Friday, March 22, 2019

Pagan Island

Pagan Island
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)
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)
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.

Friday, March 1, 2019

The Alien Encounters

The Alien Encounters
James T. Flocker

What makes alien visitation movies so compelling is that no matter if the budget, acting, special effects, or the story falters, these films can still achieve a sense of other-worldliness that resonates in a way that other science-fiction films don’t. Whether you chalk this up to the material hitting a specific part of our psychology or there is something more real about our continuing fascination with beings from another world is up to you. In the end, it means that even a deeply flawed and low budgeted TV movie can still touch upon some uncanny moments that stick with the viewer.

"It's called a Canadian Tuxedo and it drives the chicks wild."
Allan Reed (Augie Tribach) is a radio astronomer who’s family is killed by a meteor (…or was it?) He looks for answers for his grief by delving into UFOs. His research takes him to read the book of Steve Arlyn (Matt Boston), a man who was not only dealing with UFOs but was building a device in the desert called a Betatron, which was supposed to prolong human life. Steve is dead, allegedly killed by mysterious Men in Black. Now Allan and Steve’s son Wally (Phil Catalli) wander the desert looking for evidence that Steve was, in fact, an alien from Barnard’s Star.

One of the oddest things about The Alien Encounters is that it is presented as an ‘Adventure Documentary.’ It never quite tries to become a full-on faux documentary, instead, it opts to be a traditionally told story that lapses into long periods of narration from Allan. I suppose it is a very effective cost saving solution to a film, but it also has the effect of draining the story of any real drama or stakes. If The Alien Encounters could have just picked one style or the other it would be a much tighter story.

Why are aliens so bad at parking?
Despite this, there is a palpable sense of eeriness present in the film. The highlight for me is a scene where Allan quietly watches a disc-shaped probe or craft float through a crevice in a mountain. It’s a simple effect, but it is shown with no comment. It occasionally cuts back to Allan staring in disbelief and then he never mentions it again. A truly strange and haunting moment. The whole Betatron subplot is brought up and then mostly ignored. What we see of the Betatron looks some vast factory but it’s never explored beyond that leaving it this weird rusty hulk in the desert.

The Alien Encounters isn’t totally without action, there is a decent car chase near the end with Allan and a 4x4 truck they may or may not be driven by Men in Black. If The Alien Encounters does one thing well with its low budget, it keeps the question of alien conspiracies, Men in Black and the rest obfuscated and therefore enhancing the mystery of it all.

The Alien Encounters is a minor entry in the pantheon of films about extraterrestrial visitors and despite some major flaws there are some interesting and haunting little moments to find. A perfect film to pass a slow Saturday afternoon while waiting for our space brothers to appear and save us all.

Friday, February 22, 2019

A Message from the Future

A Message from the Future
David Avidan

A man from 3005 who wishes to be addressed as FM - Future Man (David Avidan), has come to 1985 to convince world leaders not to avoid World War III but to actively pursue it. The world that is rebuilt after nuclear annihilation will be a paradise and FM wants to make sure it happens as soon as possible. Naturally, people aren’t too thrilled with this idea, so FM is also causing natural disasters to destabilize the world. However, is FM telling the truth about who he is?

The director, David Avidan, was an Israeli poet of questionable reputation at the time, since his death in 1995 he’s seen a notable rise in prestige but at least during the filming of A Message from the Future, he was not well regarded by the literary world at large. He stars as well as directs this film and often the dialog aspires to poetic moments, usually to comedic effect although I’m not sure how purposeful that may have been.

What the hell is a superrock?
A Message from the Future is difficult movie to pin down, one moment we are at a steamy sex scene, the next we’ve lurched over into a rock song about radioactivity (it’s a hell of an activity), and then all momentum grinds to a halt with scenes of businessmen talking (to be fair these scenes do pay off in the film’s jaw-dropping conclusion.) One of my favorite moments involves a couple of newscasters launching into a back and forth that is filled with odd slang and turns of phrase. It’s apropos of nothing but very entertaining to watch, a microcosm of the film as a whole.

There is a distinct cheapness to everything involving FM and his time-traveling equipment: silver clothes, blinking lights, and bubble wrap. One the one hand this could be seen a well-worn joke about impoverished SF films of the past or it could be a cinematic shorthand for the mostly irrelevant SF tropes contained in this film. It all comes down to whether you engage A Message from the Future as smart commentary or satirical misfire. There is some enjoyable analog synthesizer music throughout the film, and even the rock number featured in its entirety is pretty catchy.

"No really, I'm from the future stop giggling."
Between this film and An American Hippie in Israel (1972), I have to wonder if Israeli genre cinema is an unexplored treasure trove of weirdness. A Message from the Future is more satire than a science-fiction story. It operates as an exploration on the influence of news, capitalism, and media while taking a few swings at the cheapness of pot-boiler sci-fi while tossing in some gratuitous sex and nudity. It is simultaneously goofy, thought-provoking, and convinced of a self-greatness that it doesn’t quite possess. A Message from the Future is a mess from 1981 but it is an engrossing mess that is worth seeing at least once. If nothing else, you will never forget it.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mission Mars

Mission Mars
Nicholas Webster

Mission Mars starts out as a rote ‘Astronauts go into space movie.’ There is the joking and camaraderie of the three leads, we get a glimpse of two of their spouses so that there is some kind of emotional tension there when the danger happens. We even get the sort of gee-whiz technical jargon about the launch and a heaping of Mars factoids that might have been fresh in the 1950s but feels played out by 1968. There is a definite ‘been there done that’ feel to the first 40 minutes, but once our crew finally makes it to Mars, things get a lot more interesting.

We’re warned something is amiss when the Americans find two dead Soviet cosmonauts adrift in space. The surface of Mars is colorful, desolate, and threatening. Here they find a third cosmonaut seemingly flash frozen. There is also a strange Art Deco statue of flat panels and lights that proves to be a threat. The adventure gives way to the sinister and the unknown as it descends into horror at points. Someone is graphically blinded and burned. Mission Mars never explains its threat, is it a Martian? An explorer from somewhere else? Something even more monstrous?
Wanting sex or staring into the 8th dimension? You decide.
Our three heroes are likable enough, although a) Darren McGavin delivers the creepiest horny face I’ve seen in a long time and b) His idea of foreplay is using a towel to whip the legs out from under his unsuspecting wife. Nick Adams plays his usual low-key character, and George De Vries plays a guy with no last name or wife, so you can guess who is going to die right away. Heather Hewitt and Shirley Parker play the Earthbound wives, Edith and Alice. Wives pining for their lost husbands are rarely exciting roles, and here they are no exception.

The music is some highly groovy jazz and surf rock during the first half that gives way to more ethereal tones once the crew lands on Mars. The goofy opening theme is either highly inappropriate or a clever fake-out depending on how much trust you put into the director, Nicholas Webster. This is the same man who brought us Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). In some ways, this plays like the flip-side to that film, for here, Mars almost certainly does the conquering.
The traffic lights of Altair 4.
Like Planet of the Vampires (1965) and The Green Slime (1968) just three years before, Mission Mars plays up the horror of space exploration. There’s no friendly alien or universal truth to discover, just something unknowable and mean. Despite this element, Mission Mars isn’t dour at all, in fact, it remains relatively upbeat for most of its running time, which creates this strange tension between what is happening to the trio of astronauts and how it is being presented. Mission Mars starts out banal and then becomes something far more odd and interesting. Its difficulty to acquire and relative obscurity only make it that much more curious. I’ve revisited this film several times and I will certainly be going back to it again. Mission Mars is an oddity that is worth exploring.

Mom warned me not to sit too close to the TV and I DIDN'T LISTEN!!!

Friday, February 8, 2019

War of the Satellites

War of the Satellites
Roger Corman

With the destruction of the tenth attempt to get a manned satellite into orbit, Dr. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon), the head of the project is facing pressure from the United Nations as well as the sinking feeling that powers beyond the Earth are thwarting him. Van Ponder ends up in a seemingly fatal car accident only to appear at a key U.N. meeting unharmed. Only, this isn’t Van Ponder and as he drives the next iteration of the Sigma Project towards disaster, only his colleges Dave Boyer (Dick Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot) begin to suspect that something is amiss.

"Murry Futterman? Never heard of him."
War of the Satellites is a surprisingly ambitious story. Roger Corman productions might be notorious for cutting corners, but this film still tries to tell a more complex story than a simple alien doppelganger  tale. The flip side of this is that it isn’t an especially focused story, alternating between United Nations meetings, gee-whiz space adventure, and some mysterious cloak and dagger activities. Another Corman film, It Conquered the World (1956) touches on some very similar ideas but keeps the whole thing on the ground level and centered on its characters which results on a much more streamlined narrative.

Being surprised while watching a 1950s SF film is a rare treat, so it was with some delight that Dr. Pol Van Ponder makes a turn to the villainous and the one only Dick Miller as Dave Boyer steps in to take the lead as the hero of the story. Dick Miller is always a fun presence, but he’s often regulated to smaller roles, so it’s great to see him get plenty of screen time and be the good guy for once. Richard Devon as Van Ponder moves between his warm human self and the cold alien beneath with a slippery ease that makes him into an effective threat. Susan Cabot turns in another great performance in a string of Corman films. Her Sybil is a strong character but relegated to damsel in distress by the 3rd act.

The working title for this film was War of the Upholsterers.
You should never go into a Roger Corman film expecting great special effects, but in the scenes where Dr.  Ponder replicates himself Corman pushes things here just a little bit and they transform into interesting little moments. The launch and formation of the Sigma satellite is much less successful, but I have to admire the attempt to show three rockets transforming and merging into a single satellite in a low budget production like this.

War of the Satellites plays a like a mishmash of other SF films from the period, and attempts to knit them together with a espionage plot that mostly works. It offers a few surprises here and there and a great role for Dick Miller. It is not a film I see mentioned in Roger Corman’s body of work very often but it is a solid little film that shows off some big ambitions.