Category ScI-Fi Movie Reviews

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Black Scorpion, The (1957)

The Black Scorpion (1957)

DON’T BE ASHAMED TO SCREAM – IT HELPS TO RELIEVE THE TENSION!

Volcanic activity unleashes giant scorpions from centuries old imprisonment and they proceed to wreak havoc in the countryside and then eventually Mexico City.

 

Another of the slew of 1950s science fiction monster movies, The Black Scorpion does at least feature giant monsters that weren’t the by-products of atomic testing! In fact it’s almost a like-for-like re-run of Warner Brothers earlier smash hit Them! which had giant ants on the rampage. Like pretty much all of these 50s flicks, the story runs like clockwork and there’s little differentiating it from any of the others apart from the monster. The casts are all full of stone-jawed heroes, glamorous dames, token military men, caricature locals and cute kids who don’t listen to grown ups. The forced romances between the cast, the dubious scientific debates, the attempts at characterisation – do we really care? These films are about giant freakin’ monsters so let’s cut the crap and get down to the nitty gritty!

Willis O’Brien, the legendary effects maestro behind the original King Kong, brings the scorpions to life in glorious stop-motion detail. The animation is excellent and very fluid, almost too realistic at times. To say he was in his 70s and in poor health, the man was certainly able to rekindle his old magic. The first time we see the scorpions is during an attack on some telephone repairmen near a bridge and even today, the attack is still savage and brutal, with one poor chump not only grasped in one of the scorpions’ claws but stung with the tail too! There’s also an imaginative scene in which two of the main characters take a cage ride down into the volcano and into the scorpion’s lair in which all manner of giant worms and spiders lurk. They are creatures left over from the unused spider pit sequence from King Kong and you can clearly see where they would have fitted into the 1933 classic. They are a little out of place here (we are dealing with giant scorpions after all) and seem to have been added simply to provide a few extra monsters for our characters to battle. The finale, in which the black scorpion squares off against the military in a football stadium in Mexico City is also fantastic as all manner of stop motion tanks and helicopters battle the scorpion in a fight to the death. It’s truly great visual eye candy and O’Brien’s effects are worth the watch alone.

Unfortunately he had no control over the rear projection and in some scenes, images of the giant creatures are beamed onto a huge screen behind the actors. But the image is so blurry and out of focus that you wonder whether the characters are actually watching a film-within-a-film. Some of the empty shadow matte shots of the black scorpion entering Mexico City are so ridiculously poor that I really feel sorry for O’Brien and the hard work he put in. There’s also a really big prop head that is used for close-up shots and this drooling bad boy looks like he’s constantly grinning at the camera. It’s a really daft prop and something else to put a damper on the excellent stop motion. The production ran out of money so the re-use of footage (and the constant close-ups of that head!) is evident and the cheap way in which it’s all put together really harms the overall quality of the film. In a film which is driven by it’s special effects, it’s a disservice to O’Brien that his stop motion work is tarnished by the rest of the lousy effects.

 

The Black Scorpion is a little different to the other 50s science fiction flicks in that the effects are stop motion and they’re also fantastic. The rest of the film, heck the rest of the production team, is a total waste of time but it’s worth at least one watch to see Willis O’Brien work some magic on bringing giant scorpions to life. And for that reason alone, it gets an extra couple of bonus marks.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Blob, The (1958)

The Blob (1958)

Beware of the Blob! It creeps, and leaps, and glides and slides across the floor.

A meteor crashes to Earth near a small America village and a blob-like creature emerges from it, devouring the arm of an old man who touches it. Teenager Steve Andrews and his girlfriend find the old man and rush him to the local doctor, only to see both men attacked and eaten. However, the local police are sceptical of his story and think that he’s just playing a prank on them. With the blob growing in size every time it eats someone, Steve realises that he must do something soon to prevent the whole town from succumbing to the blob.

 

Everyone has heard of this cult classic from the 1950s, something a little bit different in the sci-fi driven era of alien invaders and atomic monsters destroying cities in abundance. Its non-too-subtle underlying Cold War message about a ‘red mass taking over the world’ is one of the most blatant from this entire sub-genre of films but The Blob isn’t about politics, it’s about cheese and ham and everything that comes in between. Originally part of a double-bill at the cinema, it soon became apparent that The Blob was the film that everyone was really paying to see and so it became the main feature. This was certainly the cultural phenomenon, at least in the States, for its time and day.

The Blob’s plot is now synonymous with this type of schlocky monster flick designed to appeal to teenagers: a menace which slowly grows deadlier and claims more victims whilst the rebellious main teenage character is ignored because of their age and must prove themselves to the authorities to save the day. Compared to a lot of the other 50s sci-fi flicks which featured military personnel or scientists in the lead roles, to have a ‘teenage’ main character was rather unusual and The Blob is something of a trend-setter in this instance. It makes the film more accessible than it might have been had the lead character been a general – these teenagers are more bothered about hanging out than they are anything else and so its up to the resourceful of youth to save the day.

The blob itself comes off as a lousy monster, though its existence and purpose is chilling – this is not a monster that has any reason or pattern, it just consumes things and grows bigger. The mix of red dye and silicone gives the blob an unusual appearance unlike other monsters of its time – certainly the alien is helped by the fact that this was shot in colour as opposed to black and white. In some sequences, particularly the infamous cinema scene, it’s clear to see how the special effects were created but in the earlier shots of it moving around the doctor’s surgery, it’s not so apparent. This makes the creature look rather ethereal and hard to decipher, adding a nice sense of menace and unpredictability to what it may do next.

The fact that it can’t be killed adds to the tension – just how on earth is the film going to end? Well there’s a nice open ending which promised (and got) a sequel. Being indestructible and unstoppable means that the set pieces throughout the film are tinged with an element of mystery. There are some decent moments, if somewhat fleeting, where the blob attacks different townspeople. Most of these are little more than brief glimpses of the character being attacked by something red and gooey and that’s it. Not really dwelling on the blood and carnage left over is more down to the budget and fact that in 1958, you were never going to see anything remotely disgusting, but it all adds up to the enigmatic nature of the creature.

Whilst the blob moments work reasonably well given their limitations, the bits in between with the teenagers and the police don’t work. One of the first films to capitalise on a teenage audience hungry to see representations of themselves up on the big screen, The Blob features plenty of scenes of the teenagers hanging out together, either in the diner or with their cars. No drinking, doing drugs or attempts to have sex – these are clean cut cats from the 50s who just want to be respected by their parents. I guess these are realistic representations of American youth of the day. Steve McQueen’s first starring role shows little of the talent he’d display in the 1960s when he would become one of Hollywood’s most famous icons. McQueen looks a lot older than he is (he was twenty-eight in this) so seeing him portray a seventeen-year-old teenager is a laugh, especially when some of the adults are trying to tell him off. He cut quite a good deal for his salary on this one and came out a few pennies richer for it too. It’s a good job he negotiated before the producers saw his performance as, like the rest of the cast, it’s woeful. However, you kind of give him the benefit of the doubt because it is Steve McQueen after all and he’s effortlessly cool, almost as if he’s in on the joke throughout the entire film.

 

Very dated, dreadfully slow and highly cheesy, The Blob might be a cult classic to some but it’s just awful viewing nowadays. Ironically in a day and age where terrible and pointless remakes are all the go, it’s the remake of The Blob from the 80s that stands out as a rare effort which betters the original by a mile. Check that one out if you want to see some gooey extra-terrestrial nastiness done properly.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Blood Camp Thatcher (1982)

Blood Camp Thatcher (1982)

Hunting is the national sport…and people are the prey!

In the near future, ‘social deviants’ are held in a maximum security camp where the sadistic leader organise “turkey hunts” where wealthy individuals pay him money to hunt prisoners for sport. A bunch of new arrivals find conditions at the camp brutal and harsh but are offered a chance of freedom if they survive this year’s hunt.

 

It’s not often I can say that I’ve watched an Australian film, at least not a modern one, but this early export from the time of Mad Max certainly makes me wonder whether I should have been exploring the Aussie film business a little more. Blood Camp Thatcher is like an earlier version of The Running Man (both films of which were updated versions of 1932′s The Most Dangerous Game) featuring a various assortment of characters being savagely hunted for sport, only this time there’s more sleaze than you shake a stick at.

Unfortunately a financial backer pulled out of the film at the last minute and the first fifteen pages of the script had to be done away. So we don’t know how the future has become so degenerate and there’s nothing to explain what the hell is going on. Just accept the fact that this is the future and it isn’t pretty. The futuristic setting is of little relevance to the film’s overall narrative though (this isn’t meant to be 1984) as there is no social commentary to be had here. The film may have started out as a well-meaning Orwellian vision of the future with visions of grandeur but in the end in turns into an exploitation fest and a cult classic.

It’s pretty is slow to get it’s gears moving and the scenes in the prison camp early on could have been culled from any of those sleazy European semi-porn prison camp films where shower scenes are gratuitous. But once the hunt begins and the characters all go their own way, the film picks its pace up and never lets up until the end. Due to the prisoners all going their separate ways and each person being hunted individually, we get five separate pursuits all running alongside each other. So the film cuts nicely from one chase to the next until one of the characters is killed off. The film is extremely gory which is probably why it’s had patchy releases across the world, especially in the UK with our notorious BBFC butchers. It’s totally gratuitous and too over-the-top to be offensive. Toes are bitten off. Heads are blown up. Eyes are impaled. People have their hands cut off. There’s dismemberments. You name it, it’s here. It’s the focus on the “turkey shoot” that really changes the tone of this film from a dull, rather sinister little exploitation flick into a cheese-fest full of crazy situations and containing so much energy, enthusiasm and general sense of fun.

There are some memorable characters here, notably the sinister-looking chap on the front cover who isn’t actually ‘Thatcher’ just the head guard. Ritter, the bald-headed, moustached, balls-less (yes you heard that right, the explanation is given in the film) and sadistic brute is one of the best bits of the film. Played with equal menace, equal tongue-in-cheek by Roger Ward, he’s the prison guard that every prison movie tries to include. He’s not averse to a bit of whipping and setting alight unfortunate failed escapees. There’s also some weird half-man, half-beast character with a hairy face and long fangs that seems to have been lifted right out of the He-Man cartoon. He is one the main hunters and enjoys mutilating people in gruesome ways. Again maybe a bit of explanation could have been given as to why creatures like this now exist but maybe it’s best just to sit back and take it as it is.

It’s the villains who all seem to be having the fun here because the prisoners give some terribly wooden and lifeless performances. Steve Railsback is too dour and serious as the man locked up for running a pirate radio station. Olivia Hussey provides the obligatory eye candy but her performance is just as bad. When you’ve got bland ‘heroes’ like these, is it any wonder you want to see the bald guard smash the hell out of them when he has a chance?

 

Blood Camp Thatcher is a little one-dimensional and a little blunt with its intentions but it’s a trashy, highly entertaining ride – exploitation films don’t get much more straight-forward than this.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Blood Glacier (2013)

Blood Glacier (2013)

Up there, the cold no longer the worst danger….

A team of scientists investigating climate change at a remote outpost in the Austrian Alps come across a mysterious organism which has thawed from the ice and has the ability to blend the DNA of multiple creatures, creating horrifying and very deadly hybrids. When infection spreads to human hosts and with an impending visit by a team of government officials, the group must fight for their lives to survive this terror.

 

With the spectre of The Thing hanging around it from beginning to end, Blood Glacier is a film with an interesting premise full of potential which doesn’t quite click into place. It should be unfair to pair the two films off against each other but when the front cover of the DVD brazenly states “A slice of horror reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing” the film is asking for trouble. Blood Glacier is The Thing-lite and whilst that’s not a bad thing for a lot of the time, you really wish this one would kick in harder during the second half like Carpenter’s legendary sci-fi horror.

Blood Glacier has a strong opening half which sets things up nicely and provides suitable elements of mystery, suspense and a few moments of droll black humour. The atmosphere is sharp, the discovery of the strange glacier and resulting encounter with the mutated fox is unsettling and the scene is set for a thrilling second half. Only this never really materialises, delivering patchy moments of action, scare horror set pieces and a couple of bizarre plot twists. Several scenes are dragged out far longer than needed (for instance, the scene with the characters contemplating putting a dog down) and this kills any sort of momentum that Blood Glacier tries to build up. Just when things get interesting, the film takes its foot off the pedal and slows down. Thankfully, the foreign origins cement the film in reality, avoiding the insulting pitfalls of throwing in good-looking teenage characters and sexual elements like so many American horrors succumb to, and keeping the situation as plausible and believable as possible without getting too silly.

Blood Glacier uses the Alps setting to perfection. Like the greatest isolation horror films, the film conveys the sense of loneliness and sheer desperation of the group of people trapped in the middle of nowhere and facing an abominable monster. The cinematography is fantastic, with the vast natural beauty of the Alps doing the rest of the hard work in really hammering home the scope of the situation. Sadly, the characters populating this lush scenery are rather one-dimensional and unlikable, save for leading man Gerhard Liebmann’s bearded Janek character. The rest of the characters vary between being unpleasant or non-descript and neither is a good thing. Too many characters are introduced at the mid-way point to make any impact upon the film other than provide the monsters with a few more victims.

Blood Glacier earns major brownie points by sticking to practical effects for the most part, bringing to life it’s variety of mutated creatures with gooey old school make-up effects. Thanks to the creative idea behind the DNA mutating everything in its path, the film offers up a host of peculiar and monstrous hybrids including foxes, goats, beetles and eagles and it’s clear that the effects team had a field day coming up with ideas. The only problem is that you don’t get to see enough of them and when you do, they’re usually semi-lit, disguised with rapid cuts and flashy editing and move rather jerky and awkwardly when you do get a glimpse. The creature designers should have had more confidence in their effects because when they do get more than a fleeting moment of screen time, they look nightmarishly horrific. The goat-thing that breaks through a window at one point deserved more screen time.

The creatures don’t get to do that much in the film apart from make a few “boo” appearances and the body count is surprisingly limited as a result. There is enough gore on show to quench the lightest thirst of blood fans but those looking for wall-to-wall splatter will be disappointed. I guess gore wasn’t a priority for director Marvin Kren but given the nature of the DNA-splicing monster, the possibilities for some icky on-screen transformations ala The Thing are almost endless – an untapped wealth of set pieces have been glossed over for whatever reason.

 

I really wanted to love Blood Glacier but found myself disengaged with it. All of the necessary ingredients are present but the resultant blend is underwhelming and leaves you shrugging your shoulders wondering “what if.” It’s by no means the worst example of this genre but it is too light for its own good.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Class of 1999 (1990)

Class of 1999 (1990)

The ultimate teaching machine… out of control.

In 1999, the school system has almost collapsed. Rival gangs of youths control the classes. Order and control has been replaced by weapons fire and anarchy. Crime is on the increase and society is on the verge of breakdown. Faced with this crisis, a school enlists the help of a shady corporation to provide it with ‘tactical education units’ – android teachers with zero tolerance on disobedience. However the androids soon break free from their original programming and take their version of discipline to the extreme.

 

There is a good sci-fi film trying to emerge from this cheap, cheesy and cheerful romp. Class of 1999 is a wild cross between The Terminator, Westworld and The Warriors and its ultra trashy, dumber than a bag of rocks, full of dodgy special effects and campy as a drag queen convention…..but its perfect entertainment. Class of 1999 looks like it belongs back in the early 80s, let alone the early 90s, with its dazzling array of haircuts, clothes and music and it’s ‘futuristic’ vision of 1999 can only have come from that era of chronic fashion design and outrageous hairstyles. At the bottom of it, Class of 1999 has got plenty of heart and ambition. I’m always prepared to give a film its due. Not every film can have £100m budgets and teams of world class effects designers on board. Some films have to be the poor relation. But if they try their hardest to be as successful on the creative front, then it doesn’t matter how much the film costs.

This is not a film about to go into social commentary overdrive. Despite the futuristic setting about the school system breaking down and need for authoritarianism, there are no underlying messages here and no political subtexts. It’s just an excuse to get the androids into the mix and blowing stuff up and that it does perfectly. The special effects aren’t too bad given the obvious low budget and can be quite impressive at times. The androids look as good as they have any right to be despite some dodgy plastic parts and some less-than-convincing stop motion sequences when they start to lose their human skin. One of them has a kick ass flamethrower attachment to put on her arm which is used to good effect. The only problem I had is that in android form, the special effects are rather clunky and awkward and a far cry from the ‘smooth’ movements of their human counterparts. Knowing how the special effects would have turned out, the script should have had the androids walk like that in human form as well to maintain the illusion. The androids do get a lot to do but the main joy comes in the last twenty minutes when all of the teenagers decide to stop their petty in-fighting and team up to take on the androids. Cue all manner of explosions and mayhem in a rather exciting finale. It’s like Mad Max decided to take on The Terminator with the cyber-punk teenagers decked out in their bright-leggings, leather jackets and punk hair travel in their pimped-up Road Warrior-style cars to take on the three androids guarding the school.

Quite how they managed to hook Malcom McDowell and Stacy Keach into the film is anyone’s guess but they add a real touch of class and authenticity to proceedings. McDowell has a limited role as the school principal but it’s Keach who steals the show as the slightly mad albino scientist in charge of the androids, complete with the greatest white 80s mullet you’re ever going to see and matching contact lenses.

The android teachers are excellent. Each of them has their own quirk and it’s quite fun seeing them act, knowing that they’re just robots underneath. In particular, John P. Ryan as a pipe-smoking history teacher displays the stereotypical menace of an old-fashioned teacher coupled with an even more sinister robotic nature. Watch out for Pam Grier too as the aforementioned ‘flamethrower’ android. The teenage cast are wasted here because the adults are so entertaining. You actually want to see these androids knock a bit of sense into some of them. Besides which, it is these damned gun-toting, chain smoking, drug dealing teenagers that have caused the school system to go into meltdown. Most of them deserve a bit of a lashing although this isn’t of the old style cane variety – this is Terminator-style elimination.

 

A definitive trash can classic if ever there was one, Class of 1999 has an extremely dated view of the future (or the past as it’s been over ten years!) but wears it’s low budget heart on it’s sleeve, served up with an extra large helping of cheese.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Creature (1985)

Creature (1985)

It’s been sleeping peacefully on a moon of Saturn for 2000 centuries … until now!

Two competing Earth corporations have sent spaceships to explore the moon of Titan. The German vessel arrives there first but contact is lost and the rival American expedition attempts to set down. But they crash on the surface, stranding them on the moon. Here, they discover that the Germans accidentally freed an alien creature which had been kept on the moon as part of another species’ ‘intergalactic pet collection.’ The creature wiped out the German team and now it has made its way on board the downed American ship to continue its carnage.

 

Fresh off trying his own monster movie with a Giger-like creature in 1981′s Scared to Death, director William Malone took to the stars for a second blast at aping Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror Alien in Creature, arguably the most blatant of the numerous rip-offs that were produced in the 80s home video boom. Not only is there a tall, dark and deadly alien lurking around a spaceship stalking an expendable crew but this one introduces the shady corporate element too. It all amounts to what is essentially the reason people like me watch these cash-in films: we love the films that they’re ripping off, we know that these knock-offs are going to be rubbish but we need our fix of whatever made us love the originals so much in the first place and watch these in the futile hope that they deliver temporary satisfaction. Creature delivers about as much as you’d expect it to, which is a lot of not very little.

Creature has suffered pretty badly over the years and whilst it’s always been in print in the UK, the quality of the transfers has always been atrocious. Not that a decent transfer would help it in any way but it doesn’t really need a grainy picture to add insult to injury over what is already a poor film. A lot of the scenes are badly lit and whilst the film attempts to convey the sense of darkness on the moon, it doesn’t make for a great watch when you need to squint to see what is going in on some scenes.

Special effects are not Creature’s strongest selling point. Whilst the ship sets look as believable as they are entitled to make them look and the moon’s weather is given the wind machine/strobe lighting stage effects, it’s the quality of the monster that is the film’s biggest flaw. As the poster is at great liberties to put across, the alien looks like, well, THE alien (black-skinned, long-narrow head, lots of sharp teeth, though without the acid blood). It’s something that has bugged me for years as I watch numerous alien-themed films and see the same type of creature designs being wheeled out time and time again, all built around Giger’s legendary and beautiful creation. Why can’t designers come up with something slightly unique?

In the grand traditions of old, the alien is kept off screen for as long as possible, with only brief glimpses of it for the most part until more of it is revealed in the finale where it, unsurprisingly, disappoints. Even here, as it throttles one of the male characters, can you see that it’s just a guy in a suit –not even that either as he’s only wearing gloves in some brief clips, so you can see the very-human wrists and arms of the man behind the mask. It kind of ruins an already trashy image of the alien but looking back I shouldn’t have built my hopes up for something scary or threatening. In other scenes it’s just a poorly animated puppet. Stare at the poster for a few seconds and you’ll see more of it than in the entire film. As a consequence of not showing the alien, the finale is such a let-down given that there had been a few moments of enjoyable cheese in the build-up.

Thankfully the gore quota is decent and there are enough people hanging around Titan to provide a good body count. Heads are exploded, faces chewed off, bodies are seen decomposing – it’s never going to compensate for the lack of characters, plot or any form of budget but it’s enough to momentarily lighten the load for the veteran horror fan.

Notoriously hard-to-work-with German actor Klaus Kinksi gets top billing on the film poster and he’s probably the best thing in Creature, albeit with a role that needed a lot more screen time. Kinski brings his trademark eccentricity and eeriness to the role of the survivor of the German expedition, literally chewing up his scenes in rabid fashion as he spends most of his screen time eating his lunch! Talk about an easy day’s work. Kinksi provides a much-needed injection of paranoia and intensity to the story in his short time on screen, adding a sinister third element into the hostile situation. Wendy Schaal does her best Ripley impression as the tough female who survives until the end, though she is infinitely better looking than Sigourney Weaver (Schaal was a regular face in 80s comedy with appearances in The ‘Burbs and Innerspace).

 

Creature is a cheesy riff on the classic ‘alien kills people in a confined ship in outer space’ formula which has been pulverised so much in the years since Alien. Thankfully, 80s efforts like this make up for their throwaway approach to the material and cost-cutting budgets by tossing in a load of gratuitous nudity and gore to keep things ticking over. Creature is not great but, as a derivative mild diversion, you could do a lot worse.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Dr Who and his accomplices arrive on Earth in 2150 to find that the population has been enslaved by the evil Daleks who are using humans to mine the Earth’s core. Can Dr Who and the human resistance groups stop the Daleks before Earth is destroyed?

 

Doctor Who is a British institution. First broadcast back in 1963, the series has become one of the longest-running and most popular science fiction programmes not only in the UK but across the world. Though it has seen its fair share of ups and downs, Doctor Who has become part of popular culture for its imaginative stories and creative low budget special effects, bringing to life a variety of aliens, planets and situations that science fiction literature has come to recognise as some of the most iconic images in the genre.  One such iconic image is that of the Dalek, a mutant alien race who live inside rather unique pepper pot-shaped tank-like machines and are bent on universal conquest and domination. First seen in the Doctor Who‘s second serial, The Daleks, they quickly his most famous and deadly enemies, causing a generation of children to hide behind their sofas whenever they came on.

A pair of non-canon Doctor Who films were made by Amicus Productions in the 60s to capitalise on the phenomenal success of the TV series, with bigger budgets and production values that the TV episodes could only dream of. Both starred legendary actor Peter Cushing as The Doctor and both featured the Daleks – this was the height of a phenomena in the UK known as Dalekmania. The first film, Dr Who and the Daleks, based itself around the story for The Daleks. The second of the films, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., sees the producers return to the TV series once more, this time basing their script around the more iconic serial of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It was the first of the TV serials to utilise location shooting and the sight of the Daleks powering across a devastated London and emerging from the Thames have become engrained in UK TV history.

The better of the two big screen Doctor Who adventures, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. sees the campy and garish nature of the previous film being ramped up a couple of notches. It’s definitely a product of the swinging 60s and unquestionably both looks and sounds dated. Visually, the film was head and shoulders above the TV series for the time. You can only imagine how much more vibrant and innovative the skilled artists at the BBC would have been able to make the series had they had this sort of budget. But not only that, this film manages to hold its own really well against any other 60s science fiction films. The production team have really gone to town on this one, delivering a futuristic vision of a destroyed London on a low budget in stunning, colourful detail. The effects work is a mixed bag – some decent model work, some not so good. Shots of Dalek spaceships flying over London look good but then the miniature sets don’t look all that good either.

Director Gordon Flemyng was back on board and, seeing where the faults lay in the first film, manages a better all-round pace, cramming in plenty of action set pieces and lots more Dalek action, as well as holding back on some of the sillier escapades. It’s still kitsch as anything and the Daleks will never really convince you of their evil intentions due to their absurd design (I always preferred the Cybermen anyway). They get way more screen time than they really should. After all, the TV series scrimped and saved on them because they were just too costly to make and so you only ever saw a few Daleks on screen at once. The bright and gaudy look of the Daleks in the film here is a bit of a surprise, turning them into fashion hazards from an era of hippies. They come off looking like they’ve lost a battle with a couple of toddlers and a few cans of paint. But they’re in the film a lot and there are some entertaining battles between them and the human resistance to keep things ticking over.

Peter Cushing makes for an interesting selection as the Doctor. Just like in the previous film, the character is not written as a mysterious alien but rather a kindly man who has managed to build a time machine (as you do). Cushing plays him as a doddery old gent, very grandfatherly and without any hint of malice or hidden intentions. It’s an eccentric performance which shows the great range that Cushing had and would have been good to see Cushing actually get the chance to play him on a regular basis in the TV series. Strangely, despite his iconic status as a veteran British actor who regularly played villains or scientists, Cushing never appeared in the TV series.

Bernard Cribbins takes over from Roy Castle who was unavailable to return and, though there’s an ill-advised and overlong sequence of him trying to be one of the robo-men, he stops the character from becoming too bumbling and farcical. Cribbins would go on to appear in the TV series in 2007 – a massive gap of forty-one years!

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is cheap and cheerful, silly and fun. Made for kids who were fascinated with the Daleks back in the 60s, the film does what it sets out to do. If you grew up on a diet of barnstorming sci-fi films like Aliens, this may be a bit too childish and quaint for your tastes. But fans of the series will find plenty to enjoy.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Day of the Triffids, The (1962)

The Day of the Triffids (1962)

Man eating plants! Spine chilling terror!

A once in a lifetime meteor shower illuminates the skies across the world which is unfortunate for Bill Masen, a sailor who is in hospital with his eyes bandaged after an operation. When he wakes up the next morning, Bill removes his bandages to find out that everyone who witnessed the meteor shower is now blind and London is in total chaos. What’s worse is that the meteorites brought with them triffids – giant, carnivorous plants which now prey upon the helpless population. Gathering together a group of survivors who can still see, Bill heads off across Europe to rebuild civilisation and fight off the triffid menace.

 

Although apparently a demolition job of the book by John Wyndham upon which this is based, I can only judge a film on its merits and I’ve got to say that The Day of the Triffids comes up a little short of being an outright sci-fi classic. It’s sinister in parts, dull in others and there’s a general sense that too many people had input into the final version of the film. But it’s still a celebrated dose of early 60s British sci-fi from an era fuelled by paranoia about the Cold War and does a fair job of spelling out the end of the world, even if it all feels very low scale.

Forget the idea of the killer plants for the time being. Day of the Triffids works best when it’s not churning out monster movie clichés. The strongest part of the film is its first half when you’re not entirely sure what is going on, in particular the scenes of total chaos in London: trains de-rail in stations, planes fall out of the sky and ships crash into docks with their pilots, crews and passengers all blind and unable to do anything to prevent their deaths. The shots of Masen walking throughout the deserted streets of London will be familiar to anyone who has seen 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle clearly borrowing from this startling introduction with his similar post-apocalyptic opening salvo.

At first Masen’s selfishness and reluctance to help any blind person he comes across seems brutally cold-hearted but the realisation that he’s one of only 1% of the world’s population who can still see puts this into context – he literally can’t save everyone. The blindness itself is chillingly introduced into the story, with Masen testing his doctor’s vision for him before the poor chap makes a suicidal leap out of a window, unable to cope with his new situation. It’s a bleak scenario and the film does a great job of conveying this post-apocalyptic feel with its minor budget.

But then the novelty value of this scenario soon wears thin when the film runs out of ideas and simply begins to repeat itself. Once Masen and his new-found schoolgirl friend, Susan, head across the channel to France, the film begins to struggle as they go from situation to situation involving blind survivors and triffids. Speaking of which, the killer plants are arguably the weakest part of the film. I guess the notion of killer plants isn’t a particularly easy sell but the special effects do them no favours at all. They’re a classic case of Papier-mâché monsters being pulled along by wires. Their design is pretty unique and their appearance is sinister as long as they aren’t moving.

The triffids are introduced in London during a pair of well-handled sequences involving a dog that gets too close for its own good in the first instance and that age old chestnut sequence of a “car stuck in the mud whilst monster is closing in” comprising the second. But once in mainland Europe, the triffids don’t do an awful lot, save for a decent mansion assault scene, and are generally relegated to background duty for the rest of the film. It’s a real shame because, as ridiculous as the triffids look, they at least manage to convey an element of danger and the scenes involving them stalking and attacking their prey are at least tense and effective. Without hungry vegetation clogging up the screen, there’s little else to hold your interest levels. Characters are poorly-written and there’s not that many of them either – only Masen and Susan connect with the audience in any way.

After initial filming had finished, the running time ended up being woefully short of hitting that of a full length feature film so horror director Freddie Francis was drafted in to film extra scenes for a simultaneous story about two survivors being menaced by triffids whilst stranded in a lighthouse. This gives the illusion that there two different films battling for supremacy and neither one wins. The two stories never gel together well and are virtually unrelated save for a token scene at the end when they merge. The eventual resolution to the triffid menace seems contrite and ridiculously tacked on to give audiences some feeling of hope – despite the blatantly obvious fact that the majority of the people in the world are still blind.

 

Day of the Triffids might be considered a classic but it falls well off the mark in trying to accomplish that feat. It’s too talky, too muddled and too low scale to do justice to the post-apocalyptic scenario that is desperately trying to break free. You do get subtle hints of what may have been and there is still enough action and suspense to appeal to fans of old school sci-fi.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Space (1991)

Dead Space (1991)

No Place To Hide

After receiving a distress signal from the Phaebon research facility, Commander Krieger and his robot sidekick Tinpan respond straight away. Arriving on the planet, Krieger is told that there is no problem but due to damage his ship sustained during a fight in space, he is forced to stay and carry out repairs. The scientists on board the facility were attempting to find a cure for the deadly Delta 5 disease and created an even more deadly anti-virus to destroy it. But the anti-virus has become sentient, growing into a large creature which is now living off the crew members on board.

 

Dead Space bears no relation to the successful video game series (though I do note costume similarities between the game’s main character, Isaac Clarke, and the robot sidekick in the film). In fact it is a remake of Roger Corman’s cult classic Alien clone Forbidden World, a film which (though lacking in many qualities) is one of Corman’s best films. Dead Space is a rip off of a rip off of a landmark film which is almost like wearing third generation hand-me down clothes which have been worn and worn to death in the years since the original owner put them on for the first time. Shot in just seventeen days, Dead Space will do little to convince you otherwise.

The plots in Dead Space and Forbidden World are almost identical: the intergalactic hero and his robot sidekick responding to a distress signal from a research station; the virus-like creature which has escaped it’s incubation; the team of scientists both in denial about what they have created and in fear of what may happen; and the inevitable carnage which ensues when the creature grows bigger and hungrier and begins to kill everyone off. There’s even a random and completely-irrelevant-to-the-rest-of-the-film sequence at the beginning just like in Forbidden World where our hero is involved in a space dogfight for no apparent reason other than to recycle footage from Battle Beyond the Stars and kill about five minutes of screen time.

The big difference between the two films is the presence and/or absence of the trashy elements which made Forbidden World such a cult hit. Dead Space sorely needed an injection of gore, nudity and general low budget sleaze – it’s the film that Forbidden World would be if it removed most of its gore, naked chick quota and copious amount of sleaze and cheese. There’s nothing here to get overly worked over. Odd moments of blood, including a decent head-ripping late in the film, are not enough to save it. Dead Space doesn’t even attempt to send a wink towards the audience with its content. It’s played straight, serious and without a hint of irony or self-awareness.

Dead Space commits the cardinal sin of movie making and that is it to be boring. Even though it’s got a seventy-two minute run time, the film feels twice as long as that. Characters skulk around in the sparsely-decorated corridors talking about how they’re going to find and stop the creature for scene-upon-scene of innate tedium. The first hour grinds itself through the motions, only really picking up in the finale when the creature is given the big reveal, which is too little too late. The monster itself looks terribly static in the brief glimpses we get of it. For the majority of the film, it is masked in insane amounts of smoke/fog/ice when it’s outside the station or just dimmed in dingy rooms and corridors when it’s inside. It’s a pity because the design looks good, though you won’t get to see it walking around on two legs like the Xenomorph-wannabe from the cover artwork.

Fans of TV shows will be quick to spot Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as one of the scientists on board the station. No doubt this is the type of film he’ll be wanting to hide on his CV now that he’s pretty famous in Hollywood right now. Cranston isn’t great but given where he’s ended up, it’s easy to ignore it. The rest of the cast are pretty horrible, including Marc Singer as Krieger who is introduced to the audience laying down naked in some sort of steam room. Only, unlike in Forbidden World, the hero of the day only gets to dream about the female scientists naked rather than get down and dirty in the flesh.

 

Dead Space is just that – a completely lifeless amount of time between opening and closing credits where there’s little to see, little to hear and little to worry about. You’d expect better from the low budget canon of Roger Corman, even if by ‘better’ I mean sleazy and cheesy. This is neither and all the worse for it.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆