Tag 1960s

Devils of Darkness (1965)

Devils of Darkness (1965)

He’s a Vampire with a Cult Following.

A secret vampire cult, which has its headquarters beneath the cemetery in a town in France, searches for victims for its human sacrifice rituals. When English tourist Paul Baxter picks up a strange talisman, he returns to England unaware that it belongs to the cult who follow him across the Channel to begin their Satanic practices there.

 

An obscure British horror from the 1960s, Devils of Darkness is one of the few horror films to emerge from this era that was not produced by the big hitters Hammer or Amicus. Made by Planet Film Productions, who made a couple of sci-fi horror films during this time with Hammer director Terence Fisher at the helm (Night of the Big Heat and, one of my favourites, Island of Terror), Devils of Darkness does hold the distinction of being Britain’s first vampire film set in modern day, with Hammer keeping their fanged fiends firmly in the historical until the 70s. That’s about the only remarkable thing about this dreary vampire film which lacks any sort of engagement or excitement. It is by-the-numbers without the faintest hint of horror or terror.

Devils of Darkness tries desperately to pass itself off as a Hammer flick, with the lavish Technicolour details matched by some nice sets and general sense that a lot of money went into making this look good. However, the writing is so dull and boring and there is zero atmosphere from start to finish. There is no real sense of focus to the story and the plot shuffles along from scene to scene with no real direction or excitement. It’s almost like they had a beginning and finale mapped out but just winged it throughout. The main character, Baxter, spends too much time hanging around waiting for stuff to happen and then when he’s back in London, he spends his hours researching in the library. Whilst he’s doing this, the Count is simply shadowing him, waiting for a moment to strike. I mean come on, the guy is bookworming it 24/7 and all this Count wants to do is sit and wait until he’s finished? As a result, the ‘hero’ spends the bulk of the film simply skirting around the periphery of the story when he should be the main focus.  The talisman becomes the Macguffin of the story, with Sinistre desperate to get his hands on it for some reason (he seems able to do everything he wants without it) but then coming up with a convoluted way of slowly bewitching a woman in order for her to then slowly seduce Baxter and steal it off him. With a whole cult behind him, there are probably quicker, easier and more violent ways to get the job done.

Devils of Darkness has this massive problem of not really knowing how it wants to get to its end game because there is no real central focus to keep things glued together. For all stories, the finale is where the payoffs lie and how the audience will remember it long after watching or reading. Devils of Darkness doesn’t even build towards the finale well, so when it arrives and Baxter and the police gate-crash the cult about to sacrifice a woman, there’s literally nowhere for it to go. There’s no dramatic tension. No cliffhangers. No sense that anything is on the line. The film ends rather abruptly with a ‘we’ve only got ten minutes to shoot this so hurry up’ mentality that literally smacks the audience in the face. We’ve invested our time in this, unwisely on hindsight, so the least they could have done is provide a more satisfying ending. Still, Devils of Darkness is not alone in this and many of the British horrors from this period suffer from endings which leave a ‘is that it?’ sensation tingling all through the body. Not only that, but the finale kind of renders Baxter’s contributions to the story almost non-essential. Just what his purpose in the film if not to be the protagonist and the one to defeat the antagonist at the end?

French actor Hubert Noel is given the unenviable task of trying to pull off a suave and sophisticated vampire – by this point, Christopher Lee had nailed the role of Dracula to a tee and any other male trying to emulate was falling well short and simply coming off as an cheap imitator. Hammer found that problem when they featured other male actors as the main vampire: David Peel in Brides of Dracula, Mike Raven in Lust for a Vampire, Noel Willman in Kiss of the Vampire, Robert Tayman in Vampire Circus and John Forbes-Robertson’s ill-gotten attempt to replace Christopher Lee in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. They just failed to replicate the same gravitas and attraction to the role that made vampires so cool and popular thanks to Lee – Noel falls at the same hurdle. He looks like a dodgy wife-stealer but has little charisma or screen presence to hold the film. It would be unfair to single out Noel for criticism though: William Sylvester fares little better in the ‘hero’ lead role as Baxter (though ‘hero’ is using the term loosely here) and the females Carole Gray and Tracey Reed are little more than eye-candy. How this film ached for someone of the calibre of Peter Cushing or Barbara Shelley to liven up proceedings.

 

Incredibly dull and ultimately a slog to sit through, Devils of Darkness might be on your radar if you’re into obscure British horror from this golden era but it’s not exactly a shining example of the genre at it’s most energetic and satisfying.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

Now on the Big Screen in COLOUR!

Eccentric inventor Doctor Who shows his granddaughter and her boyfriend his latest invention – a time machine – but an accident whisks them away to the planet Skaro. They find that the planet has been devastated by a nuclear war and this conflict is still ongoing between the Daleks and the Thals. Whilst the Thals eek out an existence in the ravaged soils around a seemingly abandoned city, the Daleks live inside and have each encased themselves in a weaponised metallic shell, their true forms mutated beyond recognition thanks to the radiation. The Thals are happy for the war to end but the Daleks have devised a final plan to wipe their enemies out once and for all and it is up to the Doctor and his companions to stop them.

 

The first of two feature-length films based upon the BBC science fiction television series of the same name, Dr. Who and the Daleks was based upon one of the serials of the show. This is not canon in the franchise, as the title character here is presented as a mild-mannered eccentric human, not as an intergalactic time lord as he was in the TV series. Doctor Who started in 1963 and has since gone on to become the world’s longest running science fiction show. It was the second serial in the first series of the television show, The Daleks, which propelled Doctor Who into the public consciousness. The titular scary mechanical pepper pot lookalike creations absolutely petrified audiences back in 1963, frightening a generation of impressionable children so much they had to hide behind their sofas. As a result, Dalek-Mania swept the UK and people couldn’t get enough of them. It was during the height of this mania that Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, the duo behind Amicus Film Productions (a rival studio which had sought to rival legendary horror production company Hammer), bought the rights to make two big budget Doctor Who films in order to quickly capitalise. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t a vehicle for Doctor Who – this is a vehicle for the Daleks and to make a lot of cash!

Dr. Who and the Daleks was the first Doctor Who to be filmed in colour and so the visuals are all nicely colourful and imaginative – very pop arty and certainly a reflection of the swinging 60s it was made in. The Thals look like space hippies. Even the music is trippy. This is definitely a product of it’s time and has dated a fair bit. The vibrant, groovy approach to the material lowers the tone and makes it appear very childish and rather juvenile. That’s not a bad thing as you know the film will be harmless fun but there’s something a little odd about seeing everything as in-your-face as this when the black-and-white TV show had been relatively subdued and somewhat dark and sinister. The TV show was intended to be an educational program for kids, with the Doctor visiting certain time periods in history and show audiences what it was like to live there. However, this all changed with the arrival of the Daleks and despite it still being marketed as kid’s show, the adult audience grew and grew. With Dr. Who and the Daleks pitching itself for the younger demographics, it’s really missing a trick with the older age groups.

With the bigger budget came better special effects, really bringing the Daleks to life like they’d never been before. Perhaps they lost a bit of their fear factor when audiences could see how garishly red or blue that they had been painted, rather than the sinister black-and-white monsters from television. But Dr. Who and the Daleks at least provides some huge scope to the Daleks for a change as, rather than there being simply two or three of them on-screen at once (such as the television show’s budget would allow), there are scenes involving six, seven and eight of them all moving around at once. They do talk a lot too, which is purely for exposition purposes and to keep reminding the viewer about what they’re planning to do (no doubt to ensure the younger audience were keeping tabs with the story). It’s not full of action and most of it is confined to the final third when the Thals decide to fight back against the Daleks. Thankfully the next film, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD, would more than make up for the lack of action here.

Followers of my web site will know I’m a massive Peter Cushing fan – he’s arguably my favourite actor – yet he’s oddly miscast in this role, though I’m guessing that’s the fault of the script. Cushing adds a mild-mannered, doddery eccentricity to the character which isn’t really what the original TV series character was about – he was cranky, sometimes rude and very unpredictable. The confused old man approach doesn’t suit the material, as it makes Doctor Who look like some really out-of-sorts grandad getting down with his hippy kids. Considering he’s the main character, the Doctor becomes something of a sideshow for a lot of the narrative too, with the action-orientated material being handled by the character of Ian, played by Roy Castle. Castle was a jazz musician and singer who had broken into acting in Amicus’ Dr Terror’s House of Horrors but his segment in said film was a horrendous side-track into ‘comedy’ in a narrative which didn’t warrant it. Much is the same state of affairs here, as Castle’s character is one of the biggest bumbling idiots to grace the big screen – even Mr Bean wouldn’t be as oafish as this character!

 

Dr. Who and the Daleks is geared towards a younger audience and I’m sure children will have a blast with it. Long-time die-hard fans of the series may grumble at some of the noticeable changes. But for casual fans of the series like me, it’s a decent enough watch if you take it for what it set out to do. It’s light-hearted entertainment which will provide plenty of Saturday morning escapist fun, if nothing else.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

War of the Gargantuas (1966)

War of the Gargantuas (1966)

Can a Country Survive When Two Gargantuas Battle to Death?

After the sole survivor of an attack on a boat tells the authorities that the rest of the crew were killed by a giant, a scientist is brought in to investigate the matter and concludes that fragments of the Frankenstein monster that was previously thought destroyed have mutated again. Only this time the fragments have formed into two new monsters or ‘gargantuas’ as they become known to the Japanese and they begin to

 

Was Frankenstein Conquers the World better than I assumed? One of Toho’s strangest kaiju films saw the beating heart of Frankenstein’s monster subjected to radiation during the atomic attack on Hiroshima, eventually giving birth to a giant boy and then squaring off against another giant monster. It was a terrible film, one of Toho’s worst, but somehow it spawned a follow-up. Thankfully, one does not need to have subjected themselves to the ordeal of watching the other film before sitting down to watch War of the Gargantua (in fact the American version does away with any links whatsoever).

War of the Gargantuas was helmed by regular Toho director Ishirô Honda and he puts his experiences with Godzilla and chums to good use. The film kicks off with a bang as a giant octopus attacks a boat and then one of the gargantuas shows up and fights the octopus. After ten minutes, there has already been more action than Frankenstein Conquers the World and the promise of more yet to come. This film gives us frequent giant monster action yet for some reason, you won’t be overly excited. These two gargantuas battle and brawl across Japan in a number of fight sequences but because they’re almost identical monsters and just look like two stuntmen in make-up, they don’t exactly garner the same interest as a Godzilla, Rodan or Mothra would. They’re not the most visuall interesting creations that Toho have ever come up with but at least you get to see more of them, given the nature of the make-up rather than bulky monster costumes. Thankfully, the miniature sets that they fight on are some of the most realistic that Toho created at the time and the Japanese army even gets in a few good licks on one of the monsters for a change! You win some, you lose some, so your interest in these fights will hinge on your ability to suspend disbelief as much as possible. The green gargantua has a taste for human flesh too and isn’t afraid to snack on whoever he can get his hands on, adding a slightly sinister element to the film.

The flipside to all of this monster action is that there’s not much plot to string it all together. The story for the previous film was already bordering on madness and this one follows the same idea of how the monsters were both created. And then that’s just about it – two monsters are created, they don’t like each other and they fight. The human sub-plots, some pointless and padded in most Godzilla films, are almost side-lined to the point of non-existence here. It’s hard trying to develop some characters to link together everything that happens and there’s no real meat or subtext to anything that goes on. You can almost see the characters looking at their watches, waiting for their little scene to finish so you can get back to the monster action.

In an attempt to break into international markets, Toho hired minor American actors, usually those on the wane, to provide a recognisable face for Western audiences (a trick they’d done all the way back with Raymond Burr in the original Godzilla). Nick Adams worked well in both Invasion of the Astro-Monsters and Frankenstein Conquers the World, but Russ Tamblyn here looks and sounds terrible. Looking so interested and giving a stoic, phoned-in performance, he reminded me of Bill Murray’s weary actor character from Lost in Translation. Tamblyn is virtually playing the same character as Adams, only with about a quarter of the intensity, and seems to be detached from everything that is going on, though this makes sense when you find out that a lot of his scenes had to be shot as extra footage to beef up his role.

Bizarrely, War of the Gargantuas was featured in flashback footage in both Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Final Wars, actually making this part of the canon. Of all of the monster films Toho made, why this one? Even more bizarre trivia comes in the knowledge that Brad Pitt cited this as the film that saw him pursue a career in acting and both Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro acknowledge the influence this film had on them.

 

Thankfully they didn’t turn this horrid, loose-fitting series of films into a trilogy. With no real depth to any of the on-screen carnage, War of the Gargantuas doesn’t really come recommended for casual viewers, though die-hard kaiju fans will no doubt find some glee with all of the silly action.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Carry On Screaming! (1966)

Carry On Screaming (1966)

Carry On Screaming with the Hilarious CARRY ON Gang!!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Mothra Vs Godzilla (1964)

Mothra Vs Godzilla (1964)

Nothing Like This Ever On the Screen!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

They won’t stay dead

A group of strangers find themselves trapped inside a farmhouse when the dead suddenly come back to life, hungry to feast on human flesh.

 

Sometimes reviews are hard to write because the film in question is just such a landmark film that every man and his dog has seen it at least once. Night of the Living Dead is one such landmark film, a monumental horror outing which every self-respecting horror fan should have seen, and any real connoisseur of film should have too. For every thousands of films made, few have as much significance on their genres as George A. Romero’s 1968 classic did. That may be a grandiose statement but it’s so true.

The horror genre around the late 60s had grown stale. Hammer’s popular British monster franchises had lost their appeal and the old Gothic horrors had grown quaint, with audiences preferring more contemporary settings. A number of controversial psychological thrillers were released such as Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s Psycho but failed to really spurn a new sub-genre, or at least a popular mainstream one. In America, producers were struggling to get away from the cheap and cheerful William Castle-style shockers from the 50s, tacky Vincent Price vehicles, or even detach themselves from the 50s sci-fi monster movies. Horror was very much suggestive, with lavish costumes, cardboard sets and evil mad scientists providing everything that the audience needed for cheap and cheerful chills like you’d find at a fairground. But a red line was always drawn and rarely crossed as to what a filmmaker could get away with. The genre needed something different and along came George A. Romero to not only walk over the red line but run about as far over it as he could.

Night of the Living Dead represented an entirely new direction for the horror genre. Visceral, in-your-face and not afraid to land some hard-hitting social commentary at the same time. It was everything that horror films had not been – the classical conventions of the genre were completely obliterated and re-imagined in one swoop. Audiences just did not know what to expect. The premise is simple, and something that has become somewhat of a staple ingredient for a zombie film as a group of strangers find themselves trapped inside a building with the zombie hordes gathering outside trying to break in. You don’t an overly convoluted story if you focus on developing the characters and getting audiences to associate with them. Night of the Living Dead is surprisingly talky, though its essential for the viewer to witness the disintegration of society, captured perfectly with this bickering group of strangers from all ages and walks of life. Don’t worry though – no one is safe. The horror genre had been a safety-first playground, where major protagonists rarely succumbed to the threats they were up against, but Romero changed all of that, removing the safety blanket and common knowledge security that audiences had grown up on. It was now everything goes and anyone dies, adding much needed unpredictability to the genre.

Despite the fact that zombies originate in Haitian folklore and there had been cinematic depictions of zombies long before Romero came along, it was Night of the Living Dead which really etched our modern interpretations of what we have now come to think of (and let’s face it, love) as the zombie. Slow, shuffling, monsters with only one thought process going on – to feed. From the opening scene with Bill Hinzman’s famous cemetery zombie to some of the unique zombies that attack the farmhouse later on, Romero always had an eye for giving them some personality. Not really a threat on their own to any relatively strong or quick human, the problem comes when the zombies increase in number. This is where they can do their damage, and damage they do!

The stomach-churning gore scenes were vile and outrageous for their time, though admittedly they have lost some of their impact nowadays after wall-to-wall zombie overload for the past twenty years. With the contemporary setting, coupled with the black-and-white photography, the gore sequences come off as documentary-style news reports, much like the TV screens were filled with real images from the war in Vietnam back in the 60s, giving the film much more of a gritty realism. This wasn’t some mad Victorian scientists creating Frankenstein-like monsters a thousand miles away in some random Eastern European country setting – these were the next-door neighbours, horribly disfigured through the zombie virus and attacking and eating you and your family. There is no reasoning with them. No real way to stop them all. It would have been a chilling thought back in the 60s.

Romero was never one to shy away from political commentary and his first directorial effort would include some of his most powerful and thought-provoking critiques. Casting Duane Jones, a black man, in the lead hero role back in the 1960s was not something which Romero thought about – he was the best candidate for the role after auditions and there’s no mention of his skin colour at all throughout the film. But having him holed up inside a house full of squabbling white people and to be on the receiving end of some rough justice in the shocking finale, it’s not exactly rocket science to see what sort of message Romero is transmitting – deliberate or not, given the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Jones is excellent in the role, a real calming sense of logic and reason who does the best in the conditions he’s faced with. Karl Hardman, as his opposite number Cooper, is equally as good in his role, though he does overplay the character a little bit. With the white and black male characters bickering at each other and vying for alpha male dominance, the female characters are relegated to little more than screaming background fodder. The sense that this rag-tag group of survivors, so desperately trying to cling together in the face of such horrific opposition, is on the verge of collapse at any moment is symbolic of American society in the 60s, where the optimism of the 50s had been replaced with pessimism, anger and attitude. Romero’s later zombie films would come to embody this sentiment: the main threat has never been about the zombies, but how quickly people turn on each other in the struggle for survival and self-preservation.

 

Fifty years after it’s original release, Night of the Living Dead still has not lost its potent impact to shock and terrify the audience. Whilst we may have been subjected to more gruesome zombie outings, none have quite matched the intensity and shock value that this would have had on audiences back in 1968.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Mysterious Island (1961)

Mysterious Island (1961)

A world beyond imagination! Adventure beyond belief!

During the siege of Richmond in American Civil War, a group of Union soldiers escape from a Confederate prison by overpowering the guard and flying off in a hot air balloon. In a terrible storm, they are carried miles off course and are eventually washed up on a remote Pacific island. Settling down to a life on the island, they are soon joined by two shipwrecked English women. Having to contend with the giant monsters that live on the island is one thing but the group soon realise that they share the island with the infamous Captain Nemo who is still plotting to rid humanity of war.

 

Mysterious Island was French writer Jules Verne’s follow-up to his acclaimed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time and one which has been turned into a number of films over the years, most famously with Disney’s 1954 live action version with Kirk Douglas and James Mason. Mysterious Island has also received a number of film adaptations though none have been truly revered like Disney’s version of Verne’s famous story. This 1961 version is arguably the most famous of the story, though it’s loosely based upon the book.

Mysterious Island actually works better when looked at as another Ray Harryhausen special effects showcase rather than a faithful adaptation of a book. That’s basically the draw here as Verne’s story is cherry picked for certain ideas and other elements are expanded to provide more of a spectacle. At least that was the theory. Mysterious Island is a decent timewaster but never fully manages to engage with its audience. It’s rather routine and episodic – a problem arises for the main characters, they have to solve it, they do and they move on to the next problem. There’s no real sense of overall story present, only that these characters have to escape off the island, and the various obstacles that they face are never anything more than mild diversions between achieving that goal. Captain Nemo doesn’t even turn up until the final third and seems to be more of an afterthought rather than a main focus.

What Mysterious Island lacks in true excitement and narrative, it makes up for in the special effects department. You can’t argue that some effort has gone in to making this film look good and Ray Harryhausen’s creatures look great, if lacking the real sense of awe and wonder that his more famous works have shown. The giant crab looks the most realistic and that’s because it was the real shell of a crab that he used for the armature. The battle with the survivors is enthralling and the animation and interaction between men and monster is superb. Sadly none of the other monsters ever come close to matching this. The dino-bird fight isn’t as good as it could have been as the monster looks a little daft, the underwater squid scene is something we have seen before and the giant bee, whilst looking good in its animated form, doesn’t do an awful lot.

Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack is excellent, providing a perfect accompaniment to the action, fantasy and mystery on the screen. This was Herrmann’s third collaboration with Ray Harryhausen and it shows how confident he was in bringing these fantasy worlds to life. Herrmann clearly borrowed some cues from this film and expanded upon them for his soundtrack to Jason and the Argonauts a couple of years later. The similarities are evident and whilst there’s no truly standout track here (unlike his classic Scherzo Macabre theme during the skeleton fight), the score certainly adds a lot to the action sequences and gives some of the fantasy and mystery elements a little more suspense.

As for the human cast, they always come second best in Harryhausen’s effects-driven films. The main characters are decent enough in their roles, if somewhat forgettable. Only Beth Rogan provides any sort of memorable impact but that’s only for her appearance in a man-made bikini that she dons when she washes up on the island. It was pretty risqué back in 1961! Late veteran actor Herbert Lom takes over the Captain Nemo role and, whilst he’s no James Mason, Lom does what he can with the role. His take is very much different: Nemo is older, less hostile to humans and more reasonable to deal with. It’s a shame that his elegant persona doesn’t arrive until late in the film, though he’s rather irrelevant to the overall story as it stands.

 

Mysterious Island provides solid fun without reinventing the genre. Due to the disjointed narrative, the film needs a regular injection of monsters to keep audience interest from going and it does that to various levels of success. Whilst the quality of the effects isn’t in doubt, it’s the manner in which they’re wheeled out that is the problem and the uneven flow of the film stops this from achieving a greater cult status.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Alive With Thrills!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Destination Inner Space (1966)

Destination Inner Space (1966)

TERROR from the DEPTHS of the SEA!

A submarine commander is sent to the underwater research facility Aquasphere to investigate strange sonar readings which turn out to be the result of a UFO landing on the ocean floor. He takes some crew members out to investigate the spaceship and return with a strange pod about the size of an air tank. Back at base, the pod begins to grow in size before bursting open to reveal a strange amphibian-like alien which begins to terrorise the facility.

 

Ever wonder what would have happened if The Creature from the Black Lagoon had got it together with It! The Terror from Beyond Space? Thought not but just in case you had, then the offspring would clearly resemble Destination Inner Space. A low budget hybrid of the two films, Destination Inner Space is hokey 60s sci-fi at its most evident, generating more unintentional laughs than anything else.

Nowadays, we’d call this an underwater Alien clone like Leviathan but back in the 60s this was reasonably fresh material. However it’s clear from the first few awful miniature shots that this was never going to be given a chance to be anything more than a throwaway drive-in movie which presumably tagged along with a bigger budgeted production. Destination Inner Space is plodding, routine and rather dull, with only the odd moment of inspiration to keep it going. We all know the type of film: a by-the-book plot with a host of square-jawed American military heroes and dames trapped inside a confined space with something deadly after them. Space. Underwater. The Antarctic. Remote Pacific islands. It makes no difference. The manliest character will vanquish the beast, protect the girl and save the day.

Scott Brady is said manliest character. As Commander Wayne, he struts around in his uniform dishing out instructions to everyone. You never get the sense that he isn’t in control, even when he’s wrestling with the alien. Smart and tough in equal measure, he’s like an underwater John Wayne. He has wisecracks for everything and is never one to be left hanging during an exchange. Recognisable Asian-American actor James Hong pops up in a role as the only non-white member of the research team and he’s the cook no less. Talk about racial profiling! But Destination Inner Space isn’t exactly a film to get strung up on developing characters. There is slightly more than usual and it helps the film a little bit when the alien does start causing chaos. But only a little bit.

The problem with Destination Inner Space is that it’s so ‘meh.’ There’s no excitement, no tension, no suspense and little in the way of action. Fall asleep for ten minutes and when you wake up, you won’t have missed a beat. It’s that type of film. You watch it for the sake of watching, not because you’re curious as to what will happen. The underwater diving sequences are the best part of the film: bright, colourful and well-filmed and Destination Inner Space uses the aquatic setting to good effect. Though the interior sets look rather ramshackle, you do get the sense that these people are stranded underwater and running out of time and air. It’s a shame that nothing much happens with them.

The alien looks ridiculous but, with a whole host of old school innocence about its appearance, it’s impossible to be harsh on it. Staggering around with a gormless, open-mouthed expression on its face and a large fin which makes it look like a punk rocker, the costume is at least colourful and . Director Francis D. Lyon knows he can’t get away with hiding this thing for too long so goes for the jugular from the start. There’s no gradual reveal or keeping it off-screen because the audience would just laugh whenever they saw it midway through the film. Best to get it out of the way before it starts killing. The great thing about the costume is its practicality – the bulky fin I mentioned and the large head and ‘hunchback’ appearance is so that the stuntman could wear his breathing apparatus underneath. This lends the genuine underwater scenes a nice credibility. He’s certainly no Ricou Browning from The Creature from the Black Lagoon but Ron Burke is no slouch when it comes to gracing the monster with an aurora of the unhuman.

 

Largely unknown to all but die-hard sci-fi fans, I only found out about Destination Inner Space through a colourful trailers compilation on Youtube. The fact that it’s a load of rubbish makes its obscurity valid. The alien suit is worth a look for a good chuckle to see ‘how they did it in the olden days’ but anyone looking for a decent sci-fi flick best look elsewhere.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Konga (1961)

Konga (1961)

Not since “King Kong”…has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle!

After being presumed dead in a plane crash, Doctor Charles Decker returns to England where he proclaims to have found a way of growing plants and animals to enormous size. Using Konga, his pet chimp, Decker is determined to prove his naysayers wrong. But as Decker grows more determined and Konga gets bigger and stronger, he begins to send the simian out to kill those who oppose him.

 

Hokey sci-fi horror from the 60s, Konga is part-King Kong, part-Frankenstein and full-on cheese. Brought to the screen by American International Pictures, the studio behind infamous B-movies such as It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Earth Vs The Spider, Konga was one of a number of British-made B-movies to stem from a partnership that AIP struck with UK-based studios. Now looking very dated, suitably campy and very silly, these films were head-and-shoulders apart from their American counterparts. Circus of Horrors, featuring Anton Diffring, and Horrors of the Black Museum, also starring Michael Gough, were a pale shadow of the Hammer horror output of the 50s and 60s but stood up reasonably well when compared to The Brain Eaters or Attack of the Giant Leeches. Konga joined the list in 1961 and though it’s no King Kong, it’s certainly better than War of the Colossal Beast.

Name-dropping aside, it’s hard to see which niche market they were aiming for with Konga. As I’ve said, it’s no King Kong. Save for the titular characters both being gorillas, there’s little similarity between the two. There are lots of the mad scientist tropes here too and the film does run like a proto-slasher with the gorilla acting as the masked killer. Whatever the aim, the eventual output delivers plenty of cheesy entertainment which lovers of B-movies would find right up their alley. The plot is the standard scientist takes his revenge story which is rather flimsily done from the start as Decker’s motivations for suddenly turning to murder are a step too far for even his character. But the shenanigans that ensues allows for plenty of diversity with what happens. Attempted rape. Man-eating plants. Some groovy 60s cats jiving to rock ‘n’ roll in the back of a van. You name it, it’s here.

Michael Gough was most likely a nice guy in real life and I have nothing personal against him but on screen across a number of his earlier films, he just oozes this hateable arrogance. It’s a testament to Gough’s ability as an actor that he manages to sculpt such obnoxious, devious and smarmy characters as Decker here or Bancroft in Horrors of the Black Museum. I really can’t stand the guy when he’s in this zone and the films are far the better for it. He’s in full-on rage mode, snarling and barking out instructions and commands to everyone around him. Gough plays it straight, which is puzzling given the nonsense going on, and the film works the better for it. Sadly the rest of the cast are nowhere near his level and he stands god-like over them, stealing every scene and dominating with every line of dialogue. This is Gough’s vehicle and he’ll be damned if anyone, even a giant gorilla, will upstage him.

Konga looks awful though, save for the early scenes when he’s actually a real-life chimp. Somehow in this enlarging process, Konga turns from a chimp into a gorilla but science and realism isn’t exactly this film’s strongest suit. The stuntman-inside-a-suit never worked on screen for anyone (think of those daft 50s films like Robot Monster or any time a gorilla showed up in a Three Stooges short) and this one is no exception. There’s something inherently daft about human eyes behind the mask which ruins the impression being attempted. Things go from bad to worse when Konga grows to gigantic proportions. Apart from some nifty miniature work when he breaks out of his house, the rest of the scenes of Konga stomping around London are ruined by a matte line around the gorilla which gives him some sort of radioactive glow. The less about the toy doll (Decker) that the stuntman is carrying around with him the better.

The film sells itself as some sort of King Kong pretender, with the art work depicting a rampage through London that would have Gorgo or Behemoth quivering in fear. When Konga does grow to gigantic size and escapes in the finale, you’d expect this to be so. Apparently standing around growling at bystanders is what classed as a rampage those days! Konga doesn’t do anything and in the climactic shots, stands in front of Big Ben. A ‘Kong climbing up the Empire State Building’ moment threatens but never materialises. The film ends on a whimper with no hint of any damage done to the capital.

 

Konga is innocent and inoffensive fun. It’s very talky, fails to deliver a satisfactory finale and smacks of cheap special effects. However there is something charming about watching a man in a third-rate gorilla outfit throwing dolls around miniature models of London. Worth a watch to see one of the UK’s most underrated actors, Michael Gough, chew the scenery as if he hasn’t eaten for years.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆