February 26, 2010


One of Britain's most influential sci-fi authors John Wyndham had the advantage over his rivals in that he didn't sex up his novels with raunch and violence, meaning that his readers could include children. Indeed, Chocky was adapted for children's TV (in three series, starting in 1984).

His global disaster stories The Day of The Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, like HG Wells, have no child characters but are tame enough for younger readers. Strangely The Kraken Wakes has never been adapted for TV or film.

The Midwich Cuckoos was twice adapted as a movie, renamed Village of the Damned. It spawned an excellent sequel in 1964, Children of the Damned. The remake was directed by John Carpenter in 1995, known for his love of British sci-fi.

(1960, UK)

Damn your eyes!

My favourite is the 1960 version starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley and Michael Gwynn. It's an understated movie, shot in black-and-white. From the very start, it's unsensational, allowing viewers to imagine the worst, and to work out many of the horrible implications for themselves. This is also the movie's strength. There's violence too, also (mostly) left to the imagination, but still powerful enough for a creepy experience. That can't be said about the remake.

The story begins as all the villagers of rural Midwich mysteriously, suddenly collapse. Even the animals. The phones go dead, the village is cut off from the world. Fearing that the cause is gas from a nearby military exercise (echoes of The Crazies), the army moves in to investigate. But it can't be gas, because the phenomenon has a fixed boundary.

Four hours later, it ends as suddenly as it began and is almost forgotten until a couple of months later, when all the women in the village discover that they are pregnant, even the ones whose husbands were away at the time. Happiness gives way as the phantom pregnancies bring a quiet misery to the village. The babies are all born sooner than expected but everyone tries to raise them as their own, despite the fact that the children all have strikingly blond hair...

Despite the title, the story is light on religion, unlike John Carpenter's remake. The phenomenon is dealt with scientifically at first, and then politically as the phenomenon may have 'gone global'...

As the 'cuckoos' grow up, rather quickly, local scientist Gordon Zellaby's son David becomes the voice for the newcomers. It's a little distracting that his performance has been dubbed by what sounds like an actress doing a 'little boy voice'. Child actor Martin Stephens went on to another hugely impressive spooky kid role, as Miles in The Innocents (1961), as well as a teenage starring role in Hammer's The Witches (1966). His last role before giving up movies altogether.

As a brood, the children seem to have various uncanny powers that are growing all the time. At one point David chillingly mentions that they are trying to control aircraft! Anyone who tries to stand up to them are quickly punished, in an escalating series of 'accidents'. Like I said, the violence is inferred, but still shocking. Ron Goodwin's soundtrack uses subtle electronic elements, whenever they are using their 'hive mind'.

But the finished film seems to have been too subtle for the overseas market. While several characters mention that the children have weird eyes, the British version of the film left this to the imagination. However the American release added glowing eyes to all the children, heavily featured in the poster campaign and the trailer.

The effect is great for posters, but rather clumsy in the film - the action is frozen to make it easier to match the optical glowing effect to the eyes. This subtly changes the emphasis away from the children's minds. Only one shot employs the glowing effect with the original action, while David is talking. A considerably harder effect because the glow has to be 'tracked'.

Unfortunately, it's this American version that's now widely available on DVD, even in the UK, leaving the 'non-glowing eye' version buried in the archives. The comparison grabs that you see are the DVD version compared to an old British TV transmission, the way I've always watched the film over the decades.

Apart from this lack of alternate footage, the DVD transfer is beautiful, providing a wider image than the 4:3 version, and a fully detailed range of monochrome.

This is classic British sci-fi, not nearly as famous as the Hammer Quatermass stories, for instance. But it still has a classic and recognisable cats - strange that the same faces appear in other horror and fantasy films.

Top of the bill is George Sanders, who spent most of his acting career in the US, where he was once married to Zsa Zsa Gabor(!). Besides being an early screen incarnation of The Saint, one of his most famous roles was in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). Horror fans may know him as the butler in Psychomania (1973). Batman fans will know him as the screens first Mr Freeze (1966). I love him the most in A Shot In The Dark (1964) suffering quietly as Inspector Clouseau gradually destroys his billiards table. Village of the Damned is one of the best showcases for his dramatic side, again always understated but determined to learn more whatever the cost.

Barbara Shelley, as his wife Anthea, is more famous for her horror roles than any other, particularly Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) - two standout performances in the horror genre. Her role is important in her attempts to humanise her new child and depict the effect the affair is having on the families.

Her brother is played by Michael Gwynn, a former experiment of 'the good doctor' in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and a dramatic bit-part as Hermes in Jason and the Argonauts, which also starred Laurence Naismith, here appearing as the village doctor who's always smoking.

Here's the trailer on YouTube...

The DVD is made all the more appealing for being twinned with its sequel, Children of the Damned, together with the original American trailers for both films.

(1964, UK)

The eyes have it... again!

This takes off a few years after the original story, but with an original screenplay, and none of Wyndham's original characters. It's still very taut, with another wave of unusual children emerging around the world. The setting is more metropolitan, shot in and around Central London, where two teachers are baffled by a child prodigy who emerges from a very humble background.

As other child geniuses are assembled from around the world and linked to the earlier outbreak in the village of Midwich, the governments soon find their hands full with a force that could threaten global security... This is a slightly more explicit version of the themes of the first film, slightly more violent and dramatically tenser. The representation of children from around the world is unusual, though the young actor playing the leader is far less of a presence than Martin Stephens in the first film. I love the use of slanted 'dutch' angles to accent the action and the ending is very, very memorable. Again Ron Goodwin's music adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

This time around, the producers have used the glowing eyes again, even in the UK version. I've never seen this film without the effect.

The cast are just as strong in the sequel, with Ian Hendry (Tales From the Crypt, Theatre of Blood) and Alan Badel (the suave villain of Arabesque) pitted against the police Alfred Burke (The Night Caller, Public Eye) and the military. Barbara Ferris is very strong as the children's carer who becomes their hostage, though strangely this is one of her few screen roles.

I must visit the actual church used as one of the locations: St Dunstan-In-The-East (at the corner of St Dunstan's Lane and Idol Lane), can be found near Tower Hill. Also, the huge, modern, white building seen in the background, as the children (in slightly slow motion) walk across a large square, is London's US Embassy.

This is perfect as a double-bill. Old school, black-and-white sci-fi concentrating on ideas, consequences and a degree of realism, all over spectacle. Beautifully remastered in anamorphic widescreen with the original trailers. The icing on the cake would be the alternate version of Village of the Damned, without those eyes.

February 23, 2010

SATURN 3 (1980) - good-looking space thriller

(1980, UK)

Something is wrong with Saturn 3...

My Wednesday posts are becoming a regular spot for movies that I don't whole-heartedly recommend. This is a 'sick relative' of a movie - one I keep checking back to see if it's getting any better. This time around, I enjoyed it in widescreen, for the first time since seeing it in the cinema. It's still pretty bad, but entertainingly so, with the vague promise that it might have been warped, adult sci-fi horror... if only they'd done it right.

Released the year after Alien, Saturn 3 could be seen as a rip-off, with a robot instead of the monster, and a moon of Saturn instead of the spaceship. But John (Jonathan) Barry had written the story years earlier. Barry was more famous as the production designer of such design classics as Star Wars (wow), Superman - The Movie (gosh), and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (again, wow).

John Barry had also been a second unit director on The Empire Strikes Back (wow). Saturn 3 would have been Barry's chance to direct a movie by himself. He'd presumably been working on ideas for the design of the robot and the sets while preparing the script over the years.

According to news in Cinefantastique magazine (volume 9, issue 1), Barry only got to direct for the first day! There were rumours of problems between him and the cast. Kirk Douglas then directed for two further days, before Stanley Donen (Arabesque, Bedazzled) arrived to complete the film. Such drastic measures hint at problems that ultimately harmed this project so much, it was lucky to appear at all. There are clues throughout, not least the choppy narrative, with repeated fades to black, and the rushed ending. As it stands, the film is only half-formed. A half-interesting story based on solid sci-fi ideas, but mis-handled and poorly finished off.

A base on a frozen moon of Saturn has the ideal conditions for scientists to experiment on solving future Earth's problem of food shortage. Scientist Adam (Kirk Douglas) is assisted by the much younger Alex (the late Farrah Fawcett), living an idyllic existence away from the problems of an over-crowded Earth. Another scientist, Benson (Harvey Keitel), brings an experimental robot from Earth in order to speed up the research. What the inhabitants of Saturn 3 don't know is that he's an imposter, a psychopath who plans to psychically link himself to the huge robot...

The idea of untrustworthy robots is even older than 'Maria' from Metropolis (1927). Even the popular Robby the Robot went renegade in The Invisible Boy (1957), despite abiding by Asimov's law of robotics for his debut in Forbidden Planet (1956). In the cinema however, Asimov's laws are often reprogrammed with movie logic. I'd call them...

The Westworld laws of robotics
First law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Second law: if it looks evil, it is evil.

Third law: screw Asimov - if robots can't kill, you haven't got a story.
The unexpected fourth law: if a killer robot looks dead, it will suddenly come back to life.

The robot design, inspired by the anatomical drawings of Michelangelo, looks great from the neck down. But a weedy pair of plastic eyes on an anglepoise stand looks totally fragile. Generally the designwork, like Keitel's spacesuit and bug-like spaceship, still looks good.

What impressed me the most was the moonbase set! A huge practical (functioning) continuous set that seems to have had no expense spared. Again a production technique used in Alien where a labyrinth of solid and functional corridors, rooms and doors added to the realism of future space travel. For instance, Saturn 3's decontamination chamber looks fantastic and, in operation, appears to be a visually dazzling kaleidoscope.

The DVD restores the intense blue sidelights along the dark main corridors, an electric blue that was almost absent from the VHS release. But spectacular corridors shouldn't be the highlight of the film. They are a perfect example of 'sci-fi corridors', they're even in the poster (at top) - just a robot and a corridor. But while the robot looks silly and headless. The corridor looks good... I must mention this recent, inspirational article 'In Praise of the Sci-Fi Corridor' here in the Den of Geek.

Saturn 3 makes the mistake that so many other Star Wars-inspired casualties made - the opening shot is a spaceship flying over the camera. But much of the outer space modelwork is done on the cheap. The space station and the exterior shots of the moonbase are so small that there are focussing problems that instantly give away the models' actual size. Compared to the money lavished on the sets, the poor special effects indicate that the money got thin in post-production.

There are also hints that some scenes were reshot to tone down the violence. The opening murder is bizarrely devoid of blood. While much of the violence is quite nasty for a family-friendly classification, fast editing hint that it has been toned down. Some story points flash past so quickly, it's confusing. Also the sexual references around the tense love triangle, and Alex/Adam's spring/autumn relationship again seem intended for an adult audience, but toned down for a general release.

There are some famous publicity shots of Farrah Fawcett in a black outfit with a plunging neckline (glimpsed in the trailer below) - presumably for a fantasy dream sequence. I'm guessing that it would have followed the scene where Harvey Keitel's goes to sleep, high on 'blues'...

Further confusion stems from the seventies-hangover anachronisms - an Exercise Wheel (you will laugh when you see it, either at the brazen product placement, or the obvious uselessness of the product), a burst of space-disco, not to mention the casting of Farrah...

In the 'finished' film, there's so much left unexplained. The tanks of liquid under the floor. The surveillance cameras everywhere. The novelisation explains more about what's going on, adding a poignant slant to the epilogue. There's no mention of the dream sequence, but the opening murder scene is better explained. There's more dialogue and exposition and Keitel's stilted dialogue is different, far more natural in the novelisation, indicating that it got a late rewrite (credited to Martin Amis). Though the novel appears to have the same slim story structure as the film (for example, no dream).

Lastly the cast. Unlike the set, they're interesting for the wrong reasons. As Adam, Kirk Douglas is intent on showing us that he's still in good shape. He also gets nuder than Farrah and manages a long bout of skipping to prove himself to Alex, and to us. Just as in Holocaust 2000, there's a gratuitous naked arse shot, when the audience were presumably hoping to see more of Farrah.

As Alex, Farrah Fawcett-Majors had already dropped the 'Majors' at this point, waiting for a divorce from The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors. Her performance isn't much better than her stiff bit-part in Logan's Run, though her acting seriously improved over the next few films.

This is a truly bizarre role for Harvey Keitel, way weirder than when he turned up in Sister Act. The strangeness of his appearing in sci-fi is exaggerated by his character's weirdness. He picks up Farrah's pet dog and immediately checks out it's arse, supposedly demonstrating that Earth people are clinical and emotionless. This all veers towards the unintentionally funny. Plus the shock that Keitel's voice has been dubbed with the very British accent of Roy Dotrice (Tales From The Crypt, Amadeus, Swimming With Sharks). He's saddled with robotic, emotionless dialogue, like this futuristic chat-up line, "You have a great body. May I use it?"

The following year, Outland was the first worthy successor to Alien. A taut re-staging of High Noon on a moon of Jupiter, with Sean Connery as the space-sheriff! Great effects, characters and atmospheric direction from Peter Hyams made Outland a close visual and thematic relative. A gritty, gory thriller with sturdy, functional sets and hardware, from the same producer as Alien.

The region 2 DVD of Saturn 3 is widescreen, letterboxed 16:9, a substantial improvement over the cramped aspect of the VHS releases. Unfortunately, it's non-anamorphic and the audio is mono.

One of the few sensible reviews of the film is here on Moria.

A couple of shots from the missing footage, of Farrah in her dream-sequence Barbarella outfit, appear in this original release trailer on YouTube...

"There are four inhabitants on Saturn 3. One of them is not human". Let me see. Kirk, Farrah, Harvey... they could be talking about the dog!

Website devoted to Saturn 3 here...

February 19, 2010

ALTERED STATES (1980) - biological time travel

(1980, USA)

Back in 1981, this was a must-see for several reasons. It was sci-fi, it was directed by Ken Russell and the make-effects were by Dick Smith.

I'd enjoyed many earlier Ken Russell films on TV. They were the rudest and most anarchic images to be shown on British TV for many years, with full-frontal nudity, blasphemy, and a healthy disregard for cliche. The Devils (1971) is his most even, must-see movie, though it's appearance on DVD is long overdue. (More on Ken Russell here.)

Apart from a midnight showing of Tommy, Altered States was my first chance to see his work on the big screen. This was ironic, being one of his most 'orthodox' films, strictly sticking to straightforward storytelling, with his trademark visual excesses confined to dreams and hallucinations. Until the first 'trip', you wouldn't recognise this as Ken Russell at all. Of course, this could also be because he was making an expensive Hollywood movie, with the story's author (Network's Paddy Chayefsky) also trying to pull the strings on his script adaption of his own book. According to Russell, he was the 27th director to be asked!

Jessup, a student investigating the origins of man via 'inner journeys', tries to unlock millions of years of secrets of the mind by using sensory deprivation techniques, like experimental isolation tanks. When he learns of an ancient South American ritual involving a rare hallucinogenic mushroom, he combines the two techniques to attempt to travel back into ancient memories stored in his brain, with startling results. As the advert said, "the experiment is on himself".

I'd not seen William Hurt before, he gained wider recognition with Body Heat the following year. As Jessup's wife, Blair Brown was also a new face, recently a regular in J.J. Abrams' Fringe, which also featured an isolation tank in the pilot episode. I recognised Bob Balaban from Close Encounters of the Third Kind playing Jessup's assistant, no doubt recruited for his fantastic look of amazement. Charles Haid plays his incredulous boss, soon to be a mainstay of Hill Street Blues, Officer Renko.

The unseen star of Altered States was Dick Smith, a modern day Lon Chaney whose make-up effects had convincingly turned Linda Blair into a devil-child and Max Von Sydow, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando into much older men (respectively in The Exorcist, Little Big Man and The Godfather). While his ageing make-up is his specialty, Smith also designed and fabricated startling effects for a select few horror movies, like Ghost Story (1981), The Sentinel, David Cronenberg's Scanners, and The Hunger. Though he didn't want to spend too much time in the genre, despite the current demand for slashers.

Dick Smith spent many months experimenting with techniques for various scenes in Altered States, but as reported at the time in Cinefantastique which featured it on two front covers, most of his hard work failed to appear in the final cut. Anyone interested in horror effects and make-up simply must learn more about Dick Smith, who has also inspired, advised or nurtured all of today's masters of the profession. There's an illustrated overview of his career here.

What can be glimpsed of Dick Smith's imaginative work is startling, but there's a lot going on. The lighting effects, combined with stage effects like the light-whirlpool are also spectacular. Though his apeman scenes derail the movie for a while, coincidentally very similar to a scene in An American Werewolf In London (1981), where a naked man wakes up in a zoo.

While I was hungry for special effects and a 'wow factor' in the cinema in 1981, the story's more far-fetched scenes aren't as interesting to me now, as much as the early scenes of Jessup's several 'trips' and how they reveal his character. The extended South American hallucination is especially well-staged and colourfully shot, with the director's bizarre imagination running riot.
Jessop's mental trips are also more interesting than his eventual physical ones, which are only as successful as the various special effects. Altered States is still a fascinating story, little known now beyond being visually quoted in the massively successful A-ha video 'Take On Me'.

The wonderful Acidemic recently looked at the film from a more academic viewpoint, including the real-life experiments that inspired the story.

The movie would be wonderful with a commentary track, (particularly Ken Russell's opinions on Paddy Chayevsky), and of course a special edition about the making of the film and the 40 minutes of film that weren't eventually used. But the DVD is a no-frills anamorphic widescreen release with a 5.1 audio option - at least it's in circulation.

An original trailer on YouTube...

February 16, 2010

THE MASK (1961) - vintage 3D horror finally on DVD

also called EYES FROM HELL
(1961, Canada)

Definitely a cult movie, early Canadian horror The Mask is finally out on DVD. In 3D!

I was going to include this in the Not On DVD movies. But after another viewing, I couldn't recommend it as a must-see. It's a cheap, dull story for the most part, only the 3D 'dream sequences' are really worth seeing.

Really very good 3D effects and wild, horrific imagery, presumably shot by a different director. The 3D benefits from long tracking shots. I still think that the best 3D effects allow the viewer to 'get their bearings', like a camera moving through a deep hallway of cobwebs. The set designs and make-up effects are uniquely nightmarish and the shocks are carefully designed for 3D. A giant Aztec skull floating over a sacrificial ritual, a phantom firing fireballs from its palms, druids with razor-gloves... The stills you see from The Mask are always from these scenes, which tell their own dream-logic story. Joined together, they would make a far more famous 3D short film.

The Mask is OK to watch if you're used to low-budget fifties sci-fi. Most of the talky action takes place in small, functional three-wall sets. Where an archaeologist starts hearing voices coming from one of his artefacts, demanding that he wears it. When he does, he has nightmares about an ancient ritual... If you want a chance to see what a great 3D horror, or even LSD horror could look like, try out the dream sequences of The Mask...

The DVD is from Cheezy Flicks. It's a black and white fullscreen movie (this lobby card was hand-coloured). It's misleadingly listed as colour, because it's presented in the red/green 3D process. From the reviews, it doesn't appear to have been digitally remastered.

"Put the mask on, now..."

February 12, 2010


(2002, Russia, Stereoblood, Odinochestvo krovi)

A trippy Russian serial killer thriller...

I think that reading about the recent Russian slasher Dead Daughters lead me to this, with the promise of a Russian giallo, which isn't a bad way to approach it. But while the oblique camera angles, experimental camera moves and eclectic soundtrack all work in the film's favour, the techniques strangely aren't applied as energetically to the murder scenes, which horror fans would expect to be the 'set pieces' of the genre. I'd highly recommend this, not so much for the horror angle, but as a murder mystery presented as a subtly disorientating trip.

Maria is trying not to worry that her husband has been missing for three weeks. Added to this is an impending deadline at work that's hugely imporant for her company. Elsewhere in the city, a vicious killer is picking off isolated victims with a particularly nasty knife...

The story keeps us guessing which direction it's is going in, hinting at all sorts of possibilities. It's a nightmarish murder mystery, with a mood that's ideal for watching after midnight.

The expert camerawork repeatedly attempts to disorientate the viewer, mimicking Maria's loose grip on her situation. Like the style of Requiem for a Dream, there is an emphasis on insignificant sounds, the audio changing with each camera angle - a technique normally avoided to lessen the effect of the visual 'cut'. (Should sound be directional every time the editor moves the viewpoint? Discuss.) Some of the floating camerawork, not quite aimed at the action, pushed me slightly towards travel sickness at one point. In conclusion, the cumulative effect is gently trippy.

There's a theramin scene that hints at the eccentric ecesses of a Dario Argento murder, and there's also a visual nod to Psycho (well, it's playing on TV!). But I was more reminded of Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill, probably for the lift scene. A homage to a Hitchcock homage, perhaps.

Thankfully, for a nightmare scenario of this nature, there's none of the increasingly dull 'is it a dream' moments. Instead Maria's disorientation is used to increase suspense, as most of her friends aren't taking her plight seriously, and that she might also be in danger because she's misreading the situation.

Ingeborga Dapkunaite as Maria is superb. She doesn't overplay her plight and totally held my attention and sympathy. The actress has already played many small roles in American and British films and TV (Hannibal Rising, Bodies, Shadow of the Vampire). The script is by Pavel Ruminov who went on to direct Dead Daughters (2007) reviewed here.

The cinematographer has a trailer and some clips and trailer here on his website. The locations include Moscow in the snow - watching it will make you feel cold.

Strong performances, confidently offbeat cinematography, and an effective (not totally musical) soundtrack all make this a treat. Though it has fewer moments of horror than Dead Daughters, I found this a much more satisfying and carefully structured film. One of the best modern Russian thrillers I've seen.

I think
amazon.com is selling the same Russian DVD that I saw (the title is written in Russian). The DVD is 1.66 widescreen (non-anamorphic) with well-translated, if rather large, English subtitles.

Surprisingly Acidemic hasn't rooted this one out yet, but Quiet Cool has a spoiler-filled review with some choice screengrabs that demonstrate the colour scheme on offer.

February 09, 2010

BATMAN (1943), BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949) - the early screen Bats

'Cliffhanger' serials were a popular part of cinema programmes for decades. Short, action-heavy films that always ended with the hero about to die. Audiences would then have to wait a week to find out what happened next. Cliffhangers took off when film was still silent, often with a women in the middle of the danger - The Hazards of Helen, The Exploits of Elaine, The Perils of Pauline...

But comic book heroics provided the perfect characters for the greatest cliffhangers of the early sound era with Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet, Tarzan, The Phantom all made their onscreen debuts in these serials in the 1930s and 40s. The fast action and slim plots eventually influenced the screen thrills of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Wars mimicked the opening 'story so far' exposition from the cliffhanger format, right down to the rolling text used at the start of every Buck Rogers serial (of 1940).

Before the era of the cliffhangers ended, the two earliest movie visions of Batman appeared...

(1943, USA)

"Fasten him in the zombie chair!"

The first onscreen adventure of the caped crusader is blighted by its wartime depiction of the Japanese villains. Dr Dakar (J. Carroll Naish in 'Japanese' make-up) sits in his evil lair over an evil pit of crocodiles (watch out for that hidden trapdoor!), sitting in front of a huge evil statue of Buddha (what?) as if that would make him more hateable. Dakar has also chosen to hide his secret headquarters behind a sideshow ride, showcasing waxwork tableaux of Japanese army atrocities! A choice of 'covers' which has always puzzled me.

Batman even dishes out the hate-words ("slanty-eyed Jap murderer", that sort of thing) reminding us of the public level of hatred around at the time. Also how easily the enemy in any war is demonised by the media.

If you can stomach all that, you get can see Batman and Robin in action in some fun, fast-paced, furious fistfights, peppered with eye-opening stunts. The baddies have energy guns, a rather nifty car that changes colour, and machines that turn the living into mindless zombies and even re-animate the dead!

Batman on the other hand is curiously without gadgets. He has, er, his fists! Beating the baddies into submission in a series of punishing brawls. He only has Robin to help him. This Robin is usually the first to be knocked down in every fight. He also has big curly hair and baggy underwear worn, as is traditional, on the outside. With Batman's big, floppy, pointy ears, they don't look sufficiently dynamic as a duo.

There isn't a Batmobile, unless you count Bruce Wayne's sedan, which at least has blinds on the inside so that they can change into their Bat-costumes. The car styles are of the same bulky vintage as the vehicles seen in Batman: The Animated Series (1992).

Then there's the smallest Batcave ever - it only has a desk and one chair in it (Robin has to stand). And some rubber bats on strings. Not a good look. Alfred the butler is a fairly useless English clown. Gotham City is near L.A. (it appears on a letter addressed to Bruce Wayne).

Obviously not the best screen Batman ever, but it is the earliest, and a chance to sample a typical cliffhanger serial, with it's cheaty endings, punishing stunts and mad storylines.

In the past there have been 'politically correct' cut down versions on home video, clearing out the anti-Japanese language. But this currently available 2-DVD set (from Columbia Pictures) has all 15 episodes uncut. It's presented fullscreen 4:3, the way it was shot, and is of course black and white. The quality is fine but the tease at the end of episode 2 is missing a few closing lines.

(1949, USA)

The second Bat-cliffhanger serial looks and feels more modern, tighter, right down to the tights. Only made six years later, this looks like it was made in a different decade. The duo actually look like a dynamic crime-fighting force.

Their bigger Batcave actually has science stuff in it. The baddie is closer to being a super-criminal, right down to a mask and a strenuous dual identity. The Wizard has the power of long-distance remote control! Cars, vans, machines, even people...

This serial also features the screen debuts of Commissioner Gordon, Vicki Vale, and the Bat-signal. There's less Alfred, less boring Bruce Wayne, and more of the Bat. The desert locations, forever a stamping grounds of westerns and serials are the polar opposite of the gothic or even metropolitan stalking grounds later associated with Bat-stories, but this is still a huge improvement over the first.

We also have this serial to thank for the next screen incarnation of Batman. The story goes that Hugh Hefner was showing this at his mansion to an enthusiastic audience, and a Fox TV executive was inspired to suggest that it would also make a good TV series... Three successful seasons followed, and a feature film, also confusingly called Batman (1966). This classic show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, was one of the biggest phenomenons in TV history, but has yet to appear on home video in any format...

Batman and Robin is available as a complete serial on a 2-DVD set. Again fullscreen and black and white.

If you like cliffhangers, the must-see is Flash Gordon (1936), the most expensive of the serial genre. It's an adaption of the same comic strip that was used as the story for the tongue-in-cheek 1980 movie.

Further classic serial cliffhangers out on DVD are being reviewed here on the Chapterplays site.

To find out what happens next on this blog, you'll have to come back next week, at this theatre!

February 05, 2010

BLACK SUNDAY (1977) - an epic terrorist thriller

(1977, USA)

The Baader-Meinhof Complex meets
The Hindenburg...
If you're expecting a disaster movie, which this was certainly sold as, you might be disappointed. Which I was when it was first released. Like Two Minute Warning, there's a very long wait for anything vaguely disastrous. Far too much emphasis was placed on the admittedly spectacular and expensive movie prop - the Goodyear blimp - which completely and literally overshadows a realistic counter-terrorism thriller. Based on a book, it was the story that grabbed the imagination - nowadays, we'd be just as interested in the author, Thomas Harris, now famous for The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal...

A big-budget terrorism blockbuster, it's an epic story almost two and a half hours long. Counter-terrorist agent Kabakov chases Black September terrorist Dahlia across the world, trying to make sense of the scraps of information she fails to cover up. We begin almost as much in the dark as Kabakov as to what they're planning. The film spends as much time with the terrorists as with the police.

There are many standout scenes, some punctuated with violence that's almost too strong now. I remember seeing it in the cinema and being shocked by bystanders getting hit in the complex street shootout. I prefer the earlier section of the story with Kabakov slowly discovering their plot. The desert test is one memorable highlight, as much for the sunlight as the surprise. There's quite a change in tone when the action switches to Miami and another gear change as the Super Bowl kicks in.

Marthe Keller is a key piece of casting in understanding what they were aiming for. At times Black Sunday approaches the same level of gritty suspense as the tremendous Marathon Man, in which she also starred. The story centred around Nazi war criminals, Black Sunday has terrorists. While the 1970s had seen plenty of plane hijackings, assassinations and bombings, none had happened on American soil. This made the film an entertaining fiction, the same way disaster movies were fun as long as they were unlikely. The story wasn't meant to be a warning, as much as a fanciful 'what if?' for the sake of a good thriller.

Today it's more terrifying, and benefits from the matter-of-fact look at how terrorists operate and recruit, as well as how far counter-terrorist forces will go to track them down. Robert Shaw lands the great role as Kabakov, who can't afford to be less than ruthless in trying to save lives. He plays an action hero that seems very real - no wisecracks after the kills. He'd also played a steely killer in From Russia With Love and a very different hunter in Jaws. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Deep... Shaw had been in many great seventies films, so I was saddened and shocked when he passed away before the decade was out.

Marthe Keller is the other standout star as Dahlia, the terrorist sent to recruit a disaffected Vietnam veteran (Bruce Dern) whose job is the linchpin of their plot. While Keller reaches her emotional extremes, I was distracted when Dern occasionally fails to sell his moments of distraught mania.

This is classic John Frankenheimer, from the director of a long line of highly-regarded action movies and political thrillers. Seven Days In May, The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seconds, Grand Prix, The French Connection II, Ronin are all recommended variously for large-scale action, gritty drama and edgy stories. His use of locations and handheld camerawork in Black Sunday add realism to a story we now wish wasn't quite so accurate.

Much of the finale was shot during the actual 1976 Superbowl (Pittsburgh Steelers vs Dallas Cowboys). Frankenheimer dares to include a couple of ambitiously complex crane shots to tie in the plot with the event. There are many shots of Robert Shaw in front of crowds that are too huge to fake, with the game going on behind him.

The Paramount DVD is an anamorphic 2.35 widescreen presentation, with optional 5.1 audio. I found the picture to be slightly too squeezed - faces looking too tall and thin - but that's just a niggle. Surely it's time to market it as a political thriller rather than keep on using the bloody blimp! Presumably they still haven't seen Woody Allen's Every Thing You Wanted To know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), as this artwork always reminds me of the sketch where the giant killer boob goes on the rampage...

John William's soundtrack has just been released for the first time ever, on CD -
more details from Film Score Monthly here.