Tag 1970s

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Gory! Ghastly! Ghoulish!

Forty years to the day since the last manifestation of their dreaded vampirism, the Karnstein heirs use the blood of an innocent to resurrect the evil that was the beautiful Carmilla. Taking the name of Mircalla, she heads to an all-girls school to indulge in the blood of nubile victims. As the school tries to cope with the sudden surge in dead bodies, horror writer Richard LeStrange falls in love with Mircalla and tries to persuade her to forsake her vampire ways.

 

Starting with The Vampire Lovers and ending with Twins of Evil, Lust for a Vampire was the second of Hammer’s loose ‘Karnstein’ vampire trilogy featuring a female bombshell in the role of an undead bloodsucking menace which were based on the Gothic novel Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Basically a female Dracula, the first film set male pulses racing and censors into a frenzy over its frank depictions of lesbian vampires, extremely daring for its time. Desperate to tap into this new well of potential, Hammer decided to keep the ideas going and this infusion of softcore eroticism with their traditional Gothic approach was to continue. After all, it wasn’t like Hammer to milk an idea for all it was worth…… (Seven Frankenstein films, eight Dracula films and four Mummy films).

Dracula was old hat by the time The Vampire Lovers rolled out. Hammer began to realise that no one wanted to see some ever-aging old man (no offence to Mr Lee!) lust after and get jiggy with young women, not when the alternative was to witness smoking hot young lesbians lust after and get jiggy with young women. The stark sexuality of The Vampire Lovers was a clear decision to showcase what Hammer believed its audience was now craving: stunning young ladies in various states of undress sinking their bloody fangs into each other. Times were a changing but sadly beneath the sexed-up surface, Hammer had big problems.

Lust for a Vampire had a bit of a troubled pre-production. Original director Terence Fisher had to pull out due to a leg break. Peter Cushing withdrew when his wife became ill. And Ingrid Pitt, who shot to fame in the original as Carmilla, refused to return for whatever reason. So the potential of what may have been had these three talents been present remains to be seen. But In many ways, Lust for a Vampire is the embodiment of what was going wrong with Hammer in the late 60s and early 70s, with or without the presence of that trio of talent. Struggling to find new material which had the same impact of The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, the studio was recycling the same old stories time and time again. Changes were being made both in front of and behind the cameras, with the likes of the old guard of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher becoming side-lined in favour of newer, fresher talent trying to make the same impact as this trio had done when Hammer hit the big time (though Fisher was due to direct this until he broke his leg).

Despite the changes, Lust for a Vampire is little more than your typical Hammer vampire film. There’s a lot of nice eye candy with the lavish sets, colourful garbs and anatomically-pleasing actresses. There’s the usual music, the array of characters populating the background of the film and the Gothic vibe still flows freely. But it had all become very mechanical by this point, even a little cynical. I mean why set a film about lesbian vampires inside an all-girls’ school? Events happen just as you’d expect them to. There’s no unpredictability anymore and everything runs like clockwork, from the opening kill scene right to the angry villagers storming the castle at the end. A few scenes of decent atmosphere, including a fantastic resurrection sequence and eerie midnight romp in a fog-shrouded graveyard, are scattered throughout but on the whole this is been there, done that material.

Jimmy Sangster, was the man who wrote the screenplays for Hammer’s big three hitters from the late 50s, takes the helm for this one but can’t seem to rejuvenate the same tired formula. With pen in hand, Sangster did some amazing work but was unable to replicate this behind the camera. Also joining in the new guard is Ralph Bates who made a couple of appearances in Hammer films during the late 60s and early 70s, clearly being groomed as a younger, more dashing version of Cushing or Lee. Bates’ performance as the feeble-minded teacher is pretty good and the scene in which he begs the vampire to bite him and turn him into a servant (and thus pleasure him) is a highlight.

The real star of the show is the actress who took over the lead role from Ingrid Pitt. Yutte Stensgaard is just as easy on the eyes, if not more so, and is the archetypal image of the buxom Hammer leading lady from this era. The role involves her shedding clothes frequently (no complaints here), bearing some false vampire teeth from time-to-time and erm, did I mention removing her clothes? Stensgaard’s voice has been dubbed over and she’s not the greatest actress but could be pound-for-pound one of Hammer’s most sensual, exotic leading actresses. Her character is torn between her vampiric urges and the man that truly loves her and Stensgaard’s natural vulnerability is well-matched for this dual role. She was very much a one-hit wonder and I doubt too many other actresses made as an indelible impression as her in the vampire genre.

 

Lust for a Vampire is most likely the Hammer film most adults will have in mind if they’re asked to talk about the elements of the typical Hammer film and that’s mainly down to its stunning star. Overall, it’s passable entertainment, nowhere near as rampantly sexy as it’s made out and generally does what it has to do with minimum fuss, providing just enough of the good stuff to keep you ticking over.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dogs (1976)

Dogs (1976)

Don’t Pet Them … Fear Them!

In a small California town, mutilated cows are baffling the local authorities. It is clear that the attacks are not the work of coyotes or wolves but when some of the town’s citizens are found dead, the finger of blame is pointed at the town’s dogs which are grouping together in packs and inexplicably attacking people. A pair of college professors attempt to find out what is turning domestic pets into blood-thirsty killers before it is too late.

 

‘Animals attack’ films were all the rage in the 70s as every sort of animal imaginable suddenly become a man-eater, peaking with the monstrous success of Jaws in 1975 but taking in bees, spiders, grizzly bears, ants and frogs along the way to name a few. Preying upon fears that nature would begin to take revenge upon man’s meddling with the planet, Dogs places man’s best friend in the role of the avenger, striking back at mankind for whatever reason (it’s very sketchy at best). It’s hardly got enough in it to warrant cult status but Dogs was surprisingly effective in places. For someone who doesn’t like dogs, the thought of being ripped apart by them had already me freaking out a little beforehand. I guess if you’re a dog lover, then that notion becomes absurd.

The daft premise could have bombed had the material not been taken seriously but thankfully Dogs is as straight as they come. There’s not a joke or sight gag to be had though most likely lots of unintentional humour will arise should you decide to watch this with a few beers. Though the film is meant to be about the four-legged fiends of the title, too much time is spent with the talky, two-legged kind. There is about a twenty minute chunk of time from the title credits in which the main characters are introduced and talk academically and scientifically in very droll fashion. It’s a stretch to sit through it all but there are a couple of vague reasons thrown around for why the dogs are acting in this fashion. Nothing is really explained and the film ends in very similar anti-climactic fashion to Hitchcock’s The Birds in which more questions will be raised than answers.

After the half-way point, the film does pick up a lot of pace as more dog attacks happen and the film’s big set pieces begin to come into play. When the film finally gets into the correct gear, Dogs ticks off the right boxes and unleashes its horror elements. With the majority of the film taking place at night, there’s a suitably menacing vibe to the film. Seeing a pack of ravenous dogs charge out of the darkness towards their victims is an effective sight to send shivers down the spine. The dog attack look real, as stunt people are chewed on by real dogs, and as we all know from seeing dogs in real life, they can be quite aggressive and relentless when they get their teeth into something. The only weakness with the dogs is the lack of them – there are about twenty dogs in total, a variety of breeds, but you never really get the sense that the scale of this uprising is widespread.

Though the film isn’t very bloody, there’s enough splashed around to make it effective. Also adding to the ambiance is a creepy sound effect used when the dogs begin to howl and pack up before an attack – sort of like a warning alarm. This is used to good effect on a number of occasions, particularly during a nail-biting scene involving a drunk posse who have been camping out in the wilderness to hunt the menace, not realising what they have got themselves in for. It’s a fantastic sequence, well-shot, atmospheric and ratcheting up the tension as the posse can’t see the dogs but they can hear them getting closer and closer.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum is top-billed as the alcoholic hippie professor Harlan Thompson and pulls most of the movie together. He’s a bit irritating and abrupt at first but mellows out as the film progresses and he does less talking and more action. There’s good support from George Wyner too who will most likely be remembered more as a comedy actor for his roles as Colonel Sandurz from Spaceballs or the camp director from American Pie 2. Wyner is pretty solid in a straight role as the other college professor. Linda Gray would go to later worldwide fame in Dallas.

 

A dismal first half an hour kills off a lot of momentum that the second half should have had but Dogs tries it’s hardest to recover with some memorable moments and a honest approach which treats its daft idea with a lot of respect. It’s like The Birds…only with dogs…and it’s nowhere near as good. Thankfully the sequel teaser at the end involving a sinister-looking cat didn’t come to fruition.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Killdozer (1974)

Killdozer (1974)

Everyone Knows a Machine Cannot Kill. Except the Machine.

A mysterious alien force takes control of a massive bulldozer and proceeds to kill off the crew of a remote construction site on a small island off the coast of Africa.

 

That’s about all the plot you’re going to get from a hokey film like Killdozer. Made-for-TV in 1974, this is now virtually forgotten about – never released on DVD to date in the UK, never shown on television as far as I can recall and what few copies there were on VHS have been well worn over the years. Sometimes there are reasons for such obscurity.  I managed to watch this via a Youtube upload which has since been pulled so those wanting to check it out will be disappointed.

Despite the title, which is something a modern studio like The Asylum would love to have devised for one of their outlandish social media frenzies, Killdozer is sluggishly boring and never once lives up to any sort of throwaway potential the novelty value of a killer bulldozer may have had. At a slender seventy-four minutes, the material that is presented barely manages to extend that far and will have you reaching for the fast forward button before the first quarter is over. It’s just dull. There’s only so many adjectives I could use to describe it so the simplest one will do. It’s dull. Slow. Not a lot happens. No excitement. Dull.

For a start, the idea to locate this monstrous machine in the middle of nowhere with only a handful of construction workers to kill off amidst a few tents is daft as it takes away half of the fun of a bulldozer going on a rampage. Where are the buildings being smashed down? The cars and buses being taken out? A city or even small town location would have been the perfect place to unleash the bulldozer but keeping it confined to a small island without roads and any real buildings is a big cop out. I understand the budget not stretching that far but the idea was more less dead-on-arrival and the location doesn’t help matters one bit. It’s bland, pretty lifeless and looks to have been shot entirely in a quarry somewhere.

Forgive me if I’m wrong but aren’t bulldozers supposed to be really noisy, chugging lumps of metal which you could hear driving up on you? Not the Killdozer! This is a stealth vehicle, capable of smashing its way out of trees and bushes to spring out on unsuspecting victims at a moment’s notice. It’s not like it needs much prompting either with the few characters in the film displaying a sense of stupidity that wouldn’t even wash in the 80s teen slasher films. Who thinks it is a good idea to hide from a twenty-tonne bulldozer inside the metal pipe it has just you crawl into? Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the bulldozer never once manages to appear alive and the film falls flat as a result. There’s hardly any tension or excitement due to its slowness and you could easily outrun it if you put your mind to it. Even the prospect of a bulldozer versus digger showdown can’t liven things up.

The guys that sparsely populate this film consist of a few stock characters including the recovering alcoholic asshole foreman, the token black guy, the nervous one who breaks down and the popular guy. That’s pushing it for individual features as they’re so non-descript that it’s impossible to tell them apart at times. They do a lot of standing around talking and never really seem to ‘get’ the situation that they are faced with especially given their aforementioned stupidity. When the bulldozer is the smartest thing on show, you’ve got issues with your script.

 

Killdozer is dreadful fare which should have been left to rust on the seventies scrap heap. It’s hard trying to find positives to say about it. Even its short running time drags out for an eternity.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1972)

You have nothing to lose but your mind.

In order to meet a requirement for employment, a young psychiatrist interviews four inmates of a mental asylum. He hears their stories about the revenge of a murdered wife, a tailor who makes a unique suit, a woman who questions her own sanity and a man who builds tiny robots with lifelike human heads. The psychiatrist must then decide which inmate is the former head doctor in order to secure his job.

 

Think British horror and Hammer will most likely be the first name on your lips, and rightfully so. The studio dominated the late 50s and 60s with its succession of period Gothic horrors featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, various mummies, werewolves and more. However, you would find a solid case to argue for Amicus, a rival British studio which, after the success of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, churned out a further seven horror anthology films of varying levels of quality. Asylum was made mid-way through this schedule and acts as a critical high point where the creativity and originality had just about peaked and the films hadn’t got too formulaic for their own good.

The best thing about these anthology films is that they would feature a number of smaller stand-alone horror stories which usually ran for about ten to fifteen minutes and were linked together by a framing story. The stories were usually well-paced, snappy affairs which meant that if you didn’t like it then you’d only have to wait a few minutes before the next one began. It’s a something for all approach that worked well across their anthology films. For each weak segment, there was always a strong segment to rebound with. Asylum is no stranger to this way of working. Everyone will find something different to enjoy and the four different stories will each appeal to a certain horror lover.

The framing story for Asylum is probably the most interesting of the Amicus anthologies and does a nice job of linking together the individual stories. Writer Robert Bloch (who had previously penned The House That Dripped Blood, not to mention writing the novel Psycho) creates a mysterious tale in which the audience are being tested as much as the young psychiatrist. It also helps that Amicus’ film stock always looked dull and devoid of colour, certainly compared to their lavish Technicolour Hammer counterparts. The gloomy look adds to the creepiness and bleak nature of the asylum.

The first story isn’t particularly exciting about a husband who kills his wife because she won’t give him a divorce. It’s not great although it does feature a highly memorable image – that of a woman’s severed head, wrapped in brown paper, coming back to life and beginning to breathe through the paper. It’s quite an unnerving effect as the body parts squirm and making the paper rustle. However, no reason is given for the woman’s body parts coming back to life and this somewhat sours the whole episode.

The second story is also pretty low key as an impoverished tailor is paid a visit by a mysterious stranger who gives him an even more mysterious material from which to make a suit for his son. Barry Morse gives a sympathetic performance as the tailor and Peter Cushing adds a touch of class as the stranger with a lot to hide. The material glows quite weirdly and the set up to the finale is quite nice, if somewhat predictable. Cushing isn’t in it enough to make much of an impression so it’s a good job that Morse is able to hold his own.

The third story is arguably my least favourite but potentially the best developed of the four as a young woman is released from a mental home to stay with her brother. However she keeps having visions of her friend ‘Lucy’ who tells her to run away. Charlotte Rampling gives a good performance as someone who is delusional but Britt Ekland is her usual self: looks good but doesn’t cut it in the acting chops. The twist in this film is highly predictable right from the start even for the least seasoned horror veterans.

The final story doesn’t last too long and is basically a set up for the finale as Herbert Lom’s doctor creates little robots with lifelike human heads and says he can bring them to life by the power of thought. The robot looks really freaky with their little human heads but the segment isn’t really meant to be as long as the others. It leads right into the finale when we find out just who is the doctor and it’s quite a twist ending. It’s a chilling ending which comes out of nowhere and rounds the film off nicely. It will make you smile, laugh and shiver at the same time, which is precisely the sort of black humoured-horror that Amicus was aiming for.

 

As far as anthologies go, Asylum is a great way to spend eighty-eight minutes. The production is professional enough, the atmosphere suitably creepy for the setting, there are some big names to hold the cast together and there’s a little bit of gore too. It’s a great example of the anthology format being used in the right way.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Trapped On A Lost World of Prehistoric Monsters

A group of astronauts escape the imminent destruction of their starship on board an escape pod and head for the nearest planet which appears to be capable of supporting human life. After crash landing on the surface, the survivors find that they have no way of signalling for a rescue and set off to find a safe place to set up camp. However the planet is inhabited by an array of carnivorous dinosaurs which see the new arrivals as food.

 

Save for Ray Harryhausen flying a flag for stop motion monster movies, I didn’t think anyone else made these type of stop motion effects-driven films in the late 70s. But after recently discovering Planet of Dinosaurs and The Crater Lake Monster, I was wrong and look forward to uncovering more of this dying breed of film. Planet of the Dinosaurs is a cheap and nasty drive-in movie by definition but hides within it a fantastic array of stop motion special effects that would have Ray Harryhausen giving them a round of applause.

Straight from the off, Planet of Dinosaurs looks to be a blatant Planet of the Apes clone as we head into familiar territory. As well as the ‘Planet of…..’ title, here we have a spaceship which crashes into a lake in a remote location on a barren planet and the crew are forced to escape before their ship sinks. Stranded without hope of rescue, the crew then set off in pursuit of shelter, food, water and some form of civilisation. Only this is where the comparisons then end – instead of intelligent simians, these unlucky astronauts come face-to-face with a whole host of hungry dinosaurs. And this is where the fun begins. Far from being a serious science fiction flick, Planet of Dinosaurs descends into a cheese fest of epic proportions.

After being harassed by the dinosaurs for the first half of the film in which some of their number are picked off, the survivors decide to fight back and let the dinosaurs know who is in charge (as humans as a race have a tendency to do in science fiction films). From about the half an hour mark, the film is almost a non-stop collection of sequences involving various humans battling against the dinosaurs using spears, bow and arrows and stockades. If you came along thinking that you’d be cheated out of plenty of dino-action, then you’re completely wrong.

Planet of Dinosaurs‘ strength lies in the quality of its monsters. The dinosaurs are old school stop motion. And there are a lot of them. I can’t believe how frequently they appear on the camera. To say that this made outside of the studio system and given how low cost the rest of the film is, the special effects look fantastic. The T-Rex is the standout monster, looking suitably menacing, and could easily have been lifted from a Ray Harryhausen film. There are a stegosaurus, a triceratops and a brontosaurus to name a few others which are all animated with precise skill and technique. A few familiar names crop up in the effects department including Jim Danforth who worked on films like Jack the Giant Killer and assisted Harryhausen in the original Clash of the Titans. With talented people on board to produce some quality special effects, it makes a nice change to actually see where the money has gone.

The script and the acting do the most harm to Planet of the Dinosaurs. Whilst the story itself is basic and sees the ‘futuristic’ humans having to revert back to hunter-gather mode (which is perfectly completed by the abrupt final scene), the dialogue is appalling , though thankfully there’s not as much dialogue as I was expecting given how much action there is. These lines are delivered just as badly by the cast. Made up of gruff, bearded-men and good-looking, busty women, the film could be mistaken for some low rent porno flick. But it adds a little goofy charm to proceedings, especially as one male character spends almost the entire length of the film without his shirt on.

It isn’t just the quality of the dialogue and the delivery of them which is frustrating but the manner in which characters constantly put themselves in danger by making really stupid decisions. The females are the worst – if they’re not forgetting to pack communications equipment when their escape pod sinks, then they’re dropping the group’s food supply over the edge of a cliff. With the captain being an ineffectual dweeb who wants to run from the dinosaurs, another crew man wanting to beat his chest and do his best caveman impression, and another character just generally annoying the hell out of everyone by moaning about everything, there is dissent among the crew. Unsurprisingly, we never get to really know any of the characters in any great depth other than their stereotypes and so our support lies squarely in the dinosaurs, on whose planet these annoying characters have been dumped.

Planet of Dinosaurs also comes off like Tour of the Planet of Dinosaurs during the many scenes of the survivors walking around the desolate landscape looking for safety. There are far too many scenes of them climbing rocks, walking through swamps and scouring through bushes. There’s little attempt to drive the narrative in any direction and by the end of the film, whilst you may have had a fun time, you’d wonder what the point in it all was.

 

Planet of Dinosaurs is a curious film which didn’t sound particularly great but ended up being a lot of cheesy fun. Though it’s supposed to be set in the future, this is 70s camp at its purest. It’s got its fair share of problems but the quality and sheer number of special effects throughout the film should guarantee stop motion fans a great time.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆