Category Fantasy Movie Reviews

7th Voyage of Sinbad, The (1958)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

8th wonder of the screen!

When the Princess he was supposed to marry is shrunk by a scheming magician, Sinbad has to set sail for a distant land where he can find the rare ingredient to make a cure work. But he must overcome a multitude of problems including a mutinous crew, a man-eating cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, a giant two-headed bird and then come face to face with the evil magician himself, Sokura.

 

I can’t exactly write an impartial review here as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is my favourite film of all time. I was really into monsters and dinosaurs in my childhood so, when I watched this for the first time as a young boy, seeing these creatures come to life was amazing. It’s been etched on my mind up until this very day. After celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2008, with special effects that may look a bit creaky nowadays and with dozens of continuity problems, it still manages to enchant me in its magical grip from start to finish. I’ve watched it that many times that I can recite lines of dialogue before they happen. I can imagine myself being there on the island, fighting alongside Sinbad and his crew. It may sound a little nerdy but when you love a film so much, it’s hard not to get caught up in it all.

Historically, the film is of great significance and as such, was selected for preservation in the USA in the National Film Registry. As of 2008, there were around five hundred films in there and it joins the likes of The Godfather, Citizen Kane and Casablanca in the archives. A pioneering film in the special effects field, without it you wouldn’t have got the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As an adult I can now fully recognise the importance that this film holds but the reason I love it so much as it that it takes me back to my childhood. This film makes me feel forever young!

The acting is from the golden age of Hollywood where the hero had to look dashing, the Princess look charming and the bad guys just look evil and the three main characters do just that. Kerwin Matthews makes for a very serviceable Sinbad and his interaction with the special effects is top drawer. This is back in a time when these sorts of effects-driven films were few and few between and actors had little to no experience of acting out scenes with effects that would be inserted later. Kathryn Grant does what she has to do with the role of the Princess but she’s only there to act as the plot driver and get Sinbad to go to the island. Also worth mentioning is Alfred Brown as Sinbad’s faithful second-in-command, Harufa. The guy gets all of the best unintentional ‘comedy’ lines in the film but unfortunately things don’t work out especially well for him at numerous times in the film! It’s Torin Thatcher who steals the show as Sokura, the evil magician. He hams it up in places and then acts deceitful and thuggish in others. He knows how to chew the scenery in certain scenes, giving wry smiles of disapproval or casting menacing looks to Sinbad. The rest of the cast is filled with suitably rough-looking Spanish actors who are simply there to provide the fodder for the various monsters that Sinbad encounters.

However, they all know that they’re taking second place to the special effects. Nothing is going to upstage Ray Harryhausen from working his magic. His painstakingly-detailed stop-motion animation is just breathtaking when you think there was no team of animators working on a computer – just him on his own working around the clock. It’s a labour of love and you can see clearly the passion he had for making these creatures come to life. He was inspired by King Kong to become a special effects maestro and it’s a fitting tribute to him that countless special effects gurus (and just filmmakers in general) have entered the business inspired by Harryhausen. From the moment the cyclops comes raging out from the cave, you can’t help but be amazed. My favourite Harryhausen monster, its got personality which is something CGI has a hard time conveying. It looks badass, pummels men under huge tree trunks in fits of revenge and its unique roars and cries will echo in your head for a long time after watching. The camera angles also make the monster seem more terrifying with wide-shots adding to the sheer scale of the beast and numerous close-ups of its face giving you a glimpse into its mindset. One of my particular favourites is a subtle moment when it’s roasting a sailor on a giant spit. For a brief moment it licks its lips in anticipation of its upcoming meal.

The fire-breathing dragon looks awesome but it doesn’t have a lot to do except provide the token monster versus monster fight at the end. The only criticism that I’d have with Harryhausen’s work is that they all look the same as his other monsters – the cyclops being a re-working of the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, the fire-breathing dragon being The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and so on. I’m guessing it’s a practical reason that he just re-used old models but it’s a bit obvious, especially in his later films. The skeleton duel here set the standards that Harryhausen would blast later on in Jason and the Argonauts.

One final positive is the musical score by Bernard Herrman. It’s a pounding, pulsating piece which gives each of the monsters its own signature tune. He would work with Harryhausen on a number of effects films but it’s the soundtrack to this one which really stands out.

 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is my favourite film of all time and it’s easy to see why. With its eternal child-like innocence and sheer escapism, it’s hard to dislike in any shape or form. Forget Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Nothing beats this fantasy film for sheer thrills and entertainment. It would be cliché to say that they don’t make them like this anymore but it’s true.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

At the Earth’s Core (1976)

At the Earth's Core (1976)

They’re in it DEEP now!

A Victorian scientist and his rich American engineer and financial backer test out a new machine called the Iron Mole which can drill into the Earth’s crust. They hope to find untapped resources beneath the Earth’s surface but what they find instead is a cavernous world of gigantic monsters, primitive human slaves and winged monsters that rule over this kingdom.

 

At the Earth’s Core never really convinces anyone of its good intentions to bring life to the Edgar Rice Burroughs story. Instead we get bombarded with horrible giant plastic monsters, men in rubber suits and cheap explosions on miniature sets. The second Burroughs adaptation brought to life by Amicus Studios, it’s clear that the budget was even lower for this than it was for The Land That Time Forgot. But who really cares? This is perfect Saturday afternoon entertainment for kids (and adults who watched it as kids!) as its fun, stupid, has not-so-scary monsters, the plot isn’t overly complicated and there’s lot of silly action. It’s a fine nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up on this type of film.

The plot is based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story but that’s probably about as close to the source material as you’re going to get here. The opening scenes in which the Iron Mole is constructed and then heads into the Earth do define the Victorian fantasy pulp era to a tee but then as soon as they get out of the machine and into this acid-tripped world, the film goes off into uber-cheese mode. They then spend the rest of the film going from one scrape to another, getting captured, escaping, being captured again, being attacked by ridiculous-looking monsters and then maybe getting captured again. It’s all in good fun though and it’s harmless and juvenile fun. I don’t know how much actors would have cost to hire in those days but I bet the budget was blown on the trio of Peter Cushing, Doug McClure and Caroline Munro . They are all decent genre actors and were definitely above the material presented to them here.

Peter Cushing is on top form as usual and his presence alone lifts this film from its gloom. His performance is slightly twisted from his usual cool, calm and reasonable man of science. He’s more eccentric this time as if he were playing Dr Who again and the performance does get a bit irritating at times in a ‘granddad who won’t shut up’ kind of way. His fish-out-of-water scientist character is a little goofy but it’s good to see him play against type for a change.

Doug McClure is his usual gung-ho self in this type of film where he just fights and beats up anything that stands in his way. He makes a decent action hero though – he’s a believable ‘everyman’ like Bruce Willis was in Die Hard – someone caught up in the wrong situation. McClure usually has an annoying habit of understanding the native people in these films almost instantly, despite the fact they speak different languages. But here the natives speak well-preserved English and communication is not really much of a problem. It’s clear to see where these two characters will fit into the film – McClure will be the one busting skulls and going from sticky situation to sticky situation whilst buying time for Cushing to figure it all out scientifically. Caroline Munro is the princess, bearing some amazing oil-soaked cleavage but little else (although when you look as good as this, I don’t see the reason to have any other purpose in a film).

It’s a pity that the budget didn’t stretch far enough to do the job of creating this fantasy world. The sets look pretty cheap and you can tell they’re on a soundstage with some poor matte work. In addition to the blatantly obvious rear projection, the film feels claustrophobic as Kevin Connor clearly didn’t want to open up his shots simply because it was a small stage!  The colours are slightly hallucinogenic at times – but it does give you the impression that this is a completely different world and the red/purple sky eerily reminds you that they are in the centre of the Earth as there is no sun. Maybe someone was smoking a little too much weed when they designed the colour scheme.

The dinosaurs do look extremely pathetic too – it’s as if the Japanese had leftover kaiju suits from the Godzilla and Gamera series and Amicus found them in a bin somewhere. The rhino monsters are arguably the worst giant monsters I’ve ever seen on film and their fight scene is ridiculous. But it’s all in good fun though and the film doesn’t really try to do anything too demanding with its budget constraints. These special effects sequences are not made with much in the way of skill or creativity but at least they’re not dull as the creatures get well fed or do some fighting of some kind.

 

There’s no denying that At the Earth’s Core is a bad film in every sense but its fun and innocent and manages to charm and keep you entertained for more than it should. A camp, guilty pleasure in every definition.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Batman the Movie (1966)

Batman the Movie (1966)

He’s Here Big As Life In A Real Bat-Epic

When the world’s greatest villains – the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman – combine forces to take over the world, there are only two people who can stop them – Batman and Robin.

 

The 60s Batman TV show goes beyond criticism – it’s just the most absurd, ridiculous, ultra-campy and hilarious collection of overacting, garish sets, tongue-in-cheek scripts and cheesy music ever to hit the small screen. With Adam West and Burt Ward hamming it up as the Dynamic Duo, the fact that they had a ‘Bat-something’ or ‘anti-something’ handy for every possible scenario (anti-shark repellent seems to be a necessary accessory for superheroes), a series of over-enthusiastic and totally ludicrous villains for them to square off against, pop-up comic strip words like “pow” and “oomph” whenever people got hit and a general sense of unbelievability surrounding everything, the TV series was quite like nothing seen before (and since too – a total product of its time).  I would like to think that most fans of Batman can appreciate its values as much as they’d hate to admit it (after all it was extremely popular and did a lot to turn Batman mainstream) and I very much doubt that anyone considers it true canon in any form of Batman media be it the comics or film series.

After a successful first season of the TV series, it was decided that Batman and Robin should head to the big screen for what is essentially an extended episode of the TV show with a slightly bigger budget in Batman the Movie. What better way for them to hit the big screen than to face their four greatest foes in an unholy show of supervillain strength! There’s no real story other than the four villains devise a diabolical plan that Batman and Robin have to stop. It’s no different to one of the episodes of the show, just stretched out for a lot longer. Whilst the half-hour episodes flow fast and free, not overstaying their welcome, Batman the Movie tends to drag at times as the usual format is thinly stretched out over the longer duration. So don’t look for much depth to proceedings, just anarchic fun.

It’s the villains who are the real stars of the show much like they were in their weekly appearances and the classic rogues’ gallery of Batman adversaries is assembled for this one. Cesar Romero is the best of the bunch as the Joker although he is rivalled pretty closely by Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. Meredith was sorely underrated as an actor and his Penguin is full of snarling rage and cutting quips. Lee Merriwether’s Catwoman and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler don’t have as much to do as the others and thus their presence isn’t as grand. But with the Joker and Penguin hamming it up for the duration of the running time, it’s just the right ingredients for Batman and Robin to have some hilarious escapades and they get the lion’s share of the dialogue.

As the Dynamic Duo, Adam West and Burt Ward may have completely type-cast their careers but they’re an absolute hoot. West has an uncanny knack of making even the most ridiculous dialogue sound even more preposterous when delivered in his dead-pan manner and Ward as Robin always brings a tear to the eye with his over-enthusiastic approach to delivering his lines, reciting each one as if it were his last breath.

There is a lot more than just verbal humour in this one. Laugh your socks off at the stereotypical foreign dignitaries at the UN. Quite literally wet yourself with laughter as a rubber shark attacks Batman on a rope ladder against a rear projected. Break a few ribs with your laughing as Batman tries to safely dispose of a bomb on a pier. And of course, there are quality old school Batman fights as our heroes confront the villains and their minions, culminating in a huge fight upon their submarine hideout. It’s all intentional camp: some of it works, some of it doesn’t. But there’s no doubting the enthusiasm behind everything. Never once does Batman the Movie attempt serious and its all the better for it – we have the Nolan films for that.

 

Fans of the TV series will be right at home here with Batman the Movie. It’s a little too long and the camp does wear thin but the villains are a hoot and Batman and Robin camp it up big time. For those who thought that Batman was born with Tim Burton and Michael Keaton, think again!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Carnivorous (2007)

Carnivorous (2007)

In this underworld, humans are the prey

Kate Walker is driving along in the woods when she gets a flat tyre and a passer-by stops to help her. But he knocks her out with a shovel and abducts her. When she awakes, she finds herself trapped in a strange labyrinth with a handful of other abductees. Trying to make sense of the situation, they try to find  way out but soon find themselves being hunted down by strange demon-like creatures amidst the booby-trapped maze.

 

‘Cube with monsters’ springs to mind when  I look back on Carnivorous (not to be confused with the DMX killer snake feature which goes under the same name). It is a dismal creature feature which throws together a host of strangers in a labyrinth and unleashes a slew of CGI monsters upon them. And then repeats the same formula for the duration of its running time. Repetitive and monotonous in equal measure, it’s a wonder that this hasn’t become so form of prescription medicine for insomnia. I’m sure Carnivorous has good intentions and the plot is an intriguing twist on the usual ‘strangers-in-a-room’ story but the execution is woeful.

The alternative title, Hell’s Labyrinth, certainly means more than Carnivorous does. After all, the characters are trapped in a dingy labyrinth. Though where this dungeon is and just how the owner can get away with having a massive underground facility without anyone batting an eye lid remains to be seen (sarcasm aside, the labyrinth is revealed to be some sort of extra-dimensional sacrificial chamber – or at least I think…..yeah I didn’t really pay enough attention!). For some bizarre reason, the film opens with a scene inside the labyrinth featuring some other unlucky victims and proceeds to show off all of the goods straight away – the CGI monsters, the gore and the setting itself. Talk about giving the game away within the first few minutes – now there are no surprises left for the audience.

Shot almost entirely against green screens, I may have been a little more tolerant on this as a whole if they hadn’t decided to colour all of the CGI backgrounds with greys and browns, leading to the film looking really dark and dismal. Seriously, this is one of the most frustrating films to sit down and look at for ninety-minutes – there’s no life in the picture whatsoever and the background seems to go on forever in monotonous fashion. The cinematographer gets a lot wrong, failing to light the shots enough and lending the proceedings a constantly dim glow. It’s clearly attempting to be atmospheric but comes off as frustrating.

Whilst some of the Gothic architectural design to the labyrinth is amazing, you never once get the feeling that the characters are actually anywhere but inside a studio. Things aren’t helped by the positions they take in relation to their surroundings and each other, almost always standing side-by-side and giving no indication of depth to the sets. Anyone in the UK was ever seen or heard of the 80s TV show Knightmare will get the general idea of how this looks (I must stress that Knightmare looked fantastic for its day – but this isn’t 1987 and effects have gone backwards by the looks of it here) and at times it appears that they’re stuck inside a video game, rather than a labyrinth.

The creatures they encounter in the labyrinth are also CGI and whilst you’re never going to buy them as ‘being real’ at all, they at least show up regularly and do a bit of gory damage when they appear. It’s a pity that they look like rejected sprites from a 90s PC video game rather than anything modern. Matters aren’t helped by the cast who seem to be getting little direction as to where the post-production effects will be taking place in regards to their positions on the screen. They can’t act either, which is a big requirement of being an actor.

 

If you have a burning desire to see a bunch of one-note characters walk around in front of a green screen for eighty minutes, then be my guest and watch Carnivorous. George Lucas would be proud! It cost him $115m to do the same thing with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Titans will clash.

Perseus is born a god but raised by man. So when his adopted human father is killed by Hades, the god of the underworld, as punishment for mankind’s rebellion against the gods, Perseus swears revenge. The people of Argos ask him to lead a mission to stop the Kraken before Hades uses it to destroy their city as punishment for their defiance towards the gods. Hades has secret plans of his own to use the Kraken to weaken Zeus and dethrone him as the ruler of Mount Olympus.

 

The original Clash of the Titans is one of my childhood favourites so yet again it pains me to see Hollywood pillage the past for its present money-making needs. However unlike a lot of the originals that have spawned remakes and sequels, the original Clash of the Titans is certainly a flawed film and one that could have been improved upon dramatically. The special effects and the mythical creatures are fondly remembered by many people but it was Ray Harryhausen’s last film and certainly not his best work overall. The era of Star Wars had ushered in a new era of effects and Harryhausen’s craft was to be rendered obsolete. It’s a film which is looked back on more fondly than it probably deserves but enchanted and inspired a generation of people who grew up on those types of films – the last of its era holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Remaking something like that is usually a no-win scenario because comparisons to the original will always be brought to the fore. If it’s a better remake, people will say that the original has better nostalgia purposes. If it’s a worse sequel, people will say “I told you so.” S I’m going to try and forget about the original whilst writing this review, as hard as it may be.

But maybe I’m making this review too “personal.” When one of my favourite films from childhood receives a big budget remake, I expect it to stand head-and-shoulders above everything else simply for the fact that I want it to. But when a film is so rooted in the mainstream rot that the last couple of years of blockbusters have produced, it’s hard to feel anything but aggrieved and that’s the major problem with Clash of the Titans. Modern mainstream cinema is dead – it’s just a mass of overblown action films that roll off the conveyor belt, each one more dumbed down and insulting to the intelligence than the last one. The studios believe that the awe and wonder of millions of dollars of special effects can keep us from scrutinising the story and characters and it gets worse as the years go on.

To say the film is based on a legendary Greek myth, there’s so little story to be told here it’s unbelievable. The film spends little time explaining the underlying story and it barely gets past the whole “we need to go from A to B” approach, adding little depth to the story or the characters in the process. Everything seems so rushed, so straightforward and so easy for Perseus that he hardly breaks sweat! There’s no sense that he’s going to fail his quest and the lack of peril really makes things chug along a little more underwhelming than they should. It’s also chocked to the brim with the clichés you expect from any summer blockbuster – CGI overindulgence and overkill at a grand scale; the unnecessary and overlong aerial panoramic shots of various landscapes; token slow-motion moments during action scenes; the smallest amount of time possible between set pieces; characters drained of as much characterisation as possible………the list goes on.

It’s a film that clearly looks towards its toy lines and potential for a sequel. Other clichés come in the form of the ‘Braveheart’ speech that Perseus gives to his men (see Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, King Arthur, et al), the fact that most of his men are given a handful of lines between them (can you say expendable?) and the seemingly forced love interest between Perseus and Io.

From a technical standpoint, the film is superior in every way but that’s to be expected with a budget of $125 million. The special effects look crisp but if you like your cinema and have seen any big budget blockbuster from the past couple of years, you’ll know what to expect. Modern CGI effects are so overblown now that they just fail to impress me anymore. It doesn’t matter how many temples, mountains, deserts, stars, moons and clouds or how detailed everything is, I yearn for the day when everything was just simplified (I blame Lucas and the ridiculous amount of background detail he crammed into Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace). Nowadays, there’s so much going on in the background in a lot of scenes that it just overloads your senses to the point where you lose focus on the main detail.

The major set pieces from the original are still here: the scorpion attack, encountering Pegasus, the venture into Medusa’s lair and the finale with the Kraken. The scorpion attack is arguably the highlight of the film and definitely an improvement over the original. Although clearly sculpted on the Scorponok attack from Transformers, the fight does at least do it’s best to conjure up the spirit of the original. The Medusa sequence looks flashier here with a complex multi-level lair adding to the proceedings. But there’s no sense of atmosphere or dread here and it all looks rather straightforward for Perseus in the end. Medusa looks like a computer game sprite and is a totally wasted opportunity to scare the hell of young kids! The same scene from the original is ten times scarier, has ten times more atmosphere and it may not look as flash, but its way more effective. Pegasus also looks good and has been changed into a black horse although its use in the story seems to have been cut short.

Finally, we come to the end set piece with the Kraken. It’s ramped up in size about a thousand times and despite its massive tentacles crashing everywhere in the city, it doesn’t come off as awe-inspiring as it should. Maybe it’s the fact that it doesn’t do much to warrant getting worked up over it or maybe it’s because we know Perseus will arrive in the knick of time to save the day.

Such a great cast is wasted on films like this as there are too many people around and too little for them all to do. In the leads, Sam Worthington still does little to convince me that he can handle the acting chops of a big budget film as his Australian accent breaks through at almost every opportunity. He’s as flat and bland as he was in Terminator: Salvation. He may have the physical presence to be an action hero but the guy can’t handle dialogue and that’s perhaps why his character has one of the lowest amounts of dialogue I can recall from a lead role in many years. In fact it’s the gods who steal the show in the acting department and you’d wish they’d have been given more to do.

Liam Neeson gets little more to do than walk around in a blinged-up silver suit and stroke his beard. Ralph Fiennes seems like he walked straight off the set from the recent Harry Potter flick with his Voldermort character being channelled into Hades as some pantomime-like villain. Gemma Arterton adds little as the love interest and fellow demi-god Io, other than a set of superb legs and thighs and being forced to look stunning for eternity. In mythology, I believe she is some great, great, great grandmother to Perseus so the fact that they cop off at the end makes me squirm around in my seat a little bit. There are so many other names in this that get little or nothing to do that it’s just a criminal waste of talent. The likes of Mads Mikkelsen and Jason Flemyng get decent supporting characters to get into but not much to do in the film with them. Only Liam Cunningham, as one of Perseus’ crew, adds anything like a proper character to proceedings with his sarcastic old soldier adding a few funny lines before his eventual doom.

 

I can’t say that Clash of the Titans is a total failure because it’s not. It had me entertained throughout but in the end it just fails to capture the imagination in any way, shape or form. It’s ‘just another blockbuster’ with no emotional connection to the audience, save for the anger at the ridiculous amount of money some people would have paid to see it in 3-D. Clash of the Titans had potential to inspire a new generation like the original did but all we get is wasted opportunities and another ho-hum modern blockbuster.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

Survival against all odds!

After a volcanic eruption kills most of his tribe, the fierce Mali asserts leadership over the survivors and takes them on an arduous trek across a desert region to find a new land. A tribe of more advanced blonde-haired people welcomes them. Mali takes a mate from the other tribe and she gives birth to two twin boys – the peaceful and intelligent, fair-headed Toomak and the cruel, dark-haired Rool. As the two boys grow up, they compete for the role of tribal leader and the beautiful Nala.

 

I pinched most of this synopsis from elsewhere because without reading up on it, I wouldn’t have had the faintest clue about what was going on. I’m not sure how someone thought that a film about cavemen without any real dialogue for the entire duration would be a good thing but here we go with Creatures the World Forgot. Following on from their previous successes with One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Hammer looked to make their trilogy of caveman films complete with a final instalment in the early 70s. However, Hammer was struggling to recapture its earlier successes during this period and were wanting to cut overheads in order to start clawing back money they were losing on lavish productions. So the studio decided early on to remove any notion of dinosaurs in this, leaving it a rather peculiar outing with lots of grunting, people in need of a good barber and a few bare breasts along the way.

On the flip side to this, Creatures the World Forgot is one of the more realistic caveman films out there simply for the fact that it doesn’t have the loincloth-wearing, spear-throwing savages up against a horde of hungry dinosaurs. There are some weird creatures in this but they’re smaller beasts designed to be tackled hand-to-hand rather than pluck up stragglers with their teeth – the least said about the man in the bear suit, the better. Ironically, in being the cheapest of the prehistoric films it made, Hammer turned this one in the most faithful to anthropology as it has been proven that millions of years separated the dinosaurs from man, despite countless fantasy films attempting to show otherwise. So no dinosaurs = realistic. However no dinosaurs = boredom as well.

The lack of dialogue is interesting. On one hand, I’ll give the filmmakers credit for at least trying to stand out from the crowd and make something original and innovative. On the other hand, the film fails miserably to excite or grip its audience because it is hard to get emotionally-involved with a bunch of mutes (or I should say grunters). It’s confusing at times trying to translate what is going on as multiple grunts and groans happen at once. Not helping things is a plot which moves across a number of years and which sees the young boys grow up. Too many similar-looking cavemen and cavewoman grace the screen, making it hard to identify any of them and the already-sparse narrative slowly winds its way along looking for something to showcase its characters. There are some hand-to-hand fights between individuals and between tribes, and there are moments where the cavemen have to face off against aforementioned creatures. But these lack any sense of real excitement or engagement – if we don’t know who is fighting who, why should we care?

It’s hard to really comment on the acting here though most of the cast can grunt and beat their chests like the best of them. I wonder how this was sold to agents when these actors signed up: “Get paid a few hundred quid for a few days shooting in Africa and you won’t have to say a word on camera.” There is no narration to kick the film off or end it either. The only notable star is Julie Ege, an actress that Hammer were pinning their hopes on to be the next big screen sex symbol. Whilst not in the same league as Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., at least Ege’s appearance looks rougher, readier and less dolled up to the eyes with make-up making it more realistic.  To get a flavour of the type of audience this was marketed at in Germany, the sight of Ege in a fur-lined bikini was slapped on the posters under the reworded title of Sex Vor 6 Millionen Jahren. Minor titillation aside, the title has nothing to do with the eventual film.

Speaking of Africa, the film gains major points for looking the part. Shot in the Namibian desert, the cinematography is excellent, enhancing the ‘forgotten world’ vibe and really creating the sense that this is a snapshot from prehistory. The spectacular scenery doesn’t make up for the lack of anything remotely exciting happening on it however.

 

Often considered one of Hammer’s worst films, it’s easy to see why Creatures the World Forgot has been given that moniker. If this was the sort of film they were banking on bringing back the good times, then it is no wonder Hammer limped along for the next few years before they stopped making films at the end of the decade.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Alive With Thrills!

Whilst blasting the sea bed to deepen the harbour on a Caribbean island, Bart Thompson and his crew uncover two frozen dinosaurs which have been perfectly preserved for millions of years. The dinosaurs are removed from the water and placed on the beach to thaw out before being transported off to a museum. Whilst on the beach, the dinosaurs are struck by lightning during an overnight thunderstorm and are reanimated. With two dinosaurs unleashed upon the unsuspecting local population, matters are made worse with the reanimation of a caveman as well.

 

From the team of producer Jack H. Harris and director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. who had previously worked together on cult classic The Blob, Dinosaurus! comes with a bad reputation and most of it is thoroughly deserved. It’s a juvenile flick which has little redeeming quality but did the rounds quite often on television as a time filler many years ago due to its simplistic nature. Now it has faded into obscurity and that’s maybe for the best! Dinosaurus! came very late to the table after the giant monster fad of the 1950s. This would have worked better in black and white and about five years earlier where viewers may have been a tad more kind to it but in a new decade and in glorious colour, the bar was raised. The same formula which had worked so well in the past was well and truly worn out.

It does help that if you are trying to convince viewers of the idea of giant monsters of some kind, in this instance dinosaurs, then how you bring them to life should be the priority. The combination of tatty plastic model work and crude stop-motion animation will have you running for the nearest Ray Harryhausen flick. There are some awful special effects on show here, ranging from the clay T-Rex squishing a yellow toy bus full of passengers right down to the ridiculously unexciting finale featuring the T-Rex squaring off against a steam shovel on the edge of a cliff. The low budget and rushed production combination really show whenever these dinosaurs are on screen. The brontosaurus fairs a little better but that’s only because it’s not around as long as the T-Rex. You’d expect the dinosaurs scenes to more entertaining than the rest of the film and they are but only mildly.

The combination of green screens (or whatever they used back in the day), miniature sets and all sorts of other fancy camera tricks really shows up the cracks in the effects department at every possible opportunity. Hardly a scene goes by without some ropey special effect coming into play. Even the actors look like talking in front of huge projectors in specific scenes. Day-for-night photography ruins a lot of the night scenes and watching the dinosaurs interact with the humans is laughable – the first unlucky local who gets attacked by the T-Rex looks like he’s being tickled rather than eaten alive.

If the presence of two dinosaurs wasn’t enough to make the island panic, there’s also a caveman running riot. This is how the film deals its comedy hand – having the caveman be domesticated by the annoying child star. Watch as he tries eating with a fork, wonders what a mirror is and, in the film’s worst scene (and it takes some topping believe me!), the caveman tries on a dress. I’m being a little hard on this whole sequence to be honest. Gregg Martell does a wonderful job of portraying a man who has been taken out of his element and is struggling to cope with a world that is alien to him.

The problems extend to the rest of the film so don’t think that it just the effects that are stinking up the joint. The acting is really wooden right across the board with the exception of Martell (who just grunts anyway) and there’s a whole bunch of stereotyped characters waddling around the film from the corrupt local businessman to comic relief sidekick and straight-laced white man hero. The irritating child actor wines and whinges his way through every scene he’s in. You’ll be wishing he turns into dino chow at some point but films in the 60s weren’t that cruel. The narrative is a real slog to get through and the film doesn’t really do much in its running time when you look back on it.

 

Dinosaurus! is feeble 60s ‘entertainment’ at its most primitive and basic. It just about manages to tick off a couple of genre boxes within its running time and, despite being squarely aimed at the younger audience, even youngsters would find Dinosaurus! both boring and a laugh at the same time.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four (2005)

4 times the action. 4 times the adventure. 4 times the fantastic.

A group of scientists led by the brilliant Reed Richards inadvertently gain superpowers after exposure to cosmic radiation during a space mission. Upon their return to Earth, they must come to terms with their new powers and use them to defeat the plans of their enemy, Victor Von Doom, who was also on board when the cosmic radiation hit.

 

Another of Marvel’s comic book adaptations come to life, Fantastic Four has always been slumped in the corner whilst its famous companions Spider-Man and X-Men gain most of the fame for the company on the screen. With only two animated series and a previous failed film to its name, the Four never really looked like big success was coming their way despite being one of Marvel’s most popular comics – until now at least. With the surge in popularity of comic book adaptations, what better way to introduce, or should be that re-introduce, the world to Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Thing and Human Torch.

Fantastic Four might look like one of the best comic books come to life. Not in any sort of brooding Batman-style look but just for the sheer light-hearted and colourful nature it sports. I guess it’s to do with the lower rating that it received for release compared to some of the more adult-themed comic book films. And this might be where the hate and criticism stems from.  Fantastic Four is a colourful, entertaining comic book film not to be confused with anything serious and deep-meaning.

Fantastic Four might have had the same big budget treatment as its more popular relatives but the film experience is ultimately a hollow one. For all of the great action set pieces, the fantastic make-up effects on the Thing and the presence of one of my favourite comic supervillains, there’s a lack of meat to the story. No coming of age drama like in Spider-Man. No brooding Wolverine to latch on to. Despite the Four being reasonably developed as characters both before and after the mission that mutates them, there’s never any real connection to them because the story is so one-dimensional. They turn into these superheroes halfway through the film and then spend the next half trying to turn back. And that’s pretty much the story in a nutshell. Everything seems so low key in scope.

I guess that’s the problem of it being an origin story as most of the film is devoted to constructing these new characters in order to set them up for further sequels. But the origin story is hardly the most thrilling of them all (no end of Krypton, no uncles being shot by robbers, no parents being murdered, no government test subjects – nothing!) and this slowly starts to creep into everything else in the film.

Casting wise, the film is almost spot-on. Ioan Gruffudd makes for an excellently brainy and nerdy Mr Fantastic, the superhero who can stretch his body into all manner of weird shapes but is something of a charisma vacuum (the character that is, not Gruffudd). Michael Chilkis steals the show beneath layers of make-up as The Thing. I always thought he was such a cool-looking creation in the comics and the film does his character justice, bringing to life the emotional toil that his character is now facing up to by looking like a giant rock. Chris Evans is suitably reckless as the Human Torch. It needed someone young and reckless in the role and Evans plays the part perfectly. The special effects are pretty flawless throughout the film. Each character’s special ability is vividly brought to life, with the Human Torch being the obvious pick.

The weaknesses come in the form of the hot but bland Jessica Alba as the Invisible Woman and Julian McMahon as Dr Doom. Not convincing in the slightest as a scientist, the role needed an actresses who could portray hot and clever – Alba just has the hot thing (though I’m not complaining with the lycra suits). And McMahon has no gravitas as the bad guy, more concerned with being smarmy and suave than overly evil and calculating like his comic book counterpart should have been. Being buried under a silly metal mask in the second half only helps him look like some Darth Vader wannabe but even then his motives aren’t world domination, just petty revenge against Mr Fantastic. It’s hardly edge of the seat drama.

And because he doesn’t turn into Dr Doom until the same time as the Four (half-way through), then there’s only one major set piece with good versus evil at the finale as the Four square up against Doom. It’s decent enough but you wonder if they’d pulled the trigger a little earlier in the film, then another fight could have made all the difference. As it stands, Fantastic Four just doesn’t deliver enough action and when it does, it seems as if there has been no build up whatsoever.

 

Fantastic Four isn’t a terrible super hero flick but given the source material and given some of the talent on show, there’s no way this should be as average as it unfortunately turns out. Like the original X-Men, its sole purpose seems to have been to set up the characters for the sequel. It feels more like a missed trick than a bad film and is still highly entertaining: a good superhero film, not a great one.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The (1973)

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Dynarama Means Supreme Adventure!

Sinbad and his crew accidentally acquire part of a mysterious golden tablet which was being delivered to Koura, an evil magician. Upon arriving in the kingdom of Marabia and speaking to the Vizier, Sinbad finds out that Koura had planned to find all three parts of the tablet which would show him the way to a fountain of youth and provide him with the necessary powers to rule Marabia forever. With Sinbad’s piece and the Vizier’s piece, they set sail to find the final piece of the tablet and put a stop to Koura’s evil plans.

 

After The Valley of Gwangi’s disappointing box office returns, stop motion effects maestro Ray Harryhausen and long-time producer Charles H. Schneer returned to the world of fantasy adventure. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad had been a rip-roaring success in 1958 and Jason and the Argonauts provided even more of a triumph in 1963 but other films such as First Men in the Moon and Mysterious Island had failed to set the world alight. Interest in this type of special effects driven film had dwindled. A couple of other projects had stalled and Harryhausen needed to get something off the ground. So it was decided that Sinbad would return, fifteen years after last sailing onto the big screen. He returned not just once here but again a couple of years later in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Whilst fondly remembered nowadays for their innocent charm, neither of these Sinbad films rank up there with Harryhausen’s best work.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is a good fantasy film but not a great one. Whilst it doesn’t feel as epic as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (the monsters, whilst impressive, are less grand than the cyclops or the roc), you certainly get more of an exotic feel. The locations are more varied, the costumes more lavish and the colours more plentiful. Heck, even the cast look more Arabian so as not to repeat the same mistake of featuring a white-centric cast portraying Arabian sailors. Whilst the budget for this film was considerably low for the type of movie it was, the production design and the cinematography really give it that full-on fantasy feel. These truly feel like foreign lands, inhabited by strange beasts and even stranger tribes.

Like the majority of the films that he did special effects for, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad has a plot which is merely a dot-to-dot connection between all of the Ray Harryhausen-engineered special effects set pieces. You really do get the sense that the film is just biding its time between the next Harryhausen monster popping up, with the flimsy plot acting as a pointless Macguffin for Sinbad to set sail. The problem with the two later Sinbad films opposed to Harryhausen’s earlier hits is that the pacing was dreadful. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is the worst culprit, saving almost all of its good stuff until the final third. It’s quite a slog to get through and then when you eventually do get to see the monsters, generally speaking they’re pretty unimpressive considering the standards that Harryhausen had set.

There’s the usual variety of monsters taken from all manner of mythology, religion and folk tale but apart from one fantastic creation, the rest just aren’t memorable in the slightest. You remember the Cyclops. You remember Talos. You remember the skeletons. You’ll remember little from this. The centaur and the griffin which fight at the end of the film are well-designed but they look like poor imitations of more popular Harryhausen monsters and don’t really generate the ‘wow’ factor from the audience. There is the customary monster versus monster tussle which doesn’t really create any excitement and is a shadow of previous encounters. The ships figure head which comes to life in creaking wooden glory is decent because it’s slightly different to what Harryhausen usually created but doesn’t do an awful lot and doesn’t really pose much danger. Previously, these were the highlight of the films but it seemed like Harryhausen was running low on ideas and they end up looking like afterthoughts, shoe-horned into the film rather than having the film built up around them.

The one major gripe I have is with the homonculus, the small winged creature which acts as Koura’s eyes and ears early in the film. Whilst the effect itself is typical Harryhausen (and again seems to be a rehash of previous monsters), I fail to see the need for it to be included in the film. Could they just have Koura use a crystal ball or something to spy on Sinbad? It seems like the animation wasted precious time for Harryhausen when he could have been focusing on something bigger and better for Sinbad to fight. He did the same thing again in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger by animating a baboon for a large portion of the film when a real-life monkey would have been sufficient to see to the needs of the plot.

Thankfully, these weaker rehashes of earlier work are rectified with the inclusion of Kali, the six-armed fighting statue. Not taking into the account the religious ramifications of bringing to life such a thing, the monster is amazing. The fight between Kali and Sinbad’s crew is superbly choreographed and highly exciting as the statue moves around swinging swords and really getting stuck in. It’s a pity that this wasn’t the final set piece of the film because it’s as good as anything you’ll see in any of Harryhausen’s films and the film never really gets back up to full speed after it. Coupled with a barnstorming musical accompaniment from composer Miklós Rózsa and the scene is the film’s highlight. If you want to see where George Lucas got his inspiration for General Grievous from, check this scene out.

John Phillip Law looks more like an Arabian sailor than his predecessor did and manages to deliver the goods where it matters. He’s not the best actor and some of his delivery is a bit stunted but he is more than capable of handling himself in the action scenes. Tom Baker makes for a suitably slimy Koura, adding a right amount of nastiness to a role which is sometimes dogged by camp and cheese but genuinely looks like a fun role to be playing. Caroline Munro looks stunning in a low-cut, cleavage-heavy dress as the slave girl Margiana and provides the necessary eye candy. I’m hard-pressed to think of any woman who looked as drop-dead gorgeous during the 70s and 80s than Ms Munro. Rounding off the cast are a whole host of supporting actors to provide Sinbad with an always-expendable crew. You wonder why so many men volunteer to sail with him when the history of survival for his crew is not good in any of these films.

 

Harryhausen would only make two more films after this one. Realising that father time and father technology were catching up, he called it a day after Clash of the Titans. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad clearly shows that the ideas were running low and he was running out of steam by this point. It’s a decent Saturday afternoon timewaster and still infinitely better than the likes of today’s soulless CGI-driven drivel.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆