October 29, 2013

Flashback 1975 - Disaster movies, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW...

A look at British movie magazines of 1975, in particular the adverts that nail their release dates. These magazines are still available secondhand on eBay. (These are all handheld photos from magazines no longer in publication - please don't scan books or magazines that are still in print...)

Joan Collins seemed to spend the whole decade in bed, in sex comedies (like this sequel to Alfie), and sex dramas (The Stud and The Bitch). I blame her sister...

Films and Filming, January
The whole year is dominated by big budget disaster movies. I blame Irwin Allen. 

There were three Airport sequels in the 1970s, but it was Airport 1975 that fuelled half of the jokes in Airplane! The other half were inspired by Zero Hour (1957) that starred Dana Andrews, who also appeared in Airport 1975! English author Arthur Hailey started it all by writing both the script for Zero Hour and the original Airport (1970) novel.

Amusingly, Airport 1975 was released in 1974...

Much more about Airport 1975 here.

Photoplay Film Magazine, January
Disney films were the most obvious to drag children to see, though I was often disappointed by just how 'kiddie' they were. Here's a great exception, a Jules Verne-type adventure with no children in the cast. A lost island thrown back to Viking times, volcanoes and some amazing killer whales...

More about The Island at the Top of the World here...

Photoplay Film Magazine, January
Sorry that I'm mentioning movies here that were actually released the year before, but I'm sticking to the publication 'dates' (the month printed on the magazine cover) in order to stay sane. The Man with the Golden Gun was another big Christmas movie that opened in December 1974.

Film Review, February
Rising megastar James Caan and Alan Arkin in an early 'buddy cop' movie, mixing action, comedy and edgy, violent 'rogue cop' rough justice. Director Richard Rush later made cult favourite, The Stuntman, about a megalomaniac film director.

Looking at this year's clippings, a couple of films are mentioned almost throughout the year. Some films would get pre-publicity to raise awareness (easy to do because they'd already been released in America). In the case of Earthquake, cinemas would also have had to wait for the limited number of Sensurround speakers to be heaved around the country.

Film Review, April
Can't find an exact date when Earthquake first opened in Britain, but it could have been as early as January (when Films and Filming did their photo-preview). Seems rather late that Film Review gave it this splashy article in April.

Surrey Comet, August
Even later, Earthquake is only hitting Outer London eight months after the premiere. The giant, sub-base frequency Sensurround speakers caused problems in multi-screen cinemas, as the vibrations would leak into other theatres.

Film Review, April
Onto Easter, the first of a series of lavish Agatha Christie adaptions throws their best of British cast at even the smallest roles.

Amicus Films finally admit to making children's films besides horror. Even so, there's giant monsters and a high body count in this first of three Edgar Rice Borough novels, adapted by genre fan and producer Milton Subotsky.

This issue of Film Review could barely believe the number of disaster movies opening in the coming year. But The Towering Inferno was the most spectacular of them all. It's popularity even saved lives, as high-rise buildings were forced to reinforce and improve their fire safety standards.

Film Review, April
Even though it premiered in London in January (at the Warner West End), it was still playing in five West End cinemas three months later. It would run for several weeks in our local ABC and make several re-release return visits too.

More about The Towering Inferno here.

Film Review, April
The original version of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 was based on a bestselling novel. It must have been popular because it repeatedly played through the rest of the decade, if you wanted to make a quality thriller double-bill.

More about The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 here.    

One of my favourite issues of Films and Filming, April 1975, somehow contains photo-features for four of my fondest movie-going experiences. 

Films and Filming, April
The Rocky Horror Picture Show gets five full pages of photographs. I think they liked it.

Films and Filming, April
Flesh Gordon has to be seen to be believed. Starting life as hardcore pornography, Flesh was funnier and sexier than the huge budgeted official adaption that eventually arrived in 1980.

Films and Filming, April
I saw Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise on a double-bill with Rocky Horror. They might even have been released together as a double-bill. With songs by Paul Williams, before he did Bugsy Malone and The Muppet Movie, starring Jessica Harper before she made Suspiria, Phantom references practically every horror movie that had gone before.

More about Phantom of the Paradise here.

Films and Filming, April
Finally, the April issue of Films and Filming also previewed Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

Photoplay, May
This photo, published in Photoplay Film Magazine, appears to be a scene missing from Young Frankenstein.

Film Review, July
Young Frankenstein was unusual for being shot in black-and-white, as a homage to the Universal horror films of the 1930s. This made publicity photos published in colour rather a revelation. Here's Teri Garr, before she appeared in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Mel Brooks would again be scrabbling for increasingly rare black-and-white film stock when he produced The Elephant Man with David Lynch

Another example of early publicity. Roger Daltrey on the cover for Ken Russell's Tommy, months before the cinema release.

Film Review, November
An early example of a film released with stereo sound, though only in a few cinemas. I don't remember hearing stereo in a cinema before Star Wars in 1977.

Much more about Tommy here.

Photoplay, May
Director Sam Peckinpah dominated the decade. His name on a poster almost outweighed the cast - guaranteeing the toughest of tough, violent thrillers. But his drinking problem meant that he was a liability to insure for U.S. productions, and he'd often have to make his films in other countries instead. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot in Mexico, for instance.

Film Review, June
Monty Python's first original feature film, directed by the two Terrys, Gilliam and Jones, remains my favourite. I'd missed most of their TV shows because I was too young. The films were my first taste of Python. And I liked it.

Film Review, August
First written in the 1930s, the 1970s saw the start of Doc Savage's (200) pulp adventures being reprinted with all new cover art. Classic sci-fi producer George Pal bought the rights to ALL the novels and expected to start a franchise. He blamed studio interference for its failure, when they recut and redubbed the film. A shame, because Ron Ely was the perfect choice to play Doc.

Norman Jewison's Rollerball first appeared on the cover of Photoplay magazine in 1974. A year later, and six months before the UK release, here it is again on the front page. 

Films Illustrated, September
Whether it ran into production problems (I've read about clashes between James Caan and the director) or whether the release was delayed because of worries about the violent content, I don't know.

Film Review, November
Another crowd-pleasing film that wouldn't stay away, Bob Clark's Black Christmas gave us an early taste of slasher movies before the phrase had been invented. I caught it a couple of times when it was later re-released in double-bills. This was the British debut.

Previous magazine flashbacks...

Lawrence of Arabia and more from 1963

Blow Up, The Trip and more from 1967

Barbarella, Witchfinder General and more from 1968

Rosemary's Baby, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Women In Love and more from 1969

M*A*S*H, Myra Breckinridge and more from 1970

The Devils, Deep End, double-bills and more from 1971

October 23, 2013

Roger Dicken - special effects from THUNDERBIRDS to ALIEN

Roger Dicken in Starburst #15

Roger Dicken's skills as a sculptor, designer and fabricator of creature effects were on show in Alien, for which he built the very first Chestburster and Facehugger. They're still scuttling around our nightmares, but weren't the first monsters that he'd made for horror films...

Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind showcased visual effects that had never seen before. Specialist magazine Cinefex launched in 1979, to describe in detail breakthrough effects work in the latest movies. It devoted issue 1 to Star Trek - The Motion Picture and Alien

Pictured amongst the genre heavyweights working on Alien, was Roger Dicken, who I recognised from his work on children's films. Here he was, having built the first Facehugger and Chestburster, creatures that immediately lodged in our psyches and grew into long-lasting cultural icons of fantasy fiction.

I'd like to look back at some of the other highlights of his previous ten years of movie work, most of it using similar effects techniques to his work in Alien. Dicken's career is an example of the many who alternately worked on TV series and low-budget British features, as well as 'Hollywood' blockbusters that were filmed in London studios.

One of my earliest movie memories is this Martian rock snake that loomed up in the cinema and opening one huge red glowing eye before unleashing a torrent of fireballs! It appears halfway through Thunderbirds Are Go (1966), the first of two Thunderbirds feature films that presented the TV characters in widescreen and colour. I've only recently learned that Roger Dicken made these creatures, based on Derek Meddings' design. He seemed to specialise in creatures that appear to be made of rock.  

Stanley Kubrick was fully aware that some of the best model makers in the business had worked on Thunderbirds. He employed Roger's sculpting skills for about a year to help build the surface of the Moon seen through the portals of some sets, early in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Dicken also sculpted some glittery, humanoid aliens when Kubrick was still planning to show them at the climax of the film.

World of Horror #7
He also worked on practical effects in horror films, like the lightning climax in Hammer's Scars of Dracula, for which he also built a large bat (above), capable of 'biting' and licking blood. He'd previously built the moth monster for The Blood Beast Terror (1968). The same year, he worked on practical effects for Witchfinder General (1968) for the hanging and burning scenes, as well as the very effective and subsequently censored 'pricking' tortures. He later sculpted the impressive, evil-looking skeleton for The Creeping Flesh (1973).

House of Hammer #12
Making the models of a variety of dinosaurs, including a plesiosaur and a chasmosaurus, led to an Oscar-nomination on Hammer's When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth. Superbly detailed models and impressively smooth stop-motion animation by Jim Danforth (above, right) easily rivalled Ray Harryhausen's work at the time. 

Dicken's love of rocky-looking creatures can be seen in the design of the large crab monsters (above) that hunt cavemen on the beach.

I was first aware of Roger's work when he briefly became a familiar face as a dinosaur-maker for Amicus Films' The Land That Time Forgot. He was photographed with his creations for magazines and newspapers, as well as appearing on children's TV in Clapperboard (I think). While stop-motion animation was still the most convincing way to show huge prehistoric animals, the producers at Amicus couldn't afford the time and expense.

World of Horror #7
Instead, Roger suggested large, realistic puppets, operated from the inside or by simple rod and line manipulation - methods where there was very little to go wrong that could hold up filming. He didn't even trust remote-control technology. Each model was around four feet long and could be operated from the inside, or underneath. 

But once he'd made them all, including two triceratops, and a pair of tyrannosaurs, the effects team decided they would operate the models themselves, annoying Dicken so much that he turned down all work on the follow-ups The People That Time Forgot (which featured far fewer monsters) and At The Earth's Core (which overused men-in-suits). 

For The Land That Time Forgot, it was James Bond veteran John Richardson who built all of the full-scale animals, like the pterodactyl and plesiosaur (above), which had to interact with the cast. 

Roger built all the scaled-down creatures, that were then placed among matching-scale table-top jungles, looking especially realistic in the night-time scenes. Above are two styracosaurs caught in the submarine's spotlight. The ensuing mortar attack is quite upsetting, as the animals are blown to pieces.

The Land That Time Forgot was a 'U' certificate (the equivalent of a 'G' now) but the story is quite downbeat, sticking closely to Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel, with a high body count decimating the characters. 

Despite the obviousness of the techniques used, it was fast-paced fun and hugely popular with children. The Land That Time Forgot led to three similar films, Dicken working on the last of them, Warlords of Atlantis (1978), where he designed and built mythical creatures living around the underwater city. 
Film Review, August 1978
Again, the puppets were manipulated by hand and, again, he wasn't allowed to do it himself. Again, actors mostly interacted with the models using back-projection techniques that were fooling nobody, not even the children.

Film Review, Sept 1978
But Roger's fine detailing made the creatures look exceptionally good in publicity photos, especially this giant octopus that engulfs a ship.

The same year, he started work on Alien, hired to build the Chestburster, Facehugger and humanoid stage of the alien. As is often the case, he was having to make three-dimensional objects from someone else's (two-dimensional) sketches, left to add his own design ideas and how they might function.

Being such a high-profile production, and with director Ridley Scott terrified that he'd get a monster that would get laughs, it was an exceptionally high pressure assignment. Dicken was being supervised by a committee, when he was used to working alone. There was a meeting with writers, producers and the director, where they all fired their ideas at him at once, about what the Facehugger should look like. He was at a loss how to proceed. Dan O'Bannon thankfully combined all the suggestions from the meeting into one drawing, something Dicken could try and work with.

Roger Dicken (over Ridley Scott's shoulder) filming the Facehugger

Giger's idea was something much larger, but it was simplified into just hands and a tail. Giger approved O'Bannon's design and Dicken's work. Dicken had wanted to emphasise the creature's knack for self-defence, by adding sharp barbs to the tail, preventing anyone pulling it off. He also had to rig his Facehugger model (above) so that it could 'bleed' acid in this scene.

The Chestburster had originally been envisaged by Giger as something looking like a blind, fat, featherless turkey with teeth. Dicken made something faithful to that design, with the neck wide enough to fit his hand inside, but Ridley felt it could look too comical. 

Dicken streamlined it so much that his hand no could longer fit inside, and the necessary mechanisms barely could either. The outside was finally so smooth and organic-looking that it was also very hard to hide any joins. His idea to give it little arms so that it could pull itself out of the chest was rejected. But this time he got to operate his creation for the infamous scene in the film (above).

Dicken's early chest-burster sculpts in the Weyland-Yutani Archives 

Dicken took the first attempt at building the full-size alien, working with Bolaji Badejo's body-mould to make a faithful representation of the phallic creature that Ridley liked so much in Giger's artbook, 'Necronomicon' (above). But keeping to that same scale, the head was quite enormous.

According to the Cinefex article, owing to the strain of working for a 'committee' as well as building the smaller creatures, Dicken quit his work on the final-stage, humanoid alien. An unpopular move, but he was exonerated when the project finally needed H.R. Giger to come over from Switzerland, plus a whole team working under Carlo Rambaldi, to complete the suit. Rambaldi's expertise provided the immensely complicated jaw mechanism inside the head. 

Photos of Roger Dicken's first attempts at a full-size alien on the Alien Explorations blog  

A filmography to be proud of. Dinosaurs, vampire bats, crab monsters, rock snakes and xenomorphs. I've enjoyed his work in many movies, whether I knew it at the time or not.

(I refered to several contemporary magazines; interviews with Roger in Starburst #15, Film Review magazine (September, 1978) and a great pre-Alien career article in Photoplay Film Year Book (1979). As well as the Alien coverage in Cinefex #1, and Cinefantastique volume 9, number 1. Though he's barely mentioned in the original Book of Alien!

Here's also my look at the earliest Alien merchandise and magazine coverage.

October 18, 2013

COUNTESS DRACULA - reading up on Elizabeth Bathory

True crime?

The legend of Countess Dracula has inspired several movies, though I've only seen the Hammer version (soon to be available on blu-ray). Based on the story of Elisabeth Bathory, charged with being a serial killer who bathed in the blood of her female victims in order to retain her youthful looks. Ripe in allegory about the ruling class, it makes a superb story. But like Vlad Tepes, the ruler who inspired Dracula, was she actually a monster?

My earliest guides on the roots of vampire legends were 'The Natural History of the Vampire' (Anthony Masters, 1974) and McNally & Florescu's 1972 'In Search Of Dracula' (revised and updated in 1992). These didn't dissuade me that vampires could exist and that Count Dracula was indeed Vlad The Impaler (as depicted in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula). Their popular research meant that any castles that Vlad Tepes once lived, or even (possibly) visited, are now nicknamed 'Castle Dracula' (despite Bram Stoker never having visited the country) and provided a huge boost for tourism in Romania. But holidaymakers are actually getting a disrespectful fantasy about that country's revered warrior-leader, since Vlad orchestrated the defence and uniting of their country.

Cover art uses the same painting as the title card of Countess Dracula
Raymond McNally later explored the story of Countess Dracula, finding just as many elements of Bram Stoker's character and mythology in her story. Vlad Tepes may have decapitated his enemies and impaled them on stakes, but that's the opposite of what a vampire does. There's more in Elisabeth Bathory's story to inspire the habits of the Count, and McNally finds proof in Stoker's private notes while researching Dracula, that he'd referred to Sabine Baring-Gould's 'The Book of Werewolves' which included an account of her legend as well. This is the crux of his 1983 book 'Dracula Was A Woman'.

The first half recounts the legends of 'Countess Dracula' and the highlights of the transcript of Elisabeth Bathory's trial. Allegations that the countess drank the blood of virgins to retain her youth are mirrored in Stoker's novel, as the Count becomes younger during the story. The stories of her also eating flesh could have been transposed (and diluted) to Renfield's habit of consuming live animals. He scrutinises every aspect of the history books to find parallels in Stoker's novel and other aspects of vampire lore, but was Countess Bathory actually like this?

It's still more even-handed that Valentine Penrose's 1962 'Bloody Countess', which I didn't realise was written so long ago from such an opinionated viewpoint (he refers to lesbians as "perverted"...)

I started into Tony Thorne's book 'Countess Dracula' (also published as 'Blood Countess') expecting the full horrendous tale of medieval ghastliness. But the crimes described are only what was alleged at the trial - that up to 650 girls were tortured, killed, drained of blood and partially eaten. Their bodies were hidden or strewn across the countryside, this being a time of war when it was possible to get away with murder. Her aristocratic position also meant that she was the law in her own estate. Who'd dare challenge her?

Thorne methodically looks at the surviving records, which aren't many. Because of the wars in that part of Europe, many records have been destroyed. The remaining clues point to a mass murderess, or, an innocent woman defrauded by neighbouring countries for her lands and wealth. With a superstitious population, it would be easy to accuse her of witchcraft and vampirism than to disprove it. With painful capital punishment awaiting anyone who didn't cooperate, there were plenty of witnesses around to point the finger of blame away from themselves.

Ingrid Pitt and Sandor Eles in Countess Dracula
Many famous horror films start with a title or voice announcing that it's "based on a true story". The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Wolf Creek... Or their publicity machine says it for them - The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror... But once you get down to the original story, you've not been shown anything that actually happened. Millions read the poster. Thousands see the films. Not many bother with the truth. 

In the case of the countess, we don't know what happened, but the accusations and legends make a better story. At the very least, the accusations must be wildly exaggerated. To assume that the gossip and surviving court testimonies are all true is to accept only one side of the story, political subterfuge and ancient superstition.