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Friday, April 19, 2019

Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules


Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules
1961
Antonio Leonviola

The Son of Hercules... I mean Maciste (Mark Forest) is fishing (and catches a whale), he is asked to save a Princess (Raffaella Carrà). After freeing another strongman named Bangor (Paul Wynter) they discover that the princess has been caught by the Mole Men, a group of white-skinned cave dwellers who will die if exposed to the sun. Maciste comes up with the brilliant plan to let themselves get captured and taken underground.The Mole Men queen, Halis Mosab (Moira Orfiel) quickly takes a liking to Maciste and offers to make him her king…

Although there is some fun to be had at the beginning, once Maciste and crew are captured and taken underground there just isn’t a lot for the movie to do. We get a lot of escaping and capturing, some torture and executions, but it all takes place in cramped caves among waves of identical looking villains. One of the big strengths of peplum films is their spectacle, and there isn't much of that here. This movie attempts to go over-the-top during the climax but it feels too late to save such a sluggish story. There is also the inevitable love story (or two) but nothing that manages to generate much interest.

He wanted his forehead to look really surprised.
Although the movie does liven-up considerably during the climax everything feels very rushed. There is a mass jailbreak that leads to a lot of running around the caves. Maciste is pushing a giant wheel that does… something? Eventually, he and Bangor use the wheel and some chains to bring the whole Mole Man kingdom crashing down, but the fate of the Mole Men is never addressed. Just when the story seems to be wrapping up, someone walks off a cliff in a scene that is supposed to be tragic but heads straight into bathos.

One place where Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules does succeed is in the goofy costume department. The Mole Men are outfitted with white skin, gold eye-masks complete with horns, and 1980s-worthy feathered hair. The cult leader Kahab (Enrico Glori) sports a huge hat complete with giant eyes on the front. Maciste and his pal Bangor are probably wearing more body oil than actual clothing, but I suppose that is to be expected in a muscle man movie.

Chests greased and ready for action.
A number of actors have stepped into the role of Maciste since 1914, so how does Mark Forest stack up against the rest? He’s affable without being arrogant. He does manage to give a virtually indestructible hero just a little bit of a vulnerable edge, or least as much as you can within the limited confines of this subgenre. His companion Bangor is more problematic, he’s black and portrayed as plenty dumb and eager to serve Maciste. He does, however, have a much more compelling romance subplot that is given almost equal weight to Queen Mosab's love triangle.

There are certainly better peplum films out there. I suppose if you have exhausted all the more obvious choices (Hercules (1957), Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Hercules (1983) to name a few), Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules isn’t an awful choice, it’s just an aggressively mediocre one.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Girl Gang


Girl Gang
1954
Robert C. Dertano

Juvenile Delinquency/Drug Scare films are interesting in that on the surface they have an agenda to frighten viewers straight. Nominally they exist as morality tales about indulging in vices and the inescapable doom that awaits anyone who even takes a single puff of weed or considers having sex outside of marriage. Often these films use that veneer of social responsibility to engage in some delightful sleaze that they almost certainly would not have gotten away with had they not used that cover of respectability.

Joe (Timothy Farrell) is a pusher who commands a gang of young girls to steal cars and corrupt the youth of America. Joe’s girlfriend June (Joanne Arnold) gives heroin a try and apparently likes it. She also manages to bring in two fresh-faced kids, Bill (Ray Morton) and Wanda (Mary Lou O’Connor) to try some reefer. Soon everyone is doing drugs, having sex, and starting to attract the attention of the police.

"Gosh, I sure do like drugs."
Girl Gang promises a band of young women in angora sweaters and bobby socks pistol-whipping middle-aged men and stealing their woodies. For the first few minutes, the movie provides exactly that, but before too long, the gang leaves and we are stuck with Joe. Joe has to be the most upfront pusher and pimp of all time, he more or less tells every teenager that wanders into his den that they are going to like reefer so much they are going to try heroin and get hooked. The film also serves as step-by-step instructions on how to shoot up heroin, which probably wasn’t the goal of the filmmakers, but I can’t say that for sure.

Girl Gang chugs along with a virtually plotless series of people getting high, making out, and more people getting high and making out. There are some charmingly silly moments; initiation into the gang requires a prospective member to have sex with five men in a room (not all at the same time, it's not quite that sleazy) which comes equipped with a flashing light bulb above to door to let everyone know what is happening in there. There are also some tortuous moments such as an endless jazz piano scene that signals the film is beginning to run out steam completely. The climax of the film involves an overly complicated gas station robbery that feels legitimate because it is exactly the kind of unworkable plan that a bunch of really high people might think was brilliant. I suppose putting on masks and pointing a gun at the attendant was too simple.

"I'll trade you those stockings for this heroin."
Girl Gang’s biggest issue is the fact that most of the characters are flat and uninteresting. June is a dud, Wanda is introduced late and virtually does nothing the entire film. Girl Gang just feels like an unfocused parade of drugs and a little bit of sex. Perhaps that is the point, what we have here is a primitive attempt to show the aimless life of people caught in a web of crime and bad habits that only serves to drive them to their own deaths or into the hands of a cruel legal system.

I suppose it depends on what you’ve been smoking.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Starfish


Starfish
2018
A.T. White

Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) has just lost her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson) to cancer. She breaks into her friend’s apartment, sleeps in their bed and feeds her jellyfish. When Aubrey awakens, the power has gone out and the town is covered in snow. Monsters and monoliths lurk outside. Aubrey finds a mixtape from her friend explaining that something has gone wrong and now it is up to Aubrey to find seven tapes with a hidden signal to put things right. Aubrey must confront her own despair and guilt in a way she never expected as she hunts around town for the hidden tapes.

Starfish isn’t a linear story, because grief isn’t linear. It moves and flows with a will of its own. When you think you’ve moved past your grief it can come rushing back unbidden. Starfish works this way as well, it is awash in moments of isolation and melancholy that can suddenly give way to terror and on a few occasions some humor. The story is not aimless though, Aubrey has a goal and moves towards it, even if she and the audience don’t always understand what that goal is or how to achieve it. As is the experience of grief, the only way out is to keep moving in a direction, any direction.

The only effective cure for hay fever.
The film was reportedly made for less than a million dollars, but you would never be able to tell that from the look of it. The pristine look of the snow covered exteriors, the often formally structured shots, and even the CGI monsters, floating objects, and mysterious translucent domes all look spectacular. There is a coldness (beyond just the snow) and a distance to much of the imagery. Aubrey is often isolated in a shot, even when the few other characters are in a scene with her. Her isolation and dissociation become apparent long before another character points it out to her.

The mixtapes and music form the core of the experience of Starfish, songs create their own vignettes from shopping to wandering different environments such as an animated chase scene. The film even falls back on itself in a self-reflective fourth wall break that embodies visually a moment of total dissociation from the self. The final bleak moments of Starfish are astonishingly beautiful.

Wanna hear my Wolf Eyes, Wolves in the Throne Room, Wolfmother, mixtape?
A film as personal as Starfish can certainly lead to several interpretations, and even those can change over time. It is a film that haunts the mind in the same ways that grief will do. The science-fiction and horror elements aren’t merely set dressing over a standard drama, they are integral to unhooking the drama from reality and letting it drift towards the strange spaces that the film wants to explore. It made me reflect upon my own experience with grief and loss, and it also touched upon my love of cosmic horror. A brilliant film and I look forward to seeing more from A.T. White.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Strange World of Planet X



The Strange World of Planet X (aka The Cosmic Monsters)
1958
Gilbert Gunn

A series of experiments has torn a hole in Earth’s magnetic field that allowing in cosmic rays that create giant insects which infest the British countryside. A mysterious being named Smith (Martin Benson) appears and teams up a brigadier and an army unit to stop the insects and the scientist responsible. He also befriends a small child along the way. This mystery person can stop the horror with his gadgets but he insists that humans must make the call about killing one of their own.

Although The Strange World of Planet X predates Doctor Who by a good six years, it does bear a striking resemblance to that show’s earthbound 1970's era. I would be very surprised if this film had not been seen by some of Doctor Who's writers and producers prior to teaming the Doctor up with the military organization U.N.I.T. to fight off menaces around the UK.

"Giant bugs! Aliens! Super science! Let's make sure we just stand around and talk about it."
The premise of The Strange World of Planet X has a lot of possibility but wastes it on long talking scenes. I can understand the need to sell the outlandish threat of giant insects, but the scene of one bug eating a soldier’s face is far more effective than the three or four spent sitting around talking about what is happening. The one thing I did appreciate is that the humans accept Smith’s alien credentials fairly quickly. I will, however,chalk that up to the expediency of the short running time more than the quality of writing.

The movie starts out with some pretty sharp edged misogynistic comments from one character and I braced myself for the worst, 1950's genre films were often unabashedly sexist, so it was pleasant to see that this was all a set-up to show that Michele (Gaby André) is, in fact, a skilled computer engineer. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do else much to poke at the stoic woman-hating scientist trope, but in 1958 even the smallest push back should be seen as a positive.

*Record scratch* "You're probably wondering how I got here."
Oh right, we’re here for the giant bugs. The invaders seem to mostly consist of roaches, spiders, and millipedes. Most of the bug action is created by filming actual animals with miniatures and rear projecting them. The dense forest surrounding the estate where this is all happening is shown with a menacing grace, and there is an effectively chilling spiderweb scene which owes everything to some great design over the clunky camerawork.

The Strange World of Planet X is slow and talky, but it has enough interesting elements to keep it afloat. For a movie that is a mere 75 minutes long, it manages to pack in aliens, flying saucers, giant invertebrates, and mad scientists, but it never quite figures out who to work it all together visually, choosing instead to explain everything through long talking scenes. Still, we get to see an alien use a ray-gun on a giant black widow so I can forgive most of its flaws in the name of pulp storytelling.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Pagan Island


Pagan Island
1961
Barry Mahon

William Stanton (Eddie Dew) is a castaway rescued from a lifeboat that also contains a dead body. He recounts his tale of surviving a sinking ship and then washing up on an island populated only by women. There he saves the tribe from invaders and falls in love with Nani Maka (Nani Maka) who just happens to be next up as a sacrifice to the island’s local deity. William comes up with a plan that involves him joining Nani as a sacrifice and which in no way could possibly get her killed and have her end up as the corpse in the boat with him, right?

He's the worst tree climber on the island.
Although the women were cast by Bunny Yeager of Betty Page fame, most don't look like they live on a jungle island. With their mix of light skin and European accents, I kept waiting for an explanation they were the survivors of another accident a la The Horrors of Spider Island (1960). Alas, that seems to be too much effort on the part of Pagan Island. Eddie is just as wooden as his co-stars, his primary function appears to be not wearing a shirt and tricking girls into kissing him. He performs these duties well enough, but there is nothing particularly engaging about him.

So why are we here? It isn’t the scenery, although Florida makes a fine location for simulating a remote jungle island, we really don’t see much more than a beach and a couple of huts. Is it some violent jungle action? Nope. The only real action scene comes with an overtone of racism as our brave hero guns down a boat full of dark-skinned raiders from the comfort of the beach. Nominally I suppose it’s for the partial nudity, but you really have to be keeping your eye out for the occasional nipple on display. There’s nothing really more lurid here than a few half-glimpsed boobs and some chaste kissing. Maybe it’s the dancing… ugh no, if b-movies from the 1950s and 60s have one major irritation for me it’s padding out the run-time with dance numbers. Pagan Island does have some half-hearted dancing but it’s thankfully brief.

The main reason to watch Pagan Island is this guy, The Angry Sea God:

"No really, I'm furious right now."
I like a god whose name tells me right up front what his deal is. Zeus? What does he want? Is he going to try and wrestle Hulk Hogan or something? Angry Sea God? Yup, I know exactly where this is going. He looks great like he’d belong equally well in an extremely cheap jungle movie or on the set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Sure he’s an immobile statue, but honestly, that puts him on par with virtually every actor in the film.

If you see only one movie that is under an hour long and features a great statue in a mediocre movie, make it Pagan Island.

The Day All the Shirts Vanished.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Alien from the Deep


Alien from the Deep (aka Alien degli abyss)
1989
Antonio Margheriti

Jane (Marina Giulia Cavalli) and Lee (Robert Marius) sneak on to a remote island in hopes of exposing the illegal pollution disposal going on there. Colonel Kovacs (Charles Napier) runs the operation and is not too happy having do-gooders sneaking around. Elsewhere on the island is a venom expert named Bob (Daniel Bosch). Everyone’s plans go straight to hell when an alien shows up eager to get its giant claw on some yummy toxic waste.

First, off the alien isn’t exactly from the deep, it just sorts of lands there briefly before tunneling around under the ground. This is an Italian SF film from the 1980s, so, it is less about title accuracy and more about getting butts in seats by drawing upon other popular movies. 1989 saw no less than four deep-sea themed science-fiction movies, The Abyss, Deep Star Six, Leviathan, and Lords of the Deep. It is small wonder that the man who brought us Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983) and Killer Fish (1979) would want a piece of that action, even though this outing has more in common with Alien 2: On Earth (1980) than any ocean-related alien movie.

"I wore this orange shirt to cheer myself up and it is not working."
The first two-thirds of Alien from the Deep is basically an action movie centering around exposing a toxic waste disposal operation in a volcano. The alien finally makes its presence known by an almost completely off-screen crash into a nearby lake. At this point, things start to take a more familiar turn as everyone tries to accomplish their goals while the monster is lurking about grabbing people. I think it would be easy to view this genre switch as some kind of incompetent scripting, but it feels more like it is meant to mimic the sudden turn in Predator (1987) which also features an unseen alien menace interrupting the action.

Charles Napier as Colonel Kovacks steals the movie. Kovacks is a huge jerk, he’s nasty to his underlings, brutal, and determined. Yet, by the time he reaches the finale, he is revealed to be a character who isn’t wholly without honor. He is just driven to do his job at all costs and is pretty ruthless about it. I’m not entirely certain what his plan is during his final stand-off with the monster, but neither is he, since he just stands there and shoots at it until it kills him.

Somebody is smiling at least.
The alien shows some obvious H.R. Giger influences, but it still is a pretty unique creature. Most of the time it is glimpsed as a single giant claw until the finale when we see the whole ropy beast. Kudos to the special effects department for actually building a giant claw to knock people around. The fact that a single touch from the alien can infect people and melt them makes it an even more horrifying threat. There are a number of miniature effects throughout the film to various degrees of success, but the best moments are the ones featuring the alien battling a couple of bulldozers.

There is nothing particularly brilliant or original happening in Alien from the Deep, but it manages to keep things interesting with its weightless gory fun.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Giant Behemoth




The Giant Behemoth (aka Behemoth, the Sea Monster)
1958
Eugène Lourié

Dr. Steve Karnes (Gene Evens) explains to a gathering of scientists in London, that marine life is experiencing unknown and dangerous changes from atomic bomb radiation. He’s proven right when a fisherman in Cornwall is found badly burned and utters the word ‘Behemoth’ before dying. Soon enough something big and highly radioactive is heading towards the Thames to die and it is going to take a lot of people with it. Karnes needs to figure out a way to kill the Behemoth without bombs or else it could spread lethal radiation all over London.

The director, Eugène Lourié was also the writer of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Behemoth is virtually a carbon copy right down to exact situations and characters. Lourié is also the director of the British giant monster film, Gorgo (1961) and you can see the parallels to that story as well. Lourié either really liked giant monsters or he really had a beef with London for some reason. The stop-motion animation is serviceable enough to not negatively impact the story, but it lacks Beast from 20,000 Fathom’s craftsmanship courtesy of Ray Harryhausen. Behemoth also runs a scant 71 minutes and saves most of its monster action for the end.

"Phew, is it hot in here or is it just my radiation ravaged body?"
The most surprising thing about The Giant Behemoth is that it is quite brutal by 1958 monster movie standards, dogs die, children die, old men slowly succumb to painful radiation burns, and wacky side characters find their helicopters exploding. Along with the expected property destruction, whole crowds of people are wiped out by radiation pulses. For all it’s cloning of Beast from 20,000 FathomsThe Giant Behemoth manages to up the ante in the graphic violence department. It lacks a really iconic scene like Beast’s cop getting chomped but it makes up for that by sheer volume.

The beginning and closing of The Giant Behemoth are more promising and interesting than the main action of the film. The opening is a monologue from Dr. Karnes about the uncontrollable effects of radiation on life. It’s plotted out in a step by step manner that leads us from the realistic to the fantastic and it is a chilling journey. The original concept of The Giant Behemoth was to be a massive radioactive blob, and you can see the seeds of that idea planted in this opening. (A British giant radioactive blob movie had already appeared in the form of X: The Unknown (1956) from Hammer Studios just a couple of years prior.) The Giant Behemoth also closes on an apocalyptic note that keeps it from going out with a whimper.

"Giant Behemoth" just seems redundant.
The Giant Behemoth isn’t a bad film, it is just one that looks much worse by cloning a great film. It retains a mean-spiritedness that is refreshing in the occasionally sanitized horror of the 1950s, but it remains a minor entry at best. It does have a few sparks of interest here and there but they are few and far between. If you really like giant monster movies, I think you will be find enough to enjoy it.