Friday, July 10, 2020

I Saw the Devil

(2010) Directed by Jee-woon Kim; Written by Hoon-jung Park; Adapted by Jee-woon Kim; Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Joon-hyuk Lee, In-seo Kim and Bo-ra Nam; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Because these characters need to express their self-perceived power, if there were moments when it was difficult or uncomfortable to watch it’s because I wanted to show how horrible it was for those being victimized and the sense of power the monster has over his victims.” – Jee-woon Kim (excerpted from “Interview: Kim Jee-woon,” by Isaac Hudson, Cinephile UK

“It feels like a huge rock is pressing down on my chest. Big and heavy. I promised Ju-yeon that I’d make him feel the same pain. It’s not over.” – Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was originally posted in August 2012.

Most revenge films rest on the assumption that a perpetrator of horrendous acts will be visited by some sort of (typically audience-pleasing) karmic retribution by the protagonist. I Saw the Devil subverts our expectations at every turn, denying us the catharsis of a villain receiving his just desserts at the hands of the righteous hero. The film starts off with these familiar elements: a merciless killer who crosses paths with the wrong guy. What follows seems to be a simple tale of a hunter becoming the hunted. As it progresses, however, we discover things are not as black and white as they initially seemed, with concepts such as good and evil becoming blurred along the way.

The story begins on a wintry road at night. Alone and stuck with a flat tire, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) calls her husband, National Intelligence Service (NIS)* agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), in a conversation that proves to be her last. While waiting for a tow truck, a helpful motorist appears out of the gloom, but something doesn’t look right. Her instincts prove accurate, but it’s not enough to save her from an awful fate. After what’s left of her is discovered in a field, the grieving Soo-hyeon takes a leave of absence, vowing to catch her killer and make him suffer along the way. Once he’s found the man responsible for the heinous crime, an elaborate game of cat and mouse follows.

* Fun Fact: The National Intelligence Service is essentially South Korea’s version of the CIA/FBI, rolled into one.

Soo-hyeon illustrates how you can’t go through a pursuit such as this without compromising yourself in the process. He doggedly hunts down the killer, Jang Kyung-chul (played with icy effectiveness by Min-sik Choi), with the intention of making him experience the same level of misery and fear as his victims. As the film progresses, he seems to take pleasure in inflicting pain, but never reaches a catharsis through his actions. His quest to absolve his guilt and grief becomes a hollow, selfish act that leaves a trail of collateral damage in his wake. When he first catches up with Kyung-chul, he could have notified the authorities, which at worst, would have resulted in a slap on the wrist for his vigilante actions. Instead, it’s just the beginning for Soo-hyeon’s vengeance, which has dire consequences for anyone Kyung-chul encounters. Despite his sister-in law’s pleas to give up his self-destructive pursuit (“I know how you feel, but I hope you’ll stop. It won’t bring her back. Whatever you do to punish him, things won’t change. Revenge is for movies.”) he continues his personal vendetta, leaving further innocent people to be murdered and assaulted by Kyung-chul.

Min-sik Choi delivers a fascinating, multifaceted portrayal of serial killer Jang Kyung-chul. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing him. Instead, we’re left to our own devices to speculate on the origins of his dysfunction. He possesses some aspects of a sociopath, but to label him strictly as such seems limiting. His distorted perceptions of others (labeling those who cross him as “crazy”) suggests more than a blanket diagnosis. We witness his distaste for paternal figures when he confronts an elderly doctor who speaks to him in a fatherly tone. Women appear to be the object of his intense scorn because he considers them controlling. As a result, he chooses young, vulnerable women as his prey of choice, as a means of achieving manipulation and power.

Despite the intense themes and grim imagery, director Jee-woon Kim infuses his film with moments of unexpected humor. In an early scene, when Kyung-chul abandons his stolen car, he flags down a motorist (i.e., another potential victim), only to discover that it’s a caravan of soldiers. In another darkly comic scene, an unfortunate cab driver is caught between Kyung-chul and another violent criminal, in a bloody battle between two predators. When Kyung-chul takes momentary refuge with another serial killer the other man regards him with reverence and awe, like a demented fanboy. These moments of pitch-black comedy make the almost unbearable content bearable, allowing us a moment to catch our collective breath.

I Saw the Devil scrutinizes revenge, exposing it as a one-way street with no easy solutions and no victors. As the film’s title implies, the devil isn’t simply Kyung-chul, but also inside Soo-hyeon, in his blind quest for vengeance. His solitary decision to catch Kyung-chul and serve as judge, jury and executioner is a Faustian bargain that can only lead to ruin, fraught with peril for anyone who stands in the way. Instead of taking the high ground with Kyung-chul, he sinks to the killer’s level, plunging further into the abyss. I Saw the Devil is a relentlessly brutal film, which doesn’t pull its punches with its depictions of murder, maiming and victimization. There is a method to the film’s madness, which doesn’t let us off the hook in the final reel. The ending isn’t the release it would be in lesser films. I Saw the Devil reminds us becoming a monster to fight a monster is an ultimately empty pursuit. When searching for evil (with apologies to The Wizard of Oz), there’s no place like home. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Short Take: Attack of the Crab Monsters

(1957) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by: Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Richard Garland, Pamela Duncan, Russell Johnson, Leslie Bradley, Mel Welles and Beach Dickerson; Available on DVD (Out of print) and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***

“We are unquestionably on the brink of a great discovery. It is not likely that the discovery will be of a pleasant nature.” – Dr. Karl Weigand (Leslie Bradley)

“I got the part of a scientist who comes ashore and the crab eats me. I also played the crab along with Ed Nelson. You never played just one role in a Roger Corman movie.” – Beach Dickerson (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)

The glut of 50s giant movie monsters featured super-sized everything, from ants to dinosaurs to octopi. It was only a matter of time before we’d see gargantuan crustaceans, courtesy of Roger Corman, grace the silver screen. A group of researchers travel to a remote South Pacific island to investigate the site where a previous expedition vanished. They barely set foot on the beach* before they experience a series of strange occurrences, including powerful tremors that change the landscape. They’re stranded when their transport plane explodes, leaving them alone to contend with a terrible intelligence that has nothing but their destruction in mind. Can they find a weakness in the seemingly indestructible creatures that terrorize the island and surrounding waters? **/***

* Fun Fact #1: The remote tropical “island” was Leo Carrillo State Beach in Southern California, a popular spot for Corman films.

** Fun Fact #2: The underwater scenes were shot at the main aquarium of the now-defunct sea-life theme park, Marineland of the Pacific in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calfornia.

*** Fun Fact #3: Despite having no prior experience working in scuba gear or directing, writer Charles B. Griffith convinced Corman to let him film the underwater sequences (A shoot he described as “horrendous and chaotic”).

The giant mutant crabs * have a particularly gruesome modus operandi, decapitating their victims and absorbing their knowledge. Each subsequent human is lured into their devious trap, with the sentient crabs using the voices of the victims as bait. It might be a stretch to say that the monster crabs are frightening, but they’re one of the more unique creations from the era, with uncannily human faces (truth be told, they look like they’re hung over or stoned). Accepting the flimsy creatures (which seem like they’d collapse if you scowled at them) as virtually indestructible requires a healthy suspension of disbelief from the viewer.

* Fun Fact #4: Depending on the source, the title creatures were constructed for several hundred dollars from either fiberglass, paper mâché, Styrofoam, or a combination of these materials. According to Beach Dickerson, he coordinated movement of the giant crab with fellow cast member, Ed Nelson.

Among the co-stars is future TV castaway Russell Johnson, as technician Hank Chapman. The film hints at tension between Hank and scientists/lovers Martha Hunter and Dale Brewer (Pamela Duncan and Richard Garland), but nothing much happens (something that was clarified in the original script) between them. I’m not generally a big fan of obligatory love triangles in genre movies, but it might have added some spice to the otherwise dull relationship between Martha and Dale.  

Corman and crew deserve credit for attempting to make an enormous fugitive from a seafood restaurant seem creepy. There are a few too many scenes of characters waiting and speculating about what will happen next, and true to its low-budget origins, more is implied than shown. According to the DVD commentary, the original screenplay was longer, with more dialogue (which was wisely trimmed). As it stands, it’s a lean 63 minutes.* Attack of the Crab Monsters won’t win any awards for creature effects or acting; nor is the story quite the same caliber as its partner on the double bill, Not of thisEarth (1957). However, it deserves merit for its kooky premise and even kookier creatures, making this a must-see Corman film.

* Fun Fact #5: The TV version included additional footage to stretch out the running time, incorporating some scenes from the 1943 movie Isle of Forgotten Sins.

Sources: DVD commentary by Tom Weaver, John Brunas and Mike Brunas; How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Sea Monster Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) Technically, this isn’t a sea monster movie, since it’s set in the Salton Sea (a saltwater lake located in the Southern California desert), but I’m not going to split hairs with this one. An earthquake creates a rift on the lake floor, unleashing a deadly prehistoric creature that sucks its victims dry. The monster, which is supposed to be an ancient mollusk but resembles an overgrown centipede, is one of the more frightening creatures to emerge from 1950s genre movies. The production rises above the pack, thanks to a solid cast, including Tim Holt as a determined Navy commander, Audrey Dalton as a widow, and Hans Conried as a puzzled scientist. Also, watch for a wonderfully eccentric performance by Milton Parsons as an over-eager museum worker.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Horror of Party Beach (1964) Radioactive waste dumped in the harbor creates bloodthirsty, googly eyed sea monsters that terrorize the population of Stamford, Connecticut (Hey, I’ve been there. This is probably the most interesting thing that ever happened in that neck of the woods). True to the title, expect scenes of reveling “teens” gyrating to the tunes of The Del-Aires, and a generous helping of frivolous butt-wiggling shots. After a series of grisly (mainly offscreen) deaths, it’s up to a scientist and a determined biology student to find a way to stop the monsters before they kill again. As long as you’re not expecting Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s a hoot.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Tubi

Slithis (aka: Spawn of the Slithis) (1978) Radioactive leakage from a nearby nuclear power plant creates a new life form, which threatens the residents of Venice Beach, California. A bored high school journalism teacher (Alan Blanchard) decides to investigate the rampaging creature. Performances range from surprisingly good (Mello Alexandria as a Quint-like boat captain) to terrible (I’ve seen police in H.G. Lewis movies that were more believable). Writer/director Stephen Traxler wisely holds back on showing too much for most of the film, providing just enough suspense to keep you intrigued. It’s a fun throwback to ‘50s rubber-suited monster movies, marred by an all-too-abrupt ending.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of Print), Amazon Prime and Tubi

Blood Beach (1980) Something is lurking under the sand of an L.A. beach, gobbling up anyone that enters its domain. It’s up to a harbor patrol officer and his ex-fiancée (David Huffman and Marianna Hill) to find out what’s behind all the seaside mayhem. We don’t see the creature until the end, which isn’t a damning thing in itself. Unfortunately, writer/director Jeffrey Bloom spends too much time with the bland leads, and a whole scene is wasted with some boring secondary characters. Burt Young plays an unappealing, oafish police detective, and John Saxon (playing his superior) isn’t in it nearly enough (He has the film’s best line though, which was also its tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t get there.”). Blood Beach has a fun premise that never quite delivers. It could have worked, but the tone is too deadpan for its own good, and the script should have been fleshed out with more interesting characters.   

Rating: **½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and YouTube (for the moment)

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) This Creature from the Black Lagoon knock-off, set on the California coast, skimps on the action, with plenty of talky scenes to pad out the thin story. A mysterious creature (looking like a cross between the Gill-man and a pig) terrorizes a coastal town. Meanwhile, a curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper (John Harmon) harbors a terrible secret about the monster, while keeping a close watch on his grown daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen). Our nominal protagonist Fred (Don Sullivan, of Giant Gila Monster fame) is eager to study it, teaming up with Dr. Sam Jorgenson (Les Tremayne). The film livens things up a little with a few gory bits (explicit for the time), and the monster is pretty cool, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Nevertheless, it might be worth a look if you keep your expectations sufficiently lowered.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Reptilicus (1961) Oil workers recover the tail of a gargantuan prehistoric reptile. When the tail is brought to a lab in Copenhagen, scientists discover the cells were only dormant. Somehow, the giant creature (appearing as a poorly articulated puppet) regenerates from the tail and threatens the city. Other than being (to the best of my knowledge) Denmark’s only giant monster movie, there’s not much to distinguish this by-the-numbers flick from other genre movies. There’s an extended sequence that features a tour of the city (and famous amusement park Tivoli Gardens) to stretch the running time. If this scene was intended to bolster tourism, it wasn’t very effective. On the other hand, it’s a surefire cure for insomnia. You’ve been warned.

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

Tentacles (1976) Other than speculating why an all-star cast of seasoned actors (including Shelley Winters, John Huston and Henry Fonda) would agree to do this this Jaws rip-off (besides collecting paychecks), there’s not much reason to recommend Tentacles. Based on the dialogue, the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether the title creature was a giant octopus or squid. The scenes are a collection of tedious moments that go nowhere, leading to a confusingly edited finale. Most of the characters, including the protagonist, played by Bo Hopkins, are unlikable. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be rooting for the octopus (or squid) before the movie’s over – that is, if you can stay awake long enough. Skip it.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Humanoids from the Deep

(1980) Directed by Barbara Peeters; Written by Frederick James (aka: William Martin); Story by Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen; Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub, Anthony Peña and Breck Costin; Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Shudder and Amazon Prime

Rating: **

“First, as far as I can tell, the species has only just appeared. But there has to be a reason that a humanoid creature evolved so quickly.” – Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel)

“He (Roger Corman) offered to all the boys, but the boys turned it town. It was a terrible script. So he offered it to me.” – Barbara Peeters (excerpt from article, “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids from the Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg)

The golden age of monster movies, in the 1950s and early 1960s, featured countless damsels in distress being carried away by fiendish creatures. More often than not, the virile male protagonist (or more likely the censors) would save the day, preventing the heroine from befalling a fate worse than death. In the ensuing decades, this tired formula was freshened up for modern audiences. The heroines were no longer defenseless, and whatever was formerly left to our demented little imaginations was front and center for all to see. Executive producer Roger Corman and New World Pictures pushed the boundaries further with its oversexed, bloodthirsty titular creatures in Humanoids from the Deep.

The film’s original title, Beneath the Darkness, implied a more psychological story, with thrills that were mostly implied rather than explicit. Barbara Peeters’ film, as originally shot, was not the picture Corman wanted to make, lacking the requisite blood and guts and T&A to satisfy audiences looking for more exploitive fare. As a direct result, Corman enlisted second unit director James Sbardellati (later promoted to first assistant director) to film additional footage. The film was re-titled Humanoids from the Deep (or in some overseas markets, under the more generic title Monster), and the rest was history.

Like many Corman productions that preceded it, the crew was a virtual who’s who of Hollywood talent, before they became household names. James Horner’s*/** energetic score is better than it had to be. The makeup effects team included future effects gurus Rob Bottin (two years before his groundbreaking work for The Thing), Chris Walas (four years before Gremlins), and Steve Johnson (who also appears as a humanoid). Future James Cameron producer/partner Gale Anne Hurd (the Terminator films and The Abyss) was a production assistant.

* Fun Fact #1: Per Horner, “…Ultimately, the music was the final sort of piece of clothing on the film. So the film might be schlocky to begin with, but all the craftspeople that would put their layer on, I think were trying really hard to make the story as good as it could be…”

** Fun Fact #2: According to Horner, the filmmakers hired union musicians to play at night for non-union wages, in a studio in Venice, California.

In the Northern Californian coastal community of Noyo, there’s a feud brewing between a planned salmon cannery and a Native American reservation, led by Johnny Eagle (Anthony Peña). When Eagle stands in the way of pro-cannery fishermen led by Slattery (Vic Morrow), he’s roughed up and his house is destroyed. Meanwhile, something malevolent is lurking in the ocean depths ready to lay siege to the residents on land. After a series of attacks (particularly against lustful young people)* by the mystery creatures, Eagle teams up with charter boat captain Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and biologist Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) to find the origin of the beasts and save the town.

* Side Note: This movie features what has to be one of the weirdest cinematic depictions of foreplay, involving a ventriloquist and his dummy (Actual line of dialogue: “Hey honey, wanna see my woodpecker?”).

What keeps the film from being good harmless fun is its unfortunate raison d'être, featuring rapist sea creatures preying on women. It’s a given that the graphic depiction of sexual assault by one person against another would never be considered entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If the perpetrator is an inhuman beast, however, the filmmakers would have you believe it’s suddenly perversely titillating (a dubious trend that continued the following year with New World’s Galaxy of Terror and its infamous giant maggot rape scene.). Barbara Peeters reportedly wasn’t pleased with the changes that Corman ordered for the film, but considering Corman’s requirement for monsters that killed the men and raped the women (see “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 Shout Factory DVD featurette), the odds were stacked against releasing anything resembling what she envisioned. At any rate, considering the time that’s transpired and Peeters’ subsequent disavowal of the film, we may never know what her original cut looked like.

In its defense, Humanoids from the Deep features a couple of female characters whose deeds outshine most of the males by a substantial margin (likely a holdover from Peeters’ vision), Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) and Jim’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub). When Dr. Drake’s research inadvertently leads to the creation of the humanoids, she takes it upon herself to find a way to hunt and destroy them. Once Dr. Drake is introduced, Carol goes missing for a significant chunk of the movie. Carol finally has her moment in the spotlight for a climactic confrontation with the humanoids near the end, but it’s too little, too late. It’s too bad that her triumph over the beasts is undermined because we’re not sufficiently invested in her character.

The high point of Humanoids from the Deep is the effects work. The humanoid creatures* are the unlikely byproduct of coelacanths that ingested DNA-altered salmon that were accidentally released in the wild. Dr. Drake theorizes they must now mate with humans to reach their “final” stage of evolution (which puts into doubt her veracity as a scientist, since evolution is an ongoing process). The aforementioned creature effects team took a ridiculous premise and gave it their all, bringing the creatures to life as slimy fish people with enlarged heads and freakishly long arms.

* Fun Fact #3: Although we’re led to believe (through clever editing) that there’s an army of humanoids, the low budget production only allowed for the creation of three suits.

Humanoids from the Deep juggles multiple plot elements and characters, but fails to weave them together into a cohesive whole. Like several other characters, star Doug McClure’s character is severely underwritten – outside of driving his boat around, getting in a fistfight and getting the characters from point A to point B, he doesn’t really add much. The subplot about the battle between the cannery and Native American fishing ground is merely a half-hearted attempt at social consciousness.* Other than Johnny Eagle, we never see the rest of his tribe or his reservation. This could have been another instance where more was filmed but not included in the final cut, but since there’s no resolution to this conflict, this element remains little more than window dressing. The scenes added for shock value update the ‘50s monster formula, but at a price. We can accept the dubious science and gory monster hijinks, but the misogyny is less defensible. The end result is a film that wants things both ways: its strong female characters are contrasted with passive characters that exist solely for the purpose of being monster victims.

* Note: The social/ecological themes beg comparison to the 1979 film The Prophecy, which (although admittedly less than perfect) handles these elements with more thoughtfulness.

Sources: “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 featurette; Article: “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids fromthe Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

It Came from Beneath the Sea

(1955) Directed by Robert Gordon; Written by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith; Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis and Ian Keith
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“It’s just like the basic concept of Mickey Mouse. He only has four fingers… So why animate an extra one that you’d hardly ever show? Nobody counted them. I didn’t think anybody would count them… Unfortunately, one time I was interviewed by a certain magazine (Famous Monsters of Filmland), and I let it be known that the octopus was actually a sextopus.”
 – Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 2007 DVD commentary)

Thanks to Quiggy from The Midnite Drive-In and J-Dub from Dubsism for hosting the Disaster Blogathon, a three-day exploration of calamity in its myriad forms. Since this blogathon coincides with Sea Monster Month, I present for your approval Ray Harryhausen’s sea monster spectacle, It Came from Beneath the Sea.

 Ah, 1950s America… McCarthyism, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, and growing social unrest. If that wasn’t enough to make you question the “good old days,” every manner of super-sized radioactive creature was out to kill us. Okay, maybe that last threat was fictional (as far as we know), but that premise was enough to keep audiences glued in their seats and ready to come back for whatever new terror awaited them. It Came from Beneath the Sea was the brainchild of producer Charles H. Schneer, who after watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, wanted to collaborate with Ray Harryhausen on a movie depicting a creature destroying San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The movie begins with some unnecessary voiceover narration (don’t worry, it’ll be back to annoy us) before we’re introduced to the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine as they narrowly avoid a disaster, escaping the sticky clutches of an unknown aquatic beast. This prompts the navy and the sub’s commander, Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) to lead an investigation, recruiting two top marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis).

Amidst the sea monster plot, there’s a tepid love triangle between Mathews, Joyce and Carter. At least on the surface, the two scientists appear to have much more in common, which should have created more friction with Mathews. Carter seems to be a genuinely nice guy, recognizing her for her accomplishments and respecting her credentials. Instead, the script chooses to place the alpha-male Mathews as victor by default (I suppose the heart wants what the heart wants, but I have to question Joyce’s judgement in this case). Joyce isn’t that easy, however, as illustrated by an innuendo-laden scene that sneaked by the censors. When Mathews comes on a bit too strong, she teases him, embracing a graduated cylinder in a way that seems a bit too familiar (wink, wink).

It Came from Beneath the Sea takes a reasonably progressive stance toward women, at least by 1950s standards, albeit through mixed signals. In an early scene, pompous Navy officials dismiss Joyce’s theory about a giant octopus. Domergue effectively communicates her character being shut down through body language, displaying a combination of devastation and barely suppressed anger. In a later scene, when Commander Mathews tries to convince her to leave, it’s clear that he’d rather have her out of the way than concede her superiority in her field of expertise. Dr. Carter reminds Mathews that his colleague Joyce is smart, independent and capable, yet somehow manages to be condescending (“…there’s a whole new breed that feel they’re just as smart, just as courageous as men.”). Less than a minute later, his speech is undercut when the title creature makes a dramatic appearance on the Oregon coastline, causing Joyce (in typical ‘50s fashion) to scream her head off.

Because the film was a low budget production, the filmmakers relied on ingenuity* to tell their big fish (uh, cephalopod) tale. One trick was the abundant use of stock footage. Most of it blends in quite well, especially introductory shots of the atomic submarine Nautilus (the real one, launched in 1954). Subsequent shots don’t match up, as when we see the crew on the deck of a conventional World War II era submarine,** which misses the clean lines of the vessel that was established in the opening scene. Cost-cutting measures carried over to the music score from Mischa Bakaleinikoff, consisting of music sourced from other film soundtracks in the Columbia Pictures library.

** Fun Fact #1: The filmmakers couldn’t get cooperation from the City of San Francisco to shoot within the city, necessitating the crew to shoot location footage (including the famous bridge) covertly.

** Fun Fact #2: Likewise, the submarine interior was filmed inside a real (non-nuclear) Navy sub in dry dock, adding to the authenticity of the cramped scenes. However, it’s easy to see, even by 1955 standards, that this is not the interior of a state-of-the-art modern submarine.

Despite some penny pinching, Ray Harryhausen works his stop-motion magic with the giant octopus.* Due to time and budgetary limitations, it proved cost effective to animate six tentacles instead of eight, although Harryhausen joked that the radioactive beast would have been reduced to a tripod if the budget had been much smaller. The interior metal armature was provided by Harryhausen’s father, a longtime collaborator on his film projects. As with many of his creations, Harryhausen added signature touches, such as a subtle flick of a tentacle, which infused the creature with a lifelike eccentricity. Whether it's sinking a ship, tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge,* or wreaking havoc on the San Francisco waterfront, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of perverse pleasure from the trail of destruction caused by the mutant octopus.

* Fun Fact #3: To create the texture of the octopus’ skin, Harryhausen used crumpled tin foil and made a cast.

** Fun Fact #4: Harryhausen built a replica of a section of the Golden Gate Bridge out of lead, which would crush easily. Where’s the replica now? According to Harryhausen, it once belonged to science fiction editor/collector Forrest J. Ackerman, but has since been acquired by filmmaker Peter Jackson.

Between the scenes of monster mayhem, there are some pacing issues, but it’s a small price to pay for the dividends we receive, courtesy of Mr. Harryhausen’s mesmerizing effects. After all, we’re not here for the scintillating dialogue, smoldering romance, or pseudo-scientific conjecture. We’re just here to see a malevolent creature from the deep tear the crap out of the Golden Gate Bridge and cause wholesale destruction on land and sea. I’m happy to report that It Came from Beneath the Sea more than delivers on that account.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Mad Scientist May Quick Picks and Pans

The Alligator People (1959) Beverly Garland plays Joyce Webster, a woman searching for her missing husband Paul (Richard Crane). Her search ends up at an estate in bayou country, where Paul is part of an experiment to restore bodies that have been horribly injured. It’s too bad the process (using properties from alligator DNA) starts turning the test subjects into human-alligator hybrids. The final alligator man stage is hokey, but the makeup for the transitional phase (by Ben Nye and Dick Smith) is surprisingly effective.
Lon Chaney, Jr. also appears, as a hook-handed Cajun (sans accent) who holds a grudge against the giant reptiles. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable creature feature that deserves to be mentioned more often.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Attack of the Puppet People (1958) John Hoyt stars as Mr. Franz, a kindly dollmaker with abandonment issues who discovers the secret to shrinking people. Bob and Sally (John Agar and June Kenney) are among his unfortunate victims, reduced to doll size and stored in plastic tubes. It’s all entertaining Bert I. Gordon nonsense, full of oversized props, rear projection mayhem, and shameless self-promotion, featuring a scene at a drive-in showing (What else?) Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

The Awful Dr. Orlof (aka: Gritos en la Noche) (1962) This film marked the horror feature debut of prolific director Jesús Franco. The Spanish-French production borrows the basic plot from Eyes Without a Face (1960), while eschewing most of the artistry. A ruthless doctor (Howard Vernon) is obsessed with restoring his daughter’s beauty at any cost. He employs a dead-eyed assistant who kidnaps young vivacious women for his experiments, while some obtuse police inspectors draw out the proceedings fumbling through clues. It’s never boring, and certainly worth a look.

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

The Devil Commands (1941) Grieving scientist Dr. Blair (Boris Karloff) attempts to find a way to speak with his deceased wife after she dies in a car accident. He repurposes his brain wave-measuring equipment to pick up messages from the dead, catching the ire of his university employers. After he’s fired, Blair moves his experiments to a secluded house, accompanied by his brain-damaged assistant and an unscrupulous medium. The Devil Commands takes a mostly by-the-numbers approach, with the usual message about tampering with things people were not meant to know, and I’m not quite sure how the title fits in. It does contain one creepy scene, however, with corpses seated around a table, connected to Blair’s equipment.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Die, Monster, Die! (aka: Monster of Terror) (1965) This very loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Colour Out of Space” takes ample liberties with the original story, moving the setting from New England to England.  Nick Adams plays Stephen Reinhart, an American who travels to the U.K. to visit his girlfriend (Suzan Farmer). He’s instantly met with hostility and suspicion from the people of Arkham. His situation scarcely improves when he arrives at her father’s (Boris Karloff) estate and is told to go away. Meanwhile, her mother is suffering from an unknown disease, which seems to be linked to a meteorite that crashed on the property. A locked greenhouse hides a menagerie of creepy crawlies, created through the mysterious meteorite substance. The performances are reduced to Adams yelling at everyone, Suzan screaming at every provocation, and Karloff glowering. Any resemblance to Lovecraft’s story in this plodding mess is purely coincidental.

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

Voodoo Man (1944) Ho, hum… In a role he could have likely done in his sleep, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Marlowe. With the help of his cohort, Nicholas (George Zucco), he attempts to revive his wife, who’s been dead for 22 years. They capture young women for his ongoing experiments, which inexplicably involve voodoo rituals (call me skeptical, but I don’t think anyone involved with this movie ever bothered to research voodoo). One bright spot is John Carradine, hamming things up as Marlowe’s dimwitted assistant Toby. With a running time of 62 minutes, it’s mercifully short, so it won’t demand much of your time. On the other hand, you’re better off getting your Lugosi mad scientist fix from The Raven or The Devil Bat.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dr. Cyclops

(1940) Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by Tom Kilpatrick; Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian and Frank Yaconelli; Available on Blue-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Are we then country doctors? You do not realize what we have here. In our very hands we have the cosmic force of creation itself. In our very hands! We can shape life, take it apart, put it together again, mold it like putty.” – Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker)

If one thing’s for certain, movie scientists of the ‘30s and ‘40s were up to no good, tampering with nature’s laws and creating unspeakable horrors in the process. Dr. Cyclops continues in the proud tradition of deranged doctors with ambitions that are inversely proportional to their conscience. The folks at Paramount kept things under wraps while the film was in development, but considering it was the brainchild of one of the creative forces behind King Kong (1933), Ernest B. Schoedsack,* chances were it was bound to be something big. Well, yes and no. The fact that Dr. Cyclops was the first genre film to be produced in three-strip Technicolor was certainly a big deal. On the other hand, Schoedsack had something more petite in mind for his newest spectacle, in which a mad doctor reduces people and animals to doll size.

* Fun Fact #1: According to film historian Richard Harland Smith’s (occasionally meandering) DVD commentary, Schoedsack had a 200-page sketchbook full of drawings and notes, which formed the basis of Dr. Cyclops. Although the book’s current whereabouts are unknown, it would be interesting to see what visuals and concepts never made it into the finished film. Perhaps the world will never know.

In the opening scene, the brazen Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker)*/** and his cautious assistant Dr. Mendoza (Paul Fix) bicker about the ramifications of the senior scientist’s recent breakthrough. Mendoza expresses his moral indignation about Thorkel delving into life’s mysteries, forbidding him to continue with the experiments (“Destroy your slides, burn your notes.”). Naturally, this ends about as well as you’d expect, with Thorkel murdering his naïve colleague. Soon after, the not-so-good doctor receives a group of visitors (invited by Dr. Thorkel to help him figure out a problem) including a trio of scientists, along with a rancher and a farmhand. When the visitors overstay their welcome, the paranoid doctor assumes they’re trying to steal his secrets. He tricks them into entering his test chamber, reducing the pesky unwanted guests to a fraction of their original size. They emerge, bewildered, and fashionably attired in handkerchiefs (Question: While everyone else is wearing some variation of a toga, why does farmhand Pedro get a diaper?). Now, their main concern becomes trying to avoid the maniacal doctor and survive in a world that’s suddenly grown larger and infinitely more hostile.

* Fun Fact #2: After his hair started growing back, Dekker was called back by Schoedsack for additional scenes, playing the follically challenged mad scientist. Dekker refused to shave his head again, demanding a bald cap instead. For the majority of the film, Dekker’s head is clearly shaved. It’s quite obvious, however, that he’s wearing a bald cap in the introductory scene.

** Interesting Note: If you’re not aware of the fascinating life and ignominious death of Albert Dekker, it’s well worth a trip down the internet rabbit hole, but a word of caution: tread carefully.

Let’s get this out of the way, so we can get on with life. Don’t expect Dr. Cyclops to feature a physician resembling the mythological one-eyed creature – If you’re expecting something from Ray Harryhausen, move on. In an early scene, Dr. Bulfinch (Charles Halton) likens Thorkel to the Cyclops of Greek mythology (“Cyclops too felt size and strength were sufficient. He was a very ignorant fellow.”). Only when one lens of his glasses is broken does the myopic doctor take on any of the physical properties of the mythological creature. As played by Dekker with devious abandon, Dr. Thorkel doesn’t possess many redeemable traits. He’s evil through and through, a lone-wolf researcher, drunk with the power of his discovery and unconcerned with the consequences. He keeps his cat Satana* well fed with cast-offs from his experiments, and callously dispatches Dr. Bulfinch with a chemical-soaked wad of cotton. People are nothing to him – merely regarded as temporary help or permanent hindrance.

* Fun Fact #3: Because the cats tended to get spooked on the set, the filmmakers used six black cats to play “Satana” for the movie.

The effects work might seem a bit dated to 21st century eyes, but they get the job done (just sit back, shut up, and let your imagination do the rest). The filmmakers used a combination of oversized props* (one of Thorkel’s victims is clutched in a giant hand, similar to a sequence in King Kong), dwarfing the “miniature” actors, and rear projection that make an ordinary house cat, an alligator, and even chickens look fearsome. The best effect was the glorious 3-strip Technicolor cinematography (courtesy of Henry Sharp), and with Kino’s new restoration, it’s safe to say it’s never looked better on home video.  

* Fun Fact #4: The furniture and props were built five times normal size to make the actors appear smaller.

Scientists didn’t often get a fair shake in most science fiction movies from this era. In Dr. Cyclops, humanity is given two unpalatable choices: meet groundbreaking discoveries with fear and distrust or wallow in willful ignorance. The story is paper thin, with mostly generic characters (including Frank Yaconelli’s cringe-worthy, stereotype-laden portrayal of farmhand Pedro), and even at 77 minutes, seems to out-stay its welcome. Half of the film consists of a game of cat and mouse between Dr. Thorkel and his victims, which gets tedious at times. Regardless of any deficiencies, it’s an undeniably fun premise (recycled quite a few times in the 1950s), made enjoyable thanks to Dekker’s eccentric performance, and deserves to be in the collection of any serious genre enthusiast.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The City of Lost Children

(1995) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Written by Gilles Adrien, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Starring: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and Mireille Mossé; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ****½

“This film is about dreams, and maybe in dreams, we need to see dreams that would awaken us, our imagination… We’ve always been supporting fantasy cinema, and this is what this film is about: If we don’t dream, it’ll kill us. It’ll age us very quickly. It’s as simple as that. It’s what the movie is about.” – Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Fairy tales, in a traditional sense, are enduring stories told in broad strokes, set in an ambiguously distant time. They may possess many (if not all) of these classic elements: strongly delineated protagonists (with the requisite hero’s quest), appropriately loathsome villains, and universally relatable themes, often with a strong moral attached. The City of Lost Children (aka: La Cité des Enfants Perdus)* is a contemporary fairy tale, set in an unspecified seaside city in a mythical era, which borrows designs from yesteryear (think 1930s urban sprawl, blended with touches of post-industrial Victorian steampunk). Filmed almost entirely on a French soundstage for $18 million, The City of Lost Children looks like it cost much more, featuring expansive city sets, meticulously detailed interiors, and a massive wharf complete with ships and seagulls.

* Fun Fact #1: Watch for co-writer/co-director Marc Caro in a cameo as a blind beggar in an early scene, and as a Cyclops cult member.

The genius but emotionally stunted villain Krank (Daniel Emilfork)* resides in a towering offshore oil derrick guarded by mines. He lacks the ability to dream, so he steals children for his nefarious experiments, where he can experience and infiltrate their dreams. He resides with his more even-tempered brother, who exists as a disembodied brain in an aquarium tank, serving as a mediating influence. He’s assisted by four clone henchmen (all played by Dominique Pinon, thanks to some clever effects trickery), along with diminutive researcher, Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé), who keeps the clones in check.

* Not So Fun Fact: In his DVD commentary, Jeunet described Emilfork as a “diva,” who was difficult to work with. He was quick to note, however, how he admired the actor’s performance in the film.

A hero’s journey can’t be accomplished without a solid protagonist, and virtuous circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) rises to the challenge. One* may be deficient in intellect, but he possesses a heart as big as his physique. He takes a young orphan boy, Denree (Joseph Lucien), under his wing, referring to him as his “little brother.” When Denree is abducted by a group of fanatics, One resolves to get him back. He meets up with a scrappy band of orphan thieves led by crafty street urchin Miette (Judith Vittet). The orphans are under the watchful eye of conjoined twins and former sideshow performers known collectively as La Pieuvre, or “The Octopus” (played by real-life twin sisters Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet), a sort of Fagin (multiplied twice) to Miette’s Oliver Twist. Perlman described the film as “the exploration of innocence.” I would probably replace “exploration” with “exploitation,” since none of the kids in this film have an easy life. One stands as the one nurturing, compassionate influence in Denree’s (and later Miette’s) life, as a pseudo-paternal figure. We’re never in doubt, however, who’s really in charge.  

* Fun Fact #2: Why was his character called “One?” According to Perlman, after he initially read the script, he asked Jeunet, whose only reply was “Why not?”

A predominant theme in The City of Lost Children is individualism versus conformity. One stands alone, as a force of good among a cruel and unyielding city. Miette, hardened by her experiences, gets by on her wits alone. On the flipside, the four clones bicker endlessly about which one is the original (SPOILER: It’s someone else, also played by Dominique Pinon). Much like the clones, the unscrupulous twin sisters scheme together as one criminal mind. Similarly, an ascetic cult of “Cyclops” (who shun their organic vision in favor of a third, electronic eye) function as a hive mind, roaming the city streets, searching for more to convert to their order.

The gorgeous production design/art direction by Marco Caro and Jean Rabasse takes center stage, employing an intentional color palette, in which reds and greens dominate.* The beautifully detailed sets masterfully create the illusion of a city made of bricks and steel, while Krank’s oil derrick lair (a convincing large-scale model) resembles something out of Jules Verne’s nightmares. Somewhat less effective is the cartoonish CGI flea, which stands out amidst the intricate three-dimensional set pieces. In defense of computer-generated imagery, it’s utilized to much better effect to create the distorted perspectives of the dream sequences, or a glowing green cloud of dreams trapped in a brass cannister.

* Fun Fact #3: According to Jeunet, the filmmakers were inspired by the work of painter Giorgio de Chirico for the look of the film.

The City of Lost Children is delightfully weird in all the right ways. Directors Jeunet and Caro somehow manage to rein in the eccentric characters and colorful surroundings without seeming distancing or overwhelmingly busy. The visuals create the narrative. Much like its predecessor, Delicatessen (1991), Jeunet and Caro have created an immersive world made enjoyable through innovative, playful visuals and Rube Goldberg-inspired gags. A mesmeric street organ-tinged score by frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti fits the dark carnival tone of the film perfectly. The City of Lost Children emulates a dream, where the rules of reality only superficially apply. It’s a buoyant, funhouse experience only something truly magical can produce, and couldn’t we all use a little magic right now?