Tag Dinosaurs

Jurassic Attack (2013)

Jurassic Attack (2013)

They’re back … and they’re hungry!

A squad of army soldiers is sent into the jungle to rescue a female biochemist, who is being held captive by a ruthless South American dictator, and destroy the biochemical weapon that he now has in his possession.  But the mission goes wrong and their helicopter is shot down. Struggling through the dense jungle terrain, they stumble into an ancient valley filled with carnivorous dinosaurs.

 

Jurassic Attack currently holds the dubious distinction of being Sy Fy’s last Saturday Night Original Movie before the channel decided to move their monster mash-ups to Thursdays instead and, depending on what month of the year it is, has also been known as Rise of the Dinosaurs in some quarters. So what does that mean for the film? Well not a lot really as I was struggling to write an introductory paragraph and decided to pad it out a little. I could write the same things for Sy Fy films and usually have so decided to skip the instant criticism and waffle a little bit. Anyway on to the review…

We’ve all been there before with daft killer dinosaur flicks like Raptor Island. We know the drill: expendable soldiers, terribly-rendered CGI raptors, lots of gun fire, awful CG blood and more cheese than a dairy factory. Jurassic Attack rigidly sticks to this formula, providing a reasonably-sized platoon of largely nameless dinosaur chow, a token gruff action hero, a chick in a tight tank top, an overplayed human villain and special effects which look to have been dragged out from before the Ice Age. Originality is lacking but I wasn’t expecting it to be present to begin with.

It is coincidental that in the year Jurassic Park receives a 3-D cinematic makeover, a similar-sounding low budget cash-in pops it’s head out of the Jurassic period. There’s no working explanation for the appearance of dinosaurs in this film. You’ll be required to provide your own thesis because the film just presents it as fact. Even the low key reactions of the characters sum up the ho-hum attitude to this new-found discovery. These are dinosaurs we’re talking about, not pigeons or horses! Man’s usual reaction is to shoot first and ask questions later so before the enormity of this history-changing discovery can sink in, the soldiers are already trying to make sure that the dinosaur extinction is consigned to history once more with round after round of ammo.

Special effects-wise, Jurassic Attack fails in every department. Despite the decent cinematography (this actually looks like an undiscovered valley for a change), the dinosaurs look awful. They look poor on their own but when there’s more than one dinosaur on screen, the effects are jarring and shoddy. They don’t interact well with their real environment (footprints? water splashes?) and the scenes of the dinosaurs slashing and biting at the humans just descend into CGI blood fests. It’s a shame because the dinosaurs are well-detailed when they stand still but as soon as any movement is required, the good work goes out of the window.

What the special effects lack in quality, the film at least makes up with the quantity of dinosaur attacks. Once they’ve stumbled into the secret valley, this group is never five minutes away from another devastating dino encounter. Whilst there’s no real shock to the order of death of the characters, you never get the sense that the film is coasting. There’s always a random dinosaur attack to keep things fresh and interesting. The dinosaur selection is varied too with raptors, T-Rexes and Triceratops all causing problems for the characters.

Fresh off battling the titular monsters in Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus, Gary Stretch takes centre stage once more as the action hero. Stretch was the best thing about that film and he’s the best thing on display here. He’s never going to make it big but in the lead role in these daft low budget films, he’s found his niche. Stretch looks and sounds like he can kick some ass as the dinosaurs find out first-hand. Regular B-movie actor Corin Nemec gets a supporting role as an army commander who spends his entire screen time holed up in the ‘command centre’ location. Every one of these films has to have a small command centre with three or four army guys staring blankly at the camera pretending to push buttons and give out orders to the main characters. So why Nemec, a popular mainstay in these monster movies, is relegated to background duty with a pointless role is beyond me. He spends the bulk of his screen time butting heads with Vernon Wells’ dodgy ‘Agent’ character. Basically the corporate/government suit, Wells is another guy I’d expect to see in a bigger role in something like this and Jurassic Attack wastes two of its biggest assets in non-essential parts.

 

Throw all of this into the grinder and what you get is about eighty minutes of mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable mush which will no doubt be reheated and reserved under the guise of another dino romp in the future. Jurassic Attack isn’t Sy Fy’s worst outing but it’s not exactly recommended viewing.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dinocroc (2004)

Dinocroc (2004)

It feeds on fear.

Scientists at the Gereco Corporation discover an accelerated growth hormone in the fossils of a prehistoric super-crocodile and extract the DNA to create new prototypes of the dinosaur back in the lab. However one of the infant crocodiles kills an employee and manages to escape into a local lake where it begins to eat anything and anyone in its path. The corporation hires a famous reptile hunter to bring it back but he isn’t the only one who is out to stop it.

 

It seems like an eternity since Dinocroc was released in 2004 but that’s been mainly down to the ridiculous number of ‘prehistoric creatures on the loose’ films that have emerged from the Roger Corman stable since. Dinocroc was one of the ‘pioneering’ efforts that paved the way for such classics as Dinoshark and Supergator and then the inevitable Dinocroc Vs Supergator. It sees that Corman struck straight-to-DVD gold when he began producing these cheap modern monster movies and has been mining it dry ever since.

This doesn’t mean to say that Dinocroc is in any way, shape or form an original film. To say that there’s been nearly ten years between it being released and this review, the formula has not changed one bit. So much so that you could quite easily swap out the dinocroc creature here and place in a giant snake or other carnivorous monster and there would be no difference to the overall narrative. The only reason any sane person would tune in to watch is to see what a giant prehistoric crocodile that can walk on two legs actually looks like. I was half-expecting some animatronic puppetry but Dinocroc joins the twentieth century by bringing its monster to life in CGI. It comes off looking like a low-rent version of the 1998 Americanised Godzilla. It bugs me that the monster is so alike – could effects man-turned-director Kevin O’Neill not have thought of anything more original? I mean he’s got a blank slate to design a cool-looking dinocroc and just wastes it by creating mini-Godzilla. There’s not a hint of crocodile in here at all.

Even with a generic look, the effects are really poor and there’s not too many variations on the animations. So whilst you see a lot of the monster, it’s always the same shots of it rampaging through the swamp. The CGI effects also lend it ridiculous speed and agility, a common fault with many modern monsters. Surely something this big and cumbersome would be slow and stealthy? But it can swim faster than a speed boat when it needs to and can outpace a jeep when on land. It is also given some silly Gregorian chanting music theme so whenever it appears on screen, this unholy demonic choir begin singing. I don’t know what the intention was with this but I’m pretty sure the resultant effect on the film isn’t what they wanted it to be. With severed heads and bloody limbs flying around and at the camera, the death scenes are at least gory and some come out of nowhere. It’s a shame that the effects don’t stand up to much scrutiny when they do happen.

Whilst Dinocroc wracks up the clichés and rigidly sticks to the rules for the most, there are odd moments where it threatens to break free of its shackles and become entertaining. It never does however, despite graphically feeding a young child to the dinocroc in one shocking scene. It gets well fed too with the amount of non-characters that find themselves trapped between its jaws. There are plenty of stereotypical characters on display but as they’re all sort-of essential to the story, there’s no chance of them getting harmed until the finale. From bitchy corporate villains, to no-nonsense local sheriffs, scientists appalled with how their creation has turned out and a local animal control officer who will no doubt find love with the hero of the piece by the time the credits roll (who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend).

Costas Mandylor, who went on to greater fame as Jigsaw’s protégé in the Saw films, stars in the lead role as the token ‘great white hunter’ character who is tasked with tracking down and killing the creature. Mandylor plays the Aussie role like a more jacked-up version of the late Steve Irwin. But whilst the role cries out for a tongue-in-cheek parody performance, Mandylor, and the film for that matter, keeps things all serious and dull. Veteran character actor Charles Napier is on hand as, surprise surprise, the local badass sheriff. Napier can do these roles in his sleep, which is most likely where you’ll be after an hour or so of this.

 

Dinocroc is what happens when Roger Corman decides to blend Jurassic Park, Godzilla and Alligator together. It’s pretty worthless overall but I know some of you out there won’t be able to resist the lure of another prehistoric creature feature flick.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Crater Lake Monster, The (1977)

The Crater Lake Monster (1977)

A beast more frightening than your most terrifying nightmare!

The heat of a meteor crashing into Crater Lake causes a dormant dinosaur egg at the bottom of the lake to hatch, unleashing a giant aquatic dinosaur which soon develops a taste for human flesh.

 

Cited as one of the worst monster movies ever made, The Crater Lake Monster comes with a hefty reputation to maintain. It does sound like one of those old school sci-fi ‘atomic monster’ flicks that were all the rage in the 1950s but this one was made in 1977, no doubt as some kind of throwback during a time when interest in the Loch Ness Monster had been revived thanks to the exploits of Robert H. Rines’s expeditions. If only The Crater Lake Monster had proven as captivating an attraction as the myth of Nessie.

Make no mistake about it – The Crater Lake Monster lives up to its reputation. With a shoestring budget and unpolished production values, it’s the sort of 70s film that would have played well in drive-ins. Utter tripe from beginning to end, the film does at least have one redeeming factor in the form of the monster. But in order to get to the sporadic and brief highlights, you’ve got to slug it out with one of the genre’s most awful creature feature films.

A lot of the flak comes from the film’s unnecessary focus on Arnie and Mitch, a couple of country bumpkins who live near the lake and provide the film’s copious amount of comic relief. Glenn Roberts and Mark Siegel seem friendly and innocent enough but their characters should have had background roles. I’m not sure whether director William R. Stromberg was the only one who found their antics hilarious but no one else will. It’s padding and blatant padding at that. The two men live up to numerous backwoods stereotypes as the dim-witted handymen who work for beer and each other’s monotonous company. Desperate to stretch out it’s running time to be classed as a full feature film, The Crater Lake Monster also features lots of random zooms and close-ups of the nice scenery. It sure looks like a nice place to visit but this is meant to be a film not a promotional video.

It’s not like anyone in the cast is any better though. Richard Cardella as Sheriff Hanson and Bob Hyman as Doc Calkins are both horrendous in their roles. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to believe that both men were the local sheriff and doctor respectively and got roped into shooting the film when the director turned up at the lake with a few crew members and asked them to star in a film. Cardella has no other screen credits to his name whilst Calkins only had a prior credit. Based on this evidence, cinema has not missed out on any tricks with either man.

With all of these ‘actors’ running around the lake and local town and doing anything and everything but encountering the monster, the film never gets going. I would say that the pace is off but there is no pace at all. Stromberg doesn’t have any grasp of narrative or structure and just lets things pan out as slowly and as dully as possible. Coincidentally he also co-wrote and produced the film and has never directed, produced or written a film since. I guess that’s all you need to know about the quality on display. Characters are introduced and then dropped. Minor characters become the main focus. There’s no sense of urgency with anyone despite there being a monster on the rampage.

So the film itself is total rubbish but the actual monster looks fantastic. Brought to life with glorious stop motion to give it a realistic feel, the monster is a class above others in its genre and something more akin to a lesser Harryhausen creation. The man responsible, David Allen, went on to have a fantastic career creating the visual effects for such films as Q, the Winged Serpent (also featuring a stop motion dinosaur-like monster), Batteries Not Included and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It just proves everyone has to start somewhere in the film business and it is clear from this film that Allen had talent.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly given the practicality of stop motion, the monster isn’t allotted anywhere near enough screen time and does little more than waddle about on its flippers and roar. The finale involving the monster battling the sheriff in a bulldozer is a big let down too. However in plenty of other scenes, the monster is simply represented with an oversized head floating around underwater. This looks nothing like the monster in stop motion form. But I suppose that is the least of the film’s problems.

 

The Crater Lake Monster is nearly as bad as its reputation claims but the brief stop motion special effects are worth one look and I’m sure you could find a highlight reel lurking on Youtube to save you the ordeal of sitting through the full film. It’s just a shame that these effects are wasted in this hokey micro budget film and are not displayed in something bigger budgeted and more professional.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Son of Kong, The (1933)

The Son of Kong (1933)

SEE! The cannibals! The earthquake! The sea serpent! The fighting monsters of ages past!

After King Kong’s rampage through New York, filmmaker Carl Denham is counting the cost. Penniless and faced with numerous lawsuits served against him, he is approached by Captain Engelhorn, the captain of the ship of that brought Kong to New York and who is also facing charges, with an offer that the two men flee to avoid their inevitable prison sentences. After attempting to make money by shipping cargo around the Dutch East Indies on Engelhorn’s ship, they bump into Norwegian Nils Helstrom who originally sold Denham the map to Skull Island. He convinces them that there is great treasure hidden on the island and together they set sail to find it. But when they get there, they discover an ape that they believe is the son of King Kong.

 

After the phenomenal success of King Kong in 1933, a sequel was rushed into production. But Ernest B. Schoedsack was told that he would have a lower budget and would be only given six months to make the film so that it would be ready for release by Christmas…in the same year! That’s a harsh production schedule for any fantasy film to adhere to given the amount of painstakingly-detailed stop-motion animation shots on display, let alone the sequel to one of cinema’s titanic classics. And let’s face it, no sequel was ever going to be able to top the original for sheer spectacle.

Not many people are aware that King Kong spawned a sequel based around his offspring (the whereabouts of Mrs Kong have never been revealed but I hope she didn’t bolt on them both!) but The Son of Kong deals with just that. It’s hardly a lesser remake of the original like many a sequel is, though it shares many similarities once Denham and co. arrive on Skull Island by putting the human characters in danger from hungry beasts. This one goes off on its own tangent a little more thanks to Kong Jr. only being about twice the height of a normal man and not a giant ape. Plus it doesn’t end up back in New York but history repeating itself twice would have been a stretch too far.

The story picks up a few weeks after the events of the original, with distraught and disgraced Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) being the main character now – neither Fay Wray or Bruce Cabot return to their roles. Armstrong said that this was his favourite film out of the two as it gave Denham more character to play with. He’s right – he’s no longer a maverick producer with visions of dollar signs running through his brain but a man broken by tragedy. The responsibility that Denham bears for Kong’s death weighs heavy on him throughout the film and his sombre apology to Kong Jr. is rather heart-warming in its sincerity. Denham truly feels remorse for what happened and Armstrong is able to channel that to good success, even if there are few moments when the old Denham tries to break out. Frank Reicher resuming his role as Captain Engelhorn also adds some continuity to the film’s links with the original. However Fay Wray’s replacement, Helen Mack, doesn’t play a pivotal role in the film and has blatantly been cast as a damsel-in-distress for the sake of casting. Beauty did not kill the beast in this one.

But apart from Denham traversing a nice character arc between this and the original, The Son of Kong is clearly a rushed production which doesn’t deliver anything like the qualities of King Kong. It’s only a little over sixty minutes long and it takes the characters nearly half of the film to arrive on the island. Whilst the film eventually picks up pace when it gets to the island, things pick up too late and they’re over way too quickly to leave any lasting impression. Once on the island, the handful of human characters are put in peril with the island native beastly inhabitants desperate to make a meal out of them. And Kong Jr. is on hand to save the day.

Kong Jr looks alright to say that the animation was rushed along in six months by Willis O’Brien. He doesn’t have the same awe and majesty about him that his dad did and his less-than-imposing height and albino look does more to appeal to children than anything. The animation isn’t as complicated as it was before but O’Brien understands the need to give Kong Jr. the same sort of quirky mannerisms that his father had to add personality and humanity to the character. It’s hard not to warm to Kong Jr. in a way that we couldn’t with his father and it adds more emotional impact to the teary-eyed finale which was never going to top the infamous ascent to the top of the Empire State Building but does a good job of doing the best it can with the circumstances. The lasting impression that Kong Jr. makes on the audience is surprising given how little he’s on the screen but he’s a credit to the stop motion animation of Willis O’Brien. If only Denham and his gang had arrived on the island a little earlier in the film to give the film more of an overall impression.

 

More friendly in tone and approach than its predecessor, it can’t compete for spectacle or horror with King Kong but, like the infant ape on the screen, The Son of Kong is hard not to feel some affection for. It’s blatantly a missed opportunity however and it would have been interesting to see how much better it could have been had everyone been given a year or two to make it.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933)

A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

Producer Carl Denham and his film crew head off to an uncharted Pacific island to finish shooting a movie amongst the superstitious natives who worship a huge gorilla named Kong. What they don’t realise is that Kong is real and the gigantic beast abducts lead actress Ann Darrow after she is offered up as a sacrifice. Setting off in pursuit of her through the perilous jungle, Denham realises that there would be more money to be made if they could capture Kong alive and put him on show in New York.

 

What can anyone say about King Kong that hasn’t already been said? Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles ever made, King Kong has stood the test of time as an iconic, landmark film in history. Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows how it pans out. Even if you haven’t seen the original, the two remakes, countless imitations and numerous spoofs and references will have mapped out the film from start to finish. I suppose the attraction of watching King Kong nowadays is to become a part of history by immersing yourself in a film that transcends time.

I think people forget when this was made whenever they launch into criticism. King Kong was made in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression and only six years before the start of the Second World War. Countries were broke. People were penniless. It’s amazing to ponder the mindset of anyone trying to make something as grand and as spectacular as this during that time given how much of a financial risk it would be. Even the limited technologies available to filmmakers back then failed to deter Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack from attempting to break the mould and make a film that would be like nothing else that had come before. One can only imagine the reaction of being alive in the 30s and being used to the sort of films that were being made back then only to be confronted with King Kong on the big screen. The cultural impact is just too immense to even consider.

The likes of cutting-edge effects-driven spectacles such as Jurassic Park and more recently Avatar have rivalled King Kong‘s screen impact for newer generations but never topped it. There is just something awe-inspiring about the way in which this was all put together back in the 30s – a real labour of love for the cast and crew. Sadly, there is no question that King Kong has dated. From the Orientalist caricatures of the indigenous natives to the 30s fashions and the chauvinist sense of place that men and women both held in films right to the crackling sound and speeded-up action sequences, King Kong has seen its best days long, long gone. The acting by the three leads is of the old school ‘larger than life’ mould where they’re not so much as portraying characters but blustering through theatrical dialogue with all of the determination of a Renaissance dramatist. The script is full of schmaltzy old fashioned macho hero/damsel-in-distress nonsense but given the time period, it’s all perfectly acceptable.

Willis O’Brien deserves a lot of the credit for the success of King Kong. His legendary stop-motion special effects still hold up extraordinarily well today, turning Kong from a special effect into a fully-fledged character. Kong is invested with more heart and soul than 90% of human characters in every other film made. His mannerisms, expertly rendered by O’Brien, such as rubbing his eyes, shaking his head or pounding his fist instil the monster with a scary sense of humanity. He may be a thirty-foot ape but that still doesn’t stop the audience from immediately warming to him and eventually feeling sorry for him when he’s treat the way he is by mankind. The infamous, surprisingly poignant ending, atop the Empire State Building must rank as one of cinema’s greatest climaxes, both tragic and awe-inspiring at the same time. Equally as impressive is the fight between Kong and a T-Rex which finishes up with Kong breaking the jaw of the dinosaur in a show of raw, brute strength. To today’s audiences, the special effects will seem ‘fake’ but suspension of disbelief isn’t hard when the film is this good. O’Brien’s landmark effects paved the way for the likes of Ray Harryhausen to go further in pushing the boundaries of technology and in turn he influenced the next generation of artists like Spielberg, Jackson and Cameron. No King Kong, no cinema as we know it today.

The beauty with King Kong is that it’s not just visually impressive but it tells one hell of a story. People forget how well it plays out, full of thrilling action scenes, heart-stopping chases and romantic sub-plots. The build-up to Kong’s first sighting is skilfully manipulated. The dangerous trek through the jungle, featuring all manner of dinosaurs to pick off the crew, is as exciting as it is scary. Anywhere between thirty and forty of the crew are killed off during the film which is pretty horrific by today’s standards, let alone the 30s!

King Kong also saw the first time that an orchestral score was used to enhance the images on screen rather than have stock music run randomly alongside it without any sort of presence or purpose. Max Steiner’s score for King Kong saw the introduction of leitmotifs, where one recurring piece of music would be attached to an idea, person or place, saw its birth here. These ‘theme tunes’ could be sped up, slowed down or slightly altered given what was happening on-screen – think of the Imperial March theme from The Empire Strikes Back and how that was re-used in different forms across the series, or the shark’s theme in Jaws which was slowed down or sped up depending on the situation. It is a pivotal ingredient that we take for granted in film nowadays but something which saw its genesis back in 1933.

 

I could go on forever about King Kong and haven’t even scratched the surface in regards to the relationship between ‘beauty and the beast’ which led to the film’s most famous quote. I can’t say that it’s one of my favourite films because it’s not. But there’s no denying just how big of an accomplishment this film was and how much of an industry-defining impact it had. Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles of all time, King Kong is quite simply put one of the greatest films ever made. It truly is the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

MEN AND MONSTERS BATTLE TO RULE THE EARTH!

Tumak is banished from the savage rock tribe and finds temporary refuge amongst the more gentle shore tribe. Here Loana, one of the females, takes a liking to him but his savage ways are too much for the gentle tribe who eventually banish him as well. Faced with a dilemma, Loana decides to go with him and the two must face the prehistoric world of dinosaurs by themselves.

 

Not the sort of film you’d expect to see from legendary horror studio Hammer, One Million Years B.C. was one of their many attempts to diversity their output in the 60s and 70s away from the classic Gothic horrors that they had become synonymous with and into any new niche genre that they could capitalise on. They tried swashbuckling action with The Devil-Ship Pirates, exotic adventure in She and fantasy islands in The Lost Continent to name a few but nothing caught on. However, they struck gold with One Million Years B.C. and proceeded to make a handful of prehistoric ‘cave girl’ films within a five year period from 1966. One Million Years B.C. was the first of these and the best, becoming a huge international hit upon its release.

Billed as the ’100th Hammer Film’ and evidently sold on its two main selling points (or should that be three….) of Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful special effects and the absolutely stunning Raquel Welch in a skimpy fur bikini, One Million Years B.C. is a fun exploitative prehistoric romp. There’s little pretence of story. There’s no real narrative to the film. Dialogue is virtually non-existent. It’s just a series of encounters between dinosaurs and aggressive cave men. And that bikini. The film quickly boils down to its lowest denominators and sticks to it until the end. It knows its strengths and plays to them.

Director Don Chaffey was no stranger to making these big budget fantasy epics, having helmed the classic Jason and the Argonauts a few years earlier, but he bites off a little more than he can chew here, expanding the film to a whopping one hundred minutes – a long time when you haven’t got a story or script to keep everything together. Granted most films featuring Ray Harryhausen’s special effects were little more than set piece-driven spectacles but at least they had a story and dialogue so that you at least knew what was supposed to be happening. This one plods from dinosaur to dinosaur, with not even talky filler scenes to bolster the running time.

I could give the film top marks on Raquel Welch alone. Simply put, Welch looks amazing in this, sizzling in every scene that she is in. If anyone ever wanted to see just how drop dead gorgeous one of cinema’s most famous sex symbols was in her prime, then show them this. She only has three ‘lines’ but the shot of Welch in her fur bikini has become one of the most famous images to come out of the 60s.

Apart from strutting around in very little (and doing a super job of it too!), she has nothing to do in the film. None of the actors do. The only real words are spoken by the narrator – the rest of the script consists of grunts and groans as the cavemen communicate with each other in primitive fashion. I suppose it’s authentic but hell, if you’re going to slap a hot red head with perfect hair and make-up and pretend she’s a legit cave girl, why not have them talk to each other? There are loads of famous faces hanging around such as John Richardson, Percy Herbert, Martine Beswick and Robert Brown so why not have them talk to each other. It seems like a real waste of talent to me.

Legendary stop motion effects wizard Ray Harryhausen provides the special effects here and it is this reason alone why One Million Years B.C. stands head and shoulders above virtually every other dinosaur film made up to this point. The dinosaurs he brings to life have more character and personality about them than the cast does. The scene with the pterodactyl swooping down and attacking Ms. Welch by the lake is one of his most complex and riveting action sequences and the fight between the T-Rex and the triceratops is classic Harryhausen.

But maybe it’s because we’re only dealing with dinosaurs here that the effects don’t stand out as some of his best. There’s no skeleton fight here, no Talos or cyclops to get the pulse racing or a Medusa to scare the pants off us. The dinosaurs look good but they fail to generate that extra excitement factor that his more well-known fantasy monsters do. We’ve all seen dinosaurs before and they’re common coin in cinema. Not all of the dinosaurs are animated too and, in some scenes, a normal lizard and a tarantula have been blown up to gigantic proportion and super-imposed on the screen. It mixes up the special effects somewhat but just goes to remind everyone how good Harryhausen was at his day job. This was one of his last films and he would only make four more after this.

 

One Million Years B.C. is a tad hokey but it’s hard not to get worked up over Ray Harryhausen’s special effects and the stunning Ms Welch. For these reasons alone, the film has garnered much more praise than it deserves and they do paper over a lot of the obvious cracks.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Planet Raptor (2007)

Planet Raptor (2007)

An expedition on a remote, medieval-like planet and finds itself under attack by deadly prehistoric raptors. With a radiation storm cutting off communication to their mother ship and preventing escape, the expedition must bed down in nearby castle and there they uncover evidence that the previous occupants of the planet were wiped out by these dinosaurs….and they’re next.

 

Ok so that plot summary is a bit all over the place but that’s the best I could do. One of the worst Sci-Fi Channel movies of recent memory (the atrocious Raptor Island) gets a sequel here with Planet Raptor – an unrelated movie about a bunch of killer raptors which might as well have gone it alone such is the lack of any sort of link to the original. Only this time the raptors aren’t prowling around on some remote Pacific island but they’re…..in outer space. Yes, space raptors! I guess the title should clue you in that you’ll be taken out of the Pacific but the realisation that this film really is set in space should provoke some sort of groans from the audience.

Like a lot of old school low budget films from Universal and Hammer, Planet Raptor feels like it was pieced together using leftovers from other films. The space ship and ‘futuristic’ elements have been discarded by some low budget science fiction drivel, the medieval village is the remnants of some historical drama, the guns and combat fatigues seem to have been left behind by a generic straight-to-video action flick and the alien survivor towards the end…well that suit could have been lifted from any number of 70s sci-fi TV series. And above all, Planet Raptor features a plot borrowed directly from Aliens about a group of expendable marines sent to a hostile world by a shady company in order to acquire living specimens as weapons, featuring self-sacrificing heroes who blow themselves up in the face of death and slimy scientists who think running off in the middle of a gunfight in the middle of a hostile planet filled with deadly creatures is a good idea (see Burke, Aliens). Anyone familiar with how that film pans out will be immediately at home here but it’s not the sort of place you want to stay very long.

The mechanical plot slowly coasts along, no doubt assuming you know exactly where the film is heading, and thus doesn’t feel the need to provide any sort of excitement or pace. From the opening shots of the expedition exploring the medieval village (the bizarre decision to include a castle for our heroes to hide inside is clearly more evidence of the ‘recycling’ from other films the studio no doubt made at the same time), to the first attack of the raptors, running through the entire film right until the finale, there’s literally no sense of direction. In between all of the highly-convenient circumstances which direct the plot towards its next aimless action sequence (Decide to leave the planet? Well what about that handy radiation storm that will prevent escape?), the film suffers from a general lack of interesting and well-developed characters. But when the script is content to feature raptors terrorising a group of humans in a medieval village on a remote planet in outer space, the script was never really high on the consideration list to begin with.

Planet Raptor wheels out a load of usual low budget suspects including Steven Bauer, Vanessa Angel and Peter Jason as well as Sam Raimi’s acting brother, Ted. Both Bauer and Jason were in the original film and have been brought back as totally unrelated characters. Jason at least shows a bit of spark in his role as the tough-talking gung-ho sergeant who is as handy with a wisecrack as he is a shotgun. But the secondary characters are afterthoughts (some aren’t even credited!) and even the main characters are little more than talking clichés. Raimi, in particular, must have been reading up on the pantomime playbook on how to look and act as a bad guy, constantly shifting his eyes to the side, frowning a lot and generally trying to look as sinister as possible.

But forget these characters. We’re here for the raptors, right? Well they alternate between CGI rubbish and a reasonably-decent puppet-animatronic head. This looks alright and is used effectively from time-to-time to peek around corners but there’s clearly no body to it as you never see it below the neck. Instead the CGI counterparts take the brunt of the flak and they have every right to warrant it. They look purple, have about two or three different frames of animation and the same shots are used repeatedly throughout. A raptor will be killed in one scene. The camera will flash to the actors. Then back to another approaching raptor and low and behold, there is no body on the floor of the previous victim. At one point the film even borrows a few shots from the previous film of what looks like a T-Rex and the characters fail to spot the difference despite this dinosaur being significantly larger in size and able to scoop up a man into its mouth with ease. It’s not the only glaring error with the film but to continually rip it to shreds is pointless.

 

Stay tuned for the pre-end credits blooper reel which is arguably the most entertaining thing about Planet Raptor (quite funny actually), a low budget mess which seems to have been designed purely from the discarded leftover sets and props from other films. If only half as much fun had gone into the film then Planet Raptor wouldn’t have ended up the outlandish pile of low budget nonsense that it is.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Aztec Rex (2007)

Aztec Rex (2007)

In 1518 A.D. only the noblest warriors survive

Arriving in Mexico in 1551, Spanish explorers led by Cortés come across an Aztec tribe who worship a dinosaur as a god and offer it regular blood sacrifices to keep it at bay. After a failed attempt to enslave the tribe for his own gain, Cortés agrees to help them rid themselves off the dinosaur if they release him and his men.

 

Sy-Fy offers up a huge pile of dinosaur crap with this pathetic monster movie that does as little as it can within the space of an hour and a half and expects you to be thankful for it when it’s finished. Aztec Rex (or Tyrannosaurus Azteca as it is known) comes from the man who brought you such classics as Leprechaun 3 and, er, Leprechaun 4: In Space so you know that his pedigree in the realms of low budget, trashy filmmaking is as corny as it gets – though oddly enough, Quentin Tarantino cites Brian Trenchard-Smith as one of his favourite directors! Aztec Rex stars a terribly-rendered CGI dinosaur, buckets of pound shop make-up and fake limbs they sell around Halloween time, and a cast who look like they’d be better off modelling in fashion shoots than pretending to be Spanish explorers or Aztec tribesmen.

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the star of the show first – the T-Rex. Even by Sy-Fy standards, this prehistoric protagonist looks to be about two hundred million years out of date. Using the same couple of frames of animation time and time again, the film does little to maintain the flimsy illusion that this monster shares the same intergalactic plane as everything else. Trees don’t move. Branches aren’t snapped off. There are no footprints when it walks. There are no shadows cast on it by the forests. For all intents and purposes, this is a stealth dinosaur. I have no idea where they found or created this laughable CGI aberration but it doesn’t belong here.

Even though the dinosaur effects are some of the worst you’re likely to see, Aztec Rex is at least gory. Characters are bitten in half, have intestines slit open, bodies are chewed up and left to rot in all of their gruesome glory and survivors are showered in blood. Yes it looks a bit tacky but it’s at least making the effort in this department.  The dinosaur is well fed, much to the chagrin of numerous expendable tribesmen and some of Cortés’ lesser developed crewmen who find themselves on the wrong end of a bite. The blood looks more purple in colour than red and the screen is literally engulfed with gore whenever the dinosaur decides to feast. Although there are some old school make-up effects, there are also a lot of rubbish CGI bones and entrails dripping abut which makes everything look second rate and tacky as if someone had superimposed unrelated video game footage over the top of a New World drama piece.

The script attempts to cleverly intertwine itself with historical events surrounding Cortés and the Spanish conquests but, his name aside, there’s nothing else in here that would suggest factual information. I guess the inclusion of such history was to try and raise the material above its usual type but it fails dramatically. I can tolerate the fact that the Spanish characters are played by perfectly formed English actors but the Aztecs are played by a bunch of Hawaiians who would look more at home standing  outside a hotel in Honolulu and greeting people than pretending to be ancient savages. Plus there are only about twenty people in the entire film including non-speaking extras. You wonder just how often this tribe can afford to sacrifice its population given that you only ever see about six of them.

Whilst the film contains its fair share of problems, the most fundamental one is that it’s just not engrossing enough. You never care for the Spanish (after all, they’re just after gold). You never care for the Aztecs (they do sacrifice their own kind). And the dinosaurs, whilst garnering some pity at how lame they look, are not there for characterisation. After a dull start in which the Spanish attempt to enslave the village (the notion of six or so Spanish guys attempting to ‘storm’ a village which has an equally small number of people in it is just too daft to laugh at), the film then traps itself in a never-ending cycle of characters going off into the forest to try and kill the dinosaur and end up a few characters short by the end of the scene. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the film and you have a monotonous, tedious narrative which doesn’t entertain or hold interest on any level whatsoever.

 

You get what you deserve with Aztec Rex. It smacks of Sy-Fy right from the opening scene until the final credits – the cardboard characters, the bottom dollar effects, the repetitive narrative, the overly dramatic music  and the deadly serious script which attempts (and fails) to make everything you’re watching somehow more interesting, intelligent and higher grade. It’s dinosaur dung, plain and simple. Never mind a giant dinosaur frightening off the Spanish, a copy of Aztec Rex would have been enough to make Mexico uninhabitable for millennia!

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Life Finds A Way.

Wealthy entrepreneur John Hammond has spent millions on his latest pet project – an island theme park featuring living and breathing dinosaurs created by extracting DNA from insects encased in amber. Before opening to the public, he invites a selected audience of experts, lawyers and his family to take a sneak preview. However during their tour, the security system is hacked and the power to the enclosures is shut down releasing prehistoric terror not seen on this planet for millions of years!

 

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Jurassic Park is one of the most influential films of recent times. It was one of those big box office events in the “where were you when this released?” mould that come up every now and then (you know, Star Wars, Jaws, Lord of the Rings, etc). Well I was twelve and growing up as a big lover of anything dinosaur-related (I used to have toy dinosaur fights in the sandpit at nursery), it was like a dream come true. Watching it again after a few years and being a more mature (judge for yourselves) and experienced connoisseur of film, it was interesting to see how different my perspectives of the film have changed and how some of them have stayed exactly the same as that excited twelve year old who went to see it on a Sunday morning with his parents on opening weekend.

At a pretty lengthy hundred and twenty seven minutes, the film had a canny knack of sending you to sleep in the first forty minutes or so. This hasn’t changed a bit. Back in the day, it was bums shuffling on seats waiting for the T-Rex to show. Nowadays it’s bums shuffling on the seats waiting for the T-Rex but at least I can understand what they are talking about! The opening does contain a lot of decent information which helps a few of the proceedings later on (for instance, the whole talk of the velociraptors reveals plenty of nasty surprises of what is to come later when you see them) but for the most part it’s filler. Pure and simple. Spielberg knows where he wants his audience to be and by holding back on the dinosaurs for as long as he can, he’s got us so excited he could have thrown in a blow-up toy dinosaur and we’d still have cheered it on. The reaction on the faces of Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum are priceless when they see the film’s first dinosaurs – a brontosaurus munching on some leaves. I don’t know about anyone else but I held back my “wows” for the first sign of the meat eaters. Maybe the reaction of the audience has mellowed a bit nowadays, having been spoon-fed a diet of terrible CGI monsters over the years. But back in 1993, on the big screen for the first time, these dinosaurs were like nothing you had ever seen before.

And believe me, the wows are worth it when the T-Rex does show up. It’s gone down as one of the most famous scenes in movie history now and it’s worked to perfection. The first sounds of it stomping towards the jeeps, indicated by the flickering cups of water on the dashboard. Next you know there’s something horrific just behind the trees, as signalled by the disappearance of the sacrificial goat. But then it’s still a few moments of gradual revealing as the T-Rex slowly appears, testing the fence and realising there’s nothing to stop it from breaking free. When it finally strides over the barriers and into the picture for the first time, its earth-shattering roar sends shivers down the spine. Is this really a CGI dinosaur or is a living and breathing preservation from the past?

Say what you like about CGI but it’s never looked better than it does here because it’s not completely over-used. There’s a combination of animatronic models and CGI and it’s blended fantastically together. This is one seriously ticked off dinosaur and the film sets about proving that point. Spielberg promised us dinosaurs and he delivered big time. Big budget films with CGI in them have never been surpassed by this, over thirteen years after it was made. Why? Because it’s not the quantity of effects used but their quality and how they are used. Over-reliance is over-kill and although Spielberg was experimenting with a rather unknown quantity back then, he gets the mix perfect.

Maybe it works against the film to a degree because once you’ve seen the amazing special effect that is the T-Rex, the rest of the dinosaurs don’t seem to have that wow factor about them, as deadly as they are. Even then there are still other high points, in particular the constant threat of the raptors in the final third. If you want your action and thrills then this is certainly the place. But they’re no match for the T-Rex.

Casting is strong but unfortunately their characters aren’t. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and particularly Jeff Goldlum (always a pleasure to watch and always ready with a quip or wise-crack) are all talented performers and do their best. It’s just a pity their characters don’t really have a lot to do after the opening scenes expect scream, run and scream a little more. I can see the logic in this – Spielberg’s target audience wouldn’t really have bothered with who is who – they just want to see dinosaurs. I know when I was younger, I didn’t really pay any attention to them. Now when you look back, you can begin to pick the film apart a little more. But thankfully the thrills and spills are just around the corner so you don’t dwell on them too much. Even the two child actors do a good job here with Joseph Mazello and Ariana Richards actually managing to put in better performances than the annoying Wayne Knight (as the nervous Dennis Nedry who is responsible for the hack job on the computers) and even Samuel L. Jackson.

 

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest monster movies of all time. It delivers exactly what it promises and given the standards of some of today’s big budget flops, it’s going to stand the test of time for a long period ahead. It has not been surpassed in terms of believable special effects and can easily hold it’s own in terms of thrills, excitement and action. Mr Spielberg, you’ve done it again. Another classic to add to your résumé.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★