between terrestrial and marine life (though Lucas declares it to be nothing less than a being of demonic power, stronger even than evolution itself!). Ocean Harbour, a water park in Florida, has hired fish-wrangler Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) to bring it back alive for study and display. With admirable briskness he does just this, even though it involves the customary bout of wrestling with the gill-man and the use of what I believe is sometimes known as dynamite fishing. The gill-man is dragged back to civilisation (Black Lagoon, we hardly knew ye) and installed in a tank, manacled to the bottom.

It turns out that Joe Hayes is not in fact the hero of the movie, for this honour goes to animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar, something of a fixture of Jack Arnold’s SF films). Clete decides to head on down to Florida and check the gill-man out, but not before the moment for which Revenge of the Creature is probably best known and perhaps most notable. One of Clete’s lab assistants gets a theoretically amusing bit about some of the experimental rats: the actual gag is pretty lousy, our interest stems from the fact that the assistant is played by Clint Eastwood, making his big-screen debut. Well, you gotta start somewhere, I suppose: there’s not much here to suggest that Clint would go on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed film-makers of the late 20th century, but there’s only so much you can do with a duff gag about rats and a lab coat. (For his next movie with Agar and Arnold, Clint was promoted to jet pilot, playing the guy who bombs the monster at the end of Tarantula!.)

Anyway, Clete arrives in Ocean Harbour where he quickly becomes fascinated by the gill-man, and very nearly as interested in glamorous icthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) – who, to be fair, is extremely pretty and meets the ‘must look good in a bathing suit’ requirement of this kind of film with flying colours. While Clete and Helen are supposedly studying the gill-man, what they actually seem to be doing more closely resembles a rather cruel training regime, heavily dependent on the use of what looks like an underwater cattle-prod (I’m sure there must be health and safety issues with that). Poor old gill-man clearly hasn’t figured out that these surface girls are nothing but trouble and that age-gap relationships never work (especially when the gap in question is between the Devonian Age and the Anthropocene), and falls hard for the lovely Helen. Eventually he busts out, jumps in the sea, mysteriously doesn’t die from osmotic shock, and starts causing all sorts of trouble.

The film’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far, but at this point it takes a definite turn in the direction of Jaws – The Revenge. Clete and Helen decide to take their minds off things by going on a bit of a holiday together (it’s all outwardly very respectable so as not to outrage the censor, but they’re clearly going to be at it like rabbits), and check into a motel on the edge of the Everglades. What a very extraordinary coincidence it is that it is next to this very establishment that the gill-man should clamber out of the swamp and come sniffing around. Clete and Helen try to get on with their holiday, but the finny stalker just won’t quit, and there is bound to be trouble before the film reaches the end of its 82 minute running time…

Even post-Shape of Water, it’s hardly as if Creature from the Black Lagoon is an unequivocally acclaimed movie, so it’s hardly surprising that its sequels have an equally schlocky reputation. This is no great injustice, however, as Revenge of the Creature (I think the working title Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon has a better ring to it, but it is fairly on-the-nose) is not some great overlooked classic, either as sci-fi or as a monster movie. It starts off sort of acceptably okay and then quickly becomes quite variable – the middle section, in which the gill-man is chained up in his tank while Clete and Helen blandly romance each other in between bouts of shock therapy, goes on for a long time without very much happening, while the final section is just a bit silly, and saddled with an ending which is abrupt and unsatisfactory – you can almost see the film-makers hitting the 82-minute point and then calling it a day.

Taking the creature from the Black Lagoon out of the Black Lagoon was probably a necessary step for the sequel, but it does rob the film of something of the original’s atmosphere. I can see there’s something to the school of thought that the first film is, on some level, an eco-fable about the destruction of the environment, but that doesn’t seem to have carried over as such – what is interesting, though, is that there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to make the gill-man more sympathetic this time around. He is blown up, dragged off to civilisation in a coma, chained to the bottom of a tank, repeatedly electrocuted, and so on – if only he didn’t have these wildly over-optimistic designs on pretty girls in bathing suits, the audience would probably be rooting for him.

As it is, the film is just too silly to really get that involved with. The script and setting aren’t as interesting as in the first one, but in every other respect, while it’s a step down, it’s no more an outright disaster than Creature from the Black Lagoon. It doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or original with the gill-man, but it’s sort of mildly diverting – no more than that, though.

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Studio blockbusters these days have such massive resources behind them that it is very rare for them to be technically substandard in any appreciable way: art direction, production design, sound, special effects, and cinematography, all of them are usually no worse than extremely competent, and frequently excellent. So if you go to see one of these films you can at least be assured it will be pretty to look at and listen to. For this not to be the case would be about as surprising as the film missing a major sequence simply because they forgot to switch the camera on.

However, because this has become so standard, it follows that achievement in these areas is not in and of itself grounds to praise a movie, unless it really does feature something exceptional. All that this technical accomplishment has done is throw into sharp relief which films have good scripts and directors, and which are – not to put too fine a point on it – a load of old nonsense assembled by a hack. This brings us to Jurassic World: Dominion, directed by Colin Trevorrow. (This looks very much like a fridge title, like you couldn’t have guessed.)

For once the film takes pity on the casual filmgoer and opens with a brief recap of the state of play following the end of the last installment: following the escape of a dozen or so dinosaurs from a mansion somewhere in North America, four years later the prehistoric beasties have spread worldwide, multiplied seemingly like crazy, and are now a major pest, threatening to cause an ecological collapse. (If you think this doesn’t particularly make sense, well, what can I say, you’re right.)

What’s really striking is how little this situation informs most of the plot of the rest of the film, which has nothing to do with this clash of wildlife from different eras (unless you count the interactions of the multi-generational cast). The first main plot thread instead concerns tough former dinosaur trainer Duke Thundervest (Chris Pratt), who is still very reliant on his ability to calm down any dinosaur just by holding up his hand, and his wife Brenda Bigeyes (Bryce Dallas Howard) [Note to self – double-check character names before submitting final copy]. They have retired to the wilderness to raise their adopted teenage clone (Isabella Sermon) and are also occasionally looked in upon by one of Duke’s pet velociraptors, which has been through a sort of virgin birth experience. Bad guys working for an Evil Corporation kidnap both the clone and the baby velociraptor, which makes Duke and Brenda both cross and sad.

Meanwhile, and you may well be noting that dinosaurs do seem to be a bit tangential to everything that’s happening, giant locusts are threatening to devastate the world’s food supply – or at least those parts of it not controlled by the same Evil Corporation from the other plotline. Working the case is Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and to help her, in a strikingly vague and general way, she recruits her old boyfriend Alan Grant (Sam Neill). We get another take on that scene where a character repeatedly says ‘I’m done, I’m finished with all that’ before immediately going off on one more adventure, which in this case also includes one of those moments where two characters call each other by their full names just for the audience’s benefit (‘Ellie Sattler!’ cries Alan Grant. ‘Alan Grant!’ cries Ellie Sattler).

Grant and Sattler are knocking on a bit for blockbuster movie characters, but they date back to the original 1993 Jurassic Park and so they have been allowed in for reasons of pure nostalgia. Sure enough, when they fly off to the Evil Corporation’s hide-out, it is with the help of their old acquaintance Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is one of the boffins in residence there. Needless to say, Duke and Brenda are heading in the same direction, but can there be anything more than a spurious and contrived link between the kidnapped clones and the giant locusts? (Answer: no, not really.)

The original Jurassic Park still stands up really well today, I would argue, mainly because it understands how to do a story about dinosaurs: the scientists responsible are misguided and quickly got rid of, and the film becomes a simple question of how not to get eaten. There is a unity of focus and purity of intent which is completely absent from the more recent films in the series. This film has an actual villain with a nefarious plan and various henchmen; stopping him and dealing with the minions is initially far more prominent in the movie than any dinosaur-related peril. From being the focus of the film, the dinosaurs become a kind of set dressing – the first act and a half often resembles a Bourne or Mission Impossible film in which people just happen to keep driving past a triceratops. Some of these sequences are very well staged – for example, a car-chase around Malta featuring laser-guided attack-dinosaurs – but it’s hard not to get the impression that somebody somewhere is missing the point.

Towards the end the dinosaur-related peril does improve a bit, with dialogue like ‘Are there dinosaurs in the mines?’ (the answer turns out to be a surprising ‘no’, technically, as the beasties in there are actually synapsids) and the usual chasing about. However, the decision to bring together the entire surviving principal casts of both iterations of this franchise, and also to include a bunch of new protagonists to broaden out the ethnicity of the genome a bit, results in some heroically unwieldy sequences, almost resembling a coach tour gone astray rather than the heroes of a blockbuster movie. (In the practically obligatory helicopter flight to safety at the end of the film, people are very noticeably having to sit on each other’s laps as there just wouldn’t be enough space otherwise.)

The whole thing is actually quite unwieldy and off-kilter, and conspicuously badly-written in places (one character, presented as a hard-bitten and self-interested mercenary when they first appear, undergoes a rapid and complete change of attitude and loyalty for no obvious reason at all). At least there aren’t any made-up dinosaurs this time – a tyrannosaurus gets wheeled on, rather like the Rocky Balboa of the Cretaceous Era, for a climactic tag-battle against a giganotosaurus, along with a therizinosaurus (another slightly off-the-wall choice). It seems like we are supposed to feel some kind of sympathy and attachment to this grizzled old thing, simply because it also was a fixture of the older films.

Speaking of grizzled old things… as noted, the eventual message of the film is the importance of life-forms from different geological ages getting along with each other. The only way it actually incorporates this idea is by putting Sam Neill and Chris Pratt in the same scenes during the final act. I have to say that the three elder stars really do make the most of their opportunity here and manage to be funny and charismatic and generally lift the film; it’s not a great experience even so, but without them I can only imagine it being a horrendous slog. Something awful seems to have happened to Chris Pratt: a light has flickered out behind his eyes and he is notably boring all the way through (he’s much, much more entertaining in the Thor trailer which is running before Dominion in most places).

(In my head I imagined an entirely different Jurassic Park sequel with Neill and Dern’s characters: a touching autumnal romance about two characters rekindling their relationship during an entirely peril-free visit to a quiet and extremely well-run dinosaur sanctuary. I’d pay to watch that. It would have more going for it than Dominion does, anyway.)

In the end Jurassic World: Dominion is the kind of sequel that feels like it exists only because the people responsible felt obliged to make a sequel. It doesn’t feel like there was a bold new idea or a radical reinvention of the concept burning in anyone’s mind. It just takes up all the bits from the recent films, adds a few really old ones, along with some new ones that don’t really belong, and idly shuffles them all around a bit half-heartedly. The result is a film which happens in front of you for a couple of hours, gradually getting louder, and then stops. Possibly you will have been entertained occasionally during all of this. But it feels like the work of a franchise which has gone extinct and just hasn’t noticed it yet.

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As we have observed, The New Avengers is not a show which is afraid to revisit concepts and storylines from the parent shows – up to and including doing a direct sequel, of sorts, to an episode from nearly a decade earlier. So for it to take another run at the notion of influential figures being replaced by enemy duplicates (previously utilised in The Man with Two Shadows and They Keep Killing Steed) is not really a surprise. The unexpected thing about Faces (a collaboration between Dennis Spooner and Brian Clemens, though I wouldn’t like to guess who did which bit) is that it should be quite so ramshackle as a piece of writing.

The premise is as follows: two tramps played by Richard Leech (fourth of four) and Edward Petherbridge are settling down to a dinner of barbecued rabbit one night when they spy a Rolls Royce cruising by – and in the back is a man who is the spitting image of one of them! Either they are providentially close to his home, or very fast on their feet, because when Leech’s double decides to take a dip in his private pool they are on the scene to put an arrow in him (Petherbridge, like many tramps, is a crack archer) so his down-and-out double can replace him.

It gets even more ridiculous: having adopted this new identity less than a minute earlier, Leech is entirely untroubled when Steed turns up, greeting him with a genial ‘Hello, John!’ How does he know Steed’s name? It’s vaguely alluded to that Leech’s character has fallen on hard times from a fairly elevated position, but there’s no suggestion he actually knew Steed in his earlier life, nor does Steed indicate he knew someone who was a lookalike for the man Leech has replaced (though, as noted, he has previously met three different duplicates of him, along with six duplicates of Edwin Richfield, four Peter Bowleses and Julian Glovers, two Peter Cushings and Christopher Lees, etc).

Anyway, from this frankly wobbly beginning we are invited to believe that the lust for power and influence seizes the two tramps, and they recruit a disgraced plastic surgeon to run a mission for the needy in London. The homeless population is apparently bursting with duplicates of the rich and powerful, whom they proceed to spend five years substituting for their originals.

Buying the premise is probably the most demanding thing about watching Faces, because it really does require you to put your disbelief in a iron death-grip. If you can put all this to one side, the episode is not unrewarding – Patrick Macnee gets some good material as an unusually driven Steed (though we meet yet another of his never-heard-of-before best friends who is basically just there to die), and there is some clever plotting – working independently of each other, Gambit and Purdey both infiltrate the mission undercover and (obviously) are recruited to replace themselves. (Given the episode is arguably making some kind of comment about class divisions and the resulting institutionalised envy in British society, there’s also a curious little scene where Steed gently but firmly puts Gambit in his place for not coming from the ‘right’ background – he has the temerity to turn up to a clay-pigeon shooting contest with a pump-action shotgun, for instance. It’s mildly done, but Steed seems quite in earnest.)

The result borders on farce, albeit with a few genuinely serious moments, but it’s well-enough played to make up for a lot, and at least it seems aware of its own ridiculousness (it concludes with Macnee near-as-dammit breaking the fourth wall and quipping to the audience). Well-enough to make up for the outrageous implausibility of the premise? Probably not, for me, but your mileage may differ, of course.

Something much more agreeably bonkers rocks up next in the form of Spooner’s Gnaws, which also has a rather familiar feel to it – it’s supposedly another riff on the central idea of the same writer’s Thunderbirds episode Attack of the Alligators, but an awful lot of sci-fi B-movies could also end up charged with inspiring the story.

Kicking the story off on this occasion are the activities of two avaricious government research scientists, Thornton (Julian Holloway) and Carter (Peter Cellier), who plan to steal a load of top-secret research materials and set up in the private sector, working on ways to grow giant tomatoes. As you would. This they manage to do, even after Thornton (who is a proper mad scientist) kills the agent routinely tailing him: the fact Thornton is never under suspicion suggests the dead man was really shoddy at his admin, although this in itself probably doesn’t mean he deserved to die. Anyway, off they go into the wide world of private enterprise, where it’s much easier to overlook little incidents like Carter accidentally pouring half a vial of atomic growth hormone down the sink…

At this point there’s another one of those awkward narrative jumps as we leap forward to the anniversary of Mr Bad Admin’s death – I don’t expect anyone’s ever attempted to write a definitive New Avengers timeline, but it would be an odd-looking beast with (presumably) up to a dozen episodes ‘nested’ inside Last of the Cybernauts..?? and Gnaws, both of which take place over more than a year.

Anyway, twelve months on, Thornton and Carter are happily growing giant solanaceae, and everyone but Gambit and Purdey seem to have forgotten about the mysterious murder of the bad admin man. Steed’s concern is with very odd seismographic readings under London – it’s almost as if something very large is moving around in the sewers…

Gambit is sent into the (reasonably clean, dry, and well-lit) tunnels to investigate, and turns up various oddities – Steed’s initial thought was that the Other Side were up to something involving subterranean bugging, but he runs into one of their security men (Jeremy Young, fourth of four) who has exactly the same idea (the Other Side have their own seismographs, it seems). He also meets a maintenance man (Keith Alexander, a supporting artist in a couple of Gerry Anderson projects) who complains that someone has been dragging enormous sacks of grain into the sewer – normally this would attract every rat in the network, but they are surprisingly thin on the ground…

A moody little squeaker. (Or maybe not so little.)

Well, the actually number of rats in the sewers may have been dramatically reduced, but by bodyweight the rat population is still in very good shape, because – as I’m sure you’ve figured out – Carter and Thornton’s atomic growth hormone has found its way into one rat in particular, which is now the size of a van and nibbling its way through everything in its path, including maintenance workers, tramps, and anyone else in an area adjacent to a sewer access point. Late 1976 and early 1977 was truly a blissful time to be alive if you were into this sort of thing, as – a few weeks after Gnaws first aired (this was effectively The New Avengers‘ Christmas episode) – Dr Who also did a story where a sewer full of giant rats was a key plot point. The poorness of the BBC rat costume is often criticised, but at least they took a swing at putting the actual rat in-frame with the leading actors. Gnaws‘ approach is to film a real rat on model sets and rely on slick editing for the rest of it, but I’m still not sure it completely works.

As you might expect, this is a somewhat polarising episode – I’m not sure anyone really loves it, but there are certainly some people who absolutely hate it. I agree it has its issues – it can’t seem to decide whether to be a spoof or a pastiche of 50s monster B-movies, and as a result the tone fluctuates constantly between self-mocking goofiness and genuine horror (I watched Gnaws again for the purposes of this piece not long after Behemoth the Sea Monster, and was a little surprised to find it had earned its own entry in The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, where it got a respectable two-and-a-half out of five brontosauruses – but then again the same book gives both On the Town and Bringing Up Baby five out of five, and they don’t even have monsters in them). Also, any episode of The New Avengers which basically resolves by Gambit arriving with an enormous gun has got serious foundational problems.

But on the other hand, it does have a certain kind of goofy charm to it, there are some nice performances, and the fight between Jeremy Young and Joanna Lumley is upper-bracket stuff. Possibly most importantly, this was one of the episodes I watched with young nephew not long ago, and this was probably the one he enjoyed the most – certainly he got the most absorbed by it, at several points showing a distinct desire to hide behind the sofa (decor choices prevented this from really being an option). Saying that Gnaws really succeeds as a piece of mildly scary children’s TV is an odd thing to say about an episode featuring a violent opening murder and six men being killed and in some cases devoured by a giant rat, but it’s some sort of success. In any case, I find it impossible to genuinely dislike the episode.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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Reckless use of atomic energy upsets the natural order of things, spawning a terrible monstrosity which rises from the sea and threatens the dominion of man, devastating a famous city while scientists work desperately to find a way to resolve the situation. Given a capsule synopsis like that, it’s not entirely surprising that Behemoth the Sea Monster is often dismissed as simply a low-budget rip-off, a minor work cluttering up an already overcrowded genre. Well, maybe. In some ways I feel it’s the very familiarity of many features of this film which make it interesting, if not exactly essential. (This film also trades under the title The Giant Behemoth, which is just a bit too close to a tautology for my tastes.)

Okay, so, basic information first – this is a British-American film, released in 1959, and co-directed by Eugene Lourie and Douglas Hickox (Hickox’s debut production). Already connoisseurs of the loopier kind of genre film (and sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else hanging around this blog) will have pricked up their ears, for Hickox would go on to make the brilliant (and almost entirely different, in terms of sensibility) Theatre of Blood, while Lourie’s name appears on a number of interesting and accomplished films, most obviously The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gorgo.

It’s over a decade now since I made my first vaguely systematic attempt to write about American sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, but watching Behemoth get underway brought it all flooding back – it so closely adheres to the conventions of the genre that one could make a pretty good case that this is an archetypal exemplar of it (despite not actually being an entirely American film itself). It opens with the requisite cod-Biblical quote, declaimed over stormy seas, before a montage of A-bombs going off and a rather poetic monologue about scientists investigating the aftermaths of such blasts. This comes from imported American star Gene Evans, playing (but of course) visiting nuclear physicist Dr Steve Karnes, who is addressing some sceptical establishment scientists. The scene is a familiar one, but the dialogue is unusually well-written and the substance of Karnes’ speech is still strikingly on-point today – the ocean is not some bottomless dustbin for all the world’s rubbish and poison, but part of our environment, and what affects the tiny creatures at the bottom of the foodchain will eventually reach us, with unforeseeable consequences. Needless to say Karnes gets a cool reception, but local eminence Professor Bickford (Andre Morell, basically reprising the same performance he gave in Quatermass and the Pit on TV a few months earlier) is sympathetic and respectful.

Nevertheless, in terms of establishig the theme of the film, this whole scene is a bit on-the-nose and is basically just there to introduce the two lead characters nice and early on. When a bit of actual plot becomes essential, we go off to Cornwall where a nice old fisherman, checking his tackle on the beach one evening, is killed when… well, it’s initially unclear, for there is some radiophonic noise and a sudden flare of intense light. But we know this movie is called Behemoth the Sea Monster so we suspect the answer will prove to be an outlandish one.

The old man’s death is followed by masses of dead fish washing up on beaches all around Cornwall. Mixed in with the fish is something which looks a bit like mashed potato but virtually burns the hand off one young fisherman who tries to pick it up; we are left to conclude for ourselves what the lethal mash actually is. (The experienced viewer will not be surprised by the strict delineation in the movie between the working class (brave, headstrong, essentially helpless), the military (brave, organised, essentially helpless), and the scientific establishment (brave, brilliant, and capable of doing virtually anything if given enough time and resources). The few women characters in the film don’t benefit from such careful character development, though they are certainly less brave.)

Karnes and Bickford hit the scene and eventually conclude that something big and radioactive is lurking off-shore – unfortunately it proves to be undetectable by radar or sonar, which pads out the movie a tad. But, like any respectable sea monster, Behemoth rapidly gets bored with hanging around out in the sticks and sets course for London, though not before frying a local farmer and his son first. The trail of car-sized footprints tips our heroes off to what they’re up against, and they check in with eccentric paleontologist Dr Sampson (Jack McGowran), who seems more delighted than anything else by the prospect of seeing a live relict dinosaur (Behemoth is, we are informed, a paleosaurus from the fictitiosa group – a close relative of the rhedosaurus, if one were inclined to be ungallant). Suffice to say he probably changes his opinion when Behemoth nukes his helicopter while he’s attempting to observe the creature.

Well, you get the idea – and even if you haven’t, the chances are you’ve probably seen another film with something very similar going on. Thankfully the film is soon able to stop counting the pennies, abandon its attempts at something approaching documentary realism, and splurge on the big stop-motion monster rampage stuff which is what the audience is here for: Behemoth sinks the Woolwich car ferry (this would probably have been a big deal at the time), tears down a few cranes, appears to demolish Westminster Bridge, and generally wreaks havoc in London, while the scientists are desperately concocting a means to eliminate this menace… but is it already too late?

I fished out my dog-eared copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Companion to refer to while watching Behemoth the Sea Monster and found it received only a distinctly average rating of two brontosauruses out of five. This strikes me as a bit unfair, but also perhaps understandable, as this is in many ways the awkward middle child of three very similar films directed by Lourie in the course of a decade – it doesn’t have the bravura animation sequences of Ray Harryhausen to boost its climax, just some quite primitive and clearly underfunded work from an elderly Willis O’Brien and his team, nor does it have the colour or scale or brilliant central twist of his final film. So what’s the point of it, if it brings nothing new to the party?

Well… new is a relative thing, after all, and what makes Behemoth quite striking, if you’re not prepared for it, is quite how seriously everyone is taking the story. This kind of film is often dismissed as basically just kiddy-fodder nowadays, simply because even the best effects have dated so poorly they now seem laughable, but the film is trying to make serious points about the environment and ecology, albeit in a monster-horror-movie idiom. It seems to me that Lourie wasn’t just repeating himself – he’d clearly seen what Ishiro Honda had done with the ‘atomic sea monster’ idea in the first Godzilla film, producing an movie of extraordinary resonance and bleakness, and was attempting to incorporate some of that atmosphere back into an English-language genre movie.

This is most obvious in the sequence where the monster first comes ashore and attacks London. Some of the acting from the extras is charmingly awful, it’s true, and the monster is notably less charismatic than other equivalent beasts, but there’s a real sense of panic and terror in some of the scenes featuring fleeing crowds – the camera is much closer to them than is usually the case with a crowd-fleeing-from-giant-monster shot – and as Behemoth blasts them with atomic rays we see them tumbling to the ground, flesh covered in gruesome radiation burns. This is not kids’ stuff; nor is the way that (in the ferry sequence) it is firmly established that women and children are amongst the victims. In terms of monster-related grimness, I’ve seen nothing like it except in the original Godzilla.

All that said, I still found Behemoth to be slightly hard work – it’s not a complete rip-off of any single film, but that doesn’t mean there is a single element of it that is genuinely original. All of its ideas come from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Godzilla, or other sci-fi monster movies of the period – whatever creativity is involved just concerns how the different ingredients are mixed together. If you’re genuinely interested in atomic monster horror movies, then the subtle difference in the formula here will probably be enough to make it a rewarding watch for you. If not, then there are several other movies telling basically the same story with much more impressive results.

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Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway for a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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The line between inspiration and plagiarism can be a thin one sometimes. Occasionally one comes across a movie which, shall we say, wears its influences very openly, and the question is – did the makers see another movie and genuinely enjoy it so much they felt compelled to create their own homage to it, regardless of brazen this appeared? Or were they simply just cashing in?

The thing about Bert I Gordon’s 1957 film Beginning of the End is that you sort of want it to be the former even while you find yourself regrettably compelled to conclude it’s the former. This is a film which is virtually a beat-for-beat remake of Them!, the granddaddy of a certain subgenre of 50s monster movies – but on the other hand, director Gordon operated extensively in this same area – this wasn’t his first take on this kind of material, nor his last (he became known as Mr BIG not just for his initials, but for his fondness for making giant monster pictures).

(The poster even looks like a knock-off of the one from Them!.)

The beginning of Beginning of the End opens in time-honoured style with a young couple enjoying the classic 1950s pastime of sitting together in a parked car. You know this is going to end badly for them, for we are not quite yet at the point where young adults are allowed to be the protagonists in this kind of film, and so it proves, for the end of the beginning of Beginning of the End sees something terrible but obscure descend upon them (she screams, helpfully establishing the tone).

After the end of the credits which are at the beginning of Beginning of the End (oh, yes, I can keep this up all night), we are briefly with a cop car which comes across the wreckage of their car, but soon find ourselves with plucky young reporter Audrey (Peggie Castle), who really is the protagonist – for a bit at least. The disappearance of the young couple is soon eclipsed by the fact that a whole town in the vicinity has been flattened and its entire population has vanished. The National Guard has surrounded the location and are trying to keep the whole thing quiet. This naturally involves keeping Audrey well away from the ruined town, which is a bonus for the producers as they don’t have to spend any money on a ruined town set. This kind of consideration weighed quite heavily on the minds of the producers of this film, I suspect.

Audrey, however, has sufficient pluck to keep on investigating, which leads her to the research laboratory of Dr Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves, deploying his usual gift for unwarranted gravitas). Sadly she doesn’t have sufficient pluck to keep Graves from stepping in and assuming the role of lead character at this point, and she rather vanishes into the background from this point on. Despite being an entomologist, Graves is working on solving the problem of feeding the world by growing giant radioactive fruit and veg, with the help of his assistant. His assistant has been rendered a deaf mute by a radiation accident, which may be to create pathos and increase representation, but is more likely because this means they don’t have to pay the actor for a speaking role.

Graves, Castle, and the mute dude head off to investigate a nearby grain silo which was destroyed some time before the town, and are startled, to say the least, when a badly-composited grasshopper the size of a bus rears into view. (The movie tends to use grasshopper and locust interchangeably, but as you can perhaps tell, precise scientific rigour is not Beginning of the End’s strongest suit.) Graves’ assistant is gobbled up by the grasshopper and the other two flee the scene, possibly to call their agents.

Yes, the bugs have been nibbling on the radioactive veg and as a result have turned into insatiable giants, and the local woods are infested with the things, as the National Guard learn to their cost when they investigate. This isn’t the most flattering presentation of the Guard, or at least its leadership, as the plot demands they basically ignore all of Graves’ very sensible warnings and act like idiots throughout. But there is an even more pressing problem than the public image of the National Guard’s command: the giant grasshoppers have eaten everything in sight and are swarming in the direction of Chicago. Are the authorities going to have to drop a nuke on the city, or can Graves come up with a way of dealing with the colossal pests?

So, as noted, another giant bug movie very much in the same vein as Them!. I think Them! is a genuinely great movie, and one positive thing you can say about Beginning of the End is that it does make the virtues of the earlier film much more obvious: it works very hard to be gritty and realistic, has a real sense of looming disaster, and makes good use of decent production values – lots of extras and some relatively good giant ant puppets. Beginning of the End couldn’t actually afford any of these things and so it concludes with Peter Graves firing a tommy gun out of a window at live-action grasshoppers which have been persuaded to sit on a photographic blow-up of a Chicago tower block.

Alarm bells may ring for some viewers when the screenwriting credit (which, lest we forget, comes towards the end of the title sequence at the beginning of Beginning of the End) is given to Fred Freiberger, working with Lester Gorn (his only venture into screenwriting). Fred Freiberger has a notorious reputation as the man who was on the scene when Star Trek, Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man all got cancelled; he once favourably compared being a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp to having to deal with incensed Trekkies. (We have discussed his special screenwriting talents before.) This time, however – well, the script doesn’t exactly shine, but neither is it completely terrible.

If the script has a problem it’s that it calls for the giant grasshoppers to do all sorts of things the special effects department is just totally incapable of realising. They can just about manage a moment where a grasshopper rears into view from behind a low obstruction in the foreground; when they have to start attacking buildings or chasing people through woods, disaster looms, and not in the way the script wants: ropey back-projection battles obvious stock footage to a standstill. It is this which launches Beginning of the End into the realms of camp and is responsible for its dismal reputation.

I have to say, though, that I found it pretty watchable on the whole: it’s formulaic from start to finish (or perhaps that should be from beginning to end), and not especially well-made in any department, but there’s something oddly comforting and enjoyable about it. Graves in particular is obviously taking it very seriously and, largely as a result, the movie has a sort of kitsch grandeur to it which I found very entertaining. A bad movie, but not quite a total waste of time.

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One of the things that Hollywood writers grumble about and bring up when the Writers’ Guild contemplates strike action is something called the possessive credit: this is when, at the start of a film, it says ‘A Film by…’ and then the director’s name. If you’re talking about a pure piece of auteur cinema, written, directed and otherwise shaped by a single person’s vision, then fair enough – but if the director’s just realising someone else’s script, you can see why the writers might get a bit peeved about their contribution being downplayed in this manner.

Certainly there are occasions when the use of the possessive credit feels – what is the mot juste here? – silly. But directors like to think of themselves as artists and creative visionaries, even when they are making films like Godzilla Vs Kong (which is apparently ‘A film by Adam Wingard’. I’ll be honest and confess I’d never really heard of Wingard before, but apparently he made a name for himself doing visceral micro-budget horror films and things loosely linked to the mumblecore movement (low-fi, low-budget, naturalistic movies). How therefore he ended up in charge of a $200 million franchise movie I am not entirely sure; he must have made a very good pitch.

For anyone who doesn’t follow the meta-plot of Hollywood monster movie franchises as closely as I do (I suppose it’s possible such people do exist), this is a follow-up to both 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the movie gets underway, we learn that giant ape Kong (never actually referred to as King Kong here, in case you were wondering) is essentially being kept in protective custody by monster-wrangling agency Monarch, to stop Godzilla from tracking him down and beating him up (there is bad blood between their families, or something). Deeply concerned for the big guy, and de facto leader of Team K as the movie progresses, is primatologist Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who has a cute deaf-mute adopted daughter who shares a special bond with the ape.

The plot proper kicks off when colossal nuclear dinosaur Godzilla surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico and launches a seemingly unprovoked attack on an industrial facility in Pensacola owned by one of the world’s leading tech companies. The world is shocked by this sudden aggression, but firmly on Team G is Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), who is sure there has to be a reason for the attack and sets out to discover what it is.

Meanwhile, maverick geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is recruited by the owner of the tech company (Demian Bichir, giving an enormous, swaggering, I-am-delighted-by-my-own-evilness performance) to help find a means of fending Godzilla off should he start playing up again. This involves locating a mysterious power source only found at the hollow core of the Earth. The expedition involves going down a very deep hole they have dug in Antarctica, and…

Well, look, here’s the thing. As regular readers will know I am a big fan of Japanese monster movies (and indeed monster movies in general) and happily cut them all kinds of slack as long as they get the good stuff right. And, up to a point, Godzilla Vs Kong delivers the goods in spades: the monster rasslin’ between Kong and Godzilla is as imaginative, violent, and destructive as one could wish for. (Similarities between this film and the jokey King Kong Vs Godzilla are thin on the ground, but both are obliged to address, in different ways, the fact that Godzilla’s atomic breath appears to give him a distinct advantage. Bonus points are also given for there actually being a genuine winner when the two face off in the third act.) Hereabouts we have previously discussed the issue of the aesthetics of giant monster battles, and the slightly tedious tendency of Hollywood movies to set them at night. There’s a touch of that here, but it’s offset by the film’s general use of a garish, neon-saturated colour palette, even if it is a bit video-gamey.

Nevertheless, you can’t just have 113 minutes of monsters fighting each other; there needs to be some kind of connective tissue of plot and structure to give it all a bit of context and significance and, dare I say it, logic. It’s true that this is a film about how the ancient rivalry between an enormous ape and a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur is impacted by the plans of a lunatic billionaire who has decided, for reasons known only to himself, to build a giant cyborg replica of said nuclear dinosaur using body-parts harvested from an alien space dragon, and thus it could be argued that normal standards of credibility and logic are not fully in effect. Even so, much of the plot of the film is nonsensical, reliant on outrageous and absurd plot contrivances and devices. You can see that they’re hoping that if they go really fast and keep hitting you with visual grandeur, lavish CGI and new plot developments, a sort of fridge logic will be in effect and you won’t notice how little of it makes sense. But fridge logic has its limits and even as you’re watching it, you can’t help but notice how under-exposited most of it feels.

But as I say, it does look very pretty, with some impressive new monster designs (including a new version of yet another member of the classic Toho kaiju stable). You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though, who join the long and distinguished roll-call of performers who have signed up for a Godzilla or Kong film and found themselves all at sea. Takeshi Shimura, Raymond Burr, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jean Reno, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins: there is no shame in joining their company, as Skarsgard, Hall, and various other members of the cast do here. Bichir, on the other hand, seems to be trying to win a bet: it’s a big and enjoyable performance, but camp in a way that most of the film seems to be trying to avoid.

In the end, it’s colourful and action-packed and sort of fun, but it’s like drinking a bucket of cola instead of enjoying a balanced meal. I’m rather surprised that the proper critics have gone so easy on Godzilla Vs Kong, admitting to its various flaws but suggesting they don’t matter and may in fact be inherent in this kind of a movie. Obviously, I would disagree: even the critically-mauled King of the Monsters was more coherent and satisfying story-wise. It may just be that the presence of Kong, as opposed to a group of more obscure Japanese monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah, makes the new movie more accessible to a general audience. I didn’t find it as satisfying as either of the films immediately preceding it, but it is entertaining on a superficial level; it’s just a shame they couldn’t have come up with a way of keeping all the monster fights but surrounding them with a plot that actually made sense.

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It’s never a good sign when you sit down to watch a movie and then, several minutes in, discover you’re actually watching an entirely different movie to the one you were thinking of. Sometimes things just blur together and get mixed up in the great pop cultural pond we all, to some extent, swim in. Mind you, sometimes film-makers hardly seem to be doing themselves any favours.

Peter Hyams’ The Relic opens with some South American tribespeople doing their ritual thing, while being observed by a concerned-looking foreign anthropologist. He is John Whitney (Lewis van Bergen), and after the tribe feed him their special sauce and show him an interesting-looking statue Whitney becomes rather agitated and heads for the docks, where his various finds and samples are being loaded for shipment back to the USA. But there has been a mix-up, leaving him in apparent despair…

Hmmm, all very ominous, and when the ship arrives in the port of Chicago six weeks later the police are bemused to find that the entire crew seems to have disappeared. Closer investigations led by boss cop D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) uncover a few dismembered corpses and severed heads floating in dingy recesses of the ship. As is apparently SOP, the Chicago PD dismisses this as some kind of drug-related incident. (No wonder South American people get so annoyed about their continent always being stereotyped as a lawless gang-ridden hell.)

Yet another week goes by and we finally arrive at the setting for most of the rest of the movie: the Chicago Museum of Natural History, which employed Whitney. We meet whip-smart evolutionary biologist Margo (Penelope Ann Miller), who, this being a Hollywood movie, looks like a model, and various other characters about the place. One of them is a crusty but lovable old scientist played by James Whitmore, but if he has indeed been cast just as a call-back to Them! it’s not dwelt on at too great a length. Whitney’s boxes have finally arrived but just seem to be full of funny leaves and bits of a broken statue.

Then, and you might think about time too for a lot of setting-things-up has gone on, one of the night security guards at the museum is discovered with his head ripped off and the brain inelegantly extracted and partly devoured. Even in Chicago this is not normal, and D’Agosta quickly spots a connection with what happened on the ship. The museum is locked down and a search launched – but the board of the place have powerful friends and want it reopened in a hurry, mainly because they are having a gala to celebrate the launch of a new exhibition and the great and the good of the city will be there. Can the police guarantee their safety with a brutal, possibly inhuman killer lurking somewhere on the premises? (Clue: no.)

I have to confess, I only watched The Relic because it was on a free streaming site and because Guillermo del Toro and Mira Sorvino are people who tend to do interesting work. Hang on, A, you may be saying to your screen, what the hell have Guillermo del Toro and Mira Sorvino got to do with any of this? A very good and fair point. Could it possibly be that I have got the 1997 monster movie The Relic, directed by Hyams and starring Miller, mixed up in my head with the 1997 monster movie Mimic, directed by del Toro and starring Sorvino? It would explain why I was sort of expecting giant beetles which never really appeared, but beyond this I will maintain a dignified silence.

Mind you, The Relic is fairly generic stuff even in its better moments: I kept having flashbacks to other movies like Arachnophobia and Q: The Winged Serpent (too many severed heads will have that effect on a person) – also, and this may sound weird, films like The Poseidon Adventure. One of the things that keeps The Relic from being an entirely formulaic monster mash is that it attempts a rather unexpected genre fusion with the classic disaster movie formula – it’s not just about a brain-eating monster on the loose in a big museum. It’s about a brain-eating monster on the loose in a big museum during a ritzy opening gala with various important and wealthy people on the premises, for whom being devoured is not normal.

And to be fair, once the movie reaches this point, it does acquire a certain sort of energy and interest, and it perks up a good deal. The problem is that this point arrives about 60% of the way through the movie. Can you imagine what Die Hard would have been like if the terrorists had only arrived 60% of the way through? Or The Thing, if the dog had only turned into an alien well into the second half of the movie? Perhaps you begin to see the problem.

The thing about The Relic is while it does have a reasonably good monster design, decent performances and a script with moments of inventiveness and wit, there’s something fundamentally cack-handed about the script. The pacing, structure, and exposition are all a bit fluffed, and it may just be that the film is trying a bit too hard to be clever. Most monster films like this one just start off with someone finding an egg somewhere remote, but The Relic is all over the place talking about genetics and viruses and hormones and the hypothalamic region and tribal customs. Is it all strictly necessary for a film in which the sweet spot is watching anonymous actors have their skulls munched upon? If it is, then The Relic doesn’t do a good enough job of convincing me of that.

You know, I like The X Files and I like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which are really the things that the early sections of The Relic reminded of the most – but in the end I didn’t really like it as much as either of those. The problem in the end is that a lot of it feels so generic and written-by-formula that it’s almost stale, while its innovations just end up a bit confusing and maybe even a bit silly. The odd good moment, but I’m betting that Mimic must be at least a bit better than this.

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