October 28, 2009

Not On DVD: PROJECT U.F.O. (1978) - TV's weekly close encounters

(1978, USA, TV)

In 1978, the double-whammy of box office hits, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had sparked a sci-fi explosion on TV. But while Star Wars directly inspired the galactic dogfights of Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, what could TV do with Close Encounters?

The answers lie in Project Blue Book, the USAF official catalogue of the investigation of UFO sightings in the USA, also the inspiration for many events in Close Encounters. In the first episode of Project U.F.O. ('The Washington DC Incident'), UFOs descend near a woman alone in a remote country house, buzz a guy stranded in his pick-up truck late at night, and get tracked by a roomful of air traffic controllers - all mirroring major scenes from Spielberg's film.

After a jumble of sightings, two officers from the Air Force investigate and question all the witnesses. Sergeant Fisk and Major Gatlin are very limited characters, often sounding like they're spouting official USAF documents. Having said that, fair-haired Caskey Swaim is still easy on the eye. The hook to the series was a weekly dose of UFO sightings and alien visitations. These are imaginatively done, albeit on a TV budget (the models look far too small to be anything else than plastic kits). The parade of different extra-terrestrials, usually a new race every week, are more interestingly realised.

The twist is that some of the sightings can be explained away, others cannot. Though if you rewind to the footage of the reported sightings and compare them with the explanations, they don't always match up. When The X Files began, I thought that, like Project U.F.O., at least a few of the cases Mulder and Scully investigated would turn out to be hoaxes or natural phenomenon, rather than them striking paranormal gold every single week.

For the time, Project U.F.O. was a visual effects-heavy TV show, and still provides plenty of retro eye-candy. Looking past the special effects to the original cases that are described could prove to be a little spooky, if you get into it. Nowadays, it's hard to enjoy because of the lack of engaging characters. The level of logic and science is partly aimed at children, or at least anyone who's never heard of electrical storms and the planet Venus. The show is also remarkably low on interesting or even recognisable guest stars, Leif Erickson (of the original Invaders From Mars) and Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House) being rare exceptions.

It's a stretch to call Project U.F.O. a forerunner to The X Files as it's too light in tone, with such slim storylines, (The Night Stalker was much more of an influence). It was also a steep contrast from the aggressive aliens, imaginative action and tight special effects of Gerry Anderson's UFO of almost ten years earlier.

Both seasons of Project U.F.O. reappeared on UK's Sci-Fi Channel a few years ago, so the series is still out there, but has never appeared on DVD anywhere. 26 episodes in all, has anyone spotted them recently? Keep watching the airwaves!

Here's the opening of the first episode on YouTube...

October 23, 2009

Gone to Halloween Town - back soon

Forgive the reduced amount of reviews over the next few days, I'm off to find somewhere that celebrates Halloween properly...

October 14, 2009

GOLD (1974) - gritty action with Roger Moore

(1974, UK)

Roger Moore's best non-Bond action movie

For some reason I missed this in the cinemas, and never ever fully caught it on TV. Maybe the publicity stills of Moore sitting in a bath with Susannah York put me off, making me think it was slushy. Anyhow, just seen Gold in 2.35 widescreen for the first time (on a recent region 2 UK DVD) and it's still very enjoyable, thrilling and surprising, with extensive location filming in Johannesburg, back when South Africa was split by apartheid. Watching it with a couple of friends who lived there recently helped add some additional insight.

While I've been looking through a few seventies thrillers, I bought Gold after remembering a scene with a killer Rolls Royce. Like many people, I'm wary of Roger Moore's James Bonds because of the lightweight family films they became, filled with far too much silliness. But his earlier Bonds, especially Live and Let Die are closer to Connery's toughness. Gold was filmed the same year as The Man With The Golden Gun but released slightly earlier.

It's based on 'Gold Mine' by Wilbur Smith, a very popular author at the time, who specialised in thrillers set in Africa. With the sort of detail used for the diamond trade in Ian Fleming's Diamonds Are Forever, Gold depicts the trade from start to finish, from the rockface through to the financiers in the stock market. The opening titles show the process of mining and refining the ore. The leftover rock being relegated to huge slag heaps on the surface. These level, man-made mountains later form a stage for the film's climax. I'm told that the refining process has now been modernised and the slag is being re-processed to extract even more minerals. There's gold in them there slags!

But to dig all the ore out, miners have to go deeper underground than ever, a risky business. A cave-in kicks off the story, with troubleshooter Rod Slater (Roger Moore) risking his life to get everyone out. The mystery is why the trapped miners were so far off course with their digging. If they'd gone any further, they might have ruptured a huge undersea lake that could have flooded the mine forever. While visiting Jo'burg, I went down the last remaining liftshaft into a gold mine. You haven't seen darkess till someone turns off the lights down there. The escape shaft was also particularly terrifying, a small slanted tunnel to the surface - not for the claustrophobic.

Like a true airport page-turner, the characters are closely linked by blood and bed. The daughter (Susannah York) of the owner of the mine (Ray Milland) is married to his deputy (Bradford Dillman), but she fancies playing the field. Meanwhile Bradford and his gay sidekick (Tony Beckley) are in league with the head (John Gielgud) of an international cartel. While Roger and Susannah hook up and go gallivanting, a murderous and explosive plot is being hatched...

Frankly, the sliminess of baddies doesn't get much better than Bradford Dillman and Tony Beckley. Gielgud isn't slimy, but is excellent at greedy ruthlessness, especially round a table with the big-hitters. It's not far removed from his aloof butler in Arthur, but without the humour, he's suitably dangerous. Dillman never fully escaped TV roles, but I've always liked his distinctive voice and sneaky eyes - he dabbled in horror films with Chosen Survivors, William Castle's Bug (1975) and of course Joe Dante's original Piranha (1978). Tony Beckley played several borderline gay roles, such as the disdainful Camp Freddy in The Italian Job (1969), but could also be a realistic serial killer, in the unconventional When A Stranger Calls (1980), his last film. Here he has a pad tastefully painted lilac and covered in pictures of male nudes, greek statues of course. Nothing to do with the story, just a little local colour, as subtle as a mallet.

Ray Milland is always a welcome face, here his career has somehow recovered from the truly awful The Thing With Two Heads (where the head of a white racist is grafted onto a black guy's body) and he's in his best shouty, confrontational form. I think his best horrors were The Man With X Ray Eyes (1963) and The Premature Burial (1962). His daughter is played by Susannah York, the only female character in the whole shebang. While she looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, the actress has appeared in many cult movies, including the gruelling They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969), and getting the first lesbian screen kiss in The Killing of Sister George (1968). She's most famous as Superman's mother in the first two Christopher Reeve movies. Ms York is happily still working, mainly on British TV.

The interiors were filmed at London's Pinewood Studios, with some really convincing mining sets. But there's extensive location work shot in Johannesburg, in a country where apartheid was a political reality enforced by the white dictators of the time. While the story shows black and white miners working together in harmony, note that the mine bosses are all white and, even at social gatherings, the crowds are segregated into black and white. The miner's homes next to the mine look spotlessly clean and modern, but this wasn't the reality for the majority of black people in South Africa, and still isn't, years after the fall of the apartheid regime.

With larger-than-life characters and plenty of plot twists and surprises, one involving a six-year old Patsy Kensit (Lethal Weapon 2), this is still highly enjoyable and gritty action, particularly the climax.

The UK DVD is a pleasant surprise, accurately presenting this 2.35 widescreen anamorphically. Though the cover artwork is far from inspiring, especially compared to the Polish DVD or the original poster. The film is also available in Germany.

Here's the opening titles on YouTube...

October 11, 2009

DAY OF THE DEAD (1986) - George Romero's best zombies

(1986, USA)

I'm a huge fan of Dawn, but Day is a better film

I find it hard to review my very favourite films objectively, but here goes.

After being seriously wowed by George Romero's classic Zombies: Dawn of the Dead (1978), even in the censored form that hit UK cinemas and then home video, I was anticipating that this follow-up would be a huge draw. I saw Day of the Dead at one of the hugest screens in the country (the Odeon, Norwich) and was vastly impressed, though it was a largely empty cinema. It was a shock to see it so poorly received, at a time when the country was booming with VHS rentals rather than cinema-going.

The 'living dead trilogy' (as it was called before Land of the Dead ushered in Romero's new batch of Deads) marked three decades with a progression in the zombie's history of mindless world domination. The first was a local phenomenon, the second was when the tide turned, and in the third the Dead rule the planet.

These were the days when zombies only shuffled (though they seem to move a little faster when a meal is close). They may be slow, but win through force of numbers. Another method Romero used to add zombie threat was by placing victims in confined spaces, like a basement, an apartment block or the corridors of a shopping mall.

It was all the more claustrophobic in Day of the Dead, when our heroes are trapped underground in a maze of caverns with only one entrance. I thought the corral, the cave where the zombie 'guinea pigs' await experimentation, was the ultimate in zombie nightmares - being trapped in the dark with hungry flesh-eaters hidden in a maze of tunnels - I still get tense when the soldiers have to use the corral gates to retrieve zombies for experimentation, under orders to get real close to them.

In each film in the trilogy, Romero's film-making skills evolved, as did his female characters. The leading women went from traumatised victim, to equality-seeking girlfriend, to level-headed alpha female. Here Lori Cardille represents the strongest female lead in the first Dead cycle (tricycle?) as a scientist who's also handy with a rifle. The movie starts with an excellent scene (shot in Fort Myers, Florida) showing a town over-run with zombies. I'd liked to have seen more scenes of city life, a taster of how I'd wished I Am Legend had been made.

As the dwindling numbers in a military project, to solve the zombie problem medically, lose another member, tensions rise between the soldiers and the scientists. Are they on the brink of a discovery, and are they going to be able to hold out long enough?

Dr 'Frankenstein' Logan (Richard Liberty) plays an obsessed but amusing mad scientist. He blinds the military with logic, defending himself from the trigger-happy Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who's impatiently in charge of what's left of the sex-starved soldiers. J
ohn Amplas (the star of Romero's Martin) provides sturdy support as one of the few sane minds left on the planet.

A special mention goes to Howard Sherman as Bub, the greatest ever zombie character of the movies, the first (slightly) domesticated zombie. A possible key to the survival of the human race... co-existence!

To me, Day of the Dead has Romero's most consistent cast, the best characters, the tightest story and script, and the goriest effects. Though the blood is used more sparingly, the shock effects are startling, setting a high benchmark for the genre.

While there's nothing quite as memorable to match the iconic shopping mall of Dawn of the Dead, the story flows logically as the remainder of humankind continue to tear each itself apart.

Make-up king Tom Savini excels at engineering the effects for Dr Frankenstein's nasty experiments, as he tries to surgically isolate what makes zombies tick. The gore is unbearably real, the zombies are by now in an advanced state of decay, the deaths are the nastiest yet.

The only false note for me was that the music was far less memorable. It did the job, but i was expecting another iconic Dawn of the Dead strength soundtrack. To me, the music of Goblin will always be the official theme tune for any post-apocalyptic zombie invasion.

I've got the Anchor Bay Divimax DVD edition (pictured), which has great extras, especially the documentary. Not sure that I want to see the gore any more clearly though, in the new Blu-Ray edition, but I bet Savini's FX remain undetectable.

The original widescreen trailer is here on YouTube, or here's a subtle teaser...

October 07, 2009

THE FURY (1978) - De Palma follows up CARRIE

(1978, USA)

Highly recommended horror thriller

This is my first full review of the horror films from director Brian De Palma's best, most consistent decade, which I recently listed here.

Thirty-three years on, Carrie (1976) is a staple of Halloween horror marathons, but the director's next film continued with the theme of teenage killer telekinetics and could even be viewed as a sequel. What if Carrie White passed on her powers? I'd go as far as to say that it was even hinted at the end of the film, mirrored by a similar scene at the end of The Fury. The link is actress Amy Irving who played Sue, Carrie's best friend. What if she moved town and changed her name...

Amy plays Gillian, now facing schoolgirl bullies of her own. But what Carrie did with objects, The Fury does with people, channelling telekinesis to manipulate blood pressure and internal organs... They also have limited telepathy, vivid flashbacks, and maybe even second sight.

A bunch of suits from the government are very interested in Gillian's powers and have already kidnapped Robin (Andrew Stevens) whose dad (Kirk Douglas) is desperately trying to find him. While Gillian's powers are being investigated, she discovers that she's not alone and psychically linked to Robin. While Gillian is unaware that she's in danger, Robin's father is stopping at nothing to avoid arrest and rescue his son.

But these talented teenagers have to be handled carefully, for if they get stressed, watch out. The Fury can make people bleed. From the nose, the eyes, the fingers, and so on... There's also a tense, disastrous scene when Robin gets stressed at a funfair.

Secret government agents with dark motives are now more familiar in series like Heroes. Decades ago, I thought that The Fury had been ripped off by the very similar Firestarter - with telekinesis substituted by pyrokinesis. But The Fury lead the pack of telekinetic thrillers, and for my money it was the best of the bunch, certainly far more fun than Cronenberg's Scanners.

De Palma masterfully uses camera movement and classic slow-motion sequences backed by a rare horror score from John Williams, who provides a lush and memorable theme-heavy score. This combination is showcased in an impressive action scene (the rescue)where the dialogue and sound effects are left out, leaving just the music. The soundtrack was recently remastered on CD.

Why it wasn't nearly as popular as Carrie, I don't know. I was shocked that Carrie played to sold-out performances and The Fury didn't come close. Both were fuelled by a popular novel (The Fury was written by John Farris), but perhaps Carrie was a far bigger bestseller (Stephen King's first) and the movie's high school hi-jinks paid off with the target audience. Both are horror films, but The Fury is also a conspiracy thriller. The stories have all the same ingredients, a little less humour, and more politics, a better cast, a higher budget and plenty more blood.

In fact, the spectacular prosthetic effects made it one of the bloodiest uncut films of the seventies, presumably due to the weaponless violence, with an unforgettable climax, attempting to top Carrie's final moments. The effects were by Dick Smith (The Exorcist) and Rick Baker (before An American Werewolf in London). It was spectacular, early mainstream splatter. I even thought that Andrew Stevens was cast because he could make the veins in his forehead stand out!

The Fury is flattered by a cast of acting heavyweights, with Kirk Douglas (Holocaust 2000) sparring with a demonic John Cassavetes (Rosemary's Baby). Fiona Lewis rarely played good girls (Dr Phibes Rises Again, Innerspace) and the underused Carrie Snodgress plays an old flame of Kirk Douglas. At the time I thought that Andrew Stevens (Stella Stevens' son) as the other telepath, would surely have
a more high-profile career.

Some De Palma favourites reappear: Charles Durning was also in Sisters, and William Finlay (in a bit part) had already starred in Sisters and The Phantom of the Paradise. Dennis Franz was in both
Dressed To Kill and Blow Out, and appears here in one of his earliest of many, many cop roles. Keep your eyes peeled for a teenaged Daryl Hannah as one of Gillian's school bullies.

A tight thriller, a good horror angle, unusual action scenes, creatively shot, a beautiful and haunting soundtrack... what's not to like?

The DVD hasn't been remastered in the UK or US since 2002 and especially needs remastering to make the many darker sequences far less grainy and foggy. Anamorphic? I guess it would be too much to ask for extras. Once again, I'd have thought the director's many hits, and recent work (Redacted) would have ensured that his back catalogue would be better treated.

More about De Palma's 1970s horror films here...

An uninspiring trailer for The Fury is here on YouTube. Perhaps why it wasn't as big a hit?

October 02, 2009

TWILIGHT PHANTOM (2007) - a different Japanese ghost story

Japan, Ako-kuro

This Japanese horror film felt very different, despite the familiar plot elements. The location of Okinawa, the large southern island of Japan, presents life very differently from the crowded apartments and uptight manners of Tokyo. They have legends about forest creatures, not urban myths about telephones and other gadgets. The climate is hot, the people more spread out and laid back.

After starting with a couple of solid scares, Twilight Phantom settled into a deceptively easy-going tale of young Misaki joining her husband-to-be, meeting his friends and family and settling into life in Okinawa. Their houses are less modern, but far less crowded than metropolitan life, surrounded by lush vegetation. The people are friendlier and informal with older relatives. It's a very different presentation of Japanese life.

I was settling into this attractive alternate lifestyle when one evening, someone's granny tells a ghost story. A local legend about the red-haired 'kijimuna', told round a late night fire. It's as if she's accidentally invoked a demon, as it seems to become a reality almost immediately. In a pair of extraordinary one-take scenes that horrify with their intensity and ferocity, the group of new friends find themselves facing a powerful evil...

The story then falls into a more familiar pattern, but the characters' real reactions and the naturalistic filming make it a very different experience than usual. It's also gorier than the typical Japanese ghost stories. It's as if everyone had tried very hard to avoid cliches while still sticking to the boundaries of the genre.

I'd been wanting to see this since it was first pointed out by Twitch.com under its Japanese name of Ako-kuro. Finally found it earlier this year under the misleading title of Twilight Phantom on a Malaysian DVD (cover art at top). It's a no-frills release, but has good English subtitles - available here from YesAsia. Though it's a great shame that it hasn't been picked up anywhere else... yet.

Here's a trailer on YouTube...