Friday, May 22, 2020

Flyin' Ryan

Flyin’ Ryan
Linda Shayne

Ryan Maguire (Andy Weiss) is a twelve-year-old kid. He and his mom move in with Aunt Rita (Connor Snyder), an odd woman with some sinister habits. The local skateboard gang starts picking on Ryan because he is new in town, or has red hair, the movie is unclear on this aspect. Soon, Ryan comes into possession of some shoes with magical reflectors on them that allow him to fly. This helps him save a dog or something… I don’t know...

"I don't know what's going either."
The plot of Flyin' Ryan is all over the place. It begins as a fish out of water story as we have a dorky kid forced into awkward situations, in this case, a new home, and local bullies. We are also introduced to some supernatural undertones as his house may be haunted. This goes a step further when a cowboy ghost shows in the wild west town on the outskirts of the city that is totally real and not some tourist trap place that sells you t-shirts. It is from this unholy specter that Ryan receives the magical reflectors that make his shoes fly.

Why would reflectors make shoes fly? Why would an old-timey ghost have reflectors? With all this investment into the flying shoes as a plot device, they are all but forgotten during the middle of the film. Instead we deal with a local skateboard gang and a dog that is introduced very late into the movie. The whole thing turns into a 'rescue the stolen dog story' that is completely bereft of anything supernatural.

Visual masterpiece.
There are many disjointed story elements that never amount to anything, a random karate stunt, a belly dancing scene that comes out of nowhere, a bit of drama as Aunt Rita is hospitalized. This disjointedness is really the most notable thing about what is an otherwise formulaic kid’s movie. Ryan’s shoes help do things he can’t normally do and they always work. I defy you to come up with a message behind this film other than, “We got some money to promote Heelys and made a movie around it.”

Ryan’s magical shoes are Heelys, the shoes with wheels that kids used to love, Here they are provided by the company for some free product placement. I don’t understand the connection with flying, it seems like a better promotion for your wheeled shoes would be, well, skating. There is even a natural set-up here as Ryan runs afoul of the local skateboard gang. This could have been the Gleaming the Cube (1989) of wheeled shoe movies, but instead, it’s a worse Skateboard Kid (1993).

Does his shirt say TERRACE BOOB?
Flyin’ Ryan is shot on digital video and every interior looks cheap and flat while the exterior shots look rather nice with their natural lighting. Knowing that this was a low budget kids movie, I figured that the flying effects would be unimpressive, they are not good but also not remarkably terrible.

This seems to be a good summation of the Flyin' Ryan itself: Not good, but not remarkably terrible.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Quatermass Experiment

The Quatermass Experiment
Sam Miller

The Quatermass Experiment is a very odd television movie, not only is it a loose remake of the original Quatermass Experiment mini-series from 1953 and the film version The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) but it was also produced as a live broadcast. It is an ambitious idea, taking a science-fiction story built on spectacle and trying to render it within the limitations of live television, but it never comes together in a satisfactory way. I imagine at the time of broadcast there was an element of tension since it was live and anything could go wrong. Viewing it now as a recorded story that element of tension is lost and there isn’t much left to replace it.

The plot is relatively close to that of the original. Professor Bernard Quatermass is the head of a rocketry group that is overseeing a mission into orbit with three astronauts. The ship flies too far into space and crashes on its return. Where there were three astronauts, there is now only one with no sign of the other two. From there we watch as Quatermass and his team slowly puzzle out the mystery while the rising specter of something unearthly and dangerous becomes more and more apparent.

This version spends a considerably longer time with surviving astronaut Victor Carroon (Andrew Tiernan). This is a wise move for a live drama and it delivers some of the strongest moments in the story as we explore the dawning horror that there is something terribly wrong with Victor and we connect with him as a human being to the extent that we can. This element can’t carry the whole story and when Victor escapes from his confines and begins to wander London things become much less interesting. Each scene is broken up by a lengthy transition which at the time allowed the live production to set-up the next scene but it kills much of the momentum.

I was also very interested to see how they were going to handle some of the make-up and monster effects, and the short answer is that they don’t. There are several opportunities for some fun stage make-up or miniature effects that could be done in-camera but The Quatermass Experiment steadily avoids them as much as possible. The climax of the story has an ethereal feel that almost rescues things, but it feels too slight by the end.

Performances are strong all around. David Tenet almost steals the show as Doctor Gordon Briscoe by demonstrating the charisma that will make him such a popular choice as The Doctor when Doctor Who picks him up shortly after this aired. Jason Flemyng’s turn as Quatermass lies somewhere between the brashness of Brian Donlevy in the first two Quatermass films and the haunted figure created by John Mills from The Quatermass Conclusion (1979).

In the end, The Quatermass Experiment doesn’t stand on its own. As a one-off live television event, it seems like it would have been fine if underwhelming. As a film it only feels relevant in conversation with the earlier productions of this story, there’s nothing compelling here that wasn’t done better in other versions. If you are a Quatermass completionist, it is worth checking out for curiosity’s sake but for everyone else The Quatermass Experiment crashes and burns.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness
John Carpenter

A group of graduate student scientists are gathering together at an abandoned church at the behest of the Catholic Archdiocese. In the basement is a container of swirling green liquid… and it is waking up.

When John Carpenter is writing under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, he’s tipping off viewers in the know what kind of film he’s making, when he gives characters last names like Marsh and Danforth he’s practically screaming out the inspirations for the film, yet at the same time, Prince of Darkness is very much a Carpenter invention. If anything, it is a master class how to draw from inspiration without having to slavishly pay ode to them by creating a pastiche. Prince of Darkness is the middle entry in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, consisting of The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness (1994). It is interesting to see the progression of doom in these films. The Thing ends with a chance that the alien has been defeated despite a heavy cost, while In the Mouth of Madness ends with the full-bore cosmic apocalypse raining down on humanity. Prince of Darkness ends on uncertainty, it is impossible to tell if our heroes triumphed or not… and honestly, it does look good in those final moments.

Sacrifice my mustache to save the world? Sorry, Earth, no dice.
When Carpenter used Martin Quatermass as his pseudonym and mentions a university named Kneale, he is tipping us off about the structure of this film. Drawing from the Quatermass series of films, written by Nigel Kneale, and most specifically, Quatermass and the Pit (1967), we are presented with an alien invasion that has already happened millions of years ago. This invasion has been obscured by time and by humans. In the case of Prince of Darkness, the Catholic church has deliberately hidden the existence of the tube of liquid anti-god that’s been sitting in the church for a very long time.  Whereas Kneal’s story starts out small and slowly expands both it’s physical and metaphysical impact, Carpenter’s film keeps expanding the cosmic implications of what is happening but turns that into a pressure cooker as this force threatens to burst from the confines of the church and leaves the protagonists less and less space to survive.

Apocalypse or not, that Timex looks in great shape.
Although Carpenter also name drops H.P. Lovecraft character surnames like Danforth and Marsh. The specifics of Lovecraft’s stories are less apparent. The Lovecraft influence comes largely from the notion of an inescapable cosmic evil that is only glimpsed in part. There are also elements of body horror and these outside influences affecting people with mental illness. Many films made later feel the need to directly insert themselves into Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but I prefer this lighter touch.

I’ve always found the opening and closing dream transmissions some of the most chilling images that Carpenter has ever put to screen. There is something so horrific in their half-glimpsed visions and the way their meaning becomes clearer by the end of the film. Prince of Darkness might not be the most well-loved Carpenter film but it is my personal favorite.

Friday, May 1, 2020

X the Unknown

X the Unknown
Leslie Norman and Joseph Losey

An explosion from a fissure claims the life of a soldier and badly burns another. The burns appear to be from radiation. Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) is called in to investigate. Strange deaths continue to occur, but always in the presence of containers of radioactive material. Dr. Royston begins to believe that something from deep in the fissure is emerging to consume radioactive substances, but first, he must convince his boss and the army of his theory.

X the Unknown began life as a Quatermass movie, a sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment (1956). Creator Nigel Kneale did not allow for the use of the character, but the film carried on regardless. Bernard Quatermass wouldn’t have felt out of place in this story at all. Much like those films, the story centers around a scientist with a small team using what they have to investigate a series of bizarre events that lead to a titanic horror that borders on the cosmic. Like the Quatermass movies, there is a rich sense of gravitas and doom throughout the story.

Things get out of control at the novelty fake vomit factory.
The main character of X the Unknown is Dr. Adam Royston, a mild-mannered physicist who is the opposite of the loud and aggressive Bernard Quartermass is every way. Nothing ever seems to get a rise of Dr. Royston, his overbearing boss, a stubborn military, or even some angry grieving parents who attack him. With a lesser script and actor Royston could come across as pathetic or uninteresting but he invests himself with the audience using his infinite patience and dry wit. The downside is that there isn’t much beyond what we see of the character, we get no idea of why he is the way he is. There is a sense that the proliferation of nuclear weapons has caused him to become something of an anti-nuclear activist, but we know little beyond that.

"I've encountered a vein of delicious nougat."
X the Unknown continues the early Hammer studio tradition of bridging horror and science-fiction with a film that not only tries to put speculative thought into its threat and solution but mixes some truly graphic deaths for a film made in the 1950s. The most notable gore scene is the death of a doctor that provides us with not only a grotesque swelling hand but also a delightful melting face effect that still packs a punch. The X itself is realized with some very good miniature and rear projection work. While the thing lacks the memorability of The Blob (1958) despite predating it, it is still an interesting faceless horror that feels like a force of nature.

X the Unknown is a relatively fast-paced, smartly written, and enjoyable work of SF-Horror. Its British origins free it from some of the more jingoistic elements that often plagued atomic horror films. The black and white cinematography is beautiful and the acting great all around. This is a film that seems to get passed over in discussions about the horror of the 1950s and it is a shame, X the Unknown should be better known.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Quatermass Conclusion

The Quatermass Conclusion
Piers Haggard

The economy of the UK has collapsed and with it society. Professor Bernard Quatermass finds himself not only searching for his missing granddaughter but racing to uncover the mysterious force that draws young people to ancient places of mystical significance before obliterating them with a powerful beam of light. Does the cult of Planet People know more than they let on?

The decades have not been kind to Professor Quatermass. Gone is the firebrand who held himself and his colleagues to impossibly high standards or the man who shook off an alien invasion and insisted on getting back to work on the British rocket program. The Quatermass we meet here is old, frail, and beaten down by the world. There is a little bit of his old fierce self to be found when he criticizes a joint US/USSR space mission, but his main concern now is to find the whereabouts of his granddaughter.

"Please tell your dog to stop licking the back of my neck."
The Quatermass Conclusion is unrelentingly grim. England has collapsed as a society. Gangs roam the streets and for-profit police are the only thing offering protection. Roving mobs of cultists calling themselves Planet People are gathering at ancient sites in hopes of leaving Earth… and then they do as hundreds of thousands are obliterated into ash by an unseen force from space. The first thing that happens to Professor Quatermass in the entire film is that he is beaten by a gang and threatened with having all his teeth removed. A warning of relentless oppression the characters will find themselves under.

The Quatermass Conclusion was created as an edited down film version of a 4-part television miniseries, but it does so without serious changes to the narrative. The Quatermass series has always dabbled in a mix of horror and science-fiction never turning away from some truly awful fates for its characters. The same holds true for Quatermass Conclusion to the point where I am not certain there is a single character who manages to survive unscathed by the finale. This formula works well in the first three Quatermass films because we are faced with the fantastical in the midst of the mundane. By tossing in this alien conspiracy into an already outlandish setting of a Mad Maxesque UK, both elements feel diminished, and worse both threats together turn the film into an unfun slog.

Changing the vacuum cleaner bag isn't as easy as it looks.
The Quatermass Conclusion does contain some fascinating and terrifying ideas, but it is a chore to watch thanks to a weak central character and no side characters root for. The mobs and cults might have been believable in 1979 but the Planet People or gangs who seem to have no identifiable differences beyond what color headbands they wear have not aged well as concepts and leave the middle section of the movie lifeless. Although Quatermass Conclusion does finally arrive at a bleak yet satisfying ending, getting there is not worth the effort.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth)
Roy Ward Baker

Workers expanding the London Underground discover a strange-looking skull while digging at Hobbs End. A scientific team investigates and finds not only that these are proto-humans but there is also a seemingly impenetrable metal spacecraft buried with them. Professor Bernard Quatermass is called in and discovers that there has been an alien presence on Earth for millions of years. To make matters worse, it isn’t dead and the recent unearthing has begun to wake up something buried in the psyche of everyone in the area.

The Professor Bernard Quatermass of this film might as well be a completely different character. Gone is the blustery anger and compassion of the previous two films. This time around Quatermass is worried and cautious. This could be a natural progression of a person who has lived through two horrific alien invasions and is running headfirst into a third, but the film never addresses this as fact. As unpleasant as I found Quatermass in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957), this time around he’s fallen too far into the role of a stereotypical science-fiction hero to make much of an impression.

"When you said let's go to Subway for lunch, this not what I thought you meant."
If Quatermass himself doesn’t live up to his predecessors, the story certainly does. Whereas the previous stories hid their threats away in abandoned night locations and remote villages, this time around the alien menace lives under the street in London. Not only that but it hinges on the idea that the alien invasion has already happened millions of years ago and what we are dealing with in the film is an aftershock of that event. It is a marvelous addition to what could have been a pretty standard invasion story and it makes the events feel even bigger and more important than they would otherwise.

Quatermass and the Pit opens on a note of unease as the tunnel workers keep finding mishappen skulls from the mud and eventually uncover a metal craft. This mystery hangs in the air and with each revelation that mystery moves towards becoming a catastrophe. The third act of the film takes a turn towards spectacle as the run-down area of Hobbs End becomes a nightmare of psychic attacks and roving mobs. This section of the film has become hugely influential to a number of later directors including John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, both of who reference this film in their own works (Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995) for Carpenter and Lifeforce (1985) for Hooper.)

This is what happens to people who pronounce it 'Quarter-mass."
This is also the first Quatermass movie that is rendered in beautiful bright color and it holds images across the visual palette from the dirty browns and greys of Hobbs End itself to the psychedelic mirrored interior of the alien spacecraft. It is a gorgeous looking movie and well worth seeing in high definition.  This is a brilliant and influential science-fiction film that would go on to inspire many others.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Quatermass II

Quatermass II
Val Guest

Rocket scientist, Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is frustrated at the lack of government interest in funding his moon colony project. While investing some strangely persistent meteorite storms he comes to find an abandoned village and a hi-tech facility that is extremely close to his own moon base designs. After one of his colleges picks up a meteor, it breaks open and something like a black bubble bursts on his face. Strange soldiers arrive and take the man away. Quatermass must unravel the mystery of this base before whatever lurks in its confines completes its plans.

Picking up at some unspecified time after the events of  The Quatermass Xpermiment (1955), Quatermass II is altogether a tighter and more ambitious story than its predecessor. Much like the first film, we follow Dr. Bernard Quatermass as he slowly puts the clues together despite the obstruction from both aliens and the government.

"Check it out, I'm going to touch this space boob."
Quatermass II improves on the first film in a couple of important ways. The first is the slight softening of its main character. Upon our reintroduction to Quatermass, he immediately launches into an angry tirade at one of his employees, but then… he apologies. The Quatermass of the earlier film would have done no such thing. Secondly, the antagonist this time isn’t some singular hounded being, but instead, it is an organized and powerful group. This places Quatermass and his team at a disadvantage and keeps the tension high when they find themselves at the mercy of this invading army.

The film shares some similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but both movies were based on previous material that was released in 1955 (The Quatermass II BBC series, and The Body Snatches novel by Jack Finney respectively). Where Invasion of the Body Snatchers dives into the paranoia of identity, Quatermass II takes a turn for cosmic horror when the true masterminds behind the invasion plot reveal themselves. There are some nifty horror elements throughout the film, my personal favorite being a moment where the heroes find a pipe leaking with blood and realized that it has been stuffed with human bodies to prevent toxic gas from filling the aliens’ habitat.

"Can I get you a moist towelette or something?
Brian Donlevy’s less acerbic Quatermass feels like a natural continuation from the first film. He's faced some losses that were directly his responsibility. Here we not only get to see him bring out some pathos as Quatermass loses more close friends in this conflict, but we also get to see him in a few action scenes and take a rifle butt to the face. This time he feels vulnerable and I think it’s the right move because now there is even more at stake in the narrative.

Of the three Quatermass films (four if you count the hybrid television series/film Quatermass Conclusion (1979)), this is probably the least well-known, but for me, it is my favorite. From what is the seeds of a pretty stock alien invasion film comes a wonderful conspiracy story that feels bigger and weightier as goes. The revelation of the beings pulling the strings is handled well and brings things to a head in a satisfying conclusion. Quatermass II moves from strength to strength as it goes along.