Posts Tagged ‘Ray Harryhausen’

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With the UK in danger of vanishing entirely under a pile of snow, I find myself wanting to watch something light and sunny and daft. And so, to a movie which holds the distinction of being the first Hammer film I ever saw, round about the age of six.

Hammer horror movies were a staple of the schedule (admittedly the late-night schedule) in the eighties and nineties – my own adolescence might have been rather different if they hadn’t – but they’re very little seen on TV nowadays, which I think is rather a shame. However, still relatively common now, as it was in the late seventies, is the appearance of one or other of the Hammer caveman fantasies. You know, I say caveman fantasies, but if we look at the poster we can perhaps get an idea of what the film-makers’ priorities really were:


Yes, it’s Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C., and as you can see the actual cavemen are not the main feature of the publicity. Somewhat more prominent (in every sense of the word) is former weathergirl Raquel Welch, almost wearing the remains of several rabbits (actual rabbits are mysteriously missing from the film itself). If you can tear yourself away from Raquel, I would direct your attention to a couple of other features of the poster: the strapline ‘This is the way it was‘, which is a very brave assertion given the poster features a caveman being eaten by a brontosaurus, and the bit of the blurb concluding ‘…a savage world where the only law was lust!‘ – which, as we shall see, is arguably overegging the pudding.

Anyway, One Million Years B.C. is set in what scientists have come to refer to as the Dumbassic Era of history, and opens with the formation of the Earth – which strongly resembles someone letting off a catherine wheel at the other end of a very smoky shed (I may be giving away special effects secrets here). Eventually we find ourselves in a bleak, prehistoric world (for once, not the woods out the back of Hammer’s Borehamwood production base but the Canary Islands), where we meet the good folk of the Rock Tribe, who – as their name suggests – are the original rockers, with matted hair, beards, and bearskins (well, maybe not the last one). In charge of the Rock Tribe is Akhoba (Robert Brown, later to evolve into James Bond’s boss), but jockeying for preferment are his two sons Sakana (Percy Herbert, a ubiquitous if fairly anonymous film actor) and Tumak (John Richardson). Also on the scene is the luscious, slightly naughty cavewoman Nupondi, played by Martine Beswick. I know everyone goes on about Raquel Welch when they talk about this film, but if you asked me to make a choice between her and Martine, I really don’t know which way I’d jump (so to speak). Even if I plumped for Raquel, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t be thinking of Martine.

Sorry, back to the film. John Richardson is an interesting example of that very rare stock figure, the Hammer hunk – in most of their films, the juvenile male lead ends up playing a very secondary role to character actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Richardson, however, gets to play a proper leading man role here and in She (he gets a reasonable part in Vengeance of She, too), based as much – one suspects – on his good looks as his acting ability. There is a persistent story that he was also married to Martine Beswick, too, so all-in-all his position on the All-Time Jammy Git chart is looking good.

Some things never change, and even in the Dumbassic Era a family barbeque is the cause of friction. Tumak finds himself kicked out of the Rock Tribe and banished into a vast lava desert inhabited only by carnivorous ape-creatures, and poorly-composited giant spiders and iguanas (effects maestro Ray Harryhausen apparently suggested using the blow-ups, the idea being that having seen live creatures, the audience would be more likely to think the animated dinosaurs were real. Ray’s logic is at fault here, as all one is left with are two different kinds of obvious special effect, the animation (which is great) and the blown-up real animals (which are rather embarrassing)).

On the other side of the desert is the sea, where Tumak encounters the Shell Tribe, a more culturally and technologically advanced group (they have invented spears, painting, and leg-shaving). He finds himself strangely drawn to Loana (Welch), perkiest of the Shell Tribe’s young women, although this may be because she had less rabbitskin to work with when fashioning her outfit than anyone else in the tribe. Despite saving a child from an attack by some sort of theropod carnivore (is it a juvenile tyrannosaur? is it an allosaur? does it really matter anyway?), Tumak gets himself kicked out of the Shell Tribe too, mainly because he is a selfish thicko. Loana finds herself caught in the grip of a force beyond her control (I’m talking about the requirements of the script, by the way, not love) and goes along with him.

Meanwhile Sakana has carried out a bit of a coup in the Rock Tribe, Martine – sorry, Nupondi has done some mildly provocative dancing, and Akhoba has been doing some very dodgy I-am-crippled acting. At this point the plot starts to unravel a bit, as is wont to happen when your film has virtually no actual dialogue beyond grunting and people saying ‘Akita!’ to each other. (This appears to mean ‘Please render assistance,’ though I could be wrong.) People start wandering back and forth between the two tribes almost at random (or being flown there by helpful pterosaurs), develop an almost-supernatural knowledge of events they weren’t present to see, and so on. In the end there is a volcanic eruption which switches the plot off and gets rid of various members of the supporting cast (hey, no spoilers – but suffice to say I Am Not Happy).

For a long time this was the most financially successful film Hammer ever made, although I suspect it has lost this crown to the Nu-Hammer movie The Woman in Black. There’s something mildly depressing about that, given that this is such a silly piece of disposable kitsch, but I suppose it’s also understandable given its very, very obvious charms and the fact you know exactly what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch it.

The star attractions, other than Martine and Raquel in those fur bikinis, are Harryhausen’s animated dinosaurs. There are fewer of these than you might think, and it’s quite a long time before the first proper one shows up – a decently animated archelon (surprisingly, the Shell Tribe call the archelon ‘archelon’, suggesting they have also invented Latin taxonomy). However, the actual fight between the archelon and the Shell Tribe is so dull that even some of the characters involved don’t seem that interested in it. Much better is the fight between Tumak and the tyrannosaur/allosaur/whatever – not quite up to the standard of the sequence with Gwangi and the cowboys from The Valley of Gwangi, but still top-tier Harryhausen. Equally good is an all-animated fight between a triceratops and a ceratosaurus, and there’s quite a nice fight (you may have noticed a pattern developing) between duelling pterosaurs as well.

The rest of the time we are watching actors in skins grunt at each other. To be honest, the differentiation between the surfer-dudes of the Shell Tribe and the rockers on the other side of the desert had the potential to be reasonably subtle, but the movie chooses to beat you about the head by giving all the dudes blonde hair and all the rockers brown hair. At least the script shows a rare flash of logic by making Tumak as much of an arse as everyone else from his tribe – as mentioned, he is stupid, selfish, and bad-tempered, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, at which point he appears to lose all personality and the script starts to unravel too.

And what a script it is. Apparently it took four people to write this thing, which works out at roughly one word of dialogue each – nice work if you can get it. I wonder why they insisted on using made-up caveman language? It surely can’t be out of a desire to maintain historical accuracy, because this film doesn’t have any. I suppose not having any dialogue does mean your film will travel much better internationally (hence those healthy box office returns), but the downside to all the grunting and the ‘Ahot! Akita Tumak!’ stuff is that it not only robs your film of any subtext, it also takes away most of your text. You can’t have any characterisation that can’t be expressed through physical action, your scope for plot complication becomes severely limited, and – perhaps most crucially – it becomes very difficult to be witty or even broadly funny without resorting to slapstick. So you end up with a very simplistic, earnest film which is still palpably absurd.

Although it is still a fairly well-behaved film. All that stuff about the ‘law of lust’ on the poster is rather misleading, as the primitive passions of cavemen and cavegirls get virtually no screen time. The fur bikini stuff is all quite wholesome and not prurient at all (well, there’s a bit where Martine and Raquel have a catfight – you’d’ve thought Martine’s track record in From Russia With Love would stand her in good stead, but clearly not…), and the film isn’t really suggestive at all. This would be amended with the release of the follow-up, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, in which Victoria Vetri’s fur bikini memorably goes a-flyin’ (although the version which shows up on TV these days has been expurgated).

In the end one is left with a collection of simple, honest, largely visual and almost wholly guilt-free pleasures – Raquel, Martine, and Harryhausen are, on the face of it, a combination unlikely to produce anything of moment, but One Million Years B.C. does seem to have lasted. It’s silly. It’s very silly, in fact. But it’s also a lot of fun.

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Writing about Dracula AD 1972 a couple of weeks ago, I talked about the slightly odd phenomenon of good films being made to cash in on the success of bad ones. I’m not sure this necessarily applies in the case of the film under discussion now, but – well, you’ll see what I mean as we go on.

I find I just can’t summon up the enthusiasm to complete our recent run of Christopher Lee-and-Hammer-themed reviews by revisiting To the Devil a Daughter – especially not when there’s a stack of classic 50s B-movies sitting demanding my attention. So let us begin with Eugene Lourie’s (fairly) seminal 1953 monster movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Our story opens in the arctic north, where a team of US scientists and military personnel are engaged in a experimental operation with the codename Operation: Experiment. If nothing else this suggests that US government code-name writers of the 1950s were not quite up to scratch. However, everything else is working just fine and the plan to drop an atom bomb on the north pole goes like a dream. Quite what the benefit of doing this is to anyone involved is never made clear, but this is a film operating in a different, rather more innocent world.

This is not to say that all is cheerful. The tone is distinctly ominous: ‘every time I see one of those things go off, I feel like I’m writing a chapter in a new book of Genesis!’ says one character. Atomic energy still carries a dreadful mystique for these people. This turns out to be entirely warranted as it transpires Operation: Experiment has defrosted a giant reptile that was frozen under the ice cap. The creature slips into the Arctic Ocean and heads south for its ancestral stamping grounds, which just happen to be in the vicinity of New York City (yes, this film predates current thinking on continental drift as well as radiological theory).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the only witness of the creature’s first appearance has no evidence and is (not unreasonably) shipped off back to New York in a rubber plane when he persists in talking about monsters. He is Tom Nesbitt (a slightly odd name for someone who’s clearly of mittel-European origin, but then he is played by Swiss actor Paul Christian) and he spends most of the next half hour trying to get evidence that the beast is real before a genuine catastrophe occurs. In the meantime the beast is swimming merrily south, chowing down on fishing boats and lighthouses on the way.

With the aid of a genial and cuddly old paleontologist, who keeps reminding everyone he’s just about to take his first holiday in thirty years, and who might as well have DOOMED tattooed across his forehead, Nesbitt persuades his old army buddy (Kenneth Tobey, who we’ll be meeting again when we look at the original Thing From Another World) that the danger is real. However, this is just too late as the beast is already on the verge of attacking New York itself…

It’s hard to be really objective about a film so old and influential. The plot, by modern standards, is rather creaky and cliched, but this is the film that coined many of the cliches, writing much of the grammar of the monster movie genre. One notable deviation from this, however, is the way that the beast puts in a full appearance very early on. This appears to be a trademark of producer Hal Chester: the same thing happens near the beginning of Night of the Demon, another of his films.

That said, it’s not really around very much until the final act, when it runs amok in the streets of New York and we get a proper look at Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent animation. Harryhausen opts to invent his own kind of dinosaur, the rhedosaurus, and as you might have guessed it’s unlikely to get the seal of approval from genuine paleontologists for all sorts of reasons, the great man animating his own preferences rather than attempting something properly realistic. This is meat-and-potatoes stuff compared to some of the stunning work Harryhausen was to do in the sixties, but it does the job, in a film which is markedly less campy in tone than you’d expect from the subject matter.

There’s a lot of atom-age terror going on here, as you could probably have guessed, although none of it quite as hysterical (and unintentionally funny) as in the trailer – ‘Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers?’ yells a caption, while talking heads of average people give measured opinions such as ‘Who knows what waits for us in nature’s no-man’s-land?‘ and ‘Impossible? Unbelievable? Fantastic? But I tell you – it could happen!‘ One almost gets the impression of modern civilisation being crushed between the primeval threat of the beast and the ominous new menace of the atomic age.

However, the movie doesn’t quite succumb to techno-fear, and in the process neatly answers the ‘why don’t they just use heavy artillery to kill the monster?’ problem which routinely bedevils this kind of film. The beast, you see, is loaded with prehistoric viruses to which modern life has no resistance. Blowing it up would just scatter infectious material everywhere. The solution is to shoot the creature with a radioactive bullet (the sharpshooter recruited is a pre-stardom Lee Van Cleef, who seems slightly disgruntled to be appearing in this kind of film), the implication being that while science may spawn the odd monster, it’s also full of ideas for getting rid of them too.

This movie, though by no means a masterpiece, essentially stakes out the territory for most of the classic monster movies that followed (director Lourie went on to direct one of my personal favourites, the 1961 British suitamation movie Gorgo, which is basically a rehash-with-a-twist of this film). But perhaps its greatest legacy lies in the fact that it was a smash hit in Japan, inspiring Toho Studios to make their own film about a rampaging prehistoric creature unleashed by a nuclear blast, the result being a legendary icon of which the world has not yet heard the last. (Rather appropriately, there are some startling similarities between the first section of the American Godzilla and Beast, as the idea comes full circle.) On its own terms, though, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a fun and competent movie which takes itself just seriously enough, and knows better than to outstay its welcome.

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