[REC] (2007)

[REC] (2007)

One Witness. One Camera

A reporter and her cameraman are trailing a crew of firefighters during a night shift in Barcelona when they’re called to an incident at an apartment block where an old woman is trapped inside her flat and is screaming. However once inside the building, the group, along with the residents, find themselves being quarantined inside by the military who refuse to allow them to leave. Its not long before they realise that they are locked inside the building with a horde of zombies.

 

I’ve been hard on found footage films in the past, slamming them for being a one-trick pony which, by the old mantra, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s face it – The Blair Witch Project did everything that these films do back in 1995 (though you can go back to 1980’s brutal Cannibal Holocaust to see an early prototype of what this sub-genre would become) and the rest of the bunch have been simply happy to rehash the same tropes time and time again. Can anyone honestly say there’s any difference between the Paranormal Activity films? But that was until [REC] came along. I’d hasten to say that this was the finest found footage film that has ever been made.

There’s nothing unusual about the setup – a zombie flick set inside a building hardly sounds like the most original idea – but it’s the manner in which the material is presented which works brilliantly. After a nice slow build, meeting the reporter and firefighters and arriving at the building, everything seems to be going along swimmingly, with a suitable build of uneasy tension. Then there are sudden explosive bouts of savagery and violence which puncture the atmosphere and come out of nowhere to throw the viewer off-guard. The claustrophobic tension is unpalpable at times and the viewer feels like they’re stuck inside the apartment block along with the characters, as the narrow corridors and dark rooms really allow for things to appear from nowhere – and they do! It almost seems as if everything is happening in real time and because of that, there’s no let-up in the tension. Even when the characters appear to be safe in a room, you know that they’re not.

From the moment the first zombie attacks right until the last shot of the film, the mix of slow-burner shocks and out-of-your-seat jumps will keep you on your toes throughout. The fact that none of the actors were known to Western audiences makes this more effective as we don’t know which actors are ‘named’ or not in Spain. There’s a realism and unpredictability that comes with that, keeping you on the edge of your seat and not being able to work out who dies next or when. Allegedly co-directors Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza kept some of the scares secret from the cast to draw actual screams and reactions from them during filming – it works! Unlike a normal film where scares can be telegraphed, there are a number of moments here which don’t happen in the centre of the shot: things popping in from the left or the right of camera or happening in the background where you don’t get a clear view. There’s lots of the usual found footage shenanigans including the camera not working at convenient moments and shaking whenever the user is running, forcing you to miss some key things that will either annoy you or intrigue you. But that’s where [REC] is genuinely frightening. The nauseating movements of the camera combined with the knowledge that anything can happen at any time really make this a thrill ride you’ll not forget in a hurry.

A lot of people will be familiar with [REC] via its American remake counterpart, Quarantine, an equally impressive piece which virtually covers this shot-by-shot. But there’s something about the rawness of this Spanish language version which gives it that extra edge. Forget the subtitles – you don’t need to read them to get the full effect of this masterpiece. The actors, including the fantastic Manuela Velasco, do an admirable job of conveying their panic, their fear, and their frustration without the need to understand what they’re actually saying. You can see what they’re up against – snipers with orders to shoot on sight stopping them from getting near the windows, and hordes of red-eyed, snarling 28 Days Later-style zombies prowling the apartment block looking for their next victim. But it’s potentially the final five minutes or so of [REC] that shift this into the upper echelons of horror – an intense, unnerving cat-and-mouse game of hide-and-seek with something even more malevolent and deadly than the ravenous monsters below, and with a sucker punch ending that leaves a dry taste in the mouth lingering long after the credits have rolled.

 

One of the best horror films to come out of Europe – heck, the world – in the past thirty years, [REC] is a fantastic rollercoaster of thrills, chills and spills. I’d thought modern horror films had lost the potential to scare an audience so accustomed to the methods used by filmmakers, but I was wrong. This should be essential viewing for any true horror fan: a near flawless exercise in sustained tension and genuine fear.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Carry On Screaming! (1966)

Carry On Screaming (1966)

Carry On Screaming with the Hilarious CARRY ON Gang!!

When beautiful young women are going missing in Hocombe Woods, Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung teams up with Albert Potter, the boyfriend of one of the missing girls, to get to the bottom of the mystery. Their investigation leads them to the mysterious Bide-A-Wee Rest Home, where the sinister Dr Watt is turning the women into mannequins to sell.

 

A quintessential national treasure during its heyday, the Carry On film series was the embodiment of the traditional British sense of humour at the time – saucy, but not overly sexual, and relying on puns, innuendos and double entendres for laughs. They pushed the boundaries of tastefulness just a little bit further than most but never crossed the line. Featuring a slew of stoic and sexually repressed characters, restricted by Britain’s conservative ‘stiff upper lip’ class-driven society and attitudes towards taboo subjects such as sex and drugs, coming up against British institutions and customs such as the NHS and the monarchy, the series spanned thirty-one films across thirty-four years and left a much-loved legacy when it ended. I know many people today look back on them in horror, saying they were embarrassing and cringey, but they’re a product of their time – harmless unsophisticated fun, not designed to offend anyone, and still relatively funny in the 2010s (though it depends on which of the film you’re watching) if you like that sort of bawdy humour.

Carry on Screaming was the twelfth entry into the series and is an affectionate parody of the Hammer period horror offerings from the 1960s (hence the review!), as well as having nods to some of the classics such as Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Wolf Man. Like the Hammer films, they utilised the same ensemble cast and crew for the bulk of their output, with the likes of Carry On regulars Kenneth Williams, Jim Dale, Joan Simms, Bernard Bresslaw, and Charles Hawtrey all appearing in this one. The best thing about Carry On Screaming compared to most of the other films in the series is that it actually has a decent narrative to build the silliness up around – there is a story here and the laughs follow the story as it progresses, rather than being a series of silly set pieces strung together. Just like the classic horror films that it’s spoofing, the story builds to a climax as the evidence is gathered and events begin to unfold.

The key to making a successful horror-comedy is getting the balance right. There needs to be laughs and silliness but there also needs to be some chills and spills, as the horror elements need to be treated seriously enough. Carry On Screaming isn’t particularly scary but it is atmospheric and the Gothic vibe oozes out of every frame – this is one of the best-looking Carry On films going, with fog-shrouded woods and creepy old mansions belaying the limited budget, and the film delivers with Hammer-esque levels of furniture and props in its lavish sets, particularly in Watt’s Frankenstein-like underground laboratory. Even the two monsters that he has lurking around skirt the fine line between being bumbling idiots and terrifyingly scary. On first glance, you’d swear this was a Hammer film, such is the attention to detail.

The comedy elements are so-so, if you can stand a ton of corny jokes, but there a load of great sight gags and some of the parodying of classic horror is spot-on – Mel Brooks would have been proud. The Carry On series has always been about a ‘take it or leave it’ approach which some will find terrible but for those who were brought up in the dying embers of the British seaside resort era with their end-of-the-pier shows and naughty postcards, the humour will feel right at home. Characters’ names are meant to elicit a laugh or prove to be a pivotal accessory to a joke in the film – the name Dr Watt is used as a play on the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine to lesser effect.

The Carry On regulars are their usual selves here, which is that they play themselves pretty much: Williams all snooty-nosed, Dale the bumbling straight man, Sims as the battle axe wife, Hawtrey (pretty much a cameo) being himself. Series mainstay Sid James was unable to star in the role of Detective Bung and so Harry H. Corbett appears in his only Carry On film. Corbett is decent in the role, which had clearly been written for James, and, with no offence to James who I absolutely love in these films, it’s nice to see a different take on that type of lecherous, sex-starved middle-aged man who mugs a lot for the camera. There is a breakout performance in Carry On Screaming and that’s the gorgeous Fenella Fielding who vamps it up as Watt’s sister, Valeria. Fielding oozes sex appeal in a tight-fitting red dress which made her career and she deadpans her way through all of the jokes and crazy goings-on as if it were normal to her. The criminally underrated Peter Butterworth also has a brilliant part to play, as Bung’s bumbling Watson-esque assistant.

 

If there is one Carry On film you should see which is different to the rest of the series, then check out Carry on Screaming! Yes, there are the series’ trademark sexual innuendos and corny gags, but it works far better as a horror spoof than it has any right to do. In fact, it’s almost better if you pretend that it isn’t a Carry On film and avoid all of the preconceptions that come with it. Sit back and enjoy a loving homage to a fantastic genre.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Now civilization’s final battle between man and ape is about to begin.

An astronaut sent to find out what happened to Taylor and his crew finds himself stranded on the same planet ruled by apes. Using the information he receives from the chimpanzees that helped Taylor to escape, Brent sets off to the Forbidden Zone to find out what happened to his friend. There he discovers an underground city run by mutated humans who worship a nuclear bomb as their god and plan to use it to end the rule of the apes once and for all.

 

Honestly, how do you make a sequel to a film which has an ending like Planet of the Apes? Quite literally one of the most memorable endings to ever grace cinema, it was obvious from the moment it became a mega-hit that a sequel would be coming. Two years down the line along came Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a sequel which happily re-treads a lot of old ground before settling down to introduce some bizarre, but effective, new ideas and featuring another classic ending.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes plays out like an inferior remake for much of its first act, focusing on the exploits of Brent as he comes to terms with this new world. They go as far as giving James Franciscus, who looks a lot like Charlton Heston with his full-grown beard, the almost-redundant carbon copy lead role. It’s basically the same part Heston played in the original: Brent becomes stranded on the planet, is captured by the apes, is assisted by Dr Zira and Cornelius and then discovers that he’s on Earth. Only this time the impact of the character realising where he is has somewhat diminished. The novelty and intrigue of seeing the apes’ culture has long gone now that the original told us a lot about it. And because it goes through the entire story of the original in half the time, it all feels a little rushed and pointless. Unlike a lot of sequels, Beneath the Planet of the Apes at least makes an effort with continuity and to link in with the original as much as possible. But audience familiarity with the story soon ends half-way through as the narrative shifts from covering the same ground to going off in a new direction, just like a sequel should.

Thankfully the film does kick into gear at this point when Brent heads into the Forbidden Zone and encounters the mutants. There are a series of striking images of Brent and Nova walking around the ruins of the likes of the New York Stock Exchange, brought to life with some excellent matte paintings. Then the film heads into more unusual territory with the post-apocalyptic nuclear bomb-worshipping mutants who have psychic powers. There’s a slew of anti-war propaganda in here, with plenty of religious connotations thrown in for good measure, but the film isn’t quite committed to preaching them. The problem with the story is that the pacing is all over the place – too much happens in a short space of time and then nothing happens for ages. It’s a very stop-start narrative which can be a little jarring at times as just when you think things are picking up, they slow down again. Action fans need not worry though as there’s enough in here to keep audiences happy.

Trying to match the ending of the original was going to be an impossible task but I feel that the writers did a great job here with an even more downbeat finale. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Heston infamously stated that he would only return if they killed off his character and suggested they blow up the planet to prevent any further sequels. Well there were a further three direct sequels after this one, so make up your own judgement after watching. I scratched my head thinking about how they managed to make Escape from the Planet of the Apes after this one but credit to the writers for coming up with an ingenious way to solve the obvious plot hole. It’s not got quite the same impact as the original, but it’s a lot better than most mainstream movies you’ll be watching.

The ape make-up looks fantastic as ever and make-up man John Chambers even goes so far as to show us a couple of full body ape shots as they sit in a sauna and discuss politics. Unfortunately, the lower budget means that only the major featured apes are given the life-like make-up job. The rest of the ape extras are all wearing simple face masks and it looks ridiculous as line upon line of marching gorillas all have the same dumb expression on their faces.

Charlton Heston was reluctant to reprise his role as Taylor but I’m glad he did. He’s only in the beginning and the finale but at least adds a little continuity to the series. We all wanted to know what happened to him when he set off into the Forbidden Zone at the end of the original and, whilst many of us would have thought he’d have ended up doing something different, it at least it adds some closure to his story arc. As his look-alike friend, James Franciscus is rather bland although to be fair to him, he never really gets to play the hero as Heston did. You think he’s going to be the main character but it’s not the case and he ends up being a bit of an afterthought at the end as it’s Heston who gets the important things to do. Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans reprise their roles as the apes, Dr Zira and Dr Zaius, and the film could really have used a lot more of them. Maurice Evans is particularly good under the orangutan make-up, just as he was in the original.

 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes often gets short changed when it comes to sequels. It’s not perfect and has many flaws, but there’s enough continuity with the original to keep some of the leftover arcs running and make it a true follow-up, whilst introducing new themes and character arcs to pick up the slack when the previous ones are resolved.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla Vs Mothra (1992)

Godzilla Vs Mothra (1992)

A meteorite slams into the Earth, unleashing a string of natural disasters which causes a landslide on a remote tropical island revealing a mysterious giant egg. The egg contains the offspring of Mothra, the giant moth who has protected human civilisation for centuries. But the landslide has also awoken Battra, Mothra’s ancient rival and evil twin, and Godzilla himself. Soon the three monsters are on a collision course for each other, with humanity’s fate in the balance.

 

I don’t care what anyone says but the 90s Godzilla films were when the series was at its most entertaining. Between this, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah, Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla and Godzilla Vs Destroyah, they have the best special effects (in relation to the technology available), the best fight scenes, the best music, the most bearable human sub-plots, the best balance between being serious and campy fun, and they had something of a continuity about them. Godzilla Vs Mothra was one of the earlier 90s efforts and clearly sets the stall up for how the rest of the Heisei series would play out over the next five years.

In bringing back King Ghidorah to the fold in the previous outing, Toho decided to bring back another of their most popular monsters for this one – Mothra was given the nod. In my review for Mothra Vs Godzilla, I stated that I was never a big fan of Mothra as the idea of a giant moth being humanity’s protector against a giant radioactive lizard was never really believable. I honestly have no idea how she became so popular, having her own standalone movie back in 1961 before she started mixing it up in the Godzilla franchise. Mothra does her best to convince me why she’s so popular in this film, arguably her best outing on the big screen. It has to be said that the puppet looks fantastic: clear blue eyes, colourful wings, and flying with an elegance and grace that few of the big monsters have. In my opinion, she’s Toho’s best work in as far as the monster designs go. The advances in technology and special effects since the 60s allow for the monster to have a lot more movement and become more dangerous with a variety of beam weapons to try to bring down Godzilla.

Rather than this just being a remake of Mothra Vs Godzilla, the makers of the film threw in the addition of Battra, Mothra’s evil twin, to mix things up with the battles. Like Mothra, Battra looks ridiculous in larva form but has a really awesome-looking adult form, with spikes and horns protruding from its jet-black body. Godzilla looks pretty much the same from the previous year and this is one of the best suits they used for the monster in my opinion. There are a few tussles between the monsters in the opening two thirds of the film but it’s the final third of the film where the action really hots up and there is an epic fight amidst the ruins of Tokyo at night time, giving the miniature set designers some real creative licence with what they construct. Lights and smokes are used to good effect and there is some sterling work with the special effects whenever the monsters fire off their beam weapons or other methods of destruction. Coupled with some good matte work and convincing rear projection, the fights really do showcase just how convincing men-in-suits can look when you make the effort. The idea to set the fight at night covers over many of the weaknesses of the format and the cinematographers have a field day with setting up some truly wonderful shots of the three monsters.

If there is a really annoying flaw with Godzilla Vs Mothra, it’s that the script is all over the place. I don’t think there are any surprises there given that these films are not exactly known for their endearing human sub-plots but the Mothra-orientated films always had a better structure to them than others, mainly down to the presence of the twin fairies and they being able to communicate with the monster. There is lots of exposition to set up the backstory between Mothra and Battra, but then most of this is contradicted whenever the film requires the monsters to go against their better instincts and do things out-of-character things. The writers make a simple concept about Mothra being good and Battra being evil and do things they didn’t need to do to try and throw in a few twists. Simplicity would have worked better here.

Akira Ifukube deserves another mention in another review for a Godzilla film – the man was a musical genius and creates some more fantastic tracks for this one. As well as the usual motifs for Godzilla and Mothra, he creates a menacing one for Battra as well as some impressive action-based stuff for the fight scenes. The series lost a key component to its success when he died.

 

Godzilla Vs Mothra has a nice magical feel to it, more so than any of the other Godzilla films, and despite it being child-friendly, it doesn’t pander to them too much, opting to maintain the adult integrity of the series. Whilst the human sub-plots are tiresome and there’s too much mythical babbling on, the monster scenes are frequent, fast and deliver some of the series best scraps. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better example of the genre than this one. I take back most of what I said about Mothra after this one!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

The Battle of the Century!

To protect Japan against another attack from Godzilla, the government creates a huge human-piloted robot, using a breakthrough technique of infusing DNA from the skeletal remains of the original Godzilla monster that attacked Japan in 1955 with high-tech machinery and electronics. Just as the robot is completed, Godzilla shows up once more. Is Mechagodzilla ready to fight or is it too early?

 

Godzilla – Mothra – King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack had proven to be Toho’s most ambitious project up until that point, even if the finale end product hadn’t lived up to expectations given the ‘star power’ of the monsters on show and the addition of Shusuke Kaneko in the director’s chair, who had given the Gamera series a ridiculously-good kick up the rear end to bring in kicking and screaming into the modern era. Hot on the heels of the success of GMK (for short), Toho wanted to keep the momentum going and so Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla came out a year later to add another sequel onto the Godzilla series. Not many franchises make it to number ten let alone twenty-six!

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is a marked improvement on its predecessor but still fails to really capture the magic that the late 90s Godzilla films had sparkled so well with. For me, the Heisei series (the name given to the Godzilla films from 1985-1995) marked a high note for the series which has never been bettered since in terms of scope, special effects, action and general entertainment. They even get the human side of the narrative working well, given that this element has always been on the back burner and used mainly for exposition to link monster fights together. Here, the script leaves plenty of holes and virtually reduces Godzilla to a supporting player: this is Kiryu’s film (the name given to Mechagodzilla).

Liberties are taken with Godzilla’s history again as the script cherry picks what it likes from not only Godzilla films but other Toho monster movies as well. It seems that Japan suffers from constant attacks from Godzilla and other monsters including Mothra (using footage from Mothra) and, rather oddly, Gaira (War of the Gargantuas). In the post-Godzilla 2000 era, either the writers have previously ignored all of the other films except for the original or included whichever previous films they needed in order to explain some plot or backstory. This constant re-working of the series does harm it – think back to the continuity during the previous series of films from 1984-1998 and you’ll see how it can help a series with recurring characters, plots uses from previous films, etc. It also means that the opening half of the film has to re-establish the threat of Godzilla as if he’s starting over from scratch – we know who Godzilla is, let him just start wrecking stuff by keeping continuity.

One of my pet hates with the 00s Godzilla films is their constant re-use of older monsters. I’m all up for seeing older versions of some of the classic monsters but why is it always the same ones being re-worked? Why do Mothra and Mechagodzilla always have to get brought back? I want to see some older monsters like Megalon or Titanosaurus brought back and given kick ass 21st century suits, not watching the same type of action sequences as I have done in previous instalments where Godzilla fights the same monsters and has the same type of battle. It’s quite annoying but because they’re popular monsters, they’re obviously going to get brought back more often. Mechagodzilla may have made a decent opponent for Godzilla back in the 70s – I mean both suits weren’t exactly top of the range and the manoeuvrability in them was limited to say the least. So because the special effects couldn’t really couldn’t do much back then, Mechagodzilla always seemed like an equal opponent for Godzilla.

However, with the advances in technology and particularly in the CGI stakes, Mechagodzilla now seems ridiculously over-powered to be taking on what is essentially a flesh-and-blood monster. The robot is more agile and has a better arsenal of weapons so surely Mechagodzilla should be winning fairly easily? Well thanks to the story, Mechagodzilla is basically just another whipping boy robot created by dumb humans and featuring human flaws and faults such as power failures. If scientists and technicians can build a massive DNA-structured cyborg, then surely they can come up with a smaller, easier way to destroy Godzilla like the oxygen destroyer weapon or something?

I don’t like the look of the new Mechagodzilla at all – obviously inspired by the Zoids toy series, it looks more like it belongs on an episode of Power Rangers. The Godzilla suit looks decent again but there are too many scenes in the film where he’s just standing still, as if it were an empty suit propped up against the wall with lights shone onto it. If you’re going to make the most agile Godzilla suit of the series, at least put it to some good use. Thankfully, they do get something right in this regard as the fight at the end of the film lasts for a long time and it’s one of the best in the Millenium series. Coupled with some great miniature sets and brighter lighting effects to make the fights more realistic, the whole thing looks very sharp indeed. The CGI sticks out like a sore thumb and makes the men-in-suits moments look distinctly ordinary.

 

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla features some great monster action and some of the best special effects that the series has showcased up until this point, but the script needed more polish and focus to get the audience caring about what is happening. Despite all of the carnage, I don’t really care about either of the monsters fighting each other as they’re no real investment into either monster and everyone in Japan seems so laid back about Godzilla returning to destroy them.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mothra Vs Godzilla (1964)

Mothra Vs Godzilla (1964)

Nothing Like This Ever On the Screen!

When a giant egg is washed up on the shores of Japan in the aftermath of a storm, a greedy businessman quickly declares ownership of it and plans to exploit the egg as a tourist attraction. However, the twin fairy sisters arrive, telling reporters that the egg was swept away from Infant island and it contains the larval offspring of Mothra. It must be returned or else, once the egg hatches, the babies will cause devastation in the search for food. Problems arise when Godzilla turns up and has his sights set on the egg. Mothra turns up to defend her egg and battle Godzilla.

 

After the successful response to King Kong Vs Godzilla, it was only a matter of time before the giant lizard squared off against another huge monster and Toho opted to go for Mothra from the 1962 film of the same name for his next foe. Doesn’t quite seem fair does it – lizard vs moth? But this idea became pretty much the go-to formula for the Godzilla films right until The Return of Godzilla all the way forward in 1984. No longer could you just have Godzilla smashing cities and going up against the Japanese army, there needed to be a big monster for him to face off against. It worked well against King Kong and it was popular, so Toho milked the formula for years…and years…and years. It became so much the norm that attempts to deviate from that formula were not as well-received.

Mothra Vs Godzilla (also known as Godzilla Vs The Thing) is a fairly bog-standard 60s Godzilla film where there is a lot of talking and human interaction, a few token scenes of Godzilla smashing Japan up, more token scenes of the military trying (and failing) to stop him, more talking as the humans try to devise a scientific way to beat him, before Godzilla and his opponent fight in the finale of the film. The human sequences in these films are either overly dull or extremely cringey and campy but are merely designed to pad out the time between monster sightings. At least the film tones down the silly slapstick humour that had crept in with the last one (largely due to King Kong but Godzilla wasn’t innocent) and makes Godzilla just a badass destruction machine – well as badass a destruction machine as the 1960s budget would allow him to be.

A giant lizard versus a giant moth may not sound like the greatest and to be frank, it’s not. I’ve never really liked Mothra as a giant monster as I always found the concept of a killer moth to be somewhat unbelievable, as opposed to a giant prehistoric Pteranodon (Rodan) or three-headed monster from space (King Ghidorah, very much modelled on the Hydra from Greek mythology). They are believable threats; a giant moth is not. Why doesn’t anyone think about building a giant light and switching it on at night to kill her? The other big issue with Godzilla fighting Mothra is that he always has to fight Mothra in both forms – the larva stage and the fully-grown flying stage. The fight with the flying version isn’t too bad because Mothra is quite nimble and can attack and move away. The fight with the grub versions, two little caterpillars, is ridiculous – Godzilla looks like he’s kicking around two brown turds. The miniature sets don’t help the larva to look realistic, but the effects work is really good on the whole – the Godzilla suit doesn’t look like it’s been hanging around in a closet with mini-Mothras chewing away at it for months on end. There are also some excellent wide shots of Godzilla marching down a sandy beach, really showing us the scope of Toho’s sets, before the little toy tanks roll up and start firing caps at him.

Mothra Vs Godzilla was the last of the Godzilla films to portray the monster as the enemy of Japan – from here onwards, Godzilla was to become the saviour of the country as, over the next decade, he would save Earth from all manner of intergalactic monstrosities from King Ghidorah to Gigan, before he was turned back into humanity’s worst nightmare for the 90s and 00s reboots. It’s also interesting to note that in these earlier films, Godzilla’s opponent was named first in the title (King Kong Vs Godzilla, Mothra Vs Godzilla) whereas in the later films, he was always given top billing.

One constant right up until the end of the 90s era was composer Akira Ifukube. Once again, he proves a masterclass in composing, with another excellent soundtrack. Even though the Godzilla films, particularly those in the 70s, were cheesy and campy, Ifukube’s scores were always top notch, driving the excitement and action as much as anything else in the film, and they deserved far, far better than some of the drivel he was assigned to. It just shows how much impact music can have on a film.

 

People say that Mothra Vs Godzilla is one of the best of the series and I’ve always found that hard to stomach, as I prefer my campier, sillier Godzilla films from the late 60s to early 70s as they feature way more monster action. But I can see where they’re coming from – it’s a decent entry, certain the best of the first handful of sequels, and features some effective effects work, all handled with a more serious tone than the majority of the films which followed.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Land That Time Forgot, The (1974)

The Land That Time Forgot (1974)

Journey to a savage world where time is extinct!

During World War 1, the survivors of a torpedoed Allied merchant vessel seize control of the German submarine after it surfaces in a fog bank shortly afterwards. Hoping to sail to a British port, a German officer sabotages the radio and tampers with the compass, meaning that the submarine sails dramatically off course. With fuel running out and the temperatures getting colder, the crew inadvertently discover the mythical lost continent of Caprona in the South Atlantic, surrounded by icebergs but filled with lush vegetation and where dinosaurs still exist. Putting their differences aside to work together, the British and Germans explore the island whilst seeking to refine some of the crude oil in order to fuel their return to civilisation.

 

Amicus Productions, a long-standing rival studio to Hammer in the UK, enlisted the help of American International Pictures to co-finance this ambitious adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1918 novel The Land That Time Forgot. I guess they saw that Hammer had diverted into prehistoric territory with a series of ‘lost world’ flicks such as One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and fancied getting in on the act too as they were a big success. A modest box office hit at the time, The Land That Time Forgot spawned a further trio of lost continent-style adventures, all of which featured lantern-jawed American hero Doug McClure squaring off against a number of puppet dinosaurs on miniature sets.

One of my childhood favourites, The Land That Time Forgot used to be a staple diet of Saturday afternoons around school holidays. It has dated. A lot. I mean even back then, a couple of years before Star Wars hit the screens, it looks terribly cheap and out-dated. But it’s a lot of fun in an old school “they don’t make them like this anymore” kind of way. There’s just something so innocent about this type of film – no pretences about trying to make anything other than wanting the audience to have a good time whilst watching. The first half of the film works better than the second. The scenes involving the U-boat and the back-and-forth nature of who is in control between the British and the Germans make for some nice tension, and the initial trip into Caprona and unfortunate first encounter with a hungry dinosaur set things up nicely. Some great set design and even more impressive matte work really do turn Caprona into an exotic place. But it’s at this point that things don’t really kick in. It’s almost as if the writers don’t know what they can do with the story, so they just have the characters constantly going off in small groups to do some research or look for food and water where they are picked off one-by-one by dinosaurs or cavemen.

There are some of the least convincing dinosaurs ever put to film on show in The Land That Time Forgot but a certain rose-tinted hindsight leaves me unable to fully criticise them.  Literally all the majority of them do is stand there, roar and just allow the humans to pump them full of bullets. The rubbery material bends and flexes away as the dinosaurs move and fight with each other – a far cry from the quality stop-motion effects of Ray Harrhausen but a necessary route to take given how many monsters are on screen throughout the film. Thankfully, the miniature work is top notch and the finale involving the exploding volcano, a boiling lake and the submarine look fantastic, with lots of smoke and red and orange lights illuminating the little model. Derek Meddings was more noted for his work on Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and it shows, with the miniatures looking nice and authentic. The production design across the board really do a good job of conveying the lost world of Caprona, despite the dinosaurs wobbling all over the place.

There’s a solid supporting cast of actors familiar to UK viewers, with the likes of Anthony Ainley (who would go on to play The Master in Doctor Who), John McEnery (known to school kids the world over as Mercutio from the Zefirrelli film version of Romeo and Juliet), Declan Mulholland (who would portray the human version of Jabba the Hutt in deleted scenes from Star Wars) and a bucket load of actors who went on to appear in Doctor Who or any number of British TV soaps and dramas. It’s McClure’s film though – the producers wanted an American star to sell to the US audience and McClure fitted the bill. Remember Troy McClure from The Simpsons? That washed-up B-movie actor was based upon the likes of McClure. He’s decent enough in this – punch first and ask questions later is his calling card. He takes everything in his stride and is calm and collected in the face of adversity. McClure knows that the material is a little bit hokey but he always gives it his all and tries to make everything else as believable as possible.

 

The Land That Time Forgot spawns a healthy dose of fun and nostalgia for anyone who remembers this from the 70s and 80s; modern viewers will find it less appealing. The special effects aren’t the best but given this was from an era even before Star Wars started pioneering work in the field, it’s an ambitious fantasy film made by a British studio not known for this type of genre who punched above their weight and made an enduring, if flawed, adventure.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire II (1986)

Mr Vampire 2 (1986)

A professor and his two bumbling assistants find the bodies of a man, a woman and a child preserved in a cave. However, the bodies are really vampires and return to life when the prayers pinned to their foreheads are removed whereupon they proceed to cause chaos in the laboratory. The child vampire hops out into the streets. It is found and befriended by two children who take it home and hide it in the closet away from their parents. Meanwhile, one of the assistants has been bitten and goes to seek the help of the herbalist Lin Ching Yin. As Lin goes to help vanquish the vampires with his remedies, the reporter Jen, who desires Lin’s niece, determines to get photos of what is in the laboratory but instead unwittingly releases the vampires.

 

Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West. There is something lost in translation between the East and West, and I’m not just talking about the languages spoken and/or subtitles. Western audiences have never clearly taken to the Jiangshi, the hopping vampires of Chinese folklore, which look more like what we know as zombies than suave Counts with cloaks and fangs. But for those living in Asia who have grown up with these stories, Mr Vampire was a perfect blend of gentle horror, kung fu action and physical comedy. Following hot on the heels only a year later, Mr Vampire II attempted to strike whilst the hype was still high.

Despite the presence of the same director and same writer as the original, Mr Vampire II is a fairly shambolic attempt to replicate the same formula. It’s a sequel in all but name, as the story moves forward into the present day and doesn’t have anything to do with the original save for the inclusion of some hopping vampires. But it ramps up the silly comedy, tones down the kung fu and doesn’t really do anything scary in its eighty or so minutes of running time. There is no real plot to the film other than the synopsis mentioned above and the narrative just drifts from one ‘crazy’ set piece to another with no real progression or conclusion. The film opens with the professor and his assistants scouring tombs for things to sell and doing all sorts of ‘hilarious’ things, then proceeds to follow them back to their laboratory where they continue to do the ‘hilarious’ things. It’s not long before their antics cause the vampires to awaken and thus ensues more carnage and ‘hilarious’ goings-on, only with the hopping vampires now. I could understand this being in the middle of the film but there’s a big glaring issue with Mr Vampire II – where the hell is the lead character? It’s around forty-minutes into the film when we finally get to see the man of the title, ‘Mr Vampire’ himself Lam Ching-Ying and it’s ridiculous that it takes this long to see him. He’s virtually a supporting character in his own franchise, though Ching-Ying does what he can with the weaker material.

Mr Vampire II’s comedy is pitched at a lot lower level than its predecessor. Yes, there was plenty of slapstick and silly shenanigans in the original but the juvenile humour here is a desperate attempt to make the audience laugh. Take for instance the opening sequence in which a snake slithers up the trousers of one of the bumbling assistants – it’s something that little kids might get a chuckle out of it but they’re hardly the target demographic here. To add insult to injury with the juvenility, one of the three vampires is a child and so there are plenty of cute kid moments involving the vampire child and a human child forming a bond, like a perverse version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You can tell how quickly this one was rushed out due to the unexpected success of the original as there’s so much thrown at the screen with the hope that something sticks. Almost everything that made the original such a mega-hit has been jettisoned in favour of childish antics.

The original was never truly scary but the film did have a nice cinematography to it, giving us that otherworldly feel to the reanimations and hopping ghosts. The ancient setting allowed for some effective atmosphere to be created, which the contemporary setting here doesn’t come anywhere near matching. The corpses look too human as well – no one seems to question why the bodies of the man and woman seem to be so fresh and lifelike when they pull them out of the tomb. Compare these to the decaying corpses seen in the original and films like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and even simple things which could have made a difference to the ambiance have been neglected.

 

It’s tragic to see such a quality horror-comedy as Mr Vampire get such an appalling sequel. The staggering drop in quality between the two films is ridiculous and Mr Vampire II becomes a real slog to get through. Keep that magic yellow paper slapped onto the vampires and let them be.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Invisible Agent (1942)

Invisible Agent (1942)

Today’s most amazing sensation!

Frank Raymond, grandson of the original Invisible Man, still has the invisibility formula but considers it too dangerous to use and has tried to start a new life under an alias name. When German agents try to get it by force, the Allies approach him to work for them but he refuses. However, the bombing of Pearl Harbour compels him to volunteer his own services to spy on the Germans, using the formula to render him invisible.

 

It’s sad to see that Universal’s The Invisible Man series is nowhere near as fondly remembered as their Frankenstein, Dracula or even The Wolf Man films. 1933’s The Invisible Man is one of science fiction’s greatest ever films and features some of cinema’s most incredible special effects, yet it’s place at the table that built the famous studio is often overlooked. The great thing about the underlying story is that there were so many different possibilities to expand upon the concept of invisibility for sequels – it’s a less rigid formula than that of the Frankenstein or The Mummy films which virtually cycled the same story over and over.

The fourth entry into the series, Invisible Agent was made a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbour (hence why it’s mentioned in the film) and thus the writers construct a strong propaganda-based narrative designed to perk up the spirits of the contemporary 1940s audience, where Germans are portrayed as bumbling idiots, the Japanese are sneaky and sly, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them at the hands of the square-jawed American hero. There is a little too much propaganda going on here, which does detract a lot from the narrative, but this is a criticism that can be levelled at most films that were made during this period with anti-German and anti-Japanese sentiment. Besides which, the writers do a great job of making the two main villains so hissable and detestable even amidst the war sentiment. But more on them in a bit.

The previous entry, The Invisible Woman, veered far too much into comedy for my liking so it’s good to see the makers of this one reign it in a lot more. There are some silly, slapstick scenes where the Invisible Man torments a German officer having dinner and these are purely played for laughs. It’s in the film’s most serious moments where it really shines – the scene where Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s clever Nazi official traps Raymond in his office and insists he keep swinging in the chair so that he knows where is work well to get across the menace of the enemy along with the main character’s almost superhero-like qualities. It’s all straight-forward dashing hero and smarmy villain nonsense as soon as the Invisible Man arrives in Germany and there are no big twists to be had, just some enjoyable sequences which are handled professionally.

John P. Fulton returns to do the special effects as he had done for the previous Invisible Man films and they’re just as good here – seeing the Invisible Man soap up his legs and arms is a fantastic piece of effects work, even for this day and age. He strips down in mid-air, has numerous slapstick fight scenes with bumbling German officers and even manages to do his usual smoking trick. There are a couple of dodgy-looking wires, particularly during the dinner sequence, but these can be overlooked given the strength of the more impressive moments. Rightly so, the film was nominated for an Oscar for the effects.

The cast are strong here too. Jon Hall has the difficult task of acting without being on screen for most of the film and it can get a little weird seeing the other characters talking to empty chairs or empty spaces. It’s hard to really comment on his performance barring the bookended scenes at the beginning and end with him as normal. Ilona Massey adds some glamour as the female German operative he’s sent to make contact with, and then fall in love with. She does most of the hard work in convincing the audience that there is an Invisible Man, particularly the dinner sequence.

It is the bad guys who have the most fun. Hungarian character actor Peter Lorre would have fared better as a German agent rather than a Japanese one – he looks about as Japanese as I do, even with the penchant for slicking hair back and applying lots of make-up to the face as per many films of this era – “I can’t tell you Japs apart” sniggers the main character here, in a clear dig at how much the American public despised those responsible for the sneak attack in Hawaii. Lorre is particularly good whenever he’s on screen and just has one of those magnetic personalities that draws you to him when he’s on the camera. Between him and Hardwicke, the bad guy quota for the film is more than adequate. Sid Cedric Hardwicke makes for a ruthless Nazi spy, with his cold, calculating voice and stoic mannerisms and between the two of them, they chew the scenery with aplomb.

 

Invisible Agent is what it is for the time – a propaganda piece masquerading as a sci-fi film – but it still does it with a tongue-in-cheek and with one eye on the quality that made the original such a success. It’s good, escapist entertainment which comes off a lot better than it has any real right to.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire (1985)

Mr Vampire (1985)

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman to oversee the reburial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family’s good fortune. Ko’s two bumbling assistants stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

 

If you’ve never heard of Mr Vampire then you’re missing a real treat, though actually getting access to it over in the UK is problematic. Like many Asian films which have been big successes in the Far East (Godzilla films, I’m looking at you), there doesn’t seem to be much interest in releasing them over here and whilst Mr Vampire did receive a DVD release a few years ago, the sequels and rest of the sub-genre that it spawned are nowhere on the radar. It’s such a pity as Mr Vampire is one of the best horror-comedies that the 80s put out and because it’s not Anglo-centric, it opens up a whole new world of mythology, superstitions, beliefs and magic that we, in the West, are totally unfamiliar with.

Sammo Hong’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 had set the precedent for this horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid genre, but it is with Mr Vampire where this niche genre really struck gold. It’s a ridiculously madcap film that balances the slapstick comedy with plenty of frenetic kung-fu action and makes sure that the horror elements are not left on the back burner. The physical humour has not dated in the slightest, made more absurd by the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves facing. Nothing is lost in the translation between East and West – if anything, the film is all the better for having an element of the exotic and the unknown as it makes things more interesting than your generic Western horror-comedy. Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West.

Ko and his assistants have to deal with some Jianghsi. And if you don’t know what they are, then the film does a decent job of covering the bases. These Jiangshi, hopping vampires from Chinese folklore, are not like our Western vampires in the slightest (no dressing in smart suits with cloaks, changing into bats, being scared of garlic, etc). Some audiences may find the sight of the ghosts decked out in 1600s Qing dynasty era clothing, arms outstretched and hopping along in lines to be rather comical but there’s nothing funny about how deadly these things actually are. Whilst Mr Vampire plays up on the comedic aspects of the vampires, they can kill you in many different ways and are a lot tougher to beat than Count Dracula and co. It is this unveiling of Chinese folklore to those not familiar with it that will be one of the biggest appeals to Anglo horror fans – it adds unpredictability to the narrative. You’re not quite sure how the threat will be dealt with but are introduced to all sorts of magical papers, chicken blood recipes and sticky rice methods which are the Asian equivalents of your wooden stakes and garlic to a vampire.

It takes a good thirty minutes or so for Mr Vampire to really kick into action gear but it doesn’t stop from that point onwards. You could argue that the film is little more than a series of kung fu-comedy set pieces and I couldn’t really disagree. The narrative is a little wonky at times, with the main premise being too thinly-written to really stretch out over the whole feature length time. There is a slight deviation throughout Mr Vampire, no doubt to boost up the running time, featuring one of Ko’s assistants falling in love with a ghost and Ko having to break the curse. Whilst this doesn’t add anything to the narrative in the slightest, it isn’t an unwelcome side-track as there is plenty of comedy to be had watching Ko attempt to save his assistant. From then on, the madcap film just goes in a crazy ride through a number of sequences which perfectly blend some fantastic choreography alongside a number of real laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody seems to take a breath either

Lam Ching-Yang made an appearance in the aforementioned Encounters of the Spooky Kind but here he gets a leading role and makes it his own. Lam is fantastic in the role, trying to deadpan most of what is going on but getting bogged down in the madcap stupidity of his assistants in the process. He can handle the stunt work perfectly and has the role of the Tao priest down to a tee – it’s a role he felt typecast by, but the film gave him his big break and he starred in no fewer than eight sequels and knock-offs of Mr Vampire. Both Ricky Hiu and Chin Siu-ho are hilarious as his bumbling assistants and the three make for an effective trio. The stunning Siu-Fung Wong is also a nice addition to the cast as the ghost who bewitches one of Ko’s assistants.

 

If you’re worried about indulging in something as far away from the streams of watered-down Western horror-comedies as you can possibly get, then Mr Vampire is your answer – if you can obtain a copy. A relentless, hilariously entertaining mix of kung-fu, horror and comedy, made with real enthusiasm and zest, it’s definitely one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. The fact that it is so little known in the West is both a travesty or a well-kept secret, depending on your outlook.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★