Archive for the The Great Unwatched Category

The Great Unwatched #5: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

Posted in The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , on July 7, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Warning: If you pay enough attention, this trailer features spoilers, as does my review below.

Although it didn’t perform particularly well upon its initial release, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) is one of those films that has seeped into the public consciousness through television repeats, remakes and parodies. Indeed, when I finally got around to watch it I pretty much knew what to expect. This might explain why I was a little dissapointed by this, one of the most highly acclaimed science-fiction films ever made.

Returning to his hometown after a trip away, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is confronted by a number of patients convinced that their relatives are somehow not the people they seem. At first this  is attributed to some sort of mass hysteria but when a good friend of the Doctors stumbles across his own sinister duplicate the race is on escape the town and let the world know that the earth is facing an invasion of pod people.

There are aspects of this film I liked a lot, the cast in particular are universally excellent and director Don Siegel turns in some really creepy moments and suspensful chases. In fact the film as it originally stood under his vision is an effective Twilight Zone-ish parrable of cold-war paranoia. What is really unfortunate though, is that the film was tampered with by nervous studio executives. Originally the film ended with McCarthy, the last of the townspeople not to be replaced by a duplicate, frantically running between traffic on a freeway trying desperatley to alert somebody, anybody, of the threat posed and for all intents and purposes looking like he has lost his mind.  Wary that such a pessemistic ending would isolate audience members , executives at Allied Artists tacked on a prologue and epilogue that framed the film as a flashback told by Miles to his psychiatrists in a mental institution. What this served to do however, was to undercut a lot of the film’s suspence. Why should we worry about our main character when we know from the outset that he escapes the clutches of the villains? Even worse, the film’s epilogue sees the FBI being alerted to the danger of the pod people and the plans for the domination of earth presumably being thwarted.

As it stands in its theatrically released form Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is a good film; had it been left untampered I speculate it would have been near-great.

For more information of the film you could do no better than making a trip over to the ever intreaging Trailers From Hell where Joe Dante offers his thoughts on the film.

The Great Unwatched #4: The Swarm

Posted in Ramblings, The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Irwin Allen’s 1978 film, The Swarm is another of those films I have seen in fits and bursts on television but never once all the way through and despite owning it on DVD for some years only now have I actually gotten round to subjecting myself to it. I say subjecting myself as The Swarm‘s reputation precedes it. Arriving at the tail end of a decade that had embraced the disaster genre and milked it for all its worth,  the film’s tale of Mutated African Killer Bees run amuck in Texas  appears to be almost universally derided. Scoring a below average 4.0 on IMDB and a pathetic 14% at Rotten Tomatoes, both fairly decent indicators of an overall cinematic consensus. Even Michael Caine considers it the worst film he has ever made (Has he not seen the remake of Get Carter?).  Industry Bible Variety published its damning indictment at the time of the film’s release:

Killer bees periodically interrupt the arch writing, stilted direction and ludicrous acting in Irwin Allen’s disappointing and tired non-thriller.

But you know what? I enjoyed it. Yes it was a silly premise and sometimes the poe-faced delivery of lines like, “And I never dreamed, that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friend,” don’t exactly have one quivering in one’s seat at the thought of it all coming true. But let’s face it, after having already tackled floods, earthquakes, towering infernos and in a market saturated by derivative apocalyptic films he had inspired, where was Allen meant to go. Bees aren’t the most silly plague he could have come up with, let’s not forget Night of the Lepus.

Part of the fun for me when watching disaster films is identifying with the exaggerated but plausible situations. What would you do if you were trapped at the top of a blazing skyscraper? What would you do if stranded upon a rapidly sinking luxury liner? What would you do if you start hallucinating a giant killer bee at the foot of your hospital bed after both your parents have been stung to death during a picnic. Well, maybe not that last one. But there is still something to think about when watching the citizen’s of The Swarm being evacuated on trains at a minutes notice or desperately trying to find refuge as air-raid sirens sound. It also helps when you come to care about the characters too, and although Michael Caine isn’t given much to sink his teeth into as the leading man I did find myself caring about Richard Widmark’s General, Henry Fonda’s Scientist and Fred MacMurray’s Mayor.

You also have to marvel at some of the technical feats achieved here. When people are attacked by bees in this film, they really are attacked by bees.  Months of preparation were put into selecting the right breeds and removing harmful stingers. When committed to film there is a realism to the swarm attacks that you wouldn’t get in today’s CGI dependant industry. Compare, for example, the first bee attack in The Swarm, to the red ant attack in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The latter film may be more visually dynamic, but you’re never in any doubt as to what you’re seeing isn’t real.

The Swarm may be hokey, the effects may sometime appear dated, and the actors may occasionally seem lost, but I’d still take it above The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 any day. At least in the 1978 film, despite all of its absurdity, there is some craftsmanship up on the screen to find yourself involved with.

 

The Great Unwatched #3: The Intruder

Posted in Ramblings, The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Another unwatched movie, another Corman. The Intruder (1962) tells the story of Adam Cramer, a racist rabble rouser who descends upon a small town in the American south intending to spark nothing less than an all out race war. In fact, the film is recognised as one of the first to directly address America’s civil rights issues during the mid twentieth century. All too often Roger Corman gets classified as a cheapskate genre filmmaker, but while it is true that he knew how to make movies of incredible scope on miniscule budgets, a movie like The Intruder, which he calls his most personal film, is all the evidence needed to cement his reputation as one of the most important filmmakers of the American new wave.

The film hangs upon William Shatner’s fantastic, intimating, vulnerable, mysterious, pre-Star Trek performance as Adam Cramer. The character of Cramer is interesting because we know so little about him. He claims to represent the Patrick Henry Society back in Washington DC and we learn that he was raised in California but that is about all we learn. Although he wastes no time in charming his way into the lives of the townspeople he never comes across as anything other than an outsider. Questions always hangs over his head; who does he represent, why does he hate Negroes, why does he seek control of the townspeople?

In a number of scenes there are subtle hints that Cramer might even be an outsider in relation to humanity – a messenger from hell. He arrives in town wearing incongruous dark shades, as if unused to sunlight. Peering out of the window during his seduction of his neighbour’s wife the rabble rouser gazes at his handiwork. Corman chooses this moment to superimpose the burning cross Cramer has facilitated over Shatner’s face. He’s also able to control the temperature of the room, even if all his actually does is to switch the lights off and talk his potential conquest into believing he has taken control of the situation. He worms his way into the lives of most of the townsfolk, praying on their vanity and insecurities. Interestingly, The Intruder is based on a novel by Charles Beaumont, who also features in the film as the High School Principle. Beaumont was a key contributor to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone – as was our good friend George Clayton Johnson who also plays a role – and it is easy to see how, with just a slight injection of the fantastic, this film could have easily sat alongside episodes in that socially conscious anthology series.

Perhaps the key to Cramer’s role in The Intruder can be found in one line of dialogue from the closest thing the film has to a hero. The town’s newspaper editor says, “One thing Adam Cramer’s done for us. He’s made us face ourselves.” Aside from a lot of talk, Cramer does nothing. In the case of the clan members, or the mob, he brings to their racial prejudice, fear and violent natures to the boil. In the case of people like Tom the newspaper editor, or Sam Griffin his salesman neighbour from the hotel, he brings forth selflessness, bravery, tolerance and love.

On the production side, the film captures the claustrophobia of small minded rabble rousing particularly well, with good performances from a relatively small cast of unknowns and actual townspeople who had little idea of the context of their appearances. Certain scenes even reminded me of the Zombie attacks in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series, with scores of bodies blocking the frame, rather than cramped interiors or low key lighting, creating a sense of entrapment and making good use of his limited cast.

Only one point in the movie is let down by Corman’s anaemic budget. Not to give anything away but at the closing of Charles Beaumont’s original novel, the national guard have to be called in to calm the townspeople. This was out of the question given the resources the filmmakers had available to them and so the film’s ending suffers somewhat. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.

Sandwiched in-between entries in Corman’s Poe series, the intruder stands out in his filmography. Cinema-goers, too, must have noticed this shift in tone, as they stayed away in droves even though critics on both sides of the atlantic sang the film’s praises. You can see the impact this must have had on Corman in his later work. Although he would return to anti-establishment and socially conscious themes during the 1960s and 70s, from this point on he would always approach projects from a commercially viable,  exploitation standpoint.

For anybody sufficiently interested, the entire movie is available to watch online for FREE at archive.org under it’s re-release title, Shame and Youtube carries a brief behind the scenes documentary.

The Great Unwatched #2: The Terror

Posted in Ramblings, The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Another week, another Boris Karloff movie! Until now, The Terror has been one of those films I have seen bits of, an opening here, an action sequence there, a trailer over in the corner. Perhaps not the best way to see a movie, but this scattered viewing approach somehow seems appropriate in this one case; in more ways than one, Roger Corman’s 1963 film, is a patchwork film. Famously produced in order to make use of a number of standing sets from Corman’s last production The Raven and to captilalise of a deal that allowed him to use veteran horror icon Boris Karloff for another day, the resulting film makes little sense, betrays its hastily assembled roots but in the end still ends up providing a fun viewing experience.

The story of The Terror‘s construction has been told before but it is probably worth telling again as it must be unique in the history of film production. Always eager to save a buck in making his films, Roger Corman was keen to take advantage of the fact that actor Boris Karloff still owed him a number of shooting days as a result of the filming of a previously contracted film coming in early. To make his star, crew and some impressive standing sets the director had to act quickly and so had some hasty scenes drafted up and got to work for two days shooting sequences involving the veteran horror star without a clear idea of how the whole thing would fit together. A lot of coverage was shot with Karlof and his main co-stars, Dick Miller and Jack Nicholon. When time ran out, the rest of the script was pieced together and because Corman had other commitments, other directors including rookie Nicholson, veterans Monte Hellman and Jack Hill, as well as an aspiring young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola, were drafted in to complete the picture. Although Karloff’s scenes may have been completed in two days, the rest of the film was assembled over the course of nine months!

I’ll attempt what they eventually ended up with the best I can. The year is 1806, and on a secluded beach, Andre (Jack Nicholson), a lost and dehydrated French soldier, is rescued by a beautiful young mystery woman named Helene who may or may not be a ghost/falcon. Soon after meeting him, she walks into the sea and vanishes. After trying to rescue her, Andre himself is rescued by the powerful, raspy throated Gustaf and an old woman who appears to be his guardian/keeper and who may or may not be a witch. Both deny all knowledge of any girl, even when she continues to reappear to lure Andre into ever more certain danger. Gustaf tells the soldier that the answers he seeks may be found at the castle of a man who may or may not be the Baron Von Leppe (Karloff). Making his way to the castle, Andre discovers that Helene happens to be the spitting double for the Baron’s dead wife, who was murdered at the hands of her husband some twenty years ago when she was discovered to be having an affair. Despite the protestations of the Baron and his faithful servant Stefan (Dick Miller!), Andre intends to get to the bottom of the matter and win the heart of the beautiful Helene. Phew, and that isn’t even half way!

At one point near the end of the film, Jack Nicholson grabs Dick Miller by the collar, pins him against the wall and demands, “Where’s the Baron!?” On cue, Miller spills his guts and explains the whole plot to the protagonist which is incredibly cathartic to any audience who has been sitting open mouthed throughout this tangled mess of a storyline!

Somehow, though, The Terror still manages to entertain. For starters it retains the general mise en scene of Corman’s recognised classic Poe adaptations, taking advantage of stock effects shots, sets and an imaginative behind the scenes team. In fact the script reads like the writers, asked for something similar in a hurry, randomly tore pages from the author’s complete works, threw them in the air, and kept what landed on the table. We have, haunted women, lovers driven mad with guilt and remorse, villainous birds and decaying corpses. This all combines for a rather hokey effect, in no way truly comparable to great works like Richard Matherson’s adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher or Charles Beaumont‘s version of  The Masque of Red Death. Still, despite it’s ad-hoc production, the film is watch-able and even includes some genuinely eerie moments and an ending that I certainly didn’t see coming.

I have a huge amount of respect for what Roger Corman was able to achieve with the frequently limited recourses available to him and one truely great thing to come out of The Terror was the director/producer’s ability to get even more work out of his star. Seeing that Karloff still owed him a couple more days shooting, Corman charged a young Peter Bogdanovich with the task of assembling a film out of:

a) Twenty minutes of Karloff outtakes from The Terror.

b) Twenty minutes of new footage shot on the days Karloff owed Corman.

c) Thirty minutes of footage shot over three days without Karloff.

Bogdanovich didn’t quite stick to these rules, he retained hardly any footage from The Terror, but the film he made, Targets, remains one of my all time favourites. It features an elderly horror actor, played by Karloff, who tires of making pap for low budget producers (represented by clips from The Terror!) as he comes to realise that his brand of gothic horror can’t hope to compete with the truly horrific events unfolding on the streets of modern America. A parallel story stand features a series of seemingly unmotivated killings perpetrated by the very picture of wholesome America and by the end of the picture the two worlds violently collide.

Targets is one I’m sure I will get around to writing about some day. To tide you eager beavers over until then, here is one of my favourite sequences.

The Great Unwatched #1: Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Posted in Ramblings, The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

The funds in my DVD buying pot may be slightly lower this year than I’m used to, but when you’re given lemons you should make lemonade. I have a pile of discs from the past few years that is easily twice as tall as me that have yet to be watched so why not tackle the backlog now while I have nothing better to do?

First up is Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, released in 1953 and included as part of the Region 2 Abbott and Costello: The Collection Box Set. I’ve had this on the shelf for about two years now and must have seen only about a quarter of the twenty or so films contained within. I’ll confess now that this is probably due to the fact that, unlike Laurel and Hardy or The Marx Brothers, I have no real affection for this comedy team. Whereas I find the former can get by on charm or coast on their comic personas I find that Abbott and Costello really need a strong script of unique gimmick to be really funny. Sadly, unlike Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, this film has neither. In some ways, the writing reminded me a little of Laurel and Hardy’s weaker 1940s efforts, where the screenwriters couldn’t quite get a handle on the established characters and in some cases couldn’t even manage basic story structure.

The monster too, usually a highlight of any spooky Abbott and Costello feature, is a little lacklustre here. Boris Karloff is around to play Doctor Jekyll with his usual greatness, but when the (admittedly impressive) transformation scenes take place, stuntman Eddie Parker takes over the role of Mr. Hyde. Parker seems to be an expert climber, scaling walls with impressive animalistic ease, but in most of respects his monster is lacking and too often reduced to standing bolt upright like a Victorian gentleman with a facial hair problem. The closing scene, which I won’t give away, also involved monsters and commits two offences. One; it isn’t funny. And two; it doesn’t even make sense!

The film isn’t a total write off, well delivered performances, good special effects and a handful of funny gags stop it from being boring and it’s always fun to watch Lou Costello in particular going through his usual shtick. Worth a watch once perhaps, but there are better offerings from this team to find time for first.