Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Blood Feast (1963)

Some films, in spite of having very minor productions and equally minor merits, are nonetheless enormously important, for whatever reasons, to the history of cinema. Horror cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a particularly fertile field for outsider filmmakers trying to make a quick buck and prove their mettle, with a pantheon of varyingly talented swashbucklers defining that proto-indie scene, many of whose names still offer a certain cache of recognition: George Romero, Ray Dennis Steckler, Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham, Arch Hall Snr, Larry Buchanan, Andy Milligan, and Herschell Gordon Lewis and his producer David F. Friedman. Lewis and Friedman, moving sideways from the nudie flicks that had been their early stock-in-trade, entered the horror genre with Blood Feast, a trash epic shot in Miami for less than $70,000. Blood Feast’s claim to fame is pretty blunt: it was the first real gore flick, offering a welter of crude, unconvincing, yet punchy and gaudy flesh-mangling in full colour, inspiring bouts of nausea and delight from the teenaged drive-in audience that made it a covert smash hit. Just three years after the prim monochromatic blood and edit-concealed mutilation of Psycho (1960) had critics momentarily wondering if Hitchcock had gone too far, Lewis was offering up popped eyeballs, severed legs, scooped-out brains, torn-out tongues, and a plethora of other charnel-house wonders with the enthusiastic gall of a young boy sticking bugs in his sister’s hair.

Lewis became a folk-hero to transgressive artists like John Waters, whose first film, Multiple Maniacs (1969), was a Lewis tribute, and retained his infamy well into the Video Nasties era in Britain in the ‘80s, making Lewis a definer not just of the modern horror movie but also of aspects of the punk aesthetic. Lewis himself retained a droll level of observational sarcasm about his work and his audience, reflecting on how the response to his movies charted the evolution of that audience from easily delighted children to harsh critics when it came to on-screen bloodletting. Fittingly, Blood Feast displays a certain mischievous attitude towards itself, another source, surely, of Waters’ attraction to the filmmaker. In the first few moments there’s a glimpse of a book entitled “Ancient Weird Religious Rites”, a sure tip-off that the filmmakers are working with tongues practically sewn into their cheeks, and the way the gore is presented on screen has that kind of unaffected, unblinking delight displayed by many a student and amateur filmmaker since in trying to make their own gross-out epics. Lewis, with his bold use of colour and occasionally innovative jump-cuts, hints at potential talent behind the lens, as well as a sense of theatre and humour, which diffuses most (but not all) of the grotesquery.

Speaking about Blood Feast on the level of a pop cultural artefact and an icon of self-deprecating exploitation is actually rather more entertaining, however, than sitting through the film itself, which, even at 67 minutes long, is a bit of a slog. Yes, there are signs of humour and cartoonish creativity spotted throughout Blood Feast – it exhibits something very similar to the then-recently banned EC Comics aesthetic. But they’re so infrequent as to barely count amidst acting so stiff it can make you feel like suicide, a dull and obvious screenplay, and a multiplicity of bad sets and stultifying camera set-ups. One can’t even begin to compare Blood Feast to the genuinely vigorous cinema of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as an exemplar of indie imagination espoused in the genre. Blood Feast is amateurish claptrap, and this partly accounts for Lewis’ popularity as a model: he demands no sense of cinema as a plastic art, only a kind of blankly illustrative élan. Yet there’s something engaging about Blood Feast’s islets of self-conscious absurdity. The villain, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), is an Egyptian caterer and seller of exotic foodstuffs, who also happens to be an adherent to an ancient Egyptian cult of Ishtar (actually a Babylonian goddess, but that seems to be part of the joke) and wishes to recreate one of the ancient ritual feasts where worshippers indulged a cannibalistic plethora of slaughtered sacrificial victims. When clueless society matron Mrs. Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) asks Ramses to cater her daughter’s birthday party, he gains the perfect stage for his ambition, for which he’s already been harvesting body parts from hapless young women around town.

Before you can say, “ludicrous coincidence”, we learn that Fremont’s daughter Suzette (Connie Mason) is girlfriend to the police detective in charge of the case, Pete Thornton (William Kerwin), and they’re both aficionados of Egyptian history, so they attend a lecture by a professor explaining the Ishtar cult. It then takes an intolerably long time for Thornton to make the connection between one victim’s memory of her attacker speaking the word “I-tar” and “Ishtar”, the penny not dropping until he finally learns of the theme of Suzette’s party. Some amusingly incompetent set-pieces dot the film, particularly when Ramses stalks Suzette and some friends at a pool party, Ramses approaching close enough in broad daylight to cast a shadow over Suzette, and then somehow managing to run off within the space of a couple of seconds so that Suzette does not glimpse him when she turns her head. Equally funny is when, having captured Suzette’s friend Trudy (Christy Foushee), he whips her with abandon, smearing her back and clothes too with what is obviously fake blood. And yet there are other bits that retain a charge of savagery that can’t be so easily snorted at, as when Ramses attacks a woman in a motel room (Astrid Olson) and tears out her tongue and most of her throat with it, leaving her to expire with a gaping bloody maw. Perhaps the film’s most successful moment of casual black comedy comes when Ramses cheerfully roasts up limbs in a big Vulcan oven. There’s a whiff of the genuinely horrific, too, in the moment Thornton and his partner discover Trudy’s body lying on a table, daubed in gore, surrounded by chunks of bloody flesh, not entirely dispelled by the lashings of Godardian red on Foushee's outstretched form. Again, it’s easy to see Lewis’ appeal for rebellious filmmakers in the simplistic force with which he yields a mischievous delight in seeing his sleazy villain scheming to feed smug and bland bourgeoisie with the offal of their own children. This builds to a casually delivered punch-line when Mrs Fremont responds to news that her feast is a crime scene, “Oh dear, I guess the guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight!” Blood Feast desperately needed more such overt satire to lend the film's implicit anarchism coherence. As it is it merely predicts later, better filmmakers.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Undead (1957)

Whilst not the first film to signal Roger Corman’s potential talent in squalid poverty-row productions, The Undead is undeniably one of his best pre-The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) efforts. Ancestor of his canonical Poe adaptations as well as the tongue-in-cheek approach to The Raven (1963), it’s also one of the relatively few American horror films from between the end of WW2 and the near-concurrent, zeitgeist-altering eruption of the Hammer horror films. The Undead is only a horror movie in the loosest sense of the phrase, really more a playful fantasia on the traditional imagery of folk-tale mysticism with its parade of Halloween-party witches, pseudo-Arthurian setting, and pitchfork-wielding devil collecting souls with his ledger book. Incredibly cheap and lacking drive, The Undead nonetheless betrays the antic intelligence of Corman and his regular screenwriting collaborators Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hannah, in a film that feels something like a rough draft for The Twilight Zone, down to the blackly comic twist ending. The film kicks off with a curiously urgent set of sequences, in which a blowsy streetwalker, Diana Love (Pamela Duncan), selling herself on a dark and misty street, is approached by a stranger who offers her a light, and then draws her away for a tryst. The stranger proves to be no ordinary john, but Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour), an experimental psychiatrist who has returned to confront his old teacher, Professor Ulbrecht Olinger (Maurice Manson), with the discoveries he’s made living with Nepalese shamans. “All of your old students return, don’t they professor? Even the ones you failed!” Quintus says, to the Professor’s retort, “Particularly the ones I failed, they all want to prove me wrong.”

Quintus espouses theories the Professor dismisses as “Sunday Supplement nonsense” as he proposes to regress Diana’s mind through all the inner layers of her subconscious, including her past lives. Finally she comes to a rest in the time of her soul’s earliest incarnation, Helene, a young woman accused of witchcraft in “the second year of the reign of King Mark,” on the night before she’s due to die by the executioner’s axe. Marie’s streetwise survival instincts are able to guide Helene through steps to seduce the guard, knock him unconscious, and escape the castle dungeon where she’s held. The flavourful rush of these early scenes inevitably dissipates as Helene, freed, escapes into the set-bound, humorously indistinct historical setting. But the film offers up some agreeable recompense, as it introduces the shape-shifting devilish pairing of Livia (Allison Hayes) and her Imp (Billy Barty). Livia is a real witch, who committed the crimes, including leaving Smolkin the Gravedigger (Mel Welles, doing his best Eugene Palette) addled-brained, that Helene was accused of. This was part of Livia’s attempts to ensnare Helene’s true love, the sturdy knight Pendragon (Richard Garland). By helping save Helene’s life, Diana has unwittingly doomed her own, and all of the other reincarnations since Helene’s execution. Helene forms an alliance with white witch Meg Maude (Dorothy Neumann, who later played practically the same part for Corman in The Terror, 1963), who vows to save her from Livia’s machinations, whilst the evil witch fools Pendragon into thinking Helene has been recaptured, and convinces him to make a pact with Satan (Richard Devon) to save Helene’s life. The executions of Helene and other accused witches were timed to coincide with the end of the Witches’ Sabbath, during which Satan holds court in the local cemetery and signs up soul-sellers.

The lividly tacky on-screen atmosphere is peculiarly charming in decorating the clever, surprisingly rich little screenplay with its acres of mock-Shakespearean dialogue. Anticipating Mario Bava, Corman plays an amusing game with traditional representations, as the luscious Livia contrasts the crone-like Meg Maud with her familiar witchy look of great ugliness with a pointed nose and chin, except that Meg is good and Livia evil. As with Corman’s later horror films, there’s not just an admirable air of inventiveness, but an unexpected thematic depth, and a willingness to find amusement in ideas and not just low-rent spectacle or gore, as well as a certain dry, often black humour, percolating throughout. As with the likes of The Haunted Palace (1963), the Corman team, in spite of their schlock-opera production resources, nonetheless displayed an anticipatory intelligence that looked forward to later revisions and interests of genre filmmakers. Here that includes the notion of inner-space science actualising fearful antecedents, as in Cronenberg’s The Brood (1978) and Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), as well as looking forward to the new-age psychic adventures of Corman’s The Trip (1967). The blend of the science-fiction theme of time travel with more intangible notions is likewise interesting, introducing another soon to be recurring genre theme, the equivalency of modern science and medieval wizardry. This, and the willingness to embrace endings that avoided the usual resolutions in favour of dark twists and uncertain notes, means that Corman’s horror films seem somehow more modern and conceptually witty than most other genre epics of the era, even if the visual appeal and style of this film seems uniquely that of its era.

The Undead is also just about the earliest film I’ve encountered that treats the theme of potential paradox in time travel with any depth, becoming a kind of voodoo variation on Back to the Future (1985) as layers of cause and effect are threatened with being eternally tangled and self-annihilating. Such comparisons are not entirely positive, as The Undead might have been a lot more ambitious and gripping. But the film’s inspired lunacy and wry pastiche continues to percolate as Quintus eventually follow Diana into her past as the shamans taught him, to try and intervene, but for an uncertain purpose. He is recognised by the devil as both nemesis and colleague in the mischievous art of screwing about with peoples’ lives. Quintus is an interesting figure in his mix of sullen, self-satisfied brilliance, and a disturbing indifference to the results of his experiment, introducing a note of moral ambivalence as he strides into the historical setting, capturing the armour of a knight and assuming, with seeming effortlessness, a lordly aspect. But the film interrogates the moralistic underpinning of Quintus’ attitude to Diana, whom he describes as belonging to a class with barely any independent will, urging Helena to turn her back on this future life rather than succumb to such degradation. He tells Meg Maud that he doesn’t much care whether Helene lives and destroys her future lives or does the opposite: he later joins with Satan in recommending that Helene save herself and abandon her future lives, because of the degraded state Diana was in. This proves, however, his moral undoing, having essentially abandoned his therapeutic mission, especially considering that encountering her past self inspires Diana to escape her current degradation.

Meanwhile little fillips of delight are scattered throughout the film, like Livia and the Imp’s manifestations in high trees branches, and their transmogrification into animals, which pays off in humour when Livia, in the guise of a mouse, is caught in a tin can by Quintus. He later impresses Livia by showing her his wristwatch and then turning its dial backwards, something she immediately interprets as control of time itself. Livia, talking with an innkeeper Scroop (Bruno VeSota), whom she will later behead to decorate the Witches’ Sabbath, is told by him that’s he placed garlic, the surest guard against supernatural evil, all around his tavern, only for Livia to hand a clove under the table to the Imp who takes a greedy bite out of it. Satan, who seems less the malevolent infernal agent than a particularly droll bureaucrat giving everyone enough rope to hang themselves, offers his rewards – recipients are marked with a seal based on his trident like a brand trademark – to cueing lost souls, including a leper played by Dick Miller. He has a trio of ghoul women dance for the assembly, suggesting an unholy mating of Isadora Duncan with Disney’s dancing skeletons. In the climax, there’s a marvellous little moment as Helene listens to all her future lives begging for existence, inspiring her to rush to the executioner and offer up her head, whilst Satan delivers some bad news to Quintus, who has lost his ticket back to the future. He’s left his clothes still sitting upon the chair from which his body has vanished at Diana’s side, the very image of a self-impressed expert revealed as a puffed-up suit without a real man inside. It’s hardly Day of Wrath, but The Undead is a minor gem of its own peculiar species, the sort of off-hand pleasure that makes trawling old B-movies worthwhile.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Ward (2011)

John Carpenter’s return to the big screen after a decade’s absence is cause for both excitement and anxiety from fans. Carpenter’s messy output in the 1990s deserves some reappraisal, especially his Vampires (1998), a glorious camp satire on action machismo and a film fascinatingly preoccupied with corporeal destruction of nominally inhuman monsters, and the beautifully coherent structuring of the schlock epic Ghosts of Mars (2001). But it’s hard to deny Carpenter, who had made a name for himself through his uncanny sense of rhythm and storytelling precision, was barely bothered in making many of his films fit together as he had been; movies like Escape from LA (1997) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995) were crazy train wrecks of movies with more ideas then sense. The Ward, which sees Carpenter following in the footsteps of James Mangold’s Identity (2003) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) in playing out gimmick psycho-thriller material, very quickly proves different: here Carpenter is playing the cinematic equivalent of a five-finger exercise, applying his expert, compact cinematic energy to a screenplay written by others (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and riffing on familiar refrains. As such, it’s a very minor but still quietly delightful success, as Carpenter bolts concise visuals and a steadily cranking pace to a story that has no pretensions to deep seriousness, and comes up all the better for it. Ironically, the cheery absurdity of the material spurs Carpenter to indulge his showman’s streak.

The year, as a title informs us, is 1966: Amber Heard is Kristen, a lank-haired young woman glimpsed darting through the woods in a slip, eluding a patrolling police car, before coming across a remote farmhouse which she sets fire to. The police drag her away from the scene as she struggles furiously, and she’s placed into a locked ward in a big dark old hospital. There, she meets her fellow inmates: bespectacled, arty Iris (Kick Ass’s Lyndsy Fonseca), bitchy seductress Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), obtuse redneck Emily (Mamie Gummer), and regressive, child-like Zoey (Laura-Leigh). They’re all under the care of psychiatrist Dr Stringer (Jared Harris), and the watchful eye of humourless Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney) and sinister orderly Roy (Dan Anderson). The set-up and mix of patients on the ward seems strange; even stranger is the fact Kristen keeps glimpsing a stranger darting by the door of her cell, finds the broken remnants of a bracelet under her bed, and slowly comprehends the uneasiness of her fellow patients, who believe no-one ever gets released from the ward. Kristen is beset by bad dreams of being chained up in a basement as a child, with a hulking man approaching her, clearly about to molest her. When Iris is taken in for a session with Dr Stringer, he hypnotises her, and when she awakens she’s being bundled along by a grotesque wraith, which kills her by jamming a syringe in her eye.

The Ward should be regarded as an attempt to reinvigorate the “fun” horror film of the past, and it succeeds in a fashion that’s far more integral and intelligible than Sam Raimi’s attempt to do the same thing with Drag Me To Hell (2009). What Carpenter’s return should not be burdened with is the expectation that in returning he stands a chance of reviving the relevance of old-school horror cinema after Wes Craven’s relative failure with Scream 4 (2011). Whilst moving with a quicker, less deliberate pace of editing than was displayed in his classics, the early sequences of The Ward are still laid out with a classic Carpenter sense of mood, his camera exploring the shadowy aisles of the hospital’s interior scanning the hospital’s menacing exterior, roving widescreen shots that absorb multiple levels of detail and frames that bind actions together. His usual talent for mustering an ensemble cast is also soon apparent, in the toey interaction of its young actresses. Carpenter doesn’t push the film’s period setting hard, using it mostly as an excuse to indulge some of the old-fashioned paraphernalia of psych-ward horror (unfortunately, no-one says “Nymphos!”, but there is a nude shower scene), as when Kristen, after a hysteria attack, is subjected to electroshock therapy. The period settings, and the events underpinning The Ward, have a certain consequential depth, as Carpenter, who made female characters essential not just as pursued victims but as psychic focal points and springboards for horror with Halloween (1978), here presents characters who seem ever so slightly overstated in their schismatic, role-playing qualities, who might form one functioning person if combined. Nascent warrior-woman Kristen emerges from a past of trauma and forms a hard new point-guard to the group neurosis, and represents, after a fashion, the modern woman being painfully born. There’s a casually great scene early on, where the girls dance to bubblegum pop on the ward, only to be plunged into blackness by a power failure, with menacing visions of the spectral assassin haunting them glimpsed in stroboscopic lightning blasts.

That assassin, when glimpsed, is an amusingly retrograde manifestation of beyond-the-grave grotesquery. The question as to where the threat is coming from, and why the ward authorities seem to be covering it up and even facilitating it, becomes the most urgent engine of the plot, as, of course, none of the staff believes Kristen’s attempts to alert them to the menace assaulting the girls. After Iris vanishes, Kristen believes she has to escape, and she and Emily break out of the war, crawling through air ducts and eluding staff, until they finish up in the hospital morgue. But rather than finding Iris, as she hoped, Kristen finds only the wraith, waiting for her. I supposeThe Ward will be, and should be, castigated for its cheerful clichés and already over-familiar twist ending, in an era where novelty is everything and self-seriousness is a rule, but frankly I wasn’t watching it for that. I was watching it for the fun of seeing Carpenter orchestrate his increasingly intense stalk and chase sequences, eliciting impressive suspense without much gore or post-production gimmickry. He stokes a great lead performance from Heard, who, having played a not-dissimilar role as a Janus-faced beauty in Jonathan Levine’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006), possesses the kind of premature gravitas and husky-voiced self-assuredness that easily evokes some of the actresses Carpenter once favoured. In real life and on screen, Heard suggests the regulation blonde hottie but with a subtle dissonance in experience and outlook, and it’s a quality that invests Kristen, whose survivalist grit proves to have a very interesting genesis.

In short The Ward might well be a more effective, as well as much less pretentious, take on the theme than some of its recent antecedents, in which the drama one sees in the bulk of the movie proves to be an interior psychic battle. But there’s a fittingness to Carpenter presenting a heroine who is Laurie Strode and Michael Myers and all the others too, contained in the one skin. Likewise Carpenter’s institutional paranoia is apparent throughout, especially in the images of the opening credits in which practises of witch-hunting and medieval torture are suggestively correlated with ‘60s psychiatric techniques. Whilst the film doesn’t possess that innately individual, eccentric yet hypnotic rhythm that can make even Carpenter’s less successful films worth repeated viewing, a la Prince of Darkness (1987), nor much of his trademark dry humour, nonetheless the expert tension-building and no-bullshit editing in sequences when Kristen and Emily, and later Zoey, try to escape the ward, are master-classes in this sort of thing. The final scenes, with hopes of regeneration springing from enthralling trauma, nonetheless give way to the customary Carpenter refusal to give complete closure, with an eruptive personality that just won’t be repressed, not after having been schooled in the necessities of survival, exploding from a mirror (evoking, at once, the similar, if more subtle, final shot of Prince of Darkness as well as the vicious black punch-line of The Fog, 1979) to reclaim her progenitor. And perhaps, given the film’s portrayal of therapy attempting to nullify experience and survivalist capacity in favour of the illusion of normality and conformity, that’s not such a depressing coda.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961)

This often tedious quasi-science fiction saga stands as perhaps the nadir of George Pal’s reign as the leading producer of films in the fantastic genres throughout the ‘50s. Directed by Pal himself, rather than his usual collaborator Byron Haskin, this came hard on the heels of Pal’s refit of H.G. Wells’ speculative satire The Time Machine (1960) as a cheesy but extremely entertaining Boy’s Own adventure. Atlantis, The Lost Continent inflates most of the faults and few of the virtues of Pal’s distinctive brand, turning potentially fascinating ideas into a mostly one-dimensional cartoon, emphasising cornball piety and laboured contemporary parables about science becoming a religion that will result in apocalypse. Atlantis, The Lost Continent brings his apparent ambition to be the DeMille of fantasy films close to fruition, but here fumbling in recreating DeMille’s awesome sense of theatre. Commencing with a prologue by Paul Frees explicating some proto-Thor Heyerdahl theses mixed with Eric von Daniken bullflop in looking at the remarkable similarities of aspects of pan-Atlantic civilisation and positing that Plato’s tale of Atlantis might account for this mysterious cultural and zoological traffic, promises a lot more than the film delivers. It’s essentially The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) with submarines, ray guns, and manimals added. Nonetheless the story had a lot of potential. A young Greek fisherman, Demetrius (Anthony Hall, actually the former songwriter Sal Ponti, and mind-chokingly bland whatever his name) and his father Petros (Wolfe Barzell, but post-dubbed by Frees) encounter a drifting boat one day when casting their nets. They rescue Princess Antillia (Joyce Taylor), a haughty, bossy young lady who describes herself as a princess from a land “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”, and earns a tongue-lashing from Petros who reminds her that in his land there are no kings and that she ought to be a little more grateful.

Antillia manipulates Demetrius into taking her west after she tries to steal their boat. Demetrius acquiesces, they brave the unfamiliar waters, and a man and woman in a small boat together for weeks inevitably succumb to temptation. During a romantic clinch between Antillia and Demetrius, a Verne-esque, fish-shaped submarine sails up behind them, unremarked upon by music or edits, making this the film’s most intelligent, bracingly casual moment. The submarine is of course Atlantean, and its captain, Zaren (John Dall, basically replaying his role from Spartacus) greets Demetrius with gratitude for returning the princess. Soon they arrive in Atlantis, with its blend of Hellenic and Babylonian architecture and arcane dress and social principles, with an oddly patchy infrastructure of super-modern technology. There Demetrius is enslaved, as Atlantean law insists that all foreigners must be, and Antillia finds that her father the king Kronas (Edgar Stehli) doesn’t have the nerve to stand up to the ruthless, xenophobic Zaren anymore to have Demetrius rehabilitated. Instead, Demetrius, believing Antillia has betrayed him, rejects her attempts to help, and wins his freedom by undergoing “the Ordeal of Fire and Water,” that is, fighting a chunky, dim-witted Atlantean champion in a pit filled with hot coals and then with water. Once he’s achieved his victory and warned of Zaren’s plans for world domination by the priest Azor (Get Smart’s Edward Platt), Demetrius pretends to ally himself with Zaren but really takes command of the slaves, who try to speed up an impending cataclysmic volcanic blast that Azor has predicted by drilling into the magma chamber.

The film is built around some familiar principles of the lost civilisation genre, with the xenophobia, paranoia, and militarism of the Atlanteans holding a mirror back to the audience of such elements in their own world. Moments of seriousness still dot the proceedings, saving the film from total disaster, especially in Demetrius’ interaction with fellow Greek slave Xandros (Jay Novello), who’s been in Atlantis for decades. Xandros is slowly mutating into one of the human-animal chimeras created by a sleazy alchemist (Berry Kroeger), who plays at Doctor Moreau – Pal even tips a nod to Wells by naming the alchemist’s laboratory the House of Fear. This grotesque practice supplies the Atlanteans with strong, brainless labour, and Xandros describes the sensation of his intelligence slowly being subsumed by the animal, thus literalising the insidious nature of a slave internalising the values of his masters. Later Xandros gives in to a screaming fit of abuse when he thinks Demetrius has sold out to Zaren, leading to Hall’s best moment in the film as he visibly fights down his shame to continue his ruse with Zaren. Through Azor, played with Platt with admirable seriousness in spite of wearing garb that would defeat men of less moral fibre than the Chief, explicates a warning that Atlantis’ impiety, substituting gods inspired by their own scientific abominations for the “one true god” Azor believes in, has inspired that god to destroy Atlantis. This renders the film a continuation, or prelude to, the punishment from on high that will result in an exodus of the purified as witnessed before in Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953). Some of the better ideas perhaps stem from Gerald Hargreaves’ source play, adapted for the screen by Daniel Mainwaring. Any attempt to render a serious parable is however undercut by the relentlessly cardboard production and mostly poor acting, ranging from the wooden (Taylor) to the hambone (Dall).

The selling point of Pal’s films was their advanced special effects and sense of epic atmosphere conjured from fairly minimal resources, rendered in lustrous-hued Technicolor. But Atlantis, The Lost Continent steadily falters in this regard, as the concept seems to have stretched the production way too far, resolving in a proliferation of actors dressed from the darkest bowels of the MGM costume department mouthing insipid dialogue, and lumbering through poorly staged action scenes. The science fiction elements are in fact only conveniently pasted on to standard sword-and-sandal stuff that barely holds its own with the era’s relentless peplum films. This is emphasised by the film’s embarrassingly constant employment of stock footage from Quo Vadis? (1951) Little thought seems to have gone into attempting to create a classical civilisation with advanced scientific knowledge – the Altanteans have submarines but no other mechanically powered boats, a colossal ray gun but no firearms, and the alchemist utilises a mix of hypnosis and magic to create his monsters. In truth the script is a clumsy mishmash of inspirations. Still, the climax, portraying the end of Atlantis, with gigantic blocks of stone rising from the sea and sinking back again, the waters wreathing about the columned temples and causing a climactic explosion of the island’s main power source, is worth skipping through to.

Friday, 10 June 2011

From Russia With Love (1963)

The early James Bond films are approaching their half-century in the next couple of years, a bracing fact considering they’re still a kind of cultural maxim for racy thrills, even more so in the generally de-sexed landscape of mega-budget potboilers. The second in the epoch-defining series made by Eon Productions, the company formed by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, this is more confident on all levels than its immediate predecessor Dr. No (1962), although it does also leaven the opener’s sweaty, stoic intensity. The most believable and human-scaled of all the Bond films, From Russia With Love seems slow-paced and lacking in spectacle by the later standards of the series, but director Terence Young’s cool sense of style and the drolly humorous script by Richard Maibaum help infuse Ian Fleming’s story with a rich, incidental sprawl of character and atmosphere as well as espionage shenanigans. The series still had one film to go, with Goldfinger (1964), before it struck the pop-art balance of elements that would, for better or worse, define it, but the loose energy of this episode struck me in revisiting it as near-perfect.

Here was the series’ first pre-title sequence, in which Bond seems to be stalked and then garrotted by the lurking, blonde-haired assassin Grant (Robert Shaw), only for this to be revealed as a masked stand-in in a training session for Grant at a SPECTRE facility. The series’ chosen angle of deflating Cold War anxieties by displacing them onto the ready-made third-party villains SPECTRE necessitated some rewriting from Fleming’s original, but nothing like the later wholesale abandonment of his storylines. The formula was still being experimented with here: this was the last time Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench, intended to be the girl Bond always left behind, appeared, with Miss Moneypenny taking over the job entirely. Meanwhile, Desmond Llewellyn took over the role of Major Boothroyd, soon only to be known by his sobriquet Q, and this was also the first Bond film to sport a theme song, written by John Barry, sung by Matt Munro. But it’s still not appended to the opening titles, which are projected over a belly-dancer’s undulating flesh, but first heard as a snatch on a radio and then in the closing credits.

SPECTRE’s still-shadowy boss Blofeld (credited only as “?”, two actors were in fact playing Blofeld at this stage, the body provided by Anthony Dawson and the voice by Eric Pohlmann), glimpsed, inimitably, as a disembodied hand feeding pet fish to his white cat, calls away his operative Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) from the championship chess match he’s playing. This demands that Kronsteen pull off a brilliant checkmate in order to get away quickly. Kronsteen explicates to Blofeld the basics of a plan for SPECTRE to both spirit away a Russian “Lektor” coding machine from the Soviets, and get revenge on Bond (Sean Connery) for killing Dr. No in one stroke, by manipulating Bond into pulling off the theft himself, before assassinating him and taking the Lektor for themselves. Newly-defected Russian security Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is key to this operation, counting on the fact that her defection is still only known to the highest echelons of Soviet authority. Relying on this, Klebb pretends to be issuing official orders when  she  contacts an embassy coder, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), and commands her to pose as someone who wants to defect, who will abscond with a Lektor only if Bond will come to collect them both, claiming to have fallen in love with his dossier photo. Kronsteen figures it’s so obviously a trap that the British won’t be able to resist springing it, and he’s dead right, as M (Bernard Lee) sends Bond into the fray in Istanbul, where Romanova works. Bond collaborates with Turkish intelligence tsar Kamil Bey (Pedro Armendariz) to pull off the Lektor’s theft, and stumbles into the middle of the small-scale war enacted between Bey’s gypsy operatives and his enemy opposite Krilencu’s (Fred Haggerty) Bulgarian hoods.

Connery was really getting the hang of his character’s mix of pseudo-gentlemanly poise, faintly insolent charm, and covert grit here, but where Dr. No left him in something of a vacuum of rival personalities until Joseph Wiseman’s late arrival, here he’s challenged to hold the screen against some formidable friends and foes. Armendariz, who was dying during production thanks to cancer caught on the set of The Conqueror (1956), doesn’t seem at all ill, appearing to have a blast playing Bey, the former circus strongman turned ringmaster of spies, with a security service staffed almost entirely by his many sons, and a horny mistress whose affections inadvertently save him from a bombing. Lenya, whose name had been inserted into Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife” because of her canonical association with Brecht and Weill, having appeared thirty years earlier in G. W. Pabst’s film of The Threepenny Opera (1931), here staked a new claim to pop culture fame, whilst still trailing the mystique of her earlier incarnation, in her hilarious performance as the very un-hilarious Klebb. A ruthless butch domme, she not-so-subtly paws Tatiana when interviewing her, and wallops Grant in the stomach with brass knuckles to test his physical stamina before sending him into the field. Shaw, as Grant, is incredibly taut and menacing, matching Connery’s slippery physicality. The film builds inevitably towards the carefully anticipated battle between Grant and Bond, setting up devices that will be used – Bond’s tricked-out suitcase, Grant’s garrotte cord in his wristwatch – and then employing them in their tussle, which turns out to be in a railway car compartment, anticipating the limiting environs of the trailer battle in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) as the two men battle with a convincing approximation of true viciousness in the confined space. Their fight has feral brilliance all the more exciting because of the way Grant’s barely concealed craziness and the Connery Bond’s barely convincing impersonation of an English gentleman collide, each finally unmasked in their eager jungle brutality.

Before getting there the story meanders, as Bey and Bond hide out from assassins in a gypsy camp, which becomes a kind of throwback idyll for arch masculinity and where even the women are more than a bit savage, as Bond is treated to the spectacle of a belly dancer (Leila), and then a battle between two gypsy women (Aliza Gur and Martine Beswick) fighting over the same man, the chief’s (Francis de Wolff) son, in a moment that doesn’t so much invite camp as embrace it like a frantic nympho. Bond, after saving the chief’s life, gets him to stop the fight, and the next thing you know both hellcats are tending to Bond like a storybook Islamic prince, proving that one man can be enough for two women. Such is the most adolescent, if quite funny, episode in the film. It’s surprising, however, that this early into the series the filmmakers were confident enough to build both key plot and humour value around Bond’s fabled sexual prowess, as Kronsteen’s plan revolves around it being believable that Bond could seduce a woman into treachery purely through mystique: of course Romanova’s gambit isn’t on the level, and yet, given a few real turns in the sack with Bond, it becomes genuine enough. The filmmakers cleverly reshuffled the less pleasing elements of Fleming’s creation, which was endowed with a self-satisfied chauvinism, into a more equitable, if not always more equal, fantasy of his-and-her pleasure, revolving around the hunt for unique sexual fulfilment, as the notion that everyone had the right to the big O without getting caught up in relationship angst, and the only price you had to pay was possibly being poisoned by some swarthy assassin.

Bianchi, 1960’s Miss Universe, had only appeared in a couple of minor Italian movies before this, and was unfortunate enough to be placed between the overflowing lushness of Ursula Andress and the feline growl of Honor Blackman. Like Andress she had a heavy accent dubbed over, so it’s hard to give a fair judgement on her performance, except that she radiates the necessary mixture of naiveté and cor-blimey sex appeal, and a certain eccentric energy, as when she plays with her hair, giving herself a moustache, as if she too mightn’t mind joining in the boy’s games. If there’s a problem with From Russia With Love, it’s that because of the series’ deliberate avoidance of moral and psychological questions, and the inevitable nature of its outcomes, it couldn’t quite imbue more prosaic spy business with the necessary sense of threat, and with such relatively realistic action as here, that’s a bit of a liability. Yet the film does sustain a dramatic tension that few of the Bond films quite wield, in detailing Bond’s easy working partnership with Bey, belonging as they both do to not only the fraternity of spies but the society of bull males, the menace of Klebb and Grant waiting in the wings for their chance, and the sheer colour of the film’s locations. Bond is a terser, more behaviourally convincing agent at this stage, not endangering himself and missions in being distracted by easy lays, even as his relationship with Tatiana has a stronger flavour of real romanticism to it. There’s a strangely striking scene in which Bey shoots Krilencu, who tries to escape his hideout via a secret hatch located in the mouth of a giant Anita Ekberg (actually a giant billboard for the Broccoli-Saltzman production Call Me Bwana), a touch worthy of Fritz Lang, even if Bond’s usual tension-dispelling quip is pretty lame.

The influence of the Bond films on the modern blockbuster movie format has not been small, so the relatively slow-burn structure of From Russia With Love seems doubly surprising and perhaps initially bewildering in that context, with only a sprawling fight scene between Bey’s gypsies and Krilencu’s to juice the first half. The otherwise careful pacing pays dividends however: as Bond and Bey’s plan to break into the Russian embassy literally explodes, Bond and Tatiana flee through a dynamited hole in the floor as Barry’s giddy music swirls with a sudden rush of venturesome energy and delight at the spectacle of these characters treating the Cold War as their own personal playpen. Bond, Bey, and Tatiana flee through ancient underground ruins ahead of a wave of rats, and the influence of this episode in particular on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which of course would cast Connery as Jones’s father, becomes crystal-clear. The last reel finally offers a rush of impressive action, Bond’s battle with Grant segueing into a helicopter attack (intended as a tribute to North by Northwest, as Hitchcock had reportedly toyed with the idea of filming this novel a few years earlier with Cary Grant as Bond) and a speedboat chase that counts as one of the meaner series action climaxes. But the real conclusion is a bluntly physical tussle between Connery and Lenya, with Tatiana forced to make her choice, for better or worse, which one to shoot. Guess which one she plugs? Yes, it’s another victory for the successful hetero-normatives, so the playboys of the western world can sleep safe knowing their girlfriends will not be stolen by commie lesbians.