April 30, 2008

CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965) - apocalypse then

(US, 1965)

Science-free, disaster movie, now on DVD and Blu-ray! 

This was a regular Saturday night action film on TV in the seventies and it horrified me when I first saw it. The offscreen body-count quickly runs into tens of thousands, and a scene showing a nasty train wreck gave me an early experience of death in the movies. A recent viewing was much more fun. It's a well-made sci-fi adventure, where science and logic take a backseat to unsubtle melodrama.

(Screengrab from VHS)
'Project Inner Space' is an ambitious scheme to harness molten magma for unlimited energy. Why they don't just relocate to a volcano isn't explained. After glossing over the potential dangers, Dr Sorenson gets the go-ahead to fire a nuclear missile (!) downwards into the Earth, in order to break through a troublesome mantle of superhard rock. Unfortunately for the Earth, dozens of underground nuclear tests (in Africa?) have already weakened the tectonic plate. A crack in the Earth’s crust rips open and keeps on cracking (whoops). A growing death toll of those killed by earthquakes and tidal waves (all offscreen) weigh heavily on Dr Sorenson’s conscience - he needs an almighty quick fix. As the rift starts ‘travelling’ along the ocean floor, there’s even some submarine action as is usual in tectonic thrillers, also evident in The Submersion of Japan movies.

(Screengrab from VHS)
The scientists’ solution to stopping the crack is to head it off at the volcano, by dropping a second atomic bomb... by hand! In a scene reminiscent of the ‘Pit of Peril’ episode of Thunderbirds (coincidentally from the same year), two men lower themselves into the volcano with a nuclear device. Surprisingly, this only makes matters worse, and our heroes face the apocalypse (like the rest of the world) as well as a troublesome love triangle.

Dr Sorenson (played by Dana Andrews, again looking through large lucite maps, just like he does in The Satan Bug) is married to Maggie, an exceedingly young bombshell played by Janette Scott. Maggie soon starts flitting between her husband and her ex-lover, (Kieron Moore) like a glamorous ping pong ball. The usually restrained Dana Andrews is encouraged way outside his usual acting range in an attempt to match Moore’s usual, surly, overloud style. Janette gets to let rip her impressive Triffid scream, and displays an Earth-shattering amount of thigh during the climax.

This movie surely inspired the moment in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, when little cute animals emerged from hiding after the Martians were defeated. This is an entertaining example of sixties ‘apocalypse movies’, following the thrills of When Worlds Collide and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Before the localised catastrophes of the disaster movies of the seventies, B-movie sci-fi aimed high by promising global chaos on a low budget. Other apocalypses are the more serious The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and of course The Day of the Triffids, which is closely related to this production.

Crack in the World manages some excellent special effects, courtesy of Eugene Lourie (director of the similarly colourful Gorgo). In his autobiography, Lourie describes his effects work, particularly the large-scale models of the project HQ and a flawless hanging miniature used to make the underground laboratory look even more impresive - it bears a striking resemblance to Hugo Drax’s underground mission control in the James Bond movie Moonraker (1979). I can’t remember seeing such a striking use of sloping walls that wasn't designed by Ken Adam! Lourie also mentions that the glowing lava effects he developed for this film, he later used again in Krakatoa, East of Java (1969).

Crack in the World was entirely shot in Spain, where much of Day of the Triffids took place. Triffids also starred Janette Scott and Kieron Moore together. Moore, who passed away last year, could only ever muster leading roles in lower budget movies, and supporting roles in bigger movies. But despite, and because of, his surly acting, he is always a highlight. A trilogy of his leading roles, Crack in the World, Day of the Triffids and Dr Blood’s Coffin, make an enjoyable cross-section of sixties genre movies.

The bombastic soundtrack by Johnny Douglas strengthens the mood of impending doom, certainly for a ten-year old. The wall-to-wall background music also over-emphasises every single possible emotional corner of the already unsubtle acting.

Thankfully, this has now made it to DVD and Blu-ray (!) in the US.

There's no trailer on YouTube, but there's a brief clip (from VHS)...

(This article was last updated October 2011, originally posted in April 2008).

April 27, 2008

Charlton Heston - goodbye to THE OMEGA MAN

It had to happen eventually, but I was hoping to write this tribute before Charlton Heston passed away.

Before Star Wars came along, he was my sci-fi hero of the seventies. While he'd made a name headlining the hugest of Hollywood epics (Ben Hur, El Cid, The Ten Commandments), I was far more interested in his futuristic/apocalyptic films, all still re-running in cinemas. Towards the end of his A-list career, he bravely entered the genre that was rarely taken seriously. But with Heston starring, it helped persuade audiences to take a new look at sci-fi.

His gravitas helped make Planet of the Apes (1968) a hit with critics and audiences. Rod Serling's brilliant script illuminated the parallels between a fantasy world of intelligent animals, and the problems of real-life America, as well as providing a compelling futuristic adventure. Heston returned to reprise his role as Taylor in the gritty sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which is just as good.

He then hit a sci-fi groove, first starring in The Omega Man (1971), an adaption of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, that's heavily influential on the current Will Smith version. Though if you want better villains, more action and a better ending, you should see Charlton Heston as Robert Neville.

There's also Soylent Green (1973), a reminder that ecological disasters have been on people's minds for decades. Heston plays a detective trying to solve a murder in a massively overpopulated city, stricken with a permanent heatwave. The depiction of metropolitan food riots and voluntary euthanasia are not easily forgotten, as is the ghastly secret of Soylent Green itself.

Heston then went all 'disaster movie' in Earthquake, Airport '75 and Two Minute Warning. Despite chaos, danger, and the dam about to break, with Charlton Heston running around, you knew things were going to be all right.

Seeing these all on the big screen, cemented him in my mind's eye as a cornerstone of essential seventies cinema.

Come back, Chuck...

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HAZEL COURT - horror heroine nevermore

I'd been waiting for the publication of this autobiography for many months now. Sadly, just days before it's release, the author passed away.

Hazel Court was Hammer Horror's first female star. The winning combination of 'Hammer glamour' and acting ability in their leading ladies often proved elusive, but Hazel ably and amply provided both. She starred opposite Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), setting herself up as a 'horror heroine' for the next decade.

Her subsequent horror films, including three in the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe series, are all recommended. For Hammer, she also appeared in The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) opposite Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors), in which she famously appeared topless for the saucier 'continental' version. Neither version of the film has appeared on DVD yet.

Roger Corman's adaption of The Premature Burial (1962) cast her opposite Ray Milland. The resulting film makes me claustrophobic just thinking about it. In 1963, she starred with Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and a young Jack Nicholson in the comedy-horror The Raven. But her greatest role was in The Masque of the Red Death (1964), where her character is practically Lady Macbeth. Her satanic villainy and masochistic nightmares rival Vincent Price's evildoing in the story. Her altercation with a frenzied falcon is as fierce and frightening as anything in Hitchcock's The Birds.

The book talks about all of her films, even the silly Devil Girl From Mars, and is available online from Tomahawk Press. Beautifully illustrated with rare photos, some in colour, this is a book I've been wanting to read for years, but not with such sad timing.

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April 03, 2008

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) no longer the worst sequel

(1977, USA)

You’d be mad if you didn’t make a sequel to one of the hugest movie hits ever, but a disastrous critical reaction, and even laughter during the premiere, buried its reputation almost immediately, despite high credentials.

It's not a film I'd heartily recommend, but it's interesting as a direct sequel to the classic, with many of the original cast reappearing. It’s no more misjudged than the recent prequel Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). After years of being the worst of the Exorcist movies, (Exorcist III: Legion was definitely the best sequel), Exorcist II: The Heretic can finally move out of last place.

It takes place four years after the events of The Exorcist. Hardly surprisingly, young Regan (Linda Blair) is still in therapy. A priest (Richard Burton), sent to investigate Father Merrin's conduct during that exorcism, is interested in the psychiatrist’s results. As the Dr (Louise Fletcher) uses an experimental hypnotic device to help Regan remember, it reignites the battle for her soul. Father Merrin's very first exorcism of a possessed boy in Africa, might hold the key to a new demon that starts attacking her…

While Linda Blair returns as Regan, she’s now more of a stroppy teenager than an innocent little girl. Father Merrin is played once more by Max Von sydow. His old age make-up was so convincing in the first film, that it was a shock for many to see him in the flashbacks as a younger man in Africa. Ellen Burstyn, as Regan’s mother, is notably missing from the cast, with her housekeeper Kitty, effectively gets her role.

To bolster the cast, Louise Fletcher plays Regan’s therapist, but she’s miscast here if we’re supposed to trust her. Fletcher is hardly reassuring as a medical professional after her turn as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest! Her character uses a silly hypnotic device that looked low-tech in 1978, (two flashing lights nailed to a stick), but this electronic approach to metaphysics heavily influenced the climax of the Japanese sequel Ring 2, one of the many interesting revelations in Dennis Meikle’s book, The Ring Companion. Richard Burton is also miscast, with a one-note performance that lends little light to his character's motivations, crucial to understanding the story.

In the story, the combined efforts of both religion and science trigger a vision of the original exorcism. But the scene is flawed in reimagining the world-famous scene by using a different actress and a different voice. Nothing about this ‘replay’ reminds us of the original. It’s a great pity, because technically it's an imaginative special effects scene, inter-connecting the past and the present in a spectacularly lined-up stage effect.

There are further mis-steps throughout the film. Having a demon attack via African locusts seems more to do with director John Boorman's love of ecological subtexts than cinematic logic. They don't appear at all demonic looking, more like clouds of tea leaves, or as a single locust glued in front of a back-projection screen. Boorman’s most successful visual rant against civilisation’s rape of the land is still Deliverance (1972), though that message was similarly buried under a confusing storyline. In fact, several of his films start off exceedingly well and go completely ga-ga by the end. Zardoz, I’ll say no more.

The film isn’t helped by unrealistic studio-bound locations and even more disorientating plotting, mixing up ESP with hypnotism. The far-fetched storyline is completely at odds with the painstaking efforts of the first film, to make supernatural events seem possible, by rooting them firmly in reality. In The Heretic, nothing seems real or realistic. Add to this a supposedly dramatic disaster at a tap-dancing contest and the damage is done - unintentional laughs in a horror film.

And James Earl Jones in a locust hat!

The Making of Exorcist II: The Heretic
The reasons behind many of these shortcomings are partly explained in the 'making of' paperback. It details the optical special effects used – whereas the original made an effort not to use optical effects in order to appear real. The overuse of back-projection in the sequel is nasty and noticeable, with silly model shots, insect close-ups and studio sets representing all of the African scenes. Everything is intricately mounted, but still unconvincing.

The technical process of producing a huge studio film is described and supplemented by minor showbiz gossip. Richard Burton was completing one of his many divorces during his time on the film. His role was nearly played by a pre Deer Hunter Christopher Walken. Actress Ellen Burstyn didn't return to the sequel because she definitely didn’t want to be in it. The director also had to talk round Max Von Sydow to get him to return.

The spectacular rooftop apartment where Regan lives was actually purpose-built on top of a Manhattan skyscraper. Linda Blair even does a dangerous stunt on the roof edge with no safety harness. But New York was the only location outside of Hollywood, not for the want of trying. The African locations they wanted were either inaccessible or a war zone. Even a return to the original house in Washington D.C. was nixed by the owner. So the house, inside and out, also had to be constructed as sets, right down to the iconic stone steps.

Effects make-up genius Dick Smith returned to the crew, but apart from one spectacularly nasty effect, basically just recreates his make-ups from the original. His skills would have been better used in the originally envisaged climax, (supposedly never filmed, rather than scrapped and reshot). Originally the ending was to be another intimate exorcism, with a multitude of make-up effects to represent the demons identities. The book mentions a locust mask, a kabuki mask and an effect of flesh falling away from a skull. But unfortunately we get a flashy, stunt-heavy disaster-movie ending.

The book wisely ends with the night of the US premiere – the precise point at which a happy ending didn’t happen. Since then The Heretic has had the usual rough ride enjoyed by studio embarassments – they are lucky to get to home video at all, and certainly don’t get love lavished on them as special editions. My VHS of the UK release has almost every scene in a completely different order to the US DVD - each scene is cut differently and there are many additional scenes, plus a longer climax. So, like the recent prequel, there are two versions out there. If either one was markedly better, I might list the differences, but it’s not really worth the effort. Like many last-minute re-edits, it rarely improves the mistakes of the original.

Lastly, several elements reminded me of Holocaust 2000 (1977), which also has a glass-walled asylum and a beautiful Ennio Morricone score.

Exorcist II: The Heretic was released in the US and UK as a single DVD several years ago, that may be hard to find now. I don't know which version was released in the UK, but I presume it's the same as the US release, rather than the alternate UK cut. It's also currently part of an anthology DVD boxset of all the Exorcist films, available in the UK and US.

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April 02, 2008

GHOST STORY (1974) a haunting tale of madness

(1974, UK, aka Madhouse Mansion)

A bizarre British chiller, from the director of I, Monster

News Update, November 2009
- a marvellous 2-disc Special Edition of Ghost Story has been released in the UK

Please note: all the following screengrabs are from an old VHS, NOT the new DVD!!!

One of several films with this name, this may strike a chord with those who caught it on late-night TV in the UK in the early 1980s. The cast is unique and there’s enough atmosphere emanating from the quirky music and parallel plotting to make this noteworthy. I keep revisiting it, mainly for Ron Geesin’s soundtrack. Stephen Weeks earlier directed the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I, Monster, for Amicus Films, partly filmed in an experimental 3-D process.

As Ghost Story begins, the period setting is hard to place, further unsettling viewers trying to gain their bearings. It opens with a young man, travelling on the London Underground, but everyone is in turn of the century outfits. This takes advantage of the fact that the oldest branches of ‘The Tube’ are over 140 years old. The man is met at a station and driven deep into the countryside.

The rather dapper MacFayden has invited two school friends, Talbot and Duller, to a huge country mansion on the pretence of a shooting weekend. But when Talbot gets spooked by a Victorian doll in his room and starts to dream of dirty deeds at a local derelict asylum, he realises that his school chums haven't told him everything, as his dreams keep getting more and more real...

The scenes on the Underground were of course shot in London, or rather under it. But the mansion and asylum are supposed to be in the middle of the British countryside, except that there is exceptionally bright sunshine. I’d always assumed that this was because it was shot in Australia, though the architecture and gardens looked too grand. Only an article about the director’s films published in 2000, in Video Watchdog issue 59, revealed that Ghost Story was mostly shot in India, doubling for rural Southern England!

The British cast further conceals this audacious deceit. In the 'present' scenes are Ken Russell favourite Murray Melvin (The Boyfriend, The Devils) and a snide Vivian MacKerrell (pictured here) who was the original inspiration for the character Withnail of Bruce Robinson’s legendary Withnail and I, see more here.

In the flashback/dreams are singer and occasional actress Marianne Faithfull (Girl on a Motorbike), sitcom queen Penelope Keith, typecast bounder Leigh Lawson, and one of Hammer Film’s shining stars Barbara Shelley (Quatermass and the Pit, Dracula - Prince of Darkness and Village of the Damned) in her last horror role to date.

Their ‘past’ scenes in Borden's asylum are far more tense than the three friends rattling around in an old dark house. The madhouse, and the way the inmates are treated, feels all too real. But when the tables are turned, the lunatics really do take over the asylum.

The film is slightly let down by the basic lighting and camerawork, and some clumsy comedy at the expense of sensitive twit, Talbot (Larry Dann). But the slack opening builds slowly and steadily as the parallel stories develop, and it’s cleverly unclear as to where reality starts and second-sight begins.

This a real curio, worth wider exposure, and only hitherto available on an eighties NTSC VHS, released in the US under the unsubtle title of Madhouse Mansion. (November 2009, the film finally got a DVD release in the UK, with a whole second disc of extras).