SF & Fantasy films


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. Columbia Pictures, 1956. Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum. Screen story by Curt Siodmak, based on the book Flying Saucers from Outer Space, by Major Donald E. Keyhoe. Director: Fred F. Sears.

   What would humanity do if UFOs waged war on Earth? Would a scientist invent a means of stopping those rascally aliens and then allow the U.S. military to utilize that technology? If you think that’s the most likely scenario, then Earth vs. the Flying Saucers will offer few surprises.

   The plot follows rocket scientist Dr. Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) as they contend with an imminent alien invasion. Complicating matters is the fact that Carol’s father, Brig. Gen. John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), has been kidnapped by the interstellar humanoids and turned into a zombie! This leads Dr. Marvin to take the lead in discovering a way of repelling the forthcoming alien invasion. Upon learning how the UFOs operate, Marvin creates a sonic weapon that proves useful to the U.S. Army as they wage war on alien vessels attempting to conquer Washington.

   If you think the plot sounds mildly intriguing – and I admit writing it made me realize how much potential the film had – you should realize that this particular science fiction movie is rather flat, both in terms of style and substance.

   Indeed, if Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has an auteur, it is most certainly special effects guru Ray Harryhausen. Responsible for the film’s stellar stop-motion animation, Harryhausen’s skill in unleashing movie magic is evident throughout what is otherwise a rather dull, plodding 1950s science fiction feature.

   Neither the direction nor the acting, save the welcome presence of character actor Morris Ankrum, is particularly memorable; in fact, much of it is truly forgettable. All of which serves to make Harryhausen’s contribution to the movie even more valuable, for without it, there’d honestly be no compelling reason to seek out this one out.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


HEAVEN ONLY KNOWS. United Artists, 1947. Re-released as Montana Mike. Robert Cummings, Brian Donlevy, Marjorie Reynolds, Jorja Curtwright (debut), John Litel, Bill Goodwin, Stuart Irwin, Gerald Mohr, Edgar Kennedy, Lurlene Tuttle, Peter Miles, Glenn Strange. Screenplay: Art Arthur & Rowland Leigh. Adaptation by Ernest Haycox from a story by Aubrey Wisberg. Directed by Alfred S. Rogell.

   Heavenly fantasy dates back a while, but it took a foothold in Hollywood with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and by the late forties was a genre unto itself with such heavenly(and diabolical) helpers as Claude Rains, Laird Cregar, Henry Travers, Cary Grant, Clifton Webb, and Cecil Kellaway taking a hand in human affairs.

   This time out the angel in question is Robert Cummings, as Michael, who discovers as the film opens that a mistake has been made in the heavenly bookkeeping: Adam “Duke” Byron (Brian Donlevy) has been born without a soul, and thus won’t fulfill his destiny. In fact, he is already two years behind time in marrying Drusilla (Jorja Curtwright), the daughter of a reverend (John Litel), and that union looks unlikely since Duke Byron runs a saloon and gambling hall and is embroiled in a deadly power struggle with his partner in the Glacier, Montana mine, Bill Plummer (Bill Goodwin).

   With that in mind, Michael is dispatched to Earth to correct the problem, and a bigger babe in the woods there never was, save for the fact he is an archangel though without his cloak of immortality and forbidden to use his powers.

   Glacier proves no paradise. The feud between Duke and Plummer means the mines have been shut down for two months and the desperate miners and townsfolk, led by Drusilla, are ready for vigilante justice. Laconic Sheriff Bodine (Stuart Irwin) talks them into waiting as he hopes to play Byron and Plummer off each other until only one of them is left, and things get quickly more complicated when Plummer makes sure Duke thinks Michael is the Kansas City Kid hired to kill him.

   Then there is Duke’s gunslinger, Treason (Gerald Mohr), who doesn’t like the look of Michael one bit, and with good reason, as there is more than a hint of sulfur and brimstone about him. Heaven isn’t the only one interested in Duke Byron (a good running joke has Treason’s match going out whenever Michael is near him).Michael saves Duke from the real Kansas City Kid, and becomes his friend, but his job is only starting.

    Heaven Only Knows is a curious mix of fantasy, religion, comedy, romance, sentimentalism, and traditional Western elements, the latter no doubt given a boost in the screen treatment by veteran Western writer Ernest Haycox (“Last Stage to Lordsburg,” Canyon Passage, The Adventurers). Brian Donlevy plays the familiar role of good bad man (we know he is good because an ill little boy, Skitch, played by Peter Miles, and drunk storytelling Judd, played by Edgar Kennedy, are loyal to him).

   Cummings angel steals the show, by turns naïve, otherworldly, strong, and scheming, finding himself a bit tempted by saloon girl Ginger (Margorie Reynolds) who begins to fall for him.

   Along the way there are ambushes, two rescues from burning buildings, a showdown “Montana” style between Duke and Plummer, a few sermons, a lynching where Duke finally finds his soul, and a three hanky ending designed to leave no eye in the house dry.

   At times a bit preachy, and sometimes corny, I don’t imagine too many of today’s audiences will care for it, but if you like this genre well done, and would like to see Cummings stretch his wings a bit (sorry) Heaven Only Knows is an odd semi-lost film well worth finding, and easily the most unusual of a genre that still pops up on big and small screens today.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE HYPERBOLOID OF ENGINEER GARIN. Russia, 1965. Original title: Giperboloid inzhenera Garina. Evgeniy Evstigeev, Iosif Manovich, Mikhail Astangov, Natalya Kilimova. Screenplay by Iosif Manovich, based on the novel The Garin Death Ray by Aleksei Tolstoy. Directed by Alexander Gintsberg.

   A modicum of propaganda, a cunning visual recreation of German Expressionist cinema, and a sense of fun and the absurd inform this 1965 science fiction film from the former Soviet Union set in France in 1925.

   It opens moodily as two men, one Safonov (Isoif Manovich), explore a deserted house on a lonely island on a lake. It is there they find Engineer Petrovich Garin (Evigniy Evstegeev) and his invention, the hyperboloid, a deadly heat ray.

   From that point on, the film seems as if it will devolve into a game of hide-and-seek, with Garin pursued by all sides wanting the weapon, but instead it changes mood and, while keeping the look and feel of a German serial of the silent era, replete with stylized sets and costumes, it instead becomes a fairly subtle debate about the rights of one man to sell such a deadly weapon to the highest bidder, while never forgetting the action, comedy, and mad scientist elements of the story.

   You can guess where a Soviet era films comes down on the film’s philosophical question, but it does so with a soft, not iron, heel. The result is such that the viewer can sit back and enjoy the wonderful look of the film that makes as many nods to Fritz Lang, Joe May, Murnau, or French serial director Louis Feuillade as to Sergei Eisenstein or early Soviet science fiction like Aleita.

   Shot in atmospheric monochrome, the film features gorgeous sets and science fictional set pieces, action, comedy, and a playful sense of fun. Alas the only version I know of is in Russian without subtitles, but it is still worth a look. Hopefully there is a subtitled version available. It is surprising just how well the look of a big production science fiction film from an earlier era is captured. You have to keep reminding yourself this was released in 1965.

   The ironic comedic finale, similar to the fate of Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, is just an added bonus after scene after scene that are a visual feast. While it is different in look and style, it compares favorably with films like Dinner with Adele (aka Nick Carter in Prague) or Karel Zeman’s The Fantastic World of Jules Verne that it shares a similar anachronistic nostalgia with.

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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


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.

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