Sunday, July 16, 2017

Captain Clegg

(1962) Directed by Peter Graham Scott; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Additional dialogue by: Barbara S. Carpenter; Based on the novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh by Arthur Russell Thorndike; Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“I was amazed by what Peter Cushing brought to his character. He enjoyed working with me and I enjoyed working with him. He would come along with an idea in the morning, but wouldn’t tell me until we were about to shoot the scene. We always used to try his ideas, because usually they were very good…” – Peter Graham Scott (from Hammer Films – The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

Thanks to Fritzi Kramer from Movies Silently for hosting and organizing the Swashathon, featuring more posts about swashbuckling than you can wag a sword at. It’s an honor to be included among such an esteemed bunch of bloggers.

Hammer Films are forever associated with horror, but this perception overlooks the company’s many contributions in numerous genres (Comedy, drama, suspense, you name it). It’s this skewed mindset that likely prompted the folks at Universal International to release Captain Clegg under the American title, Night Creatures, but whoa there! Hold your ghostly horses, because this isn’t that type of movie. While the titular “night creatures” make a brief appearance, the film displays its true colors, or should I say, “colours” (This is a Hammer movie, after all.) as a rollicking good adventure. I suspect American audiences expecting a tale of the supernatural felt Hammer and Universal did a bait and switch, but once you realize what the movie isn’t, it’s easier to accept what it is. Let’s move on, shall we?

Captain Clegg was based on Arthur Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh, and was filmed once before, in 1937, as Doctor Syn, with George Arliss in the title role. Due to a legal tug-o-war with Disney over the source material, it was decided that Hammer could produce their version, but couldn’t use the name Dr. Syn (Disney’s version would eventually be filmed in 1963 as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, starring Patrick McGoohan). Thus, Dr. Syn became Dr. Blyss for the Hammer’s movie.  

Set in the remote British island community of Dymchurch (actually shot in Denham, England), circa 1792, the peaceful burg weathers the invasion of the King’s revenue men, led by Captain Collier (Patrick Allen). As a means of subsisting amidst the high taxation, the villagers have devised a liquor smuggling ring, which has managed to slip, to date, under the noses of the Royal Navy. Collier arrives on Dymchurch’s shores, to investigate the suspected illegal activity, as well as rumors about phantoms lurking around nearby Romney Marsh. Collier meets his match in Dr. Blyss (played with gusto by Peter Cushing), the town’s affable leader and spokesperson, who may be more than he seems. Blyss, in fact, is inextricably linked to the dreaded pirate Captain Clegg, whom Captain Collier pursued (albeit unsuccessfully) for years, and is dead and buried in the village square – or is he?

If a role could have been custom-made for Peter Cushing, this would have been it. Mr. Cushing reportedly relished the part of Dr. Blyss, and it shows. In every scene he commands our attention, not by chewing the scenery, but through his charismatic performance. We’re introduced to Blyss as he conducts a sermon in the village chapel, providing due reverence to the ceremony, but with gentle barbs at the congregation. In another scene, we see his sly sense of humor as he sends Captain Collier off on a wild goose chase, using the fabled marsh phantoms as a ruse. Cushing imbues his nuanced performance with equal measures of seriousness and playfulness. Blyss is a man who’s reformed from his checkered past, and lives in the selfless service of his community, which also happens to include a booze smuggling operation.

Although Cushing practically steals the show from everyone else, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar supporting cast. Michael Ripper, who’s normally relegated to smaller parts, gets a beefier role this time around as Blyss’ right hand man, coffin maker and co-conspirator Jeremiah Mipps. Even when his character is short on dialogue, his eyes and expressions speak volumes. Martin Benson is also good as the capricious innkeeper Mr. Rash, instrumental in Blyss’ smuggling operation, but not above selling out to Collier in order to save his own skin. Oliver Reed* does a nice job as Harry Cobtree, another Blyss co-conspirator. Yvonne Romain (who co-starred with Reed in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf) proves she’s more than just Hammer glamour as the plucky barmaid Imogene, holding her own against Mr. Rash’s lecherous advances.

* Fun fact: According to director Peter Graham Scott, Reed injured his arm in a car crash during production, which necessitated him to wear a cast, and shoot a fight scene with his bad arm hidden. Surprisingly, he insisted on shooting another scene, in which his character was required to fall off a horse, sans stunt double (ibid).

Captain Clegg was thrust upon an unsuspecting American public as another horror movie (it’s even included in the 4-DVD set, The Hammer Horror Series), with a misleading alternate title that promised, but only partially delivered on showing us “night creatures.” But even if the marsh phantoms are a cheat, they’re pretty cool to look at. The main attraction, however, is Cushing, in top form, playing one of his finest roles. It was so hard for Cushing to let go of Blyss (or Syn, if you prefer), that he wrote two screenplays, chronicling the further adventures of Captain Clegg, but the scripts remained unproduced (source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes). Alas, Cushing never reprised the role, but at least we can enjoy one of Hammer’s finest swashbucklers. Who knew a movie about tax evasion could be so much fun?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Classics Revisited: Quatermass and the Pit

(1967) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Nigel Kneale; Original story by Nigel Kneale; Starring: Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, James Donald and Julian Glover; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2).

Rating: *****

“I wanted a scientist who was on the edge of terrible investigations, and having to face the mindset of the military, yet again, who would use space exploration for their own purposes.” – Nigel Kneale (on his character Bernard Quatermass, from DVD commentary)

Quatermass: “Roney, if we found that our earth was doomed, say by climactic changes, what would we do about it?”

Dr. Roney: “Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.”

For many folks on both sides of the pond, the Hammer Films brand is synonymous with horror, having created some of the most distinctive films in the genre. Hammer was no slouch in other genres, however, particularly in the science fiction department. Long before Hammer entered my conscious memory, the film company had already left an indelible impression in my developing mind with one of their best examples of speculative fiction.

Hammer produced two very good films, chronicling the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass, in the 1950s: The Quatermass Xperiment (aka: The Creeping Unknown) (1955) and Quatermass 2 (aka: Enemy from Space) (1957). A third installment was planned, but didn’t make it into theaters (all three stories were produced as BBC television dramas in the ‘50s) until a decade later. Writer Nigel Kneale was never satisfied with the casting of American actor Brian Donlevy in the first two films as the title character, due to his brash temperament, but was much more enthused about Scottish actor Andrew Keir as Quatermass.* Due to the lack of available space at Elstree Studios, shooting took place at nearby MGM studios instead. This proved to be fortuitous for all concerned, on account of MGM’s much larger backlot and superior resources. The change in location improved on Hammer’s already solid reputation for excellent production values. As the American film distributors had done with its two cinematic predecessors, Quatermass and the Pit was changed to Five Million Years to Earth.

* Fun fact: Many actors were considered for the third movie, including Peter Finch, Van Heflin, Trevor Howard and Andre Morell (Source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes).

In the opening scene, workers discover proto-human skeletons during their excavation of an abandoned London Underground station* at Hobbs End. Just as Dr. Roney (James Donald) is coming to terms with the significance of this archaeological find, something cold and metallic is uncovered. Fearing that it’s an unexploded German bomb from World War II, the British Military takes over the dig site. Enter Professor Bernard Quatermass, who suspects the metallic object is much more than it seems. Quatermass probes the object’s secrets, discovering its true, extraterrestrial origins, and awakening long dormant mechanisms.   

* Fun Fact: According to Kneale, the original setting was a building site, but producer Anthony Hinds suggested London’s tube station.

As Professor Quatermass,* Keir displays much greater range and depth than his predecessor. In his unending quest to discover the truth, and his thinly veiled contempt for authority figures, he’s the spiritual predecessor for such characters as Carl Kolchak and Fox Mulder. Quatermass butts heads with Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who oversees the excavation site. Breen is officious to a fault. He has no sense of imagination or time for idle speculation, refusing to entertain Quatermass’ theories about the unidentified object in the tube station. The always reliable Barbara Shelley is also good as Quatermass’ assistant Barbara Judd, who possesses an uncanny sensitivity for the psychic emanations from the spacecraft. Roney (James Donald) is the unsung hero of the film, as the one human who seems unaffected, as everyone takes leave of their senses.

* Another Fun Fact: The title character’s first name “Bernard” was derived from Bernard Lovell director of a British space telescope program, while “Quatermass” came out of a telephone book.

 One quibble that’s often lobbed at the film is that the effects are uneven. Considering the meager budgets that Hammer had to work with, many of the effects shots are more than adequate, including a shattering wall inside the spacecraft, as well as the alien apparition that appears at the film’s climax. One sequence that’s not so effective is a mass Martian exodus, channeled through Barbara’s brain, depicting a bunch of stick puppets hopping about. Given the proper time and money, perhaps with stop motion animation, the scene would have provided a sense of perspective and scope. But in the grander sense, the scene’s failings don’t amount to much, given the concepts behind it. Ultimately, it’s the performances and story that sell the film.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) Kneale wove mythology and superstition into his tale, to give Quatermass and the Pit a link to humanity’s troubled history. It’s heady stuff, suggesting the origin of the human species and a source for our demons. Five million years ago, the dying race of Martians implanted their impulses, prejudices and memories in an early form of human, influencing our development. In effect, we are the new Martians. In his 1996 DVD commentary, Kneale opined there were three kinds of people: the Martian intellect (Col. Breen), a more evolved human, who’s outgrown its Martian origins (Dr. Roney), and something in-between (Quatermass). Most of humanity seems to fall into the first and third categories, judging by the mob scene during the climax.

 Director Roy Ward Baker’s first and best film with Hammer is serious science fiction, with story taking precedence over spectacle. The enduring themes and concepts have influenced many films and filmmakers over the years, especially John Carpenter, who included references in such films as Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness (with Carpenter adopting the screenwriting credit Martin Quatermass). Hammer’s small budget film with big ideas is a cerebral treat that’s stuck with me for decades. From a production company distinguished by many fine genre films, it’s among their very best.

Note: Try to get your hands on the Region B Blu-ray. As someone used to seeing the film on broadcast TV for ages, the remastered image was nothing short of a revelation.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Neglected Sci-Fi Month Quick Picks and Pans

A Boy and His Dog (1974) For those who like their post apocalypse science fiction with a sardonic edge, this movie hits the spot. It’s easy to see how the film influenced Mad Max, and many other post-apocalyptic flicks that followed in its wake. Apparently, Harlan Ellison didn’t like this adaptation of his story (big surprise), adapted and directed by L.Q. Jones, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. Don Johnson plays the “boy,” Vic, who roams the wasteland with his telepathic dog Blood (played by Tiger).  It doesn’t take very long to realize which one from the duo possesses the most brains, as they scavenge for food and the occasional woman. Vic’s life takes an interesting twist when he’s lured to an underground community by Quilla (Susanne Benton). Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) presides over the subterranean enclave, which appears stuck in a Norman Rockwell-esque past. A Boy and His Dog paints a bleak portrait of humanity, reduced to our baser instincts, where the pendulum swings between anarchy and totalitarianism. It’s a film that’s horrifying and funny in equal measures, with an ending that somehow manages to be a punch to the gut with a wink.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Encounter at Raven’s Gate (aka: Incident at Raven’s Gate) (1988) If David Lynch directed an ozploitation movie, it might look something like this. This curiosity, directed by Rolf de Heer and filmed in South Australia, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s ideal for those who enjoy more questions than answers. Eddie (Steven Vidler), a recent parolee, lives with his brother and his wife on a farm in a dusty town tucked away in the outback. Strange things are afoot when the town’s residents succumb to a host of erratic behavior and unexplained occurrences, which could be the product of (unseen) alien intervention. A shady government researcher (Terry Camilleri), seems to be part of a conspiracy (perhaps in cahoots with the aliens) to incite fear and paranoia. Incident at Raven’s Gate belies its small budget with an assortment of inventive camera tricks, editing and lighting, creating an experience unlike anything else.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Amazon Prime Video

Ikarie IX-B (aka: Voyage to the End of the Universe) (1963) This Czech science fiction film, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, is better known in these parts by its English language title, Voyage to the End of the Universe. The spaceship Icarus and its crew travel on a voyage to Alpha Centauri, on a quest for intelligent life. Along the way, they encounter a derelict spacecraft, and contract a strange form of illness. Director Jindrich Polák and the cast do a fine job depicting the day to day monotony of a long space voyage, as well as the psychological consequences of time dilation (dealing with the prospect of returning to find everyone significantly older). Unlike many American films from the era, it’s far from a cautionary tale, but a hopeful film about space travel.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (region 2)

The Blood of Heroes (aka: Salute of the Jugger) (1989) Writer/director David Webb Peoples (the screenwriter for Blade Runner) takes a unique spin on the post-apocalypse sub-genre. The film doesn’t propose some hopeful future, but accepts the dismal reality of the world Peoples created. The film focuses on a brutal sport, which uses a dog skull as a ball. Rutger Hauer stars as Sallow, an aging team captain seeking one last bit of glory, and Joan Chen is his eager apprentice Kidda. The team ventures to an underground city, where players compete and die for the amusement of a decadent ruling class. It’s an uncompromising, albeit dark change of pace from the usual “change the system” sort of movie.

Note: The transfer quality of the Region 1 Anchor Bay DVD was abysmal. I’m not sure if the Region 2 DVD looks or sounds any better, but it’s the longer cut of the film.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Brainstorm (1983) It’s unfortunate that Brainstorm is best remembered for the wrong reason - as Natalie Wood’s final film, released after her untimely death. Even if director Douglas Trumbull’s (working from a Bruce Joel Rubin script) reach exceeds his grasp, it’s an ambitious attempt at doing something more than a standard escapist popcorn flick. Michael Brace and Lillian Reynolds (Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher) develop a device which enables users to re-experience someone else’s experience. Wood plays Karen Brace, Michael’s estranged wife. Trumbull tries to push the cinematic envelope to make the experiences come to life, including dual aspect ratios (expanding to a Super Panavision widescreen format).

The story turns into intrigue when some government baddies, enabled by unscrupulous CEO Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) try to usurp the invention for dubious purposes. What starts out as an intriguing premise becomes muddled by the movie’s end, no thanks to some misguided and incongruous slapstick thrown in (an automated factory goes haywire), and a few half-baked scenes (due to efforts to edit around existing footage of Wood). As a result, the final product seems less than it could have been. I don’t usually advocate remakes, but given the material’s potential, some enterprising filmmaker might be able to improve the original.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Land Unknown (1957) Navy researchers and a plucky reporter (Shirley Patterson) embark on a dangerous Antarctic expedition. After an unfortunate run-in with a mysterious flying creature, their helicopter, damaged and low on fuel lands in a jungle oasis, tucked away inside a crater. They discover a harsh landscape, unchanged for millions of years. Their challenge is to stay alive, long enough to repair their craft, and before their potential rescuers retreat for the frigid winter months. The Land Unknown won’t win many points for originality or a balanced portrayal of the sexes. The heroine is almost raped by a survivor from a previous expedition twice, but proceeds to defend him. Faults aside, it’s decent mindless entertainment, with some fun creature effects.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Another Earth (2011) On the eve of a mirror Earth appearing in the sky, Rhoda (Brit Marling) collides with a car carrying a family, killing a mother and son and injuring John Burroughs (William Mapother) the father. Director Mike Cahill’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marling) film works better as a drama than science fiction, with its emphasis on the characters and their damaged lives, while the second Earth serves as an extended metaphor for, loss, regret and redemption. Rhoda tries to make amends, striking up an unlikely relationship with John. Meanwhile, she enters a contest to travel to the doppelganger Earth, hoping to have a second chance at life. It’s a noble attempt at trying something different, but I wish it had as much courage to play with the ramifications of a mirror earth as it did with the dramatic elements.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


(1981) Written and directed by Peter Hyams; Starring: Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle, James Sikking and Clarke Peters; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“…What appealed to me about making it in outer space, and making it really a western, was the frontier aspect of the western, more like what Deadwood is to the western, as opposed to what The Searchers is to the western.” – Peter Hyams (from DVD commentary)

Many of the best science fiction films are about asking the big questions, dealing with lofty issues that confront our species and our place in the cosmos. While this is true to a great extent, sometimes we just want to see some people explode in the vacuum of space. Fortunately, Outland has us covered. Writer/director Peter Hyams’ film is unabashedly a western in sci-fi clothing, but it’s a winning combination, accompanied by another terrific Jerry Goldsmith score.

The harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Jovian moon Io* serves as the backdrop for Outland’s story. The residents of a company-owned mining complex work round the clock to meet their quota of extracting valuable minerals. William T. O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the colony’s newest marshall, and quickly discovers all isn’t right. Some of the miners are cracking under the pressure, and the numbers are more than mere coincidence would suggest. His snooping doesn’t sit well with the colony’s director Sheppard (Peter Boyle), who only wants to preserve the status quo and get his fat bonus check. When O’Niel persists in his investigation, he graduates from a nuisance to a liability, targeted for elimination by hired assassins. The tension mounts as the hours and minutes tick off until the next shuttle arrives, with the killers onboard.

* Fun Fact: According to Hyams, he originally intended the film to be titled Io, but it was changed to avoid confusion with the number “10.” 

Sean Connery is convincing in his portrayal of O’Niel, as someone who seems to be the last honest man. He’s earnest, but never appears self-righteous in his quest for justice. His zeal for his new position doesn’t carry over to his wife Carol (Kika Markham), who’s less than thrilled with her husband’s new assignment, and ready to jump on the next shuttle back to Earth. Her predictable departure is a convenient way to get her out of the film so Connery can do what he does best, kick butt. His fight against company-sanctioned corruption becomes a solitary one when he discovers his team members are paid to look the other way. Connery doesn’t have to say a word to convey his irritation. With only a raised eyebrow or a nod, he makes it clear there’s no time for anyone’s bullshit.  

While Mr. Connery is very good, Frances Sternhagen wins the prize for her standout performance as the cynical and sarcastic Dr. Lazarus. As a self-acknowledged burnout who’s “one accident away from a malpractice suit,” she’s there to help the residents with their standard broken bones and scrapes, and not question things too much. With O’Niel’s prodding, she discovers a powerful amphetamine* in a dead miner’s system, which enables them to work longer and harder before their brain is fried. Sternhagen infuses some much-needed humor into the film, and provides a nice counterpoint to O’Niel, with her own brand of intelligence and courage.

* Another Fun Fact: According to Hyams in the DVD commentary, one of his trademarks is naming criminals after family members. The drug smuggler featured in the film, Nicholas Spota, gets his name from Hyams’ brother-in-law Nick and father in law’s last name, Spota.

The optical effects hold up quite well, from the stark beauty of Io’s moonscape in the shadow of Jupiter, to the detailed mining complex.* Outland also has the distinction of being the first film to employ the Introvision process, which combined a live actor with footage of a model. Outland follows in the tradition of films like Silent Running and Alien, depicting space habitats with a more “lived in” look, rather than the pristine, sterile environment found in many earlier science fiction films. Philip Harrison’s outstanding production design favors functionality over aesthetics. The stacked, cramped living quarters for the miners look appropriately claustrophobic. Other details, such as a heavy pressure door and collapsible corridors appear to do what they’re designed to do. John Mollo’s practical costume design reflects the ethos of the production design, made for utility, not fashion. The mining colony residents wear t-shirts and caps, which is probably much closer to the reality of the future, compared to broad-shouldered tunics with capes (with all due respect to Things to Come) or itchy spandex onesies. Hyams added another layer of believability with color coding for the hats, uniforms and space suits, to indicate the division of labor.

* Another Fun Fact: In order to make the complex’s exterior set look bigger, diminutive actor Deep Roy stood in for Connery in some of the space suit scenes.

Hyams doesn’t let scientific accuracy get in the way of a good story, with regard to the effects of a zero-pressure environment on the human body. It’s a foregone conclusion that people wouldn’t actually explode when exposed to outer space, but there’s something perversely satisfying about seeing a few of the characters come to nasty ends. If you wanted to get nitpicky, you could assert the assassins could have used something more futuristic and less messy than conventional firearms (shooting up a multi-billion dollar space facility with shotguns can’t be a good idea). There are plenty of ways they could have dispatched O’Niel without gunfire, but that would be missing the point. The guns add an anachronistic touch, fitting nicely into the old west motif, as do the saloon doors featured in the film.

Some critics have denigrated Outland as nothing more than “High Noon in outer space,” but the film never pretends to be something it’s not. Some SF purists may argue that a story isn’t really science fiction if it could be told through a different genre, but Outland exists somewhere between both worlds as a hybrid western. It’s safe to assume our future will involve using technology to exploit nature, and corporate greed will be alive and well for generations to come. My advice: Don’t get hung up on labels. Relax and enjoy this damn fine piece of entertainment.

* If you want to split hairs, Hyams didn’t consider Outland to be a science fiction film, but a “science feasible film.”