Friday, 30 December 2016

INCUBUS











d. Leslie Stevens (1966)

In a village by the sea, the venal and the conceited gather to prolong their worthless lives with the magical, recuperative powers of the local water. Whilst there, they are seduced by succubi: young, blond women who lead them into temptation and then kill them and send their corrupted souls to Satan.

Into this rather odd set up walks William Shatner - a wounded soldier with an incorruptible soul. When a succubi cannot destroy a man, she is fated to fall in love with him - with far reaching cosmic results.

Thrown together quickly by 'Outer Limits' producer Leslie Stevens, 'Incubus' is a truly bizarre film: arty, beautiful, original - yet also clumsy and cheap and very slow moving. It looks like a Bergmanesque bad dream, and the choice of Esperanto as the language spoken throughout is a stroke of strange genius* - it makes an odd film even odder, and lends a suitably disorienting feel to this already atmospheric production.

A few words about William Shatner: I love him, and his presence in something is always a treat. I don't care about his hair and he's always been a good enough actor for me. We'll miss him when he's gone.

* The actors apparently speak it very badly, though, so the film isn’t even a favourite with Esperanto speakers.

Friday, 23 December 2016

THE CYCLOPS












d. Bert I. Gordon (1957)

A group of pushy Americans looking for a lost pilot crash land in a mysterious Mexican valley. The trip has been organised by the pilot's girlfriend who, even after three years, can't accept that he is dead. On the plus side, the valley is filled with million of dollars of raw uranium; on the down side, it's inhabited by a  menagerie of enormous creatures, many times their normal size: lizards, insects, rats, eagles, snakes and, most memorably, a twenty five foot tall nappy wearing man beast with one eye, terrible teeth and a partially melted face. Is he friendly? Not so much. Could he conceivably hold the secret to the mystery of the missing man? I wonder... 

I particularly like the scenes of the Cyclops menacing people. Lacking depth perception, he rather struggles to grab them, so we're just left with a poorly back projected hairy hand jabbing pointlessly at the actors (at one point accidentally tearing away the backdrop). The cast, which includes Lon Chaney, Jr. as a loveable dirtbag, don't seem to quite know what they are reacting to and their blank, confused faces combine with poorly executed special effects to provide a very silly 64 minutes.

The Cyclops, who (of course, it's so obvious now!) turns out to be the missing pilot, ends up being speared in his remaining eye and left to die. It's rather cruel: he didn't ask to be marooned in that radiation choked valley and get mutated into a horrible giant, after all. His once devoted girlfriend, having quickly realised the drawbacks of being involved with an ugly, angry monster, is in the arms of another man before her massive ex-beau has even fallen over and died.    

Director, writer and producer Bert I. Gordon ('Mr. B.I.G') obviously liked the concept (and the make up) revisiting it in both The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and its sequel War Of The Colossal Beast (1958), although in these films the mutation is the result of plutonium bomb testing.    

Friday, 16 December 2016

THE ATOMIC CITY













d. Jerry Hopper (1952)

The Atomic City starts with footage of test explosions and Hiroshima and of the men and women who live and work at the Los Alamos Atomic Research Site, their faces blacked out ‘for security reasons’. Obviously, they don’t really want to be developing weaponry with the capacity to destroy the world and everything on it, but, while the ‘spirit of aggression is not yet dead in the world’ they simply have to do it.

When leading scientist Frank Harrington’s son Tommy is kidnapped, Harrington knows immediately what the ransom will be: secrets. He and his wife try to handle things without informing the authorities but, very quickly, the Harringtons learn that they themselves are under constant observation, and even their best friend is an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated their family in order to keep a close eye on them. What follows is a taut, well scripted story with some surprising flashes of violence and cruelty: a communist courier is killed by a car bomb once he delivers his message; Dr Harrington extracts a confession using his fists; the boy, Tommy, is bricked up in a cave in the Jemez mountains* and left to die (this last one is hard to take, he’s a nice little feller) .

The Harringtons are only interested in getting their son back, of course, but, for more or less everybody else the stated priorities are, in order of importance: maintain security; catch the spies; save the kid. Cold or not, it’s still a war. In the end, they manage to more or less do all three, but not until after a great climax in which Tommy is left hanging from a cliff face.  Even though you know it will work out in the end, it’s genuinely breathless stuff, particularly as Tommy is just so gosh darned cute.    

* This area is a designated national park, and the mountains, caves and the ruins of Pueblo American civilisation here are used to provide a fascinating and unusual backdrop to the action.  

Friday, 9 December 2016

NOT OF THIS EARTH













d. Roger Corman (1957)

‘Do not run from me, Nadine, I am going to dispatch you’

As you might have guessed, I watch a lot of films with aliens in them. Occasionally they are benign, but mostly they are predatory and with conquest on their minds. The necessities of low budget film making render a full scale alien invasion virtually impossible, of course, so the idea of a lone envoy, an advance scout is a recurring motif. The sole alien has the fate of the Earth in his or her hands or, rather, it is up to us to thwart his or her plans before the Earth is taken over.
In Not Of This Earth the extra-terrestrial is a pockmarked middle aged man with an archaic turn of phrase and a house in the suburbs. Mr Johnson (probably not his real name) has sensitive ears, and his eyes are permanently covered by impenetrable black shades. He’s here because there has been a nuclear war on his planet, Davanna, and now everybody is dying of a disease that is turning their blood to dust. His mission is to find out whether human blood is a compatible substitute. If it is, they will invade; if it isn’t, the world will be destroyed.
To be honest, Mr Johnson is a bit of a horror, being a murderer and a vampire and having gloopy pupil-less eyes that, when turned on a human being, burn out their retinas and parts of the brain. When he’s not killing teenagers, winos or vacuum cleaner salesmen and draining their blood, he’s kidnapping people and sending them through a dimensional portal to be experimented on, or giving a female alien the blood of a rabid dog. He's far too evil to be wholly successful and so is thoroughly defeated. 

The fact is that you can’t just come down to Earth and start stirring without expecting human beings to fight back. We may be primitive, perhaps, and lack mind control and killer eyes, but, by Christ, we’re feisty, and it’s just a matter of time before we find a way to fuck you up.

Friday, 2 December 2016

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN














d. A. Edward Sutherland (1940)

The Invisible Woman has very little to do with H.G Wells, instead being a frivolous screwball comedy full of broad performances and lots of knockabout humour.

John Barrymore is the head scientist, a twinkly eccentric who has discovered the secret of invisibility. When he advertises for a human ‘victim’, he gets Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce), a headstrong young woman looking to heed ‘the call to adventure’. The experiment requires the subject to be naked, a detail that attracts much prurient interest and a great number of jokes, even though the most you see is a pair of bare legs. The story is padded out with a bit of romance and a subplot about a gangster who wants to steal the process but, for the most part, it’s mainly about glasses of brandy and lampshades and cats whizzing about with no visible means of support whilst supporting characters look on aghast. If you like that sort of thing (I do), it’s a lot of harmless, undemanding fun.

Barrymore is in his late fifties here, but looks in his seventies. He gives a good but pantomimic performance, but then the production isn't notable for its subtlety.  In a change from the usual self-parodying roles of this era, the script only makes a couple of references to his real life reputation as a drunken ne’er do well and womaniser, and even lets him declaim a few Shakespearean lines. Bearing in mind that he has only a year and a half to live he seems in pretty good form, but then, for all his troubles, he was always a good actor.

Friday, 25 November 2016

THE MUMMY'S GHOST












d. Reginald Le Borg (1944)

‘If the Mummy didn’t make these tracks, I’ll eat ‘em’
It’s shit being a Mummy.  Dead, but not dead, wrapped in putrid rags that reek of your own decay. One eyed, one armed, one foot dragging awkwardly behind. You can’t speak, you can’t reason and, with no will of your own, you are wide open to become the shuffling slave of any unscrupulous person who knows the evocations and boils the right number of Tana leaves during a full moon.  Your heart, that putrefying organ, is filled with ancient spores and moss and dirt but, cruelly, still functions just well enough for you to continue to suffer the acute pain of a centuries dead lost love. 

And what do you do when you’re not needed to kill, to kidnap, to terrorise, to steal artefacts? Where do you go, what space do you inhabit? Do you live under a bridge, like a bandage wreathed troll? Or do you just sit in a shed or a cave or in the heart of the woods and wait? After all, waiting is second nature to you – actually, its first nature, the thing that you are most familiar with after thousands of years of stasis.  

Then, when you find that your beloved Princess Ananka has been reincarnated, how do you plight your troth? You lumber up to the poor girl and scare her into unconsciousness, terrify her to the extent that a grey streak spontaneously appears in her hair: she isn't pleased to see you, and that feeling of deathless love over the millennia is most definitely not mutual. 

So, you scoop up her inert body and drag her off to the river like so much laundry, pursued by an angry mob and a scrappy little dog who hates your dusty guts. As you disappear into the muddy water, dragging your (now inexplicably aged) reincarnated Princess with you, what do you think you’ll find down there? Peace? Contentment? Rest? These things are not available to you. They never will be. You'll be back.

It’s shit being a Mummy.   

Friday, 18 November 2016

TALK ABOUT A STRANGER












d. David Bradley (1952)

An unexpectedly fantastic little film, barely an hour long, full of shadows and suspense and atmosphere, great noir-ish shots and good performances, including one from Nancy Davis, in the year that she married fading star and rising Republican Ronald Reagan.

When a young boy (Billy Gray, who is great) finds his beloved dog poisoned, he is sure that his new neighbour, a dark eyed, beetle browed man with a foreign accent who keeps himself to himself and doesn't like dogs, is responsible. Billy channels his rage and distress into investigating the mysterious man, turning the rest of the town against the new arrival in the process. In the end, his obsession almost causes a tragedy.

This film pushes all the right buttons: it spends almost half of its running time showing us how happy Billy and his scruffy little dog are together, and these scenes are so amusing and touching that when the dog is killed, we are almost as devastated as Billy. From here on, the film gathers momentum, driven by Billy who seethes with anger and fizzes with the injustice of it all. The adults he comes across (with the exception of his parents), eager for sensation, rather irresponsibly stoke up this fury and soon the town is gossiping about the new neighbour, dissecting everything from his grocery order to the cost of his watch to the stubbiness of his thumbs - 'oh, and did you know that he murdered Billy's dog?'. You know how these things go in small towns.

In the end, disaster is averted and a perfectly logical (if rather dark) answer is found. Billy calms down and, in the process, acquires not only a new dog but a new sister and a new girlfriend, so it's a happy ending of sorts, just not for the old dog.

Friday, 11 November 2016

THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE












d. Leslie Kardos (1957)

We’re back in one of our favourite locations (alright one of my favourite locations), the women’s prison. This particular jail is notable for its high incidence of fatal heart attacks amongst the prisoners, usually preceded by lots and lots of screaming. Somewhat unpredictably, It turns out that the prison governors are all 150 years old, the last surviving guinea pigs of experimental animal magnetism experimentation. Apparently, the treatment has formed an invisible stone sheath around their bodies, protecting them from knives, bullets, breaks, bruises and the ravages of time. Every now and again, the treatment needs renewing, so, before they turn into statues, they order their lumbering henchman to steal a female convict, at which point they dump her in a warm water bath, attach some electrodes and suck the energy out of her until she’s good and dead.
No, I don’t know how they came up with them, either. But I’m glad that they did, as it’s another mad minor classic from that most psychotronic of cinematic years, 1957 AD.

Friday, 4 November 2016

STRAIT JACKET












d. William Castle (1964)

There is a sub-genre of cinema known as Psycho Biddy. You may already know that, but I think it’s worth reiterating as it always gives me a little pang of pleasure. A Psycho Biddy film contains a middle aged (or older) woman who is either guilty or suspected of suffering from a violent mental illness. Murder and mayhem most usually follows. Sometimes the biddy turns out NOT to be a psycho, and it is instead the people and world around her that are insane. Either ways, these films tend to be an amusing blend of over the top melodrama and gruesome physical and psychological horror, and are recommended as long as you don't mind screaming, lots and lots of screaming.
The psycho biddy here is domestic nightmare Joan Crawford. The film starts with her hacking her unfaithful husband and his floosie to death with an axe then flashes forward twenty years to her release from the asylum. The timid, aged, very grey Joan moves in with her now grown up daughter (who witnessed the whole thing) and, slowly, begins to regain a little of her mojo thanks to a new wardrobe and a polyester wig. Just when she begins to think her nightmare is behind her, she starts hearing voices and hallucinating severed heads. Then the decapitations begin…
It's a very William Castle type of William Castle film, in that the majority of the artistry in this film went into the title and the casting, and the rest just hangs loosely on the (hopefully wood, not wire) hanger. There is the odd visual flourish, and Joan has fun playing on the periphery of hysteria and it's nice to see persistent b-movie menace George Kennedy get his (paper mache) noggin knocked off. It's good fun.

Castle saves the best joke for the last frame, a reconstruction of the famous Columbia pictures logo of the flag draped lady carrying a torch. In Castle's version, her head has been chopped off, and sits neatly at her feet.