SF & Fantasy films

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WILD, WILD PLANET. MGM, Italy-US, 1966. Original title: I criminali della galassia. Tony Russell, Lisa Gastoni, Massimo Serato, Carlo Giustini (as Charles Justin), Franco Nero. Director: Antonio Margheriti.

   Directed by Antonio Margheriti (under the name Anthony Dawson), Wild Wild Planet is a low-budget Italian science fiction movie with some ridiculously stilted dialogue, silly miniatures for special effects, and a plot that defies credulity, even for outlandish science fiction.

   Yet, for those fans of campy and dare I say it – cheesy – movies, it’s not without its charms. Much like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it’s the atmosphere, rather than the plot, that counts. With a skillful use of color and costumes and a hint of grotesquerie here and there, there’s just enough pizazz to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Plus, there’s cult film favorite Franco Nero – a quite young and clean-shaven Nero, I should add – in an early supporting role.

   The plot, such as it is, is something straight out of the serials. A diabolical scientist named Nurmi (Massimo Serato) is engaged in a sinister plot to create a master race of humans. Sounds typical enough, right? Oh, did I mention that Nurmi has some affiliation with a sinister sounding entity called “the corporations” and that he utilizes female robots to kidnap persons he wants to use for his experiments? Of course, it’s up to the movie’s hero, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russell) to stop him and to rescue the beautiful Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) from Nurmi’s evil grasp.

   As I said earlier, it’s not the plot, but the borderline psychedelic atmosphere that counts and makes the movie worth watching. Sometimes the special effects are just plain silly, but every now and then, they work and create an indelible impression on the viewer.

   I wouldn’t dare suggest that Wild, Wild Planet is a great science fiction movie. Not by any means. At the end of the day, here is a film too ambitious for its comparably low budget, making it simultaneously an example of clumsy filmmaking and unleashed creativity. That’s got to count for something.

THE REMARKABLE ANDREW. Paramount Pictures, 1942. Brian Donlevy, William Holden, Ellen Drew, Montagu Love, Gilbert Emery, Brandon Hurst, George Watts, Rod Cameron. Story & screenplay: Dalton Trumbo. Director: Stuart Heisler.

   A mildly amusing and engaging comedy-fantasy about several of this country’s forefathers (among them George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and more) coming to life from the past to assist a mild-mannered town accountant (William Holden) in his time of need. First and foremost among them is Andrew Jackson (Brian Donlevy), however, returning a favor — Andrew Long’s great, great grandfather at one time saved Jackson’s life.

   It seems that Andrew Long has discovered some discrepancies in the town’s books, and when he won’t go along with hushing it up, the political elite of the city decide to frame him for embezzlement. Convinced by these illustrious guests from the past that an honest democracy is worth fighting for, Andrew Long gives a courtroom speech almost worthy of a Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds) or Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith), but somehow it never caught on. No one’s heard of this movie today.

   What is even more interesting is to see William Holden as an actor when he was only 24. Even though he had been picked to star in Golden Boy three years earlier, his acting skills as displayed in Andrew seem rather limited — just suitable enough to play a mild-mannered boy-next-door sort of guy who’s been engaged to a girl for five years waiting for a raise of $2.50 per week before they can get married. There’s nothing in this film to suggest in the slightest that he’d grow up to be an Oscar contender every time the nominations came around.

   And oh, yes, one more thing. You may have noticed Rod Cameron’s name in the credits. I’d forgotten he was in the movie while I was watching it, and didn’t even recognize him, not all dressed up as Jesse James the way he was, complete with a wide bandito mustache. I don’t really know why Jesse James was in this movie, but he was.


FROM HELL IT CAME. Milner Brothers/Allied Artists, 1957. Tod Andrews, Tina Carver, Linda Watkins, John McNamara, Greg Palmer. Written by Richard Bernstein and Jack Milner. Directed by Dan Milner.

   Actually, the best reviews of this film have already been written, including the six-word classic, “And to Hell it can go.” But From Hell is not without a certain charm once it gets around to the Monster.

   Before that though, there’s a lot of talk in this movie. And I mean whole great big long stretches of it, as the principals in the drama explain the plot to us — talk is always cheaper than action, after all. So the film opens on an island somewhere in the South Pacific (Hey, that’s a good title for a movie!) with native Prince Kimo lying staked to the ground, about to be executed for the murder of his father the King, who was actually killed by the local Witch Doctor and an ambitious usurper (Are there echoes of Hamlet here?) and everyone tells how he got into this awkward quandary.

   Before he dies, Kimo argues his innocence, and come to think of it, there are echoes of Hamlet, because there’s an awful lot of debate about the ethics of the thing before they get around to killing him and he swears to return from the grave, whereupon the scene shifts (uncomfortably) to the American Research Station elsewhere on the island, where we get another talk-fest as two Government Scientists exchange dialogue about who they are and what they’re doing here.

   Turns out there was a recent nuclear test a few hundred miles away, followed by a freak monsoon that blew radioactive dust this way, and our heroes are here to monitor radiation levels. There’s also been an outbreak of disease on the island, but that couldn’t possibly be related, they assure each other.

   The movie doles out these first twenty minutes like a miser at a fun-fair, ringing in comic relief, romantic interest, internecine politics, and generally dispelling insomnia till Kimo finally emerges from his grave and things start to get interesting, because he has come back as a killer tree, known as Tabanga.

   Critic Michael H. Price has pointed out that trees have been used for scary effect quite well in The Wizard of Oz and sundry old cartoons, and maybe that was the inspiration here, but when it came to actually realizing the Terrible Tree Tabanga, it looks like they splurged about Fifty Bucks on the whole thing.

   The Tabanga is a creation of legendary low-budget monster-maker Paul Blaisdell, whose work includes Attack of the Crab Monsters, The She Creature and the memorable turnip-monster in It Conquered the World. Blaisdell’s work was rarely convincing, sometimes laughable, but always imaginative — the She Creature is even rather effective. But as the scowling stump (no relation) toddles about striking terror into the hearts of all, he looks less like something from Hell than like a fugitive from Captain Kangaroo.

   For one thing, Trees are not known for mobility, but Blaisdell’s Tabanga get-up seems restrictive even for a tree. Lacking long limbs for grabbing, he tends to just lumber about (get it?) until he gets close enough to crush anyone conveniently looking the other way or paralyzed with fright for plot purposes.

   One has to commend the cast and director for getting through all this with a straight face and as much speed as a moving tree will permit, but as THE END finally came across the screen, I had to conclude that From Hell It Came was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS / CARTES SUR TABLE / CARTAS BOCA ARRIBA. Spéva Films / Ciné-Alliance / Hesperia Films S.A., French-Spanish, 1966. Eddie Constantine, Françoise Brion, Fernando Rey, Sophie Hardy. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere. Directed by Jesus Franco….

   …which I guess answers the question, “What would Jesus direct?”

   Actually this is a surprisingly light and enjoyable thing to come from Jesus (aka “Jess” for American consumption) Franco, who more typically did sex-and-gore epics like Revenge of the Alligator Ladies and Lust for Frankenstein. It helps that it was written by Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel and the screenwriter of such trifles as Borsalino and Viva Maria.

   It also helps that Eddie Constantine stars, and lends his compelling screen presence to a role suited perfectly to him. For those of you not in on it, Constantine was an American actor who hit the big time as a night club singer in France and went on to star in a whole bunch of “B” action movies, usually as Lemmy Caution and most famously in Jen-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

   Here he plays a retired Secret Agent named Al Pereira (or Carl Peterson, depending on the dubbing) called back into the field by his superiors to check out assassinations committed by individuals apparently under the influence of what’s known in the genre as Some Diabolical Mind Control. And he isn’t on the job for much longer than a few bites of popcorn before he’s run into oriental masterminds, seductive ladies, furtive guys-who-know-too-much and the odd bruiser just looking for a fight.

    All this comes off much better than it deserves, thanks mostly to Constantine’s brutal charisma. Projecting a screen persona somewhere between Humphrey Bogart and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, he lumbers gracefully across the screen, and somehow convinces you that yes, he really is that tough.

   The story lumbers a bit too, I’m afraid — not so much a story as a succession of fights and chases, but writer Carriere does what he can with it. Some of the repartee is genuinely funny, there are a couple of amusing twists (as when a squad of killer robots and a gang of Chinese assassins prepare to ambush our hero in his room and suddenly discover each other’s presence) and we even get an oriental mastermind with a sense of humor.

   Perhaps no film should need so many redeeming features, but this one somehow carries it off, and if you’re in the mood for something mindless, it fills the time very pleasantly.

UNBREAKABLE. Touchstone Pictures, 2000. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark. Screenwriter & director: M. Night Shyamalan.

   This was director Shyamalan’s followup to his massively successful The Sixth Sense, which I’ve never seen, but no matter. The reason I wanted to see this one was the presence in the film of Samuel L. Jackson, who always turns in a riveting performance, no matter how good or how bad the rest of the film is.

   And Unbreakable is no exception to that statement, if not a rule. Whenever he’s on the screen, as the tormented victim of a brittle bone disease, all eyes are on him, an angry black man (with reason) teetering on a cane that looks as though it will barely hold him. As a lover of comic books and comic books heroes — and an early flashback shows why that is so; how the love of comic books got him through his childhood — he knows that there has to be someone on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps even unknowingly.

   And that someone just might be David Dunn (Bruce Willis), an ordinary guy, a stadium security guard by occupation, who just happens to be the only survivor of a horrific train accident. Over a hundred other passengers died; Dunn comes out of it without a scratch.

   Dunn, as I say, is an ordinary guy, with a semi-estranged son and a marriage that is definitely on the rocks, but … he’s never been sick in his life, as Elijah Price (Jackson) reminds him. Could he have superpowers and have never have known it until now?

   As I say, I’m a fan of Samuel L. Jackson, and I still am, but Unbreakable has convinced me that I hadn’t bother seeing another film directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whose directorial abilities I find to be of the flamboyant “look at me, I’m directing” variety, beginning with the very first scene, with Dunn talking earnestly to a young female reporter on the seat next to him on the doomed train. Their conversation is filmed through the separation between the seats in front of them, both awkward and obvious.

   As a storyteller, he is no better — not to my mind anyway, speaking as someone who would like to have scenes mean something, not randomly inserted in a portentous manner, but never followed up on or extremely unlikely to happen in the first place, such as Dunn’s son threatening to shoot him with a gun, to prove that his father does indeed have superpowers.

   As for the surprise ending, I left the theater asking myself just what it was that happened. It did and did not make sense at the time, and while I’m a lot more aware of what I had missed, I think my mind stopped working when I realized that a lot of the movie didn’t make a lot of sense, was weird only for weirdness’ sake, and I failed to take in scenes that were important, and I just didn’t realize that here at last was something that was essential and I really shouldn’t have missed it.

   The movie is still worth watching, though. It was quite popular at the time it was first released, perhaps as a carryover from The Sixth Sense, with which Unbreakable has some strong similarities. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

THE TIME MACHINE. Dreamworks/Warner Brothers, 2002. Guy Pearce, Sienna Guillory, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Orlando Jones, Mark Addy, Phyllida Law, Alan Young. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells and the 1960 screenplay by David Duncan. Director: Simon Wells.

   There’s some resemblance between one of H. G. Wells’ most famous stories and this movie, but not a whole lot. I suspect it’s a lot closer to the 1960 film based on a screenplay by David Duncan, the one starring Rod Taylor and produced by George Pal, but it’s been so long that I watched that one that perhaps I should not even bring it up.

   The first part of the movie, the part that takes place in Victorian England, is better by far than what follows, as Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) travels into the future to find out why he can’t change the past by means of a time machine he has built (a wonderful concoction of revolving rings, clockwork gears and sharply focused beams of light) — a past in which his fiancée dies, and keeps on dying every time to goes back in time to save her, only to fail.

   In the far, far future mankind has evolved into two races: the Eloi, a peaceful lot who live above ground but who seem to have no purpose in their lives, and the Morlocks, a race of ravaging monsters who live below ground and prey on the Eloi at feeding time.

   There are a lot of computer generated effects to make this future come to life. The past is easier to reproduce (ignoring the fact that Hartdegen’s betrothed (Sienna Guillory) uses present day makeup to enhance her already natural beauty). Much is made of Hartdegen’s inability to change the past, but the explanation, when it comes, is tossed off in a line that takes less than five seconds to say.

   It is one of those temporal paradoxes like the one that says you can’t go back and kill your grandfather before you are born because then there would be no you to go back in time to kill your grandfather. But to put a proposition like this before an audience that might want to think about it while would take some effort, and Simon Wells (H. G. Wells great-grandson) takes the easier way out and concentrates on the monsters and the blow darts and the explosions instead, presumably thinking that’s enough to satisfy the reality based science fiction fans among us.

   It isn’t. No more than to imagine that destroying the moon in its orbit in the 21st century would allow for any kind of life to exist on the Earth 800,000 years later, much less speak English.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE INVISIBLE RAY. Universal Pictures, 1936. [Boris] Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   The Invisible Ray is a science fiction/horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as rival scientists. To no one’s surprise, Karloff’s the completely mad one and he’s out for revenge.

   And when it comes to B-film genre film tropes, this one’s got even more than just a mad scientist. It’s got forbidden love, cosmic rays from beyond space and time, a Carpathian castle, African tribesmen, a blind old woman, a Parisian Gothic setting, betrayal, revenge, and murder. All in less than ninety minutes. Did I mention it’s one the strangest films I’ve ever seen?

   Karloff portrays Dr. Janos Rukh, a creepy looking scientist who lives in his Carpathian home/laboratory with his blind mother (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Rukh has invented a telescope that allows him to see so far into space that he can see Earth’s ancient past.

   And one of the things he sees is pretty amazing – a meteor that crashed into Africa some millions of years ago. So Rukh, along with his wife Diana (Frances Drake), rival scientist Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) and his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), head out to Africa to find the giant rock and to do some experiments.

   Or something. It’s not exactly clear.

   What is clear, however, is that Rukh finds the meteor remnants and becomes poisoned by them. He calls his discovery Radium X because the meteor is an element out of this world! He ends up glowing in the dark and develops the ability to kill people with his touch. (Just go with it.) Benet (Lugosi) gives Rukh an antidote and they’re off back to Europe.

   But what happens in Africa doesn’t always stay in Africa. Rukh’s wife Diana has fallen in love with one of the expedition members, the boyish Drake. So Rukh stalks around in the Parisian fog and kills some poor sap that happens to look like him (although he really doesn’t) and fakes his own death, allowing his wife to marry Drake. Then he goes on a killing-and-revenge spree. The Stevens couple and Benet are the first to go. Rukh also uses an invisible ray, powered by Radium X, to destroy sculptures.

   If it all sounds both convoluted and ridiculous, that’s because it is. The movie tries to pack in tons of science fiction concepts into one movie, making it feel as if it’s really about four different short films in one tidy Karloff and Lugosi package.

   But that’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, because in a way it is. It’s just not one of Karloff’s, or Lugosi’s, best movies. Not by a long shot. But if you happen to watch The Invisible Ray with no expectations, preferably after midnight, you might just find yourself relishing the utter ridiculousness of it all.

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