Tag 1970s

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

You’ll never close your eyes again.

When chemist Elizabeth Driscoll confides in her colleague Matthew that her boyfriend seems to have changed, he advises her to visit one of his friends, a psychologist named David Kibner. Kibner believes that Elizabeth doesn’t realise that her relationship is falling apart due to modern society’s stresses. But as more people they know start to become cold and distant towards each other, they discover that something more sinister is at work. Spores from outer space have landed on Earth and are perfectly replicating humans without anyone realising.

 

The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a landmark classic in its own right, served to portray a contemporary society which feared the breakdown of the cosy small-town American way of life and its traditional conservative values into something more alien (and Russian, as the case was during the early days of the Cold War and fears of Communist usurpation in the West). Twenty-two years later, those fears have now been realised in this remake. America had massively urbanised, had lost the cosy sense of safety that everybody knew everybody else, and society had become distant and cold to each other as a result of individual self-drive and ambition. It wasn’t about what you could do for your country anymore, but what you could do for yourself. People had become so self-absorbed that they failed to notice things from the past that had been the very fabric and essence of early twentieth century life. These changing times are reflected perfectly in this updated version of the story, a rare instance where a remake not only builds upon the themes of the original but surpasses them. Back then, people could recognise change and do something about it – here, society is changing under their very noses, but their new way of life doesn’t allow them to see it until it’s too late.

It’s this sense of being slowly consumed by an unseen enemy and being powerless to stop it that Invasion of the Body Snatchers masterfully conveys. The film isn’t in your face. It isn’t loud. Nor is it really that exciting. It’s grim. It’s bleak. Its unrelenting. The film lures you in, not even with a false sense of security, but an overwhelming claustrophobia and ominous foreboding. There’s an element of resignation from the characters as they’re facing a losing battle and the net begins to tighten around them. You’ll question your own sanity, your own identity and your own mortality many times before this one is over. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an experience like no other film I’ve watched. It’s deeply troubling and unsettling, but at the same time you know full-well you’re in the hands of some amazing craftsmen who are manipulating your every thought. Direction. Script. Cinematography. The score. The cast. It’s almost an impenetrable assault on your subliminal senses from all angles, right from the opening scene up until the infamous final shot.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman deserves so much praise for the way he lights the film or doesn’t light it. There’s lots of shadows, darkness and silhouettes, creating an unsettling film noir intensity which constantly hides or reveals minor details in the background. Director Philip Kaufman made the decision to shoot a lot of the film from weird angles too, making sure his audience is never settled, always making sure they’re on-the-edge, always looking out for something. Characters are lit in dim blue lights, are seen through the fisheye lens of a door peephole or reflected in warped mirrors. It’s eerie beyond belief to catch glimpses of random people standing on the street staring at the characters from the corner of the frame. In one superb shot, we watch as an emotionless neighbour sweeps up some grey dust and deposits it in a garbage truck. It’s only later on that we realise the dust was actually the remains of his human self. It’s a chilling moment – one of many subtle nuances Invasion of the Body Snatchers puts in front of the audience to build up the big picture. This invasion is widespread and it’s unstoppable and the mastery behind the camera ensures that this is as disconcerting for the audience as it is for the characters.

Despite the strong cast, at no point do you sit and see the actors themselves but rather the characters they’re playing. Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy all manage to create natural, multi-layered characters which is so important for later in the film when people begin succumbing to the pods – these aliens can’t replicate emotions . Sutherland owns the screen whenever he’s around, whilst Goldblum shows early signs of the hyperactive nervous delivery that he became known for. Nimoy, in particular, is a curious choice for the character he plays. Most famous the world over as the stoic and honourable Spock from Star Trek, Nimoy’s turn as the high-profile celebrity psychiatrist gives us a glimpse of a sinister edge he rarely showed on the big screen. The casting choice of one of the most popular and recognisable faces of the 60s gives the film the smart opportunity to really play upon audience expectations: if Spock is powerless to stop the pods, what hope does humanity have? In an amusing cameo, star of the original Kevin McCarthy pops up and shouts his infamous line.

This being the late 70s, special effects have come a long way since the 50s and so the actual sequences of being replicated are a lot more vivid and nightmarish to really draw out audience fears of being silently killed. Two sequences stand out – Goldblum’s encounter inside a spa where a nearly-finished duplicate lies on a slab next to him and the scene where the four humans are sleeping outside, only to realise they’re all slowly being replicated by hidden pods around them, spine-chilling fetuses writhing around on the floor coming to life. A combination of fantastic prosthetics, lots of goo and slime, and some stomach-wrenching sound effects really convey this sort of duplication process like few other films have managed to. As I’ve already mentioned, the resulting pile of dust left behind that was the real person is an utterly terrifying prospect.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers release at the end of the 70s kick-started a wave of 50s films being remade over the next decade: The Thing, The Fly, The Blob and Invaders From Mars all found new life in the 1980s with modernising, some more so than others. I’d argue that all of them were better than their originals by a country mile. Something that can’t be said much nowadays about remakes.

 

A cutting-edge sci-fi masterpiece of fear and paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers slowly draws you in to its web of suspicion, begins to suffocate you once you’re in too far and will linger long in the mind after viewing. There are few films that are constantly this grim and downbeat and leave such a lasting impression – it’s virtually flawless. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as essential a film I’m ever going to recommend on this site.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Prophecy (1979)

Prophecy (1979)

Out there is a mindless, merciless creature of destruction. She will find you.

An EPA investigator and his girlfriend discover that a Native American reserve in Maine has been poisoned over the years by an unscrupulous paper mill owner allowing mercury to escape into the river system. As the mercury has filtered up through the food chain, it has created a mutant grizzly bear that kills everything in its path.

 

Another late 70s film to tap into the killer animal sub-genre with a serious ecological message at its heart, Prophecy comes from the writer of The Omen and the director of The Manchurian Candidate but there’s not a hint of any of the greatness involved here. Maybe it’s because big time directors such as John Frankenheimer just don’t ‘get’ horror films. Maybe they feel that they’re below them once they’ve achieved success. Maybe they feel because they’ve got a good resume under their belts, they’d work well in the genre. Or maybe, just maybe, a film about a mutated killer grizzly bear isn’t the sort of film for an acclaimed director such as Frankenheimer to consider helming. Besides, the killer bear flick had already been back in 1976 with Grizzly. Surely there wasn’t a demand for more killer bear horror films?

Prophecy is the kind of film that would find a home on Sy Fy nowadays. But thankfully, it was made back in 1979 and so it’s gritty low budget trappings are all on display. There are no CGI shortcuts, no teen leading roles and no sugar-coated schmaltzy ending. In fact, the film is anything but sugar-coated. Prophecy is heavy-handed when it comes to sending its main messages – not only are environmental disasters top of the bill but the film ticks off things such as Native American land rights issues, unwanted pregnancies and more. I’m sure they’ll be a protest message in there somewhere which suits an agenda close to your own heart! In the midst of all of this banner-waving righteousness, there is a monster movie somewhere and it’s something the first half of the film tends to forget, which would have alienated the majority of its potential horror audience. Every so often there’ll be a random death or some mention of an incident but you’d be hard-pressed to connect everything together if you hadn’t already read the synopsis and realised that it was a giant mutated killer bear on the loose. Foreshadowing what is to come isn’t the same as building up some tension and throw in a few thrills along the way.

Prophecy takes it’s time to get going (and I mean takes its time!) but once the bear finally starts tearing people apart, the film goes into awesome cheesy B-movie territory. This is where the film plays to its limited strengths and starts to deliver on its original premise. The pace picks up significantly as a group of the characters all converge in the woods through various means and the bear starts hunting them down and killing them off. It’s not very gory (it only received a PG rating in America upon its initial release) but I read that a lot of the blood was cut before release, which is a shame. Playing to genre tropes in a film like this is a necessity, not a luxury.

I’ve read a lot of criticism about the mutant bear and yes, the effects for it are atrocious. But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it in this instance. I’m guessing there is a giant prop bear in there somewhere and also a guy-in-a-suit for whenever the situation dictates a certain special effect. The bear looks like someone left a wax costume in front of a radiator for a few hours – a gloopy mess of melted distortion which has been turned inside out by mercury poisoning. The bear looks stupid but frightening in equal measure, more so due to its height. It’s also in a constant bad mood, roaring and crying out loud as it looks for fresh meat. And fresh meat it does find. Thankfully, the talky first half sets up plenty of potential snacks for the bear as it makes more frequent appearances on screen – even kids aren’t spared, in the film’s most memorable death scene involving a sleeping bag.

Talia Shire, riding a crest of a wave with appearances in both Rocky and The Godfather, stars and is ok at doing what she does best – generate sympathy for her character. In fact, she spends the majority of the running time crying or looking like she’s about to cry. Robert Foxworth is also decent enough as the male lead though the two together are hardly riveting screen presences. It’s up to the supporting players to add some more dynamism to the film. Richard Dysart provides the requisite evil corporate type in charge of the paper mill whilst Armand Assante, miscast as a Native American, still manages to generate some life into the script. In the end though, human characters in this type are film are monster chow and so the ability to bring a character to life in limited dialogue is a tough ask. The cast do more than an adequate job in this regard, albeit they did have plenty of time in the talky first half. Arguably the film’s most intense scene involves an early square-off between the Native landowners and the lumberjacks with the killer bear nowhere in sight.

 

Prophecy is a goofy 70s killer monster movie which has its fun moments, but you’ll have to slog through plenty of dross in order to get to them. The results are cheesy and probably not as good as you’d hope they would be. Still, the sight of a giant mutated killer bear charging through the woods has never been more realistic.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Asphyx, The (1972)

The Asphyx (1972)

Immortality … what would you sacrifice for it?

In 1875, Sir Hugo Cunningham uses his interest in photography to study the dying. As he notices strange blurs only on the pictures he takes near the moment of death, Cunningham theorises that what he can see Is the Asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed came to claim the soul as it departed the body. Cunningham discovers he can trap the Asphyx in the beam of a phosphate lamp and that by imprisoning it in the light, he can halt death and achieve immortality.

 

The Asphyx is a little-known effort from the Hammer-dominated Anglo-horror cycle which originated back in the late 1950s and was now in its swansong in the 70s. Conceptually a very Edgar Allan Poe-esque psychological thriller but with a dark, macabre edge, The Asphyx is head and shoulders above the Frankenstein, vampire, mummy and demonic possession films that Hammer, Amicus and their competitors had been churning out for years, with a classy sci-fi orientated story that many found a little too dull and dreary, leading to its obscurity over the years.

Take the hokeyness on display with a pinch of salt as there’s too much shoulder shrugging with plot holes to worry about the contrivances and coincidences and just sit back and soak up the sheer morbid sense of dread on offer. You’ve just got to accept what you’re seeing is reasonable and logical and come to the same conclusions as the characters, which is fairly easy to do given how well and convincing the film portrays the whole notion of death. It’s almost an oxymoron for me to describe the film as ‘intelligent’ given what I’ve just said but the story treats its subject material with a lot of respect. The Asphyx is slow-moving, sluggishly paced at times, but never boring as the scientists slowly develop their plans for capturing the Asphyx and put this into practice. You just know it’s not going to end well for someone as there’s always a bitter twist at the end for bold scientists trying to play God and here is no exception. The journey to that point is what makes this film work so well as there’s a consistently sinister undercurrent throughout – everything may look and appear to be very tame and under control but the tension is building to a head as to what will eventually happen.

Director by Peter Newbrook in his only directorial outing (he was in charge of second unit photography on Lawrence of Arabia so he had a good pedigree when it came to lining up shots), The Asphyx’s production values don’t give any indication of the low budget – a lavishly-decorated laboratory that Dr Frankenstein himself would be fond of is the focal point for much of the film’s running time, with steampunk-like contraptions and devices all being used by the scientists to try and trap the asphyx. Without looking at the date it was made, you could quite easily mistake The Asphyx for one of Hammer’s glorious Technicolour period pieces from the late 50s/early 60s, such is the attention to detail. Being set in the Victorian era allows the filmmakers the opportunity to explore the advances in science and technology that were beginning to come through at the time, creating a nice mix between modern scientific research and old-school obsession with the occult and supernatural which works well with the story. The scenes of the ghostly asphyx struggling to escape from the blue phosphate beam, wailing and shrieking away, are genuinely unsettling. It’s clearly just a cheap-looking hand puppet but the way it’s presented is ethereal and memorable. It’s great that the film doesn’t need to resort to grisly set pieces to shock its audience, though there are a few moments where you think if this had been Hammer, they’d have gone a bit further on-screen. It’s also worth noting that the method for catching and containing the asphyx, the blue light containment system, is virtually the same one that Ghostbusters used in 1984.

Performances are top notch across the board, but the credit needs to go to Robert Stephens as Cunningham, a man slowly driven mad by his obsession with immortality. It’s the classic Frankenstein/Dr Jekyll-like descent into madness that doesn’t see Stephens crossover into the realms of overacting, though one sequence involving him being electrocuted does push the boundaries a bit too far. I could have imagined Christopher Lee taking on this role, someone with a bit more of a sharp, sinister edge to his on-screen personas but Stephens does admirable work as it stands.

 

Intelligent and thought-provoking but sadly not finding an audience upon it’s release, The Asphyx is a great obscurity which is now receiving more critical acclaim having finally been released on blu-ray for the first time. One of the most underrated British horror films made, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it’s different and varied approach will keep you hooked until the finale.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night Stalker, The (1972)

The Night Stalker (1972)

Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchack investigates a series of murders believed to have been committed by an animal but that they are the work of a vampire. However, no will believe his theory as they are more concerned about the negative impact upon the tourist industry of so many murders.

 

The Night Stalker and it’s follow-up, The Night Strangler, were a pair of hugely successful TV movies in the 1970s which preceded Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a single-season TV series about a news reporter who investigates reports of the supernatural, monstrous, or things that can only be explained as science fiction. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was an excellent show which achieved cult status and, according to Chris Carter, was a tremendous influence in him creating the even better The X-Files over twenty years later – you can clearly see the similarities between both shows (in a nice nod to it’s origins, Kolchak actor Darren McGavin did appear on The X-Files for a pair of episodes).

The Night Stalker was the highest rated TV movie all of time upon its release in America in 1972 (54% share of the eligible viewing audience, an amazing feat) and it’s easy to see why, with the easy-going charm of the main actor Darren McGavin and its updated version of vampire lore giving audiences something fresh and exciting to get their teeth into (sorry!). Weaned on decades of cape-wearing, suave aristocrats stuck in chilly castles in Eastern Europe and all situated in period settings, The Night Stalker was one of the first films to bring the classic tale into the then-present day. No longer were the vampires stalking buxom serving wenches in taverns in small villages but prowling the streets of modern-day civilisation.

Writer Richard Matheson must take the credit for this. Known for his excellent science fiction writing both in literature and in television and film (I Am Legend being one of his novels), Matheson crafts a sharp script full of dramatic irony – the audience know well-full there’s a vampire on the loose before any of the other characters do and, thanks to years of vampire films, they know exactly how to deal with one. Matheson plays upon this a fair bit, having Kolchak run through the repertoire of vampire-killing techniques and establishing just enough legacy in the creature to make it menacing without being too familiar.

Having seen the TV series before I watched the pair of earlier TV movies, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which was which due to the almost identical production values. At seventy-four minutes, the film moves briskly enough and gets straight into the action. There’s no dramatic build-up, just Kolchak dictating to the audience about the chain of events that have led to the first bodies turning up. It’s a tactic used to good effect in the TV series to save time being unnecessarily wasted on exposition. The thing with these Kolchak stories is that they’re not very scary, focusing on the police procedural elements over anything else. So if you’re expecting to be bamboozled with blood and violence, then think again. There are some action sequences but given the constraints of the budget and the context in which they’re being shown, they’re about as effective as they need to be. Watching the vampire burst through a police cordon and take out lots of cops is one of the film’s highlights but you can tell it’s hardly cutting-edge stunt work. Likewise, the scenes involving the vampire and his victims are timid, even by the 1970s standards.

Darren McGavin is fantastic as Kolchak and this quickly became his signature role. His reporter could have come off as a really irritating, obnoxious nosey parker but McGavin imbues the character with enough likeable charisma, cockiness, wits and, above all, intelligence, to really get you behind him, even on the occasion when his decisions are a little controversial and life-endangering. Kolchak is a reporter, above all else, and his determination to get the story, rather than stop the criminal, is what keeps him going.

 

The Night Stalker is a breezy and efficient way to spend your time, with the film moving with pace from one moment to the next with one of the genre’s best characters, Carl Kolchak, and a fine performance from Darren McGavin to anchor everything. The legacy that The Night Stalker left upon the world of TV horror and science fiction far outweighs its actual end product.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Food of the Gods, The (1976)

The Food of the Gods (1976)

One Taste Is All It Takes!

When a mysterious substance starts bubbling up from the ground on a remote island in British Columbia, a local farmer believes it is a gift from God and decides to feed it to his chickens, causing them to grow to enormous size. However, rats, grubs and wasps also feed on the substance and soon the giant monsters infest the island, which causes problems for other civilians who are visiting.

 

Based on a ‘portion’ of a novel by H.G. Wells (that should read, literally no resemblance to the story whatsoever because a portion could literally be one word!) and brought to the screen by notorious director Bert I. Gordon, of The Amazing Colossal Man and Earth Vs The Spider fame, known for his love of directing movies featuring super-sized creatures, The Food of the Gods is one of the 70s ‘nature runs amok’ movies where Mother Nature had decided to take revenge upon mankind by unleashing a slew of beasts and disasters upon the Earth. It doesn’t bode well and that’s before the review has even properly begun.

The Food of the Gods is an atrociously made low budget film, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation precedes, probably because it’s deadly serious. There’s no messing around here with the way these animals deal with their human lunches, and the cautionary environmental messages are still prevalent today with worries about genetically modified crops and plastic entering the food chain. The Food of the Gods gets straight down to business within the first seven minutes, dispatching a character, showing us the threats and giving us as much story exposition as you’re going to get to explain everything. Don’t even try to think of plausible reasons as to what the substance is or why it exists because you won’t get any. As cheesy and preposterous as things get during the running time, the film itself doesn’t cross over into parody or cheesiness. Everything is played with a straight face and it surprisingly works the better for it.

This stretches to the cast. The characters are dull; the actors behind them aren’t great. The Food of the Gods isn’t exactly your Shakespearean actor type of film, and the limited dialogue the cast have got here doesn’t do much to give them any sort of personality or characteristics. They’re not really fleshed out enough other than to provide names so other characters can lament them when they’re rat chow. In a world where rats and chickens have grown to enormous sizes, the characters do remarkably well to maintain their composure when faced with such absurd sights. A little more hysteria would have added to the film’s drama, with the two younger female characters being the only two to really seem to worry about dying at the hands of these rats.

Gordon’s Beginning of the End back in 1957 featured some truly awful special effects but here we go, nineteen years later, and it seems that the director has remained static in his approach – only this time, he’s not able to mask them as easily with the black and white footage. There’s no stop motion here, no animatronic models or the equivalent – Gordon has the budget of a postage stamp to bring to life these mutated monsters and so a mixture of giant rat and chicken puppet heads for close-ups, real footage of rats rear-projected or shoddy matte work is used to bring these beasties to life. The chicken head provides the film’s most ridiculous scene, when one of the characters strays inside the barn and is attacked by a crew member working the head in front of the camera. The wasps look like brown blobs during their moment in the spotlight. It’s up to the rats to anchor the film and they are the main threat here – a larger variety of animals would have worked better because the rats quickly overstay their welcome. I’m pretty sure there are shots of rats drowning and being shot with a paintball gun – some scenes seem to feature dead rats lying prone whilst their comrades scurry over them – which adds a little sour taste in the mouth. But the effects, for as pathetic as they look, do take a painstaking lot of time to get right and Gordon’s attention to detail has to be commended, even if the final results are laughable.

There is enough shock and gore here to satisfy horror fans though. The kills flow thick and fast and there’s a fair bit of blood splashed around, particularly when the rats get hungry and start nibbling away. I can’t think of too many more squeamish things than seeing rats like this and they will get under your skin, as silly as the blown-up footage looks. The idea that there is some sort of ‘head rat’ – an albino with pink eyes that hangs around in the background whilst the brown rats do all of the dirty work – is laughable but adds for one last jump at the end. The film goes all Night of the Living Dead for the finale, as the survivors barricade themselves in the farmhouse as the rats launch their final onslaught.

 

The Food of the Gods is rightfully lambasted as a terrible B-movie but it’s not all doom and gloom. Embrace the cheapness of Gordon’s butchered version of an H.G. Wells story and there’s a lot of entertainment to be had. There’s a good reason this has become a cult classic over the years.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆