Sunday, August 13, 2017

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster)

(1971) Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno; Written by Yoshimitsu Banno and Takeshi Kimura; Starring: Akira Yamauchi, Toshie Kimura, Hiroyuki Kawase, Toshio Shiba and Keiko Mari; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I just planned a regular movie, but when I look on the internet some people seem to evaluate it like a pop art or surrealist film.” – Yoshimitsu Banno (from 2014 interview for SciFi Japan TV Extra)

“Why complain about it? Green pastures exist only in our hearts now. Let’s sing. Let’s dance! Let’s at least use our energy to make a stand!” – Yukio Keuchi (Toshio Shiba)

After his auspicious debut in 1954’s Gojira (or Godzilla, King of the Monsters on these shores), the big gray reptile enjoyed a rocky career against many worthy and not-so-worthy opponents, vacillating between villain and hero. The strangest was yet to come, however, with 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora in Japan, or alternatively, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster),* filled with non-sequitur psychedelic dance sequences, trippy music and animated portions. For this entry, director/co-writer Yoshimitsu Banno took the already time-worn elements of what we’ve come to expect from a Godzilla film, dumped them on the floor, and rearranged the pieces in his own mosaic. The results created a rift between Godzilla fans, who felt it trashed the series or brought life into it.  

* Fun Fact: Godzilla vs. Hedorah featured one of the final appearances of the late Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed the title kaiju since Gojira in 1954.  

From the movie’s opening title sequence, we can tell this isn’t going to be the same old, same old. A factory belches smoke in front of Mt. Fuji, followed by shots of garbage floating in the sea. This pastiche of pollution’s greatest hits is juxtaposed with James Bond-esque shots of a singer wiggling to the title song. In a final shot, a broken clock (Signifying time’s up?) floats among other ocean-borne detritus. Only a few minutes into this, I’m wondering if someone slipped something extra in my coffee. I don’t have much time to process what I just watched, because it gets weirder. Hedorah rises from the ocean, the product toxic sludge, garbage and sewage (Yep folks, Hedorah is essentially a poop monster). After years of abuse to Mother Earth, it’s time to pay the piper. The monster feeds off of industrial smoke, leaving a cloud of caustic fumes in its wake, and a trail of death and destruction. Godzilla makes his appearance, accompanied by some oddly comical music (Akira Ifukube’s signature theme is nowhere to be found), and he’s not pleased with the state of things.

Tokyo gets a well-deserved respite from destruction this time around, with most of the action occurring in Suruga Bay* and the surrounding locale. Our grade-school protagonist Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) and his father Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) try to uncover Hedorah’s secrets, discovering four stages for the shape-shifting kaiju: aquatic, terrestrial, airborne, followed by an unknown phase. Although Earth-bound pollutants brought Hedorah to life, Dr. Yano speculates a meteor brought Hedorah to Earth from “a sticky, dark planet,” but aside from a few pictures of celestial objects, there’s not much to support this theory. Meanwhile, Ken’s uncle Yukio (Toshio Shiba) and his girlfriend Keiko (Miki Fujiyama) combat the toxic menace with music and dancing (I’m not really sure how this is supposed to help).

* Not so Fun Fact: The heavily polluted region set a real-life precedent for the movie, as described in this vintage New York Times article:

Amidst all the unconventional stuff, Godzilla vs. Hedorah follows the usual formula:  Godzilla tangles with the bad guy, and the bad guy prevails, but only for the moment – we know our favorite mutant dinosaur isn’t down for the count. Alas, that’s where convention ends and Banno’s vision begins. One of the advantages of being a casual kaiju film fan is that I don’t have a fit over what’s supposedly canon, which is a good thing when trying to make sense of this movie. When Banno came onboard, he threw a lot out the window. In one sequence, when Hedorah attempts to escape, Godzilla pursues him by taking flight,* using his atomic breath as propulsion (He does what? In this movie he does.). Banno’s film is full of so many crazy moments, it’s difficult to pin down only one or two things. There’s a Lovecraftian vibe running through the movie, starting with Hedorah’s design, with its tendril-laden face, which has more than a passing resemblance to Cthulhu. In one scene, dancers in a club suddenly transform into fish-headed monstrosities that could have sprung from Dagon.

* Fun Fact: According to Banno, he created Godzilla’s flying scene so it could be easily edited out if Toho disapproved.

It’s not too surprising this was the first and last Godzilla film that Banno directed, but it’s one of cinema’s tragedies that he never directed anything else (producer Tomoyuki Tanaka reportedly wasn’t pleased with the results). It’s also not much of a revelation the big guy will ultimately prevail, but this one ends on a tentative note. We know it’s only a matter of time before another Hedorah surfaces. Humanity has only gained a brief reprieve by tackling the symptoms but not the cause. We haven’t learned much in the ensuing decades since Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Considering the poor state of the planet these days, it’s about time for Hedorah to re-surface. Unfairly maligned for many years, this Godzilla film like no other deserves re-evaluation on its own terms, as a silly movie about a serious topic.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

July Quick Picks and Pans – Hammer Month II

The Snorkel (1958) After her mother’s supposed suicide, Candy (Mandy Miller) suspects her stepfather is the real cause for the unexpected death. Candy also accuses him of killing her father, years earlier. Unfortunately, no one believes Candy, writing it off as mere flights of fancy. The suspense mounts as Candy attempts to gather evidence, fearing she’ll be next on his hit list. Peter van Eyck is chilling as Paul Decker, Candy’s sociopathic stepfather, who wants his hands on a lucrative inheritance, and wears everyone’s doubt like a protective shroud. As the audience we’re a mute witness to Candy’s plight, as she tries in vain to reveal Paul’s scheme. Thanks to Kerry from Prowler Needs a Jump for suggesting this little overlooked gem.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Cash on Demand (1961) Peter Cushing and André Morrell star as a banker and extortionist, respectively, in this taut thriller from director Quentin Lawrence. Cushing displays great range in his role as Harry Fordyce, a fastidious man, forced into a situation that will test his values to the limit. Morrell is also excellent as the ruthless but charming criminal master mind Colonel Gore Hepburn, who holds Fordyce’s wife and son as collateral for the 93,000 pounds resting in the bank safe. You can practically see the wheels turning inside Cushing’s head as his character looks for a way to save his family and his reputation. The tension is palpable as the two match wits. Most of the film works so well that it’s easy to forgive Cash on Demand’s hasty ending, which wraps things up too neatly. Otherwise, it’s a solid effort by all involved.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Paranoiac (1963) Director Freddie Francis and writer Jimmy Sangster’s Hitchcock-flavored suspense film is a disturbing portrait of a family caught in the grip of mental illness. Alcoholic playboy Simon (Oliver Reed) lives with his mentally unstable sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) in their deceased parents’ mansion. Meanwhile, their domineering aunt (Sheila Burrell) keeps a watchful eye on the family fortune. Things take an odd turn when their long-dead (or is he?) brother Tony (Alexander Davion) returns, laying claim to their sizable inheritance. It’s not about the myriad plot twists and turns, but the performances by Reed and Scott which make this film particularly memorable, along with one of the creepiest masks in Hammer history.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

The Phantom of the Opera (1962) This classy adaptation of the venerable Gaston Leroux story by director Terence Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (under the pseudonym John Elder) is watchable, but takes an otherwise by-the-numbers approach to the material. Herbert Lom is fine as the brooding title character, but the real standout is Michael Gough as the duplicitous and lecherous composer Lord Ambrose d'Arcy.  The atmosphere is suitably effective, and the sets reflect Hammer’s knack for doing a lot with relatively little, but the romance between Christine (Heather Sears) and Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) fails to ignite many sparks.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

 Stolen Face (1952) Paul Henreid stars in this well-acted and capably directed (by Terence Fisher) Hammer noir. Gifted plastic surgeon (Is there any other kind in this type of film?) Dr. Philip Ritter goes on holiday and falls in love with a beautiful concert pianist (Lizabeth Scott). Trouble is, she’s already engaged to another man. He returns to his work, a broken man, and concocts a plan to reconstruct the face of a scarred felon. He reshapes her visage to match his unrequited love, and marries the ex-con, in a misguided effort to mend her wayward lifestyle. Things go about as well as you would expect, as she reverts to her old ways of petty thievery and hanging with an unsavory crowd. But it gets weirder, when Dr. Ritter’s old flame enters the picture again, and wants to pick up where they left off. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with her doppelganger. It’s an interesting, albeit off-putting premise, with an ending that’s a bit too convenient, and better than Dr. Ritter deserves.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

One Million Years B.C. (1966) The film’s trailer touted, “Not since time began, has the primitive scene been captured for the screen with such imaginative realism.” Uh… right. Anyone seeking scientific accuracy should probably look elsewhere, but One Million Years B.C. deserves credit where it’s due. There are some nice stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, along with some not-so-special effects featuring a giant projected iguana and tarantula. Of course, the film’s raison d'être, Raquel Welch (But why is Martine Beswick always overlooked?) supplies some special effects of her own, which should be reason enough for some folks to check this out. Sure, it’s silly and inconsequential, but not bad as brainless fun for a lazy Saturday morning.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Vampire Circus

(1971) Directed by Robert Young; Written by Judson Kinberg; Starring: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, Robert Tayman, Laurence Payne and David Prowse; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“None of you will live. The town of Schtettel will die. Your children will die, to give me back my life.” – Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman)

Starting with Horror of Dracula in 1957, Hammer produced many notable examples of the vampire film, but by the end of the ‘60s, the ability to thrill or shock had diminished. Enter 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, which upped the ante for depictions of sex and nudity into the staid Hammer formula. The cash-strapped production company became more adventurous in the new decade, turning out some of their most distinctive horror titles (with the occasional clunker here and there). Their stand-alone vampire films adhered to many of the conventions of vampire lore, but were not necessarily confined to the constraints of Bram Stoker’s novel. Vampire Circus* is one such example, which simultaneously embraces and eschews the Hammer vampire flicks that preceded it.  

* Fun Fact: George Baxt, who wrote the scripts for such genre classics as The City of the Dead and Circus of Horrors, was responsible for the film’s title.

If a town could wear a “kick me” sign, the Bavarian village of Schtettel would be a prime candidate. Throughout Vampire Circus, the little burg attracts one form of calamity after another. In the lengthy prologue, the dreaded vampire Count Mitterhaus (played by Robert Tayman, who must have single-handedly exceeded the budget for ruffles and sideburns) holds the town in a stranglehold. The schoolmaster’s (Laurence Payne) wife Anna (Domini Blythe) is seduced by Mitterhaus, and falls under his spell. She abducts a child as sacrificial offering to the count, which ends up as a sort of twisted foreplay. None of this unsavory activity goes over well with the village leaders, and Mitterhaus ends up staked, and his castle is set aflame. In some movies that would be the end of the story, but it’s only the beginning of the Schtettel residents’ misery, as the dying Mitterhaus vows revenge against the leaders and their heirs. The story jumps forward several years, but poor Schtettel isn’t any better off now, suffering from a scourge of a different kind – an unnamed plague that’s killing off the residents one by one. At this moment, a gypsy circus rolls into town to distract the villagers from their poor fortune, luring them into another trap.

The circus itself is a unique blend of darkly fanciful and perverse elements – think Something Wicked This Way Comes, by way of Carmilla. We witness a procession of bizarre acts to tempt the unsuspecting villagers, including acrobats who transform into bats,* a black panther that turns into a human, and one of the film’s highlights, a seductive tiger woman (don’t pay too much attention to her ill-fitting bald cap) performs a wriggling dance that wouldn’t have made it into a mainstream film a few years before. One of the side attractions, a hall of mirrors, leads circus patrons to their doom.

* Instead of opting for the usual fake bats on strings, the filmmakers used real bats throughout the film. Aside from a few dodgy optical shots, their inclusion adds a level of veracity to an otherwise surreal film.

If Vampire Circus seems a trifle rough around the edges, it’s largely due to the strict shooting schedule, which left some key scenes and shots unfinished. Director Robert Young’s appeal for time was rejected by Hammer head Michael Carreras, and as a result, the filmmakers were forced to work with what they had. Another quibble is that none of the leads possess the gravitas of a Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or Ingrid Pitt, but atmosphere’s the thing in Vampire Circus. It’s not about the individual performances, as much as the ensemble work, particularly by Adrienne Corri as the ringmaster, Anthony Higgins* as the enigmatic panther man Emil, Hammer regular Thorley Walters as the absent-minded Burgermeister, Skip Martin as a diabolical clown, and hulking David Prowse as a strongman. And while we’re on the subject of minor beefs, one unresolved plot thread concerns the revival of Mitterhaus. Despite the infusion of blood from several victims, the circus folk hesitate to remove the stake from his chest. Perhaps it’s there like an oil dipstick, waiting until he’s been topped off with an optimal level of blood?

* Look for Higgins in a memorable performance as Professor Moriarty in Young Sherlock Holmes.

Film historians and their ilk are often fond of pointing out that vampire films reflect the times in which they’re made, and I can’t argue with this observation. Vampire Circus reflected a shifting social paradigm in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, depicting vampirism as an invitation to explore hedonistic pleasures. It also mirrored society’s increasing disenchantment with authority figures and government leaders. The town leaders in the film engage in endless squabbles about how best to deal with the vampires, the disease spreading through Schtettel, and the circus, but no one seems to reach a consensus. Of course, a more cynical interpretation is that Hammer saw an opportunity to ride the coattails of the Euro horror movement, aping its more lurid aspects and stylistic flourishes, yet retaining the Hammer feel. Thematically, Vampire Circus appeared to be a good fit for the era, but it wasn’t marketed well in the States, dying a quick death at the box office. Additionally, the American distributors made cuts to gain a PG rating, which diluted the impact of the film. Thankfully, the restored version is available for your enjoyment. Hurry, hurry, step right up. Come one, come all, for a vampire flick that’s not the same old thing.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Captain Clegg

(1962) Directed by Peter Graham Scott; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Additional dialogue by: Barbara S. Carpenter; Based on the novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh by Arthur Russell Thorndike; Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“I was amazed by what Peter Cushing brought to his character. He enjoyed working with me and I enjoyed working with him. He would come along with an idea in the morning, but wouldn’t tell me until we were about to shoot the scene. We always used to try his ideas, because usually they were very good…” – Peter Graham Scott (from Hammer Films – The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

Thanks to Fritzi Kramer from Movies Silently for hosting and organizing the Swashathon, featuring more posts about swashbuckling than you can wag a sword at. It’s an honor to be included among such an esteemed bunch of bloggers.

Hammer Films are forever associated with horror, but this perception overlooks the company’s many contributions in numerous genres (Comedy, drama, suspense, you name it). It’s this skewed mindset that likely prompted the folks at Universal International to release Captain Clegg under the American title, Night Creatures, but whoa there! Hold your ghostly horses, because this isn’t that type of movie. While the titular “night creatures” make a brief appearance, the film displays its true colors, or should I say, “colours” (This is a Hammer movie, after all.) as a rollicking good adventure. I suspect American audiences expecting a tale of the supernatural felt Hammer and Universal did a bait and switch, but once you realize what the movie isn’t, it’s easier to accept what it is. Let’s move on, shall we?

Captain Clegg was based on Arthur Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh, and was filmed once before, in 1937, as Doctor Syn, with George Arliss in the title role. Due to a legal tug-o-war with Disney over the source material, it was decided that Hammer could produce their version, but couldn’t use the name Dr. Syn (Disney’s version would eventually be filmed in 1963 as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, starring Patrick McGoohan). Thus, Dr. Syn became Dr. Blyss for the Hammer’s movie.  

Set in the remote British island community of Dymchurch (actually shot in Denham, England), circa 1792, the peaceful burg weathers the invasion of the King’s revenue men, led by Captain Collier (Patrick Allen). As a means of subsisting amidst the high taxation, the villagers have devised a liquor smuggling ring, which has managed to slip, to date, under the noses of the Royal Navy. Collier arrives on Dymchurch’s shores, to investigate the suspected illegal activity, as well as rumors about phantoms lurking around nearby Romney Marsh. Collier meets his match in Dr. Blyss (played with gusto by Peter Cushing), the town’s affable leader and spokesperson, who may be more than he seems. Blyss, in fact, is inextricably linked to the dreaded pirate Captain Clegg, whom Captain Collier pursued (albeit unsuccessfully) for years, and is dead and buried in the village square – or is he?

If a role could have been custom-made for Peter Cushing, this would have been it. Mr. Cushing reportedly relished the part of Dr. Blyss, and it shows. In every scene he commands our attention, not by chewing the scenery, but through his charismatic performance. We’re introduced to Blyss as he conducts a sermon in the village chapel, providing due reverence to the ceremony, but with gentle barbs at the congregation. In another scene, we see his sly sense of humor as he sends Captain Collier off on a wild goose chase, using the fabled marsh phantoms as a ruse. Cushing imbues his nuanced performance with equal measures of seriousness and playfulness. Blyss is a man who’s reformed from his checkered past, and lives in the selfless service of his community, which also happens to include a booze smuggling operation.

Although Cushing practically steals the show from everyone else, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar supporting cast. Michael Ripper, who’s normally relegated to smaller parts, gets a beefier role this time around as Blyss’ right hand man, coffin maker and co-conspirator Jeremiah Mipps. Even when his character is short on dialogue, his eyes and expressions speak volumes. Martin Benson is also good as the capricious innkeeper Mr. Rash, instrumental in Blyss’ smuggling operation, but not above selling out to Collier in order to save his own skin. Oliver Reed* does a nice job as Harry Cobtree, another Blyss co-conspirator. Yvonne Romain (who co-starred with Reed in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf) proves she’s more than just Hammer glamour as the plucky barmaid Imogene, holding her own against Mr. Rash’s lecherous advances.

* Fun fact: According to director Peter Graham Scott, Reed injured his arm in a car crash during production, which necessitated him to wear a cast, and shoot a fight scene with his bad arm hidden. Surprisingly, he insisted on shooting another scene, in which his character was required to fall off a horse, sans stunt double (ibid).

Captain Clegg was thrust upon an unsuspecting American public as another horror movie (it’s even included in the 4-DVD set, The Hammer Horror Series), with a misleading alternate title that promised, but only partially delivered on showing us “night creatures.” But even if the marsh phantoms are a cheat, they’re pretty cool to look at. The main attraction, however, is Cushing, in top form, playing one of his finest roles. It was so hard for Cushing to let go of Blyss (or Syn, if you prefer), that he wrote two screenplays, chronicling the further adventures of Captain Clegg, but the scripts remained unproduced (source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes). Alas, Cushing never reprised the role, but at least we can enjoy one of Hammer’s finest swashbucklers. Who knew a movie about tax evasion could be so much fun?