SF & Fantasy films



KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. Sarlui / Diamant, 1988. Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Allen Nelson, John Vernon, Michael Siegel, Peter Licassi, Royal Dano. Screenplay: Charles Chiodo, Edward Chiodo (uncredited), Stephen Chiodo. Director: Stephen Chiodo.

   Killer Klowns from Outer Space is not a classic — yet. It may well be in a few years, though, since it’s certainly done in the Classic Vein.

   A bunch of aliens land in their spaceship and proceed to pillage a small town, taking the locals unaware until a few brave young people get the Authorities on their side and put the blighters to rout. There’s even a nod to the 70s in the person of a redneck Cop who hates College Kids.

   The gimmick here is that the aliens look and act like big, ugly clowns; they shoot people with Popcorn Guns, track them down with balloon-sculpture dogs, mummify them in cotton candy and get around in a spaceship that looks like a circus tent. The concept plays much more effectively than I would have thought, thanks to some really imaginative special effects and nice timing.


   There’s one really suspenseful scene where a clown is trying to lure a cute little girl outside, smiling and crooking a finger at her, and holding an oversize wooden mallet behind his back. Sounds dumber than dogs, I know, but trust me, it works.

– Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #48, January 1991.




HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN. New World Pictures, 1988. Julius LeFlore, RCB, Roddy Piper, William Smith, Sandahl Bergman, Kristi Somers, Rory Calhoun, Cliff Bemis. Directors: Donald G. Jackson & R. J. Kizer.

   [After watching those early Rory Calhoun action westerns], small wonder that I broke down and shelled out the $10 necessary to own my own copy of Donald G. Jackson’s 1988 cult classic Hell Comes to Frogtown.

   The World really needed a post-apocalypse movie with a sense of humor and this is it, a clever, relentlessly trivial thing about the end of Life as We Know It and What Happens Next.


   Writer/Director Jackson manages to avoid most of the cliches inherent in the concept of a Future Society Ruled by Women, gets surprisingly not-awful performances from Sandahl Bergman and pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and even manages to evoke a lot of sympathy for a washed-up amphibian chanteuse played, I think, by Shirley Maclaine in heavy makeup and an unbilled cameo.

   Rory Calhoun, needless to say, is just fine as a garrulous old prospector named “Looney” Tunes, and one of the fight scenes between Piper and a six-foot talking toad brought down the House (such as it was) when Piper called his warty opponent a “horny bastard.” Priceless.


Editorial Comments: The trailer for this film can be seen here on YouTube. For a scene entitled “The Dance of the Three Snakes,” go here.

Movie Commentary by Walker Martin:


   John Carter, the movie has not yet been reviewed on Mystery*File and this is a movie that demands to be mentioned here. I call it the Pulp Movie of the Century because it actually is. It has been 100 years since the novel appeared in the pulp, All-Story, as a six-part serial in 1912. The movie has been slammed by the critics and is not doing well at the box office, but it has been receiving very favorable comments on some discussion groups I belong to that are focused on pulpish subjects.

   Frankly, I don’t think some of the critics know what they are talking about. Despite some changes, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about Mars. His first published work was Under the Moons of Mars in All-Story and was the big first success in his Mars series.


   Without this serial in 1912, All-Story and Science Fiction as we know it might have had a different history. Burroughs was the driving force behind the decision by the All-Story editors to encourage their writers to write what has been called the Scientific Romance.

   When Sam Moskowitz decided to do a collection of SF stories from the Munsey pulps, he called it Under the Moons of Mars. (This by way, is a far better title than John Carter.) In addition to the stories, Moskowitz also included an excellent long history of SF in the pulp magazines up to 1920.


   What do I mean about the critics not knowing what they are talking about? They are treating this film like the plot is a copy of some tired previous SF movie. Gentlemen, this is the serial, the book, the plot, that started the whole craze for SF adventure in the pulps. Sure, there was H.G. Wells before Burroughs, but Wells is on a higher literary level for sure. Though he appeared in the pulps, it was mainly through reprints.

   The critics do not realize the impact in 1912 that Under the Moons of Mars had on the typical reader of popular magazines. It was like a bolt out of the sky shocking the reader who was hungry for imaginative literature.

   Things would never be the same after this serial in 1912. All-Story went on to publish scores of SF adventures and in 1926 the first SF pulp appeared. For many years after, readers in the letter columns requested reprints from the great old Munsey pulps. Then in 1939, a magazine was created that did indeed reprint the Munsey science fiction stories from All-Story, Argosy, and Cavalier. It was called Famous Fantastic Mysteries and is today considered one of the best looking and prettiest pulps ever published.


   So, to the jaded critics of today, sure John Carter has some faults, but in 1912 this story was a stunning achievement. Even decades later, readers would be amazed by the Mars books.

   I know I was at the age of nine years old. In the early 1950′s, I remember my father giving me a stack of the Mars and Tarzan novels and saying how great they were. A year later, I had read and reread them all, and used to think of which books I would try to save if the house ever caught on fire. My answer was always the same: the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

   Now, I’m not saying this movie is great, after all it has been 60 years since Burroughs grabbed hold of me. But it is good and not as bad as the critics are saying.


   As I was coming out of the theater, there were two young boys ahead of me, both of them jumping up and down with excitement. To me they looked to be around nine or ten years old, the same young age that I once was back when I first discovered John Carter and his adventures. One said to the other “Wasn’t John Carter great!,” and his friend replied that the movie was cool. They then started talking about seeing it again.

   There may have been only 15 or 20 people in the theater when I went for the noon showing but seeing these two kids made me realize once again Burroughs still had that power to excite, just like he must have excited readers in 1912. I have a feeling that John Carter may be a failure on this initial release, but like Blade Runner, it will be considered a success many years later.


MARTIANS GO HOME. 1990. Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Anita Morris, John Philbin, Ronnie Cox. Based on the novel by Fredric Brown. Director: David Odell.

   There may not be any underlying significance in what happens in this science fiction movie — it’s about an invasion of obnoxious green Martians who know everybody’s secrets, to their great rollicking delight — but there’s certainly thirty minutes worth of good laughs in their antics.

   As far as how they get here, the composer of theme music for TV shows accidentally sends a message into space inviting then to cane visit our planet, and so they come — by the millions! (Truth in advertising. We see only about a dozen of them at different times on the screen — this is not a big budget movie.)

   Bedrooms are not safe, the president’s office can’t keep them out, they’re all over the world; and they’re here to stay until our hero can find out a way to get rid of them. “Invaders can be dealt with. These guys are tourists!”


   I think the book may have been clearer on one point, though — sorry, it’s been 30 or 40 years since I read the book – that human society exists only by maintaining secrecy and privacy and (therefore) complete dishonesty in all our affairs.

   It’s a cynical point, and even though I enjoyed the movie, I think it’s one the people involved in making it let slip right through their fingers.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 33, September 1991 (slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 10-17-11.    While I was researching the credits for this movie on IMDB, I discovered that I must be one of the elite. There are perhaps only four or five people in the world who have liked this movie, and I am one of them.

   It has been released as a Region Two DVD in the UK, but I’ve found a copy on VHS, and it’s on its way to me now. With Margaret Colin in it, really how bad could it be? (That’s assuming I was wrong about it the first time, which I am not conceding.)


QUATERMASS II: ENEMY FROM SPACE. Hammer Films, 1957. Brian Donlevy, John Longden, Sidney James, Bryan Forbes, William Franklyn, Vera Day. Originally serialized by BBC-TV, Oct-Nov 1955, in 6 30min segments. Story & screenplay: Nigel Kneale & Val Guest. Director: Val Guest.

QUATERMASS II Enemy from Space

   Yet another surprisingly effective British Thriller that builds quietly to a really gripping finish. Brian Donlevy plays the eponymous Doctor Quatermass, who stumbles onto a top-secret Government Project that turns out to be a front for Alien Invasion.

   I was struck by the writers’ ability to come up with really alien-looking aliens and an eerily off-the-wall kind of Invasion. Director Val Guest does a good job of starting out Slow and Realistic (The top-secret Government Complex is actually an Oil Refinery — and looks it.) then working up to a Big Finish that’s all the more impressive for looking so out-of-place in such a modest film.

QUATERMASS II Enemy from Space

   In terms of Writing and Playing, Quatermass 2 is uniformly intelligent; the characters talk and act like ordinary folks, and Brian Donlevy is surprisingly effective as the gruff, ill-mannered, unlikely hero of the piece.

   I’ve always been puzzled, though, by the fact that they chose him to star in the Quatermass films, despite the popularity of the British Actor who played him on Radio. One assumes that they must have had an eye on the American Market, but Good Lord: BRIAN DONLEVY?!?!

   That’s not enough Star Power to light up a Marquee! Truly, the minds of Film Producers are inscrutable to us Mortal Men.

QUATERMASS II Enemy from Space


FRITZ LEIBER – Conjure Wife. Twayne, US, hardcover, 1953. Penguin, UK, paperback, 1969. First published in Unknown Worlds, April 1943. Reprinted several times, in both hardcover and soft, including: Lion 179, pb, 1953, cover art by Robert Maguire; Award A341X, 1968, and AN1143, 1974 (cover art by Jeff Jones on the latter).


      ● Filmed as Weird Woman Universal Pictures, 1944. Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Morgan. Director: Reginald Le Borg

      ● Filmed as Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn!. Independent Artists, American International, 1962. Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson & George Baxt. Director: Sidney Hayers.

      ● Filmed as Witches’ Brew. Embassy/United Artists, 1980. Teri Garr, Richard Benjamin, Lana Turner, James Winkler. Conjure Wife uncredited as the source. Directors: Richard Shorr & Herbert L. Strock.

   Last October I was also in the right mood for Conjure Wife (1943) Fritz Leiber’s classic tale of Black Magic and Campus Politics. It starts off rather predictably, as Professor Norman Saylor, successful sociologist and author of a popular book on primitive superstitions and modern behavior, discovers a trove of charms, voodoo tokens and sundry magic-spell components in his wife’s drawers (a rather fetishistic scene in itself) and learns that while he’s been relegating such things to unimportance, his wife has taken them seriously.


   Naturally, he convinces her to destroy them, and naturally, all hell (literally!) proceeds to break loose.

   I saw it all coming, but Leiber manages to invest the early scenes with atmosphere and a certain prosaic realism that kept me reading. Then he proceeds to give things a neat twist that generates considerable suspense and leads to one line that absolutely chilled me. I won’t reveal anything further, but I will say that Conjure Wife is a classic worth visiting.

   The book was filmed three times: once very respectably in England as Night of the Eagle in 1962, and previously as a dotty “Inner Sanctum” movie from Universal, Weird Woman (1944.) Written and directed by studio hacks (including Brenda Weisberg, one of the few women in the creative end of horror films, whose career, alas, is notable only for being unremarkable) Weird Woman is mostly beneath contempt, but it does offer a kind of silly charm if you can get past the notion of Lon Chaney Jr. as a scholarly academic irresistible to women.

   His solemn voice-over soliloquies add another layer of risibility, which fits in perfectly with the over-playing of over-heated dialogue from the rest of the cast. Looking back, Weird Woman is largely devoid of any artistic merit, but I have to say it’s done with an aesthetic consistency that held my unbelieving attention.


Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

DOOMWATCH. Tigon British Film Productions, UK, 1972. Released in the US as Island of the Ghouls. Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, George Sanders, Geoffrey Keen, Percy Herbert, Shelagh Fraser. Screenplay by Clive Exton, based on the BBC series created by by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. Director: Peter Sasdy.


   This cautionary thriller was based on the BBC television series of the same name starring John Paul, Simon Oates, Vivien Sherrard, and Robert Powell (1970-72) and adapted to this taut film about an environmental disaster on a small Cornish island dependent on fishing and the sea.

   Ian Bannen is Dr. Shaw ( a new character created for the film) with Doomwatch, an organization that investigates the environmental impact of ecological disasters. After an oil spill he is dispatched to the small island of Balfe (a fictional creation) to ask a few questions and take some samples to see if local wildlife has been harmed.

   Balfe (filming was done around Polperro and Mevagissey in Cornwall ) is a quiet place, insular and inbred. Shaw gets little cooperation and meets open resentment as he begins to nose around. The opening scenes build up a nice atmosphere as he encounters deeper mysteries; an unusually violent dog, someone following him everywhere, a child buried in the forest whose body disappears, and finally an attack by a strangely disfigured man that locals try to write off as an accidental fall on slippery rocks on the shore.

   With the help of local teacher, Judy Geeson, Bannen begins to delve into the mystery it is now clear cannot be caused by the oil spill, and uncovers Castle Rock, an abandoned Naval dumping ground, but when he approaches Admiral George Sanders he learns the low level radioactive material dumped by the Royal Navy could not have caused the problem on the island.


   A dive at the dumping site uncovers industrial experimental growth hormones dumped there illegally. The radiation caused the hormone filled canisters to burst and contaminated the fish eaten by the islanders.

   But even when they know the cause of the disease the insular and increasingly violent islanders don’t want their life disturbed, and may kill to protect their way of life. They believe the disease is caused by inbreeding and is a judgment of God. They are too ashamed to seek help, and frightened of being forced to leave their ancestral home: in its last stages the disease can produce violence and madness — and in several cases has led to murder and suicide.

   The film produces a powerful statement about the impact of such a disaster, and while it was science fiction at the time it hardly seems so today. If anything, the scenes of the clean up of the oil spill at the beginning of the film are more chilling now than they were then. But it works as an intelligent and thoughtful mystery thriller despite and sometimes thanks to its minuscule budget.

   Filming was done effectively in and around the rugged Cornish coast, and the unique architecture of the island towns gives it an curiously threatening and yet quaint look. Bannen is effective as the passionate scientist and Geeson the outsider only partially accepted by the islanders. Sanders, seems mostly tired as the Admiral and Keen (probably best known to American viewers as the Foreign Minister in the James Bond films) has little to do as the industrialist who farmed out the clean up to the lowest bidder.


   Character actor Percy Herbert has one or two brief scenes as one of the islanders effected by the disease but hanging on to his humanity and common sense. Shelagh Fraser is good as Bannen’s landlady, trying to maintain her secrets and contain her grief over her desperately ill and grotesquely deformed husband.

   The ending, as Doomwatch and the Navy try to clean up the mess, is effectively downbeat, and if it’s a letdown from the monsters and horrors suggested earlier in the film it offers instead a sober, intelligent, and moving picture of the devastation left behind by greed and carelessness and the difficulty of dealing with such a small secretive and inbred community.

   Running only 88 minutes (I’ve seen it listed as everything from 70 to 92 minutes, but the DVD I viewed was 88), this is an almost gentle film, handsomely shot, and done with real intelligence and a determination to avoid sensationalism and replace it with real drama and suspense, and in those things it succeeds.


   As in real life there are no real villains and no easy answers. The corporate types tried to save money and chose the low bidder to dispose of the waste and the company who disposed of the waste was stupid not criminal.

   The writers eschew sensational sub-plots and stick to the human story, and it is more powerful for it with no corporate intrigue, chases, and hired hit men tacked on for filler; just real people in a real crisis. Just how much tension and threatened violence they ring out of that may surprise you.

    Doomwatch is sometimes unfairly compared to The Wicker Man, but only the setting and the idea of the insular island society and an outsider’s reaction to it and uncovering its mysteries are the same. It is primarily a mystery and suspense film, but often promoted as horror or science fiction.

   Writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis also wrote a Crichtonesque novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters adapted from an episode of Doomwatch TV series, as well as the novels Brainrack and The Dynostar Menace.

   Kit Pedler (aka Dr. Christopher Magnus Pedler) was the unofficial scientific adviser on Doctor Who and wrote several scripts, among them “Tomb of the Cybermen,” in which he created one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes, the Cybermen.


   Screenwriter Clive Exton’s credits include adapting Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot and Francis Durbridge’s The World of Tim Fraser for television, the screenplays for Night Must Fall and 10 Rillington Place, and would be best known here for the Jeeves and Wooster series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, and the Poirot series with David Suchet.

   Director Peter Sasdy directed several Hammer films including Countess Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Hands of the Ripper. He also directed the film of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tapes, and somewhat less successfully Harold Robbins The Lonely Lady with Pia Zadora. His other work includes Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady with Christopher Lee and the television series Callan, with Edward Woodward.

   The disease the islanders suffer from is acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary gland, probably the best known sufferer of the disease being actor Rondo Hatton, the Creeper of Hollywood fame, whose distinctive features were exploited in several Hollywood horror films (The Pearl of Death from the Sherlock Holmes series, The Return of the Spider Woman, The Brute Man) before his early death from the disease in 1946.

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