Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Three Musketeers (1948)

There have been many many film versions of this classic tale by French author Alexandre Dumas, the earliest dating back as far as 1903. This MGM production is probably one of the most remembered adaptations alongside the Doug Fairbanks 1921, black and white silent film.

As I'm sure you all know, the tale follows a young D'Artagnan (Gene Kelly) as he travels to Paris so he can attempt to become a Musketeer for the King, the King's elite guard or soldier. On his journeys in Paris he bumps into the famous trio of Musketeers one by one and ends up challenging them. Of course after some swordplay and fisticuffs with Cardinal Richelieu's men they all become firm friends. What follows are the various missions and scrapes the foursome get into trying to stop Richelieu tricking the King of France into war with Great Britain. This involves racing to England to retrieve some precious jewels the Queen of France gave away to the English Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham. D'Artagnan avoiding Richelieu's temptations of becoming one of his guards whilst trying to find his love Constance, who has been abducted by Richelieu in order to bribe him into his service. All the while trying to also avoid the temptations of Milady de Winter who eventually tries to assassinate the young cocky Musketeer.

There is obviously a little more to it than that but I really don't think I need to explain this well known story. Would it be a bit bold of me to claim this is the Gene Kelly version of the tale? That Kelly is the only reason to watch this movie? Well ya of course, because he isn't the sole driving force here, although I will admit I thought he would be. But there is no doubt Kelly is the main attraction with this movie, star power-wise. Knowing how athletic and likable the guy is it's hard not to think this. On this front you are not disappointed, Kelly leaps and bounds around the fake sets like a grasshopper on a sugar rush. Even today it's still impressive how awesome and daring he was when it came to stunts. I presume he did the stunts anyway, hard to tell but I'm pretty sure he did. Of course all this might come across as a tad quaint these days but remember everything you see is real, the balancing acts, the leaps, the rolls, the rope swinging and of course the frenetic sword fighting.

There is one long shot where D'Artagnan arrives at a small house, jumps onto a stone wall, then jumps onto the water-wheel, rides it until he is able to jump onto a tree branch with a bit of acrobatics, and finally swings into the house through the top window. OK there is a small cut before he jumps through the window so we can see a reaction shot from Kelly, but its still a perfect example of how fit, fearless and audacious these guys were. Admittedly I'm not sure it was all Kelly, but still impressive, as he swung through the window the camera followed right behind him, great shot.

To this degree everybody is impressive, the stunt guys take their hits well and thrown themselves across tables like pros. All the main cast do join in on the fights but the focus is often clearly on Kelly who revels in the danger. Most of the cast I am unaware of I will be honest but the inclusion of Vincent Price as Richelieu was genius casting, I don't even have to tell you how good he is in this evil sinister role. In all honesty the only other cast member I knew of was Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne (a smallish role), one of the first times I've actually seen her as a young woman!

Talking about the action, it was very clear to me how much this movie influenced following adaptations. Watching the sword fighting sequences, it dawned on me how similar these sequences appeared to Richard Lester's 1973/1974 movies. I thought to myself, have I seen this before? this style all looks very familiar. Watching the direction, pace and general visual appearance of these sequences at every turn, I am sure Lester copied this movie. I realise both movies are covering the same story so similarities are bound to happen but seriously, I was really shocked at how similar this movie and Lester's movies are when it came to the fight scenes. The actors even seem to move in the same way, as though they had been trained by the same guy.

What I did find slightly amusing was something I actually found out whilst watching a Bluray extra about another classic movie (an Errol Flynn one). Apparently, back in those days they used to paint the scenery so it looked perfect, in other words if the grass wasn't green enough, or the trees weren't red enough, they would spray paint them to get the desired effect. This is so so obvious watching this movie, most of the limited use of actual real outdoor locations (California) are so vividly coloured, overly so. They even, clearly, coloured the water for one small scene, it looks quite toxic actually, not right at all.

As for the sets, well they are undeniably lavish and gorgeous looking as were all sets back then. Whether or not everything is period accurate I don't know, but it sure as hell looks good and authentic to me. Most royal rooms look suitably regal and exquisite, dripping in bold colours and coats of arms. The regular peasant abodes are your standard Tudor-esque/olde worlde English pub look with timber frames, interior timber beams, lots of used candles and cozy open fires galore. Exterior sets are quite realistic looking to a degree, you can tell they are sets but they are charming without a doubt, everything looks so whimsical and angelic. Naturally the costumes and props are all just as glorious as everything else, bright, bold, colourful, and with a hint of pantomime about it all. I should also add that the Musketeer attire (the blue sash) looks almost identical to the Musketeer attire in Lester's movies.

Visually it's very pleasing to the eye, I think most would agree with that and would have guessed that from the start. The issue I had was the pacing, it tended to become rather dull when there wasn't any sword fighting going on, a bit smoochy in places, lots of exposition. Then at times things whizz by very quickly, one minute we're in France, then at sea, then England, then back in France, characters zoom about the countryside quicker than you can say fromage. The sequences showing us France at war with Great Britain are basically a few shots of a small group of soldiers on a dark rainy set that lasts less than a minute.

This is a hard one to judge really, I did enjoy it, but not as much as I had hoped for. I'll be honest, the light-hearted comedy actually let it down for me, it was too stupid, too slapsticky, and seeing Kelly mug for the camera was kinda lame. To be frank I don't think Kelly was the best choice for the leading role, sure he's got the athletic ability, but he hasn't quite got the acting chops, and his comic timing is hokey. The other three Musketeer actors were much better than Kelly, in fact everyone was much better than Kelly, Kelly was too much of a clown (forgive me!). I just didn't get a real rush from anything on screen, I didn't really feel emotionally engaged or intrigued because the movie is a bit too lovey-dovey and fanciful. I had a feeling it would be of course, seeing as Kelly was in the lead role. Thusly my favourite Musketeer movie/s must still remain the two Richard Lester epics (not counting the third).


Monday, 28 September 2015

The Blob (1958)

First impressions for this movie are somewhat mixed to be honest, I mean seriously, what the hell is going on with that opening credits song? Great balls of ectoplasm... it's like a flippin' jingle! You start to wonder if you're about to watch some kind of Disney flick about a friendly blob of jelly. The studio group that sung the tune was also called The Five Blobs, I'm not lying!

The plot is simple enough, the basic premise kinda being used over and over during this era. A single lonely meteor crash lands in a sleepy rural all-American town. A local man goes in for a closer inspection and ends up with his hand encased by some sentient pink goo. Eventually he is picked up by the young Steve (played by...errr Steve McQueen) and taken to the local doc. It is there that the pink goo starts to absorb people one by one, growing in mass and power. Of course no one believes Steve and his wild tales of a monster on the loose, but soon enough, after some persuasion, the townsfolk are greeted by the horrific truth.

Fun fact, the blob actually starts off grey in colour and only turns red when it starts to absorb humans, yummy! Although the blob is not in the least bit scary, it is a well-crafted creature considering it is just a blob of red goo. The blob was actually a small ball of silicone that had been injected with a dye to give it its red colour. Apparently effects wizard Bart Sloane used incredibly simply techniques such as miniature sets to give the creature a sense of size, and a special gimble device to help give the creature the appearance of movement within the tiny set models. So basically at times they were just making a small, slow-moving puddle, or ball, of silicone run/dribble/ooze to one side to achieve a sense of movement, almost like a thick droplet of syrup. Hanging the silicone upside down would give the effect of it rising up ready to consume its prey (remember the silicone was a very thick, slow moving, molten glass-like substance).

You can easily tell that for most of the blobs more dynamic movements, the silicone has been squeezed, pushed or blown through tight openings such as gaps under doors or vents. Then when the blob is required to retreat or change direction, the footage has been reversed giving the appearance that the goo is slipping backwards under a door or whatever. Simple yet very effective. Other more elaborate shots such as the blob attacking a diner were actually part cel animation along with rotoscoping, and the use of a black and white photo! It is impressive but an obvious effect, think of the Id monster in 'Forbidden Planet'. Amazingly there was no rear projection in the film (apparently), any shots of an actor with the blob were usually utilising clever props or just real blobs of silicone.

What is highly amusing (for me at least) is the fact that Steve McQueen is suppose to be a teenager in this movie. At the time McQueen was 27, yet he looked about 37 if you ask me. It really is quite funny to see McQueen acting like some naughty 18 year old kid sneaking out of his parents house, talking to other adults as if he were a child, and getting scolded by adults as if he were a child. The whole thing just doesn't work at all, it doesn't help that his sweetheart and other teen friends all look like they're in their mid 30's also. Plus at the start we spend ages getting involved in some pointless wishy-washy street racing sequence, seriously it goes on for like...ten minutes, and is completely pathetic. I suppose its to show McQueen's character as a bit of a bad boy that no one trusts, but it's so lame. Love how all the teens are so smartly dressed too, it's like watching your parents trying to be hip, meh...different era.

This naturally leads into the crux of the movie which is the teens trying their best to convince everyone (the adults) that a monster is killing people. Of course no one believes the pesky teens because they're all so untrustworthy and pesky, racing their highly colourful respectable cars at slightly dangerous speeds and being all polite n everything, damn pesky polite teens. Alas most of the runtime is taken up with us watching these teens trying to convince people, you don't really get much absorbing action from the blob, and when you do there isn't much to see.

Of course it turns out those pesky teens weren't lying (to the annoyance of one bitter cop), and it's up to everyone in the town to try and stop the thing before it gets any bigger. Honesty, the finale is reasonable tense as a small group of heroes get trapped within the diner with the blob slowly devouring it. Its a fun ending with some neat but cheesy effects, but you're never overly concerned of course because the trapped characters are McQueen, his bird and some kid, no way anyone's gonna get absorbed here. Would a bunch of fire extinguishers be able to freeze an alien entity? Would fire extinguishers be able to freeze anything? Errr...just go with it.

Like most other horror flicks of this era, they don't scare anymore, they are laughably corny. The hammy acting, the middle-aged teen characters, the fact the badass teens are so charming and polite, the fact you always get a mushy score playing over serious dialog revolving around anything serious (or anything) etc...The film looks lovely that's for sure, the effects are cool and the alien monster is great fun, I just wish we got a bit more of it. A primal killing machine, it can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with, it doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or...wait a minute.


Friday, 25 September 2015

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

Yes you read it correctly, we are really plumbing the B-movie depths here with this little beauty. Attack of the crab monsters huh, just when you thought they had used every known bug and fishy-type thing possible, they throw this at you, what's next...lobsters, ahem! Yes its yet another 1957 flick, the year of the giant creature feature, and yet again the movies poster is completely bullshit, at no point does a female get grabbed by a giant crab like that. You notice every one of these giant creature B-movies has an almost identical poster layout.

Believe it or not this movie is actually a Roger Corman offering. Maybe not so surprising seeing as this Hollywood legend has seemingly been around forever, making movies in all genres and having worked with everyone. In all honesty I was a bit surprised as I didn't realise Corman went back this far into the 50's giant bug phenomenon.

Plot wise its a bit different than the usual fair, not as straight forward as you might expect. OK...first off the basic premise is what you would expect, a team of scientists are sent to a remote Pacific island to look for the last team that went missing. At the same time they are also following on with the research into the effect of radiation in the area after nuclear bomb testing (of course). Naturally some giant mutated crabs ate the last team (shocking), and are a result of the bomb testing (you don't say). The interesting and bizarre twist comes in the fact that these crabs absorb the minds of their victims and are able to telepathically communicate with other living humans. When this happens the telepathic messages from the crabs are in the voices of the dead victims that have been eaten. So not only is this a giant creature feature, its also a weird kind of spiritual ghost story of sorts, well that's the way it comes across at times.

Now its clear to see this movie was made on a small budget, the fact its a Corman movie means you can bet your bottom Dollar it was probably made for a pittance. What gives this notion away? well for a start there is nothing to look at, no fancy sets, no lovely locations, no swish props or costumes etc...nothing. It was clearly shot on the coast in America somewhere and inside a small hut for the most part, probably a basic set was used. 

The giant crabs in question also look pretty terrible it must be said. Yes they do have some decent scale to them, they are large mechanical puppets that do look like crabs and the actors are able to interact with them. The problem being they obviously don't move too well, they tend to just sit in one place and move the odd limb around in jerky motions. The other problem being they have two large humanoid eyes, why would you do this?? it looks ridiculous. This has happened in other giant bug movies before, giving the creature humanoid eyes which in turn gives the creature a face, emotions, something you don't wanna see on a large killing machine. What's more these eyes look dreadful! big pupils, big eyelids and they almost look like they have eyelashes, they make the creature look like a giant child's toy. Seriously what were they thinking?!

Speaking of eyes, the lead female character (played by Pamela Duncan) sports some incredibly obvious and large fake eyebrows. Seriously these things look like they've been painted on with a thick brush and look totally out of proportion, its quite absurd really. As for the cast and their acting skills, well, there's not much to say really. We've seen this type of acting in all these big bug B-movies, its a very formulaic type of performance which doesn't really tend to change much. The characters are all the same too, the handsome lead, the older scientist, the attractive female and a few other blokes that are essentially monster fodder. The only difference here is the inclusion of a French character, it doesn't add anything really, other than a different accent to listen to.

In general, I didn't like this movie, the plot is just weird with all the telepathic nonsense going on. Other plot explanations just don't make any sense either, like how on earth these crabs manage to create earthquakes on the island, and why, but mainly how. Apparently the crabs want to reach the mainland so they can eat more humans and absorb their minds, no clue why they would wanna do this, or how this benefits them, but there you go. It feels more like an alien invasion sci-fi flick with all this talk of absorbing human minds, mind you (no pun intended), the film is atmospheric at times I'll give it that. There were moments when it did feel a bit creepy, especially with the haunting telepathic messages and the clicking noise the crabs make. There was also the odd bit of gore too, a decapitation and the loss of a hand, don't get too over excited though.


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Giant Behemoth (UK/US, 1959)

Right now, does anyone (anyone British) remember those old British TV ads for Chewits? The old 80's ones with the cheesy stop-motion Godzilla-esque dinosaur that goes around London (and the world) eating famous landmarks. If I recall the ads were even set in the WWII era, I think, anyway, I do firmly believe those ads were inspired by, and homaged, this classic transatlantic monster movie. This film itself was an obvious rip-off of the classic Ray Harryhausen monster flick 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms', which I think is clear to see, riding those coattails.

The plot was originally suppose to be about a strange radioactive blob that attacked the UK (yet another rip-off of another famous monster movie), but they changed it to jump on the giant lizard bandwagon. So as you now know this movie is about a giant Godzilla-esque dinosaur/lizard coming ashore and running amok through London. Once again its the old nuclear testing outcome that has caused this huge freak show but I'm not overly sure how or where this behemoth is suppose to have come from. Is it a mutation due to the radiation? if so what kind of marine creature was it originally? A lost species affected by the radiation that comes ashore to die? was it trapped somewhere and was released by the testing? We never really find out fully, but I think it leans more towards a mutated marine mammal, God knows what marine mammal. Anyway this massive monster surfaces in London and begins to terrify the locals by stomping on various buildings and vehicles.

In another idea rip-off slightly reminiscent of the Japanese kaiju movie, this behemoth is also able to emit electrical pulses from its body...which is saturated in radiation. These pulses cause heavy burns to humans which lead to death, yet at the same time this heavy radiation is also killing the dinosaur very slowly. Not entirely a Godzilla clone but certainly along similar lines methinks, overall this movie definitely has taken a few liberties with various ideas from other flicks. On the other hand did this movie influence the 1998 'Godzilla' movie? In that movie an old Japanese man blurts out 'Godzilla!' when seeing the beast near the start. Well in this 1959 movie the exact same thing happens with the first victim, his last words being 'Behemoth!' before dying, interesting.

Effects wise this movie clearly had a small budget, its not terrible, but its pretty shaky. The behemoth waddles around London awkwardly interacting with the small models as it squashes cars and knocks over tall structures. The models unfortunately look like models and the cars look like they are made out of soft clay or whatever, although the black and white film does help protect most of the obvious flaws. The actual behemoth creature doesn't look too bad but considering this film was made in 59, its quite poor compared to earlier giant bug/creature movies. The fixed facial expression with unblinking eyes is never a good thing. The worst thing has to be the rear projection monster footage against the live action actors in the foreground, this looks really bad and decidedly dodgy in all honesty. Other effects such as the electrical pulses are simply a white glaring light and burn makeup on the actors is pretty hokey.

Other live action sequences of masses of cockney folk all running for their lives through the grimy streets of London, are also terribly hokey and crappy looking. Obviously these are all extras, probably not getting paid much, probably not being directed too well and obviously have little to no experience in acting. This leads to some hilariously bad sequences of regular people pretending to be scared of nothing and running away from nothing (the monster would be added later as a rear projection effect). Although, again, it is interesting to see the old footage of London back in the late 50's.

Oddly enough, the effects and film on the whole does get a lot better, and more engaging, when the goodies try to stop the behemoth in their sub. They want to overload the monsters radiation levels by shooting it with a radium filled torpedo. Surprisingly the simple notion of just blowing the creature up is actually discussed and rejected in the movie because of the fact it would release radiation all over the capital. I like this because you'd half expect a movie like this to do just that without thinking of the consequences, but cleverly they do think about consequences and don't go all gung-ho. This leads to a relatively solid submarine sequence which looks good and is reasonably tense, quite the opposite to everything else in the movie.

Everything ends as you would expect of course, the behemoth destroyed, London in ruins with various people being eaten, crushed or burnt alive, and the main goodie characters being just fine and dandy. The military were used but end up being pretty useless as they always seem to be, and incredibly this movie didn't actually have any attractive main male or female characters! Nope instead its all ugly, balding middle aged men and old, grey haired blokes, at least a small degree of originality then. Final kudos must go to the quirky final scene which offers a cute little twist and further possible monster tracking adventures.


Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

Yep back in the 50's (or more specifically 1957 it seems) they made horror chillers using every kind of bug they could think of, not even the simple mollusk was able to avoid this fate. Yes a sea snail or sea slug I suppose, only these were of course giant prehistoric versions released by yet another pesky earthquake. To note, the films title is again ridiculous as the monster in question isn't actually a monster, its a mollusk as pointed out in the film, and it didn't challenge the world. The films alternative titles were also kinda dumb, 'The Kraken' which is surely an entirely different mythological beast and 'The Jagged Edge'? eh?

So anyway, do I detect a slight pattern in plots here? no no no no no...well yes, apparently so. As I already mentioned the sea beasties are released from their watery tombs by another earthquake, the beginning of all monster movies back then. Various military types are killed which triggers a big the military...again. Yep the good old US of A just loved their military back then, every monster that emerged from a crack caused by an earthquake, was dealt with by the military...after it attacks the military. Suffice to say this leads to the usual crack team of smartly dressed, slick haired chaps, a scientist type (this time a youngish one) and the obligatory attractive woman (this time with a young female child). Guess what follows?

I gotta be honest with this one, I found it pretty dull. For the most part this movie is purely dialog with little else happening. The cast go from room to room discussing stuff, from location to location looking at stuff, explaining scenarios to each other, lots of driving around and of course the other obligatory scene where everyone watches an old educational news film reel about their enemy and how it lives. In this case, the life of a snail and how it feeds.

On the other hand this is also one of the most atmospheric of the giant bug movies I've seen, along with 'The Black Scorpion'. This movie genuinely had some really solid creepy sequences, when they actually turned up, mainly underwater and the finale. The underwater sequences actually reminded me of Spielberg's 'Jaws' with very similar shots and ideas in general. The way we follow the divers around almost as if it was from the creatures perspective, the fact we actually see dead bodies with minor jump scares, and the way a female gets dragged under the waves. I can well see this movie really terrifying people back in the day for sure, especially when they uncover shrivelled up, skinless bodies exposing muscle and bulging eyes. Another really well directed scene is the finale where we the towering mollusk in a laboratory attacking the female lead. This sequence kinda reminded me of Cronenberg's 'The Fly' at the end, the creatures posture, the eyes, the claws the camera angles etc...

All this leads me to the creature itself, a simple yet large mechanical puppet. Now although this thing just looked like a giant slug, it did look very intimidating with its height and huge pincers. The two big round glaring eyes are also very unnerving and eerie, they gave off no emotion, just a cold blank stare, a pure carnivorous predator with one function. The slimy skin texture really boosted the creatures realistic appearance, you can't really see clearly but the black and white film does admittedly help cover any obvious rubber and seams. Overall its a terrific creature and very lifelike, accept for the exaggerated face I suppose, it didn't move much of course but the large puppet interacted very well with the actors.

Its just a shame that we don't really see too much of the giant mollusk, though what we do get is pretty epic and classic I reckon, definitely one of the top Hollywood creatures. You could say that they were hiding the beast as much as possible, building up the tension for the finale, but that theory doesn't really add up. On top of that the rest of the movie is pretty uninteresting frankly, things only become fun and engaging when the creature pops up. All the discussions between characters is a really limp affair and you couldn't really care a less.


Friday, 18 September 2015

The Land Unknown (1957)

I happened to come across this lovely gem of a movie whilst looking up information for a review about another 50's B-movie. Honesty, I had never heard of this movie before and up to this point, I thought I had covered all the unknown island/continent/world fantasy movies. Interestingly enough this film was inspired by a real time event in 1947 when warm water was discovered in Antarctica, but no dinosaurs.

The plot involves an expedition to simply map the vast area of Antarctica and check out this unusual body of warm water found in 1947. As per usual we have the predictable set of short, back n sides, military types running the show, and just for eye candy purposes we have the attractive lady too. Whilst on a scouting mission in their helicopter a small team of explorers (three blokes and the lady) hit a bad storm and are forced to land. As you may have guessed they land in an unknown deep warm volcanic crater many miles below sea-level. This crater just so happens to be the home for an entire prehistoric jungle complete with dinosaurs, man-eating plants and various extinct flora and fauna. All that's missing here is Doug McClure.

Again to be honest I was expecting a bit of a crap fest here, the films poster looked hokey as hell, as said I'd never heard of the film and pictures I had seen online looked pretty terrible. Much to my surprise, when the team vacate their chopper and start to explore their new ancient surroundings, I was really pleasantly amazed at how decent the sets and props were and how large it all appeared to be. Yes everything looked like a set, that was to be expected, but there was a lot of solid depth and detail here. Add to that the lovely large matte paintings for the background landscapes and you have a really atmospheric little picture going on. The use of a smoke machine to create swirling mist and fog really helped to add a good level of depth and perspective whilst also hiding obvious plastic plant life and rocks.

The real fun came along with the dinosaurs of course, were they realistic? well no, lets not get carried away here. The first special effect was the old concept of using real monitor lizards on a small model landscape complete with matte painting backgrounds. That footage would then be added to live action footage of the actors as a rear projection effect. This idea was further used in a few similar themed movies, although I'm unsure if this movie started that trend. Overall it does work to a degree, the lizards look good, but the hopelessly obvious rear projection effect against the actors footage never really works. The lizards don't really pull off the size trick either, you can see they aren't huge because we know they aren't.

The other main effect is that of the T-Rex, in this case a man in a rubber suit just like Godzilla. Now although this sounds ridiculously hokey (and it was), it did look really good. Suspension of disbelief is the key here folks, yes we all know its a man in a rubber suit, yes the suit looks rubbery, yes the dinosaur clearly walks like a man...but hey, it still looks cool and its a fun fantasy people. Another dinosaur effect was the large Nessie-like Elasmosaurus in the lake. Now this was a mechanical puppet that clearly only had so many moves at its dispersal, head up, head left, head right, head down and submerge. What makes things worse is the fact its mouth and eyes never move, its one of those creature puppets that, due to technical limitations, always had a static expression which reduces the thrill factor really.

So yes it must be said that despite what you might think, the effects in this rather unknown film (no pun intended) are in fact pretty sweet and highly atmospheric. Everything looked suitably murky, moody, mysterious and eerie, the sound effects added to that and at times the film could be a tad scary even, slightly more gritty than other similar movies of the era. Hell at one point we see a cute little Tarsier get scooped up and devoured by a flesh-eating plant...not literately of course. The only thing I didn't really get was why the lone survivor Hunter (a convenient crash survivor from a previous expedition), didn't want to leave the crater with the others. OK he's been stranded there a long time and gone a bit loopy, but surely you'd want to leave, right?

Don't expect anything new here, lets face it, if you've seen one lost world with dinosaurs flick, you've kinda seen them all and this is no exception. All the actors do their thing well, nothing particularly outstanding really, its all clockwork and passable stuff, again, we've seen this all before. That being said, this is still a highly enjoyable, atmospheric and visually exciting movie with some great monster moments like the T-Rex, any Godzilla fan will love that. You know what to expect basically, you know to appreciate these films for what they are and nothing more, just sit back and enjoy the charming ride.


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Them! (1954)

This movie was supposedly the first to ignite the giant bug subgenre, the first of the nuclear monster movies, the age of atomic monsters . Being released in the same year as the epic Japanese 'Godzilla' you could say this was the western/American equivalent of that iconic movie. Now, of course, the big question is which movie inspired the other? or did that even happen? The plots are virtually the same accept for the main creature/s dishing out the destruction, coincidence? Maybe it was just the simple coincidence of people both east and west suffering from the fear of nuclear technology, America with the Cold War era and Japan with WWII.

The plot is pretty predictable to anyone with basic movie knowledge. In the New Mexico desert people have been found dead (or just not found at all) and their property destroyed, the only clues being some mysterious tracks in the sand. In time various specialists are brought in to try and figure out what's going on, eventually it is revealed that giant ants are nesting in the area as a result of the recent atomic bomb tests. The clock is ticking as the plucky team of specialists (and a beat cop) try to destroy the nest before more ants hatch and any Queens escape, unfortunately they are unable to prevent this which leads us to a climatic battle against the ants as they infest LA.

Right! effects, how good are they? well, considering this was the first giant bug movie and it was 1954, they aren't too bad, but not great methinks. Big mechanical puppets were created of the ants that moved ever so slightly, on one hand this worked because it gave a good degree of scope and perspective to the horror facing the humans. On the other hand it obviously looked kinda hokey because the big fuzzy ants didn't look too scary and didn't move too well. Compare these ants to the giant Mantis in that giant Mantis movie, and honesty the ants are nowhere near as creepy if you ask me. One big issue was the eyes, again (like 'The Black Scorpion') for some reason they give the ants big humanoid-ish eyes which gave the bugs emotion (sort of), something you don't really wanna see. The reason why the giant Mantis worked so well was because it was a very faithful recreation of a real Mantis, these ants are along those lines but the eyes spoilt it, plus the large antennas and body hair looked silly (something that couldn't be helped I guess).

As per usual there are all the predictable stereotypes galore here, but we must remember that this was the first time using them...kinda. So, what do I mean by that anyway, well the lead is a handsome bloke, his sidekick is an attractive female, there are of course a few other males leads, military types and such, and lastly we have the good old crusty scientist gent. The type of character that looks and sounds like he's just stepped off a Hammer Horror set. All of which put in solid performances, nothing outstanding, but solid, although you can tell Edmund Gwenn, as the crusty old scientist, had troubles with his lines, you can see he's possibly reading them off a cue card, or just really straining to remember them, bless. One surprise was the small role played a child actress at the start. She barely does much other than scream and act stunned...but she does it bloody well!

One thing I did find quite amusing was the character of Sgt. Peterson, the cop who first discovers the mutilated devastation left by the ants in the desert. Now this guy is just a cop right, OK he's a Sarge, but simply a State trooper. So can someone explain to me why and how he manages to accompany everybody from the military to the FBI, on all missions and confidential discussions? I mean yeah sure he witnessed an attack and found the original carnage but why the hell is he still involved by the end of the movie. At one point he's descending down into the ant nest, then he's firing a flippin' bazooka at it! he's just a cop! why would he be doing any of this??!! Its also amazing how despite what is unraveling, its the same handful of people that deal with everything, surely there would be tonnes of top ranking people, officials, military units etc...all involved trying to save LA, not just this trio of a cop, a woman and an FBI agent.

Speaking of the ants nest, do I detect an element that was highly inspirational for the James Cameron sci-fi thriller 'Aliens'? Its all very familiar its got to be said, the dark tunnels, the decaying ant bodies strewn around, the characters only lit up by torch light, flamethrowers, and then of course the discovery of the egg chamber, some hatched etc...The same could be said for the LA sewer tunnel sequences at the end too. Could be a long shot but it definitely seems possible that this movie might have influenced future sci-fi horrors. Said LA sewer sequence is also a bit anti-climatic in my opinion, it doesn't really have the eerie atmosphere of being out in the sticks somewhere, plus the ants don't really blend into those surroundings too well, they look too obvious as big puppets.

It also really amuses me how bullets, bombs and sometimes even rockets don't affect these creatures. OK they are huge bugs and we know many bugs have armour protection, but would they really be impervious to bullets?? Would a giant tarantula be unstoppable against bullets? would a giant ant be unstoppable? surely a bullet from a gun (especially a machine gun) would have a great deal of affect and cause death after time. Plus wouldn't the creatures eyes be an ideal target, you never see the characters shoot the bugs eyes no matter how big and obvious they are. Again surely that would down the bug instantly.

Anyway the movie is a great example of the subgenre and probably one of the best on offer. I still think 'Tarantula' is probably the epitome of the giant bug horror flicks with terrific effects and a genuinely scary giant arachnid. This movie is probably the acorn that major blockbusters grew out of over time though, the way the movie plays out, the scenarios, the way its shot, the action etc...definitely a one-off back in the 50's. Its just a shame the films title is so damn stupid and cheesy, although I liked the use of colour for the opening title sequence in bold red and blue, it almost looks 3D.

'When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.'


Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Black Scorpion (US/MX, 1957)

Yep still in 1957, this time there's a Mexican collaboration so...well basically its set in Mexico, its a Mexican giant bug movie. This time as you may well have guessed, the main creature, or creatures , are scorpions, scorpions with humanoid faces? Yep that's one negative point right there folks, the scorpions in question have two humanoid eyes and a big toothy gaping maw, with one fang much bigger than the other. Also not too sure why the title is 'The Black Scorpion' when there are many of them running around, just ride with it OK.

So this time an earthquake hits Mexico which in turn causes a volcano to rise up outta nowhere, so its a double whammy of natural disaster reasons this time. These events somehow unleash hordes of giant scorpions from the depths of the Earth which have somehow survived since prehistoric times. But its not just the scorpions oh no, there are also giant spider things and giant worm things down in the depths too, thing is they don't come to the surface to eat people. So, what do the locals do in times like this? why they bring in a good looking American scientist bloke of course. This chap also just happens to bump into an attractive local female rancher whilst doing his work, luckily she agrees to help him...phew! we almost didn't have a love interest there. Anyway, you know the rest, they gotta kill these giant things asap.

The big difference with this movie over many other giant bug flicks of the time is, in this movie they opt for an all out stop-motion affair. Enter Willis O'Brien of 'King Kong'  fame for all the giant creature effects. I'm not overly sure how big of a production this was to be honest, it looks good, but being half of a Mexican project leads me to think it may have been a smaller budget affair. If so nabbing O'Brien for the effects was a solid move as these stop-motion scorpions really look the business as you would expect. Strangely enough you can kinda tell they are O'Brien's work by the way they move, you can see the similarity to his work in 'King Kong', but yeah these scorpions look great, very realistic, very creepy and animated brilliantly. Its such a shame that they spoil the entire effect with these ridiculous close ups of the scorpions 'face'. The whole model is laughable, as I said earlier they have two humanoid eyes and a big toothy maw, plus they are dripping with slime or ooze. Its such a shame because you go from the highly atmospheric shots with O'Brien's skilled stop-motion scorpions, to a jokey hokey B-movie monster model/puppet that looks like an angry cartoon.

I have also since found out that the silly roaring that comes from these scorpions is actually the same sound effect used in 'Them!'. Plus there is a rumour that O'Brien used old models left over from 'King Kong' for the giant worms and spiders. Both pieces of information lead me to think this was more of a smaller B-movie project, not really intended to smash records or anything, just jumpin' on the bandwagon.

As for the plot and movie itself, well obviously its pretty dumb. The whole fact that these people discover a new world under the surface with new lifeforms, never seems to dawn on anyone, they just wanna kill everything. The fact that an entire world could even exist like that is also, obviously, pretty ludicrous and makes no real sense. This world also seems to be extremely deep below the Earth's surface, so how do these scorpions manage to climb out? they seem unable to do so when the heroes venture into their world, I guess that could be down to the sunlight aspect though. Yet again, as with all these movies, how the hell did no one ever notice these giant things running around in the first place?!

I must also add that this movie is by far the most violent and scary of all the big bug movies I've come across so far. They really did push the boundaries a bit with this one, I can actually see how people would have been genuinely scared watching this back in the day. The train attack sequence is a perfect example of this, its dark, eerie and brutal. The scorpions attack it by ramming it off the tracks (which in itself is pretty horrific watching the model twist and turn), then as people flee they go around picking them up in their pincers and pulling them apart, although you don't see that but you get the idea.

The final battle sequence between the alpha scorpion and a load of tanks, jeeps and infantrymen is also pretty violent, for the time. Its a decent battle with some solid action I can't deny, plenty of tanks buzzing around pumping shells into the scorpion, explosions kicking off everywhere, gunfire, choppers etc...its like watching a movie adaptation of the arcade game 'Rampage'. Definitely one of the best giant monster fight sequences I've come across and it really adds valuable plus points to this movie overall.

I'll be honest, I didn't like the Mexican setting that much because it seemed to enhance the B-movie aspect of it. All the extras running around with their Mexican accents and attire, it just looked even more silly that normal. Saying that the main cast weren't anything too special either, the usual thing really. They do the job well enough, the main hero sounds stern and commanding, whilst the female screams appropriately, same old, no crusty old scientist though. Once the vast underground world was discovered this movie really got into gear and engaged me, up till then I was getting a tad bored admittedly. The effects are some of the best you will see for this subgenre and it has some great thrilling sequences, other than that, business as usual.


Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Beginning of the End (1957)

Still in the year of 1957, the year of the sci-fi thriller it seems. It's pretty clear to see that this movie came to be purely from the success of 'Them!' which revolved around killer ants. Although I really have no idea which giant bug movie was thought up first from the vast array of clones. Considering this is about giant locusts/grasshoppers, which are hardly terrifying really, leaves me to think this may have been all that was left to utilise after the obvious bugs like scorpions, mantis, slug-things etc...were all in production.

So what's this all about you say? Well let me see. A small town with all its inhabitants vanish, well the people vanish, the town is destroyed. Onto the case stumbles a young attractive journalist who smells a rat and starts to poke around. After much dialog and wondering around from place to place we finally meet up with the good looking Dr. Wainwright who is experimenting with radiation on crops to make them bigger. Hmmm I wonder if this has anything to do with it. Why yes! low and behold grasshoppers managed to eat some of the infected crops and now they are as big as a barn. Standard procedure then requires that the army (national guard) be brought in to try and stop the giant bugs, which of course proves ineffective. Thusly we are drawn into a tense situation as Dr. Wainwright and his attractive journalist partner must come up with a devious plan to stop the mutant hordes.

Basically this is a complete rerun of 'Them!' only with much worse effects. The actors are merely props for the movies giant bugs which clamber around over awkward models. The funny thing is, the giant bugs don't actually turn up for ages! not until the 27-minute mark. Up until that point the acting is actually pretty good strangely enough, you'd think this was a proper suspense movie. Both Peter Graves and Peggie Castle are very engaging in their respective roles. I wasn't sure which way Graves's character would go to be honest, kinda thought he might be some kind of loony scientist villain for a time. Castle, of course, does everything a woman would do in a 1950's B-movie, scream and look pretty, but she is also quite a strong character when it comes down to it. The only other character that stuck was Morris Ankrum as Gen. Hanson who came across as the stereotypical gruff military type with a buzz haircut, almost like a Jonah Jameson type character.

Once the giant bugs appear everything goes downhill terribly I can't lie. Basically what they've done is enlarged rear projection footage of real grasshoppers against the live-action of the actors. This, of course, is nothing unusual in these types of movies (every driving scene ever!), but the fact that the footage is clearly real grasshoppers makes it ridiculously stupid. In other scenes they have used traveling matte effects as the bugs shuffle across live-action footage of the actors, again looking awful and disjointed. But the worst has to be the cheap-ass visual effect of having the hoppers crawling on a large photo of a building...and pretending its a real building. It's actually a real eye-opener because you can clearly tell its a photo. There are one or two model shots of Chicago when the bugs attack the city, but again it's so very obvious, clearly tiny bugs bumping into models.

It's not all bad though, the action is quite intense at times when the actors break out the big guns and machine guns, blasting away at nothing. You could almost be fooled into thinking you're watching a gritty war flick at times. Sadly that's all though as nothing much else happens here, you don't see any form of death or attacks or anything. Every time a hopper is about to eat someone the matted hopper just moves over them and it cuts away, there is no destruction or carnage at all which makes it hard to engage in the fantasy. I'm not expecting blood and gore of course but you can tell that they weren't able to do anything due to budget limitations and the fact the hoppers were matted on top. There is never any life-size models/puppets of the hoppers to interact with the actors. Don't even get me started on the finale where they drown all the hoppers, clearly real hoppers filmed in a small tube of water.

I think the most interesting aspect of the whole movie is the stock footage, of which there is a lot used. There is of course lots of footage of the military in action, training wise and real wartime stuff (I'm guessing), which is interesting to see...for obvious reasons really. Other stock footage shows in and around 1950's Chicago which was also pretty cool I thought, amazing to see the changes.

Now I did enjoy this but mainly for hilarious reasons. It's not exactly the same as other bug B-movies. For instance, there was no smartly dressed, old fashioned, crusty old scientist guy who knows everything, and they don't kill the bugs with any weapons here, they just use their ingenuity. Errr...but that's about it, every other cliche is here from the screaming female to the gruff military dude, and of course the movie poster is awesome but doesn't represent the movie whatsoever. This definitely comes under the 'so bad its good' banner I think, hokey effects, cookie-cutter plot, but decent acting amazingly.


Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

Yep so 1957 was most definitely the year of the big bug thriller movie, talk about over kill! After the huge success of 'Them!' in 1954 the genre was alive and kicking followed closely by the excellent 'Tarantula' in 1955. Since that explosion of insectoid goodness, studios at the time were systematically going through every known bug they could to make a horror sci-fi. Any bug that could be transformed into a huge slimy, fanged beastie was slapped up on the screen.

This third movie from the era (I think third?), as you can clearly tell, is all about the exploits of a giant Praying Mantis, cos they look scary right! A volcano erupts (as they frequently do in these films) which in turn causes the Polar region to shift and break apart, which in turn releases a giant Mantis that had been trapped in the ice for millions of years. Cue the Mantis running around and eating lots of stereotypical military types until it can be trapped and killed with extreme, yet polite, prejudice.

Now, far be it for me to take the piss too much, but...holy tentacles this was a fun flick! Yes that's right, you thought I was gonna shit all over it didn't you, well hold on. OK so the plot is ridiculous and virtually a carbon copy of every other big bug movie ever made. A natural disaster releases the monster bug or its the result of some kind of experiment, either or. From there on its the simple process of watching a predictable trio of, a good looking bloke, an attractive female and an old intelligent scientist type, discussing tactics to destroy the bug whilst others get eaten. Then eventually they manage to succeed but not before many innocent faceless people have perished, everyone's a winner.

The film initially starts out like a documentary for schools or some kind of news reel. It goes on for for at least 5/6 minutes about the military and how they are building this base in northern Canada with all these early warning barriers that cross the entire country. Its all your typical Cold war malarkey, in case the Ruskies attack via the Poles. But this intro goes on and on, I started to wonder if I had the right thing playing. Anyway the big question is of course how the hell did a giant Mantis get trapped in ice (or whatever it was before it was ice), at the Poles (where ever it was before it was the Poles), and manage to survive for millions of years. Although, I guess a bigger question would be, how the hell did a Mantis get to be giant in the first place.

The main attraction of this movie is of course the giant Mantis and the way the effects team created it. Overall its a bloody good rubber bug puppet and model combination, it actually looks like a genuinely real Mantis of epic proportions with all the correct details and shape. More importantly it looks quite scary and intimidating, it does actually lend some genuine scary atmosphere to the proceedings when it lurks in the background. A lot of that is down to the correct shape of the insect with its long, thin, pointy, jagged, sharp looking legs, the eerie sound it makes, and those two big silver emotionless eyes. The short sequences of the bug flying are also well realised, the only downside with this, and much like all giant bug movies, the bug roars like a flippin' dinosaur, or Godzilla. The best sequence on show has to be the quick scene where the Mantis climbs up the Washington Monument, that actually looks really good all things considered.

The movie takes on a very King Kong-esque approach as the Mantis eventually makes it way to New York, after fighting off some jet fighters along the way (ahem! copyright). To avoid a complete rip-off the big bug ends up crawling into the Manhattan Tunnel to recover, this in fact leads to a sequence where a group of blokes go in after the bug all dressed up in biohazard type suits. This one scene actually reminded me of many modern sci-fi movies. A group of characters all suited up in special outfits, creeping down a dark space with flashlights, all culminating in the heroic final group pose shot when they find the creature. This whole sequence was probably the slickest in the movie and gave it some real gravitas. Alas the ending lets everything down with such a weak cliched display of male chauvinism as the male lead virtually bullies the female into kissing him...right next to the huge dead bug. Its like they just killed it, and that turned them on (or him), sadistic tendencies.

As always plenty of good and bad to be found, the small Eskimo village sequence is probably the daftest and most amusing. And I still can't work out how no one thinks to shoot this thing in the eyes, it has two huge silver eyes, shoot those surely, pretty sure that would stop it straight away. Anyway despite the odd little expected flaws this is still a solid bug flick and easily one of the best in my opinion.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Lost Continent (1951)

Not to be confused with other movies entitled 'The Lost Continent', this black and white B-movie borrows heavily from other classic stories, mainly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, lots of lost areas back then. A low budget affair that was pretty much jumping on the coattails of these other fantasy fables with the ever popular dinosaur element. The only real shining star in this production was Cesar Romero, but even he can't really save this.

The plot is exactly as you would expect it, the Americans are doing some major new weapons testing with a big missile (a regular thing back then), when it inevitably crashes. So the upper echelons send a crack team of military personnel to find this missile and retrieve its vital data. Low and behold the missile has crashed on a remote unknown island in the South Pacific, an island that harbours dinosaurs, a prehistoric jungle and natives...presumably an undiscovered race of humans. Its up to this crack team of military personnel to venture deep within the island and complete their mission. The fact they have discovered a new race of people, dinosaurs, prehistoric flora and fauna and a whole load of uranium, all on this new undiscovered island doesn't matter, no time for that, we've gotta find our big dangerous weapon.

So naturally I can't dissect and tear this movie apart too much, its a movie from 50's America, obviously a completely different era. We all know what to expect in American B-movies from that era, big military presence, lots of weapons testing...usually atomic, the fear of Communism and the USSR, women knowing their place and the chaps looking spick and span with solid facial hair. All of these points are present and correct here with the military team looking very well groomed, Romero has his trademark tash of course and the scientists along for the ride are of course foreigners (usually German, Russian or Eastern European) this case Russian. The big shock here is there is no female character in the team, no damsel in distress element for Romero to save. I think anyone who knows these types of movies will agree that's quite unusual.

That last fact does lead me to the films poster, its completely bullshit! Talk about false advertising, for a start it shows what appears to be a kind of Tyrannosaurus-Rex dinosaur, but there is no such dinosaur in the film. The island appears to be inhabited purely by Triceratops, Brontosaurus and Pterosaurs, although we all know that's down to budgetary reasons. The poster also shows Romero and his team with a female being attacked by this T-Rex, obviously this never happens, and as I already said, there is no female character on the team. The female the poster refers to is a native woman who helps the team in one scene at the start of their expedition.

Of course this type of thing isn't new with these old movies, I'm just pointing it out because its blatant. What's also to be expected are the hilarious plot holes and things that are just plain silly, most of these oldies are stuffed full of these issues. This small team have been flying on this plane, apparently, for many hours, a long haul flight checking equipment for this lost missile. Yet notice the planes interior has literately nothing inside it, no proper seats, nowhere to rest, seemingly no food or drink provided and what looks like no toilets either! How long were you guys expected to sit hunched up like that?! I guess men were men back then grrr.

After the plane crashes and team get themselves together, one guy asks Romero if  they should radio for help, Romero replies sternly with a no, the team is under orders not to break radio silence until they find the missile. But dude you just crashed landed on an unknown island! surely first priority is to call for help, let HQ know you're OK, arrange evac and then maybe continue with your mission?

One of the biggest and most unintentionally funniest things about this film is the fact that at least a third of the film shows the team climbing this mountain. The missile crashes on top of this plateau that dominates the island, so the guys have to climb to its peak, what follows is many many minutes of seeing these guys climbing around a fake rock surface over and over again, at various angles. At first you don't realise, but eventually I started to think to myself...this is going on a bit isn't it? What's more, all the men are wearing posh shoes! not boots or anything but the type of shoe that accompanies a suit, oh and they're only using rope...and nothing else. When things got too tough, well then it was time for a good healthy cigarette break, yes Sir, I always feel stronger and fitter after a good solid cigarette, now lets climb this fucker! Like I said, men were men back then...grrr.

The stop-motion animated dinosaurs are reasonable but nowhere near as good as other movies or Harryhausen's work. Plus you don't get that much of it either, again probably down to budgetary reasons. When the team reach the jungles on top of the plateau, the film was tinted with a green hue to give the impression of a mysterious other-worldly environment. So basically you're not watching a black and white film anymore, you're watching a green film. And lastly the characters are of course massively predictable. The stoic, humourless Russian scientist, the good looking guy without a tash, Romero as the good looking guy with a tash, errr...some other guy without a tash, and the goofy, short guy for comedic relief.

I enjoyed the movie don't get me wrong, but mainly because it was quite average, a bit underwhelming really. I expected more, or at least more dinosaur action, unfortunately you don't get much of that, but you do get lots of footage of rock climbing both going up and going down. The whole thing is pretty slow paced but watchable down to the ever charming dialog and performances, although I still don't quite get why the entire island decided to crumble and sink beneath the waves at the exact moment are heroes are trying to evac. Meh...its a staple diet of these movies, right at the end, the good guys are trying to escape, so the whole island or mountain or whatever decides to explode, sink or fall down, don't question it.