August 20, 2012

THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958) - rare Jack Arnold sci-fi now on Blu

(1958, USA)

Love me, love my blob...

At a top secret military missile project, some of the worker's children spot a light from the sky that adults can't see. Following it down, they discover a glowing brain in a cave by the sea. Telepathically, it begins to communicate with them, bringing them into conflict with their parents.

After It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children is probably the least well known of director Jack Arnold's films, in a magnificent run of iconic fifties sci-fi for producer William Alland.

While this is less elaborate than the previous films, it's rich in ideas and tougher on 'message'. Radiation hazards and damaged ecology figured in the background of the earlier films, but here the danger is spelled out. There are also children battling their parents, at a time when movie teenagers were only just attempting freedom from their families. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, this is about extra-terrestrials (and scriptwriters) who aren't very happy with nuclear proliferation.

The telepathic abilities of the children aren't as creepy as in Village of the Damned, but the story elements were certainly similar. John Wyndham's book 'The Midwich Cuckoos' had only been published the year before... Hmm. There's even a throwaway reference that other groups of children are acting the same way in other parts of the world. Standing shoulder to shoulder against their parents, and the Army (!), I was strongly reminded of Children of the Damned.

But of course, an invisible alien is no good to 1950s' American sci-fi, they wanted visible aliens! A theme that continued throughout The Outer Limits. Sci-fi couldn't be sci-fi without a monster of the week! And what better fifties' alien could there be than a giant, pulsing glowing brain. Previous movies had featured bodiless brains, sitting in fish tanks, causing telepathic mayhem. They even glowed, purely for cinematic effect rather than any logical reason. This one glows very brightly because it's from outer space (I guess). It glows and grows, resembling a rival to The Blob, born the same year. This creature is less agile, but not without a few surprises up its sleeve...

Among the space children, Sandy Descher had already had a memorable sci-fi role as the little girl who staggers out of the desert screaming "Them!" (in Them!). Also fun to see Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan) with hair, well some hair.

This is a small, atomic age sci-fi, gently hard-hitting (somewhere between anti-military and child-beating) but presumably much more anti-establishment at the time. Strange that this should beat Arnold's far more famous classics to Blu-ray (though Creature from the Black Lagoon is about to hit and in its original 3D). But The Space Children never hit DVD, and for years has only been seen on the receiving end of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 drubbing. Depending on mood, I can enjoy many of the MST3K targets in either their original form, or I can enjoy them being ripped.

The Space Children is presented on Blu-ray as 16:9, occasionally looking tight at the top and bottom of frame, but not a problem though. There are no extras, but it's not an expensive release either. I'm just happy to see it again, non-MST3K.

Olive Films have also released the lumbering but ultimately touching The Colossus of New York and William Castle's semi-animated, sci-fi oddity Project X from the same era, both also on Blu-ray.

August 18, 2012


Twilight Time only started releasing DVDs and Blu-rays last year, aiming for classic older movies that the big studios have neglected. Their remit has stretched to titles as recent as As Good As It Gets (1997) and the original Fright Night. It's surprising that the studios don't think Ray Harryhausen films still sell, for instance.

Twilight Time are particularly interested in the widest of widescreen movies getting the best presentation possible, on Blu-ray. In the 1950s and 1960s, hugely expensive epics were filmed in the new process of Cinerama and other aspect ratios of around 2.35:1, to make movie-going more immersive with bigger-than-ever screens (to combat the rivalry from television). The spectacle wasn't just used on westerns and Roman historical epics, but action (like Grand Prix) and comedy (Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World). Viewed on a big screen, DVDs struggle to offer enough detail for these aspect ratios, and for some movies these Blu-rays offer their widescreen debuts on home video.

Obviously I've pounced on their monster movies. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) can't compete with Jurassic Park, but was the equivalent family adventure of the time. Some, not all, of the special effects still work. The spectacular production design offers imaginative large-scale sets, expanded by imaginative matte paintings. For two hours you can almost believe it's possible to hike to the Earth's core!

This science-fantasy is a fairly faithful adaption of Jules Verne's novel. But pandering to fans of the book means a fairly slow slog before the journey downwards begins and the small-scale melodrama turns into a unique cinematic adventure. Bizarrely, there's even a song to clog up the early proceedings, reflecting perhaps what was then expected of family entertainment.

Disney had previously made 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), epitomising the approach to family adventure stories for years to come. Another Verne adaption, it starred James Mason as Captain Nemo, no doubt making him a must for the leading role of Lindenbrook.

Amongst the colourful stalactites and giant mushrooms, there are dinosaurs and a rival expedition to compete with. I was surprised to see a couple of story details pre-empting Raiders of the Lost Ark. A configuration of the Sun's rays leading the way, and a large rolling boulder chasing our heroes.
As the unlikely band of explorers descend into the Earth, I'm pleased to say there are no children or teenagers in the ranks. But bizarrely there's a duck. Called Gertrude. Somewhat of a trendsetter, later pioneers took pets with them - the visitors to The Lost World (1960) a poodle, and The City Under The Sea (1965) a chicken...

Like The Lost World adaption the following year, the dinosaurs are portrayed by live lizards, but here a little more convincingly. The dimetrodon attack still looks pretty frightening. Am I going soft!

To contrast with the family-friendly wholesomeness, the amount of beefcake is a little surprising. As the expedition gets closer to the Earth's core, it gets pretty warm, so both Pat Boone and Peter Ronson get half-naked, revealing a smouldering amount of tanned manflesh, and get racily drawn towards the maternal figure of Arlene Dahl.
The experience is that much more impressive due to an awesome soundtrack from Bernard Herrmann, only a year after he scored Vertigo. The drama is certainly lightweight, but mounted on such an impressive scale that it remains epic fun!

Stranger still, this Ray Harryhausen spectacular, Mysterious Island (1961) should also be released by an independent. It features a wide range of iconic Harryhausen creations - the giant crab, giant bees, a prehistoric chicken (a phororhacos) and more! Like many unknown island stories, the plot is skimpy, building up with episodic encounters. The lengthy set-up of the explorers escaping from a military prison during the American Civil War has no real bearing on the rest of the story. But there's an enjoyable twist, a tremendous Bernard Herrmann soundtrack and many examples of Harryhausen's unique special effects sequences.

This release improves on the cramped aspect ratio of the previous (2002) DVD release, with fuller colour and more picture visible at the top and bottom of frame, closer to the 1.66 aspect ratio. And of course it's now high-definition. Sorry to tell you that both Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth are now sold out.
A longer review of Mysterious Island on Blu-ray over at Black Gate.

Can't wait to see what else Twilight Time release...

August 15, 2012

BLADE RUNNER - thirty years later, to the day

(1982, USA)

"You're talking about memories..."

Wednesday, August 15th, marked the thirtieth anniversary of my first experience of Blade Runner. Thanks to Starburst magazine, readers were invited to a special preview screening three weeks before it premiered in London on September 8th.

Cutting out a coupon from this issue of Starburst got you preview tickets to see an advance screening at 11am on August 15th 1982 - in the West Gate Road Cinema in Newcastle, the Bristol Road Cinema in Birmingham and the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue in London, where I saw it.

Blade Runner had had a mixed critical reaction (Films and Filming magazine gave it one star out of five!) and a poor box office opening in the US, so it was a reasonable idea to aim the UK release at sci-fi fans. The London screening was certainly packed out, with the audience respectfully quiet during the film. I was stunned by it, from the very first shot.

To me it was a realistic vision of the future, with flying cars and new technology, but in a world blighted by pollution, acid rain and the near-extinction of animals. Also, the most likely chance I'd get to see the future. The production design looked totally functional, the dense cinematography appeared to show the air around the characters, the special effects depicted a city as far as the eye could see, the music was incredible... The complex emotional ride of the story, with the replicated characters, supposedly the villains, all fighting for their lives made just as much impact as the technical achievements.

It's one of those rare movies that I stumbled out of (I had a similar experience with Brazil at the same cinema), feeling like I'd just been hit, somewhere inside my head. I've studied Blade Runner extensively ever since and it's still my favourite ever movie. Despite the sad state of that future world, I'd even like to live in it.

Scott Weller (@koolaficionado on Twitter) pointed out that not everyone got in to see the London preview that day. I was lucky, but also completely unaware that my future husband was also present in the audience, though I didn't actually meet him for another eight years. This makes our watching it again together, thirty years later to the day, special.

It was also an opportunity to watch the original version again. The UK initially got the International Cut, otherwise referred to as the European Cut. These first releases of Blade Runner had the 'happy' ending and Deckard's voiceover in several scenes throughout the story. But the International Cut was also more violent than the one seen in the US.

For ten years, this was the version of Blade Runner I remembered and enjoyed, seeing it again in the cinema, on TV and on VHS. The initial impact it had on me was from this particular 'cut'. In 1992, the 'Director's Cut' was released in cinemas - the voiceover was removed, as was the ending. The unicorn was the only additional shot. Shorter than the original versions, it was basically an amended version of the censored US release, with the two most violent scenes toned down. It was good to see it in the cinema again, but it definitely wasn't the same film I'd fallen in love with.

The Director's Cut heralded the start of fifteen years when the International Cut disappeared from home video (apart from the Criterion laserdisc), eventually resurfacing in the 2007 Box Set. The specially made 'Final Cut' takes elements from all the versions, restored the film for for High Definition, and also fairly subtly uses CGI to update the unavoidable special effects and continuity errors, like a stuntwoman's face being clearly visible, and the cables supporting the full-size on-set flying police cars. It was interesting to see all these faults again by watching the original. I spotted some of these problems at the time, but they didn't spoil the film.

I'll continue to watch the different cuts, but the original is still the best.

The 30th Anniversary Collector's Edition is almost upon us, but I can't detect any video content additional to what was in the 25th Anniversary collector's set, but it does include a tempting new heavily-illustrated book .

August 14, 2012

Everything JAWS in the Black Hole...

The extensively restored Jaws Blu-ray is almost with us, along with a new feature-length documentary The Shark Is Still Working.

So far, my coverage of Jaws has turned into, well, a bit of a monster. So here's a summary of everything Jaws-related to be found here in the Black Hole...

The making of Jaws - a round-up of books and documentaries, old and new, about the making of the film.

My 2011 photo-tour of Jaws filming locations around the island of Martha's Vineyard:
- part 1: Edgartown - capital of Amity Island
- part 2: Katama Bay, Quint's shack, Amity billboard
- part 3: North and East - Brody's house, State Beach and "the pond"

My review of Jaws 2, contrasting seeing it recently and in the summer of 1978.

Reviews of movies inspired by Jaws:
Alligator (1980) - killer gator, in the sewers!
The Car (1977) - killer car, possessed by the devil!
Grizzly (1976) - early out of the gate, claws!
The Host (2006) - a river monster from South Korea
Tentacles (1977) - killer octopus from Italy, with Henry Fonda!