Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage (2014)

Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage (2014)

Discover the legend

Sinbad is in love with the sultan’s daughter, Firoozeh, despite her father’s disapproval of their relationship. When an evil sorcerer known as the White Thief captures Firoozeh and holds her hostage in a black desert, Sinbad is informed that must save her within forty days and forty nights. So he and his crew set out to rescue Firoozeh and prove to the sultan that he is worthy enough of his daughter.

 

How long I had been waiting for this throwback to the classic Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films of old! Having seen teaser trailers with glimpses of the stop-motion creatures in what seems like years ago, the anticipation built up and built up. I know I wasn’t the only one. For a generation of film lovers like myself grew up on the likes of Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad long before CGI monster movies were all the rage. In an era where the heart and soul of movie monsters has been lost to an endless supply of vacant CGI creations, a lot of older film fans still hark back to the good old days. How I longed for Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage to be a blast from the past, a shot across the bow to the big, soulless blockbusters and perhaps, just maybe, a sign that film makers would revisit some of the older techniques in conjunction with the computer effects they so lavishly splash around nowadays. The sense of nostalgia and magical feeling that the trailer gave me was second to none.

After the long wait, it pains me to see just how disappointing Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage turns out to be. In fact it’s not only disappointing, it’s abysmal. It is allegedly eighty-nine minutes (though actually runs at sixty-nine minutes for some reason!) of incoherent narrative, terrible acting, special effects which should have been passionately developed a lot closer and a general sense of ‘well this was a complete waste of time.’ Shahin Sean Solimon, also known as, the writer, director and star of Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage clearly appeared to have a lot of love and affection for the old Sinbad films, hence why he almost single-handedly got this thing made. But having finished this, it begs the question of whether Solimon had actually seen any of the old school fantasy films. There are few clues to be had here because the film is such a mess.

For a start, although the older films were never the strongest on plot, there was at least a sense of direction and cohesion in the narrative with Sinbad (or any hero from Harryhausen’s fantasy films) chasing after a McGuffin of some kind and encountering monsters and magic along the way. Here, the story is all over the place and there were so many times when I literally had no idea what was going on or who was who. There are flashbacks galore, sometimes within other flashbacks, plot threads picked up and dropped moments later and editing which baffles the brain. What should have been a nice, simple plot turns into something overly complicated and needlessly so. The only consistent narrative is provided by the voice of Patrick Stewart, who narrates from the point of view as Sinbad as an old man. Quite how Sinbad’s voice manages to turn from squeaky Persian to broad Yorkshire when he enters his last years is beyond me. Stewart was plastered all over the promotion for this but you’ll not see his face at all.

Sinbad, as a character, has never been one for real depth but we could always root for him. He’s a dashing hero, goes off on perilous quests, saves princesses, slays monsters and battles evil magicians. He is rather one-dimensional at the best of times but even here, the character is literally rooted to the spot with a script which does him no favours. The supporting characters fair even worse, with no development for his crew of expendable sailors, an evil magician who is evil purely because he has a moustache and deep-set eyes and princess who spends most of the film in a sleep-induced state. Just who are we supposed to get behind as a character?

Despite the number of people working on the animation here, 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is still light years ahead of this one and only one guy worked on that! Stop-motion effects quality seem to have regressed over the years and the creatures in here look to have been made long before the 1950s. The special effects are what they are and those who think they look awful aren’t the ones that this film was aimed at though. There are a number of different creatures on display, all of which hark back to one or more of Harryhausen’s classic creations of the past. There is a cyclops, a giant Roc, a statue, skeletons, ghouls and a giant crab but they lack any real sense of grandeur or importance.

Worse yet, all of these stop-motion sequences take place in front of terribly-rendered green screens and are subjected to a filter of fog and haze to obscure the view of the creatures. This absolutely kills the stop-motion dead in its tracks – where was the classic matte work that Harryhausen used so effectively to blend live action with stop motion? It would have enhanced the special effects one hundred times over. Alas, the use of the green screen backgrounds gives everything a cheap, cartoony feel. There is no energy or excitement to the action set pieces as a result. The monsters move sluggishly, they hardly interact with the characters and they don’t last for very long when they occur. You never once feel that Sinbad is in any real danger.

One last point to make and it is an important one when looking back at what made the earlier Harryhausen films so universally and eternally popular: the music. Backed by scores from the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rózsa, the films owed a lot of their popularity to some of the fantastic musical accompaniment to the action on screen. Herrmann’s scores for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts are two of the best fantasy soundtracks of all time, and my two favourite soundtracks to boot. They enhanced what you were watching on the screen, giving characters or monsters signature tunes to give them more importance and gravity to the story. The music in Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage is badly mismatched with the scenes they play in. The soundtrack isn’t bad but at no point did it enhance what was happening or create any more excitement.

 

Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage ends up more like an expensive fan-made homage to the Harryhausen Sinbad films of old. Whilst I commend the passion of those involved and recognise that this was a real labour of love, a little trip back to film school is needed to assemble the pieces into something coherent and exciting. You can’t just throw everything together in the hope that it sticks – you need real talent and sadly with Mr Harryhausen no longer with us, that fantasy magic of old seems to have died with him. If this was designed as a homage to Harryhausen’s films of old then all I can compare it to is like giving the plumber a turd-covered plunger and saying thanks for clearing out my toilet. Truly an awful experience from start to finish.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead 2: India, The (2013)

The Dead 2: India (2013)

The Feeding Continues

The zombie infection that has gripped Africa reaches India and starts to spread rapidly. Nicholas Burton is an American engineer who has come to India to build wind turbines and has an Indian girlfriend, Ishani, whose fiercely protective father wants him to stay away from her. When he finds out she is pregnant on the day the zombie onslaught reaches their city, Nicholas sets out across fifty miles of hostile, zombie-filled terrain to rescue Ishani and their unborn baby.

 

The first ever international zombie movie set in India, The Dead 2: India follows on from 2010’s sleeper hit The Dead, a rather routine zombie flick which had the novelty factor of being set and filmed in Africa (Burkina Faso and Ghana to be exact). Amongst the never-ending undead hordes that have graced DVD and cinema almost weekly for the past couple of years, The Dead received a whole host of positive reviews. For what it was, The Dead was a solid, if unspectacular zombie film, which ticked all of the right boxes but didn’t really get the pulse racing. Switching continents across to Asia, the Ford brothers were clearly hoping to recreate the same success with The Dead 2: india.

The first thing that has to be said about The Dead 2: India is its excellent cinematography. Filmed on location really adds something different to the tried-and-tested zombie formula. This isn’t just some small town, a shopping mall, a big city or any of those other Western settings that filmmakers tend to set their epidemics in. Capturing the beautiful landscapes of the Indian countryside in one breath and then unleashing an atmosphere of dread and terror within the next, the film does a great job of selling the natural splendour of the expansive vistas and also the desolation and feeling of helplessness that being stranded in the middle the desert with a horde of zombies heading your way. The rich reds and oranges of the landscape give the film a unique look amongst zombie films and a lot of early scenes bask in the background glow of the countryside, in particular a shot where Nicholas is hanging from a wind turbine watching a farmer being attacked by a zombie in the distance.

Aside from the novelty of the Indian location, there’s nothing remotely original about The Dead 2: India. The narrative is very flimsy – basically a road trip movie where Nicholas must get from A to B to save his girlfriend from the zombies and along the way he encounters different survivors and, of course, lots of zombies. Since he doesn’t get to talk to a lot of people, there’s not a lot of dialogue for a lot of the running time and so these endless scenes of him running into and then escaping from the zombies quickly become tiresome. Even then, his character isn’t the most developed main character to grace a horror film and we know little about him and are given little reason to care for him.

He’s not the only one though and across the board the characters are thinly-sketched and rather bland. When you don’t feel a connection with characters, you don’t really care about what happens to them on the screen and we get that a lot here. The acting is pretty bad too that’s to be expected from the bunch of Indian supporting actors who destroy the English language with their soap opera-like performances. It’s no surprise to see that two years after this was made, both Meenu Mishra (Ishani) and Sandip Datta Gupta (her father) haven’t starred in anything else. The family-orientated sub-plot that they are given to work with is terrible and the human drama seems contrived and forced. Given that there’s a zombie apocalypse on the way, a father arguing about his pregnant daughter having a relationship with a white man should be the least of his worries.

The zombies themselves are of the old school Romero variety which means that on their own, you could easily outpace one. However the problems arise when you become trapped or surrounded by dozens of them who overpower you. The make-up is decent, better than I was expecting in all honesty, and the gore effects are adequate. This isn’t a film where every character is going to be ripped apart on-screen every few minutes but the few attack scenes are effective in delivering the necessary threat. The zombies are at their most effective when they’re lurking in the background, slowly approaching the camera as the human characters struggle to deal with a problem. In particular a scene in which Nicholas attempts to rescue a woman and her child from their car is fraught with peril as the zombies slowly but surely close in for the kill.

 

If you think that in 2015 a zombie film will offer anything more than the same old entrails that have been served up and reheated time and time again, then think again. The Dead 2: India does exactly what it needs to do to pass the time but we’re all too familiar with the flesh-eating material to fully invest in it.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Slaughter Studios (2002)

Slaughter Studios (2002)

The Place Where Nightmares Come True

Young filmmaker Steve discovers that Slaughter Studios, the place where his favourite B-Movies were filmed, is going to be demolished. The studios had been closed twenty years earlier after the death of a young star while shooting a scene. Determined to shoot one last horror film there, he gets a cast and crew together and sneaks into the studio the night before the demolition in order to make a cheap horror film. However strange things begin to happen and they soon find out that they are not alone in the studio.

 

Great. Another low budget horror film about a bunch of low budget horror filmmakers making a low budget horror film. It’s a well-worn out premise and the whole film-within-a-film has been done to death. Originally starting out as a remake of The Slumber Party Massacre, Slaughter Studios morphed into a spoof of not only the slasher films of the 80s but the cheapo sci-fi horrors of the 50s when the writers realised that they were able to use Roger Corman’s old film studios in California. The studios were in the process of being torn down so a quick twelve-day shoot allowed the filmmakers an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something bigger than they expected.

What comes out the other end is a surprisingly entertaining slasher film which acts better as a low budget parody on low budget horror filmmaking. Slaughter Studios enjoys itself during the first half of the film, setting up a load of predictable clichés and poking fun at them in the process. It’s not exactly cutting edge satire but the comedy works well enough to give the proceedings a nice light-hearted tone. The dialogue is pretty sharp at times and once you get past the annoying accents put on by some of the cast and their smarmy “I know everything about horror” attitude, there’s a lot of mileage to get out of the idea that these idiots are really making a low budget film with a cast and crew of about ten people. If you love old school B-movies then there will be plenty of homages and nods to tropes that you’ll be familiar with – even the title of the film-within-a-film harks back to memories of the sci-fi trash released in the 50s with the glorious name of ‘Naughty Sex Kittens vs The Giant Preying Mantis.’

Slaughter Studios has production values which defy the limitations of the budget. For a start, it helped that the filmmakers were able to use the old studios whilst they were being demolished. Having access to some sets which would have been way beyond the budget of the film really adds a nice sense of atmosphere. You really get the feeling that this is a massive film studio filled with dozens of rooms and corridors, all left to the ravages of time with cobwebs and dust covering everything that has been left behind. The art direction is spot on, with these dingy sets being lit with a variety of coloured lighting to give them an unsettling and ominous vibe. At times, the film has the kind of charm that a fairground ghost train or high-brow Halloween haunt exhibits. It doesn’t exactly look like a top class production but you know it’s been designed with heart and soul.

The problem with Slaughter Studios is that it takes too long to get to what it sets out to be at the beginning – a slasher film. The set-up is long and whilst it’s not boring watching the antics of the crew, it seems like something of a deviation from where the film should have been heading. There is about forty minutes of watching these people attempt to make the film, with a few little morsels of plot advancement thrown in. But it’s nothing that couldn’t have been shortened and sped up a bit to keep the pace going. Once the slashing does begin, things move rapidly enough and the cast and crew begin to dwindle one-by-one. There’s some decent gore involved and the kills are perfunctory if nothing else with a variety of spears, pickaxes and other implements being used to shorten the cast number. The film knows what it is trying to be and doesn’t shy away from getting exploitative when it needs to. The female cast have been hired for obvious reasons and are required to disrobe with alarming frequency, with the lovely, late Lorissa McComas winning the award for most time spent topless.

The cast play mostly to type. Peter Stanovich is the stereotypical English auteur in charge of the production and mangles a bad accent and even worse dialogue trying to sound posh and artistic. He is so blinded by believing that he is making a good film that he fails to see how ludicrous everything is.  The rose-tinted glasses approach rings home true with a lot of Roger Corman’s studio output over the decades – films so terrible that the directors must have believed they were making Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather. Apart from Lorissa McComas’ ample bosom, Tara Killian steals the show as the diva-like blond actress who demands that certain concessions are made for her to star in the film. Rounding off the “fresh from film school” clichés are the sound guy and a sleazy actor who just happens to be Indian, killing two stereotypes with one stone here.

 

Slaughter Studios is a bit goofy, a bit silly and a lot of fun. It works far better as a spoof of low budget horror filmmaking than it does as an outright slasher but there’s plenty for genre fans to get stuck into here. Hardly the most demanding ninety minutes to sit through, it would have worked far better had it just continued to spoof rather than try to get serious in the final third.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

New Year’s Evil (1980)

New Year's Evil (1980)

This New Year’s, you’re invited to a killer party…

During a New Year’s Eve celebration, New Wave rock show host Diane gets a phone call saying that when New Year’s strikes in each time zone in America, someone will be murdered – and she will be the last one. Though no one believes him at first, once the bodies begin to pile up the police realise that he’s the real deal and begin to search for him before time runs out and Diane becomes the next target.

 

One of the last of the holiday-themed horror films from the 80s that I hadn’t seen, New Year’s Evil is relatively routine, overly plodding and downright dull at times, lightened up by the odd moment of inspiration. I mean they managed to put horrors spins onto every other holiday of the year (take your pick from Friday the 13th, Halloween, any number of Christmas-themed horrors, April Fool’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, a couple of birthday slashers and of course, Mother’s Day) so why not New Year as well? After all, it’s one of the busiest nights of the year around the world and I’m sure that some people use it to create as much mischief or mayhem as possible whilst everyone is out partying and celebrating.

Tagged along in the slasher bracket because that was what was popular at the time, New Year’s Evil isn’t so much of a typical entry into that sub-genre. The body count is pretty low, there’s not a lot of stalking and we know who the killer is before the first third of the film is over, despite the pointless presence of some red herrings. If we’re shown who the killer is, what is the point in providing these seedy, weird characters and giving them a load of screen time? None of them further the plot in any shape. In fact the film makes the killer something of the prime focus of the film – we spend more time with him prowling around looking for his next victim than we do with some of the other characters. It’s a different approach to the norm – usually slashers introduce a bunch of characters to be the main focus of the film, give them some development and then have the killer come in and start taking them apart. Sometimes these characters work, sometimes they don’t depending on the script. But at least they’re the focus, and some of them will last all the way until the end, giving us a reason to emotionally invest in them. Here, the characters show up briefly for a few minutes of screen time before they’re killed off and the psycho moves on to the next non-character. There’s no one to root for – we can’t cheer on the killer (for obvious reasons) and there’s no point in pretending to care for any character that gets a handful of lines before dying.

On the flip side to this, having the killer as the focus of the film (and he’s not meant to be a sympathetic, tragic character either) gives us a rare chance to see some of the lengths that a determined psycho will go to in order to succeed. The killer would have been a better undercover agent than a murderer as he adopts a number of costumes and guises throughout the film in order to get close to, win the trust of, and then murder his victim. From a mild-mannered priest to a charismatic doctor, this killer loves dressing up. Since he does a lot of talking, we get to know the guy quite well within the running time and Kip Niven does a fair job of making him into a fully-rounded character. He’s a bit nutty and completely misogynist but at least there are attempts to flesh him out. Splashed on the back of the DVD cover is the killer wearing a strange mask which he does wear late in the film and comes off far more interesting and scary than anything he had come up with in the past. I guess this is how the film was sold though – another masked killer on the rampage.

This would be all well and good if the film was any decent but New Year’s Evil is bland beyond belief. As I’ve said, the body count is pretty low and we’re mainly subjected to the killer’s attempts to carry out his next attack in between. This is interspersed with a number of awfully-dated scenes set in the music phone-in show which showcase a lot of terrible late 70s/early 80s fashion and music – the hairstyles and crazy clothes during the ‘mosh pit’ scenes are laughable, especially looking back over thirty years later. The soundtrack is awful too, with the title track being replayed a number of times during the film (as if the rock show only has one record to repeat). There are a few other New Wave tracks in there which help to pad out the running time far longer than it needs to be as the radio show’s in-house band perform live.

Though the body count is low and the kills are pretty bloodless when they come, they are at least more original than the usual methods of dispatch – how many times can you say you’ve seen someone handcuffed to the bottom of a lift (not quite a kill but near enough) or choked to death with a bag of marijuana? The problem the film has is that this killer doesn’t stalk people or wait in the shadows, he gets to know them first. I don’t watch horror films to see Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees have a cup of tea with their next victim before slicing their heads off. This approach kills off any attempts at suspense or tension or even scares.

 

The basic problem with New Year’s Evil is that it doesn’t really know how it wants to set itself out. By trying to be different with its focus on the killer, it loses everything that would have made the film at least a cheesy watch. If it wanted to be a slasher and sit right at home in the ‘Golden Age’ of the slasher, then it went about everything the wrong way. With 1980 and 1981 arguably being the two best years for slashers, you’re spoiled for choice and have no reason whatsoever to want to check out New Year’s Evil – unless you’re a slasher completist.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Room for every nightmare… A nightmare in every room.

Making a bet with his publisher that he can write a trashy horror novel in just twenty-four, American writer Kenneth Magee heads off to an abandoned manor house in Wales so that he can write in peace, quiet and, more importantly, in a suitable atmosphere. However, upon arrival at the old house, his expected solitude is disturbed by a number of individuals who arrive at the house throughout the night. Magee soon finds himself at the centre of a decades-old family secret that is to be put to rights tonight.

 

House of the Long Shadows is what I would call the 80s horror equivalent of The Expendables. The only film to feature four of the biggest names in horror, if not the biggest, the film was a last dying gasp from an Anglo-horror cycle which had started back in the late 1950s by Hammer, had a glorious heyday which changed horror films as we know them today, and had gradually died out as audiences flocked to see the likes of Friday the 13th and The Exorcist. Though they had individually worked with each other over the previous decades, this would be the first time that Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and John Carradine would all star in the same film…and better yet, they would all share screen time in a historic moment for horror fans. Reuniting these legends for one last hurrah was designed to capitalise on their names alone and hope that they could still draw at the box office. Sadly, House of the Long Shadows was not a commercial success, though it’s not for the want of trying on the part of the four men.

It’s a shame that House of the Long Shadows is such a dull affair because Cushing, Lee, Price and Carradine are all excellent in it, it’s just the script that falls completely flat. More of a whodunit murder-mystery set inside a creaky old haunted house, the film is slow, lethargic and doesn’t really kick in until two thirds of the running time have passed. It spends the bulk of its early running time introducing the setting and trying to build up a sense of Gothic atmosphere. Whilst the haunted house setting, with creaky floors, secret passages, grand staircases, furniture covered in white sheets, gloomy basements and such like, complete with requisite thunder and lightning, might have worked back in the 1930s, it fails miserably to generate any sort of atmosphere in the modern setting. With audiences de-sensitised to violence, this old school throwback appears quaint and antiquated and the clichés just aren’t scary anymore.

House of the Long Shadows spends far too long putting all of the pieces in place. As great as Cushing, Lee, Price and Carradine are in it, there’s only so much time you can spend listening to them talking to each other and slowly expanding upon the plot (I mean in a character sense – I actually could have sat and listened to them all night if they were doing a round-table discussion about their careers). It gives them nothing worthwhile to do for ages – a crime against humanity when you one of the greatest casts in horror history. The film does begin to pick up as the mystery begins to unravel and the final third, when the characters start to wind up on the receiving end of some unpleasant treatment, definitely hits the right notes. There is a bit of blood and a bit of violence but with the elder actors involved, it was never going to be a bloodbath. The narrative leads up to a number of convoluted plot twists (one of which is predictable from the very beginning) which begin to make little to no sense if you think back over the course of the film and begin to pick holes.

Not only was House of the Long Shadows the first time the four horror maestros ever teamed up, it was sadly the last time that Cushing and Lee were to pair up, having done so twenty-three times prior. The film brought down the curtain on one of the most, if not the most, prolific horror partnerships of all time. Cushing went into semi-retirement after this which was a pity as he clearly had a few more good roles left in him.

**Spoiler alert – though it was to be their last film together, House of the Long Shadows ironically marked the only time that Lee managed to kill Cushing on-screen, with Cushing doing the honours in a previous six horror films.**

As I’ve alluded to, the four men all work wonderfully together and it’s a crying shame that they never had the opportunity to do so previously when they were all a little younger and spritelier. Each actor gets a fantastic entrance in the film, with Price’s being the highlight (and which plays upon expectations that it might be someone else), and a few moments to shine on their own before they’re joined by the others.

Carradine, starring in films since the 1930s, gets the least screen time but nearly crippled with arthritis, he does what he can with his smaller role. Carradine had the lesser of the careers in comparison with the other three men, appearing in a number of low budget films in glorified cameos in his late career, so his reduced part is fitting with his reduced status. Lee is his usual stern and authoritarian self, playing his part with command and control and keeping a lid on the proceedings with a no-nonsense approach. Lee came off like this a lot in his films which is a shame because when he was able to let loose a little, be it on camera or behind the scenes, he was actually a very warm, approachable individual.

Cushing gets to have a lot of fun, playing around with a bit of a speech impediment in his role as the cowardly, nervous Sebastian. In something of a role reversal from his early career, Cushing’s character is scared of everything, can’t make rational decisions very quickly and isn’t much use in a tricky situation. Unlike a lot of his ‘evil’ roles, this Cushing character is actually very sympathetic. It’s Price who steals the show, delivering his lines with all of his flamboyant gusto and faux Shakespearean delivery. His “Please! Don’t interrupt me when I’m soliloquising” moment is an excellent nod to his reputation as something of a hammy actor.

The younger supporting cast are dreadful is had to be said. Dezi Arnaz Jr., as Magee, deserves a lot of stick for his wooden performance (if acting against those four men didn’t get you to raise your game in the slightest, you didn’t deserve to be an actor) and the least said about his ‘love interest’ Mary, played by Julie Peasgood, the better. Every line she delivers is woeful. If this is the best that director Pete Walker could find to play off against the titans, they he really needed to look harder.

 

A unique slice of horror history that will never happen again in cinema, House of the Long Shadows falls pretty flat as a feature film in itself but let’s face it, everyone will watch this to see the four veteran actors do what they had been doing for years…only this time on the screen together and doing it with a lot of obvious fun. No matter what the quality of the end product, horror audiences were always going to hold this in a special place in their heart. The film is pretty rubbish, however the history and legacy make it essential viewing.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆