Category ScI-Fi 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.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 
 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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?

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abominable Snowman, The (1957)

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

See It With Someone Brave! — A Timeless Terror to Freeze You to Your Seats!

An English botanist and an American scientist lead an expedition to the Himalayas to search for and prove the existence of the Yeti.

 

One of Hammer’s early sci-fi/horror films is yet another prime example of just how good their output was during their early years before they hit it big with Gothic horror. The Abominable Snowman had a badly timed release shortly after Hammer’s breakthrough film, The Curse of Frankenstein. With that pushing the boundaries of on-screen blood like never before and bringing horror to life in vivid colour, this intelligent, low-key black and white film seemed rather outdated. The Abominable Snowman tends to get overlooked and it’s a shame too because it’s a quite brilliant film.

Like The Quatermass Experiment before it, this owes it’s excellence to yet another amazing script from Nigel Kneale. Not a line of dialogue is wasted as Kneale uses every moment he has to add something to the story or the characters. Kneale loved writing about the unexplained mysteries of this planet and conceives all manner of weird and wonderful explanations for their existence. Here he has given the myth of the Abominable Snowman a whole unique spin – what if they were an undiscovered species waiting patiently in the Himalayas waiting for man to destroy itself?

I loved the characters of Dr Rollason and Tom Friend – the two sides of man that come out in the face of scientific discovery. Rollason is the scholar who wants to learn things for the good of man and to further man’s progression in evolution. Friend is the entrepreneur, taken over by greed and the desire to make a name for himself at the cost of these advances. There’s no middle ground between them. It’s no coincidence that the rest of the cast are expendable enough to leave these two men bickering and squabbling until the very end. Even the whole characterisation of the Yetis are done in way so that we don’t know what to expect from them when they appear – they could be a Rollason and use their hunger for knowledge to further their existence or they could be like Friend, out to destroy all that is alien to them. Not knowing whether the Yetis will be the rampaging monsters they are usually depicted in film or peaceful and enlightened is one of the highlights of the film.

Peter Cushing is excellent once again. I get sick of writing this statement in my reviews but it’s true – the man is arguably the finest actor I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a horror film, in fact any film period. He just brings so much depth to his roles, even the ones which are badly underwritten. Cushing was able to bring to life any dialogue and make it sound like the most brilliant speech you’ve ever heard. Forrest Tucker is also excellent in his role as the American, Friend. He has all of the qualities you would expect from a brash American and plays this to advantage. The two men excel in their roles, providing humanities duelling nature amidst the harsh environment of the Himalayas.

Val Guest’s direction also helps the film. There are some wonderful shots of the Pyrenees (doubling quite nicely for the Himalayas) which create the sense of isolation that is needed and the sets that are used aren’t too bad – black and white certainly helps them look better than they probably should do. Guest manages to build tension up gradually and once the expedition starts, it’s just constant suspense as you know that the group are being watched all of the time. The Yetis’ wails of misery are just some of the most haunting sounds I’ve heard and thankfully the Yetis themselves aren’t shown until the finale. Once more, ‘less is more’ and the less we see of the Yeti, the greater the mystery is. Looking at some of the recent depictions of the Abominable Snowman on film (including Snowbeast and Yeti), it’s clear that the old ways were the best for keeping things hidden for as long as possible to increase the audience’s anticipation of their eventual unveiling. Men-in-suits they may be, but by the time they grace the camera with their presence, you won’t care because the script has done such a good job in building them up as intelligent, living and breathing creatures.

 

Another intelligent, thought-provoking and superbly-made gem from Hammer, The Abominable Snowman is highly recommended to anyone looking for classics from the past.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem (2007)

Aliens Vs Predator (2007)

It began on their world. It will end on ours.

A nasty Pred-alien hybrid escapes from captivity and crash lands on Earth near a small American town in Colorado. With the town quickly becoming overrun by aliens, the remaining humans try to wait it out for the National Guard to arrive. But things are made worse when a Predator is dispatched from the Predator home world to “clean up” the mess.

 

After the monumental disappoint that was Alien Vs Predator, the outcry from fans of both series was strong and they wanted someone with a passion for the franchises to get on board and give the fans what they wanted to see. Cut out the unnecessary characters and give us some people we can root for. Give us a decent story that actually has the monsters fighting each other for a proper reason. And above all, just respect the mythology and legacy of both franchises in the way you treat the monsters. The Brothers Strause continually preached about how much they loved the other films and were determined to put to right the wrongs of Alien Vs Predator. Bigger, better and badder was the motto for this one. I had high hopes for this one. After all, it couldn’t get any worse? Could it?

Well watching Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem is more like an exercise is seeing just how deeper they could dig the graves of these two once-respected franchises. The two title creatures have just become generic movie monsters and have lost any of the originality that they may have had in their own films. They aren’t treated with any respect or even knowledge about what made them great. The writers have simply borrowed elements from the previous franchises and just thrown them out here because they look cool. They’ve watered everything down to the extent where chest-bursting doesn’t look scary, the Predators awesome weapons are just dinky toys and the aliens themselves are made out to be more weak and puny than they ever were meant to be portrayed.

This film really needed to reinvent the creatures and make them scary again but it fails miserably and just adds to their ‘pop culture’ appeal. The film also assumes that you’ve seen the other films and you know what each of the monsters can do and what its weaknesses are. So the film doesn’t go in for the ‘slow reveal’ – it goes in for the jugular with numerous face-huggings, chest bursting moments and speared individuals within the opening thirty minutes. After all, if you’ve seen Predator, you’ll know that it can cloak and has some nifty weapons. So why waste time in unveiling them slowly again? The fact that the human characters never really question the threat they are up against, they just assume they’re in a right mess, really tosses the film out of the window. If they’re so resigned to their fate, it’s no a good sign for the audience that we are ready for the end too.

The human characters are given the boot into third place once more and come out like afterthoughts once the writers have come up with as many cool ways for the aliens and Predator to be destroy each other. It’s not a coincidence that the original Alien, Aliens and Predator produced some truly iconic and memorable characters because the films were based around the characters first and then brought the monsters into the mix later in their running time. You had bad ass characters like Ripley, Dutch and those Colonial Marines kicking ass but what do you get here: puny American Pie-style teenagers, hunky guys with generic ‘troubled past’ back stories and a mother and daughter combo so pointless that the film just needed to kill them off early. The likes of Ripley and Dutch were great characters that were already bad ass but had to rise to the next level in order to overcome their foes. We saw that these monsters could take out ‘normal’ humans any day of the week and that only truly superior humans were able to match them. So it’s a great insult to these characters and the monsters that they are defeated by some wimpy teenagers who would be better off on the set of She’s All That. Would you rather see an alien wrestling a couple of jocks in a swimming pool in front of a bikini-clad chick or watch the alien rip apart a couple of space marines trying to blow it up with some superior weaponry? It’s a no brainer really!

The Brothers Strause are FX visual artists who have never directed a film before so why the hell were they given the task of trying to piece together the mess that was left behind from Paul Anderson and his butcher job on Alien Vs Predator? They’re too bothered with imitating and referencing the other films that they don’t even bother trying to do anything new. The action scenes are very dark and it’s really tough to see what is going on because the cameras are so frenetic and shaky. I guess I was watching an alien fight it out with a predator but you can’t tell. Given that there aren’t a lot of action scenes, when they do come around, you’re better off closing your eyes and pretending you can see the fight. Just because a fight takes places at night and in the rain does not mean that it’s innovative.

And what is the crack with the gore? All of the originals were 18 rated which meant that there were always going to be some shocking scenes but here the gore has been watered down, the violence saturated and the sadistic streak gone. And for what? To get a couple more pimply-faced teenagers into the cinema by getting a lower rating? That’s not a way to treat your fans. On one of the rare positives, both the aliens and the Predator look kick ass. They are both a mixture of CGI as well as traditional suits and animatronics. I still think that the close-up of the alien (every Alien film has at least one close-up), with it’s snarling, hissing, acid-dripping jaws almost grinning at it’s victim is one of the most frightening sights in cinema.

 

Alien Vs Predator: Requiem is worse than its predecessor because we didn’t just expect better, we demanded better. Yes we get more action, more gore and more of the two monsters fighting it out but the problems are still there – no respect for the franchises, a terrible by-the-numbers script and some of the worst characters this side of…well anything. If ever there was a franchise-killing film, this is it. It’s the ultimate insult to Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, James Camera, HR Giger, Sigourney Weaver, John McTiernan, Arnold Schwarzenegger…hell anyone involved in the Alien and Predator films. The only question I have left is to ask: why can’t anyone get this idea right? It’s not rocket science!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Arena (1988)

Arena (1989)

For a thousand years no human has been the champion. He wants to be the first.

An intergalactic fighting competition between different worlds has never been won by a human before due to the much larger and stronger aliens that compete. So when human Steve Armstrong falls foul of the corrupt promoter Rogor as he tries to earn money to return to Earth, he must compete in the tournament and attempt to overthrow the system.

 

Cheesy and mildly entertaining, Arena is a bizarre mish-mash of Rocky and Star Wars which tries its hardest to defy its low budget and prove that you don’t really need millions of dollars to make a convincing science fiction film. It nearly manages to achieve its goal. Where else can you see some sort of UFC-throwdown between a human and a giant slug-like alien?

Arena is nowhere near as exciting as it appears to be – it’s a low budget production which spends most of its cash in the fight scenes and so has to make up ground elsewhere. Cue lots of padding between the fights as Steve Armstrong works his way up from nowhere to fight the champion ala Rocky. The story isn’t as riveting as it could be and there’s a predictable narrative which allows Armstrong to win a few and then fall foul of the scheming Rogor. You’ll know how it all ends up and there are boxing flick clichés to write a book about here but it’s not that bad a journey to get there. Arena is rarely dull, though at times it pushes the boundaries a little bit, but you wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘lively’ film and at 115 minutes long, it’s got far too much filler than necessary. There are some amusing moments but it is never outright camp. Arena finds itself trying to corner a niche market that doesn’t exist.

The real joy to Arena lies in seeing how a bunch of filmmakers, evidently without a massive pot of money to dive into, rely on old fashioned techniques to really bring to life this alien universe that the film tries to convey. Think back to Mos Eisley in Star Wars, the first real time we saw a living, breathing intergalactic universe all come under one roof, with fleeting glimpses of multitude of alien creatures and cultures giving us the tiniest suggestions of each of the races on show. Arena does just as good a job as that in showcasing all manner of giant beasts and aggressive competitors to the fighting competition. The fights themselves are dated, hardly slug-fests like Apollo Creed versus Rocky Balboa, but do the job in conveying the brutality of this sport. Particularly pleasing is the fact that the stunt men do get down and dirty with the fisticuffs and wrestling and everything you see is real, rather than CGI’d in a later date.

Credit goes to the effects department who piece together a whole low budget world of unusual aliens with different masks, costumes and even various added appendages. Most of the aliens are just guys in latex masks but one or two of the monsters that Armstrong has to fight are animatronic models which look amazing. It’s really heartening to see a production put so much effort into making everything look as good as possible, despite the obvious limitations. Whilst the costumes may look the part, the rest of the effects in the film don’t look that impressive. The sparsely decorated and overly-used sets are way too small to convey the sense of futuristic scope I’m guessing the director was going for and look like they were made for an old science fiction TV series rather than a full blown film. The outer space shots of the station and various ships flying around look awful too. There’s no mistaking that this is an 80s science fiction film!

The cast is solid. Lead man Paul Satterfield is the weakest link, relying on his tall and muscular physique to sell the part rather than any real acting ability. He looks and sounds like some drugged-up version of Christopher Reeve and spends most of the film fighting in some terrible jock strap-like combat tights. Satterfield’s bland performance is sort of like a black hole of charisma, forcing those around him to appear worse than there are. It’s no coincidence that the film is better when he’s not around, or failing that, talking. Claudia Christian (of Babylon 5 fame) attempts to provide the sexual attraction and is far better than the material she’s given. The bad guys are the ones who have all of the fun and it’s nice to see future Star Trek alumni Marc Alaimo (who went on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine) and Armin Shimmerman (most famous as the Ferengi bartender Quark in Deep Space Nine as well) ham it up in villainous roles – well it’s nice to see them under copious amounts of latex as per usual. Having watched Alaimo on Deep Space Nine, the man is a great actor, particularly good at roles like this where he is required to emote under layers of make-up.

 

So that’s the 80s nugget that is Arena. It’s nowhere nearly as good as you’d hope it is but you’ll have a hard time hating it. Providing perfect low budget, no frills sci-fi action nonsense with no real pretensions of grandeur, it’s a decent timewaster and, in all honesty, does deserve a bit more fame than it has for the great array of practical make-up effects on show.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Massive Blood Sucking Monsters!

Alcoholic trapper Lem Sawyer sees a creature in the swamps but no one will believe him. That is until people start disappearing and local game warden Steve Benton gets involved. He searches the swamps and finds it inhabited by giant leeches, mutated by the local radiation at Cape Canaveral, and hungry for the taste of human blood.

 

Limping along in the doldrums of the ‘atomic monster’ movie decade, Attack of the Giant Leeches is a late entry into the field but is rightfully never even mentioned in the same breath as Them!, Tarantula or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Even though the title monsters are hardly the size of houses like the aforementioned critters, they’re still a by-product of atomic radiation even if the film borrows more from Creature from the Black Lagoon than anything else. Produced by Roger Corman’s lesser known brother Gene and featuring some of the worst production values I’ve ever seen, Attack of the Giant Leeches sucks in more ways than one.

With horrendous underwater photography – the kind where someone shoots footage from behind a glass panel in swimming pool – and perpetually murky cinematography above ground, one of the first things that will grind on you is just how you’re meant to see anything here. A crackly soundtrack and plenty of scenes where no one actually says anything will have you checking your volume settings to make sure all of your speakers are plugged in. It is almost as if they dunked the microphones underwater with the cameras. I can understand that the production was a ‘lowest price possible’ sort of venture but still, there are certain levels of production that any film should have before they’re even considered for release. When visuals and audio aren’t up to scratch, it doesn’t bode well for anything else.

Maybe it’s best that you don’t see everything as well as you’d have liked. The title monsters look like stuntmen wrapped in bin bags with suckers taped to their faces. I don’t know whether the intention was to make them humanoid in appearance but that’s how they turned out, especially during a hilarious blood sucking scene in their cave domain. Hardly scary back in the 50s I’m sure, they look even more ridiculous in the 21st century. The leeches work slightly better when they’re partially concealed by the water but even this requires a fair dollop of disbelief.

The leeches never venture out of the swamp to attack so you won’t find any city-invasions or even threats to small towns like the rest of this sub-genre. In fact pretty much the entire film is based at the swamp – I counted a sum total of about three different sets used across the film. At a very slender sixty-two minutes, the film is almost over before it has chance to begin which is probably a relief more then anything – the leeches don’t even get called that until about three quarters of the way. The same characters seem to pass through the same bits of the swamp in a never ending circle. Above all the film is just so uninteresting and bland because there’s nothing to keep your attention. The countless scenes without dialogue and loads of characters on-screen who look and sound the same as each other mean you won’t have a clue what is going on for the best part and when you do, you won’t care. This is with the exception of the purposefully-slutty Yvette Vickers, starring in a rather suggestive role for 1959.

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches is wretched. Just plain and simply one of the worst films ever made. Even genre fans who like to punish themselves by subjecting them to the worst material available will be hard-pressed to find anything of enjoyment here.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

You’ll see it tear a city apart!

A prehistoric monster is thawed out of its frozen state by atomic testing in the Arctic and then proceeds to go on a destructive rampage in New York.

 

The first of the wave of 1950s ‘atomic monster’ movies which featured radiated monsters going on destructive rampages throughout various cities across the world, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a landmark film in the genre. Marshalling the paranoia about atomic weapons that had festered itself in society since the end of the Second World War, the film goes about setting up a series of tropes which would become the norm by the end of the decade.

Thinking about the rest of this genre, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms would have just been another generic 50s B-movie if it weren’t for the superb stop-motion effects by the maestro of modelling, Ray Harryhausen. The film plods along quite slowly and follows the usual structure to the letter: a few small incidents and reports about a monster; scientists sent in to investigate; monster reveals itself; army is called in to try and stop it; scientists struggle to come up with alternative as monster arrives in populated areas; monster caused chaos; leading to the final confrontation between science and nature.

It seems to take ages to go anywhere but at least the monster is revealed almost straight away so there’s no partial reveal or slow burn. There’s too much padding and character development and the scenes of characters discussing and arguing about the monster are drawn out for way longer than they need be. After all, we’ve come to see the giant monster on the poster, not hear about how Scientist A is falling in love with Scientist B. The whole thing didn’t cost too much money to make and Harryhausen’s techniques were notorious for taking a while to finish (not his fault, just the way stop-motion worked) so the film needs to pad itself out as much as it can without showing anything expensive.

But back to the special effects since they are what this film is more famous for than anything else. This was Harryhausen’s first solo film so he’s a little rusty here but the monster is one of his most memorable (and he would base the dragon from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad upon the model he made here). He conjures up some fantastic images of the monster, particularly a great silhouetted shot of the creature as it destroys a lighthouse. The monster’s rampage through New York in the finale and then the final showdown inside an amusement park are sterling work. Black and white really gives the creature a film noir vibe and use of lighting and shadow inside the park at the end is a real testament to the genius that was Harryhausen. The scene where it attacks the rollercoaster still looks great to this day.

Like the other 50s monster movies, the cast matters little to the eventual outcome as the scientists are old actors, the males are square-jawed heroes, the females are there to fall in love with the hero and give us a tepid romantic sub-plot, and the military guys are there to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the standard make-up of characters that would become the staple of this genre for years to come. Here, main actor Paul Hubschmid is a Swiss actor speaking English so his delivery is garbled at the best of times. Keep watching out for a young Lee Van Cleef as an army sharpshooter.

Director Eugène Lourié would visit the giant monster movie well a few more times in later years, bringing the world Gorgo and The Giant Behemoth, virtually the same film as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only set in England. But this is his best work.

 

The special effects are the sole reason why The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has become such a ground-breaking film. Still, it’ classic monster movie making at its 50s finest and Harryhausen would go on to bigger and better things in the field of special effects.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beginning of the End (1957)

Beginning of the End (1957)

Filmed in New Horrorscope!

As the remains of a crushed car are found with no sign of the occupants, the police also receive a report that the nearby town of Ludlow has been completely destroyed. Reporter Audrey Ames is driving through that part of the country when she reaches an army road block which prevents her from going to Ludlow, or where she thinks it still is. Sensing a big story, she decides to investigate further and finds out that radioactive material at a nearby government testing station has caused vegetables to grow to enormous proportions – and the local locust population has been feasting upon it, in turn making them grow to gigantic proportions.

 

Bert I. Gordon, famous for some atrocious (some would consider cult) sci-fi films he made in the 50s (The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast, Earth Vs The Spider) and then later in the 70s (Empire of the Ants, The Food of the Gods), is the man at the helm of this one, a late and wholly feeble entry into the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies. They were all the rage back in the decade, as fears of atomic testing and what damage radiation could do to our planet were the talking point on everyone’s lips.

After the success of Them! in 1954 with it’s giant ants, everyone quickly tried to find the next best thing: scorpions (The Black Scorpion), spiders (Tarantula, Earth Vs The Spider), praying mantis (erm, The Preying Mantis), molluscs (The Monster That Challenged the World) and wasps (Monster from Green Hell). Yeah granted molluscs was pushing it a bit, though to be fair the film did a reasonable job of turning them into a threat. Perhaps the least frightening of the lot is the sound of a horde of giant grasshoppers which, let’s face it, sound about as scary as a giant mushroom.

Gordon does little to convince the audience that these grasshoppers exist in the same universe as everyone else, let alone turn them into some sort of threat. His notoriously appalling special effects are in abundance here (he does them himself) and the sad thing is that over the years with his later films, they never really got better either. The grasshoppers consist of a copious amount of magnified stock footage clips and some lousy low-budget rear projection. This is all fine and good when the stock footage army is trying to destroy them in the middle part of the film (even this gets boring because there’s no interaction between either humans or bugs at any point). But when the grasshoppers finally get stuck into Chicago, the special effects consist of little more than real grasshoppers crawling over photos of the Windy City! You heard that right – photos! The effect is as terrible as it sounds. Gordon couldn’t even be bothered to make a model of anything to allow his grasshoppers to crawl over.

Having said all of this, dialogue is the most devastating weapon that Beginning of the End has in its arsenal. Instead of showing things like the destruction of Ludlow for instance, the film resorts to dialogue and the shocked reactions of the actors to convey what it is happening. At first, you think that the whole film could end up going this direction and not show anything at all but thankfully (or maybe not considering the quality of the special effects) the grasshoppers do eventually show up and at least the pace is picked up after a dreadful opening. Beginning of the End fails to grab hold of your attention at any point, monotonously trotting out the usual array of scientific jargon, forced love interests between hero and heroine and lots of military guys running around telling people what to do.

Peter Graves, who would later go on to find fame in the TV series of Mission: Impossible and even greater fame as Captain Oveur in Airplane!, plays it deadly serious as the scientist. In fact Graves’ stern delivery makes everything else seem all the more silly. He’s not alone in this respect. Try and keep a straight face when regular rent-a-general Morris Ankrum suggests that the only solution to the crisis is to drop an atomic bomb onto Chicago. Talk about over-reacting!

 

I shouldn’t feel aggrieved about watching a film with giant grasshoppers that features special effects as bad as this – some would say I get what I deserve and that is correct. Beginning of the End is a low budget Z-film which clearly and ineptly cashes in on the atomic monster craze of the 50s. Maybe if you have a grasshopper fetish or want to see how not to create special effects, there might be something of interest here otherwise you’re better off sticking with the more famous 50s monster movies.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Behemoth (2011)

Behemoth (2011)

A mountain…A monster…A massacre.

An unexplained series of earthquakes threatens to activate a long dormant volcano which in turn puts a local town in grave danger. Seismologist Emily Green investigates the matter and meets local lumberjack Thomas Anderson. The two form a partnership to get to the bottom of the events and it leads them to a shocking discovery. The tremors are being caused by a huge monster which emerges every fifteen thousand years to threaten humanity.

 

First it was the drive-in. Then it was home video. Now it seems that the first point of call for anyone wanting their fill of low budget monster movies is to check out the Sci-Fi Channel. I’ve lost track of the amount of ‘Sci-Fi Originals’ that have been made over the past couple of years. They are produced by the network to fill a void in Saturday night prime time television in the States and generally budget up around the $5m mark, a mere pittance when you consider something like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had a budget rumoured to be $250m.

With short shooting schedules and quick turnaround, these cheapo films are easy to make and provide the channel with fresh programming whilst no doubt picking up a small sum when the films are released on DVD. With the low budgets, short shooting schedules and quick turnaround comes the inevitable issues of creativity and originality. I’d bet there is one script floating around the studios where a team of writers simply change the names of he characters, the location and the type of monster before signing it off for production. Behemoth is the latest in a LONG line of carbon copy monster flicks where the entire film can be plotted out just by reading the DVD blurb.

The Sci-Fi Channel clichés are all in abundance here: rugged and usually single father with attractive daughter in late teens/early twenties encounters some strange events in his small local town. He then meets up with attractive female scientist sent to investigate (who also happens to be single…..what are the odds?) and the two join up in order to combat whatever the monster-of-the-week before hopelessly falling in love by the end of the film after he rescues her and the daughter from imminent death at a crucial point in the film. Don’t forget the creative license that these films take with scientific theory and physics. The only difference between this and the likes of Wyvern and Carny is the choice of monster.

I really don’t see the logic in choosing Behemoth – something which is described in the film as a “singularity event” which can change the face of the planet – since the budget was never going to stretch any further than it does here and we were never going to witness full scale carnage of the Earth’s cities being smashed to pieces. For all that it’s cracked up to be the bringer of the end of the world, Behemoth doesn’t do anything. It emerges from the ground far too late in the film (it’s just before the hour mark when it finally begins to show itself) and then it’s hardly worried about destroying the planet. It seems more bothered with killing off a few puny humans (our main characters) than doing any city-smashing. Talk about an anti-climax. The entire film builds up the nature of the monster and gears us up for something amazing and the final product is just, well….meh.

This is a real pity too because, when the monster finally decides to make its cameo appearance, it looks pretty darn impressive. It’s the size of the mountain and has huge tentacles flailing all over the place as well as a massive mouth with razor teeth – think of the Kraken from the Clash of the Titans remake and you wouldn’t be too far from this. The special effects are surprisingly good and the sheer scale of the creature makes for a breath-holding couple of moments. But just as things are getting interesting, the hero decides it would be an appropriate time to launch a special weapon and kill it before it has chance to do any damage. There’s a decent script in here which cried out for a good $150m+ budget. Add another half an hour to this with the creature smashing up cities and the like before the secret weapon is used and you’d have had a great flick.

A bigger budget wouldn’t have mattered much to the cast though since it wouldn’t matter who you got in to play these characters, it would have been the same result. You can write the dialogue as you go along with these sort of films. Pseudo-scientific jargon to make everything sound plausible. Gushy romantic dialogue for the sub plot. Whiny teenagers rebelling against their parents. Crazy old men warning of the end of the world. Speaking of which, William B. Davis, the legendary Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files is the token old coot here, spouting off the end of the world and generally doom-mongering (until it turns out he was speaking the truth!). It’s a far cry away from his cold, calculating character he made famous but ironic since he’s the one now doing the Fox Mulder-style paranoia ranting.

 

Behemoth runs more like one of their cheap disaster films than a monster film. It is simply another cog in the machine for the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s not producing “original” films anymore, just lifeless clones each one more predictable, more tiring and more dismal than the last.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆