May 30, 2012

FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1968) - the animated TV series is now on DVD

(1968, USA, TV)

Animated TV spin-offs are nothing new

The 1966 Oscar-winning sci-fi adventure Fantastic Voyage had huge full-scale sets and extensive modelwork portraying a futuristic submarine that's miniaturised for a mercy mission through a human body. The crew swim through veins, get attacked by antibodies, and steer their super-sub through the constricting valves of the heart. For the less scientific in the audience, there's Raquel Welch in a white wetsuit and a saboteur on board...

The plot-device of human miniaturisation was nothing new, even in 1968 (The Devil Doll, Dr Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man), but Otto Clement and Jerome Bixby's story had realistic biological detail, and an unusual race against time. It also looked unique. I love the point-of-view shot of them hurtling down the inside of a hypodermic needle!

Two years later this span off as an animated series on TV, the same year as Irwin Allen's fairly similar Land of the Giants. However I don't remember seeing the animated Fantastic Voyage on British TV until the early 1970s.

While the applications of a Miniaturised Defence Force seem limited, the series had far more fantastical, less scientific storylines. Each episode the team investigates natural disasters which often turn out to be aliens, enemy spies or hostile governments.

One episode is very reminiscent of the Family Guy episode where Stewie duels with his evil self in miniaturised vehicles inside a human body.

The characters are also very different from the movie, introducing the very mystical Spock-like 'Guru', who uses magic more than the commander uses weaponry. The design of the sub was drastically overhauled so that it could now fly. A model kit of 'Voyager' was re-released in 2008.

The limited animation budget of all Filmation series was synonymous with numerous close-ups of motionless characters barely moving their lips. There'd be repeated shots and moving elements reused over different backgrounds. The music, the voice artists and the sound effects are either similar or identical!

The same company also produced the animated spin-off of Adam West's Batman (also 1968, when the live-action series became too costly to continue) and the animated Star Trek (in 1973). But their cost-cutting formula for producing weekly episodes ruled children's TV for many years with dozens of series.

What makes Fantastic Voyage enjoyable for me is the over-the-top soundtrack. It sounds much more exciting than it looks. The constant, uptempo music really holds the attention, right from the catchy (and loud) theme tune with the booming voiceover.

Added to this is extensive use of alternating red and blue flashing backgrounds in the titles and transformations, which is positively hypnotic. Precisely the same effect got a Pokemon episode into big trouble thirty years later for sparking epileptic seizures in hundreds of Japanese children. Personally, I enjoy the visual hit. This alarming but simple animation technique is also used in Filmation's Batman title sequence.

Noisy, fast-moving, patronisingly sexist, psychedelic and nostalgic, the whole Fantastic Voyage series is out in a 3-DVD set in the UK, PAL, region 2. It looks and sounds as good as new.

May 24, 2012

BLOOD-C (2011) - Saya returns in a bloody new anime

(2011, Japan, TV)

You want monsters and bloody mayhem?

(UPDATED - June 2013 - on DVD and blu-ray in the UK and USA)

A twelve-part anime series continues the saga of Saya, the vampire slayer, first seen in the extraordinary short film, Blood The Last Vampire (2000), set during WWII.

Animation house Production I.G eventually followed it up with an epic fifty-part anime series Blood+ in 2005. Then there was a disappointing 2009 live-action adaption of the original short, made in Hong Kong. But with Production I.G again on the case, I was keen for more...

Here, Saya is a girl leading a normal school-life by day, but fighting demons by night. Her father, a priest, has prepared her for daily battles against a ghastly evil that manifests itself as a series of incredible strong and vicious creatures. Young Saya appears to have superhuman strength and amazing sword skills, but still struggles to protect the innocents that the blood-thirsty monsters prey on. As the attacks increase, Saya punishes herself because she can't even protect those she loves...

Blood-C cleverly doesn't immediately reveal its links with the previous stories. Another spin is that the monsters aren't huge vampire bat demons any more. Instead there are an outrageously inventive menagerie of loathsome creatures, each with their own ghastly methods of attack.

The early episodes waste time with her bizarrely traditional and cute school life, with a cast of familiar characters. At school, Saya is indecisive, shy and accident-prone. A very uninteresting alter-ego compared to similar heroines of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Bleach. It's also mind-boggling how monolithically female anime characters are portrayed. Saya is a young schoolgirl, yet she has unfeasibly large breasts and is shown almost completely naked in the title sequence.

The nudity and bloody mayhem seem to demonstrate that the producers stepped up to new extremes, at odds with the simple set-up and childish humour. The amount of blood and gore is so excessive that TV stations have fogged out sections in a large number of scenes.

Thankfully, the story gets more serious and complex past the first few episodes and the creative blood-letting and imaginative monsters warrant seeing it through to the bloody end. 

The dynamic animation and artistic layouts are up to Production I.G's usual high standards. Like previous series, the music is lush and orchestral.

The entire series of Blood-C is now available on DVD and blu-ray in the UK, and as a combo blu-ray and DVD boxset in the US.

An animated movie has spun off the series and is just about to hit Japanese cinemas in June, Blood-C: the Last Dark.


Here's the movie trailer

May 17, 2012


(1957, UK)

Vintage light comedy with a current theme...

Rewatching this comedy that used to frequently run on British TV, it resonated rather loudly. Now that we're in danger of losing film as a projection medium, not to mention the gradual decline of cinema audiences.

The story is set when old converted cinemas were being wiped out by new purpose-built chains. It gives us an interesting flashback to the small rundown music-halls that converted from stage to screen at the start of the century. When the cramped stage would be blocked by an academy ratio screen. Live comedians were replaced with silent ones from Hollywood, accompanied by a member of the cinema staff on piano. When talkies came along in the early 1930s, a primitive sound system would have been added. I guess they'd have survived until the 1950s as long as movies stayed in the 1:1.37 or 1:1.66 aspect ratio.

The ramshackle cinema in the story is up against the giant widescreen threat of a cinema chain, itself upgrading to combat the new competitor, television. What's worse is that since 'The Bijou' of the story was built, a railway now runs directly past it, drowning out the sound of the movie. This reminds me of one of my own local cinemas - also an old converted music hall, with flat floors (not ramped towards the screen) and sat next to both a railway line and the local bus station!

The scene where a passing train makes the whole building shake, projector and all, during a performance is memorably the funniest scene.

A newly-wed couple, depending on the fortunes of a struggling writer, inherit a cinema in the Midlands. Arriving in town to visit the solicitor, they cruise by the only cinema in town, a massive new Odeon makes them think they've hit the jackpot. But on meeting his uncle's lawyer, Matt learns that the cinema he actually owns has closed down, with the staff wondering what's to become of them. Should he give up, fire them all, cash in what little it's worth and go home?

This is a light comedy that could easily be remade now along the lines of We Bought A Zoo. I encountered this decades before Cinema Paradiso and it 'works' for me much better. Ironically the threat of new over old is seen as TV and a competitor who wants a monopoly over the town, but it still resonates with today's threats of digital over film, home cinema over cinema. One particularly touching moment shows how the staff remember the heyday of silent movies.

Peter Sellers watching a desert movie
Besides the longevity of the subject matter, the cast is very special, most of them on the verge of international fame! The film is now sold on Peter Sellers, but this is an early, fairly small role for him, his first movie since The Ladykillers. This was an early version of a long line of  'old man' characters he's play, usually in an exaggerated form. Sadly, he plays a character older than the age he managed to reach himself.

Margaret Rutherford was slipping back into character parts away from earlier starring roles (like The Happiest Days of Your Life), but only a few years away from fame as the first big screen Miss Marple, in the popular series of four films. While she usually plays similar characters, she's always good in pathos and comedy.

As the young couple, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna both already had their own movie careers, but married during this year, 1957. They went on to star together in the smash hits Born Free and Ring of Bright Water. McKenna is also known for her stoic war survivors (Carve Her Name With Pride), though here she's a carefree soul with a penchant for awful puns. Horror fans might have seen her brief but memorable role in Holocaust 2000 (1977). Bill Travers you'll know as the grumpy co-star of the awesome British monster movie Gorgo (1961).

Rounding out the cast are more familiar comedy faces, like Leslie Phillips in a fairly straight role, considering he later played posh ladies' men and lecherous doctors. Bernard Miles as 'Old Tom' gives a humble but touching performance, another in his long career in classic movies.

Director Basil Dearden was one of the directors of ghost stories Dead of Night (1945) and The Halfway House (1944), at the start of a long resume including The League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961) and Khartoum 1966). Director of Photography, Douglas Slocombe, was a veteran of Ealing comedies, but would eventually shoot the original Rollerball and the Raiders of the Lost Ark trilogy!

This Launder & Gilliat comedy is out of print on DVD in the UK, though it was available as a single disc and in a boxset, one of the many called 'The Peter Sellers Collection' (below). 

The US also have it in their equivalent 'Peter Sellers Collection' (reviewed here on DVD Beaver), pictured below.

Most of the above publicity photos are courtesy of Dusashenka and his wonderful Flickr account and are used here with his permission.

May 12, 2012

NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT (1973) - Cushing and Lee

(1973, UK)

A creepy dry run for The Wicker Man

The bloodthirsty horror fan in me had always been disappointed with this on late night TV. But another viewing, in order to consider the new Nightmare Theater DVD release, was rather enjoyable, now that my expectations of gore have been lowered.

That's not to say this isn't a violent story, but it's too tame for the times considering for instance that Witchfinder General, Straw Dogs and Vampire Circus had already appeared. This may be explained by their lack of a special effects budget: in Christopher Lee - An Authorised Screen History, author Jonathan Rigby talks of Lee, and Hammer producer Anthony Nelson Keys, attempting to start their own production company, Charlemagne. The idea being to cash in on their own success. But in trying to get a distribution deal, their budget was driven down, not that it shows. With a top cast, a wide variety of filming locations and director Peter Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Hands of the Ripper, Doomwatch). Peter Cushing joined in on a countrywide series of personal appearances to promote the film but it, and the company, failed.

Nothing But the Night begins as a grisly mystery, with three murders that look like suicides, yet we see that a black-gloved figure was responsible. A crashing coach full of schoolchildren then swings all attention on an orphanage on a remote Scottish island. Interested parties include the police (Christopher Lee), two pathologists (Peter Cushing and Keith Barron), the press (Georgia Brown) and one of the children's mothers (Diana Dors)...

The story still packs some solid surprises and its bleakest moments leave a lasting impression. You'll have to watch it yourself to discover exactly which genre this belongs in. Needless to say, the police investigation of the remote location brings The Wicker Man to mind, which coincidentally was the next film Christopher Lee made. The two would make a very suitable double-bill.

Foremost, it's a pleasure to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appear in so many scenes together and playing friends rather than deadly enemies. Even though their characters argue bitterly, Cushing still ends the scene cracking a smile. 
Lee must have chosen this part specifically without silly make-up or costumes - at the time he was trying to get more 'serious roles' as well as break into Hollywood. Here he was on the verge of success with The Three Musketeers and The Man With The Golden Gun.

The rest of the cast is impressive, Georgia Brown (Tales That Witness Madness) especially intriguing as a pushy reporter. Keith Barron (
The Land That Time Forgot) proves that he should have escaped TV more often. Diana Dors (Theatre of Blood, From Beyond the Grave) is more menacing than her usual bully routine, playing a mass murderer with an 'up' hairdo, reminiscent of Myra Hindley's.

There are great actors in small roles too - 
a young Michael Gambon (Sleepy Hollow, Toys, The Beast Must Die), Fulton MacKay (Britannia Hospital, Porridge), Duncan Lamont (Quatermass and the Pit) nearly unrecognisable as he's sporting a beard, and Kathleen Byron (Black Narcissus, Twins of Evil). The only weak link is the key role of the young girl traumatised by the coach crash, who starts off well but lets down some pivotal scenes.

I watched this again on a cramped fullframe VHS, but Nothing But The Night has been released widescreen on DVD in the USA, as part of Katarina's Nightmare Theater series. I understand that it's widescreen and that Katarina's introduction is optional, which means that they'll get my money. I'm also glad that they didn't use the alternate US title, which ruins the story.

Speaking of spoilers, I'll also mention Hot Fuzz, but not why...

May 07, 2012

Walter Hill's THE DRIVER and Michael Mann's THIEF - prototypes for DRIVE

What would Drive look like, made in the 70s and 80s?

I loved Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) but am unconcerned how much of it is original or homage (or whatever). It's an exciting, beautifully crafted thriller which I'm already looking forward to seeing again. But in my mind, I can't keep it in total isolation from older films I've seen, and it's fun to explore what Drive echoes. Maybe even compare how different decades have treated similar stories and characters. Many others have already been cited as influences, but these two are leading the pack...

(1978, USA)

The Driver (Ryan O'Neal) waits for two masked men to rob a casino, then burns rubber to get them away from a squad of police cars. It doesn't go completely smoothly - a witness (Isabelle Adjani) catches a clear look at him and smells money. The Detective (Bruce Dern) can't make the case stick and hatches an elaborate plan to catch The Driver red-handed.

I thought Ryan Gosling's impossibly cool character was a fresh take, until I saw Ryan O'Neal behind the wheel of a car, clean-shaven, sandy-coloured hair, blank expression, a man of few words... O'Neal's character also has strict rules for every job he takes on, can't be taken lightly, and quietly enjoys music.

Whereas Drive concentrates on various players in the underworld, The Driver uses a more  traditional cat-and-mouse structure of police trying to crack his case. That isn't to say the story is at all straightforward and full of surprises. Walter Hill (scriptwriter as well as director) adds one of his regular 'strong women' as The Connection (Ronee Blakley of A Nightmare on Elm Street) in this the year before Alien landed (for which Hill was a writer and co-producer).

The location is Los Angeles and much of the action takes place at night, though watching this DVD it's hard to judge the quality of the cinematography. The Driver is far less image-conscious than Drive, but adds far more tyre-squealing car chases and police cars. More isn't necessarily better, and some of the action is spoilt by jump-cuts and random continuity.

When there isn't action, the pace often flatlines, with not even Bruce Dern bringing it to life. O'Neal is good at playing against type, but his serious stares are only a shade away from his 'slow burn' from What's Up Doc?.
Besides style, The Driver also lacks a driving soundtrack. The fun is all in the unravelling story and it's tough attitude. It's a huge contrast to the car chase comedies that were all the rage at the time, like the freewheeling Smokey and the Bandit franchise.

Walter Hill would next direct The Warriors, beginning an impressive winning streak of cult thrillers including Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire and 48 Hours.

Trivia: note how the above UK quad poster refers to the films simply as "Driver".

I watched the UK DVD from Optimum. The grainy print and night-time scenes gave the image compression quite a few problems in some scenes. But this is a recent anamorphic-widescreen release and I very much doubt there's a better version out there.

(1981, USA, original title: Violent Streets)

Frank (James Caan) is a specialist in high-tech safe-cracking. His price is high yet he doesn't work for just anyone who can pay. Fiercely independent, he doesn't work as part of any mobs and hasn't even any regular family life. All that's about to change and his next job will be the toughest of his career.

Thief isn't about a driver, and James Caan is far less calm and collected than Ryan Gosling, but the story structure and dilemmas of his character's independence have strong parallels.

Frank is a professional, one of the best in the business, allowing him to pick and choose his clients even if they can afford his asking price. His goals in life are simple and he'll do absolutely anything to achieve or protect them.

As in Drive, there's a contrasty 'look' and a synth-heavy soundtrack. Night-for-night shooting in Thief accents car headlights and streetlighting, though it all isn't as overly style-conscious as Mann's later 80s thrillers. This works in favour of Thief's realism, a look at how mobsters blend into society and how any safe can be dismantled with the right scientific application... The electronic soundtrack by Tangerine Dream is not what you'd expect from a film that co-stars Willie Nelson.

Like The Driver, this an impressive early work from the director, being Michael Mann's first feature. For his next film he "wanted to get away from the streets" and plunged into an effects-laden, supernatural, Nazi horror film... before returning to a life of crime stories.

Trivia-wise, this is also an early 
production credit for Jerry Bruckheimer.

I watched the Optimum DVD from the UK. It's rare to see Michael Mann not shooting in his beloved 2.35 widescreen - this is presented anamorphic 16:9. Optimum are usually the label that releases films that major studios don't think are going to make money any more. Likewise with The Driver. Their loss.

A longer case for the merits of Thief.

More Thief info at this Michael Mann fan website.

My look at the musical influences on Drive's soundtrack.

May 06, 2012

THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920) - fundamental horror

(1920, Germany, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)

A man in black with murder in his eyes creeps into a beautiful woman's bedroom at night. A mad doctor uses his expertise for his own evil ends. A serial killer has a town in panic.

These are all regular elements of horror films, but in 1920 feature-length horror films were rare (I can only think of The Student of Prague, 1913, before it). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari heralded the start of a wave of horror films made in Germany for the next few years, including The Golem, Nosferatu and The Hands of Orlac. While they continued on from themes and characters in horror literature and the production designs of stage plays, these were among the very first to present sustained supernatural terror on film.

The influence of these silent movies inspired and influenced much of the far more famous 'golden age of horror' of early 1930s Hollywood, and predate most of the American silent horrors. 
Many of the key creative talents, actors, directors and production designers, soon moved to America where their ideas and style fed into that pre-code horror boom. Much like today, if something was a success abroad, Hollywood were happy to invite in the talent responsible.

Basically, these are very rewarding films for fans of horror, 
seeing the genre being born and taking shape. Despite their age, they're also unique nightmares, wildly creative and beautifully crafted. The make-up for the creatures in Nosferatu and The Golem is hugely effective. The set designs for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari are wildly surreal, and bravely presented for almost the whole length of the story. The question is, are these warped surroundings also part of the story...

A murder in a small village coincides with the arrival of a new attraction at the local carnival  - Dr Caligari and his mysterious assistant, who sleeps all day and night in a coffin-like cabinet. The murdered man's friend is determined to track down the killer, spurring the police (who spend most of their time at their desks) to make an arrest before it happens again...

While many of the first horror films were based on classic stories, this has an original script, inspired by a real murder and fuelled by public desperation at the end of the Great War. It has a social message, critical of mental health institutions. The surreal presentation may have disguised their sentiments, but the metaphors were all too clear. A late rewrite (which I thought I had been enforced on them) changed the story's message by means of an added prologue and epilogue.

This isn't just a story of murder and madness, everything about it looks psychotic. The whole film takes place on angular e
xpressionistic sets. Like above, instead of a rooftop, the set merely suggests a rooftop - the only recognisable shapes here are two rough windows and a surreal chimney stack.

Besides the wild scenery, the acting is also exaggerated. To watch this without seeing other silent films of the time will give the impression that they're acting is wild, but they're trying to convey 'expressionism' in their performances. (For example, compare it to Paul Wegener's naturalistic acting in The Student of Prague, 1913). The benchmark of this style is Dr Caligari himself. Werner Krauss is brilliant - menacing, unhinged, random. In comparison, I could only tink of the head of the family in the dinner scene in David Lynch's Eraserhead - with his unpredictable, extreme emotions.

Conrad Veidt is the iconic 'monster' - tall, stealthy, with the ability to look demonic. An excellent and versatile actor, he's an early horror star, with leading roles in Waxworks, The Hands of Orlac,
The Man Who Laughed and a remake of The Student of Prague (1926) again opposite Werner Krauss. He then made a fairly smooth transition to roles in 'talkies', appearing in Michael Powell's The Spy In Black and The Thief of Baghdad (as Jaffar!) with one of his last roles being in Michael Curtiz' Casablanca.

For years it was very hard to see these early films on anything but very scratchy prints (often with truncated or missing shots). Bootlegs, videotapes, public domain DVDs and YouTube compression have compounded the film faults making these movies very hard to appreciate. But now that some have been carefully restored and released on DVD, I've finally been able to understand their 'classic' status.

I think the best versions are currently the Kino International restoration on DVD in the US, and in the UK, an earlier restoration from Eureka, which is commended for it's orchestral score and subtle colour tinting.

While the Eureka DVD is the best quality I've ever seen, many scenes are spoilt by a dark horizontal 'join' running across the top of frame, often through the actors' faces. The Kino International DVD apparently doesn't have this fault, though the first five minutes are said to be of inferior quality to the Eureka version. The choice is yours. More details in the following link...

DVD Beaver compares the Kino version to the 1996 restoration used by Eureka (illustrated with screengrabs)...

Also, don't get this silent movie confused with the 1962 American remake with a very similar name, The Cabinet of Caligari. This rather straightforward version of one of the subplots amps up the sexual element of Freudian psychiatry (as much as was possible at the time - i.e. not very much). It's always a joy to see and hear Glynis Johns (Vault of HorrorMary PoppinsMiranda), but this more closely resembles a William Castle film without the gimmicks, than a German expressionistic nightmare.