SF & Fantasy films

ARENA. Empire Pictures, 1989. Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Camp, Claudia Christian, Marc Alaimo, Shari Shattuck, Armin Shimerman. Music by Richard Band. Director: Peter Manoogian.

   Here’s a movie that in some circles is thought of as a classic — the definition thereby of a cult classic? — that I had never heard of before, nor most of the players in it, but which nonetheless I found myself enjoying very much.

   Plotwise, it would be easy to describe the movie as part of the Rocky series in which the hero (Paul Satterfield) finds himself stranded on a world where the main attraction is a battle arena in which aliens from all over the galaxy take on all comers, and it is has been 50 years since an earthling has been the champion. Is Steve Armstrong the one to break such a long losing streak?

   This short synopsis may be all you need to know, either in terms of how the story line goes from there, or whether you decide(or not) that this a movie worth looking out for. To me the fight scenes, as always in fight movies, are something to endure, but even though the movie had a small budget, I thought the aliens were the best I’ve seen since the cantina on Mos Eisley, and what’s more, there were more of them.

   The players, except for Hamilton Camp, were all new names to me, although I did recognize Claudia Christian’s face from her later long recurring role on Babylon 5. As it turns out, however, that many of them have had long careers in projects such as this, both in the movies and on TV. They all know what they are doing, and what’s more, they do it with gusto. One scene toward the end, and in particular, is a real knockout.


THE WHITE REINDEER, Finland, 1952. Original title: Valkoinen peura. Mirjami Kuosmanen and Kalervo Nissila. Written by Erik Blomberg and Mirjami Kuosmanen. Directed by Erik Blomberg.

   Since Writer/Director Blomberg and Writer/Leading-Lady Kuosmanen were married, this is obviously a family project. It’s also quite a memorable film: Not a horror movie (though it’s listed in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia) as much as a grim fairy tale or a spooky folk song.

   I should say for starters that this is set in contemporary Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland, and though there are villages with substantial houses, everyone seems to spend most of their time in smallish tents or huts (Yerts, maybe?) out in the frozen wilderness, catching and herding reindeer, or whatever people used to do before there was Cable TV.

   The film opens with a mysterious woman staggering out of the snowy wastes and into a hut where she dies and gives birth to a baby, which is cared for by the locals, who name her Pirita, and she grows up a scene or two later into Ms. Kuosmanen. And as you’re probably unfamiliar with this actress, I’ll just say she is devastatingly beautiful, with one of those radiant complexions that seem crafted to show off large haunting eyes and a sensuous mouth.

   Pirita marries Aslak, a local hunter (played by Kalervo Nissila, a Kent Smith type), but when he goes off hunting after the honeymoon, she gets into a snit and goes to visit the local shaman for a love potion that will make her irresistible.

   What follows is a beautifully-done scene, murky and moody, as the Shaman does his medicine-show-magic, gives Pirita the usual potions and instructions on the proper rites… and then discovers what Pirita didn’t now herself: she’s a witch!

   Too late it seems. There follows another creepy scene or two as Pirita performs the rites in front of one of the most imposing totems I’ve ever seen in the movies (and needless to say, with the kind of flicks I watch, I’ve seen a totem or two in my day….) and finds she can transform herself at will into the eponymous white reindeer, pursued by one hunter after another (i.e. irresistible to men!) but when they catch her she transforms again and kills them — just how is never shown, but she’s suddenly sporting a set of very sharp teeth.

   Visually, this film is simply stunning, shot almost entirely outdoors in one of the most haunting landscapes on earth, with epic shots of vast snowy landscapes dotted with scraggly trees, ribboned with migrating herds of reindeer, miles long, shifting and curling about the countryside. We get breathtaking scenes of the principals racing around on skis or reindeer-pulled toboggans, and eerie night-time tableaus with the snowscapes bathed in eerie moonlight as everyone’s breath turns into clouds of evanescent mist.

   And then there’s Ms. Kuosmanen, sometimes glowing and beautiful in the classic Hollywood tradition, and other times… well let’s just say that when the killing mood is on her she can produce the kind of predatory smile we wouldn’t see again till Barbara Steele turned up in Black Sunday.

   Indeed, the only real letdown here is the final chase, as Aslak her husband chases down the White Reindeer, with a conclusion straight out of some old and plaintive ballad. The chase itself is done in a surprisingly flat and objective manner and just fails to generate the emotion it should.

   That’s a minor carp though. It’s a film I’ll remember, a film I’ll watch again, and as I finished it, it occurred to me that with the oppressive landscapes and Ms. Kuosmanen’s striking beauty, you could call it Bergmanesque: Ingmar or Ingrid, take your pick.


D-DAY ON MARS. Republic Pictures, 1946. Feature version of the movie serial The Purple Monster Strikes (1945). Dennis Moore, Linda Stirling, Roy Barcroft, James Craven, Bud Geary, Mary Moore. Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet & Fred C. Brannon.

   Back in the mid-60s someone got hold of a bunch of Serials from the ’40s, cut them down to 90 Minutes (from their original four hour plus running time!) and sold them to TV as feature films. D-Day on Mars is the thus truncated version of The Purple Monster Strikes, an early Republic Serial, and it’s actually pretty good with lots of well-staged fights and nifty cliff-hangers.

   Veteran Heavy Roy Barcroft plays a Martian, come to Earth to steal the plans and prototype for a new Space Rocket so he can go back to Mars, build a mess of ’em and conquer Earth. (Warning!) He doesn’t make it. (End of Warning!)

   As usual in these things, he ties up with a Gangster and they go around stealing or trying to steal Annihilator Beams, Rocket fuel, Magneto-Sensors and whatever else the writers decided they’d fight over that week, and of course Hero Dennis Moore keeps getting in rock’em sock’em slug-feats with the hood and his men.

   For some reason, they almost always fight in groups of three – Maybe it was Union Rules or Family Pride: I see the Stunt-Men saying to the Producer, “We Don’ work ’less-a Tony work-a too.” Whatever the case, in each chapter, there’s a face-off, someone gets the drop on someone else, the gun gets knocked out of his hand and everybody throws punches, furniture and each other around for several minutes until the bad guys get away.

   After awhile, this gets a bit redundant, but this one’s mostly fun, with inventive stunt-work and some nice comic-bookish sets and costumes.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. American International Pictures, 1964. Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Rau, Christi Courtland. Screenplay: William F. Leicester & Logan Swanson (Richard Matheson), based on the latter’s novel I Am Legend. Directors: Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow.

   Since it’s been over a decade since I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), I’m afraid I won’t be of much use in comparing The Last Man on Earth with the original text from which it was adapted. But suffice it to say, this low budget horror film is one of the bleakest movies I’ve recently viewed. Both in plot and mood, The Last Man on Earth resonates with hopelessness.

   And not just any type of despair, but an almost borderline nihilism that, when it’s all over, makes it almost difficult to wish it had turned out all that differently. In a very real sense, it’s the script’s fatalism that makes it both a far more compelling story than other vampire tales, but which ultimately ensnares it into a narrative trap in which things simply cannot work out for the protagonist no matter how hard he tries to make it so. Simply put, being the last man on the planet is not an inevitable position.

   Vincent Price, in a role largely bereft of his trademark wit and ironic detachment, portrays Dr. Robert Morgan. He’s a scientist by trade and a family man by nature. When we first encounter him, we see that he’s living alone in a house in a world marked by abandonment and decay. There are vampires on the prowl every night and as far as we know, he’s the sole survivor of a plague that has devoured humanity and left death and vampirism in its wake. So Morgan, year after solitary year, hunts vampires by day and locks himself inside his house at night.

   All that changes when he encounters a mysterious woman who, like him, travels freely in daylight. But who is she and what clues does she possibly hold to help Morgan solve the puzzle of what happened to the world? The answer, such as it is, isn’t so much predictable as it is a depressingly commentary on humanity.

   Perhaps that was the whole point of the screenplay: to be an acerbic political observation. Fair enough, but then again one need not be beaten over the head with wooden stakes for ninety minutes to make a point.


TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY. BBC Films, UK, 1990. Samuel Goldwyn, US, 1991. Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Jenny Howe, Carolyn Choa, Bill Paterson, Christopher Rozycki, Keith Bartlett, David Ryall, Stella Maris, Ian Hawkes, Deborah Findlay. Screenwriter-director: Anthony Minghella.

   You could not do much better than Truly Madly Deeply, a film I urge you all to rush right out and rent or buy. Now I realize I may be a well-known sucker for Love Stories, but I tell myself I’ve toughened up some in the last few years. Bushwah: This thing had me choking back big wet sobs almost as soon as it started.

   Plot-wise, Truly is sort of like Ghost for Grown-ups: Juliet Stevenson, a remarkably sensitive actress of whom I’ve never heard, has the Demi Moore part, a woman whose lover has been suddenly and senselessly taken from her. The film takes rather a bit of time detailing the crippling Blue Funk into which she’s fallen, but she’s a good enough actress that I didn’t mind.

   Then, back into her life, for no apparent reason whatsoever, and with a burst of absolutely no special effects at all, comes the ghost of her Departed played with quirky relish by Alan Rickman, who is best known as the baddie in Die Hard, Quigly Down Under and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Given a chance to do an out-and-out Good Guy for a change, Rickman wisely plays it cool and slightly aloof, never actually reaching out for the sympathy Patrick Swayze demanded in Ghost, but getting it anyway.

   The similarities don’t end there. Truly even revives an obscure 60s Rock ‘n’ Roll song, and the duet/dance that the two leads do to it is every bit as memorably bittersweet as “Unchained Melody” was in Ghost.

   The major difference, in fact, is in the Plot. There’s no fast-paced pulp-novel, edge-of-the-seat story moving Truly to a gripping conclusion. Instead the movie turns into sort of an allegory for the heroine’s adjusting to Loss and getting on with her Life. She simply learns (Warning!) that you just can’t keep on loving someone who’s dead the way you loved them when they were alive. (End of Warning!)

   Hmmm. Like most Great Revelations, this one’s obvious enough to seem profound when you put it right. And Truly, Madly, Deeply puts it across beautifully.

SILENT RUNNING. Universal Pictures, 1972. Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint. Drones: Mark Persons, Steven Brown, Cheryl Sparks, Larry Whisenhunt. Screenplay: Deric Washburn, Mike Cimino and Steve Bochco. Director: Douglas Trumbull.

   Silent Running is both a simplistic and spectacular view of a semi-utopian future in which the Earth is a “paradise” with a uniform temperature and only manufactured food to eat; there are no trees or animals left on the planet, only the ones temporary stored on gigantic spaceships left in orbit around Jupiter Saturn, manned only by a minimal number of bored and uncaring crew members.

   Except for Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern, for a large part of the film the only character on the screen at any one time. Often wearing a robe and in semi-Messianic fashion, Lowell may be the only person alive who really cares about nature. When the order comes down from above to not only jettison but blow up the entire project, he rebels and takes it upon himself to save his own personal forest biosphere .

   Other than two surviving droids for companionship, Lowell is the only person on the screen for most of the movie. When systems begin to fail, he manages to jury rig partial fixes, but no more. It is here that the movie seems to drift a bit, with no destination for the film in sight. But wait! The ending is one well worth waiting for.

   This is definitely a movie with a message and striking visual effects, but basically a simple one that may have been premature in 1972. I suspect that the greatest success this movie may have had has been on SF films taking place in space that have followed.


SHE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1935. Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce. Based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. Directors: Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel. Shown at Cinevent 16, Columbus OH, May 1984.

   Star billing — the film festival’s much heralded centerpiece — was given to a 1935 version of H. Rider Haggard’s erotic fantasy She. It was directed by Irving Pichel (who was also busy acting that year in Dracula’s Daughter that year as Gloria Holden’s pasty-faced valet) and the enigmatic Lansing Holden, with familiar names from King Kong (composer Max Steiner and producer Merian C. Cooper) providing much of the visual and aural interest in this uneven film.

   The stalwart hero, Leo Vincey, is played in a forthright fashion by Randolph Scott, while Nigel Bruce is made to look silly in the throw-away role of the blustering English side-kick. Helen Mack has the thankless job of trying to distract the male viewers from the attractions of the good-bad Ayesha, queen/goddess of the lost city of Kor, which has been transported from Haggard’s African setting to an Asiatic ice-world which provides an excuse for the most striking set-up of the film: the discovery of a centuries-old European and a gigantic sabre-tooth tiger frozen into the ice outside the mountain entrance to the hidden city.

   Helen Gahagan, congresswoman and wife of actor Melvyn Douglas, played She with an effective mixture of icy imperturbability and melting languor. But her best moment had her still shrouded in the steamy mist to which she frequently retreated for mysterious purposes, intoning her lines in a voice that was strikingly similar to the voice of the evil, beautiful queen in the Disney Snow White.

   And this affinity was compounded by a shifting facial image like that of the mirror image in the Queen’s chambers a costume that was too similar to the costume for Disney’s queen not to have been adapted by him. This film would, I am sure, be a popular addition to Saturday afternoon and late night TV schedules, and it’s surprising that it doesn’t turn up more frequently.


THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR. Warner Brothers, 1975. Yul Brynner, Max von Sydow, Joanna Miles, William Smith, Richard Kelton, Stephen McHattie. Screenwriter and director: Robert Clouse.

   As much as I wanted to like this 1970s science fiction movie, I have to admit that The Ultimate Warrior was an ultimate letdown. Directed by Robert Clouse, the film opens with significant promise. The year is 2012 and New York City has been decimated by a plague/nuclear holocaust (it’s never revealed what actually happened). Yet, the Twin Towers are still standing, looming large above a city ravaged by death and hopelessness. It’s even creepier, since we know from the vantage point of 2016 that New York City is thriving, but the Towers are gone.

   As it turns out, there’s a commune somewhere in midtown Manhattan led by an erudite man known simply as the Baron (Max von Sydow). He and his followers are carving out an existence for themselves in the midst of chaos and decay. Their immediate threat, however, is a gang of violent street people led by a man simply known as Carrot (William Smith). Why does Carrot hate Baron’s people so much? Is he an evil man or just a rival? Unfortunately, we never learn much about him other than that he’s a bad dude.

   And if there’s a bad dude, there needs to be a good dude to counter him. In this film, Yul Brynner’s character fulfills that role. Carson is a fighter who sells his skills to the highest bidder and eventually takes up employ in Baron’s commune. Soon, he’s tasked with not only protecting the inhabitants, but also with guiding Baron’s pregnant daughter to a protected haven off the coast of North Carolina.

   Sounds like an interesting premise, right?

   Unfortunately, the movie never develops the characters to any great extent. They are more or less the same people the moment they appear on the screen as when they leave. And without any substantial changes in their personalities, wants, or desires, they end up one-dimensional caricatures. Baron = the erudite scientist. Carrot = the bad guy. Carson = the good guy. Just because stuff happens in the movie does not mean that there’s actually much of a story.

   Despite these harsh criticisms, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention how effective the movie’s soundtrack is. Indeed, the score by Gil Mellé is so thoroughly captivating that it’s a real shame that the movie wasn’t such a missed opportunity.

TRANCERS. Empire Pictures, 1984. Tim Thomerson (Jack Deth), Helen Hunt, Michael Stefani, Art La Fleur, Telma Hopkins, Richard Herd, Anne Seymour. Written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. Director: Charles Band.

   Opening lines:

Jack Deth: Last January, I finally singed Martin Whistler out on one of the rim planets. Since then, I’ve been hunting down the last of his murdering cult. We call them “Trancers:” slaves to Whistler’s psychic power. Not really alive, not dead enough. It’s July now, and I’m tired. Real tired.

   A corny bit of voice-over narration, perhaps, but it does two things exceedingly well. Not only does it set the scene of the story to follow, and but it also sets the tone, that of an overtly tongue-in-cheek sci-fi time travel tale in which Whistler intends to wipe out the City Council in 23rd century Angel City by traveling to the past (1985) and killing off their ancestors. (No, Whistler is not dead.)

   Jack Deth’s job: stop him. And thanks to the help of a punk rock girl named Leena (a very young Helen Hunt) who helps him find his way around Los Angeles, long ago destroyed by The Big One in his world, he does exactly that.

   After watching a short bit of a black and white PI rerun on TV:

Jack Deth: What kind of name is Peter Gunn?

Leena: What kind of name is Jack Deth?

   If Trancers was made on a low budget, it doesn’t really show. There are no expensive special effects to drive up costs, most of the players did not require large salaries, and everyday locations were all that were needed. That and a huge sense of wonderfully goofy fun, taking lots of elements from other bigger budget movies and mixing them all together into a film that no one should walk away from with a frown on their face.

PostScript: A cast and crew reunion was held last month in a store in Burbank. I’d have loved to have been there:


20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Walt Disney / Buena Vista, 1954. Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Although this 1954 Walt Disney production, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t quite hit the mark as a cinematic adaptation of a literary text, it nevertheless succeeds wildly as an auditory and visual spectacle. As the first science fiction film to be shot in CinemaScope, this Technicolor film resonates with some absolutely lavish color schemes, beautiful underwater photography, and crisp portraits of the main characters.

   Add to that the wonderful score by Paul Smith, and you have yourself a borderline operatic experience in which repetitive leitmotifs guide the viewer off the California coast, into the vast Pacific, and underneath the ocean in Captain Nemo’s proto-steampunk submarine, the Nautilus.

   Based on the eponymous Jules Verne novel, this Richard Fleischer directed movie features James Mason as Captain Nemo, a mysterious man who is a renegade madman/visionary. He and his crew have been sailing underneath the Pacific in a (for its time) technologically advanced submarine, destroying warships in its wake. On board are his three captives, all survivors of an American naval vessel that he ordered destroyed. The three men could not be more different, in both personality and temperament. There’s the brawny Ned Land (Kirk Douglas); the erudite scientist, Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas); and his neurotic, stout assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre). Of all three four leads, it is Mason and Lorre who steal the show.

   Unfortunately, the film takes its slow time in revealing the thrust of the story; namely, that Captain Nemo was once enslaved on a penal colony and is now seeking revenge against the “hated nation” that persecuted him and was responsible for the death of his family. He’s learned to love life underneath the sea, finding it a palatable alternative to man’s humanity to man on the surface. Problem is: Nemo has become so filled with bitterness and hatred that he doesn’t realize that he’s not all that different from the warmongers he so dramatically opposes.

   But it’s not really the slow moving and predictable plot that makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea an enjoyable moving watching experience. Instead, it’s the spectacle of it all. This is a movie in which special effects really are indeed quite special. Case in point is the famous sequence in which Ned Land (Douglas) battles a giant squid. As a Disney film, there are naturally some family friendly moments, such as when Ned sings a seafaring ditty, “A Whale of a Tale,” and a few lighthearted moments with a seal.

   All told, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a work of movie magic, one that I am sure is a completely different experience watched in a theater.

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