Category Movie Reviews

100 Million BC (2008)

100 Million Years BC (2008)

An elite military team. Sent back in time. They will not return… Alone

A science team is stranded 100 million years ago in time when a time travel experiment in the 70s failed. 30 years later after perfecting the technology, a rescue team is sent back to retrieve them. Whilst there they encounter all manner of carnivorous dinosaurs and venomous plants. However upon their return to the present, they inadvertently bring back a dinosaur and runs rampant through Los Angeles.

 

The Asylum have a reputation for being cash-in merchants when it comes to the next big thing. Scroll down their list of films over the past few years and you’ll see what I mean. Whenever there’s a big blockbuster coming out, they quickly run off and make a cheap knock-off version, affectionately known as ‘mock busters.’ To show you how blatant this is, when Transformers came out, they made one called Transmorphers. You’ve got Snakes on a Train (Snakes on a Plane), I Am Omega (I Am Legend), The Da Vinci Treasure (The Da Vinci Code) – see where I am going with this? Usually their version have identikit titles as well as pretty much the same plots just with about one tenth of the budget. Can you guess which one 100 Million BC is supposed to be cashing in against?

However this one shares absolutely no similarities with Roland Emmerick’s CGI-fest 10,000 BC apart from the title. In fact this has much more to do with a solid but highly-berated film called A Sound of Thunder made a few years about time travellers who accidentally change the past and cause the modern day to change into a prehistoric wasteland. That had ideas and designs on being much more than it’s budget allowed which is a shame because it was actually pretty good. This one goes even further and takes away any budget that had and just reworks the story with their usual array of bad washed up actors and atrocious special effects.

The first thing that smacks you in the face is how the film desperately tries to be something it clearly can’t afford to be. The whole idea of time travel and changing the future needs budget to do it. So when this clearly expensive time travelling machine is located in some rusty old warehouse in Los Angeles and manned by a crew of two technicians and an army guy barking orders, you don’t buy it one bit. Even worse are the attempts to explain time travel and paradoxes – just forget the explanations and I’d probably buy it more than the two-bit attempts to describe what happened to the audience.

Actually the first half of the film is as entertaining as it could be as soon as the crew go back in time on the rescue mission. There’s plenty of grunts to be killed off in various ways. If it’s poison-spitting plants, monstrous crocodiles or just good ol’ raptors, these army guys have their backs up against it from the start. The problem starts when the dinosaur on the front of the box shows up. Only it looks nothing like that ferocious-looking thing on the box. It’s red, it’s goofy looking and it’s a travesty of CGI. There’s no other way to describe it. I honestly can’t comment on how pathetic it looks. It just sickens me to know that special effects from 50 years ago still hold up strong today whereas this cinematic turd will be flushed away in a year or so. Unfortunately this is the main threat that the characters will face both in the past and then back in the present. The dinosaur follows them back through the wormhole and proceeds to go on a “rampage” in Los Angeles. This last bit of the film reminded me a bit of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, only without the decent T-Rex and entertainment value. It also gets boring quickly as somehow the dinosaur keeps managing to hide itself and there only seems to be a handful of people doing anything about it. You’d have thought a dinosaur running rampant would cause a bit more of a panic. But this one is smart and tries to keep itself to the back alleys and streets. The front cover is grossly misleading as it looks like the dinosaur is taking on a battalion of tanks and gun ships – the reality is that one helicopter hovers around the action for a bit to keep track of the dinosaur and then the finale involves an armed vehicle.

Poor Michael Gross. For those of you who liked and enjoyed Tremors, he was Burt Gummer, the bad ass gun nut who wasn’t afraid of anything. He looks like he really needed the pay cheque here. He does add a bit of credibility to the science side of the film but I think that’s because he looks old more than anything else. A quick thought on the character that Gross plays: if you are the only guy who can operate a time travel machine, why do you go back in time to potentially be killed, thus ending the chances of your team getting back? Greg Avigan is also listed on the front cover (I’m not familiar with his work) but he has about ten lines in the film as the army commander who oversees the experiment. And Christopher Atkins is also starring. The fresh-faced young man who got to hang around with a naked Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon has turned into a grumpy-looking has-been who takes these two-bit roles to give him a leading role. My anger towards him simply stems from the fact he starred in the dreadful Caved-In: Prehistoric Terror. One thing that he should learn is how to react to something that isn’t there. It’s a hard job trying to act when the monster is added in post-production but countless actors have managed it with success. Given he seems to be taking a few of these CGI monster movie roles, would it be hard to make the effort in future?

 

100 Million BC is a shockingly bad film let down by everything: the shoddy acting, the ridiculous script and the abominable special effects. One of the most dreadful films I’ve ever seen and that’s saying something.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 
 

12 Days of Terror (2004)

12 Days of Terror (2004)

Based on the terrifying true events that inspired Jaws

It’s 1916 and the beaches of New Jersey are packed with swimmers, eager to forget the stories of the war brewing across the Atlantic. However that all changed on July 1st when, during a twelve-day period, a killer shark takes up residence in the waters, threatening New Jersey’s thriving tourist industry.

 

Ah, the killer shark genre. Never has a sub-genre been so inept at coming up with anything remotely as exciting as the original Jaws. The first true killer shark flick and it’s still head and shoulders above the rest despite more recent films having bigger budgets, access to better special effects and shooting schedules that don’t go wrong at every opportunity. So how is it that the likes of Shark Attack, Shark Swarm, the Jaws sequels and even Deep Blue Sea (arguably the best of the Jaws-wannabes) have come nowhere near recapturing the scares, the thrills and the overall entertainment of Spielberg’s classic? 12 Days of Terror is actually a different take on the whole genre. Instead of just copying scenes or rehashing elements, this one takes its cue straight from history and bases itself around the true events which inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws. It’s no coincidence that this one plays out pretty much the same way as the classic blockbuster but at least it can’t be called a copy.

Given the recent spate of killer shark flicks, 12 Days of Terror has a refreshing approach to the same genre material. I guess it’s the period setting which helps the film. With it being based in 1916, the film has to pretend it knows nothing about sharks: there’s the lack of scientific facts really understand what they’re about (no quotes here about sharks smelling blood in the water from miles away) and there’s the lack of modern equipment to track and combat them (the very primitive steel fences that are erected around the bathing area look useless). It’s almost as if the people don’t know how to handle the situation because it’s totally new to them – watch the scientists laugh at the suggestion that a shark killed the first victim, suggesting it was a torpedo that did it. This period feel also helps during the attack scenes as there’s a real sense of helplessness for the victims. I know people are screwed when they’re attacked by sharks at the best of times, but here you know that the people watching on the beach have no clue as to go about the situation. The attacks consist of little more than the people thrashing around in bloodied water and the shark rarely makes a full appearance. When it does turn up, it’s reasonably effective. Some scenes are CGI but some are clearly animatronics with a splash of CGI thrown in for good measure.

12 Days of Terror has one glaring problem and that it’s downright tiresome. I am sure that the actual events were a lot more exciting than this makes out, given the plodding pace and real lack of anything to get the audience involved with the film. There’s a tepid love triangle between the main characters which is totally pointless and just serves to pad time out. Despite this film being based on the events that inspired Jaws, it seems more like the other way around and that Jaws inspired this film given the way things pan out with the mayor not closing the beaches, the lead characters setting off to sea to kill the shark – which apparently didn’t happen in the true events either. According to the reports, the shark was never caught and it just swam back out to sea. So the finale here with the characters trying to kill the shark in a rickety old boat seems to have been fabricated to add a little bit of excitement. This begs the question: if the writers were going to take liberty with the outcome, why not take liberties with a few other parts of the film too? Either keep it realistic or bling it up with gore and shark attacks!

 

12 Days of Terror has a refreshing approach on the generic killer shark film and manages to raise itself above most of the straight-to-video Jaws rip-offs. But its tedious plodding drama and lack of real bite when needed throw this one back into the chum with the rest.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 
 

13 Hrs (2010)

13 Hrs (2010)

A deadly secret is coming home.

After taking time to set up her new life in America, Sarah returns to her isolated countryside home in England for a much-delayed visit. However she comes to back to trouble: her mother is missing and assumed to be visiting a lover; her father has financial issues; and her ex-boyfriend Doug has gotten together with her childhood friend. But when a storm knocks out the power, they realise that they’re not alone in the house as a deadly creature is now roaming the corridors.

 

Sailing on the coattails of the fact that it’s produced by one of the guys who produced Dog Soldiers, 13 Hrs can’t hide the fact that’s a film low on budget and even lower on fresh ideas. I can’t be too hard on it since it was shot in six weeks, edited quickly afterwards on a meagre budget and the fact that it is British (supporting my home film industry and all of that….). Actually I can be hard on it since surely there’s more that one can do with a bit of imagination and creativity than simply rehash tired old clichés and band them together with a shoe-string plot.

I honestly had no idea that this was meant to be a werewolf film (shows you how little attention I paid to the DVD cover which actually mentions werewolf!). Nothing throughout 13 Hrs points towards lycanthropy and the brief glimpses of the creature give us nothing to connect the dots. The first section of the film introduces us to the characters and they’re all irritable, bland or a combination of the two. Even the heroine has a rather nasty streak to her. There’s no one to root for as they’re continually bitching to each other and this one of the film’s glaring problems. Siding with an unknown enemy against this irritating cast isn’t so good when you’ve made your allegiances within the first ten minutes.

The cast aren’t great but it’s not like they had a lot to work with. Gemma Atkinson has been cast for her physical attributes but must have had a good agent so that she didn’t strip down at any point and show us those attributes. Tom Felton, of Harry Potter fame, also gets a headlining role but it’s hardly the role he needs if he wants to break free of the Draco Malfoy stereotype. It’s also pretty sad that this was the late Simon MacCorkindale’s last film and his cameo role at the beginning is a pitiful way to call time on his career. Though I’m sure Jaws 3-D was never high on his list either.

The creature looks more like a relative to the Crawlers in The Descent with its balding head, lack of body hair and sharp claws. You won’t have a clue what it’s meant to be and the characters assume it’s some rabid animal at first. Red POV shots are banded around to try and make the creature seem scary but it’s hardly on screen long enough to even bother turning it into some sort of major threat. Attack scenes are quickly edited so you have little clue as to what is going on and most of the creature’s bloody rampage happens off-camera. There’s a subplot about a local animal handler who is recruited by the police to respond to the 999 call at the house but this literally becomes a dead end plot which serves no purpose to the film except kill a bit more running time. The plot twist and revelation at the end is also about as shocking as finding out that the Pope is Catholic. It’s signposted almost right from the get-go and is a little too obvious to make the ending anything but unsatisfactory. But when the rest of the film is just as plodding, it’s hardly going to make much difference.

 

13 Hrs is passable entertainment, no doubt watchable enough for anyone who’s never seen a horror film before but for anyone else, it’s just a film which goes through the motions and makes no qualms about doing that. There is potential here but it’s clear that everyone involved played it as safe as possible. Even the bald werewolf!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

2-Headed Shark Attack (2012)

2-Headed Shark Attack (2012)

1 Body, 2 Heads and 6,000 Teeth.

A group of students are aboard a Semester at Sea vessel ship which becomes damaged when it hits a dead shark floating in the water and starts to sink. As the crew attempt to repair the damage, Professor Babish decides to take the students to a nearby atoll. What they haven’t realised is that there is a deadly two-headed shark lurking in the region which begins to pick off the students as they enter the water, cutting off their escape route back to the ship. Though the atoll provides temporary refuge, it is soon apparent that it is slowly sinking into the sea. Soon there will be no hiding place from the monstrous two-headed shark.

 

A shark with two heads? Let’s face it fans of monster movies, the idea itself is inspired and definitely catches the attention for a few minutes if only for perverse curiosity of what the end product could be. Not content with increasing the size of their killer monsters to ‘mega’ size with the likes of Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus and Mega Piranha, The Asylum have now decided to add extra heads to their monsters to give them that bonus bite. I’m still not entirely sold on the entire that two heads are better than one is this case especially since they both share the same body but it’s still a great selling point and makes for a kick ass DVD cover. It’s a shame that the film itself predictably fails to deliver anything nearly as inspired.

2-Headed Shark Attack completely wastes the idea of a shark with two heads, simply having the creature do exactly the same thing a normal shark would do, except that it has twice the biting power. Any uniqueness to the creature is seemingly lost apart from the title and the poster. So the film just trots off the usual shark flick clichés. I find it hard to enjoy films when they are this silly. The script is all over the place and everything happens simply to push on to the next set piece, no matter how daft or overblown it may be. I’m still not quite sure why they all had to leave the boat and head to the atoll as the crew were still aboard and it didn’t look like it was sinking. Oh yeah, there wouldn’t be a film if they hadn’t gone to the atoll.

From then on, it’s just finding enough excuses to get the teenagers into the water for them to be fed to the shark. It seems that some characters even throw themselves into the water because they believe that swimming with a two-headed shark is a lot safer than being a boat or dry land. The attack scenes are repetitive and, since the shark gets fed pretty well, you’ll be seeing the same scenarios over and over again. Predictably, the shark itself looks awful. There’s a fake head used in brief flashes during attack scenes but for 98% of the film, it’s all CGI. The shark has the ability to change size at any given situation, being as big as a boat in some shots but then being unable to fully squeeze into a partially-submerged church later on. Taking a cue from Jaws: The Revenge, this shark roars a lot and has the uncanny ability to still exist when it loses a head – did it mutate into the Hydra at some point? The scenes of it chomping through its human prey look exactly what they are – computer scenes. No explanation is given as to why it has two heads: there is some musing amongst the cast but it’s not high on the agenda.

Unfortunately even these moments provide little entertainment as the editing is so frenetic. It’s a trademark of The Asylum’s films to feature ridiculously rapid editing to keep things moving at light speed but it gets too fast and there’s rarely a moment to just sit back and take things in. Sometimes you need that it films. I’m not saying that the material on display here needs you to sit and think but in order to process images and sounds, the human brain needs a rest. Having non-stop rapid-fire editing throughout a film might make it look high-octane entertainment but it’s taxing on the brain.

Directed by Christopher Olen Ray, son of notorious low budget schlock director Fred Olen Ray (with such politically-correct films like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Scream Queen Hot Tub Party on his CV), it’s clear that Olen Ray Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps with his taste for the female form. Carmen Electra gets top billing, and although she provides a requisite bikini scene and spends the entire film parading around in tight cut-off jeans and a low top, she has a total of about ten lines. I’m sure her fee would have been better spent elsewhere. That said, her body still looks great so no complaints here!

It’s sad to say that the best thing on display here was Brooke Hogan. Despite writing off her performance before I had even watched (having already seen the disastrous Sand Sharks), Hogan does alright in her character of Kate. It’s pretty obvious she’s only getting cast because she’s the daughter of legendary wrestler Hulk Hogan and though she’s decent-ish in this, she shouldn’t give up her day job which is…..erm, being the daughter of Hulk Hogan I guess. She also spends the entire time parading around in a bikini and the script has her doing a lot of running. Go figure. At least the script isn’t making her out to be some sort of scientist. It only has her being a multi-talented handywoman who can fix boats, repair generators and rig crude explosives from oil barrels.

 

2-Headed Shark Attack is a predictably terrible film which relies on its gimmicky notion to sell itself – and then proceeds to do nothing different with it than hasn’t been done in x number of killer shark flicks. Two heads are better than one? Not a chance. Where is Roy Scheider and a couple of pressurised tanks when you need him?

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Monster from outerspace runs wild!

The first spaceship to Venus crash-lands off the coast of Sicily on its return trip but the crew have unknowingly brought an alien egg back with them that hatches and the small creature inside escapes. In no time at all it grows to enormous size and only asserts its physical presence when threatened, which naturally occurs when the military try to stop it from encroaching the city of Rome.

 

One of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen’s earlier films, 20 Million Miles to Earth would just be any other 50s ‘monster-on-the-loose’ science fiction B-movie if it wasn’t for the presence of his magic. The plot is nothing new if you’re familiar with these 50s films and the film runs like clockwork. In fact most of these 50s sci-fi films have no hidden meanings about atomic testing or space exploration, they’re simply special effects vehicles where a film has simply been constructed around set pieces. Harryhausen’s films are no exception and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone to argue against that. I don’t know of any other artist in Hollywood who has ever dwarfed the rest of the film in such a way as Harryhausen did. Audiences didn’t care for the director or the cast or the story – they’re simply playing second fiddle in these films. They were there to see the master at work and bring to life whatever creatures he had to.

20 Million Miles to Earth is bogged down with the same sort of wobbly scripts, laughable acting and sci-fi jargon that the rest of its 50s brethren were hindered by. Take away Harryhausen’s special effects and you’ve got a rather lacklustre affair which doesn’t really get going until the final third. There’s not an awful lot of interesting plot developments to keep the audience gripped until the creature finally shows itself. There’s cheesy 1950s love plots where you know the only female character will fall in love with the male scientist. Expect token scenes of the military talking about the creature. Recycled scenes of various scientists talking about the creature. Then there are scenes with both the military and scientists talking to each other about the creature. It’s a wonder the audience ever made it to the end of some of these films because they’re dull, talky affairs.

The acting is all square-jawed heroic nonsense. Characters are almost flawless and the way they react to situations is as if they have to deal with alien monsters every day of the week. Speaking of which, the Ymir, the Venusian alien creature, is one of Harryhausen’s most interesting creations, not least because you can see elements of some of his more famous monsters in the mannerisms of the creature (I can see the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans to name but two). It’s these mannerisms and the way in which Harryhausen animates the creature, which makes it more like-like and believable than any of the human actors involved. There is something unique about it which makes you root for the creature – a real sense of humanity and life. He gave all of his creations little characteristics which make them stand head and shoulders above anything else. Marvel at the sight of the small creature hatching out of from its shell and then rubbing its eyes as it struggles to adjust itself to Earth’s atmosphere. Little touches like this make all of the difference. But of course, part of the reason for sympathising with the creature is that the human cast are so dull.

Not only does the creature come alive in glorious detail but it partakes in some impressive set pieces. There’s an engrossing fight between it and an elephant in the streets of Rome and the finale inside the Coliseum is outstanding for it’s time. It’s sort of an alien version of the finale of King Kong where a frightened creature climbs atop an infamous landmark in a futile attempt to stay alive but is shot down in cold blood by the humans below.

Unfortunately all of this happens too late in the film and although the monster is fleetingly glimpsed early on, it’s only the second half of the film in which it really springs to life. Before that time, be prepared to endure a never-ending assault of clichéd characters cheesy dialogue. In one of the film’s most laughable lines, the creature is standing on top of the Coliseum and the hero of the piece looks up and simply states ‘there he is’ as if no one had noticed the gigantic creature climbing on top of one of the world’s most iconic landmarks.

Originality doesn’t seem to be the order of the day for the script, both in dialogue and plot developments. The army runs out of ideas to defeat the monster after trying to blow it away with rudimentary weapons. Will cinematic armed forces ever learn to stop wasting their time with shells and projectile weapons when going up against aliens? Fifty-five years later and you’ve still got daft generals trying to take on extraterrestrial threats with pop guns and tanks!

 

20 Million Miles to Earth is a decent film for fans of this genre but nothing more as it’s too bogged down with dull exposition. Harryhausen’s special effects deserve better and thankfully he did with his next film – the eternally superb The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

3-Headed Shark Attack (2015)

3-Headed Shark Attack (2015)

More heads, more deads

A group of scientists are attacked in their underwater lab by a killer 3-headed shark. Then the shark moves on to attack a cruise ship full of partying teenagers. The survivors must band together to try and stop it.

 

I really can’t be bothered wasting my time trying to make the plot sound more exciting than it was because it’s just a mess of appalling writing. OK, so 2-Headed Shark Attack was hardly a high art concept and sold itself on the ludicrous premise alone with predictably dire results. How do you top something so silly? Just add an extra head of course! 3-Headed Shark Attack is somehow even worse than its predecessor. It’s a film which exists solely based upon its premise and where the makers of the film clearly thought “we don’t need to bother with making a coherent narrative which logically moves from A to B because there’s a 3-headed shark in it.” Whilst 2-Headed Shark Attack revelled in its absurdity, treating proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, this one tries to be too serious.

3-Headed Shark Attack falls straight into The Asylum’s typical formulaic approach – no real plot exposition, gets right into the thick of the action from the opening scene, throws a load of characters with no development into the mix and then just attempts to butcher it together with some awfully choppy editing. There’s literally something going on in every frame of film and it’s a constant assault on the eyes, with some frames lasting seconds before the next edit kicks in. In Asylum films, there’s little room to take time out, get to know characters or build plot – it’s just full steam ahead and it’s so annoying. All you see are people on the screen running away or swimming away from something that’s so badly rendered in CGI that it isn’t even funny. Names? Backgrounds? Relationships to other characters? Nope. Forget that. They’re just faces on film. All they have to do is look into the camera, pretend to stare at something off-screen and then attempt to emote when the time dictates…and they even fail at that.

There are almost three separate films crammed in here and all could have been expanded further. There’s the opening twenty or so minutes with the shark destroying the underwater lab (again, there’s no real point in introducing a load of these one-note victims to kill them off a few minutes later) and forcing the characters to leave the safety of dry land and into a boat (I know, it makes no sense). It’s almost like watching Deep Blue Sea but rushed through in a quarter of the time. Then the few survivors from this end up on a boat full of partying teenagers and the next ‘mini-film’ commences. Finally the survivors from this part then meet up with Danny Trejo’s fisherman character for the last ‘mini-film.’ But that’s what you get with the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach from The Asylum. Just take a chill pill and stretch things out a little more to generate some suspense or tension. At no point during this film did I feel remotely scared, tense or even worried because there’s so much going on, and so much that doesn’t make sense, that it’s hard for your brain to compute. Films need to retain some element of realism in them to allow the audience to comprehend even the silliest of storylines, characters or special effects yet 3-Headed Shark Attack is devoid of realism.

The shark just turns up in the opening scene with no explanation or build-up and then just wreaks havoc, smashing up the lab and eating as many people as possible over the course of the film. It gets to the point of overkill because the shark is always killing people. Remember when only four people (on-screen that is) were killed in Jaws? You don’t need to keep feeding the shark to make it a threat. In fact the opposite happens and it becomes almost a drinking game to see how many people the shark will eat within the next ten minutes of film. The shark looks reasonably good when it’s swimming around doing nothing – the heads are pretty scary and it does look freakish. However as soon as it’s required to do something like breach the water, bite someone or flip into the air, the ropey CGI kicks in. Coupled to this is a soundtrack which doesn’t fit the action and is just there to artificially generate tension and excitement.

Danny Trejo and professional wrestler Rob Van Dam are the two ‘names’ in the film. Trejo is seemingly on a quest to star in every single low budget straight-to-DVD film made in the last two years and has clearly been cast in this for one particular sight gag involving the shark and a machete. RVD proves he should stick to wrestling.

 

It’s like pulling teeth trying to enjoy 3-Headed Shark Attack and considering that there are a lot of teeth on display, that’s a lot of pain to suffer. Those who like The Asylum’s specific ‘brand’ of filmmaking will find more of the same here but for those who want something a little more down-to-Earth, realistic and generally better made, the hunt for a decent killer shark flick continues.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

51 (2011)

51 (2011)

Welcome to the future

After political pressure from the media forces the American government to re-think their approach to Area 51, a small group of reporters are allowed into the top secret military facility for a limited-access tour. The tour is designed to provide non-essential secrets to be purposely leaked so that the media’s attention is diverted away from the real secrets that the base holds. But one of Area 51’s alien captives takes advantage of the situations and breaks free, releasing other captives and trapping the group of reporters in the facility.

 

I’m all for original horror films being released, especially ones that are free of the cruel, strangling grip of mainstream Hollywood cinema. So when After Dark Films began to release a stream of ‘original’ horror films in 2011 and 2012, I had faith that at least some small studios were attempting to do their own thing. Unfortunately once I sat down and watched a few of them (Husk and Prowl spring to mind), I realised that the films were exactly the same sort of thing that I’d been watching for years only with lesser budgets and lesser casts. ‘Original’ they were not – derivative most definitely. Case in point today: 51.

Starting off with the promise of some good ideas, 51 simply reverts back to the standard ‘people trapped in a confined space with a monster loose’ formula by the twenty minute mark. Then it’s a case of how many times the film can rip-off Aliens, Predator and the scores of alien flicks made since. The original idea of allowing the media a glimpse into the workings of Area 51 was a solid, if somewhat shallow, set-up but at least it allowed for some interesting ideas. There’s little in the way of hidden political messages to this, just a novel idea which is discarded pretty quickly when everyone starts to turn into alien nosh. The film could have done a better job at presenting ‘Area 51’ for a start– the most secretive place on Earth yet here it is guarded by a handful of marines who seem more bemused with their pointless posting than worrying about what is lying underneath them in the facility.

Nevertheless, the story just serves as a set-up to get a load of people into the facility and once the aliens break free, we don’t care whether they’re reporters, cameramen, scientists or generals. This is where the film shifts into Aliens mode, providing the alien escapees with not only the reporters but another handful of bodies to rip through, sending in a batch of marines to rescue the survivors and indulge us with the token action scenes. We know that the marines aren’t going to succeed because there wouldn’t be a story if they did. So it’s just a matter of waiting for the inevitable to pass by so that we can get back to the main characters that actually have first names. It’s also daft to believe that a bunch of well-armed marines are taken out a lot quicker than the reporters but hey, this is the movies after all. Both groups of people continue to run around the same sets for the majority of the second half and there’s little variation to the film. One warehouse looks the same as another one. Every corridor seems to be the same but just shot from different angles.

On the plus side, the special effects are pretty good. The aliens are all brought to life through practical effects. So they’re either guys in suits (like the shape shifter in his indigenous form) or slimy prosthetic creatures. Again, like I stated in my recent review for The Blackout, it’s painfully obvious where the creatures get their inspiration from, with black, shiny skin and dripping mouths (including the now-obligatory shot of a helpless victim lying in front of an alien rearing its head up and about to attack). H.R. Giger has a lot to answer for and it seems almost canon that 90% of aliens in film now must look like the xenomorph from Alien. That’s a real credit to Giger’s immense creation but also a damning indication of the lack of imagination that everyone else has when it comes to original alien design. Surely designers can come up with something other than another black-skinned, acid-spewing monster with sharp teeth and an aggressive streak? Obviously not. There’s also very little in the way of CGI and the deaths are pretty gory too which is a bit strange considering this aired on the Sci-Fi Channel.

 

51 isn’t terrible but it’s so unimaginative and thin on story and script that in the hands of a better director and writer, a few more risks could have been taken to give it that extra dimension. As it stands, 51 is a perfect example of just how little originality there is left anywhere at the moment – everyone is too content to play it safe, tow the line and make underwhelming films. Whatever happened to the risk-takers and the pioneers?

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953)

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953)

All New ! All Wild ! All Fun !

Two Americans cops visiting London to study police tactics find themselves drawn into the hunt for the murderer of a prominent physician. Their search leads them to Dr Jekyll, who can transform himself into the murderous Mr Hyde after injecting himself with a serum he has invented.

 

When Universal had exhausted the rehashing of their classic monsters after pitting them against one another in a series of ever-diminishing horror films, the studio only had the comedy spoof option left and they allowed their popular duo of Abbott and Costello the chance to goof around with them instead. Starting with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948, the bumbling pair also crossed paths with the Mummy and the Invisible Man. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is arguably the least of their antics with the Universal monsters but features plenty of their trademark humour.

Like the other Abbott and Costello films, the plot is simply a flimsy excuse for the comedy duo to go through their usual slapstick motions. So if your tolerance for old school shenanigans isn’t high, then maybe it’s best to skip this one. But I’m a sucker for old school and some of the silly, juvenile comedy hits the right notes from a time when you didn’t have to rely on crude humour or gross-out gags to entertain an audience. The duo opt for the more physical slapstick comedy route in this one as opposed to the witty verbal exchanges of the previous films and it’s this lack of sophisticated comedy which hurts the film in the long run. There’s only so many times you can see people tripping up, falling over, bundling themselves around and running around like silly devils before it gets tiresome.

The highlight scene of the film involves ‘Tubby’ (Costello) accidentally injecting himself with the serum which then leads to all manner of mayhem as the main characters get the real Mr Hyde and the fake one mixed up. This leads to a sometimes-funny, sometimes-groan worthy chase through the streets and across the rooftops of London.

There’s also plenty of annoying burlesque dancing which Abbott and Costello films are unfortunately full of. It’s a bit out of place in turn-of-the-century London but when the streets are stereotypically fog-drenched and there are fish and chips shops on every corner, you could be forgiven for a few historical inaccuracies. To be fair, the Gothic sets do a good job of portraying Victorian London and there are moments when the film does strike a chord into the hearts of traditional Universal horror fans. But then the silliness starts up again and the good atmosphere and Gothic vibe is blown away with a series of childishly funny gags and routines.

Horror legend Boris Karloff stars as the sinister Dr Jekyll. Unlike other versions, Jekyll is just as dangerous as Mr Hyde. He’s a schemer who is madly in love with his young ward and is overcome with jealousy when she attracts the attentions of a dashing journalist. Jekyll actually likes turning into Hyde here – it’s not so much of a dangerous side effect to the drugs he’s experimenting with, it’s as if he turns into Hyde simply to get away with his lusts for murder. Karloff is completely wasted in the role and seems very restrained. Thankfully the character doesn’t degenerate into camp but it’s a pity Karloff’s considerable acting talents weren’t put to better use.

The transformation scenes do the convincing job that they need to do on the budget that the film has to offer and Mr Hyde looks more than a little monstrous when he’s decked out in his make-up. But this film is played strictly for laughs and any true horror elements are watered down to insignificant proportions. He might as well have been dressed as a clown for all the good it would do in the long run.

 

You’ll either love Abbott and Costello or hate them so Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is going to be a weird one for most. I’d suggest watching the far superior Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein if you want to see the duo in their crossover prime. This one is strictly for fans.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Jeepers! The creepers are after Bud and Lou!

Two hapless freight handlers, Wilbur and Chick, are asked to dispatch two crates to a local wax museum, allegedly containing the bodies of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. In the midst of their bumbling behaviour, Dracula is freed and he sets about reviving the Frankenstein monster to act as his servant. In order to make the monster more docile, Dracula decides to implant another brain into it and singles out Wilbur for the host.

 

After Universal Studios had exhausted their iconic horror monsters by pairing them off against each other in less and lesser films like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, they looked for a new hook in which to breathe new life into their flagging fortunes. At the same time, popular comedy duo Abbott and Costello were beginning to run out of ideas and they too needed a new injection of life to keep themselves on the top of their game (being one of the biggest box office draws of their time). Someone came up with the madcap idea of pairing both Abbott and Costello and the Universal monsters off against each other and thus a legacy was born.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is quite simply fantastic comedy-horror at its most innocent and delightful. There are no pretences here. No smut. It is not desperate to make you laugh. It’s all natural, light-hearted entertainment. This is mainly down to the leading pair. Like many successful double-acts, their teaming has a simple set-up: Abbott is the straight man, Costello the buffoon. The two react to each other perfectly, retorting with slapstick, physical comedy or some zippy one-liners. One particular routine that they re-use is one in which Costello sees the monster of the piece but it disappears before Abbott comes along. Then Costello desperately tries to convince Abbott that he’s just seen something horrible but Abbott won’t believe him. It’s a good routine and one which they re-used time and time again. Add in a revolving door, Dracula and the Frankenstein monster to this skit and you’ve got one (or two since the routine is worked twice here) of the best examples of comic delivery from this era.

What is great about the film is that the script treats the monsters with respect. They are not the sources of the comedy and the butt of the jokes but are portrayed as serious characters. Rather it is the actions and reactions of Abbott and Costello which provide the laughs. The monsters follow on from their previous cinematic treatment: Dracula is manipulative and charismatic, the Wolf Man a tragic figure and the Frankenstein monster as a lumbering giant with an infant mentality. The monsters are given reasonably equal screen time so that you get a decent dose of each one.

Bela Lugosi is back as Count Dracula and I was shocked to find that this was only the second time he had played the role of the famous vampire, following on from Dracula in 1931. Dracula is the main villain of the piece, getting slightly more to do than the other monsters throughout the film as a whole but suffering a little towards the finale. The Frankenstein monster does the opposite to Dracula, starting off as a bit player but becoming the main focus in the last third. The Wolf Man, played by horror legend Lon Chaney Jr, gets little more to do than run around growling in the background most of the time when the other monsters are around. The script could quite easily have worked just as well without him (and in fact save the Wolf Man for a less-crowded sequel where he could be the main focus) but he does get his own individual moments to shine with a few transformation scenes.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the final Universal film to feature Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man for fifty six years until the release of Van Helsing. Oddly enough, despite the monsters being paired off against each other in previous films, it is in this one where the Wolf Man and Dracula physically get involved with each other.

 

It’s a fitting finale to this classic period of vintage horror and the overall send-off that the monsters receive in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the perfect kind-hearted tribute to a golden era. Easily one of the greatest comedy-horrors of all time.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆