Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

Johnny Blaze has fled to Eastern Europe where he plans to stay out of everyone’s way to avoid triggering his uncontrollable Ghost Rider curse. But when a monk tracks him down and tells him that he needs his help in exchange for lifting his curse, Blaze has no choice but to agree. His mission is to protect a young boy who is being pursued by a gang of armed men who believe that he is the Devil’s son and want to use him in a ceremony that will restore Satan’s ultimate power of evil.

 

Ghost Rider was not the greatest superhero film ever made and commonly ranks in Top 10 Worst Comic Book Adaptations lists. But hey, it wasn’t that bad, surely? Actually come to think of it, it was. Try as I might, it’s hard to even remember what happened outside of Nicholas Cage hamming it up a bit and plenty of motorbike stunts. Ghost Rider rode off the coat tails of the comic book cinematic onslaught of the 2000s and was rightly panned by critics and public alike. Oh I’m sure there are die-hard fans out there who loved it, like any iconic character who makes the transition from page to screen will have. But for the uninitiated masses, Ghost Rider was a bomb. So Sony, in an attempt to stop the rights from reverting back to Marvel, gave the character a second chance at life in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Based on how the character looks, Ghost Rider should surely be odds for the “most bad ass looking comic book character” that mainstream audiences are aware of. A guy with a flaming skull head, who wears a leather jacket and rides around on a sweet bike like he does should not to be too hard to mess up – give him some decent reason to go around beating the crap out of bad guys and killing them with his flaming bike chain and penance stare move and the rest should come naturally. But the problem with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is that it doesn’t find a decent reason for him to do these things, and even when he does do them, he doesn’t do them in any style whatsoever.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance may have a rather simplistic, straightforward plot about people having to protect a child from evil forces they don’t fully understand but this shouldn’t hold the film back from grandeur (look at Terminator 2: Judgment Day with a similar protection storyline involving a seemingly-indestructible hero who has to protect a lone boy and his mother). Instead, this story is a lacklustre line which starts at the beginning and finishes at the end of the film, with no twists along the way, no major plot developments and little in the way of compelling material. Unsurprisingly for a film which is low on story and creativity, there is plenty of filler as Blaze and the boy and his mother start to bond and become a dysfunctional family in the face of adversity. We’re supposed to care about them, we’re supposed to understand some of the tropes and MacGuffins that are thrown into the script like days of reckoning and the like – but to be honest, no one cares because there is no spark to set it off.

With nothing to get excited about from a narrative point of view, comic book films can at least astound us with their action sequences featuring colourful characters exchanging out-of-this-world barrages of weapons and super powers. There are plenty of generic action set pieces on show with a variety of run-and-gun moments, motorcycle chases and old school fisticuffs. I’m sure it sounded good on paper but on the screen it’s all so flat and mundane and there’s nowhere near enough of them to make the ninety-five minutes go by any quicker. Coming from the guys who made the frenetic Crank films, you’d expect a lot better, even if it was all style over substance. But there’s little evidence of both, just lacklustre sequences which fails to generate the sort of heat that Ghost Rider’s head looks to be generating.

In many respects, Ghost Rider makes for a poor superhero to adapt on the big screen.  When Blaze turns into the hero, he can’t talk or emote so what we see is just an empty skeletal figure dishing out justice with no sort of connection to the audience. Impervious to bullets and able to wade through armies of henchmen without so much as a scratch, Ghost Rider only meets his match whenever he’s up against opponents who have made similar deals with the Devil. So in the sequences where he’s squaring off against standard human opponents wasting their time firing bullets and missiles at him, there’s no sense of danger. We know he’ll survive so just get on with it. In order to provide some sort of suitable opponent, the story turns one of the human thugs into a super villain who can decay anything he touches – it might sound cool but the character is about as one-dimensional and thinly-written as you can get.

Nicholas Cage reprises the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider which is a shame since I really can’t stand the guy. Cage doesn’t play characters in films, he portrays Nicholas Cage. He’s become a self-parody of himself and in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance he gets the chance to act all crazy and manic in front of the camera once again. Cage bores me on the screen and the combination of him and the dull script was just daring me to switch off the film. Ciarán Hinds snarls his way across the film as the Devil whilst Idris Elba is wasted in the role of the drunken monk, Moreau. He would have been a better choice to play the titular character.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance somehow manages to outdo the first one in terms of how inept it brings the comic book character to the screen. Long-winded and monotonous but eventually leading nowhere with only brief glimpses of potential, the Ghost Rider franchise seems to have suffered a flat tyre that it won’t be able to repair unless it ditches Cage from the lead role, heads back to Marvel and gets a decent script behind it.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Prison (1988)

Prison (1988)

Horror Has A New Home.

The old, abandoned Creedmore Prison is reopened due to overcrowding and former guard turned warden Ethan Sharpe is placed in charge to oversee the arrival of the first inmates. But when prisoners on work duty break into the bricked-up execution chamber, they unwittingly release the spirit of a former prisoner who was executed there for a crime he didn’t commit. Now the spirit is out for vengeance and Sharpe is the main target.

 

I love discovering films like Prison, lost gems from the 80s which have been forgotten about and rarely seen the light of day until some modern day distributor has decided to take a punt and release them onto DVD and blu-ray. It gives people the chance to discover quality little genre films like this – stylish, low budget horror films which emphasis what old-fashioned horror making was all about – atmosphere, tension and creeping the audience out.

Though director Renny Harlin has since made for himself in big budget Hollywood action films like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, his eye for horror is actually pretty good and he seems  far more capable when dealing with a low budget film here than he did with his bloated blockbusters. Even the opening sequences, a first person point-of-view of an inmate taking the walk from his cell to the electric chair, is better than pretty much anything else he’s done in Hollywood since.

Prison‘s atmosphere is one of its strongest selling points. Filmed inside an actual abandoned prison, there’s no pandering to picture perfect studio sets here. This is one big, cold and very dark place, unforgiving in its brutal nature and an ideal location in which to unleash some Hell-bent force of revenge. Dusty, dirty, damp and dangerous, Harlin avoids shining too much light into the inner bowels of the prison, keeping things shadowy and murky. This makes the ghostly blue light, which signals the arrival of the vengeful spirit, even more ominous as it lights up the screen with its eerie, unholy shine. This is a prison where you wouldn’t want to incarcerated, let alone be incarcerated with something sinister.

Into this harsh setting comes a diverse group of characters, most of who play up to generic prison stereotypes (the predatory letch, his skinny white cell mate, the jacked-up black guy, an elderly old sage, etc) but who are all afforded some decent screen time to develop something out of nothing roles. Viggo Mortensen stars in an early role and it’s a by-the-book performance, showing us early signs of how good an actor he would turn out to be but not really doing much to challenge the stereotype of a hot-shot new inmate. Lane Smith steals the show as the bad ass warden, chewing up the scenery without crossing over the border into cartoon territory. The rest of the cast is filled up with a slew of character actors from the mammoth Tom ‘Tiny’ Lister to Tom Everett.

Prison takes it’s time settling down but Harlin never goes for the jugular straight away, deciding to tease out the mystery of the prison a little more and never taking the audience for granted by explaining all. There’s no question just who is doing the killing why – I’ve seen too many horror films to be fooled by that anymore. But it’s interesting to see how things unfold. Sadly Chelsea Field’s rather pointless character adds a bit of dead weight to proceedings with her sub-plot in trying to get to the bottom of the mystery clearly being introduced just to shoe-horn a female into a male prison. There are a lot of other hints and loose ends that the film teases you with but then never addresses them (including the most blatant by showing us that Mortensen’s character is a reincarnation of the executed inmate but then never raises this issue again)

Shortly after Harlin made this, he was snapped up to helm A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and the similarities between the two horror films are evident. Prison has a mean streak which makes for some great set pieces, in particular the numerous fates that the prisoners and guards meet throughout the film. Characters are melted alive in their cells, have steel pipes slowly driven into their skulls or are wrapped from head-to-toe in barbed wire, all courtesy of some splendid effects work by noted genre veteran John Carl Buechler. These kills share a fantastical, nightmarish quality, much in keeping with the way that Freddy Krueger killed off his victims in their dreams so you can understand why Harlin was approached. There aren’t too many deaths but such is the quality of the ones on display, you’ll believe that the whole film was a gore-drenched massacre.

 

Prison is a good-old fashioned creepy horror film which does a lot of things right and ticks a lot of boxes. Unfortunately some glaring script issues and some pacing issues towards the finale third really do hold this back from becoming a true cult classic. Definitely work a look if you can find it.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing, The (2011)

The Thing (2011)

It’s not human. Yet.

A Norwegian scientific team discovers a strange life form frozen in ice in Antarctica and calls in expert palaeontologist Kate Lloyd to join them in their investigation. But when they bring the creature back to their base, it doesn’t stay frozen for long and begins killing and assuming the form of members of the team.

 

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favourite films, firmly taking the position of my favourite horror film by a long stretch, and has been since I first saw it at a tender age (my dad would vet certain films for me when I was a child, knowing how much I loved monsters and aliens and not being scared by splatter). Originally a critical and commercial failure due to its unfortunate cinematic release coinciding with the much friendlier alien film E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, it was only on home video that The Thing gradually begun to garner a rabid cult following and over the years, critics have not only softened their stance on it but in turn recognised it to be one of the greatest science fiction and horror films of all time. Attempts to get a sequel off the ground both with and without John Carpenter’s involvement stalled over the years. So it was with great trepidation that I heard the news that a prequel was to be given the green light. In this day and age of sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings and the like, it was only a matter of time I guess. Promising to faithfully stick to the original’s isolation, paranoia and tension, as well as a core focus on practical make-up effects, I slowly began to be won over by the thought that The Thing may not turn out to be that bad overall.

Let’s just say that after I saw it in the cinema back in 2011, you could have cooked bacon on my cheeks such was my rage at how appalling it had turned out. But in the interests of fairness and not a knee-jerk reaction, I promised myself that I would put some time between watching The Thing and writing a review for it, such was my loathing and sheer disgust at the time. So here we are, a year and half later, and after re-watching it on blu-ray, the rage has cooled down and the negativity, whilst still prevalent, has been toned down.

Truth be told in hindsight, The Thing isn’t that bad….it’s just that I, and many others, were expecting a lot more. Having thirty years in between films should have given Universal enough time to do the original some justice. In dressing itself up as a prequel, The Thing feebly tries to hide the fact that it’s a shameless remake. Almost all of the major set pieces from the original are recreated in lesser form including a scene with a test which the scientists develop to determine who is human and who isn’t. Characters get trapped outside in the snow when others think they have turned. Other characters sabotage communications and vehicles so that the creature can’t escape.

Lazily casting Americans in the pivotal roles in a Norwegian research station smacks of pandering to Western audiences, with the token bearded Nordic cast being relegated to little more than alien fodder. In doing this, The Thing eliminates any possibilities for paranoia or tension as we know the more famous actors will survive. Whereas the original crafted its story around a series of character actors who, Kurt Russell aside given that he was the lead, could all have been killed off or survive in equal measure to keep the suspense and tension going right until the end, this one runs more like your typical modern horror film which is as predictable as it is dull as know who will live and die (hint – the characters who don’t say anything or speak Norwegian will have seriously shorter life spans than those who speak fluent English). The problem here is that we don’t really get to know any of the characters except for Kate, Carter and Dr Sander and so when they are killed off, there’s no emotional attachment. Who cares if that bearded guy who hasn’t said anything is killed off?

The Thing attempts to compensate for the lack of character development by featuring more alien attacks and transformations and getting to them a lot quicker. The original was a bit of a slow burner but here we can see the demands of modern audiences, spoon fed on a diet of instant Michael Bay films, being pandered to with the creature being unleashed very early on. We see a lot more of it too, which isn’t a good thing. Though the pre-release media releases promised old school special effects, what we actually get are a load of sloppy CGI monsters – the bulk of the practical make-up effects were removed or CGI’d over after test screenings failed to be impressed (no doubt these screenings were made up of teenagers who would laugh at the original if they ever saw it). Youtube footage of the various practical models in action in the warehouse looks awesome and it’s a real shame that the decision to replace them was taken. In removing this, The Thing strips away a lot of its heart and soul. These CGI cartoon monsters are soulless, lack any believability and would have been better served in a computer game version. Not only this but the way in which these CGI monsters move is totally at odds with the appearance of the creature in the original film, which is slow, stealthy and methodical in its approach, not lightning fast and happy to reveal itself at the first opportunity.

I’ll give the writers big credit for attempting to craft an entire film based around a couple of moments from the original which hinted as to what happened in the Norwegian camp. These hints are faithfully recreated here so you find out what happened to lead up to them, from the frozen corpse who has slit his throat to an axe lodged in a door and a hideously deformed body burning in the snow. On many occasions, it was arguably better to remain in the dark and use your imagination as to what happened than see it all played out – they certainly don’t detract from any subsequent re-watches of the original, yet don’t provide the satisfactory resolution that one would have expected. The look of the two films, save for the CGI special effects, also seems to work well with each other. You would believe that the two films exist in the same universe which was the intent.

But The Thing fails to convince you that it is worthy of holding a candle to the original. Taking Carpenter’s classic out of the equation and The Thing still wouldn’t work. There is virtually no character development, the special effects are poor and there’s a genuine lack of scares, tension or atmosphere. There’s nothing to grab the attention of the audience. There are no scenes which really stand out. It’s just another reasonably budgeted modern monster movie, only this time it comes with a legacy which it fails to live up to. Lest we forget that Carpenter’s film was also a remake.

 

Like the majority of the recent remakes/sequels/prequels, The Thing rehashes the same story and set pieces from its master copy yet fails to better an infinitely superior film. Like the alien being itself, The Thing is a shallow imitation of the original and whilst it’s not a bad film on its own merits, the overpowering sense of ‘why bother’ will be constantly in the forefront of your mind. This leaves no lasting impression, other than the fact you’d be better off watching the original again.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Howling II (1985)

Howling II (1985)

Twice the terror! Twice the torment!

After the funeral of the news reporter killed in the original werewolf sightings, her brother Ben, his girlfriend and an occult investigator go to Transylvania to take out a werewolf cult which is headed up by the alluring Stirba.

 

I can’t say I’m a big fan of the original The Howling, loosely based on the novel of the same name. But it was successful enough to not only spawn this sequel but a whole series of cheaply-made sequels, most even more terrible than the preceding one. The Howling series has gone on to become one of the worst horror series ever made. Ditching the original’s seriousness and scares, Howling II is very much the epitome of the crazy 80s horror genre. It was filmed and then shelved for two years before it was eventually sent straight-to-video. Surely an early warning sign of just how terrible everyone considered this sequel to be.

I think the best thing that can be said about Howling II is that it follows on from the original, starting up a short while afterwards at the funeral of Karen White. The fact that the main character here is her brother is the only connection that this sequel has but it’s still something that the majority of the sequels failed to bother with. But then the script is tossed out of the window and it’s anything goes for the rest of Howling II. To even consider describing it would be to do it an injustice. Not only content with completely re-writing the werewolf rules of the first film, it unleashes a series of improbable plot holes and contrived tongue-in-cheek sequences in an ‘throw everything at the screen and hope something sticks’ mentality.

Howling II is badly edited, with random shots of inanimate objects intercut into scenes as well as poor scene transition swiping, full of cheap-looking werewolf effects, loads of mystical mumbo jumbo and plenty of 80s punk rock music to boot. The emphasis on 80s music, clothing and general culture really dates this more than the other sequels. There’s no question as to what decade this was made in but I guess everyone was having so much fun expressing themselves in new ways that they forgot to include the key ingredients that film makers have been using for decades – namely a story and script. It’s films like this where it’s best not to think too hard about what is going on, sit back and see where the journey takes you.

The journey will not take you anywhere near a convincing make-up department. The werewolves look dreadful and transformations nowhere near the quality of the original. The gore effects fair a little better, with a dwarf who has his eyes pop out, but only in the sense that they’re gloriously over-the-top. Howling II also likes to emphasise the werewolf’s primal desires – namely that they like to have a lot of sex. Werewolf orgies galore take place throughout the film but unless you like your sex scenes with a lot of bodily hair, grunting and sweat then these will be more off-putting than arousing. There’s a reason why werewolf films tend not to show this side of their shaggy characters and these scenes add a sleazy touch to the film. Not that it really needed it to begin with but anyone portraying a werewolf overacts, emphasising the feral nature of the character with all the tact of a runaway train.

Even the legendary Christopher Lee can’t save this train wreck and I feel sorry and embarrassed for him to be associated with anything to do with this. Lee is slumming big time here and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else (even sporting a pair of silly 80s designer sun glasses which give him that ‘uncool granddad’ look). He’s still the best thing on display and rather amusingly apologised to Joe Dante, director of The Howling, for appearing in this when the two men made Gremlins 2: The New Batch a few years later.

Sybil Danning stars as Stirba and provides the film with its glamour quota. The end credits feature a repeated clip of the voluptuous Ms Danning ripping her shirt off and revealing her Playboy-endorsed chest (from earlier in the film) over and over again, each time followed by a random clip of someone in the film reacting to something. It’s the most sophisticated piece of editing on display anywhere in the film. Jimmy Nail pops up as LA biker, complete with his thick Geordie accent (a person from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England for those unsure of what a Geordie is).

 

Howling II has about as much going for it as a feature film as a cheesy 80s music video would (complete with the punk rock soundtrack) and the comparison between the two is pretty accurate. Largely unconcerned with the finer arts of film making like a story, script and characters, Howling II just lets rip with a bewildering array of 80s cheese. It’s a car crash of a film, one of the worst sequels of all time and yet strangely watchable.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Leprechaun in the Hood (2000)

Leprechaun in the Hood (2000)

Evil’s in the house

Three young rappers are looking for a big break but when a deal with a local record producer called Mack Daddy falls through, they decide to break into his apartment and steal some jewellery to get even. But one of them takes a medallion off an ugly-looking statue in which the evil leprechaun had been imprisoned. With the medallion gone, the leprechaun is free to go hunting for the magical flute that Mack Daddy stole from him years earlier and built his success around – and the leprechaun will kill anyone who gets in his way.

 

You read the title correct. Not content with surviving Las Vegas and conquering space, the little Irish bugger now has his sights set on the toughest place of them all – the hood. Come on, just who comes up with these ideas? How can a franchise destroy itself so easily with such a truly awful array of ideas for its sequels? From the vault of cringe-worthy, hysteria-inducing ideas comes Leprechaun in the Hood, the fifth instalment of a series where quality and assurance control was never part of the post-production process.

It’s Leprechaun meets Boyz n the Hood and if that combination doesn’t immediately sends shivers down your spine, I don’t know what will. It’s cheap. It’s poorly made. It’s scraping the barrel to keep the series on life support. It’s a film that only die hard lovers of truly bad films will be able to appreciate. Leprechaun in the Hood plays out as wacky as you’d expect from such a titled film and the novelty value is seeing the culture clash between the diminutive Irish fella and his hood brothers. It’s such an absurd contradiction that it actually works to a degree but a more talented set of writers would no doubt have made more of the situation than simply playing on stereotype.

The script is peppered with ridiculous dialogue which does little to change stereotypical views of black people, ghettos and such like. It paints almost every black character as some form of criminal, even the reverend at the church. The three young rappers immediately turn to violence when things don’t go their way. Talk about playing the race card. I guess it was only a matter of time before the leprechaun came up against someone who shared his ability to produce rhyme out of thin air and with the rappers, he finds such opponents. Your tolerance of rap and of the whole culture associated with it will go some way to your appreciation of the film. Most of the songs in the film are dire and although the rapping ability of the black actors is not in question, it all gets tiring rather quickly for someone like me who isn’t a big fan. To top it all off, the leprechaun busts out some moves and cuts a rap during the end credits. It’s not the film purists, that’s for sure.

I  must admit, the idea of the characters attempting to kill the leprechaun by getting him to smoke weed which had been laced with four-leaf clovers is amusing and leads to the film’s best moment. But the rest of the film involves the leprechaun, Mack Daddy and the gang all getting in each other’s way and killing off a whole host of random people in the process. Death scenes are relatively gore free and somewhat low key considering the previous films and they’re played entirely for laughs rather than have any sort of scare value. In fact, between scenes of the leprechaun getting high and the gang getting dressed in drag to go undercover, the film would have been better off posing itself as a full-on comedy – it’s certainly more unintentionally funny than some of the Wayan Brothers films have been intentionally funny.

Warwick Davis can move from the sadistic to the camp and from the evil to the comedic in a heart-beat and he has always been the best thing about the series. Though his height will always unfairly overshadow him, his acting range is top drawer and though the series was hardly one to challenge any actor, Davis always gave it his best shot. He seems to be having a blast in this one, although his character gets less screen time than before and becomes somewhat of a supporting player for a large chunk of the film. Ice-T plays, well the stock Ice-T characters he’s been playing for a while now. He’s hardly what I’d class as star power but I bet a few people were fooled into thinking that this was an Ice-T vehicle and not just some third-rate sequel to a long-flagging horror franchise.

 

Leprechaun in the Hood – what did you honestly expect I was going to say about it? It’s virtually impossible to criticise as the film was released straight-to-video and still turned a small profit, proving that the lure of enduring ever-diminishing horror franchises remains as strong as ever. Definitely not one for everyone.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Dr Who and his accomplices arrive on Earth in 2150 to find that the population has been enslaved by the evil Daleks who are using humans to mine the Earth’s core. Can Dr Who and the human resistance groups stop the Daleks before Earth is destroyed?

 

Doctor Who is a British institution. First broadcast back in 1963, the series has become one of the longest-running and most popular science fiction programmes not only in the UK but across the world. Though it has seen its fair share of ups and downs, Doctor Who has become part of popular culture for its imaginative stories and creative low budget special effects, bringing to life a variety of aliens, planets and situations that science fiction literature has come to recognise as some of the most iconic images in the genre.  One such iconic image is that of the Dalek, a mutant alien race who live inside rather unique pepper pot-shaped tank-like machines and are bent on universal conquest and domination. First seen in the Doctor Who‘s second serial, The Daleks, they quickly his most famous and deadly enemies, causing a generation of children to hide behind their sofas whenever they came on.

A pair of non-canon Doctor Who films were made by Amicus Productions in the 60s to capitalise on the phenomenal success of the TV series, with bigger budgets and production values that the TV episodes could only dream of. Both starred legendary actor Peter Cushing as The Doctor and both featured the Daleks – this was the height of a phenomena in the UK known as Dalekmania. The first film, Dr Who and the Daleks, based itself around the story for The Daleks. The second of the films, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., sees the producers return to the TV series once more, this time basing their script around the more iconic serial of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It was the first of the TV serials to utilise location shooting and the sight of the Daleks powering across a devastated London and emerging from the Thames have become engrained in UK TV history.

The better of the two big screen Doctor Who adventures, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. sees the campy and garish nature of the previous film being ramped up a couple of notches. It’s definitely a product of the swinging 60s and unquestionably both looks and sounds dated. Visually, the film was head and shoulders above the TV series for the time. You can only imagine how much more vibrant and innovative the skilled artists at the BBC would have been able to make the series had they had this sort of budget. But not only that, this film manages to hold its own really well against any other 60s science fiction films. The production team have really gone to town on this one, delivering a futuristic vision of a destroyed London on a low budget in stunning, colourful detail. The effects work is a mixed bag – some decent model work, some not so good. Shots of Dalek spaceships flying over London look good but then the miniature sets don’t look all that good either.

Director Gordon Flemyng was back on board and, seeing where the faults lay in the first film, manages a better all-round pace, cramming in plenty of action set pieces and lots more Dalek action, as well as holding back on some of the sillier escapades. It’s still kitsch as anything and the Daleks will never really convince you of their evil intentions due to their absurd design (I always preferred the Cybermen anyway). They get way more screen time than they really should. After all, the TV series scrimped and saved on them because they were just too costly to make and so you only ever saw a few Daleks on screen at once. The bright and gaudy look of the Daleks in the film here is a bit of a surprise, turning them into fashion hazards from an era of hippies. They come off looking like they’ve lost a battle with a couple of toddlers and a few cans of paint. But they’re in the film a lot and there are some entertaining battles between them and the human resistance to keep things ticking over.

Peter Cushing makes for an interesting selection as the Doctor. Just like in the previous film, the character is not written as a mysterious alien but rather a kindly man who has managed to build a time machine (as you do). Cushing plays him as a doddery old gent, very grandfatherly and without any hint of malice or hidden intentions. It’s an eccentric performance which shows the great range that Cushing had and would have been good to see Cushing actually get the chance to play him on a regular basis in the TV series. Strangely, despite his iconic status as a veteran British actor who regularly played villains or scientists, Cushing never appeared in the TV series.

Bernard Cribbins takes over from Roy Castle who was unavailable to return and, though there’s an ill-advised and overlong sequence of him trying to be one of the robo-men, he stops the character from becoming too bumbling and farcical. Cribbins would go on to appear in the TV series in 2007 – a massive gap of forty-one years!

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is cheap and cheerful, silly and fun. Made for kids who were fascinated with the Daleks back in the 60s, the film does what it sets out to do. If you grew up on a diet of barnstorming sci-fi films like Aliens, this may be a bit too childish and quaint for your tastes. But fans of the series will find plenty to enjoy.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah (1991)

Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah (1991)

Travelers from the future arrive in present day Tokyo bringing news with them that that in the next century, Godzilla will return to Japan and destroy it once and for all. They have a solution though: to travel back in time and destroy the dinosaur that eventually mutates into Godzilla after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Earth people agree but they find out that it is a dastardly plan by the time travellers to unleash their new monster on Japan: King Ghidorah. Without Godzilla to save them, who will save Japan from this three-headed terror?

 

The feeble Return of Godzilla in 1984 and the disappointing Godzilla Vs Biollante in 1989 certainly revived interest in Godzilla after a nine year gap but the results had been somewhat underwhelming. Had Toho made a mistake in shelving Godzilla for so long before he was reborn in the 80s? Return of Godzilla was a poor man’s remake of the original with more cutting edge special effects and Godzilla Vs Biollate saw the giant lizard return to his old school roots by pairing off against another giant monster. But they were hardly classic entries in the series which had become more known for its city-stomping and monster tag team fights than any serious post-atomic messages. With Toho’s 50th anniversary approaching, they wanted to celebrate in style by giving Godzilla an old school opponent to fight. King Kong was primarily considered but the rights were too costly and so Toho decided to take a step into Godzilla’s past and resurrect one of his most famous and feared (and my favourite) opponents – King Ghidorah – in order to give their anniversary some major box office clout.

Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah is arguably where the second wave of Godzilla films really kicked off in earnest. Whilst it doesn’t totally eschew the more serious nature of the previous two films, it allowed some more of the camp and alien invader nonsense of the past to creep back in and soften the edges somewhat. What you get is one of the best instalments of the entire franchise, if you can make it past the first half an hour of complete and utter gibberish that is. The film is ambitious, I’ll credit it with that. Not just content with introducing some aliens with a blatantly-sinister agenda like the 60s and 70s had in abundance, the film borrows from The Terminator with a futuristic android who can run faster and is stronger than anyone as well as a confusing time travel story.

This is one really perplexing film where the film messes around with its own timeline so much that it gets out of control. It tries to be clever, toying with the story by jumping backwards and forwards in time with the old cause and effect routine but it’s not as smart as it thinks it is. Temporal paradoxes are not the strongest point of Godzilla films and if you even try to decipher the logistics behind most of what happens here (events here also effect the following sequels which make reference to this a fair bit) then you’ll be left scratching your head in confusion. The idea behind going back to reveal Godzilla’s origins is good but the execution is appalling as the film flits between 1904, 194 and 2204. At some points during the film, Godzilla is the hero and Ghidorah is the bad guy and then roles are reversed once the films shifts the time continuum. To be honest, once the fights begin, the head-scratching ends.

Forgetting the silly story and focusing on the stronger points of the Godzilla films, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah eventually delivers giant monster battles all brought to life with then-modern special effects of the 90s. The miniature cities look convincing and there’s plenty of explosions and buildings crashing down as the monsters fight each other hand-to-hand and then later with their beam weapons. This is the first of the modern day Godzilla films to really go to town on the destruction and it all looks fantastic, giving you a tantalising taste of what was to come later in the decade.

King Ghidorah gets a sleek new update for the 20th century, having his majestic and awe-inspiring three-headed form retained in earnest. My only disappointment with this new version of the monster is that it lacks the classic roar that the old King Ghidorah had. This new roar sounds pretty feeble and couldn’t be any less intimidating if it tried. Godzilla retains more of the animalistic look that the previous two films had given him, a far cry from the cheesy perma-grinning superhero of the 60s, and he’s back to being really angry with Japan. It’s a suit made to look primal, aggressive and dinosaur-like and it succeeds in keeping the monster from becoming too human. In a funny way, when the monsters fight each other it’s almost like they remember their prior history – impossible since this takes place in a different timeline but you still get the sense of some deep personal issues between the two!

Sadly, the English language release of the film contains some of the worst dubbing I’ve ever heard – the travellers from the future, two of whom are American, are dubbed by some atrocious English-speaking people that I wouldn’t even call voice actors. Whoever was doing the hiring seems to have gone out of the way to find the two silliest voices to dub over. Thankfully a lot of their droning is drowned out by the quality score by returning composer Akira Ifukube, brought back to the series to give it some much-needed audio impact. He resurrects some of his classic old themes including the brilliant Monster Zero March.

 

With an ambitious, if convoluted, story, some excellent special effects and plenty of monster fighting, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah is one of the most entertaining instalments of the series. But both Godzilla and King Ghidorah come a little too late in the film to hold it back from being one of the true classics.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Infestation (2009)

Infestation (2009)

Prepare for Global Swarming

Lifelong slacker Cooper is in the process of getting fired from his call centre job when everyone in the office is suddenly blinded by a bright light and falls unconscious. Waking up, Cooper finds himself feeling nauseous and covered in webbing. After breaking free of his cocoon, he is attacked by a huge beetle which he able to fend off. Waking up more of his co-workers without the faintest idea of what happened, Cooper decides to lead his rag-tag group of survivors to his father’s bomb shelter outside the city where they find that giant insects have overrun the entire planet.

 

Sounds original, eh? Another low budget film with ambitions of grandeur? If it’s not the umpteenth ‘zombie apocalypse on a two dollar budget’ cliché then its some ‘killer bugs try to take over the world made for the price of a hot meal and shower’ nonsense.  Most films that try to take on the planet with their overblown ambition end up suffering as a result – they promise ‘end of the world’ scenarios but typically deliver stories with only a handful of survivors in the same dull one-set locations which never give you the sense of apocalyptic scope that bigger budget films can convey. But then every once in a while, a film comes along which doesn’t hit the high vision of the mainstream blockbusters but manages to blow the socks out of its low budget opposition. Say hello to Infestation, a daft low budget movie which is lots of fun and extremely hard not to like.

When a story as tired and well-worn as Infestation sports trudges its way into the spot light, there’s only so much originality that writers can come up with to keep the material fresh. So the focus of the script goes towards keeping the audience entertained even though the clichés roll out thick and fast. Infestation is the perfect example of a film that you’ll have seen before and can predict with great accuracy just where it’s heading at every point. But the pacing is brisk and the initial bug attack happens within the first few minutes to get the ball rolling quickly. The story doesn’t bother with explaining what they are, where they came from or why they’re here – the only thing anyone needs to worry about is the fact that they are here and hungry. The only problem with the whole notion of the bug attack is the sense of scope that the supposedly city-wide (or even nation-wide, we never know) infestation is very limited due to the low budget.

The film isn’t laugh out loud funny but there are enough amusing lines to keep things ticking over smoothly without ever feeling forced. Unfortunately at times the film doesn’t really know whether it wants to play straight or funny, striking an uneasy balance between the two. Case in point is a slightly awkward scene which provides the film’s token nudity as mentally-unhinged weather girl Cindy strips off and tries to seduce Cooper. You’re not sure whether to laugh at what is going on or feel a bit alarmed as the lass is clearly in distress and the situation shouldn’t really be funny. It’s not the only moment where the film isn’t quite comfortable with straight or silly.

The bugs themselves are mainly rendered in CGI and they’re good for what they need to be, not played for laughs but given enough to do to turn them into a very serious threat. The film isn’t very gory in the traditional sense but the make-up artists have a field day with old school 80s gloop and slime, showering the cast in blown-up bug parts whenever possible. The combination of the two styles of effects work well and given that most of the film is shot during the day, the low budget CGI effects work better than they have any right to do.

Though the bugs are the focal point of the film, this is essentially a road movie centred on the character of Cooper and him finally growing up and taking some responsibility for his life. Along the way there is the opportunity for him to mend the broken father-son bond and for him to become a man. Chris Marquette is really good in the lead role. Yes the character is one we’ve seen countless times before but Marquette instils the character with a nice amount of natural charm, rattling off a few dry jokes and using some great mannerisms to get across his character’s reluctance to put himself in any harm.

The romantic subplot between Cooper and the lovely Sara (played by the delectable Brooke Nevin) never seems forced: Cooper continually hitting on her throughout the film eventually wins her over but even then there’s no dramatic kissing or “I love you” moment – just two young people who have bonded in a romantic way. It’s nice to see a romance which doesn’t feel forced down our throats simply because Hollywood narrative cinema dictates that a heterosexual romance is a necessity in every film. Ray Wise steals the show as Cooper’s dad and gets most of the best lines even though he doesn’t show up till about two thirds into the film. But that’s a testament to Wise’s ability as a great character actor.

 

Infestation is good old fashioned low budget monster movie entertainment. Light-hearted, good-natured and consistently entertaining , it’s the perfect example of how low budget comedy horrors should set about their task. Everyone involved gets right behind the film and its intention right from the start and the final product is a testament to their efforts. I wouldn’t say no to a sequel.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

MEN AND MONSTERS BATTLE TO RULE THE EARTH!

Tumak is banished from the savage rock tribe and finds temporary refuge amongst the more gentle shore tribe. Here Loana, one of the females, takes a liking to him but his savage ways are too much for the gentle tribe who eventually banish him as well. Faced with a dilemma, Loana decides to go with him and the two must face the prehistoric world of dinosaurs by themselves.

 

Not the sort of film you’d expect to see from legendary horror studio Hammer, One Million Years B.C. was one of their many attempts to diversity their output in the 60s and 70s away from the classic Gothic horrors that they had become synonymous with and into any new niche genre that they could capitalise on. They tried swashbuckling action with The Devil-Ship Pirates, exotic adventure in She and fantasy islands in The Lost Continent to name a few but nothing caught on. However, they struck gold with One Million Years B.C. and proceeded to make a handful of prehistoric ‘cave girl’ films within a five year period from 1966. One Million Years B.C. was the first of these and the best, becoming a huge international hit upon its release.

Billed as the ’100th Hammer Film’ and evidently sold on its two main selling points (or should that be three….) of Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful special effects and the absolutely stunning Raquel Welch in a skimpy fur bikini, One Million Years B.C. is a fun exploitative prehistoric romp. There’s little pretence of story. There’s no real narrative to the film. Dialogue is virtually non-existent. It’s just a series of encounters between dinosaurs and aggressive cave men. And that bikini. The film quickly boils down to its lowest denominators and sticks to it until the end. It knows its strengths and plays to them.

Director Don Chaffey was no stranger to making these big budget fantasy epics, having helmed the classic Jason and the Argonauts a few years earlier, but he bites off a little more than he can chew here, expanding the film to a whopping one hundred minutes – a long time when you haven’t got a story or script to keep everything together. Granted most films featuring Ray Harryhausen’s special effects were little more than set piece-driven spectacles but at least they had a story and dialogue so that you at least knew what was supposed to be happening. This one plods from dinosaur to dinosaur, with not even talky filler scenes to bolster the running time.

I could give the film top marks on Raquel Welch alone. Simply put, Welch looks amazing in this, sizzling in every scene that she is in. If anyone ever wanted to see just how drop dead gorgeous one of cinema’s most famous sex symbols was in her prime, then show them this. She only has three ‘lines’ but the shot of Welch in her fur bikini has become one of the most famous images to come out of the 60s.

Apart from strutting around in very little (and doing a super job of it too!), she has nothing to do in the film. None of the actors do. The only real words are spoken by the narrator – the rest of the script consists of grunts and groans as the cavemen communicate with each other in primitive fashion. I suppose it’s authentic but hell, if you’re going to slap a hot red head with perfect hair and make-up and pretend she’s a legit cave girl, why not have them talk to each other? There are loads of famous faces hanging around such as John Richardson, Percy Herbert, Martine Beswick and Robert Brown so why not have them talk to each other. It seems like a real waste of talent to me.

Legendary stop motion effects wizard Ray Harryhausen provides the special effects here and it is this reason alone why One Million Years B.C. stands head and shoulders above virtually every other dinosaur film made up to this point. The dinosaurs he brings to life have more character and personality about them than the cast does. The scene with the pterodactyl swooping down and attacking Ms. Welch by the lake is one of his most complex and riveting action sequences and the fight between the T-Rex and the triceratops is classic Harryhausen.

But maybe it’s because we’re only dealing with dinosaurs here that the effects don’t stand out as some of his best. There’s no skeleton fight here, no Talos or cyclops to get the pulse racing or a Medusa to scare the pants off us. The dinosaurs look good but they fail to generate that extra excitement factor that his more well-known fantasy monsters do. We’ve all seen dinosaurs before and they’re common coin in cinema. Not all of the dinosaurs are animated too and, in some scenes, a normal lizard and a tarantula have been blown up to gigantic proportion and super-imposed on the screen. It mixes up the special effects somewhat but just goes to remind everyone how good Harryhausen was at his day job. This was one of his last films and he would only make four more after this.

 

One Million Years B.C. is a tad hokey but it’s hard not to get worked up over Ray Harryhausen’s special effects and the stunning Ms Welch. For these reasons alone, the film has garnered much more praise than it deserves and they do paper over a lot of the obvious cracks.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Frankenstein Conquers the World (1966)

Frankenstein Conquers the World (1966)

He rolled the Seven Wonders of the World into one!

During World War II, the Germans steal the immortal heart of Frankenstein’s monster from a lab in Europe and take it to their Japanese allies. Here, the heart is caught in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and is exposed to radiation. The heart slowly mutates and grows into a full body which then escapes into the countryside. Years later, the now-grown feral boy is captured by scientists who want to study it. But the boy keeps growing until he is over 20ft tall. Escaping from captivity once more, the giant is blamed for the destruction of a mountain area near Mount Fuji. But in reality this is the work of a giant reptile named Barugon which has come out of the centre of the Earth. Frankenstein and Barugon cross paths and fight to the death.

 

Jeez that was a long-winded plot summary but I could have gone on for hours trying to explain Toho’s Frankenstein Conquers the World, one of their many standalone kaiju flicks which didn’t feature Godzilla or Mothra but instead, rather bizarrely, tries to draw influence from Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein. What follows is one of Toho’s most unique films, in every sense of the word. Who would have though a literature classic would find its way into the world of kaiju eiga?

Toho roped in long-term Godzilla main man Ishirô Honda for the directing duties but there was no way that even he would be able to get a grip on the subject matter. The plot is bonkers: the script has loads of ideas (using the original script from King Kong Vs Godzilla which had Godzilla fighting Frankenstein instead) but once Frankenstein has grown to full size, there’s literally nothing left for him to do except follow the kaiju formula by squaring off with another giant monster. These scripts don’t lead anywhere else except to a giant fight at the finale and this is no exception. So what you basically get is a lot of filler and padding out before the fight.

I guess Toho finally ran out of monster ideas for this one and simply had a grown man stomping around on the miniature set instead of designing a suit or even some half-decent make-up for the actor to wear. We know that the monsters in these kaiju films are just guys in suits anyway but the illusion is ruined at the sight of a normal guy doing the stomping. He’s given a flat top skull piece to wear, some really goofy buck-teeth and an overlarge, soiled nappy to wear. Hardly the stuff of nightmares! Frankenstein is little threat to Japan, let alone coming close to living up to the title of conquering the world.

What little money was left over (and I must be talking pennies here) was ‘invested’ into the Barugon suit. When I say invested, I mean that it was probably found in a bin somewhere. Barugon (not to be confused with the creature of the same name who did battle with Gamera) looks like something the pet dog of a five year might wear on Halloween. Definitely one of those “you can see the zipper” monsters. Barugon shows up for literally no other reason than to provide Frankenstein with something to do once he reaches ‘giant monster’ status. Given that he’s flesh and blood, a full-fledged assault by the usually-toothless Japanese military might have actually paid dividends for a change. But Frankenstein has to make do with Barugon to fight – Godzilla would have made for a more memorable opponent.

Come to mention it, apart from the giant monster side of the film, the Frankenstein elements work quite well. Whilst Mary Shelley’s work is uncredited, the source material is reasonably followed – this is a monster who is not naturally violent or aggressive but misunderstood and only reacts the way he does because of the way he has been treat. He only kills when he has to do and manages to get some sympathy and pity from the audience. Sadly, as I’ve already stated, the film gives the monster little to do and instead saddles the bulk of the screen time with the scientists who look after him but are not interesting enough to hold together the film. American actor Nick Adams was decent enough in Invasion of the Astro-Monsters but he can’t save this mess on his own, relegated to almost commentary-duty as he and the others watch the giant monsters fight it out. Admittedly, the fight between the two monsters isn’t the worst you’re ever going to see in one of these films but only for the pure camp value of seeing a man wearing a nappy fighting another man in a moth-balled lizard suit on a crumbling miniature set!

 

Toho’s script is an interesting failure where the best elements are those which have been inspired from the Gothic novel and the worst ones have been lifted from every other kaiju film out there. Frankenstein Conquers the World tries to work the two together in a very mis-matched way but which was somehow successful and popular enough to spawn a sequel.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆