Friday, February 14, 2020

World Without End

World Without End
Edward Bernds

A group of astronauts are heading to Mars when an engine malfunction sends them hurtling at incredible speeds. They wind up on Earth in the distant future and discover that the planet is finally recovering from a massive nuclear war. Horrible mutant cavemen roam the surface while deep underground the last civilized humans face a dwindling birthrate and potential extinction.

World Without End shows a lot of promise early on. We have a group of 1950s adventures facing mutants and giant spiders in the year 2058 and then… the movie just stays stuck with its underground hijinks for too long. There is a whole planet of post-nuke exploration to engage in and instead, we spend most of our time watching meetings and court proceedings. It feels like a wasted opportunity. Post-apocalyptic adventure would become a genre standard eventually and here we can see the seeds of that subgenre but things are too limited in scope to make much of an impact.

"I'm sorry did you just say you had Toaster Strudels?
It is difficult to watch World Without End in the 21st century without observing its particular brand of morality. We are presented with a group of people so shocked and horrified by the war that they have retreated to a place of safety and seem happy to remain there. The end result is presented not as a well-reasoned pacifist stance but that this act has made the men (and specifically the men) weak-willed and soft. The protagonists also note the women are still vibrant and full of life, yet World Without End doesn’t dare to show them taking charge, that society still exists under the yoke of these lifeless men. The travelers from the past rationalize that the only solution is to bring back war and colonization. The solution isn’t some kind of enlightenment brought on by witnessing the destruction of life on Earth it is to go outside and blow up mutant cavemen with a rocket launcher. I understand that sometimes you need to fight against an aggressor in order to survive but the people living underground here have every advantage save for the will to fight back. It seems disingenuous to not even consider a peaceful solution, but World Without End is a product of its time and the idea that you should go out and beat the ‘savages’ back with your superior technology feels odds especially when This Island Earth (1955) pulled off a much more thoughtful response to war.

"Ugh these allergies are murder on my eyes."
All that aside, the look of World Without End is beautiful. Shot in Cinemascope and Technicolor, the film has a big vibrant look. The interiors of the human’s underground shelter have a big bold 1950s design and the outdoor shots are lush and rugged by turns. Even the giant rubber spider looks great, the red of its bulging eyes out really pop on the screen. World Without End joins Forbidden Planet (1956), and This Island Earth (1955) in the triumvirate of iconic 1950s SF aesthetics.

Although it definitely has its share of story problems and it isn’t quite the thought-provoking meditation nor rip-roaring adventure it could have been, World Without End is a serviceable enough SF story and a great looking piece of genre cinema.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Unknown World

Unknown World
Terry O. Morse

With the ever-present threat of nuclear war coming, a scientist organizes an expedition to find a place deep within the Earth that can house humanity once the surface is destroyed. Their transport is a drilling machine called a Cyclotram. A rich industrialist, Wright Thompson (Bruce Kellogg) foots the bill for the whole endeavor. Soon enough the team is tunning through the crust and into empty lava tubes deep within the planet.

Back when I was younger and making my initial dives into cult film, b-movies, and the like, 1950s SF was really my entrance point. It wasn’t too difficult to find them on VHS or playing on cable, it was even more fun to spend too much money ordering titles from the Sinister Cinema catalog. Unknown World was an intriguing title. While most 1950s SF concentrated on going into space or a least dealing with threats that arrived on the surface of the Earth, there really wasn’t much in the way of traveling beneath it. I imagined there would be some sort of monster, dinosaurs, or alien threat lurking under the ground.

"I can't believe we wore the same outfit to work."
It turns out that that was the wrong way to approach this film. Unknown World makes an attempt to at least to approach its subject matter with a serious look at the lengths humans will go to absolve themselves of the responsibility for nuclear war. For a kid looking to see some rubber-suited molemen, this is absolutely not what I had signed up for and I  was disappointed as I watched it.

Now that I’ve had several decades between viewings, I appreciate Unknown World a lot more.  It follows the basic structure of many space travel movies at the time, a team wants to explore a distant place, a rich guy builds a thing, they get to the moon/Mars/an underground ocean, a bunch of people die in the process and the team returns a little wiser.

The boredom meter maxed out.
Unknown World isn’t a good movie, it is far too languid and dull with large stretches where you are stuck with unlikable identical-looking white guys being important at each other but the moment when our heroes reach what looks like a safe haven, it holds a bleak truth that really resonated with me.

The team arrives at vast cavern that holds not only a bright phosphorescent ceiling, plenty of volcanic ash in the soil, but also an underground freshwater sea. It seems the perfect place for humanity to hide out while the encroaching nuclear war comes on the surface. Dr. Joan Lindsey (Marilyn Nash) makes a terrible discovery, the test rabbits they brought along give stillbirth. Life cannot be made here and any group of people living here would be the last generation to ever exist. It is a horrifying prospect, but one that some people find more appealing than dying in nuclear fire. In the end, the survivors vote to leave and face a world that has the potential for growth or annihilation rather than one that would offer comfort but certain demise.

Still looks less stupid than the Cybertruck.
That's a heavy message for what could have been Saturday matinee fare it is a more memorable movie for it. So, Unknown World does have a reason to exist, but it is undermined (yeah, I just said it) by the sheer dullness of its production. Whether it is worth spending the time to unearth (did it again, oops) that message is really up to your movie-watching endurance.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Island of the Dinosaurs

Island of the Dinosaurs (aka La isla de los dinosaurios)
Rafael Portillo

If you’ve had the chance to see any ‘lost world’ type films ( The Lost World (1925), Lost Continent (1951), King Dinosaur (1955), etc.) you have at least a good handle of the set-up for Island of the Dinosaurs. A group of explorers decide to take a plane to find the lost continent of Atlantis, they end up crashing on a remote island that is filled with lush growth, a not insignificant number of dinosaurs, and a tribe of very clean-shaven cavemen. It feels very rote at first, there is nothing unexpected to see in the opening 20 minutes, but then the movie takes an unusual turn.

After being tossed out of his own tribe, hunky caveman, Molo (Armando Silvestre) stumbles upon one of the explorers, Laura (Alma Delia Fuentes) fresh from encountering a dinosaur in the lake. Molo kidnaps Laura and takes her to a cave. Over the course of hours(or maybe a week?), Molo manages to outfit her in a leather dress, while she shows him how to build a spear. The two eventually fall in love and what starts out of a tale of man vs. dinosaur turns into a tepid romance between a brutish primitive and a modern-day (for 1967) woman.

I defy you to figure out which one has been hanging out with cavemen.
While the turn itself is an unexpected one, it isn’t a very interesting one if you’ve come to see some dinosaurs eat people. The caveman scenes are long and drawn out with minimal dialog. This can work if you have some visuals to show off like in One Million Years B.C. (1966). Island of the Dinosaurs does not have this luxury. It has a forest, some ugly canyons, and almost all the dinosaur footage from One Million B.C. (1940). The end result is that this potentially refreshing twist on a tired subgenre ends up being rather dull.

I suppose if you have never sat through the endlessly reused footage of an alligator wrestling with an iguana, excuse me, I mean two mighty dinosaurs clashing, that you might find things more interesting, but the ubiquitousness of those rehashed moments (and there are plenty of them) just become dead space while you wait for some original footage to resume.

8-Diagram Caveman Fighter 
Island of the Dinosaurs if definitely a curio, a Mexican production that largely focuses on a caveman’s romantic life certainly puts it into a unique space. The execution is so flaccid that it saps any inherent energy from this venture. To the film’s credit, it does manage one final moment that came as a surprise. Science-fiction adventure films such as this are usually devoted to returning to the status quo, but Island of the Dinosaurs is a romantic comedy at its heart and declares it so with its final moments.

If you need some cavemen in your romance and your Eegah! (1962) blu-ray is still in the mail, give Island of the Dinosaurs a try, but for everyone else, you might be happier watching virtually any other dinosaur movie.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Triangle

The Triangle
David Blair, Nathaniel Peterson, Adam Pitman, Andrew Rizzo, Adam Stilwell

Found footage horror is still a pretty divisive sub-genre. Like zombie movies, the entry bar is so low that virtually anyone with some kind of camera (even a phone cam) can put together a movie. As a result, the horror landscape has been flooded with found footage movies. 99% of them are terrible boarding on unwatchable. While the technical side of a found footage film is accessible, crafting a story and acting that doesn’t break the verisimilitude of the film is extremely difficult. The strength of a found footage movie comes from its naturalism put into contrast with its horror.

The future is... BEARDS.
The Triangle is a slow-burning horror story that immediately sets off an alarm in the viewer with its premise: a group of documentary filmmakers receives a postcard from an old friend begging them for help. That friend has joined a cult/commune in the middle of nowhere Montana. It’s a smart set-up, it gives our protagonists a goal and someone to be concerned for right away and it also puts them in an isolated place with a potentially hostile environment. The Triangle is happy to let the characters stew in that situation for a while, all the while bringing up the actual threat in the background.

The Triangle firmly falls into horror for at least its first 2/3 before taking a weird shift towards a more New Age vibe. I think it is here that the film may lose some viewers. That is not to say that there aren't still some chilling moments in the finale but the force behind a wave of illness that is sweeping the camp has more to do with ancient space beings than an eldritch evil. The film never spells out exactly what is happening but if you are even slightly familiar with a lot of New Age views on extraterrestrial beings, you should be able to understand it.

Welcome to the most racistly named bus in Montana.
The strongest element of The Triangle comes in its representation of the cult, at first they are off-putting as they keep our protagonists at arm’s length until they can be trusted. As that trust is earned we get a more nuanced view of these people who have gone to such extremes to distance themselves from the world underneath it all we see that they are driven, joyous, and relatively happy. A lesser film would have made them misguided or dupes under the sway of a charismatic but unscrupulous leader, instead, we see that they are people trying to make sense of a world they don’t like. The tragedy is that there is another world even more unknowable and malevolent just waiting for them in the place they chose as their refuge.

The Triangle was a pleasant little discovery, it is a competent found footage horror film that has a few surprises and builds to climax that may irritate some, but I found it a fascinating change of pace for a subgenre that is usually stuck in a rut.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Invasion of the Star Creatures

Invasion of the Star Creatures
Bruno VeSota

Comedy is, of course, very subjective. What is considered humorous by a culture at large shifts and ebbs over time. The core elements of comedy persist, surprise, wordplay, slapstick, irony, etc,  but the particular flavors and mixes of those things change often. I find it interesting that certain kinds of genre films such as horror or suspense can still resonate after decades of cultural change, but comedies often have the hardest time staying relevant and funny. Perhaps this has something to do with what horrifies us being so deeply fundamental to us as living beings while what is funny is more situational. Either way, Invasion of the Star Creatures wasn't funny when it premiered and it is even less funny now.

Invasion of the Star Creatures takes a standard (especially by 1962) SF plot featuring an alien invasion and a few monsters. The invaders, in this case, are two very tall women named Dr. Puna (Gloria Victor) and Professor Tanga (Dolores Reed). Their plot is uncovered by two dopey soldiers, Philbrick (Bob Ball) and Penn (Frankie Ray).  The monsters are bargain basement vegetable men. I’m going to be charitable and assume these monsters were made to look deliberately terrible.

"I don't know what a giantess fetish is, human, but it sounds awful."
The humor in the movie leans heavily on absurdity and physical comedy. The film never manages to pull-off either very well. There is an artificial wackiness that never gels and only manages to irritate. Philbrick and Penn are mildly amusing as lazy Privates on the army base but once they are pushed into being the heroes of the story there is nothing compelling or fun about them. The aliens are played relatively straight which works fine, and even though the vegetable men are silly looking they are more often than not are shown to be an actual threat. Possibly the biggest issue the film has is that there is no real plot to speak of, soldiers uncover a cave with some aliens in it and everyone runs around for an hour. I will credit this movie for having some pot jokes in the third act, which seems daring for a production like this.

This is a low budget comedy from 1962 so it should come as no surprise there is sexism and racism in the mix. The female aliens are capable of physically dominating Earth men but it is only by being kissed can they be frozen in place and defeated. Later they become stranded on Earth and are completely dependent on the men to exist. Worse off is the introduction of some Native American characters who whoop and holler and pull knives on everyone. It's a joke that wears out its welcome quickly and then is brought back for one final cringe filled bow. It’s a deeply embarrassing element in an already embarrassing movie.

This is what happens when you don't eat enough fiber.
Comedic science-fiction is a tough genre to get right, it requires a commitment to both being funny and offering a science-fiction element beyond just the surface trappings. The pitfalls are numerous and there is possibly no better bad example of this subgenre than Invasion of the Star Creatures.

Friday, January 10, 2020

This Island Earth

This Island Earth
Joseph Newman/Jack Arnold

Even though it was released a year prior, This Island Earth will forever live in the shadow of Forbidden Planet (1956). Both are grandiose 1950s SF epics, complete with monsters, spaceships, and brilliant technicolor. Where Forbidden Planet had the one-two punch of being based on  Shakespeare and featuring Robby the Robot to launch itself into popular culture, This Island Earth can only sport a mutant in trousers and a serialized story that never quite gels as a feature film. This is a shame because while Forbidden Planet uses its platform to have us consider the inner workings of the human psyche, This Island Earth approaches a more topical subject, nuclear war, and it isn’t afraid to reach a grim conclusion.

"Keep your hands in your own tube, OK pal?
The plot of This Island Earth is concerned with a series of mysteries put forth one at a time and initially it is very engaging. What is the strange green ray that saves Cal Mecham (Rex Reason)? What is the source of the advanced electronic components that show up in Mechamn’s lab? Who is Exeter and what is the purpose of his cadre of scientists? These are all interesting developments, but when we get to the final reveal at the start of the 3rd act, the movie isn’t exactly sure where to go. Exeter, Mecham, and fellow scientist, Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) all head to the world of Metaluna, wander around for ten minutes and then leave again.

The 3rd act’s failure to deliver on the promise of the film is unfortunate because we are shown a protracted war between Metaluna and a neighboring world of Zagon. The Metalunans need uranium to protect themselves and they’ve run out. The parallels here to the cold war are obvious, but I really appreciate the willingness for the film to play this tragedy out. There is no hope, no winning a war like this. The only thing you can do is try and survive. Metaluna is wiped out, Exeter chooses death over hope, and our leads are left hanging. Sure they managed to stay alive, but what of it? What happens when Zargon aka nuclear annihilation comes for them in the future?

"I'm not staring!"
The look of the film is impressive, with big set designs, and bold colors. The landscape of Metaluna is rendered in a series of evocative matte paintings. Aside from the unfortunate pants, the Metaluna Mutant is a fun creation even if he never really gets to do much in the film. The soundtrack also is a mixture of traditional and electronic music. Although not quite as revolutionary as the score for Forbidden Planet, it none the less manages to create an alien overtone to permeates the film.

This Island Earth is possibly now more well known for being the subject of Mystery Science Theater: The Movie (1996) than anything else, and that’s not to say it doesn’t warrant some teasing, but underneath all that there is a serious heart beating at the core of this pulpy film and it is one that could use a little more exploration.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Joy of Failure

The Joy of Failure 

The Room (2003) is the biggest and most well known ‘bad movie’ of this century. Its presence in the cultural landscape is unmistakable, showings on Adult Swim and public theaters, it is endlessly quoted among friends, it is remixed and memed across the internet, it was even the subject of a tell-all book and film about its creation inThe Disaster Artist (2017). Much of this notoriety is due to repeated showings, but probably more so to the quirks of its director and star, Tommy Wiseau.

Wiseau displays a bizarre persona both in public and allegedly in private, and his first film bears this out. The Room is strange in every capacity. It looks like a cheap television show with its limited and unconvincing sets, questionable green screen work, and odd choices of location shoots. The actors do their best with Wiseau’s stilted and often tortured dialog. As a traditional film, it is found wanting in just about every quality except being entertaining. No rational person would call The Room art...

Yet it is.

The Room as it exists is also a very revealing look at how Tommy Wiseau views the world around him. Wiseau himself is often very evasive about his past and other aspects of his life, but The Room as written and performed by Wiseau in the lead shows someone who is successful at business and love but finds it all turned on him thanks to the duplicitous people in his life. It is not hard to look at Wiseau’s guarded nature and the betrayal of his idealized self on the screen and see that Wiseau himself is using this story as a way to work through a betrayal or at least a fear of betrayal.

It is totally justifiable to make fun of The Room’s failures, but it is also justifiable to dig into it a little see that underneath the mess there is the voice of an artist peeking out. I find these days in the era of slickly produced tentpole films that have smoothed out all the rough edges via research and test screenings resulting in nothing more than a consumer product Films which are personal, messy, and often noble failures are much more memorable. What’s more relatable to the human condition, a CGI mess of lasers and explosions that exists to be equally acceptable to everyone on the planet or a bizarre take on melodrama that could only come from one particular person?

For me the enjour of b-movies and so-called 'bad cinema' is the celebration of failure, because it is through the failure of the cinematic languge we often get a glimpse of the living breathing humanity that goes into any work of art. It is a pop-culture tradition that includes people like Ed Wood Jr. and Tommy Wiseau.

Failure is the most universal of human conditions, we all fail. The last act we ever engage in will be a failure of some kind. Take those movies that are failures, enjoy those failures, celebrate them in fact.  You’ll never find anything more human.