Tag 1970s

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Land That Time Forgot, The (1974)

The Land That Time Forgot (1974)

Journey to a savage world where time is extinct!

During World War 1, the survivors of a torpedoed Allied merchant vessel seize control of the German submarine after it surfaces in a fog bank shortly afterwards. Hoping to sail to a British port, a German officer sabotages the radio and tampers with the compass, meaning that the submarine sails dramatically off course. With fuel running out and the temperatures getting colder, the crew inadvertently discover the mythical lost continent of Caprona in the South Atlantic, surrounded by icebergs but filled with lush vegetation and where dinosaurs still exist. Putting their differences aside to work together, the British and Germans explore the island whilst seeking to refine some of the crude oil in order to fuel their return to civilisation.

 

Amicus Productions, a long-standing rival studio to Hammer in the UK, enlisted the help of American International Pictures to co-finance this ambitious adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1918 novel The Land That Time Forgot. I guess they saw that Hammer had diverted into prehistoric territory with a series of ‘lost world’ flicks such as One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and fancied getting in on the act too as they were a big success. A modest box office hit at the time, The Land That Time Forgot spawned a further trio of lost continent-style adventures, all of which featured lantern-jawed American hero Doug McClure squaring off against a number of puppet dinosaurs on miniature sets.

One of my childhood favourites, The Land That Time Forgot used to be a staple diet of Saturday afternoons around school holidays. It has dated. A lot. I mean even back then, a couple of years before Star Wars hit the screens, it looks terribly cheap and out-dated. But it’s a lot of fun in an old school “they don’t make them like this anymore” kind of way. There’s just something so innocent about this type of film – no pretences about trying to make anything other than wanting the audience to have a good time whilst watching. The first half of the film works better than the second. The scenes involving the U-boat and the back-and-forth nature of who is in control between the British and the Germans make for some nice tension, and the initial trip into Caprona and unfortunate first encounter with a hungry dinosaur set things up nicely. Some great set design and even more impressive matte work really do turn Caprona into an exotic place. But it’s at this point that things don’t really kick in. It’s almost as if the writers don’t know what they can do with the story, so they just have the characters constantly going off in small groups to do some research or look for food and water where they are picked off one-by-one by dinosaurs or cavemen.

There are some of the least convincing dinosaurs ever put to film on show in The Land That Time Forgot but a certain rose-tinted hindsight leaves me unable to fully criticise them.  Literally all the majority of them do is stand there, roar and just allow the humans to pump them full of bullets. The rubbery material bends and flexes away as the dinosaurs move and fight with each other – a far cry from the quality stop-motion effects of Ray Harrhausen but a necessary route to take given how many monsters are on screen throughout the film. Thankfully, the miniature work is top notch and the finale involving the exploding volcano, a boiling lake and the submarine look fantastic, with lots of smoke and red and orange lights illuminating the little model. Derek Meddings was more noted for his work on Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and it shows, with the miniatures looking nice and authentic. The production design across the board really do a good job of conveying the lost world of Caprona, despite the dinosaurs wobbling all over the place.

There’s a solid supporting cast of actors familiar to UK viewers, with the likes of Anthony Ainley (who would go on to play The Master in Doctor Who), John McEnery (known to school kids the world over as Mercutio from the Zefirrelli film version of Romeo and Juliet), Declan Mulholland (who would portray the human version of Jabba the Hutt in deleted scenes from Star Wars) and a bucket load of actors who went on to appear in Doctor Who or any number of British TV soaps and dramas. It’s McClure’s film though – the producers wanted an American star to sell to the US audience and McClure fitted the bill. Remember Troy McClure from The Simpsons? That washed-up B-movie actor was based upon the likes of McClure. He’s decent enough in this – punch first and ask questions later is his calling card. He takes everything in his stride and is calm and collected in the face of adversity. McClure knows that the material is a little bit hokey but he always gives it his all and tries to make everything else as believable as possible.

 

The Land That Time Forgot spawns a healthy dose of fun and nostalgia for anyone who remembers this from the 70s and 80s; modern viewers will find it less appealing. The special effects aren’t the best but given this was from an era even before Star Wars started pioneering work in the field, it’s an ambitious fantasy film made by a British studio not known for this type of genre who punched above their weight and made an enduring, if flawed, adventure.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

Enter an age of unknown terrors, pagan worship and virgin sacrifice…

A violent tremor interrupts a religious ceremony where three cave girls are about to be sacrificed to the Sun God and one, Sanna, tumbles into the sea below as a result. Eventually being rescued by Tara, a member of a seafaring tribe, the two fall in love to the annoyance of Tara’s current mate. Pursued by the high priests who were unable to finish the sacrificial ceremony and appease the god, Sanna and Tara must battle prehistoric monsters as well as hostile tribes in order to survive.

 

Clearly trying to capitalise on their success of One Million Years B.C. (purely down to some quality special effects from Ray Harryhausen and a poster featuring Raquel Welch in that fur bikini), Hammer sought to continue their foray into the prehistoric monster genre. Following on from One Million Years B.C. and Prehistoric Women prior, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth adheres to the same formula of stunning, top-heavy, scantily-clad women, cavemen with big beards and ripped torsos and a few vaguely dinosaur-like monsters to torment them.

But this 1970 entry into their short-lived dinosaur trek took a bizarre turn – not because of the content but because of their decision to not feature any traditional English dialogue in the script. The cave people all talk in a nonsensical language which was devised solely for the film. So they grunt, shout the same words to each other such as ‘ataki’ and ‘neecro’ and point and gesticulate a lot in order to express themselves. It’s a bit disengaging for the audience, though I can understand the logic and novelty value of them using such an approach. It makes for a more realistic account well as realistic as it can, given we should forget the major flaw in the narrative where dinosaurs and cavemen are existing side-by-side which didn’t happen in real life. Many films, comics, cartoons and games have done that over the years, so this film isn’t the only guilty party.

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth seems to get a lot more love amongst filmmakers, whereas I preferred the cheesier charms of One Million Years B.C. (and the natural charms of Raquel Welch). Steven Spielberg was influenced by the film and threw in a token nod to it back in Jurassic Park with the banner that unfolds at the end of the T-Rex and raptor fight. Whilst Hammer enlisted the help of veteran special effects guru Ray Harryhausen to bring to life the dinosaurs in One Million Years B.C., the producers went for the budget option here with Jim Danforth. Danforth was a decent effects guy but his work pails in comparison to Harryhausen – look at the comparisons between Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Danforth’s Jack the Giant Killer for a nice example. Danforth fares better here and the dinosaurs are pretty good for the most part. The crabs and pterodactyls look decent and are involved in some reasonably entertaining action scenes. The film does have the annoying tendency to throw in a live lizard rampaging through some miniature sets from time-to-time which takes away a bit of the shine from the stop-motion monsters. But whenever there’s a dinosaur on the screen, the film at least maintains audience interest.

It’s hard to rate performances when all the characters do is grunt, scream and cry, and I have to ask myself why anyone half-decent would even attempt to star in something like this. The only noteworthy actor I can recall from other films around the time is Patrick Allen, from Captain Clegg and The Night of the Big Heat. Former Playboy model Victoria Vetri just needs to look good in a tiny bikini and provide the glamour. Every other woman parades around in a bikini and every other man sports a big, bushy beard. It’s very hard to know who is who, and how they’re all connected when they can’t talk to each other. This is where the simplistic plot helps. Throw in some out-of-place nudity (most of it is usually cut from transmission during the day) and lots of panting and grunting, mascara-wearing cavewomen and perfect hairstyles and you have one very sexualised prehistoric place. One other point of note with the cast is the appearance of Drewe Henley, most famously known as the courageous Red Leader from Star Wars.

 

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is ok for what it is – the limited plot and lack of real dialogue stop the audience from really making any firm connections with the film and characters but there’s enough dinosaur action and top-heavy women to make you want to wheel out your leopard skin budgie smugglers when the sun comes out and start beating your chest.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

DEATH LIVES in the Vault of Horror!

Five strangers visiting some old catacombs find themselves separated from the rest of the group and end up in a chamber with a mysterious man who details how each of the strangers will die.

 

No doubt you’ll have heard of Hammer (and if not, why not?) and their contribution to the horror genre. The studio ruled the horror land in the late 50s and 60s, single-handedly reinventing the genre with such timeless classics as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. Less known were their British rivals Amicus, who found fame in the 60s and 70s with a series of horror films based in the present day rather than the period gothic settings of Hammer. It’s easy to mix up who made what between Hammer and Amicus during their peak periods as they used many of the same actors (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) and directors (Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker). Amicus found success in their anthology horror films – films featuring four or five short stories which were linked together by an overarching plot, usually with a narrator or central figure. More spooky than scary, the films were inspired by the old EC Comics which featured macabre stories where people would suffer an ironic fate/mishap as a result of something they had done. Given how many of these anthology films have used the comics either as direct source material or as an inspiration to devise fresh stories, it’s always been my mission to check some of them out for real.

Tales from the Crypt was Amicus’ fifth anthology horror film and arguably their most famous, no doubt due to the heavyweight cast full of big names. All of the stories here are directly lifted from EC Comics rather than original ideas and like all of these anthology films, it’s a veritable pick ‘n’ mix selection. Some people will prefer one story, other people will prefer another. There’s something for everyone and with the stories only being about ten minutes long at best, they’re snappy enough for you not to get too saddled with something you don’t like.

The link segments involving the five main characters coming across a mysterious stranger in the cave is rather silly and legendary thespian Ralph Richardson looks like he’d rather be anywhere else except the daft set that he’s stuck on. Once you’ve seen one Amicus anthology film, you’ve seen them all as far as the final twist goes so it’s little surprise to find out why they’re all gathered in this place.

… And All Through the House stars Joan Collins as a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve and then attempts to hide his body. Unfortunately for her, a homicidal maniac dressed as Santa is on the loose outside the house but she is unable to call the police without exposing her own crimes. This is the most remembered story, no doubt in part to the sight of a murderous Santa Claus long before Silent Night, Deadly Night came along to upset parents. Also no doubt in part to the glamorous appearance of Joan Collins as the equally-murderous wife. There’s a decent bit of tension in this episode as the Santa peers through the windows and the Christmas theme gives it that extra edge. There is very little dialogue and so Collins has to act with her eyes and body language, which she does so very well. Despite the crime she has committed, you do feel like rooting for her. Sadly, it ends quite abruptly but there was nowhere else for the segment to go at the time.

Reflection of Death stars Ian Hendry as a man who leaves his wife and children for his mistress. However on his way to meeting her, he’s involved in a horrific car accident. When he emerges from the wreck, everyone he sees runs off in horror and he is not quite sure why. This is arguably the weakest of the stories because it all builds until the final payoff. The clever use of POV and lack of dialogue from the main character keeps the big twist of this story hidden until the end – we know that something has happened to Ian Hendry’s character, we’re just not quite sure what – but the results are underwhelming to say the least. Thankfully, the story isn’t drawn out too long as the nature of the entire segment means that once one or two people have reacted to Hendy’s character, it gets tiresome to see others do the same thing.

Poetic Justice sees a father and son take a disliking to an elderly neighbour and conduct a hate campaign against him to get him to leave their street. He hangs himself instead. A year later on Valentine’s Day, the old man returns from the grave to get his revenge. This is my favourite of the five stories and this is down to Peter Cushing’s memorably poignant turn as Grimsdyke, the old man. Known for frequently playing strong, knowledgeable figures, it’s interesting to see Cushing’s weaker and more fragile side as he plays against type somewhat, but this was made shortly after his wife died and it was well-known that this affected him greatly. The hate campaign that the characters stir up against him is a little far-fetched and the pair of David Markhan and Robin Phillips are given horrible one-note characters with no redeeming characteristics – the sooner they get a bit of karma, the better. The zombie make-up on Cushing looks particularly effective for 1972.

Wish You Were Here sees businessman Ralph Jason struggling to make ends meet until his wife uses a Chinese figurine that offers its owner three wishes. They ask for a fortune and receive it but Jason is killed on his way to collect it. She then wishes him back to life, only to find that he has since been embalmed. This is arguably the weakest segment out of the lot and that’s purely because there’s no real purpose to it – we never find out just what the man has done to deserve his punishment and so seeing him suffer isn’t as powerful as it could have been. The story is a nice alternative to The Monkey’s Paw tale and the final twist to the tale is nice, even if it looks like an innocent man is going to suffer eternal pain!

Blind Alley is the final story and sees a former army major become the new director for a home for the blind. However rather than looking after the residents, he introduces rationing and heating cuts to fund his own luxury lifestyle. Ignoring the ongoing suffering of the residents, it isn’t long before they decide to turn the tables on him. The segment goes on for a bit too long but most of the time is needed to pad out the character of Rogers and make you hate him for what he’s done to the blind residents. If you can ignore the fact that the blind residents are able to use some fantastic DIY skills to make their instrument of revenge (Jigsaw would have been proud of it!), then the segment at least finishes strongly. Patrick Magee, as the leader of the rebellious blind residents, has his usual intensity and imposing presence. The film then finishes with the not-so-subtle plot twist that you’ve seen a mile coming with regards to the Crypt Keeper.

 

Tales from the Crypt is another solid Amicus anthology film which delivers more stronger stories than weaker ones, has a fantastic cast of British talent and enough macabre twists and turns to keep you interested. The seriousness with which the stories play out certainly adds a nice sense of menace to go along with the mild chills.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

Scream… So They Can Find You

Five hundred years after they were blinded by fire and executed for their unholy crimes, the Templar Knights rise from the dead to take revenge on a small Portuguese town during its centennial celebration of the executions.

 

No, this is not related to Sam Raimi’s infamous low budget classic, rather it should be titled Return of the Blind Dead as this is a sequel to 1972′s Tombs of the Blind Dead. Not many people have heard of the Blind Dead series. I hadn’t until a few years ago when I came across the box set on eBay. A series of Spanish-made horror films about undead, zombie-like Templar knights, the films were a big success in Spain and have gained cult status in the genre. But they’re little-known to anyone without a keen interest in the genre and it’s a big shame because the imaginative monsters are some of the most nightmarish creations to come out of films since Boris Karloff donned the Frankenstein make-up back in the 30s. Commonly lumped in the Euro-zombie explosion of the 70s and 80s, the Blind Dead films were far more than gratuitous splatter flicks, crafting themselves into fine Gothic horror pieces with a focus on atmosphere, mood and dread.

Despite being a sequel, Return of the Evil Dead doesn’t have any links to the original, especially with the open way that Tombs of the Blind Dead ended. Instead, it opts to re-tell the tale of the Templars by putting them into another location (the next two sequels would also follow this same stand-alone logic). Everything we learnt about them from the original is essentially ditched, save for their appearance and blindness. It is the iconographic appearance of the Templar knights that is one of the reasons this series has found such a strong and devoted following. Looking like skeletal Grim Reapers with remnants of hair still clinging to their cracked bones, the knights are the wizened, decayed stuff of nightmares and virtually impossible to stop or escape from. They’re slow but relentless. Once you cross them, you know that they’ll get you no matter how hard you try to prevent them. The question of whether their faithful steeds are undead is answered is this one as well.

Return of the Evil Dead does what many sequels do and that’s up the ante and the scope to try and outdo its predecessor. The undead Templars are back in force this time around and are not content with hanging around derelict towns in the middle of nowhere waiting for people to stray into their domain. This time around they’re out for vengeance and assault the town itself. Whilst it took an eternity for them to rise from their graves in the first one, Return of the Evil Dead sees them jump the gun and get a good head start, making their moves only a quarter of an hour in. It’s this change of approach that benefits Return of the Evil Dead, casting aside some of the sluggish pacing problems of the original. Having said this, the attack on the town has little real direction and seems to go on for too long, as if Ossorio just kept the camera rolling. It’s only when the survivors escape and shack up in the church that the film finally settles down into something with a bit more direction and focus. The creepy way that the Templars just silently hang around outside the church, waiting for someone to come out is a marked contrast to the usual slamming and banging zombies trying to break through doors.

With the Templars coming for revenge this time, the gore ante is upped tenfold. Heads are lopped off, arms sliced off and hearts ripped out. Ossorio was clearly influenced by George A. Romero and Night of the Living Dead when he made Tombs of the Blind Dead and he’s been even more keen to use some of Romero’s ideas in the sequel, namely the fact that a group of survivors barricade themselves up in a church as the Templars surround the place, unable to get in. The results aren’t as effective but still provide the cast with a bit more to do than running around screaming. There are a few good performances here actually, notably Fernando Sancho as the slimy mayor who will do anything to stay alive, including sacrificing one of his henchmen and even persuading a little girl to distract the Templars whilst he runs away! Horror films need more weasels like this guy! The ominous Gregorian soundtrack returns once again (thanks to the same composer) to crank up the atmosphere and tension a few more notches.

Return of the Evil Dead is not without problems though. Lots of stock footage of the Templars rising from their graves is lifted from the original and the same slow-motion shots of them riding their horses are back to annoy us every so often. These scenes bring with them some day-for-night continuity errors with the new footage and are slightly off-putting. As the case is for many Euro horrors, make sure that you check out the original language version as opposed to the international/American cut, which has been cut quite severely and is missing lots of footage, mainly of the juicy bits!

 

The Return of the Evil Dead is a solid follow-up which doesn’t do the original any harm at all and actually adds to the menace and scare-factor of the Templars by giving them more to do and more people to kill. Some consider this the best entry in the series though in all fairness, every single entry has its strengths and weaknesses.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Lepus (1972)

Night of the Lepus (1972)

How many eyes does horror have? How many times will terror strike?

Farmer Cole Hillman has a rabbit infestation on his ranch and they’re eating away the vegetation meant for his cattle. Enlisting the help of scientist couple Roy and Gerry Bennett, Hillman insists that he doesn’t want to use poison which would ruin the natural ecological balance of the area and so an alternative solution needs to be found. Roy suggests using a hormone that interrupts the breeding cycle of the rabbits and needs a bit of time to see how the drug works. However, his daughter unwittingly frees one of the test rabbits from the lab and the hormone has unforeseen side effects on the local rabbit population, turning them into giant man-eating monsters which then attack the town and threaten Phoenix.

 

Only in the 70s could something as cuddly and innocent as a fluffy rabbit be turned into a ferocious killing machine but this was the era in which nature ran amok and everything from frogs to insects and bears was portrayed as being out to get humanity for the way in which we were treating the planet. So your enjoyment of Night of the Lepus will depend on whether you can buy into the prospect of a bunch of giant rabbits terrorising Arizona. If you can’t, you’ll spend most of the running time giggling away at the silliness of everything (to be fair, even if you can buy into it, you’ll still be in hysterics).

To be fair to Night of the Lepus, and maybe unwisely, it plays everything straight. Kicking off with a documentary-style news report about nature and the delicate ecological balance of the planet that the plague of rabbits in Australia has threatened to disrupt, the film rarely pulls any punches and never once attempts to wink at the audience and say “this is stupid and we know it.” This is doom-and-gloom from the offset however the film never truly convinces of its intentions.

The fact of the matter is that it’s inherently dull. Though the rabbit attacks are reasonably lively, the bits in between with the humans droning on about how to stop them is tedious and disengaging to the extreme. They seem to take the threat of the killer rabbits in their stride as if it’s just another plague of locusts or rats. There’s no urgency at the fact that loads of people are being killed. Even when the army gets called in at the end, you never get the feeling that anyone here is that bothered at the sight of a giant rabbit. Plus there’s the issue that the rabbits only show up about a third of the way in, meaning you’ve got to slog through some tough scenes to get there. Pacing is a real issue.

Maybe they’re all so stoic and serious because the main characters knew that they were safe from the bunnies. At no point do any of them ever really get put in danger, though if you’re a supporting actor then I’d suggest you find a better agent because few of them make it out alive. For such an obscure film, there’s a cast full of names on hand and they all treat the material deadly seriously. DeForest Kelley, forever to be known as Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy from Star Trek is on hand for what was his last non-Star Trek feature film. Janet Leigh, from Psycho, gets a pointless role but top billing and Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun, with hundreds of film and television appearances between them, try to keep a straight face amongst the giant rabbits they’re forced to confront.

Most of the shots of the rabbits are real, they’re just parading around on miniature sets. If you see one slow-motion shot of the rabbits charging towards the camera along the set, you’ve seen them all…and there are a lot of shots of them doing that here! I guess the film does the best job it can of portraying them as a threat but when most of them just sit around on the miniature sets, looking like they’d rather be elsewhere, then you’ve got problems. One or two close-up shots of the rabbits have them gnarling their teeth to the camera with some blood smeared across their fluffy noses but even here you’re not likely to run behind the sofa.

Like the ridiculous giant monster films of Bert I. Gordon (such as Empire of the Ants), some of the rabbits have been enlarged and superimposed upon the film so that they can appear in the same shot as the actors and look to be the same size. When the rabbits do attack, it’s clearly obvious that there’s a guy dressed in a bunny suit wrestling around on the floor with the actors. But you know what, this adds a little old school to the film. Nowadays this would be done with CGI but here you just have to suspend your disbelief at how they used to make things work. It’s no surprise to find out that producers removed all evidence of the killer rabbits in the promotional material for the film.

 

Classic bad B-movie fare from the 1970s doesn’t get any cheesier than this. Night of the Lepus is notoriously obscure but it’s a pity because there are far worse entries in the killer animal genre. Having said that, Bugs Bunny dressed up as a girl would be infinitely scarier than these fluffy fiends.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Jaws 2 (1978)

Jaws 2 (1978)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water

Four years after having to battle the monstrous Great White shark, a few unexplained events including the explosion of a skiing boat and the disappearance of a pair of divers prompt Chief Brody to suspect that another Great White shark has staked claim to the waters. But no one else on Amity Island believes him and Brody begins to wonder whether he is just being paranoid. However his theory ends up coming true and he must go out to sea once again to face the terror from the deep.

 

It was always going to be impossible to top one of the greatest films ever made so Jaws 2 was up against it from the moment it was given the green light. Jaws was a brilliant film, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, where a coming together of quality and talent coupled with problems, mistakes and enforced changes, ended up in the film’s favour to create the masterpiece that we have come to know and love today. The problem with any sequel was going to be simply: how do you even get close to matching the greatness of Jaws?

Jaws 2 gets an unfair rap as a sequel, mainly because the following sequels were atrocious. Jaws 2 seemingly gets lumbered in with them when people talk about the follow-ups but it’s actually a rather decent sequel which is far better than it has any right to be. Though still a troubled production like its predecessor, Jaws 2 manages to deliver decent suspense, another solid performance (if better) by Roy Scheider and, of course, some plentiful shark action. The main problem is that it tries to replicate the original but without the best parts.

Case in point #1: Roy Scheider makes this film. He’s excellent as Chief Brody once again, bringing a little more to the role than he did in the original. Here, the character has been visibly affected by the events that transpired and he’s not as laid back and prepared to sit back and take orders like he once was. The film is quite interesting as it explores Brody’s paranoia about the shark threat and the scenes both on the beach where he’s in the shark tower and later in the town hall where he confronts the council are highlights.

However what is sorely lacking, and what Scheider clearly misses, is having another great character to spark off. The camaraderie that the second half of the original shared between Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw aboard the boat was one of the main reasons why it worked so well. Seemingly surrounded by a cast of teenagers, Scheider even gets short-shifted for a lot of this half as the main focus is on the youngsters and their ever-sinking flotilla of wrecked sail boats. They’re not the worst teenage bunch ever to grace film but they’re so weakly written that it’s hard to distinguish between most of them and even hard to show any interest in their survival.

Case in point #2: The shark itself. Director Jeannot Szwarc realised that the audience knew what the shark was going to look like so it was pointless in having a slow reveal as in the first one. Here, the shark is pretty much seen from the first major attack on the skiing boat and you get to see a lot of it during the course of the film. The threat just isn’t there though and Szwarc just fails to get any major sequences of tension going. Apart from a nervy moment where Chief Brody wades out to check some driftwood and another in which the shark closes in a teenager who has fallen overboard, there’s little to match the original in terms of dramatic tension. Instead of going for the subtle build-ups, Szwarc is more than happily going straight in for the kill.

Kept in the shadows again, the shark may have posed more of a threat but now we really get the feeling this is a mechanical monster, such so that the shark’s head actually bends during one collision with the side of a boat. In a nice touch, the shark is scarred by an early encounter with fire and as a result, sports this cool signature burn mark across its snout for the duration. It gives the shark a menacing look.

Case in point #3: I am sure if you saw a shark attack in real life, it would be a bloody affair. Though the body count is upped significantly in Jaws 2, the gore quota has been toned down a lot. You won’t get to see any floating heads, severed legs or people bitten in two. That is disappointing because there are some great kills in here which screamed for a little something extra. The attack on the skiers is suspenseful, the shark looks like it swallows another victim hole and the helicopter attack was aching for a limb or fountain of blood. Part of the fear of being attacked by a shark is the unrelenting damage that it could do whilst it rips you apart with its teeth. We never get any of the sense of the ferocity or the damage that the shark can do. Everything has been toned down.

John Williams returns to score the film. The signature Jaws motif is still lurking around here but the score is a broader selection of more upbeat tunes. Since much of the tension and suspense had been lost from keeping the shark hidden, it was easy to make the film’s soundtrack a lot more vibrant, adventurous and exciting.

On a last note, the tag line for Jaws 2 is one of the most famous I’ve ever heard of. ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water’ sends an ominous message out to those people who were petrified to go swimming after the original’s release. The shark is back and it’s hungrier than ever so make sure you don’t go out too far!

 

 

Jaws 2 is a hugely underrated sequel which suffered from the fact that there was no way any film would match that of the original. That is the main thing which holds it back. It’s got some fantastic moments, does a great job of keeping the story as fresh as possible and is entertaining from start to finish. Arguably the second greatest shark film ever made.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Car, The (1977)

The Car (1977)

There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no way to stop… The Car

In the desert highways of New Mexico, a black Sedan is sadistically running down unsuspecting victims ranging from cyclists to hitchhikers. When the car claims the life of the local sheriff of Santa Ynez and makes it presence known at the school parade, police officer Wade Parent rallies the remaining deputies to take action. However, the vehicle apparently has no driver and is more agile and damage-proof than a normal car, leading to some to believe that it has been possessed by the Devil.

 

Though The Car would fit in right at home with the ‘mechanical monsters’ sub-genre with the likes of Christine, Duel and Killdozer, it’s more comfortable in the company of Jaws. Whilst other studios were trawling the seas looking for aquatic monsters to turn into the next summer blockbuster, Universal realised that they had a winning formula and look to have just swapped monsters around. I can just the pitch now to the studio – “It’s just like Jaws but with a killer car instead of a shark!” This is all kind of amusing because Jaws shares many similarities with Steven Spielberg’s earlier hit Duel, the one about the killer tanker truck which stalks a motorist along a remote and lonely road. The links between Duel and The Car shouldn’t need setting out so what you get is a nice little circle featuring all three films. Obviously The Car is the one stealing the best material from the other two!

The Car couldn’t be anymore Jaws if it tried. There’s the quiet American town suddenly beset by a rampaging monster. The town has an event coming up (in this case a town parade) which the monster will gate-crash. The main character is an ‘everyman’ hero and a police officer with two kids no less (just like Roy Scheider in Jaws, though this guy is a single parent. The mechanical monstrosity itself has a signature theme tune very similar to John Williams’ infamous classic. It’s got its own POV shots when it’s hunting down its victims. There are some shots of it driving towards its victims like a shark’s fin gliding through the water. And it’s not fully revealed until nearly halfway through, relying on close-ups of its wheels and other parts of the chassis to indicate its presence. Plus there’s no explanation for its decision to target this town – it just appears, gets a taste for killing and decides to stay. With some minor tweaks to supporting characters (Ronny Cox’s young alcoholic deputy no doubt doubling for Richard Dreyfuss’ youth appeal) and a couple of other smaller similarities, it doesn’t take a lot to work out where the main inspiration for The Car lies.

The Car got a theatrical run so it’s not like this was pushed out onto release in the quiet but it was met with critical and commercial failure and has been relegated to virtual unknown status since. This is a pity because after the first ten minutes or so, you’ll think that this is actually very good. The opening kill scene builds tension nicely with some great camerawork, the car shows no mercy to its pair of cyclist victims and a whole bunch of questions are asked which you will be wanting answers to sooner rather than later. However after this opening, it’s strictly mediocrity for the duration as the overriding story – that of the police trying to track down and stop the car – is just too repetitive to stretch out for the full running time. Santa Ynez must have been a lawless town too because there are more deputies than residents it seems. It does provide the film with a steady range of characters to kill off – this is not a good week to be a police officer in this town. The rest of the characters that are introduced serve little purpose but to provide a lot of interpersonal drama. This is a town with so much going on between the residents that it should have been given its own soap opera. The drama serves no purpose and has little impact on the plot with the killer car so the only reason I can see for its inclusion is to pad out the running time in between car attacks.

You’d think that there are so many ways for a car to kill someone but The Car does a good job of providing variety, in particular an excellent scene involving one of its victims inside a house which does a fantastic job of building up the suspense in the moments before the car strikes. Never before have headlights been as terrifying! Like Jaws used a couple of ways to signal the presence of the shark without actually showing the audience, The Car does the same thing. If it’s not the sound of the horn growing louder and louder, it’s the whirlwind that arrives a few minutes before or, in a really neat method, seeing glimmers of sunlight reflecting off its windows as it approaches from far away. Funnily enough, due to the way the car is presented throughout the film, you get a sense of ‘personality’ with it. Like the shark in Jaws showed its intelligence by toying with the three men in the boat in the final third, the car here begins to show emotions, taunting its victims, playing with them or expressing anger at things it dislikes. It goes to increasingly-weird lengths to get its victims but I guess the script ran out of ways to have the car actually kill someone.

Sadly a lot of this personality and ambition is wasted on a second-rate script which doesn’t really have the car do much except for rev its engine a lot and drive very quickly. The chase scenes have been sped up to make them appear faster and more exciting than they really are. Instead of keeping the car a mystery, the final third of the film begins to develop it as some sort of supernatural monster, the Devil incarnate if you were. This all leads to a finale and ending which is well over-the-top, borderline silly, considering that the rest of the film had played everything so seriously. It’s meant to be a dour affair, and Josh Brolin’s sombre performance adds significantly to the emotional impact of what is happening on-screen, but at times the seriousness of everything threatens to totally overshadow everything else – we are dealing with a killer car after all, not a nuclear fallout.

 

The Car runs out of fuel long before it’s got to its destination. The premise is milked for all that it is worth and there’s a lot of positives to take home from it but the script does the idea of a killer car few favours and the overly-dramatic and totally pointless nature of the human elements distract from the mechanised killing that happens.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

Survival against all odds!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The (1973)

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Dynarama Means Supreme Adventure!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆