SF & Fantasy films

BLACK RAINBOW. Miramax, 1989. Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce. Screenwriter-director: Mike Hodges.

   A father and daughter pair make a meager living traveling from town to town setting up shows in local churches as clairvoyants and preying on their audiences’ desires to make contact with loved ones on the other side. Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette) is very effective at this. Dressed all n white, she is able to assure everyone who has lost someone close to them that they are happy where they are now and that all is well with them.

   It is all a fraud, of course.

   Until, that is, the spirits she is in contact with begin not to be dead yet. Even more, in her visions, she can even see (and can describe in detail) the manner of their passing, including as it turns out, the murder of a would-be whistle blower at a nearby chemical plant. Even more, she claims she saw who the hitman is.

   When a local reporter (Tom Hulce) gets wind of this, skeptical as he is, the story gets into the newspaper, and thinking there just might be something to it, the owner of the plant puts his hitman back to work again.

   The story of Martha, the reporter, and her alcoholic father (Jason Robards) is all that’s of interest here. The outside criminal element that Martha accidentally eavesdrops upon, that’s pretty much by the numbers. Martha, a lovely young woman in her early 20s (I’m guessing) is not the virginal gateway to the other end of the rainbow as her role is in church. Far from it, as the reporter soon learns. And besides these new abilities, she is now also beginning to realize how much her father stole her life from her.

   Forget the hit man, and keep your eyes on Rosanna Arquette’s performance. I found it mesmerizing, especially toward the end when she chastises her audience for being relying on their belief in the happiness that awaits them once they’re gone. If we knew for sure that life is lived only once, she suggests, perhaps we’d try to be better people while we’re here. The ending is quite remarkable, too, as the film verges even further into the supernatural and the unknown.

   Is this film a diamond in the rough? No, not really, but you may find it parts of it as fascinating to watch as I did.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard, Anne Nagel. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   This may be the only movie made by a major studio in the 1940s in which the leading lady spends most of her time on the screen totally nude. She even kisses the leading man in the same condition. We can’t see her, of course, but we’ve got imaginations, don’t we?

   This movie is also (slightly less) famous for that noteworthy line, “You know, if women were invisible, life would be much less complicated.” It’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages. If ever this shows up again on your favorite cable station, don’t miss it.

— Reprinted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1973. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, John Dehner. Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on the novel by Robert Merle. Director: Mike Nichols.

   The first thing you need to know about this movie is that, in it, George C. Scott talks to dolphins. And the dolphins, at least one of them, talks back with loving affection, telling him how much he loves him. Now if you can suspend disbelief on this rather fantastic matter, you may also be able to suspend disbelief regarding the movie poster’s famous tagline and how it gives away the whole plot: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States!”

   Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Day of the Dolphin must be a fun, quirky action-adventure movie with an over the top performance from Scott. It has to be, right? Wrong. Inexplicably, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) decided to play it straight, taking the source material deeply seriously, embellishing it with cinematic artistry and artifice.

   All of which makes this movie one of the oddest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Technically, it’s extremely well filmed. And Scott was a trooper, giving a stellar performance as a marine biologist who has unknowingly been working for a shadowy group within the government that hopes to assassinate the president.

   But it all comes back to Alpha. That’s the name of the prized talking dolphin. Actually, it’s “Fa” for short. As in Al-Fa. You see “Fa loves Pa.” Or so he says in a squeaky voice. The viewer is supposed to take this all seriously. Maybe you can. I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from watching The Day of the Dolphin to the very end.

   It’s got sheer chutzpah for even existing, this strange little neglected film that concludes on a most somber note with the protagonists quietly waiting for their deaths at the hands of powerful hidden forces in the government. For a movie with talking animals, this one is a downer.

   Final note: interesting factoid, originally Roman Polanski was set to direct this film and was in London working on pre-production when he learned that Sharon Tate had been murdered in Los Angeles by the Manson Family.

DÉJÀ VU. Touchstone Pictures, 2006. Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Elden Henson, Erika Alexander, Bruce Greenwood. Director: Tony Scott.

   This is a movie that begins with a bang, no doubt about it, with a ferry filled with enlisted naval men and their families being blown up and destroyed by a terrorist in New Orleans. Asked by the FBI for his assistance on the case is a crack ATF agent named Doug Carlin (Denzell Washington). What strikes him as strange is that when he finds the partially burned body of a young woman who has floated ashore is that she died before the explosion.

   Intrigued, he also learns that the team he is working with has access to a new satellite surveillance capability of tracking anyone almost anywhere. The catch is that what can be seen is limited to viewing events that have already taken place, an always consistent four days ago. Carlin suggests that they not spend their time looking at the ferry in the past, but focus instead on the young woman’s life.

   What he does not known, and as it turns out [SEMI-SPOILER ALERT] that what they are viewing is the actual past (abruptly switching gears and making this a science fiction movie rather than the run-of-he-mill action thriller it has been up to this point) and soon enough all kinds of time-travel paradoxes come into play, enough, I would imagine, to make an ordinary viewer’s head spin.

   I’ve been reading this kind of stuff for over 60 years, and while some of what happens goes down very, very well, there are two gaps in the continuity of things that — and I hate to say it — pretty much spoiled the final thirty minutes or so for me. As I understand it, and this may be entirely hearsay, the screenwriters spent several years making sure that all of the bugs were out, and the director decided to skip some of their work in favor of a large car chase somewhere close to the end of the movie instead.

   If so, it’s too bad. Denzell Washington is as good as he always is, but if this movie isn’t as good as it could have been, and it isn’t, it’s not through any fault of his.


BEAUTY AND THE DEVIL. Franco London Films / Les Films Corona, France, 1950. Original title: La beauté du diable. Michel Simon, Gerard Philipe, Nicole Besnard. Written and directed by Rene Clair.

   It’s not often a genuine masterpiece sneaks up on me anymore. I mean, with all that’s written about movies these days, the fame of any good film — and that of lesser ones as well — generally precedes it, and a really great movie these days carries about as much surprise as sunrise at dawn.

   I can’t even say now what prompted me to pick up this little treasure (on an old VHS with slightly-faded subtitles) but I was only a few minutes into it when I saw this was a work of what academics refer to as “lotsa class.”

   It’s an easier film to watch than to describe. Michel Simon starts out playing Faust, and Gerard Philipe is Mephistopheles, dressed as a young student who mockingly follows the old Professor Faust. He tries to bargain for Faust’s soul, but rebuffed, he makes a counter-offer: he gives him Youth free of charge and departs, telling the handsome young man (now named Henri, and played by Philipe) that if he wants to do any traffic in souls, just ask.

   And Henri quickly discovers that with youth comes health, vigor, love… and poverty. Well at least it’s so with Henri, and now that I look back on it, so it was for me and my friends in college. His education of no use, Henri fails at common work and finds himself ground down and down… and Mephistopheles, now in the form of Faust, played by Michel Simon, keeps dangling temptation….

   And from here on the plot takes dizzying twists and turns that kept me surprised and delighted, every move highlighted with engaging, often hilarious antics from Simon as Faust/Mephistopheles as the tale careens to a final audacious and immensely satisfying flourish.

   To jog your memory (if needed) Michel Simon was a big star of early French Cinema and an exceptional actor; a plump but graceful performer in the W.C. Fields style, which lend his performance a depth and lightness that must be seen to appreciate — my words just won’t do . Simon’s fortunes declined after a stroke and he ended up in the title role of The Head (critics described his performance as “detached”) but he rebounded as the gruff engineer in The Train and in The Two of Us.

   Director Rene Clair has a rep, but the only film of his I ever liked a lot (till now) was And Then There Were None. This, though, is The Goods: Brilliant writing, thoughtful & complex variation on the Faust story, and entertaining thesping from Philipe and especially Michel Simon. Catch it if you can!


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. American International Pictures, 1977. Burt Lancaster (Dr. Paul Moreau), Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Director: Don Taylor.

   Burt Lancaster puts in a superb performance as the Dr. Moreau in this 1977 cinematic adaptation of the extraordinarily influential H.G. Wells novella about a mad scientist turning animals into men on a remote Pacific island.

   Unlike Charles Laughton in the pre-code sleazefest Islands of Lost Souls (1932), who never seemed to be a comfortable fit for the role, Lancaster portrays Moreau as a vaguely sympathetic antihero who genuinely wants to do good for the work, but who gradually transforms into a bestial, hateful figure. Lancaster had a way of just using his eyes to convey emotion and he does it wonderfully here. His Moreau is a great movie villain. Why? Because he has reasons for doing what he is doing and, more importantly, deep down he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   That’s not to say that Michael York, whose performance I absolutely loved as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973), isn’t good in this film as well. He portrays Braddock, the shipwreck survivor who washes up on Moreau’s island, totally unaware of what he is about to encounter. But there’s something a little too innocent about the Braddock character. He’s nowhere near as formidable a figure as Moreau.

   Which leads me to the film’s plot. In many ways, if one were to view Braddock (York) as the protagonist, the movie would be a meandering mess. This is mainly because, for most of the movie, it’s not clear exactly what Braddock wants. To escape the island? Unlike in Island of Lost Souls where the shipwrecked man was truly trapped on the island, Braddock actually still has his rowboat. It’s a little worse for wear, but he’s safely hidden it on the island.

   So escaping is not what he wants. Is it that he wants to discover what Moreau is up to? Well, it doesn’t take him long to do so and Moreau is more than willing to fill in the blanks. It’s only toward the tail end of the movie that he actually wants something – to escape from Moreau’s captivity after the mad doctor performed a sick experiment on him – but that’s too little too late.

   What makes the movie work is not York’s character, but Lancaster’s. The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly the story of Dr. Moreau, about his ambitions and his downfall. In that sense, the film is as much as horror story as a tragedy. And that’s where Lancaster’s stellar performance comes in. Portraying Moreau as a man capable of great things, but who succumbs to his own bestial nature, is what makes this adaptation, despite its numerous flaws, a chilling portrait of a scientist who defies the laws of nature and pays the ultimate price for it.


YOU NEVER CAN TELL. Universal, 1951. Dick Powell, Peggy Dow, Joyce Holden, Charles Drake, Frank Nelson and Flame (the dog.) Written and directed by Lou Breslow.

   This movie-fantasy is dumb as a box of puppies, but I liked it anyway. Maybe it’s the loopy concept and the way it plays on movie conventions. After all, Dick Powell had been playing hard-boiled PIs and tough guys for so long his mere presence promised a certain hard-chiseled persona — and here he is as Private Eye Rex Shepherd, a reincarnated dog set to sniff out the guy who poisoned him (shades of D.O.A.) and romancing heiress Peggy Dow in the best Philip Marlowe tradition.

   The story takes way too long to get going, and the humor is on the level of Francis the Talking Mule (also from Universal), but the players take the stale jokes and cliché situations in easy stride, turn on their relaxed charm and rise above it — no, elevate it — to a surprising level. I particularly liked Joyce Holden as Powell’s secretary (formerly a race horse) and Frank Nelson offering one of his patented smug-polite perfs as a police detective dealing with Powell’s PI in a neat turn on the sort of thing Philip Marlowe used to go through.

   Don’t come to You Never Can Tell expecting a lot of laughs, but if you’re looking for an off-beat thing with a certain charm, this is it.

X. American International Pictures, 1963. Also released as X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Ray Milland, Diana van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles, Dick Miller. Screenplay: Robert Dillon and Ray Russell, based on a story by the latter. Director: Roger Corman.

   Refused an extension of a medical grant for his research on enhancing human vision, a doctor (Ray Milland) decides to carry on on his own, using himself as the first subject. Things, of course, do not go well, as per the alternative title for this rather well-done sci-fi movie.

   If you had x-ray vision, what would use it for? Go to a party, of course, where you can see all of the dancers au naturel. Or if in your haste to continue your experiments, you accidentally push a colleague out of a window to his death, what would you do then?

   Become a blindfolded swami in a carnival act, one supposes. Or if your barker (Don Rickles) sees dollar signs, open a free clinic for people to have their ailments diagnosed. Or if still on the run, head for Nevada to make a real fortune (though I don’t understand the business with a slot machines, looking inside to see a big payoff coming in two more plays).

   Don’t get me wrong. The movie is well done, and everybody plays it straight, except for maybe a short bit between Don Rickles and a heckler (Dick Miller) while Dr. Xavier is doing his carney act. There’s no big message, except perhaps scientists ought be careful how far they go, and the 80 minutes of playing time go by very quickly.


THE TERMINAL MAN. Warner Brothers, 1974). George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Michael C. Gwynne, Jill Clayburgh, James Sikking. Based on the book by Michael Crichton. Producer-director-screenwriter: Mike Hodges.

   Adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1971 novel, The Terminal Man is an auteur project the likes of which could never be released by a mainstream film studio today. Written, directed, and produced by Mike Hodges, this offbeat science fiction thriller features George Segal as Harry Benson, a man suffering from a form of psychomotor epilepsy that causes him to occasionally fly into uncontrollable violent rages. A genius computer programmer, Benson was in a car accident that left him with a seizure disorder that has crippled his life. Not only does he experience auras and seizures, he also now has delusions that computers are going rise up and control humanity.

   Benson decides that he wants to volunteer for an experimental medical procedure, one in which electrodes are implanted in his brain. If his disorder makes him violent, he figures he would rather give over what is left of his free will to a computer if that will prevent his violent behavior. The irony of a man afraid of computers rising up against humanity agreeing to such a procedure is not lost on his psychiatrist, Janet Ross (Joan Hackett). A moral, humanist voice, she urges her colleagues not to go through with this procedure. But to no avail. As you might imagine, the surgery doesn’t go quite as planned and it is only a matter of time before Benson escapes from the hospital and begins a murderous rampage.

   That the movie’s plot. But this isn’t really a plot driven film. It’s a visual experience, more arthouse than grindhouse. It’s one in which symbolic imagery and set designs in stark hues of blue and gray are utilized to convey meaning. It is a stark, dehumanizing world. The essence of what it means to be fully human is explored not so much through dialogue, but through shots of bleak, empty hospital hallways, a brightly lit tunnel, and a graveyard.

   For a movie that deals with cerebral topics – both literally and metaphorically — The Terminal Man isn’t a film that was made to make viewers think so much as to feel. Perhaps that was the whole point.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. Universal International, 1953. Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes. Screenplay by Harry Essex, based on a story treatment by Ray Bradbury. Director: Jack Arnold.

   When an amateur astronomer named John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girl friend (Barbara Rush) see a giant fireball fall from the sky and land nearby, they rush to investigate. As one of the first two on the scene, Putnam goes down into the hole alone and so is the only one to see a huge metallic spaceship that has crashed deep into the earth. He then escapes before the ground crumbles around it and covers it up.

   Is he believed when he tells his story to the first responders, including the local sheriff (Charles Drake)? In a word, no. Not until a series of strange events begins to occur, including people disappearing only to return walking around as if in a daze.

   Originally filmed in 3-D, the first such for Universal, not even the unusual camera work (designed to show off the medium and no other reason), makes this movie anything more than slow-moving. It may have been extremely innovative at the time — including the fact that the aliens turn out not to be hostile — but I’m sorry to say that I found it a yawner today.

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