August 27, 2011

DAMNATION ALLEY (1977) - now on DVD and Blu-ray

(1977, USA)

Daft but very watchable post-nuclear road movie...
Finally this apocalyptic sci-fi adventure gets a proper home video release. It's new to DVD and Blu-ray. I last reviewed this in 2008 after watching a pan-and-scan VHS to refresh my memory of the original cinema experience... This updated review now reflects the 2.35 widescreen Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.

The story opens with a frankly upsetting vision of how easy and brief a nuclear apocalypse could be. A rather realistic depiction from the viewpoint of a nuclear missile bunker, the major cities of America are wiped off a huge viewscreen one by one. America is blitzed into a desert wasteland - using footage of actual test launchings and explosions. In amongst the military is a speechless Murray Hamilton (the mayor in Jaws), strangely uncredited. The entire Earth atmosphere is sabotaged and the survivors eventually emerge into a desert-ravaged landscape where the skies are cosmically confused.

After another rather unnecessary disaster (reliant on even more stock footage), four men are left to try and reach other survivors. The only radio signal they can find is in Albany, New York (what made them so bomb-proof?). The only obstacles are giant insects, mutant hillbillies and a touch of bad weather...

These hazards are no more convincing than you'd find in 1950s' B-movies, especially the giant scorpions. This was released after Star Wars, so the special effects already looked inferior in the cinema. But watching it now, with a world of beserk weather, it somehow rings true today, depicting violent electrical storms, massive twisters and a sky that’s all wrong.

They travel in specially-fitted trucks which have impressive all-terrain triple-wheel assemblies and plenty of firepower. (But the stretchy bit in the middle looks less than radiation proof). They cross the continent via a radiation-free corridor through Las Vegas, Detroit and Salt Lake City.
I really enjoyed seeing this again, it was certainly memorable (as the DVD cover promises) while I'd completely forgotten the supporting feature I saw with it in the UK, Thunder and Lightning, a car crash comedy starring David Carradine and Kate Jackson.

It's good to see Jan-Michael Vincent when his movie career was peaking. He looks even hotter than token female co-star Dominique Sanda (1900, Steppenwolf). Top-billed and about to appear in Hooper and Big Wednesday the following year, he of course returned to TV with the hit series Airwolf.

George Peppard’s career was halfway between two hit TV series Banacek and The A-Team and yes, he has his trademark big fat cigar, as well as an ungainly southern state accent and a Nazi moustache.
Vincent’s drop-out sidekick (above) is the late Paul Winfield, who scored many major sci-fi movies in his long acting career – Star Trek II, The Terminator, and Mars Attacks! Not to mention the Haiti zombie movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow.

While watching the excellent Little Children (2006), I realised that I hadn't seen Jackie Earle Haley in a film since Damnation Alley, thirty years earlier. After he’d given up on acting for a spell, he landed and nailed an award-winning performance, opposite Kate Winslet, as a sex offender trying to return to suburban society. His career is now completely back on track. In 1978, I didn’t know who he was, having deliberately missed the three Bad News Bears films that had briefly made him a child star. 

The novel was drastically revamped for the screen - the producer himself admits to being over-ambitious for the budget. In Roger Zelazny’s original story, the mission was to get radiation medication to Boston, like a futuristic Wages of Fear. Only law-breaker, ex-biker Hell Tanner knows the passable, less-radiated routes. He sets off in a radiation-proof truck and encounters giant bats, snakes, gila monsters, butterflies and biker warriors of the wasteland. So when I first saw the film in a UK cinema in 1978, my hopes of seeing some giant monsters were high. Instead, I got rather unconvincing scorpions and hungry cockroaches (dialogue, “the town has been infested with killer cockroaches”).

The scorpion and cockroach scenes were handled by micro-photography expert Ken Middleham, on whose work the 'insect-attack' movies Bug (1975) and Phase IV depended. The poorest effects are the use of floating models, which looked poor at the time, in 1978.
More successful are the extensive and complex optical effects used to replace every view of the sky in the many exterior scenes. Tracking the laser-lit fluorescent FX to the long, loose camera moves is very impressive for the time, and unsurprisingly not perfect.

Best of all is the full-size Landmaster truck built by Dean Jeffries, who’s not had enough credit for his work. It's really good to see him interviewed in new Shout! Factory DVD extras (also on their Death Race 2000). Besides behind-the-wheel stuntwork, he built movie vehicles like the James Bond’s moon buggy in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and helped design the Monkeemobile and the iconic Adam West TV Batmobile. His name is spelt two ways on IMDB (also as Dean Jefferies) halving and seperating his list of credits.
The bombastic, synthesizer-heavy soundtrack was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, a plus to any film, but was never released as an album. This is teased around the menus and featurettes on the Blu-ray so it must still exist somewhere in very good condition.
With huge holes in logic, this isn’t a movie to take too seriously after the intial catastrophe. But it’s enjoyable for many reasons and an early post-apocalypse road movie, just before Mad Max inspired so many others. 
Damnation Alley looked lousy and confusing on VHS. Only 2.35 widescreen will do any viewing justice. The desert photography of the Landmaster trucking across the desert (including a glimpse of Meteor Crater) are standout visuals.
It was originally released in so-called ‘Sound 360’, which equated to a 6-channel stereo surround system for selected movie theatres. I'm guessing these tracks were still available to create Blu-ray's optional 5.1 and 7.1 remixes.

The star of the show, the amazing Landmaster vehicle, has its own webpage...

(This is the updated version of my 2008 review).


August 25, 2011

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) expanded soundtrack debuts on CD

Intrada are about to release a special edition of the late John Barry's soundtrack to the outer space adventure The Black Hole (1979). Remastered from the original master tapes, this also promises to be the entire score, adding an extra twenty minutes of unreleased music. This is also the score's official debut on CD, see Soundtrack Collector for details.

Music samples, more details and CD ordering information on Intrada's website here.

I only wrote about John Barry's music for outer space a few weeks ago, a recurring and favourite theme of mine in all his work. The score for The Black Hole is some of John Barry's best work, regardless of what you think of the movie. Personally, the music has helped transport me into the dark, futuristic adventure. It's fun to see Disney taking some risks, killing off characters (that aren't parents) and even getting metaphysical...

My full review of The Black Hole is here.

Hopefully someone will remaster the movie soon. It looks very poor on "Disney DVD"...

(The above Japanese poster was teleported from the supreme sci-fi nostalgists' blog... Space: 1970.)

August 19, 2011

ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) - the original Tumak and Luana


Trend-setting rarity not on DVD, later remade by Hammer Films

I've always enjoyed dinosaur movies, but ones with good dinosaur effects are hard to find. This mixes great special effects with rubbish ones. It also set a blueprint for caveman movies for decades to come. The script was closely remade by Hammer Films in 1966, the format repeated by When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.

King Kong (1933) and The Lost World (1925) mixed humans and dinosaurs by having the animals survive for millions of years. This story reverses the format by pushing humans back into the same timeframe as dinosaurs, a huge historical inaccuracy that the film makers ignored, mixing in mammoths and other large mammals as well.

Until Jurassic Park, the most convincing dinosaurs had always been realised with stop-motion animation. But One Million BC ignores this approach, making it a weak link between King Kong (1933) and the remake One Million Years BC (1966) which had special effects by animation giants Willis O'Brien and his protegee Ray Harryhausen respectively. The special effects are still strong enough to make it worth seeing. The modelwork for the earthquakes and erupting volcano are exceptional. Some ingenious composite work also provides some shocks.

'Paste-up' composite publicity photo of 
a giant iguana somehow walking on two legs

The 'dinosaurs' are depicted with every visual effect that has never ever realistically worked. One Million BC has a crocodile with a dimetrodon sail fin stuck on its back, and a pig dressed up as a triceratops! Oh, and a pangolin with some rubber horns on its head - little more than a visit to a pets' fancy dress store. This looks silly, but the technique endured into the 1960s. Irwin Allen used dress-up animals extensively for his 1960 remake of The Lost World. Harryhausen even used one at the start of One Million Years BC. Visual effects like these made the basic animatronics in The Land That Time Forgot (1975) look like an improvement. 

But it gets worse - the animals are filmed fighting each other. There are some very nasty scenes of a crocodile and a gila monster chomping on each other and trying to twist off limbs. Exotic lizards are tipped through crumbling sets, buried in rubble, and surrounded by fire. There's a bear killing a snake and an almost dead gila monster pumping blood. Plus an astonishing shot of a cave/stuntman braining a charging bull with a staff. It's not quite Cannibal Holocaust but it's halfway there. This animal cruelty is apparently the main reason that this film has disappeared from home video. It used to play occasionally on British TV, sometimes under the alternate title Man and his Mate.

Least convincing is a disastrous 'man in a T Rex suit' which again looks like fancy dress. They knew it wasn't going to work and the suit is only seen in distant long-shots or hidden by really thick foliage. It's the scene in the remake where Tumak saves the girl up a tree in the village of the shell people. I've seen worse 'man in a T Rex suit' movies, but the best is easily The Land Unknown (1957).

The story, characters and dialogue were closely copied for the Hammer remake, though there's more soppiness here as the cave people all learn how to get along. A major difference is that the volcano eruption isn't the climax in the original. Victor Mature and Carole Landis seem to playing to a pre-teen audience, while Lon Chaney Jr milks pathos out of the deposed chief of the rock tribe, in a rare, disfigured make-up.

Without Harryhausen's dinosaurs and Raquel Welch's everything, this is a dry-run for a great remake with better dinosaurs.

August 13, 2011

DOWNFALL (2004) - the horror of Hitler

(2004, Germany, DER UNTERGANG)

Who knew Hitler could be a YouTube hit? The stream of variations of 'Hitler is angry' and 'Hitler is informed...' recycles movie clips, but rewrites the English subtitles so that the Dictator appears to vent about lightweight grievances of modern life, ranging from iPads to football transfers. These are actually scenes from the 2004 film Downfall, usually when Hitler blames his staff for not informing him how much his troops have lost ground to the Allied forces.

I was prompted to see Downfall when I realised that producer/writer Bernd Eichinger and actor Bruno Ganz had worked together on this before The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008). I also wanted to see if the YouTube phenomenon might affect newcomers to the movie. I found it engrossing, but also a doom-laden, claustrophobic experience. While I've always sought out horror movies, recently I'm finding well-made reality-based dramas far more horrifying than fiction.

It's not the first portrayal of Hitler's final days. There's been Hitler: The Last Ten Days starring Alec Guinness, and The Bunker starring Anthony Hopkins. It's a temptingly dramatic story. The dictator's death signalled the end of the Third Reich, Nazi Germany and World War II in Europe (Japan held out a little longer). Downfall is the latest version, and the first to be made by Germany, with the added benefit of a new and thorough eyewitness account from Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge.

The story uses her as a central thread to the narrative, from when she first joins Hitler's staff in his reinforced concrete bunker. Crucially, Junge worked with him as the Russian forces finally approached the hideout, and were simultaneously closing in on Berlin. As commander of Germany's forces, Hitler refuses to surrender even though it means the continuing deaths of his outnumbered troops, as well as the civilians left in the city. Despite the desperate situation, his loyalty to his own extreme ideals threaten to drag everyone down with him.

Hitler is undeniably a complex role to portray in any depth, with the added challenge of having to distance the portrayal from every comedian's manic impression. Previous adaptions usually had actors speaking English with a German accent. But Downfall benefits from everyone speaking German. Bruno Ganz (Harker in Herzog's Nosferatu, lead angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire) even had access to a rare recording of Hitler in conversation, in order to accurately mimic his ordinary speaking voice.

Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, had remained silent about the events she witnessed for much of her life. In her last years she helped write an account and appear in a documentary about her time with Hitler, when she was living and working in close quarters with him and transcribing his thoughts, right until his final testimonies.

The publicity emphasised this new account, though Downfall uses several other accounts, adding perspectives on what was happening elsewhere, particularly in Berlin. The production was controversial because the German people were still very afraid that any realistic portrayal of Hitler would show him as a human being, and therefore sympathetically.

But of course he was human, and Downfall dares to show the Hitler we don't usually see. Not grainy footage of of him shouting and gesticulating his speeches to the troops. Here he can be quiet, considerate, good with children and animals... But it's carefully presented as a paradox, showing that he was capable of compassion, even though he abhorred it as a weakness in anyone else. Under increasing pressure, his beliefs look like insanity to even his most trusted believers.

Downfall isn't just about historical events, but also an insight into the mentality of the Nazi leadership, and the strength of loyalty that enabled them to commit their crimes. Their lack of compassion extended to German civilians and their own families. The last nightmarish events in the bunker, on Chancellor and Frau Goebbels' final day, are even more as horrifying than the carnage on the streets of Berlin.

I started watching with a sense of dread, that reminded me of Titanic. I knew roughly what was going to happen eventually, and dreaded when and what I was going to see. The two and a half hours running time was a fascinating education and a haunting experience. The grim siege atmosphere where people coldly contemplate suicide over dinner. The horrible tension that the killing will continue as long as he's alive.

It's useful to know a little about the end of World War II beforehand, as there's little historical context included for newcomers. Knowing a little from a few documentaries didn't ready me for how powerful it was as a drama, rather than simply summarised in a voiceover.

The YouTube spoofs didn't spoil the film as I feared. I was already completely drawn into the story by the time that scene appeared. Don't get me wrong, I find them very funny. But I'm conscious that we only see Hitler played for laughs now - like when he pops up in Family Guy. He shouldn't just be a comedy character. Inglorious Basterds was a welcome change, to see a more visceral and emotional response to him.

The narrative is careful to show pivotal events from the perspectives of people we know survived the war to tell their story. In most scenes, it's carefully established which witness was around. I'm in awe of Bernd Eichinger's script having to distilling so much information, while including so much detail. It was a shock back in January when Eichinger passed away at the age of 61. Check out his production credits, you might be surprised at how many of his films you know.

Bruno Ganz's performance as Hitler is easily a career best. But there are many exceptional performances, especially from the women: Juliane K√∂hler as Eva Braun, and Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels have extremely difficult scenes, but are utterly convincing. Alexandra Maria Lara, as Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge, has the central role, though is maybe a little too wise in some of her reactions.

The UK blu-ray from Momentum shows up a lot of film grain, but the 5.1 soundtrack adds to the feeling of being surrounded by a constant enemy bombardment. There are commentary tracks, making-of featurettes, some very interesting interviews with the main cast and an insightful summary from Traudl Junge's biographer of how her full story came to light.

I then watched the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002) as a test of Downfall's accuracy. It consists solely of filmed interviews with Junge, shortly before she passed away. It was a surprise to see a couple of contradictions between her accounts and some of the events in Downfall, like how she escapes, which proved that it had exercised some dramatic license. But I was very impressed at how the accurately the film portrayed the atmosphere that Junge describes in the final days in the bunker.

Junge talks about her life after the war, apparently dismayed how she was so close to Hitler for so long, while ignorant of what he'd been implementing. Her testimony is fascinating and not all of her stories are dramatised in Downfall, including an account of how his own men tried to kill Hitler (dramatised in Valkyrie) which actually ends up as funny.

Publicity for Downfall says this was the first dramatisation of Hitler in a German film. But interestingly there was another German-language portrayal, which Traudl Junge also advised on, in 1955. Der Letzte Akt (The Last Ten Days) was directed by the G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box), but made in Austria. I can't find this available anywhere though.

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary was shown as part of BBC's Storyville documentary strand, and has been on DVD in the UK and US. Melissa Muller's book, written with Traudl Junge, is still widely available.