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.
Monday, March 22, 2021
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
“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.|
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.
|Betsy Russell takes over the title character in Avenging Angel.|
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.|
|Angel in name only.|
|Vinegar Syndrome's impressive Angel Blu-ray box set.|
Monday, February 8, 2021
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
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!
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
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).
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).
Recent Saturday afternoon movie. A Mexican killer shark movie directed by the notorious René 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.
Two newer true-crime documentary shows that I have watched recently.
Saturday, November 28, 2020
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
Friday, October 2, 2020
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
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