November 26, 2012

A hundred years of THE LOST WORLD (1925) - and the three best DVDs

(1925, USA)

Dinosaurs attack! The seminal story and 1925 movie

This month marks the centenary of Arthur Conan Doyle's story 'The Lost World' completing its first ever run as a serialised story in The Strand magazine. It was also published as a complete novel that same year. 1912 also marked the birth of Edgar Rice Burrough's characters Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. What an extraordinary year!

While Conan Doyle is far more famous for writing the many Sherlock Holmes stories, also published in The Strand, he wrote four further stories for The Lost World's Professor Challenger. But none of them proved as riveting as his trip into the Amazon rain forest in search of a lost explorer and living prehistoric animals...

While people and dinosaurs had been thrown together in short films, mostly for comedy effect, the 1925 adaption of The Lost World was feature-length and took Doyle's suggestion seriously. That dinosaurs could survive to meet men in modern times, on a remote Amazonian plateau cut off from its surroundings, with a similar climate to the era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

The story starts when Professor Challenger returns from a disastrous expedition without any evidence to present to the scientific community. No one believes he has seen living dinosaurs and they therefore refuse to finance another expedition. It's only the possibility there's still a survivor stranded on the plateau that encourages a newspaper editor to put up the money. Challenger is joined by a sceptical professor acting as an expert witness, the daughter of the missing man, a young reporter representing the newspaper and an adventurer in love with the daughter. Two bickering scientists and a love triangle!

Soon we see the party arrive at the foot of the huge escarpment, and witness prehistoric birds flying high over the summit. The only access to the summit is to climb up a pinnacle of rock next to it, then fell a tree to form a primitive bridge. No sooner have the expedition crossed onto the plateau, than their only means of escape is cut off. Trapped in The Lost World, they soon discover that there are more than just pterodactyls living there...

The plot structure roughly resembles the later King Kong (1933) with its series of deadly foes, climaxing with a gigantic animal being brought back to meet civilisation... In the book it's a pterodactyl, but the movie upgrades that to a far more spectacular brontosaurus. The ensuing chaos also makes this silent movie, via King Kong, the early forerunner of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla and every other giant monster on the loose...

King Kong also recycles scenes such as the log bridge, and the 'reeling in' of a rope ladder, as well as the 'monster stand-off' fight scenes. Crucially, the dinosaurs of The Lost World were also brought to life by Willis O'Brien's elaborate stop motion animation, without which King Kong wouldn't have been possible. Even during the making of The Lost World, the producers filmed enough subplots to make an entirely live-action movie, if the dinosaur special effects didn't work out.

More recently the story, and indeed the title, echoed throughout the Jurassic Park movie series. Pixar's Up (2009) also has this wonderful, visual quote from The Lost World and its spirit of adventure.

The possibilities of this story now seem far-fetched. But in 1912 and 1925 the Amazonian rain forests were largely unexplored. Now viewed as a fantasy, the fun is in seeing what creatures our heroes encounter and if the special effects stand up. Like King Kong, the matte paintings and composite work (that combines the images of people and modelwork) remain impressive. But the stop-motion animation is quite varied in quality. Willis O'Brien couldn't possibly do ALL the animation, and other less-experienced animators had to help with the huge number of ambitious trick shots. Another time-saving (cost-saving) method appears to be the use of two-frame animation, resulting in jerkier movement. The allosaurs move far less smoothly than the brontosaurus.

The long-necked brontosaurus model is all the more impressive because of its ability to 'breathe'. I particularly love the scenes of it moving around in mud. How do you animate mud? Incredible. Note also the nasty, tiny, gory details. Like the pteranodon picking apart a pig that's still alive...

With the creatures also interacting with water and fire, O'Brien is pushing the possibilities of his animation techniques to their limits, as well as some jaw-dropping 'crowd' scenes. This was all great practise for the even more elaborate set-pieces in King Kong.

Oh yes, there are humans too. After Professor Challenger, Wallace Beery remained a familiar face in twenty years of talkies. Here he's less recognisable under a beard. A tall brawny figure, he's certainly more fearsome than the diminutive Claude Rains (of the 1960 remake).

Lewis Stone plays the amorous adventurer Sir John Roxton. He has a similarly strident role in a pith helmet, opposite Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

Romantic interest Bessie Love, here acting her heart out, eventually moved from America to London, but never stopped acting. You can also see her in Children of the Damned (1964), Vampyres (1975) and Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983)!

Which to watch?

Because of expired copyright, this is now a 'public domain' movie, and almost anyone with a print or a mastertape of The Lost World can release their own DVD. So what are the best versions out there?

The Lost World (1925) has survived the decades despite much abuse. It was cut down in 1929 for re-releases, the subplots cut out to maximise the action. It was also completely filleted for just the dinosaur footage for educational use. I first saw a very short version (ten or fifteen minutes) at London's Natural History Museum around 1970. For a moment, it looked like an old newsreel of an actual expedition!

For decades, the only existing prints were of the 1929 one-hour cutdown version, which I first saw on a VHS release. I then upgraded to the laserdisc version from Lumivision which was the best available quality print restored by the George Eastman House. I upgraded again with one of the first DVDs I ever bought, also of the Lumivision version. Although 63 minutes long, it shows what was originally left of the film, with what looks like original colour tinting and film faults. This version also includes several even earlier experimental dinosaur short films animated by Willis O'Brien.

Then, in the early 1990's a major haul of extra footage was discovered, including an almost complete print from Czechoslovakia. This was all compiled and restored by David Shepard and Serge Bromberg and released on DVD by Image Entertainment. This adds in as much new footage as possible, and importantly corrects the frame rate, (it would have been filmed around 18 to 20 frames per second). This slows the action down to look normal and realistic, the resulting running time is 92 mins. There's also 13 minutes of dinosaur animation footage, thought to be unused out-takes.

With a debate raging over how much of the footage should have been reinserted (there's no way for certain knowing how the first version was actually assembled), George Eastman House also made a rival restored version. This can be found on the 20th Century Fox release of the 1960 colour widescreen Irwin Allen remake of The Lost World (cover art above) included as a bonus feature! It's actually on a separate DVD.

But here the frame rate runs fast, as if the print was projected at 24 frames per second, resulting in people running around too fast, and making the dinosaurs look more like models. Roughly the same assembly of scenes, but it's sped up to a running time of 76 mins. Some of the film elements used are in better shape and more restoration has been done on them. But the colour tinting is very heavy and some scenes play too dark, obscuring the detail. This version also elects to keep the language of the blacked-up manservant in the original, insulting 'who dat dere' spellings. This DVD also includes the 13 minutes of out-takes.

Image Entertainment DVD (Shepard restoration) - note the position of the background: the camera is stationary 
The Fox DVD (Eastman House restoration) exactly the same moment
These two restorations present some scenes in slightly different orders, not that it hurts the story. But what I didn't realise, when viewing them side by side, was that sometimes two different angles had been shot, but only those involving actors. Why they'd use two cameras on the actors, but apparently not on the special effects, is confusing. Alternate takes have also been used by the two versions in some scenes, noticeably those with wildlife.

I'd definitely recommend the Image Entertainment disc, though slightly rougher looking in places, for the smoother running speed and less heavy-handed tinting.

The full story on the Bromberg/Shepard restoration is in Video Watchdog #75 - it includes a complete rundown of the recently reinstated scenes and what's still thought to be missing. Plus an extensive interview with David Shepard.

My favourite version of the book is 'The Annotated Lost World', heavily illustrated and full of insight into the origins of Conan Doyle's story.

November 19, 2012

Filming Location: ABSENTIA (2011) - creepy Glendale

Movie location - Kenilworth Avenue tunnel!
(seen in Absentia (2011))

Coincidence (or was it LoveFilm) popped Absentia through the letterbox a week before our holiday trip to Los Angeles. I started watching it without even knowing where it was set. Sufficiently impressed, knowing we'd be in the neighbourhood, I wanted to go check it out in person. 

Typically Los Angeles, but a low camera angle (and smog) can hide those tell-tale hills
An interview with the director gave some rough clues about where it had been shot, a walkway under Highway 134 somewhere in Glendale. In LA, I narrowed down the possibilities using Google Street View... Then it was into the hiremobile, and away!

Jogging tribute - homagercise
Screengrabs in hand (from the trailer), we squinted down the dead end streets along Pioneer Drive to find the actual Absentia tunnel. This is also where director Mike Flanagan was living at the time - he filmed the action in his own home and around these streets).

The location wouldn't make you look twice in the daytime, but inside the tunnel, it's seriously underlit. The contrast between Californian sunshine and near-darkness also freaks out electronic cameras like the iPhone...

Facing my fear, I cautiously walked through. Thankfully there were no homeless people lying around inside...

The other side... (the North end)
Now got to go through again, to get back to the car...
This Google Map pinpoints the location. The circular car turnaround in front of the tunnel makes a good landmark. Remember this is purely a residential area - so please respect the neighbourhood and watch out for parking restrictions. And please don't grab any joggers by the ankles.

(Location photographs by David Tarrington and Mark Hodgson. If you've seen either of them recently, contact the police station at Glendale, California, where they're still registered as missing.)

November 18, 2012

ABSENTIA (2011) - the tunnel of horror!

(2011, USA)

With an underpass, you can be scared of the dark any hour of the day
Horror fans were twittering about this at a parade of film festivals, so I took a look when it hit the UK, watching it completely cold. This hazardous method of finding recommendations normally means that I regularly fall for orchestrated hype, often ending up with very average or predictable horror, mainstream or otherwise. But this time it paid off - I knew nothing about Absentia, but as a result it was full of surprises, as a story and as a production.

Tricia is young and pregnant, still posting 'have you seen?' flyers seven years after her husband disappeared. There are many similar posters around, but mostly for pets. Her younger sister, Callie, comes to stay just as the missing husband is legally declared dead. Callie takes up jogging near the house, cutting through a pedestrian tunnel as part of her circuit. On one run, she encounters a barely alive guy lying across the floor of the underpass. She can't understand what he's saying. When she returns with the police, he's gone. Things also start getting weird around their house. Soon, it'll be them calling the police for help...

Besides piling on the scares, Absentia is refreshing in trying hard to 'do different'. Tricia is pregnant, but that's not central to the plot. In the same way Duane Jones was picked as the lead for Night of the Living Dead but just happened to be black. Courtney Bell plays Tricia, but just happened to be (very) pregnant. (Can't wait to see how the kid turns out...).

The central mystery keeps you guessing and even character details are dramatically revealed rather than telegraphed. Also, the same way The Descent unnerves you with claustrophobia before hitting you with the supernatural, Absentia starts with the agonising limbo when someone you know disappears without a trace. Shocks and scares quickly kick in, but without immediately revealing the cause...

We've only recently watched the first Paranormal Activity (2007), which was as high in suspense as it was in bad acting and lame-brained character motivation. For all the build-up, I expected more than one decent scare. The franchise also does a disservice to other films shot on video. They expect the audience to agree that you can still 'tell' whether you're looking at video or not and that video still looks slightly rubbish. Absentia used video for budgetary reasons, but made it look as good as possible. I honestly thought I was watching a mainstream movie. It's therefore irksome that Absentia is less well known, was made for far less money, but scared me a hundred times more.

In fact it was made on a ridiculously small budget. IMDB lists it as $70,000! What? I had no idea. Usually I can spot ultra-low-budget horror because it looks shit, the acting's shit, and the story is... too. Which is why I avoid the zero-budget projects - because they're not even technically proficient. Absentia disproves my rule-of-thumb, demonstrating that a good script, careful camerawork and good acting can cost very little.

This is out on DVD in the US and UK, but hasn't yet hit blu-ray. I'm hoping that when Mike Flanagan's next film Oculus hits, Absentia will get an upgraded release.

November 17, 2012

Filming Location: BODY DOUBLE - the Chemosphere House

Movie Location - The Chemosphere House
(seen in Body Double (1984), The Outer Limits (1963))

Retro-futuristic architecture is even more fun to visit if it's appeared in a movie. This octagonal house, built on a single stilt, looks too visually interesting to be true. I thought it might even have been a special effect, when I saw it in Body Double. It certainly looks like it's been drastically enhanced by matte painting in this grab...

Brian De Palma's sexed up reworking of Hitchcock's Rear Window certainly intends that we're more interested in what the occupier is looking at out of such a structure. With a view of half of Los Angeles, one window catches Craig Wasson's attention, as it provides a steady stream of nudity, sex and violence...

Body Double also stars Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry and, Frankie Goes To Hollywood! An explicit, sexual thriller, De Palma attempts to outdo Dressed To Kill and give his critics the finger at the same time. It's most famous for a ridiculous murder weapon, more fearsome than a chain saw but barely portable...

In the 80s, I'd originally assumed that De Palma was the first to use such a great location, and that it was also a relatively new building. I was in for a surprise when watching the second series of the original The Outer Limits. 'The Duplicate Man' episode had used it first, twenty years earlier, with a tale of a psychotically violent, escaped alien prisoner, the Megasoid...

Yes, that's a Megasoid...
Honestly, it's more fearsome in the story, (primarily a take on the dangers of cloning). The episode also shows the lift that allows access to the house from ground level.

The design inspired the look of Sam Rockwell's house in the first Charlie's Angels movie (2000) - but updated it with a more futuristic look.

The Chemosphere House was built in 1960, designed by architect John Lautner. It's also been called 'the flying saucer house', despite the angles. The unusual design partly inspired by the need to build on a 45-degree slope! Besides looking great, the views from inside must be glorious.

Our recent trip to Los Angeles involved driving over the Hollywood Hills a few times. Near the Universal City Overlook, an official observation point on Mulholland Drive, there's a turning for Torreyson Drive along which you can find the Chemosphere. Its single stilt now largely obscured  by trees.

Here's the location on Google Maps, note the Chemosphere is bottom left. But obviously have a little respect, it's still a privately-owned house.

And here's a well-illustrated article with more spectacular views of the house...

(Top photo and last two photos taken by Mark Hodgson and David Tarrington.)

November 09, 2012

ALL THIS AND WORLD WAR II (1976) - a history lesson with The Beatles

(1976, USA)

A 90-minute documentary feature attempting to cover the whole of World War II, all set to songs of The Beatles.

Not a completely crazy idea after the acclaimed documentary Buddy Can You Spare A Dime? (1975) had taken a similar approach to America's Great Depression. But closer comparison could be the That's Entertainment compilations that made use of studio archives to create new movies - the cinematic equivalent of a TV 'clip show'.

In the UK in 1977, I only knew the movie because of the vinyl double-album cluttering up the soundtrack section of the record shops. Being at school, I wasn't about to be tempted into the cinema for a history lesson, not that I ever noticed it playing anywhere locally. Ironically, this was around the same year that I'd stop studying history. At my school, the only way to learn about 20th century history was to take the 'A' level, which I didn't. Decades later, I decided to fill in some of the vast gaps in my education, particularly the World Wars, by watching two extensive documentary series (The World At War and The Great War).

Despite a generous budget, All This and World War II wasn't at all popular, with no known home video release and only a few TV showings. Luckily a truncated version recently appeared on YouTube, otherwise I'd never have seen it. For this to get a DVD release would require a huge outlay for music rights from a wide range of record companies, not to mention clearance of the movie clips.

I was mainly curious about the music, all Beatles songs, but cover versions from a wide range of rockers. The results are far more successful than the hideous treatments trotted out in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which I narrowly avoided in 1978 and, again, only caught recently). So many good tunes murdered... it was a musical massacre.

Again, The Bee Gees are in there, but there are also great covers by Elton John (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds), Helen Reddy (The Fool on the Hill), Bryan Ferry (She's Leaving Home), Jeff Lynne (of ELO), Tina Turner, Frankie Valli and many more! The soundtrack album made more money than the movie...

With a backdrop of Beatles' songs, the entire film is made up of newsreel and movie clips, at a time when music video had hardly started as a form. Synching footage to existing music was still a novelty or an interlude. The cover versions are given a cinematic boost by being backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The opening reel worked best for me, with the grim descent into war portrayed without commentary as Nazi Germany sweeps across Europe invading country after country, poignantly set to 'The Long And Winding road'. The editing complements both the music and lyrics, the choice of newsreel footage pertinent and often fascinating.

But after a great start, there's more and more use of spoken word, with Presidential speeches, lightweight interviews and movie stars enlisting. What I wasn't expecting was the extensive use of clips from wartime movies, blurring the difference between real and recreation. The cutting speed also slows down and the flow of music is interrupted. worse still by funny clips and an over-reliance on excitement from epic movies like Tora Tora Tora and The Longest Day. Hollywood spectacle and propaganda at odds with the reality of the war. I'm also very confused by the use of 'I Am The Walrus' over the attack on Pearl Harbor...

The lyrical juxtaposition could have been weightier. Simply portraying Hitler as a 'Fool on the Hill' is consistent with him being a figure of fun at the time, with most TV comedians. For the dictator to be used for comedy nowadays is seen as risk-taking and edgey, as in South Park. I prefer it when filmmakers attack Hitler with more enthusiasm, like Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds.

But I guess this was a family-friendly lesson in who-invaded-who. Despite The Beatles involvement and playing out with 'Give Peace a Chance', this is less anti-war than most dramas of the time. Peace also wasn't an option with the Axis forces set on world domination. In the end the most stirring passages are the propaganda and heroism from the movie clips, especially Dana Andrew's terrific climactic speech from The Purple Heart. I don't even think you can spot any dead bodies. Some war.

In contrast, TV documentary The World At War (1973) had already shown dead bodies, horrific piles of them, many of the diverse horrors of war from the testaments of eyewitnesses. The difference in approach is obviously stark. Showing soldiers marching to war, but not what can happen to them? Hearing about the war from a Prime-Minister rather than a footsoldier.

Still, the film might have held a few surprises for mid-seventies audiences, like the vintage colour footage. Had I gone to see it, I'd have also been unaware about the female workforce called into munitions factories and heavy manufacturing. There's footage of squads of all-African-American troops that counters most war movies' all-white casts. And I'd not seen any newsreel of the Japanese-American citizens being moved to internment camps, before even now.

The version I saw on YouTube is ten minutes short of the (default) 90 minutes running time mentioned on IMDB, and I'm curious if there's any mention of the concentration camps in the original. Another huge difference from the portrayal of the war nowadays. The bombing of Hiroshima is also reduced to one distant shot. Instead, you learn more about which movie stars went to war...

So... All This and World War II works as a quick overview of what happened, for the impatient, and many of the songs interplay well with the images - the allies landing at Normandy against 'Life In A Day' is tremendous. This also teases up some of the great war movies, and the cover versions hold a great many surprises for fans of 70s rock and pop.

But 'I Am The Walrus'. Really? Ask if they'll play that at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and see what happens to you...

Here's an original trailer...