Sunday, April 15, 2018

First Men in the Moon



(1964) Directed by Nathan Juran; Written by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read; Based on the novel by H.G. Wells; Starring: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer and Lionel Jeffries

Available on Blu-ray and DVD



Rating: ***½



“H.G. Wells did suggest that perhaps the ant men grew intelligence far in advance to the human race on earth. So we wanted that element, and I designed the moon creatures as ants, intelligent ants.”– Ray Harryhausen (from The Harryhausen Chronicles featurette)




Thanks to Debbie Vega from Moon in Gemini for hosting the Outer Space on Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out all of the participants here.



The imaginative worlds of H.G. Wells and Ray Harryhausen’s fanciful stop-motion creations are such an ideal pairing* that it’s not surprising Mr. Harryhausen intended to make a film version of one of the author’s works since the 1930s. It is surprising, however, that Harryhausen first adaptation of a Wells story wasn’t until 1964,** with First Men in the Moon. Based on Wells’ 1901 novel, the story is mainly set in 1899, incorporating co-writer Nigel Kneale’s (Quatermass and the Pit) idea to frame the Victorian-age story with a modern-day (circa 1964) lunar expedition. Nathan “Jerry” Juran, who previously collaborated with Harryhausen on 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, once again provided directorial chores.   



* Fun Fact #1: Harryhausen tried to get a production of War of Worlds off the ground in 1949, but couldn’t garner enough interest from short-sighted film producers. His sketches and test footage remain, providing us a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been.



** Fun Fact #2: The first adaptation of Wells’ novel was in 1919, but this version appears to have been lost.




First Men in the Moon begins with a multinational voyage to the moon (a joint venture between the U.S., Soviets and Great Britain). As they begin to explore the lunar surface, their moment of triumph is cut short. They discover someone has beaten them to the punch, with a small, weathered British flag as evidence. A U.N. team is promptly dispatched to England, to learn about the origins of the expedition. The investigation leads to a rest home, where an elderly gentleman, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd in old-age makeup)* relates his fateful extraterrestrial voyage, with most of the remaining story told in flashback. Bedford, up to his ears in debt and hoping to make a quick pound, forms a business partnership with Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who has invented a gravity-defying substance, Cavorite. Cavor creates a spherical-shaped craft for the lunar voyage, and they embark on a trip to the moon, with Bedford’s unwitting fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer) in tow. When they arrive, they encounter an underground city populated by the Selenites, a race of intelligent, insectoid creatures.



* Watch for a small, but amusing role by veteran actor Miles Malleson as the Dymchurch Registrar, who helps the U.N. team discover the whereabouts of Bedford.




Bedford, our nominal protagonist, starts out sympathetic, but becomes increasingly irritating as his incompetence grows. He makes one poor decision after another. He uses his fiancée as a pawn in his scheme to avoid his debt collectors. When he observes the results of the professor’s amazing invention, he latches on to it as means of getting rich quick. Not long after his arrival on the moon, he gets into trouble with the inhabitants.  First Men in the Moon employs the age-old cliché in which the woefully outnumbered, albeit morally and physically superior protagonist, successfully defeats the natives on their own turf. Cavor observes, “You’ve certainly given them a taste of human violence.”  Bedford shows no remorse for the havoc he creates, or consideration for the consequences of his actions. Cavor wants to establish communication with the Selenites, contrasted with Bedford, who wants to survive at any cost, even if that involves killing Selenites along the way.




Lionel Jeffries shines as the absent-minded Professor Cavor, an incurable eccentric who possesses an indomitable childlike sense of wonder and prefers guard geese to guard dogs

(It’s hard to resist lines like, “Geese, I adore. Chickens, I detest.”). He’s introduced as a scatter brain, but his true colors emerge, once he’s on the moon, facing the unknown. In one scene after a group of Selenites are no longer needed, they’re cocooned and placed in suspended animation for later use. This evokes some mild social commentary by Cavor: “Well, it’s a unique way of dealing with unemployment. Entirely reasonable, I suppose.” That is, until the horrible ramifications catch up, and Cavor and Kate realize they could be next. He meets with the Selenite leader, The Grand Lunar, who decides the secret of Cavorite should remain with them, to prevent more humans from coming. Considering Bedford’s rash actions and Cavor’s unflinching account of humanity’s checkered history, the Selenites’ concerns don’t seem unwarranted.




The most under-developed character is Kate (Martha Hyer), which isn’t too much of a surprise, considering her character wasn’t in the source material (Shouldn’t the movie be called First People in the Moon?). To her credit, she isn’t a mere damsel in distress, and doesn’t scream at the sight of the Selenites. She does her share of fighting when they try to drag her away, and actively assists Bedford with the repair of the sphere. To her detriment, her character is far too fickle. After she falls victim to Bedford’s fraudulent attempt to transfer the title of his rented cottage to her, she threatens to leave him, but her ire is only temporary. Ultimately, she sticks with him, despite the clumsy subterfuge.   



* Fun Fact #3: Although the film insinuates that Kate is the youngest, Martha Hyer was the oldest of the three leads, being 8 years Judd’s senior, and nearly two years older than Jeffries.



 

As with any film involving Ray Harryhausen (he also served as executive producer), the effects are the true star. While Harryhausen created the stop motion effects, he coordinated with Les Bowie’s effects company, which assisted with the moon sets and other effects. As with other film projects, his father Fred Harryhausen designed the armatures for the moon creatures. It’s a little too obvious that the filmmakers cut corners where they could – most of the Selenite footage is nothing more than people in awkward rubbery suits. The animated sequences, which are sadly not as prevalent, are much more convincing, featuring more insectile Selenites, as well as a giant mooncalf, which resembles an overgrown caterpillar. The sets and props are well done, capturing a distinctly Victorian appearance. Most notable is the distinctive sea urchin-shaped moon vessel, with a plush interior, furnished in green velvet, wood paneling and brass accents.




First Men in the Moon is best categorized as a science fiction/fantasy, for playing fast and loose with the science. I’m not an expert in astrophysics, but I question the validity of the mysterious substance Cavorite and its gravity blocking properties. Also, Cavor and Bedford’s moon suits are conspicuously missing gloves, leaving their hands, and presumably the rest of their bodies open to the vacuum of space and any temperature extremes. There’s also a convenient solar eclipse, which temporarily shuts down the city, and places the Selenites into a deep sleep. When the mooncalf meets its demise, the Selenites scavenge every last scrap from the carcass, leaving a skeleton (!). Considering the creature appears to follow the same basic insect physiology of the Selenites, it should have had an exoskeleton, rather than an endoskeleton. Perhaps it was some sort of hybrid, so I’ll give it a pass. And yes, I know we’re not supposed to ask these things. By this time, I think we’ve established Nathan Juran wasn’t Stanley Kubrick




There’s an undeniable sense of déjà vu about the story elements, cobbled together from other H.G. Wells stories. Cavor’s discovery that the sphere was dragged away by the Selenites, echoes the actions of the Morlocks in The Time Machine. Likewise, the film’s ending is lifted from War of the Worlds. There are also some pacing issues that threaten to derail the movie. The story becomes bogged down in a romantic subplot, and we’re almost halfway through the film’s running time before the moon voyage is underway. But despite some creaky elements, there’s much to like about First Men in the Moon. Harryhausen’s always enthralling stop-motion animation and Jeffries’ animated, enthusiastic portrayal of Professor Cavor makes it a delight to watch. It’s a prime example of a sub-genre of Victorian-age sci-fi that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s that’s mostly faded away.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Wicker Man



(1973) Directed by Robin Hardy; Written by Anthony Shaffer; Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“We wanted to create a 20th century pagan society, and we wanted to make a treasure trove of clues in plain sight, so that the aware audience could start to pick them up.” – Robin Hardy

“It’s more important to teach a new generation born on Summerisle that here the old gods aren’t dead.” – Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)

Horror films are at their most effective when they work on a psychological level. Profuse levels of gore and jump scares pale in comparison to the terrors the human mind can devise. Not to say that horrific imagery doesn’t have a place – it can be a catalyst for nightmare fodder, but the most enduring frights are the ones that dwell long after the final scene has vanished from your retinas. Such is the case with The Wicker Man, a film that manages to make theological differences terrifying.


Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) and director Robin Hardy brought star Christopher Lee onboard, but it was their intent to create something that was different in tone from his many Hammer appearances. The filmmakers aimed for a more cerebral brand of horror. According to Hardy, “The entire film is a game.” From beginning to end, you’re never certain where many of the characters stand. The folk-infused soundtrack has a light, jaunty feel, but there’s something sinister brimming beneath the surface. Beyond the festive maypole dance and bawdy pub songs lurks a darker purpose.  


Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), an uptight West Highland police officer, is dispatched to a village on a remote Scottish isle* to investigate a report of a missing 12-year-old girl named Rowan Morrison. The village residents are less than helpful (even her mother disavows her existence), and he finds their atavistic ways, compared to his devout Christian traditions, beguiling and offensive. As he digs deeper, his search only yields more unanswered questions, until he’s no closer to discovering whether Rowan is alive or dead. Clues lead to the conclusion that she was (or will be) offered as a possible sacrifice to appease their gods when the crops failed. Everyone in the village, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), participates in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation, intended to keep Howie ignorant of their true intentions.  

* Fun Fact #1: Although the events in the story lead up to the May Day celebration, The Wicker Man was shot on location in December. On account of the cool temperatures, the actors were forced to speak with ice in their mouths in some of the outdoor scenes, to prevent their breath from showing.


Woodward does a remarkable job as the obstinate, authoritarian Sergeant Howie,* who wears his title like a shield. Because of his status and rigid belief system, he feels empowered to impose his will and version of morals on the townspeople. It’s only appropriate that he disguises himself as a fool for their pageant. His arrogant disregard for the villagers’ customs only solidifies their resolve to defy his authority. And yet, we can’t quite despise Howie, who’s attempting to do his job under trying circumstances. Woodward endows his character with humanity and vulnerability. Despite his pious appearance, Howie is only a man, with human failings. If only he had given into temptation or had not been so insensitive to the villagers’ ways, his fate might have been different, but his nature was too unwavering.

* Fun Fact #2: Lee wanted his frequent Hammer (and Amicus) co-star, Peter Cushing, to star as the pious Sergeant Howie, but Cushing had other engagements. Although it would have been a treat to see Lee and Cushing together once more, it’s hard to imagine someone other than Woodward occupying the role. 


Christopher Lee, who was well versed in the study of ancient pagan lore, plays Lord Summerisle (Lee counted this among his favorite roles), with the necessary level of gravitas and authority. As the grandson of the village’s founder, he serves as the community’s leader and spiritual compass. His interactions with Sergeant Howie are amiable and superficially cooperative, but like the rest of the villagers, his words and actions mask a hidden agenda.  


The Wicker Man features many memorable scenes, not the least of which, is the sobering ending. The events that precede this, however, are all important pieces to the elaborate puzzle the filmmakers have constructed. The innkeeper’s daughter Willow’s (Britt Ekland) au naturel dance scene *is an attempt to seduce Sergeant Howie, a test of his faith. The longer cut of the film includes a sequence where Willow ushers a teenage boy into manhood. The remainder of the scene plays offscreen, but we infer everything from a song in the pub. Howie drops in on Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) as she explains the significance of the maypole and its phallic origins to her class. When he questions her about Rowan’s presumed death, she explains their theological orientation toward death (“death” has little meaning), as if explaining it to one of her students, “We believe that when the human life is over, the soul returns to trees, to air, to fire, to water, to animals…”

* Fun Fact #3: Ekland was only filmed from the waist up… the full-body shots featuring her character’s posterior were courtesy of a dancer from a Glasgow nightclub.


As I re-watched The Wicker Man, I realized how my point of view evolved over the years. After my initial viewing, I thought good and evil, in the terms of the film, were clearly defined. I sympathized with Sergeant Howie as an innocent victim, and viewed Lord Summerisle and the villagers as the antagonists. But what if there isn’t a clearly defined right and wrong? What’s sacred and what’s profane depends on your point of view. Howie insulted their way of life, along with their belief system, and presumed that he had power over them because of his position and his faith. He didn’t deserve his awful fate, but he arguably reaped what he sowed.


There’s nothing explicitly supernatural in The Wicker Man, which appears to be by design. Hardy and Shaffer leave the details vague. Will next season’s crops thrive? Are the old gods real? We never see any evidence, beyond the villagers’ beliefs. On the other hand, we’re never certain that Howie’s beliefs are any more valid. Paganism and Christianity stand on even ground, as the film neither supports nor refutes either set of beliefs. Ultimately, the film’s conclusion is a test of faith for both parties. The Wicker Man stands the test of time as an example of genre film at its best; unnerving, naturalistic and uncompromising.