Monday, March 22, 2021

THE PARK IS ON FIRE

Last night's watch. The first of a two-part documentary that investigates the 1979 fire that tore through the Ghost Train ride at Sydney's Luna Park, a tragic event that claimed the lives of seven people - a father and his two young boys, and four schoolboys who were enjoying their first night out without parental supervision. While faulty wiring was the official cause of the blaze, arson has long been suspected, and in this documentary, Caro Meldrum-Hanna investigates the event, sifting through the volumes of documents, photographs, and tape recordings which Martin Sharp, a Sydney artist who helped revive the park in the early-70s, compiled over the last thirty years of his life.

There are some devastating moments in this documentary. I was a boy of around the same age as the young victims when this happened, and can remember it being all over the news. As a kid who grew up just around the corner from Melbourne's own Luna Park, and who frequented it and the rides often, it haunted me for a long time. One of the most harrowing moments in EXPOSED: THE GHOST TRAIN FIRE involves the recollections from people who were outside the ride as it happened, listening to the chorus of terrified, high-pitched screams coming from within as the structure was quickly engulfed in flames.
It is sad to also see how much guilt remains in the minds of many - the parents who decided to let their kids go into the city on their own for the first time, the friend of the four boys who had to ride in a separate car and was plucked from it just in time, and the people who spotted the fire when it was still small and containable, but failed to report it to anyone when they emerged from the ride (they were kids themselves at the time, and since the fire broke out in a section of the ride that featured a fake fireplace, they all assumed the fire was a part of the attraction). Also heartbreaking is the recollection of the wife and mother of the man and two boys killed, who missed getting on the ride because she was buying an ice cream cone, and had to watch on in horror as the ride burnt to the ground.
There is a lot of old footage, photos, and news reports featured in this doco, which in Australia can be viewed on ABC i-view (not sure if it can be watched from outside Australia). The concluding episode airs this week.



FIVE ARE ALIVE

Sunday matinee. First time viewing of this low-budget 1951 film from writer/director Arch Obeler, and what a haunting experience it is. One of the first movies to try and realistically depict what life may be life after the ravages of an atomic war, FIVE is a very baroque and grim movie, as a handful of survivors hole up in an amazing mountaintop home (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), trying to decide whether to stay put or go in search of other survivors. There is no radioactive monster, or even much visual action, in FIVE, but its remarkable bleakness, and genuine intelligence, draw you completely into its world. Some of the ideas and themes in the movie seem quite brave for its time, the character dynamics are terrific and the small cast is all great, especially James Anderson as a racist South African explorer, who brings tension and violence into an otherwise balanced environment.



Saturday, March 6, 2021

ANGEL OF THE CITY

“High School Honor Student by Day. Hollywood Hooker by Night”

The seedy side of Hollywood has long held a fascination for filmmakers, particularly those low-budget exploitation producers who saw the commercial potential in taking their audience on a rocky ride through the sleazy underbelly of Tinseltown. The Sunset Strip of the 1960s-80s was the L.A. equivalent of New York’s infamous Times Square and 42nd Street of the same era, though the later did not have the Jekyll & Hyde facade that L.A. radiated as it shifted between day and night (while the Times Square of old, according to tales told by those who lived through it, was an intimidating danger zone 24/7).               

The late-sixties saw movies like Dave F. Friedman’s sexploitation film Starlet (1969) depicting the sordid side of the Hollywood rainbow, while Ray Dennis Steckler’s astounding The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979) captured enough of the grotty locales of the area to make it an indispensable document for sleaze scholars to study. The early-to-mid-1980s, however, seemed to be a particularly fertile period for films which took the viewer on a low-budget trawl through the dark alleyways, cheap hotels, grimy adult shops, and neon-lit streets on which the denizens of Los Angeles sought an easy score, anonymous sex, and a brief respite from life’s drudging realities. Vice Squad (1982), Death Wish II (1982), 10 to Midnight (1983), Alley Cat (1984), The Glitter Dome (1986), and Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) were just some of the titles turned out during this period that wallowed in the kind of violence and lurid excess which the City of Angels had to offer. But the film which best encapsulated the flashy fantasy of early-eighties seedy L.A. noir was, perhaps, Robert Vincent O’Neil’s Angel (1984) and, to a lesser extent, its three subsequent sequels.

Donna Wilkes as the original, iconic Angel.

Angel tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Molly Stewart (Donna Wilkes), an A-student at an exclusive prep school in Los Angeles who, once the sun goes down, teases her hair, paints her face, and dons stilettos and leather mini-skirts before heading out to the Sunset Strip, where as “Angel” she turns tricks in order to keep a roof over her head, since both her parents had abandoned her some years earlier, a fact which she keeps to herself. Looking out for Angel on the streets is a memorable cast of eclectic characters including Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun), an aging star of western movies who now spends his nights wandering Hollywood Boulevard in full cowboy regalia, Mae/Marvin Walker (Dick Shawn), a transvestite who lives in the same apartment building as Molly, and Solly Mosler (Susan Tyrell), her foul-mouthed landlord who also paints childish abstracts.                                        

It’s a good thing that Molly has such people minding her back, as there is a vicious serial killer with necrophilic tendencies (played by John Diehl), who is stalking the Strip carving up prostitutes, much to the frustration of Lt. Andrews (Cliff Gorman), the cop who is assigned to the case. The terror hits closer to home when two of Angel’s streetwalker friends, Crystal (Donna McDaniel) and Lana (Graem McGavin), fall victim to the vicious killer, with Angel clearly next in the unnamed psychotic’s sights. With Lt. Andrews and high school teacher Patricia Allen (Elaine Giftos) closing in on the truth behind Molly’s lack of parental guidance, not to mention the extra harassment from a group of her obnoxious male classmates who stumble upon her dual identity, Angel helps herself to Solly’s long-barrelled magnum and, with the aid of Kit Carson and his colt 45s, confronts and takes care of the psycho killer in a memorable finally that is fitting of Carson’s Wild West persona. We last glimpse Molly as she walks away from the crime scene with a wounded Carson and Lt. Andrews, presumably to leave her alter-ego behind for good.                          

Angel and some of her crew.

Though surprisingly restrained for an exploitation film which such a provocative theme and potential for titillation, Angel works so well because it delivers on tension and character, and features an effective and endearing performance from Donna Wilkes in the role of Molly/Angel. Wilkes, who was twenty-four at the time of filming and was best known for her role as teen Jackie Peters in Jaws 2 (1978), really handles the dual elements of frightened innocence and provocative sexuality that was pivotal to her character, and gets terrific support from her main co-stars, who help create a unique world for Angel to exist in (Wilkes researched her role by spending time with real Hollywood hookers, street kids and members of the L.A. Police). The use of real locations on and around Hollywood Boulevard also helped add to the film’s air of authenticity, and the El Royale Hotel on Ventura Boulevard, which features in the movie, is still standing and has been a been a haven for struggling writers, directors, actors, and musicians, not to mention curious Hollywood sightseers, since the 1940s.

Angel
also benefits from a great soundtrack, propelled by the film’s highly-infectious theme song, “Something Sweet”, which was composed and performed by The Allies, a new wave-tinged pop/rock band formed by guitarist/vocalist Matt Preble and Pam Neal, who played the L.A. and San Francisco. 



Released in the US on January 13, 1984, Angel’s initial opening weekend proved to be somewhat disappointing, but positive word of mouth helped turn the film into a substantial hit for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, with the movie eventually raking in nearly $20 million on a $3 million budget. Not surprisingly, a sequel was soon put into production, and Avenging Angel (1985) hit the screens exactly one year after the original. Once again directed by Robert Vincent O’Neil from a screenplay co-written by himself and Joseph Michael Cala, Avenging Angel saw the title role being recast, with Donna Wilkes replaced by Betsy Russell, starting a trend of revolving lead actresses which would continue through the two subsequent sequels in the series (Wilkes reportedly did not reprise her role due to a salary dispute).                        

In Avenging Angel, Molly Stewart is off the streets, out of high school, and studying hard at UCLA to make it as a lawyer. But she soon brings Angel out of retirement, and back on the streets, upon learning that Lt. Andrews, the man who helped save her in the first movie, has been murdered. Enlisting the help of her old friends Solly and Kit Carson (the later of whom she has to break out of a sanitorium to which he has been confined), Angel sets out to avenge Andrews’ murder and uncovers a scheme to buy up Hollywood Boulevard properties, which a feared gangster is instigating, using violence and intimidation to persuade those owners reluctant to part with their businesses.

Betsy Russell takes over the title character in Avenging Angel.

While it has its moments, Avenging Angel did not build on the promise of the original, and the film failed to make any significant dent at the box-office, barely ear1977), the later starring Jack Wrangler and a favourite of John Waters. Under his real name, DeSimone also helmed the infamous sex comedy Chatterbox (1977), starring Candice Rialson as a hairdresser with a talking vagina, before moving on to cult exploitation and horror fare like Hell Night (1981), The Concrete Jungle (1982), and Reform School Girls (1986). He was also an uncredited co-director on Danny Steinman’s brilliant Savage Streets (1984), a story of female street justice which certainly took some of its ques from the first Angel film, and featured a soundtrack by none other than a pre-Whispering Jack John Farnham!                                                                                          
While it has its moments, Avenging Angel did not build on the promise of the original, and the film failed to make any significant dent at the box-office, barely earning a quarter of what Angel took in the year before. The absence of Wilkes certainly hurt the movie, though Betsy Russell tries her best, and at least Rory Calhoun and Susan Tyrell return to provide a bit of continuity. The film proved to be significantly more popular on home video, however, which led to a third film being put together under the guidance of a completely new production team. Angel III: The Final Chapter (1988) was written and directed by Tom DeSimone, whom under the name of Lancer Brooks had developed his filmmaking skills in the burgeoning gay XXX market of the early-seventies, helming such choice titles as How to Make a Homo Movie (1970), Swap Meat (1973), Black Heat (1973), and the classic 3D porn, Heavy Equipment (1977), the later starring Jack Wrangler and a favourite of John Waters. Under his real name, DeSimone also helmed the infamous sex comedy Chatterbox (1977), starring Candice Rialson as a hairdresser with a talking vagina, before moving on to cult exploitation and horror fare like Hell Night (1981), The Concrete Jungle (1982), and Reform School Girls (1986). He was also an uncredited co-director on Danny Steinman’s brilliant Savage Streets (1984), a story of female street justice which certainly took some of its ques from the first Angel film, and featured a soundtrack by none other than a pre-Whispering Jack John Farnham!

Taking over the titular role in Angel III was the exotically-named Mitzi Kapture, who would later go on the play Sgt. Rita Lee Rance in the first five seasons (1991 – 1995) of Stephen J. Cannell’s long-running late-night crime drama Silk Stalkings. Kapture plays a more mature Molly Stewart in Angel III, which sees the character now working as a freelance photographer in New York, a far cry from the burgeoning lawyer we saw in the previous entry. While on assignment at an art show, Molly faintly recognises a woman who turns out to be her long-lost mother, whom she follows back to L.A. and gets reacquainted with long enough to discover she has a younger sister she did not know about, who is in grave danger at the hands of some mysterious criminals. Unfortunately, mom gets tragically killed by a car bomb soon afterwards, forcing Molly to once again hit the streets as Angel as she tries to rescue her sister Michelle (Tawny Fere) from a white slavery prostitute ring ruthlessly overseen by a woman named Nadine (Maud Adams).

Mitzi Kapture: the third Angel in as many films.

Featuring plenty of sleaze and nudity (a DeSimone trademark), Angel III is probably the most enjoyable of the three sequels, moving along at a decent pace and featuring an interesting cast of supporting players including Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft himself), cult favourite (and Roger Corman regular) Dick Miller, and Toni Basil as a posh art gallery owner. Though well-known for her catchy 1982 pop hit “Mickey” (and its inventive music video), the multi-talented Basil has had a fascinating and varied career dating back to the 1960s, dancing in Beach Party and Elvis movies, choreographing David Bowie tours, and appearing in films such as Easy Rider (1969), Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), and Slaughterhouse Rock (1988). As the villainous Nadine, Maud Adams channels the same measure of glamourous menace which she projected in her two James Bond outings, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Octopussy (1983). Also popping up in the movie are XXX star Ashlyn Gere, late scream queen Roxanne Kernohan (tragically killed in a car accident at the age of only 32), and Tom DeSimone’s younger brother Bob (ironically cast as a porn film director).

Despite its subtitle, Angel III did not prove to be the final chapter in the Molly Stewart saga, which would come six years later in Angel 4: Undercover (1994). Now played by Darlene Vogel, Molly is reinvented as a blonde in her fourth (and last, to date) cinematic outing. Now putting her skills with a camera to work as a police photographer, and romantically involved with a local DJ, her alter ego emerges once again when an old friend from her street days arrives in town to catch a rock band and soon turns up dead. With the killing linked more to the rock & roll scene rather than prostitution, Angel this time assumes the guise of an eager groupie in order to turn up evidence that the brilliantly-named, and extremely drug-addled, British rock singer Piston Jones (Shane Fraser) is responsible for her friend’s death.

Angel in name only.

Directed by Richard Schenkman under the alias of George Axmith, Angel 4 was unfortunately a pretty disappointing note for the series to end on. Schenkman’s background in music videos and Playboy video documentaries certainly hold him in good stead when it comes to the flashy visual side of the production, but it ultimately comes across as an Angel film in name only, and more of an illegitimate daughter than an official continuation of the same character’s life journey. With only a slumming Roddy McDowall providing any real interest amongst the faces in the cast, Angel 4: Undercover (also known as Angel 4: Assault with a Deadly Weapon) was a rather sad ending for a memorable character who perhaps should have stayed in the big hair and neon-electric colour palette of the 1980s, the decade for which she was created and felt most at home in.

While Angel 4 has so far only surfaced on VHS and laserdisc, the first three films finally received the release they deserved when Vinegar Syndrome issued The Angel Collection Blu-ray box set in November of 2019. House in a creative slip-box, The Angel Collection featured stunning, restored transfers of each film, which instantly rendered previous bare-bones DVD releases obsolete, along with a number of interesting featurettes (particularly on the first film). A good companion piece to the Blu-ray set is the nice single-disc soundtrack CD, released by BSX Records by 2014, featuring music from the first three films (though the version of “Something Sweet” included is sadly a recent re-recording, performed by Melody Michalski).

Vinegar Syndrome's impressive Angel Blu-ray box set.

Copyright John Harrison 2021

Monday, February 8, 2021

WE BELONG DEAD!

Received my contributor's copy of WE BELONG DEAD #25 from the UK a few days back, containing my seven-page article on classic monster model kits from the 1960s and 70s. Looks like lots of great stuff in this informative, fun, and beautifully designed magazine.


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

TONI BASIL

A new piece I have written on the fabulous, and multi-talented, singer/dancer/actress/choreographer Toni Basil, now posted over at the FilmInk website. Click on the link below to read!

Time After Time: The Invention (and Continual Re-Invention) of Toni Basil



Tuesday, January 26, 2021

DAY OF THE LIVING ME

My review of American filmmaker Jeff Lieberman's highly entertaining new book, DAY OF THE LIVING ME, has now been posted over at the FilmInk website. Grab a copy now! (Amazon Australia link is included at the bottom of the review).

DAY OF THE LIVING ME: FilmInk Review by John Harrison



MASSACRED IN HD!

What a treat to see this excellent 1976 exploitation film finally get the release it deserves. Like I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958), MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH has some very clever ideas and subtext hiding beneath its memorably exploitative title, and superficially simple plot. Yet it also delivers satisfying helpings of all the popular drive-in staples of the time. The background of Dutch writer/director Renee Daalder clearly helped provide him with a unique take on the American teen, and it's easy to see its influence over the later, and still much better known, HEATHERS (1988). The new Synapse Blu-ray release of MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH retains some grain but is lush and absolutely pops in places, it's the best the film has looked since its original theatrical release, without a doubt. I'll keep my original Australian Merlin Video VHS release for nostalgia, but glad I can finally ditch my dodgy UK DVD release, which was just a sub-standard VHS rip. Severin has put some nice touches to their Blu-ray, presenting it in a steelbook format and sheathing it in a cardboard slip. There's also a booklet with liner notes on the film by Michael Gringold (who first saw the movie on a New York double-bill with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE!), and the disc has all the usual trailers, TV and radio spots, and other promo material, along with audio interviews with the late Daalder and various cast members, and an enjoyable 45-minute making-of featurette. My only minor complaint is that it doesn't include the alternate Italian cut of the film, which was re-titled SEXY JEANS and had hardcore XXX shots edited into it (they do touch upon it in the making-of featurette, however, with cast members expressing their bemusement over the odd retitling).




TINTORERA!

Recent Saturday afternoon movie. A Mexican killer shark movie directed by the notorious RenĂ© Cardona Jr., TINTORERA (1977) enjoyed a decent box-office run thanks mainly to two things: the phenomenal popularity of JAWS (1975) and the interest in all things shark-related that it brought with it, and an effectively lurid publicity campaign. The plentiful flesh that is on display throughout also likely had something to do with its appeal. Sadly for horror buffs, there's a lot more focus on titillation, menage a trois action, and bad disco music in the movie than there is on tension or terror, though Cardona Jr. does come through with a couple of grisly shark attack sequences, and there's no doubting the attractiveness of the cast and the lovely East Mexican beach locations, both of which look quite stunning on Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray release. The authentic shark hunting sequences, as well as the killing of a beautiful large turtle and manta ray, are a bit tough to watch though, and the HD transfer enables you to clearly see the wires attached (likely by hook) to the mouths of the shark and several other large fish, used no doubt to pull the poor creatures in the direction the camera wanted them to. It definitely give the film an unpleasant edge that is hard to ignore.


NIGHT STALKING HEAVEN'S GATE

Two newer true-crime documentary shows that I have watched recently.

NIGHT STALKER is a pretty brutal, slick, and exploitative examination of the horrendous crimes of Richard Ramirez, who terrified the L.A. area in the mid-80s. As a police procedural and document of the police investigation into the case, it is very good. Where it lacks is in the background examination of Ramirez himself, and what turned him into such a true monster of a human being. His story is mostly relegated to the final episode. I am certainly fine with the series putting an emphasis on the police manhunt and the impact the crimes had on the surviving victims and relatives, but I do feel an additional episode, devoted to the further exploration of Ramirez himself, would have given the series a bit more balance and made it more definitive. NIGHT STALKER features some pretty grisly (though still censored) crime scene evidence, and does a good job of capturing the overall sense of fear that Ramirez spread across the city, a panic no doubt exacerbated by the extreme heatwave that accompanied the arrival of his murder spree. The truly terrifying aspect of Ramirez's crimes is that, while he clearly harboured sexual deviances, he never favoured a particular "type" - male, female, young, old, together or in pairs, everyone in the city thought of themselves as a potential target.

HEAVEN'S GATE: THE CULT OF CULTS is an engrossing, and ultimately rather sad, four-part investigation into the suicide of 39 people outside of San Diego in 1997. Members of a UFO religious sect headed by Marshall Applewhite, the cultists believed that by killing themselves they would gain admission to a giant alien spacecraft which they believed was travelling unseen within the flaming tail of Hale-Bop, a comet that was flying closer to Earth than it ever had. I watched and read all the news items about Heaven's Gate when it occurred, and bought a VHS of the infamous 'recruitment video' from Polyester Books, but hadn't really done a deep dive into the story (the only book I have read on the case was a quickie paperback rushed-out by The New York Post). So a lot of the details of the story were unknown to me, which this series does a terrific job of documenting.

Though the media tied the Heaven's Gate cult to the internet age, the group actually had a history dating back to the early-70s, when former hippies were exploring New Age ideas and philosophies, and books like CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, and TV shows like STAR TREK, had people seriously contemplating the existence of UFOs and their role in our life and creation. By the mid-nineties, however, co-founder Bonnie Nettles had been dead for a decade, and Applewhite was also failing physically, and desperate to find a way to fulfill his teachings and promises.

It's fascinating watching the Heaven's Gate cult develop and change between the 1970s and their eventual 1997 mass suicide. There's a ton of great, rare archival footage of the group and their town recruitment meetings, news reports, etc., along with some very effective, whimsical animation sequences. There was nothing violent or salacious about this cult, they were all clean-cut, polite, and well educated, and lived a life of celibacy. In a way, it makes their final act even more strange and fascinating to ponder.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

REMEMBERING WHEN 'IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA'



The mystery of the briny deep, and the potential monsters and other horrors that may lurk fathoms down in the pitch dark of the ocean bottom, has provided as strong a fascination and allure for some as what the endless void of outer space has for others. With so much of our world still hidden beneath the sea, it naturally lends itself to tales of fantasy and the unknown. Jules Verne most famously took readers on a thrilling journey Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870, an adventure that included a tense confrontation with a giant monster squid which attacks the Nautilus submarine. When Disney adapted Verne’s novel in a lavish 1954 production, the climactic battle with the squid provided one of the most exciting and iconic moments in the studio’s history. The success of the film showed that oversized cephalopods could provide plenty of onscreen thrills and chills, and no better film amply demonstrates this than It Came from Beneath the Sea, which was released in July of 1955, little more than six months after Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Directed by Robert Gordon, who began his career as a child actor in the 1920s before moving behind the camera in the late-forties, the modern miracle of atomic energy is once again the cause of the problem in It Came from Beneath the Sea. While the gigantic octopus that is the IT of the film’s title has existed for countless years deep down inside the Philippine Trench, the atomic bomb tests conducted on the Marshall Islands has forced the monster to surface, since the radiation it has absorbed has driven off its natural food supply. It first makes its presence known when it takes a fancy to a new $55 million nuclear submarine, captained by Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), which is out on manoeuvres in the Pacific. While the boat and crew survive the encounter, Mathews and his men are at a loss as to what had attacked them, the only clue being a large piece of rubbery tissue found jammed in one of the sub’s diving planes.

Returning to Pearl Harbor, Mathews enlists the help of a co-ed team of marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and John Carter (Donald Curtis), to identify the mysterious tissue. Naturally, the military bigwigs scoff at the pair’s deduction that the tissue came from a giant octopus, but they soon sing a different tune when fishing boats start going missing and near-catatonic survivors talk of a giant sea monster attacking them. As romance starts to quickly bloom between Mathews and the young female professor, the beast makes its way underwater towards San Francisco where, further irritated by electronic nets put up across the bay to try and stop it, it spectacularly destroys parts of the Golden Gate Bridge and the busy port area, its enormous tentacles stretching out across the surrounding streets to spread the horror inland. The only chance at destroying the monster is to try and drive it back underwater and then use the nuclear submarine to launch a special jet-propelled torpedo at it, which will embed itself in the octopus’s brain before being detonated by remote control from a safe distance. Not as easy a task as it sounds!



The title of It Came from Beneath the Sea was, quite obviously, inspired by It Came from Outer Space (1953), Jack Arnold’s classic 3D science fiction adventure that Universal had released. While Columbia didn’t mind swiping the title from their rival studio, they stopped short of filming their movie in 3D, a fad whose initial wave of popularity was already on the way out by 1955. Besides which, Columbia already had their own powerful “gimmick” in store for audiences, which was of course the incredible stop-motion special effects provided by Ray Harryhausen, for whom It Came from Beneath the Sea is essentially a showcase.

While Willis O’Brien is rightfully considered the pioneer of stop-motion animation, a technique he displayed with cinema-changing brilliance in King Kong (1933), it was Ray Harryhausen who picked up the torch and took it to the pinnacle. After working with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949), which won an Oscar for its visual effects, Columbia eyed Harryhausen after seeing his impressive work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), his first solo film credit. It was at Columbia that Harryhausen first started to work with producer Charles H. Schneer, a fruitful partnership that would begin with It Came from Beneath the Sea and continue right up to Clash of the Titans (1981), Harryhausen’s final feature. “Dynamation” was the name which Harryhausen gave to his own brand of stop-motion work, which involved placing his miniature models between two separate live-action plates, giving a more convincing sense of depth to the scene, and more interaction between the human characters and the animated miniatures.

Naturally, it is Harryhausen’s work which provides the bulk of the excitement in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Budgetary constraints imposed upon the movie by Sam Katzman, head of Columbia’s B picture unit, meant that Harryhausen was only able to construct a six-tentacled model octopus for the special effects scenes, though honestly, in all the excitement who’s counting? As usual, Harryhausen is able to imbue his creation with a distinct personality, not just with his fine craftmanship for building the miniature models and sets, but the way in which painstakingly brought them to life with his intricate stop-motion techniques. Even if it is just the octopus’ bulbous head expanding and contracting, or a little flip of the tip of one of its tentacles, or even just the stare of its cold black eyes, it all combines to give the creature an individualism that makes it not only more charming and engaging, but infinitely more threatening as well. Priding himself on detail, Harryhausen made sure to research and study the look and behaviour of octopuses during pre-production, in order to give his model as much realism as he could. While the narrative pace for It Came from Beneath the Sea may be sluggish during its first two acts, the film more than makes up for it whenever Harryhausen’s magic is on screen. The partial destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the octopus tries to drag itself up out of the water by wrapping its tentacles around one of the bridge towers, is virtually worth the price of admission alone, and the follow-up attack on the port is just as memorable.



Plot-wise, one curious theme which the screenplay by Hal Smith and George Worthing Yates tackles is that of female empowerment and independence, a topic that was still kept fairly hush at the time, gaining much more strength and mainstream traction a decade later, when the counterculture started to really take hold. Of course, the topic is not tackled with any subtlety here, and comes in the form of Pete Mathews and his old-world views of women as the weaker sex who need protecting and should give up their careers as soon as they meet a man. After merely one dance and a quick kiss, Mathews gets angry when Lesley doesn’t cancel her plans to accompany John Carter on a research expedition due to leave the following day. “Do you mind if I make a mental comment on the nature of women?”, he asks of Lesley and Carter before storming off from the dining table in a huff.

Putting Mathews’ views down to the male-dominated environment he spends most of his time in, the more sensitive and worldly Carter tries to put him straight, when he sees that he is clearly struggling to get Lesley on his side:

“You don’t see many women in the navy. There’s a whole new breed who feel they’re just as smart, just as courageous, as men. And they are. They don’t like to be over protected, they don’t like to have their initiative taken away from them.”

Of course, it takes a while to be convinced, but Mathews finally drags his views into the 20th Century at the end of the movie, when Lesley takes the initiative and leans across the dinner table to plant one on his lips. “Say doctor, you know, you are right about this new breed of woman”, Mathews tells Carter coyly as the screen fades to black.

According to Bill Warren in his seminal Keep Watching the Skies, Volume 1: 1950-1957 (McFarland, 1982), there had been a further romantic sequence planned between Pete and Lesley, which would have fleshed out their burgeoning relationship a little more, but the scene was scrapped by Katzman during production, to ensure filming did not go overschedule. There is a nice moment in the film where Pete and Lesley are enjoying a dip in the ocean at night, sharing a steamy kiss before being interrupted by the arrival of Carter. It’s a scene that has a nice film noir quality to it, and provides a pleasing change from the rather staid human interplay throughout the rest of the film.



Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue are likeable in their respective roles, though genuine chemistry between them is sadly lacking. Tobey was more enjoyable to watch in The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, he seems to just cruise along here, though the ruddy, rugged redheaded always makes for an interesting screen presence. Likewise, Domergue isn’t as interesting here as she was in her other fifties’ genre features, Cult of the Cobra (1955) and This Island Earth (1955), the later one of the big science-fiction adventure films of the day.

Much of the live-action scenes in It Came from Beneath the Sea were filmed at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, with director Gordon also shooting aboard real submarines with a handheld camera, a decision that was primarily financial as it saved the costs of having to build sets, but it also inadvertently helps capture a more genuine and palpable sense of claustrophobia. Other famous San Francisco landmarks like the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building are used along with the Golden Gate Bridge to provide maximum impact during the destruction sequences.

The opening title sequence for the movie is quite moody and effective, set over a footage of a rough and stormy night sea, the title and main credits scrolling up the screen from out of the choppy waves, giving a good atmospheric portent of the horror to come. The credits are followed by a text scroll that gives us the usual warnings about atomic power and the upheaval of nature, while the narration by William Woodson comes across as overly portentous (“For the first time in their lives, three people met”, we are told when Mathews, Lesley and Carter hook up in the Navy’s research lab). Prolific Russian composer Mischa Bakakeinikoff contributes a fairly typical fifties monster movie score, which is serviceable though not quite as effective as his follow-up work for Harryhausen on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957). Bakakeinikoff also provided the score for another infamous fifties giant monster movie, The Giant Claw (1957). 

In the US, It Came from Beneath the Sea was originally released as the top-half of a double-bill with Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), another Columbia production, directed by Edward L. Cahn. The film was a decent financial success for the studio, grossing $1.7 million in the US, certainly a good return for a $150,000 production budget. The success of the film allowed Harryhausen and Schneer to continue with their partnership, their next project being the magnificent Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Some stop-motion footage of the octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea was also used in “The Village of Guilt” episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which aired during the show’s first season in 1964.


Copyright John Harrison 2020


Saturday, October 31, 2020

ADVENTURES IN THE B MOVIE TRADE

My review of the excellent new book by veteran Australian exploitation filmmaker Brian Trenchard Smith is now up at the FilmInk website. A terrific read for film lovers. Click on the link below to read.

Friday, October 2, 2020

GIANT MONSTERS OF FILMLAND

Spectacular cover (art by Paul Garner) for the upcoming GIANT MONSTERS OF FILMLAND book, another huge full-color volume coming from the publishers of WE BELONG DEAD magazine. I've written three essays for this book, for IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), THE SPIDER (1958) and A*P*E (aka SUPER KONG, 1976). Not sure of the publication date but will post more info and pre-order link once available.







Saturday, September 26, 2020

SPOTLIGHT ON HORROR

Received my contributor's copy of the magnificent new SPOTLIGHT ON HORROR book from the UK the other day, for which I contributed essays on RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1984) and the recent two-part adaptation of Stephen King's IT. What a stunning volume, over 400 glossy color pages covering horror cinema from 1920 to 2019. Beautifully designed and illustrated, big congrats to Eric McNaughton and everyone else involved in its publication. I already know how my two contributions turned out but I can't wait to read all of the other essays in this terrific piece of work that all horror cinema lovers would devour.







Friday, September 25, 2020

GLAMOUR & GLAMAZONS!

 

The latest issue of GLAMOUR filed through my mailbox a few days ago, to help while away some of those isolation blues. Published by the elusive and mysterious Glamour Puss, GLAMOUR revels in being one of the few old-school, cut 'n' paste film fanzines still around, eschewing any online presence and found only by word of mouth or sheer luck. I sometimes miss the days of trading my own fanzines, like STRAIT-JACKET and REEL WILD CINEMA!, with other zines published around Australia and the world. GLAMOUR helps capture the thrill of those days, where you had to make an effort to seek things out, and information (and misinformation) wasn't readily available at the touch of a button.

Each issue of GLAMOUR is usually devoted to a certain theme or a particular performer (past issues have covered Flash Gordon, Maria Montez, Steve Reeves, prehistoric glamour gals, Jayne Mansfield, and much more). First published n the 90s, GLAMOUR is relatively light on new writing. Glamour Puss usually provides a couple of pages of introductory text to provide us with some historical background on that issue's theme, before letting the visuals take over and do most of the talking (though she also provides notes and captions on many of the illustrations).

And what visuals they are! A digest chock-filled with rare stills, posters, lobby cards and pressbooks, most of which are sourced from Glamour Puss' own extensive personal collection. The latest issue of GLAMOUR takes us through a look at Glamazons on film, with visual material from films like TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS (1945), LOVE SLAVES OF THE AMAZON (1967), GOLIATH AGAINST THE GIANTS (1961), Terence Young's WAR GODDESS (1973), SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN (1974, a film I now need to see), THE ARENA (1974), GWENDOLINE (1984), RED SONJA (1985) and many more.

As much as I know how many people would enjoy this, I can't tell you where you can get your mitts on an issue of GLAMOUR. You have to already be part of the sacred circle to receive it, though Melbourne folks may sometimes find Glamour Puss making copies available at local film fairs, not that we have had one of them for a long time (and likely will be a while before we see them return).

Some previous issues of GLAMOUR:



Saturday, September 19, 2020

FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Binge watched all four episodes of the riveting new Netflix documentary series CHALLENGER: THE FINAL FLIGHT earlier in the week. Equal parts harrowing and heartbreaking, but always fascinating. The series looks back at the history and development of the Space Shuttle (via some terrific old footage), the historic first launch and landing of the Columbia shuttle in the California desert in 1981 (with Steven Spielberg and Roy Rogers amongst the awestruck witnesses), and the mounting concerns that put the program behind schedule almost from the start. NASA’s promise to deliver a profitable means of re-usable space transportation saw them under pressure that made them put business before lives.

The interviews with the family members of the seven deceased astronauts are incredibly sad. I felt particularly sorry for Marcia Jarvis, whose husband Gregory was originally scheduled for the flight previous to Challenger, but he was bumped off by Senator Jake Garn, who became the first sitting member of Congress to fly into space. The bumping of the spot meant Jarvis was now relegated to the doomed Challenger flight.

You also can’t help but think of the nine runner-up schoolteachers who came so close to being in Christa McAuliffe’s shoes on the day (the doco does interview Barbara Morgan, who was the back-up should McAuliffe had been unfit or otherwise unable to make the flight). The fact that Challenger had on board the first schoolteacher sent into space meant that millions of inspired young American students sat glued to the television set to watch the launch live, only to look on in horror as the Challenger exploded in front of their eyes less than two minutes into its flight. Tragically, one of the reasons why NASA did not want to delay the flight any further was because McAullife was scheduled to teach two classes live from the shuttle while it was in orbit, which would be beamed into American schools. If NASA had delayed the flight again, the scheduled lesson would have fallen on a weekend, when there was no school, something that the space agency did not want to risk after all the publicity build-up and anticipation.

Hopefully there will be a similar series produced that looks into the other tragic Space Shuttle mission, that of the original shuttle Columbia, which after 27 successful flights burned-up upon re-entry on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven crew members.