June 30, 2007

KEN RUSSELL - 80 years of rude health

This week, on July 4th, Ken Russell turns 80. Bloody hell! Thankfully, the British Film Institute is marking the occasion with a season of his early work made for the BBC, before he charged into the world of profane feature films.

Of course, I would rather his movies got a screening as well, for they are among the most eccentric and outrageous ever made in this country. He had a unique way of celebrating the traditional arts in a whole new way. Even his approach to more mainstream studio pictures is cheeky and invigorating.

Growing up with Ken Russell

For years, his erotic, raucous, outrageous films could be regularly seen on late night BBC TV, when I was an impressionable schoolboy. The rather stuffy subjects of classical composers, like Mahler, and adaptions of Thomas Hardy novels, didn't appeal at all to me. But my mother clued me in that I might like them, and I quickly learned that anything directed by Russell wouldn't be dull. It could even evade most of the TV censors because of the arty subject matter. Cue full-frontal nudity, swearing and bawdy blasphemy…

Directing with flair, was his treatment of Gustav Mahler's conversion to Catholicism from the Jewish faith (in order to marry), treated like a silent comedy, as controversial and irreverent as a South Park episode, with a busty Nazi stormtrooper supervising Mahler as he first eats pork and tries out a life-size crucifix.

Another one I grew up with was Billion Dollar Brain, Russell's first major movie, mixing a 'new wave' directing style, James Bond shenanigans and classical music. Michael Caine's defining role as downtrodden spy Harry Palmer was almost lost in the midst of a beautifully photographed, epic ‘pop art’ thriller. (The DVD is currently missing a short scene because of the use of a Beatles' track in the background score.)

The Boyfriend
was the only film of Russell's that could be shown early evening, and even that had a bawdy backstory trying to burst through the seams. The film was a homage to Busby Berkeley and the musicals of the thirties, and was made in 2.35 widescreen (the only release till now in the original aspect ratio has been on Laserdisc).
UPDATE April 2011 - The Boyfriend is now available from the Warner Archive 'DVD-R on demand'. Link to shop here.

At the end of the eighties, I caught up with his 'missing' films. Often written about and accompanied by scandalous photo spreads, but after their initial release, no chance of seeing them.

For a while, there was The Scala Cinema in Kings Cross - a trashy alternative to the National Film Theatre. Exploitation, way out, weird, horror, cult films were shown in triple bills for much less than a West End ticket. Alcohol was allowed in the cinema, feet allowed on chairs, bliss. 

Most importantly, I could finally see Warhol films, John Waters', Russ Meyer's and Ken Russell’s rarest, like The DevilsSavage Messiah and even his early short films. A few years on, and The Scala's audience defected to home video, when VHS eventually condescended to releasing more culty movies.

Mainstream critics vociferously hated his films when they were released because they were irreverent, ‘bad taste’, anti-establishment and tampering with the rules of film. Nowadays he only occasionally gets TV commissions. His legacy seems overlooked at present, despite being one of Britain’s rare auteur-directors.

Ken Russell on DVD

His film's have slowly trickled out on DVD through the years. 

Portraying classical composer Franz Liszt as an early star of popular music, Russell casts rock stars Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Ringo Starr in this debauched and bawdy liberal interpretation of his life and works. Notable turns from Paul Nicholas (Tommy) as a vampiric Wagner, as well as Nell Campbell (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Fiona Lewis (The Fury, Dr Phibes Rises Again) as two of the many women in his life.

UPDATE: Russell's Lisztomania was released on DVD in the UK in May 2009.

The Devils
, Britain’s answer to The Exorcist, but far more shocking and made several years earlier, has been carefully restored by Warner Bros, but they've delayed the DVD release for the moment. Frustrating, because it's now feasible that it could be officially released uncut.

Of the films that have had DVD releases, many are no frills, some are out of print, and only one had a decent special edition, Tommy. Probably more to do with the popularity of The Who than the director

Here's a list of recommendations of Ken Russell films and their status on DVD (this list was last updated on May 2011):

Update May 2011 - UK DVD available from June 2011

THE DEVILS (1971) - restored, but as yet unreleased
THE BOYFRIEND (1971) Update April 2011 - US widescreen by Warner Archive
SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972) Update April 2011 - remastered in US by Warner Archive
MAHLER (1974) on US, UK DVD

GOTHIC (1986) on US, UK DVD
ARIA (1987, one segment) on US DVD
LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988) on US DVD with commentary

Black Hole article on The Devils

Black Hole review of Altered States

Black Hole review of Lair of the White Worm

June 21, 2007

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1965) a very English invasion from space

(1965, UK)

British space invaders - a view from the bar

NEWS UPDATE Sept 2007 - The Earth Dies Screaming is now on Region 1 DVD!!!

OK, so the title is waaaay over the top, but in the opening moments the Earth really dies! We see the English countryside littered with dead bodies. A few survivors gang up in a small village but soon discover the carnage is the work of aliens. Two humanoids in spacesuits stride into sight, they have no faces and they kill with a simple touch...

This is from
Terence Fisher, the director responsible for the world's first colour adaptions of Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolf and The Mummy - that is Hammer Films' Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) and Curse of the Werewolf (1961). What happened next, I don't know, but he made this black & white supporting feature (it runs barely sixty minutes long) outside of Hammer studios!

For the rest of the sixties, besides directing sequels to his classic fifties Hammers, he made a trilogy of low-budget apocalypse movies - I've looked at Island of Terror briefly already, he also made Night of the Big Heat. In all three, the last stragglers of humanity hole up in a pub! If it's the end of the world, you're obviously gonna need a stiff drink.

In the opening sequence, it looks like a couple of shots have been nicked from Village of the Damned (a plane falling out of the sky, and a car crashing) - in what looks like a very similar starting point as that story.

Effectively shot, Fisher wrings suspense out of the barest bones of the storyline, and builds an atmospheric scenario in a very short time. The cast give their straight-faced best and the minimal effects look good enough. In one scene, the eerie framing of an unseen alien watching a young woman through a netted window, is surprisingly creepy.

There's the walking dead too! The story could easily be a prototype for Night of the Comet (1984). There's even a zombie betraying its living friends, in a plot twist seen again in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978).

As was typical for British movies, there's an American actor in the lead, Willard Parker, with his wife Virginia Field as his co-star. There's stalwart support from a slippery Dennis Price, halfway through his film career, between Kind Hearts and Coronets and, ahem, Horror Hospital. A panicky Thorley Walters (Frankenstein Created Woman) can't be relied on in a squeeze and hits the bottle - one of the problems of a hiding in a pub.

Halfway down the short cast list, is a young Anna Palk in an early role as an expectant mum, seven years before her stay in the Tower of Evil. She also went on to meet The Frozen Dead and The Nightcomers (Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham in Michael Winner's version of The Turn of the Screw)!!!

The delicate soundtrack doubles the effectiveness of the piece, composed by Elizabeth Lutyens. It's a pity she didn't make more movie music - her work on Dr Terror's House of Horrors was a classic score. It was never released as a soundtrack.

The Earth Dies Screaming will soon be on DVD, in September. When it airs on TV, the standard 1.33 framing (seen in the above frame grabs) is much too tight at the sides, cropping out characters from group shots while they're still talking! A 1.66 (at least) or 1.85 aspect ratio is what I'm expecting (please). Update 5/10/07 - Tim Lucas has posted a widescreen DVD screengrab for you to compare the above TVgrab of the two spacemen, here on his Video Watchblog.

Someone's posted the whole film in chunks on YouTube, catch it while it's still there. But personally, I don't think I could watch a film this way and hope to get into it.

Cheeky colour poster for the black & white film

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June 20, 2007


(2006, US documentary)

New documentary on eighties horror films is a bit too revealing

Unrated region 1 NTSC DVD (Velocity/Think Film)

This is a good introduction to the sleazy genre of slasher films, that started in the seventies and hogged the eighties. High concept thrillers where teenagers were cut to ribbons - high body counts, inventive death scenes, and two-dimensional characters. The special effects relied on quick edits, prosthetic latex appliances and plenty of fake blood, and were sometimes the best bit in the film. There were plenty of shocks that made you jump out of your seat, a few groans for the shocks that fell flat, and if you were lucky, suspense. Some of them can’t be taken seriously today, because of atrocious acting, zero plot, fashion, and excess padding.

This new documentary celebrates the genre, weeds out the great films that do work and hopefully whets the appetites of new fans. Many of the films mentioned have since been restored uncut for DVD, because of their enduring appeal. New viewers now don’t have to be frustrated by the excessive censor cuts, when the films were first released.

There are wall-to-wall interviews with the directors and stars of the classic slasher films, including some that I haven't seen before. I was most interested to see the directors of the original Prom Night (1980) and My Bloody Valentine (1981). Sad to say that Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas, has since passed away after a road accident.

I still watch many of these movies, and I’d like to add a couple of criticisms. While many of the interviewees are very proud of the innovations and plot twists they dreamt up, it’s a shame that this DVD will introduce new fans but simultaneously spoil the endings, indeed show the endings, of most of the films mentioned. After seeing all the best scenes and the end of the movie, why go out and buy it? Having said that, the montages of gory effects certainly are impressively done, celebrating the excesses of the time.

Also, this history of the slasher genre, based on an exhaustive book of the same name, pretends to tell the story sequentially, starting with Friday the 13th (1980) and Halloween (1978). Only later on does it mention the films that came beforehand, films that influenced the genre and inspired those two films. Credit where credit is due, Friday the 13th ripped many death scenes from Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, 1971) – these are mentioned briefly halfway into the documentary. Halloween was also heavily influenced by Italian horror, John Carpenter admits he liked the the innovative prowling camerawork in Dario Argento’s earlier films.

While the story of the US films influencing each other as they turn into box office hits, Black Christmas (1974) easily predates many slasher themes (killer in a frat house, teenage victims, escaped psycho), and pioneered the madman on the phone plot twist later used as the crux of the story in When a Stranger Calls (1979). I’d have preferred if all these 'inspirations' were more thoroughly covered early on in the story.

A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, Friday the 13th‘s Jason Vorhees, and Halloween’s Michael Myers got even more famous after this movie cycle, as well as many big stars still working today. But it’s the lesser known films that I’m happy to see included in this entertaining and informative docco.

Perhaps now we could get a restored My Bloody Valentine, so that we can finally see the scenes promised to us at the time, in the bloody pages of Fangoria magazine? A miner’s pick must have been one of the nastiest weapons of the genre – let’s see it in action!

Do you want to see more?
For more classic posters, visit the Internet Movie Poster awards.

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THE GRUDGE 2 (2006) America 2 - Grudge 6

(2006, US)

For Grudge fans who haven’t seen the Japanese Grudges…
Region 2 PAL DVD (Universal)

Just out on DVD in the UK is Takashi Shimizu’s sixth Grudge film, as he directs the sequel to the American Grudge. The story as usual is oblique, certainly for Hollywood fare, with parallel stories taking place in the US and Japan simultaneously. While there are many new characters, you really have to see
The Grudge (2004) first to understand who everyone is, but I’m thankful there wasn’t too much of the-story-so-far exposition and tons of flashbacks to bring newcomers up to speed.

It’s good to see Sarah Michelle Gellar back again too, as her sister travels to Japan to find out what happened to her after the events of the first film.

The cursed house as a stagebound set still doesn’t creep me out as much as the actual house used in the Japanese films. The set-piece scares are still mostly restaged from the Japanese films. Is he finally running out of
Ju-on ideas?

So, having seen all the Japanese films, the pleasures here are not the familiar scares, but the high calibre of acting, and the new characters. Interesting to see Edison Chen (Initial D - The Movie, Infernal Affairs) in an American movie. His acting isn’t fantastic, but he’s certainly easy on the eye. A pity no Japanese actors could get a break as well.

Also, American schoolgirls in Japanese schoolgirl outfits just don’t look quite right…

I enjoyed the DVD extras more, seeing the actors getting to grips with life in Japan in the making-of documentary, and the story of the producers' sculpting the sequel while staying faithful to
the series.

Hopefully soon, Shimizu will be allowed to develop some of his original ideas in the west. But I hope he gives up making his American films 'shock-heavy', and stick with his original Japanese 'creepy' approach - they make for much better films. His Rinne (2005, aka Reincarnation) is fantastic and evidence that he makes great horror films, whatever language you speak.

June 17, 2007

WATCH OUT, WE'RE MAD (1974) classic Terence Hill and Bud Spencer

(US and UK release: 1976)
Original title: Altrimenti ci arrabbiamo (1974, Italy/Spain)

Undemanding, all-action Italian comedy that’s still fun today

Another seventies flashback, this regularly made up half of many UK double-bills. Back when kids were served up endless (bloodless) fist-fights and car crashes for entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, especially when the goodies are Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. The little and large actors play rally drivers who tie first place in a big race. They have to share the prize, a beautiful brand new dune buggy, red with a yellow top.

While they’re arguing over who gets to keep it, the buggy gets destroyed in an argument with local gangsters. The duo ask the local crimeboss, nicely at first, to replace the wrecked car. He refuses, because he’s trying to perfect his evil image, helped by a nutty psychologist (Donald Pleasence). The boss sends his minions to wipe out the apparently harmless duo…

The pairing of Spencer and Hill, both famous for their work in spaghetti westerns, became internationally popular for a string of stunt-heavy buddy movies. This is one of their best modern-dress hits, with a simple plot and endless set-pieces. Huge, bearded Bud Spencer appeared in 19 films with shorter, fair-haired Terence Hill, according to IMDB.

It was a surprise to see them apart, (especially when I saw Spencer make a cameo in Dario Argento’s early horror film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, made in 1971). Hill had a bigger success as the star of Italian westerns My Name is Nobody and They Call Me Trinity, which lead to a brief foray in Hollywood - in Mr Billion (with Valerie Perrine and Slim Pickens, there’s a poster here), and March or Die (opposite Gene Hackman).

The choreography of the many fight-scenes is funny and furiously paced. Particularly inventive is the fight in a gym which uses every piece of kit to knock out the baddies. This is typical of their movies together, aimed at kids, with a level of vicious but slapstick fist-fighting agreeable with censors and reminiscent of silent comedies. Spencer doesn’t so much fight his opponents, but swipe them away, often using his fist to crash down on their heads. This approach to comedy action pre-dates Jackie Chan, who of course used a wide range of martial arts instead of just punching.

Back in the mid-seventies though, kung fu and karate had to be very tame to appear in children’s movies and were closer associated with bloodier X-rated Bruce Lee thrillers and Japanese ninja/samurai gorefests. The film opens with a terrific, casually chaotic rally race, with cars bouncing around off each other. The car-stunts and motorbike mayhem throughout the movie was orchestrated by Remy Julienne (of The Italian Job and, more recently, Taxi fame). Cars effortlessly flip over, carry each other and spring over a river. Another high point, is the motorbike jousting scene, which pre-dates George Romero’s non-zombie film, Knightriders.

The only annoyance in the film, is the ‘comedy’ pairing of Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween) and John Sharp, the latter a British bit-part player who’s not quite up to the role of the big crime boss. I’d rather have seen Pleasence play the baddie with an Italian comedian for him to play off. Together they’re playing at a level more like the Chuckle Brothers, for an audience of five-year olds. Of course, the film can be enjoyed by five-year olds, but these scenes are the only ones that are less sophisticated. In contrast, Spencer and Hill have perfected slow-burning, well-timed underplaying.

Donald Pleasence prays for John Carpenter to take him away from all this

Of course, I can’t NOT mention the music. You cannot watch this film without the oft-repeated theme tune ‘Dune Buggy’ getting into your skull – you might find it extremely irritating, but it became a big hit in Europe for singer Oliver Onions! I’m warning you, it’s catchy.

The other musical highlight is the bonkers operetta scene. Spencer is rehearsing on stage in a huge choir and Hill slips amongst the singers to warn him there’s a sniper hiding in the theatre. The scene balances Spencer trying to concentrate, Hill trying to talk to him, the ghoulish sniper trying to find a clean line of sight, and the attentions of two goofy women. It’s all orchestrated to the mad sound of a piss-take of modern Italian opera, with Spencer performing a solo by strumming on his lips.

This was an Italian production shot in Spain (where it’s sunnier). The cast are a mixture of Italian and British, all filmed talking in their own language. After that, every country would get ‘dubbed’ dialogue (synched in afterwards in sound studios), even in Italy. In the UK, subtitled films only appeared on the few arthouse screens, but with spaghetti westerns and Italian horror films propping up our local cinemas, dubbed films were a frequent occurrence.

Watch Out, We’re Mad
can only be found on DVD in English with the picture crammed into 4:3 full screen. There have been US, Canadian and Australian releases, but none in the UK. The only widescreen (1.85) release seems to be in Italian only.

The widescreen grabs on this page are from the Italian version (the lobby cards are from
Terence Hill’s informative and extensive English-language website). If you want to see some clips, there are several on YouTube in English, Italian and Germany, indicative of where the film's many fans are.

 Dammit, I still can’t get ‘Dune Buggy’ out of my head…

Here's how I first saw the film - supporting Harryhausen!

June 13, 2007


Monty Python's Flying Circus
(1969-1974, BBC)

One of the most famous TV comedy series is finally available on DVD in the UK

Season 1, 1969, 13 episodes
Season 2, 1970, 13 episodes
Season 3, 1972, 13 episodes
Season 4, 1974, 6 episodes

On release in 4 sets of PAL region 2 DVDs (from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

In the seventies, the classic TV sketches of Monty Python's Flying Circus were constantly quoted, especially in schoolyards. Many phrases crept into the language and whole sketches were committed to memory. There were also Gilliam-illustrated annuals, and more importantly, records aimed at adults (some sketches had swearing). These are all worth seeking out for the sketches which weren't ever filmed. In a time before video, the records were the best way to relive classic sketches from the series.

Sleeve art for Monty Python's Previous Record (now on CD)

The characters and situations impressed me more than the films did, and there's much more of Terry Gilliam's animations to enjoy. The surreal way the programmes are woven together is quite unique - a completely diverse sketch show with a continuous, tenuous narrative.

The first Monty Python tie-in book from 1971 - packed with outrageousness

Much as I love their first film And Now For Something Completely Different (1971, made to try and break the Pythons into the US market), the material had already appeared on TV. The film occasionally improved a few things, but the original TV versions are more tightly performed, and certainly more manic.

Nowadays, the films that they then went on to make, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983), are more famous - always on DVD and TV - but the TV episodes have been hard to see lately.

Odd episodes have turned up on TV, including a long run on the UK Paramount Comedy Channel. But this debut on DVD in Britain is long overdue, much like Batman (1966) in the US is - towering TV classics that should have been the first thing out on DVD. This release also has none of the censor cuts that were imposed by the BBC at the time of the original transmission.

I'm so thankful that I'm finally getting the series on DVD, I'm prepared to forgive the complete lack of extras!

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June 08, 2007

DOC SAVAGE - THE MAN OF BRONZE (1975) - watch him pulp the bad guys!

(1975, USA)
Pulp fiction action hero who had a Fortress of Solitude before Superman!
No, I'm not old enough to have gotten into Doc Savage in 1933, when he first appeared on newstands in the pages of pulp fiction. I caught up with him when his exploits were reprinted in the 1970's, with tremendous new cover artwork that leapt off the shelves. The success of these books span into a movie in 1975, Doc Savage - The Man of Bronze.

Written under the collective pen-name Kenneth Robeson, Lester Dent was the actual name of the main writer of these monthly stories, published in Doc Savage magazine, when pulp was in its heyday. The stories were set modern day, and when the Second World War broke out, Doc joined in the fray in his adventures.

The science was slightly futuristic, which makes the stories even more interesting today - a reflection of what was thought to be almost possible. Generally the mysteries that drove the stories often appeared to be supernatural, but usually turned out to be man-made (like Scooby Doo!). But occasionally Doc would battle the fantastic, like in 'The Land of Terror' where he fights for survival on an island filled with living dinosaurs.

Luckily, very little of the text was updated when the stories were reprinted in paperbacks by Bantam in the 1970's. The new, vibrantly colourful artwork helped the series keep on selling, so that all of the stories were eventually available again, as well as a Doc Savage comic and a 'biography' ('An Apocalyptic Life' by Philip Jose Farmer). I'm still working my way through all of them - some of the only fiction I enjoy reading.

In 1975, a movie seemed like a good idea, especially with sci-fi king George Pal producing. Pal was the creative genius behind the early colour sci-fi classics The War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine (1960), Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), all of which are definitely worth seeking out, for their superb special effects alone.

(When Stanley Kubrick was making 2001 - A Space Odyssey, Pal's 1950's sci-fi films were among the few that he could reference that had already tried to depict realistic space travel with a big budget.)

After classic movies like those, Doc Savage - Man of Bronze fell short of expectations, but Pal had reputedly bought the rights to all Doc's stories (over 180), obviously thinking he had a franchise on his hands. Fantastic idea, worth a try, but it was not to be. Although the film ends with a tease for the title of the next film Arch-Enemy of Evil (a la James Bond), Doc has never appeared onscreen again.
Although it's tongue-in-cheek, sending up Doc's ultra-brainy, ultra-macho exploits, is not as funny as sixties Batman, and not nearly as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark, that followed in the same genre only four years later.

The cast certainly look the part, but there are no real stars. Ron Ely was famous at the time as TV's Tarzan. The production values are okay, but it still looks like a TV movie. The director is Michael Anderson, the year before he made the popular Logan's Run movie. George Pal wrote the script. It's fun, but...

At the time, before Indiana Jones, the Superman movies, and even Flash Gordon, Hollywood was still trying to get any adaption of a comic book to work. Batman on TV (1966) was the exception, but was almost pure comedy. There was a struggle to get Wonder Woman to work as a TV series, which had had several false starts. The most successful run, the second season (set modern day), began in 1976. In fact, Doc Savage feels a lot like the first season of Wonder Woman, which was set during WWII, and was also unsure if it should send itself up, or how.

The film snuck out into cinemas (I saw it on a double-bill with the Belmondo spy spoof How To Ruin The Reputation of the World's Geatest Secret Agent), but wasn't a success, but also never went away. At the time, I was disappointed that Ron Ely didn't look like the cover art of the paperbacks, where Doc has a crewcut that looks like a bronze skullcap (as described in the stories). What I hadn't seen then, was the pulp artwork where Doc has ordinary, contemporary hair.

The film is set in 1936, a brave move, but undoubtedly the right choice, though the look isn't emphatically 1930's enough - for instance, some of the hairstyles look decidely 1970's.

The story opens with a brief intro, set in Doc's Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic (Superman wasn't the first), though the books depict it as a little larger than the tiny igloo shown here. The action moves to Manhattan, with an attempt on Doc's life in his stupendous skyscraper penthouse. A strangely painted figure (played by legendary stuntman, Dar Robinson) triggers the mystery of who killed Doc's father, sending the gang deep into the dangerous South American jungle.

Doc is assisted by the Famous Five, friends and scientists, all experts in different fields, who are also handy in a fight. The actors are well cast to resemble their characters, but only Renny (William Lucking) and Doc play the roles straight.

The booming OTT voiceovers and ridiculously patriotic music (with male-voice choir), try to veer the project more into comedy. Was that a late decision, during post-production? Admittedly the (special effects) glint in his eye is fun, but over-used.
The atmosphere is suitably dark and the story is moving along nicely until the baddie arrives, with a troupe of silly comedy sidekicks. These characters aren't in the original story. Doc's baddies should be menacing, or at least look capable of outwitting him.

Strangely, someone who looks like a great baddie is Michael Berryman, who has a bit-part here, just before he became the pin-up poster-boy of the original The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and his career as a horror icon began.
Also way down the cast is a very meek Pamela Hensley, before she stormed the screens as the super-sexy Princess Ardala, a recurring villain in TV's Buck Rogers (1979).

The mysteries driving the story slowly evaporate, like the flying green, poisonous snakes, which look like the only viable threat to stop our heroes. At the time, Doc Savage - Man of Bronze was amusing enough, and still is. The script is reverent enough but lacks the dark, desperate race against time written into the original plots.

For fans of the books, it's worth seeing if only to try and work out what might have been. I'd rather see this hero taken seriously, but obviously Indiana Jones has now stolen his thunder. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is another example of getting the right balance between thrills and chuckles in this genre.

UPDATE - April 2009!
Warner Bros. Online Store has released the movie in widescreen - available online in the US.

Great, online, illustrated biography of Ron Ely here at Brian's Drive-In Theater...

Selected stories are being reprinted in double volumes, using the original artwork on the covers (see below), on sale here...

Altus Press are even continuing with brand new stories of Doc Savage...


June 07, 2007

KAKURENBO - HIDE AND SEEK (2005) worth hunting down

(2005, Japan)

Beautiful, colourful, creepy, mysterious, short!

Region 1 NTSC US DVD (US Manga Corps)

This has been out awhile and has already had a DVD release in the US. It's a one-off, stand-alone short film, nearly 30 minutes long, and looks almost entirely computer-generated. But the animation is part of a new look in Japan to make anime three-dimensional, while retaining the traditional look of anime characters.

This method was also used for the stars of the first Appleseed movie - they're not photo-realistic computer recreations of humans (like in Final Fantasy - The Spirits Within), but rather anime characters given an extra dimension. This avoids the sometimes uncomfortable clash of styles between 2D characters running around three-dimensional sets or vehicles. The style of animation is far more intensive, but I'm sure we'll be seeing much more of it.

The story is about a group of children playing a variation of 'hide and seek' in an abandoned wooden town (that looks more Chinese). Abandoned that is, except for some rather unusual demons...

The children all wear fox-masks as part of the game, so we never get to see their faces. This, and the unfamiliar architecture of the town give the film several levels of mystery, which also make it very repeatable. We know one child is looking for his sister, who disappeared here playing the game, but what's in it for everyone else? What do the demons want? Where are we? When are we? We only get some of the answers in this fascinating, frightening and colourful animation.

Although the film is under half an hour, the DVD also has an in-depth split-screen commentary showing the storyboard and rough 3D animation side-by-side. There's also frank and enlightening interviews with the director and designer about the development of the project, and a look at how the film was received in its early screenings.

For a better look at the characters, plus wallpapers and trailers, see the official US Kakurenbo website here ...

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June 05, 2007

TENTACLES (1977) suckered me thirty years ago

(1977, Italy/US)

Italian Jaws rip-off accidentally veers from horror to comedy

It's a dumb movie, it’s a guilty pleasure, it's a giant killer octopus on the loose! So far I’ve bought this on VCD, Italian DVD and now a US DVD. Oh yes, and got the soundtrack on CD. And a poster. My reasons for watching it again are nostalgia. But willingly watching a movie this bad, even thirty years ago… Let me put that decision into context. Travel back with me to 1977, when Tentacles first reached my shores...

Cinema-going, 1977-style
The latest Roger Moore James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, is easily the big summer movie of the year, and Airport 77 is a typical Hollywood blockbuster of the year. We're in the midst of disaster movie mania, Exorcist rip-offs and car-chase movies like Smokey and the Bandit. In the animal rampage movie stakes, we’re in between Jaws and Jaws 2, leaving the path clear for Tentacles to beat even Piranha into the sea.

I can't remember what else was in the (three-screen) multiplex that week, or what was on in the other two cinemas in my local town. But movies shown on TV were at least five years old, so I go to the cinema weekly to see something new. Most cinemas are still showing double-bills - two movies for the price of one ticket, and there are continuous performances - I can watch the whole programme twice over if I want.

The actual poster that hung in my local cinema that fateful week in 1977

So, once I see this poster, hear a scary radio ad, and see a clip on TV, I'm already suckered in by this double bill. The cast on the poster for Tentacles look very familiar - if rather old. I’d seen Terence Hill before in Watch Out We’re Mad, which was fun.

You can’t tell beforehand that some of these films were made in Italy, and will involve mismatched lip-synch. The audience doesn't like this - there's always an audible groan when a movie begins and the dialogue doesn't synch with their lips. However Mr Billion is one of Terence Hill’s rare American films. It turns out to be a likeable, action-packed comedy chase caper, with some spectacular stuntwork. But I was looking forwards to Tentacles more, cos it had a monster in it...

That week, this was the best of the bunch. Hollywood movie budgets at the time were very low, often producing movies that looked like they were shot for TV. There weren't even any Japanese monster movies to be had - maybe in the US, but not in the UK. I think Shogun Assassin was one of the few movies that made it from Japan to Kingston-on-Thames.

But we had lots of Italian films... The Antichrist, Suspiria, Zombie Flesh Eaters, and of course the Clint Eastwood 'spaghetti westerns'. But has Tentacles aged as well as any of its Italian friends?

The French and Belgian poster artwork

Tentacles in retrospect

Thirty years later, my favourite scene then, is my favourite scene now. I remember being unimpressed with the finale - I was expecting something bloodier, like Jaws. Tentacles' music had somehow imprinted on my brain, but little else from the film had such a lasting effect.

Shot in California, but largely an Italian production, this still manages to look like it was shot in Italy - with the usual grainy technovision, nutty Italian music, some obviously European bit-players lower down the cast, and of course the mis-matched overdubbing. It looks like Euro-horror, but its aimed at all the family.

Mindbogglingly 'over-cast' with Henry Fonda and Shelley Winters, John Huston gets most of the worst lines, and plays the world's oldest investigative journalist. Bo Hopkins gets the worst scene, and Cesare Denova looks forward to his appearence in the following year's National Lampoon's Animal House. The youngest star is the beautiful Delia Boccardo, who looks spookily like many other of the Italian horror movie actresses of the time.

The movie begins very cheaply, with a mysterious (off-screen) disappearence, using the same editing trick as the beach scene from Jaws, where people passing in front of the camera hide the rapid editing. Shelley Winters breathes a little life into her part, ad-libbing in character, but nothing she can do can stop the audience guffawing at John Huston's floor-length nightshirt.

The mystery of the missing persons takes an ugly turn when a gory corpse pops up in the ocean (much like the disembodied-head shock in Jaws). But the body has had its bone marrow sucked out - this sounds more like the monsters of Island of Terror rather than the eating habits of octopi, however large.

Tentacles - the vinyl

The composer Stelvio Cipriani suggests that the octopus is near, by using a short musical motif. But instead of John Williams' menacing bass strings, we get an annoying harpsichord riff, that suggests The Addams Family rather than menace. And it's very loud. And they use it a lot.

On the good side, there are some surreal moments during the (well-photographed) underwater action. A forest of dead fish floating on end, at the bottom of the sea, isn't something you see every day. But the suspense is lacking and any action scenes are brief. Of course, we are well ahead of the entire cast, since we know perfectly well what's going on.

Around halfway through, a small boat moored unwittingly near the monster's lair, gets attacked. This is where the film actually tips over into real horror. It's night, and the squirming mass of fake tentacles actually look convincing. The creature prolongs the agony as it plays with its food, and the victim screams her head off. It's the only few minutes of Tentacles I'd recommend. All other enjoyment is purely unintentional.

After a growing string of deaths at sea, the local people stupidly decide to have a regatta. Thirty boats, three stuntmen, a coastguard's helicopter, a fake octopus head, and not nearly enough cameras to catch all the action. With a limited amount of footage to actually string together the action centrepiece of the movie, they crank up the annoying music, crosscut between the chaos at sea, and the worst-ever observational comedian. Then they pad out the gaps with some Inexplicable freeze-frames. It's an almost meaningless montage - almost like they were cutting around whatever was actually happening.

Well, at least they had the regatta idea before Jaws 2.

With the octopus causing widespread chaos, in the script anyway, oceanologist Bo Hopkins has to try and save the day. His knowledge of the sea knows no bounds, "All octopi have a sense of foresight". You what?

Bo gets the short straw and has to give his killer whales a pep talk - this is a doozy of a speech, one of my first tastes of movie madness - a scene so mind-bogglingly bad, that I lose any sense that the film-makers are experts in their field.

If you fancy this, it's on a DVD double-bill with the even worse Empire of the Ants, starring a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins. I don't have to make this stuff up.

The Italian DVD (pictured above as Tentacoli) has no English audio on it, but has 5.1 stereo in Italian. The version runs the same as the US cut. Both DVDs present Tentacles in its original 2.35 letterbox aspect, anamorphically presented. A huge improvement on the previous VHS releases, which were severely cropped down to 1.33 - so you had even less idea of what the hell was going on!

Do you want to know more?
An original
Tentacles trailer is here on youTube...

Spoiler frame-grabs and a review here at Eccentric Cinema...

Movie Grooves still have the soundtrack CD for sale here...

That about wraps it up for Tentacles...

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