SF & Fantasy films

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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE GIANT CLAW. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Louis Merrill, Edgar Barrier, Robert Shayne. Director: Fred F. Sears.

   It’s not everyday that a hideously looking giant bird from outer space soars through American airspace. Even less frequent, I would guess, would that bird have some form of protective anti-matter barrier allowing it to escape detection by radar.

   But that’s the exactly the case in the Sam Katzman-produced, The Giant Claw, a schlocky creature feature that manages to be silly, enjoyable, predictable, and just a little bit subversive.

   Directed by Fred F. Sears, the story follows Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) and his mathematician girl friend, Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday), as they alternatively butt heads and team up with the U.S. military in an effort to destroy an extraterrestrial flying bird creature that threatens humanity. It’s obviously not a serious movie, but the two lead actors, to their credit, take their parts seriously enough to make it work.

   As far as the creature, it’s indeed a strange looking thing, with bulging eyes and yes, a giant claw. Plus, it’s got an unusual hairstyle that looks more East Village in the 1980s than monster movie in the 1950s.

The bird’s tenacious, though. It’s immune to both conventional and atomic weapons and has little to no patience for rebellious teenagers. And it may have even seen King Kong, given its decision to perch on top of the Empire State Building at one point during the film.

   If you think about it a bit, you come to realize that the film takes a slightly subversive approach to the military brass, which comes across as all too eager to initially disbelieve reports of the bird creature’s existence, then make its very existence classified once they realize that the reports were indeed true. In addition, they come across more than eager to utilize weapons to destroy it. It’s a theme that certainly not unique to The Giant Claw, but one which is fairly well developed for a late 1950s film.

   I wouldn’t dare call The Giant Claw a great movie. In fact, it’s not really even a good movie in the traditional sense. But it’s got something really good going for it — it’s undeniably great escapism, made to entertain rather than to enlighten.

THE CYCLOPS. Allied Artists, 1957. James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney, Tom Drake, Duncan Parkin. Screenwriter-director: Bert I. Gordon.

   There is some suspense in this rather mediocre sci-fi movie, but not more than you would want to pay more than a quarter for, as you might have, if you were a kid back in 1957.

   It begins with three men and a girl (Gloria Talbott) trying to locate the girl’s fiance,or his body, whose plane went down in a mountainous area of Mexico three years ago, an area so forbidding they are, well, forbidden by local authorities to travel there. Of course, they do so anyway, landing safely (barely) in a small plane built for four.

   Turns out that one of the men (a rather dissipated-looking Lon Chaney), who has financed the venture, has an ulterior motive: uranium, and it turns out that the valley where they’ve landed is loaded with the stuff. It also turns out that the valley is chock full of giant beasts. Connect the two facts, and I think you can figure out where this is going right away, but it takes our four adventurers a while. It has to, or else they’d get right back in the plane and get the heck out of there.

   They don’t but they soon wish they had. The special effects are awful quite primitive, and the giant guy with one eye is really hokey ugly. The fact that Gloria Talbott is rather fetching, even in coveralls, does not make up for a really inferior work of art on the monster’s makeup job.

   The movie, while still mildly entertaining today, was really made for someone who was maybe nine or ten in 1957. Or to be honest, for someone who was nine or ten in 1957 and for whom the nostalgia factor is greater than the judgement of someone seeing it now for the very first time.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER. American International, 1960. Robert Clarke, Arianne Arden, Vladimir Sokoloff, Stephen Bekassy, John Van Dreelen, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Darlene Tompkins. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

   Beyond the Time Barrier is a low budget science fiction film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, whose The Amazing Transparent Man I reviewed here. Filmed over a ten days in Dallas at the same time as that rather disappointing film about an invisible bank thief, Beyond The Time Barrier follows U.S. Air Force pilot, Major William Allison (Robert Clarke, who also produced the film) who, after inadvertently breaking the time barrier in his planet, jettisons forward to the year 2024.

   As it happens, the society Major Allison encounters is a dystopian one. After landing his plane, he is captured by agents from a city-state called The Citadel. Within its walls are dying remnants of human civilization ravaged by a plague that began in 1971. There are also mutants, but they are far less threatening than the ones in the movie, The Time Travelers, which I reviewed here.

   The leader of The Citadel, Supreme, (Vladimir Sokoloff), and his henchman, Captain (Red Morgan), are less than pleased with Allison’s arrival. Fortunately, Supreme’s lovely granddaughter, the mute telepath, Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), has romantic feelings toward the good major and, in any case, she can read his mind and thinks he’s not such a bad guy after all. There’s a budding relationship between these two, but one that never ends up going anywhere. It’s too bad, especially since we learn that Trirene is the only one left alive who isn’t sterile.

   The main focus of the film is Major Allison’s quest to find a way to get back to the past, possibly to prevent the future from happening. Aiding him in his endeavor are some Russians from the past who also ended up at The Citadel.

   Unfortunately, the film really doesn’t really take the paradoxes of time travel that seriously, making significantly less impressive than it could have been. That said, the ending does demonstrate that the filmmakers understood at least one potential aspect of time travel. There’s also a message about the dangers of atomic testing.

   It’s not the standard science fiction B-film plot, nor the somewhat mediocre acting, however, that makes Beyond The Time Barrier worth watching.

   Rather, it’s Ulmer’s direction, notably his exceptional use of geometry that makes it worth consideration. Triangles and pyramids are omnipresent in The Citadel. Spheres, both black and white, are also prominently displayed in different locales within the dystopian city-state.

   This use of geometry as a replacement for big budget special effects really does pay off. Look for the scene in which Trirene (Tompkins) looks at her reflection in a triangular mirror. It’s not exactly on the same level as the role of mirrors and reflections in Gothic horror films or in films noir, but it’s nevertheless very creative.

   In conclusion, Beyond The Time Barrier is a significantly better movie than the disappointing The Amazing Transparent Man. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great film, it’s a perfectly watchable one.

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