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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Predator (2018) – Review

According to this film, on the Predator home world, they apparently have their own form of Greenpeace — am I getting that right, is that what this film is about?

With this latest outing in the Predator franchise, action comedy director Shane Black does his best to cram five different movies into one – with one of those movies being about a Predator wanting to save mankind from global warming or something – and the result is a mess on a biblical scale. I have no doubt that Mr. Black has a three hour cut of this film that probably makes a little more sense than what we find here, but after the studio's heavy cutting and forced reshoots, what little made it to the theaters can barely be considered as having a plot. The final product can only be described as being “One ugly motherfucker.”


The “plot” of this film follows a bunch of army misfits – doing their best imitations of what the cast of Stripes and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would look like if they were in a monster movie – as they tangle with nasty alien Predators as well as evil shadowy government organizations. The movie’s primary hero is Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose entire team is wiped out when a Predator crash-lands I'm the middle of a hostage rescue mission in Mexico. Quinn is taken into custody by Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), a moustache twirling villain who runs a covert anti-Predator organization called Project Stargazer, and Quinn is shipped off with a bunch of Section Eights to cover up his claims of a Close Encounter, because apparently throwing him in a black site or shooting him in the face were not available options.

 

If this is your idea of a cover-up, you need to go back to the drawing board.

Well, luckily for us, just before Quinn was captured by the “evil military man,” he manages to mail some of the Predator’s armaments back home, where his cute as a bug autistic child Rory (Jacob Tremblay) opens the package. The kid immediately figures out how the alien tech works and decides a Predator helmet and wrist gauntlet would make for a good Halloween costume. I certainly can’t argue with that logic. While all this is going on, Traeger has sent for Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), an evolutionary biologist who is on some kind of government call list if you need an alien’s DNA analyzed, and she is asked to examine a captured Predator – Quinn left it unconscious after stealing the poor alien's swag – and when the Predator awakes, it proceeds to wipe out much of the staff of Project Stargazer — this is possible because the place is staffed with utter morons. Casey then grabs a tranquilizer rifle and proceeds to chase the alien warrior across the facility's rooftops as if she's Jason Bourne. I shit you not, this actually happens.

 

“I can take this thing out, I’ve played hours of Destiny on my PS4.”

The Predator is 100 minutes of characters running around in the dark shooting at either aliens or each other – with the heroes surviving only because they are in possession of the all-important “Hero Death Exemption" card – and once in a while, the film will take a break from all this action to explain some of the more idiotic plot points that make up this so-called story, stuff that would barely pass the smell test from your average five year-old, and that is certainly not the target demographic of your typical “R” rated movie. The people of Project Stargazer believe that the Predators gather DNA from species that they believe can make them better hunters  – thus, we get this whole super-hybrid Predator bad guy for our heroes to fight – but they also believe that the Predators plan on taking over the Earth once we finish making the planet uninhabitable for humans, and for some reason they've also come to the conclusion that the Predator that crashed in on Quinn was bringing a package to help humanity against the “evil” Predators.

How exactly did the people of Project Stargazer come to these startling conclusions? Did we miss a movie where Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum used their Apple laptop to hack the Predator mainframe? In this movie, both heroes and villains pull so much information out of their collective assess that the film should have been called The Prostators.

 

Quinn should trade that rifle in for a colonoscope.

The film does have tons of Shane Black’s trademark banter – Quinn’s team of army misfits providing the bulk of this – but unlike in his previous film, such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, we never come to care about any of these asshats, they are just dialogue-spouting joke machines with no other reason for existing. When they get picked off one by one you can almost feel the audience's collective “Who gives a shit” wafting across the theater. Could there be a version of this film out there that works? I’m a big fan of Shane Black so I’d like to think so, but from what I saw last night, I highly doubt any version of this movie would have made any sense; there are just too many plot holes and unexplained character motivations on hand for any of this to work. Now there is a good amount of action – humans versus Predator as well as Predator versus Predator – and much of that is fun to watch, but the overall end product is a vacuous mess of clichés and characters that all add up to a whole lot of nothing. Shane Black's The Predator looked to be trying to expand the universe of the Predators, something the AVP movies tried and failed at, but sadly this expansion falls in on itself like a black hole, where neither light nor intelligibility can escape.

 

“Please sir, can I have a sequel.”

Stray Thoughts:

• The big badass hybrid Predator brings a pair of Predator Dogs to hunt the fugitive Predator, and for some reason being shot in the eye makes one of these alien dogs befriend Olivia Munn.
• Traeger orders one of the Project Stargazer guards to kill Casey and take any contraband she has, but there is no way he’d know she had any contraband on her, and killing the person you just hired to study Predator DNA seems rather stupid and pointless.
• The big badass hybrid Predator is basically invulnerable to small arms fire, which makes the fights with him long and mostly pointless.
• The big badass hybrid Predator brutally murders every person it encounters, unless that person is Quinn or Casey, then he just smacks them aside, leaving them alive and virtually unharmed.
• Rory has what I call “Super Autism” which is a form of autism that Hollywood devised to allow characters to solve any problem as if by magic.
• Even if Rory’s autism allowed him to figure out Predator language and tech, it still wouldn’t allow him to know passcodes to enter alien ships. That’s as if learning German would mean you could sneak into the Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
• The big badass hybrid Predator wants Rory’s DNA because apparently autism is humanity's next evolutionary step, though I’m not sure how Rory’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and inability to handle loud noises, would be much help on a hunt.
• With the help of Rory, the villainous Traeger finds the crashed Predator ship, and then magically constructs a camp and electrified perimeter fence in minutes.
• Casey is able to magically teleport herself to the location of the final fight, even though Quinn and the Predator ship would have crashed miles away from her. Basically, there is a whole lot of magic going on in this science fiction film.

 

Where's a Predator wrist nuke when you need it?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Deluge (1933) – Review

Presumed lost for years, the 1933 film Deluge, released by RKO pictures, but produced by a small company called Admiral Productions Inc, is a film that could be argued as to be one of Hollywood’s earliest true disaster films, preceding such films as The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), and the big earthquake movie San Francisco (1936), starring Spencer Tracey and Clark Gable – and with the spectacular footage of the destruction of New York, with the now cliché shot of the Statue of Liberty being hit by a tidal wave, one could make a solid argument that this is the case. However, Deluge, based on the book of the same name, is more of an apocalyptic film, if not post-apocalyptic, rather than a true disaster film.


The film opens with a title card explaining that the film you are about to see is “A tale of fantasy – and adventure in speculation – a vivid pictorialization of an author’s imaginative flight,” and it then goes on to explain that it has to be fantasy because God, as stated in the Holy Bible, promised not to pull any of that kind of crap again.

 

I must say this is the strangest way to avoid calling God a liar.

The movie proper begins with a group of scientists who are very concerned with the rapidly dropping barometer readings – forcing them to issue severe weather warnings that will ground planes and cause ships to seek safe harbor – but things go from bad to worse when there is an unexpected solar eclipse; earthquakes begin to shake countries across the globe, the West Coast of America falls into the sea, the Arctic Ocean is overflowing, causing the Great Lakes to submerge Chicago, and massive quakes topple the skyscrapers of New York City, just before an immense tidal wave roars in to finish the job. To say that the miniature work of the city being destroyed, as buildings rock and crumble in a stunning array of shots, is amazing would be a gross understatement, and it's with this film that special effects director Ed Mann set the bar for cinematic mass destruction to come — and he set it very very high.




What makes this movie more of an apocalyptic film rather than a disaster movie is all the carnage takes place before the movie’s twenty-minute mark. The remaining forty-six minutes – and yes, that means this film is only 66 minutes long – is about the survivors and what has become of society. Usually your typical disaster film will spend around an hour setting up a variety of characters – that we can later tick off as they live or die by the whims of the screenwriter – but this movie has only a couple of characters introduced before the world, as they know it, meets its end. We meet professional swimmer Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon) – whose plans to break a long distance swimming lesson were cancelled by the storm – and Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer) and his wife Helen (Lois Wilson), who try to get their two children to safety as the world falls apart around them. When the storm waters recede, and the weather clears, we find a lone survivor standing in a new and bleak landscape.

 

Somewhere Burgess Meredith has just broken his reading glasses.

We are then introduced to two men, Jepson (Fred Kohler) and Norwood (Ralf Harolde), surviving in a cabin located on the outskirts of New York, their prospects of living in this newly devastated world doesn’t at first seem all that promising, as the two don’t get along and the cowardly Norwood is alive only on the sufferance of the much larger Jepson, but when Jepson finds Claire Arlington washed ashore – who also somehow survived the destruction of New York City – things look up for the two men, if they don’t kill each other over this new prize, that is. Things do not look decidedly up for poor Claire.

 

“Who said beachcombing is for bums?”

This is where the film gets dark – as if worldwide destruction on an unparalleled scale wasn’t dark enough – we have Jepson claiming “finders keepers,” and Norwood trying to rape Claire the minute Jepson has his back turned. Jepson easily kills the weaker Norwood, but Claire doesn’t stay around to congratulate the winner, and she dives back into the sea. Lucky for Claire the next beach she washes up on is inhabited by Martin Webster – living alone in a cabin by a large cave – and the two begin a slow to halting relationship, one that hits a few road bumps when Jepson arrives to reclaim his property. Unfortunately, Jepson isn’t the only danger out there – as Martin is soon to discover – because a gang of rapists and murderers roam the nearby territory, a group that Jepson quickly joins, and soon our young lovers are fighting for their lives against something even worse than pissed off Mother Nature.

Note: This was a Pre-Code movie – meaning it was not under the governing offices of Motion Picture Production Code or “Hays Code” as it is more known – which allowed the filmmakers to include shots of the bound remains of a raped and murdered woman, not to mention Peggy Shannon in a two-piece bathing suit.

Deluge is loosely based on a book by English author S. Fowler Wright, and like the book, the movie explores the nature of humanity, how society would function when the “rule of law” is washed away with rest of the world. Martin Webster is depicted as a strong moral man – though I found his pushiness for her to decide to “be with him” a bit creepy at times, especially considering that she has just recently escaped being raped twice – and Jepson and his gang are depicted as the embodiment of anarchy and the animalistic nature of man. Things get a little complicated for Martin when they are rescued by people from a nearby settlement and it turns out his wife and kids survived the cataclysm — talk about awkward moments — and now Martin must choose between the mother of his children, who he still loves, and Claire, who he also deeply loves. Martin actually doesn’t decide – when Claire tells him that he must decide between his wife and her, the loser sobs, “I can’t make a choice” – and so after a Claire has a heated argument with Helen, with Claire telling the woman, “I’m used to fighting for what I want,” we get Claire actually making a unique decision, diving back into the sea to seek a new life somewhere else.

 

“Goodbye Martin, you dick.”

This differs greatly from the book, where Martin gets to have both Claire and Helen as wives, but that kind of ending would certainly not fly, even in a pre-code movie. The 1930s were a different time, racism and sexism didn’t really exist — I mean, they certainly existed, but the terms didn’t really exist yet — it was just the way things were; but this film does dance almost to the edge of progressiveness. In the survivors settlement, a man by the name Tom (Matt Moore), one of the townsmen who found Helen in the aftermath, informs her that because there are more men than women, the menfolk have passed a decree that any adult woman must have a mate, and he hopes she will choose him. Helen turns down this offer, refusing to believe her husband is dead, despite the overwhelming odds, and when he does arrive, with his new woman, she takes things surprisingly well. That Claire’s ultimate reaction to this is “Fuck that for a bag of chips,” and takes off into the unknown, is rather empowering.

 

Note: The film is not progressive enough to avoid horrible black stereotypes.

Films like The Day After Tomorrow and television shows like The Walking Dead owe much to director Felix E. Feist's Deluge, it both created the mold of what disaster films would become, and also explored the highs and lows of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. At sixty-six minutes in length, it didn’t have too much time to delve very deep into such heady subject matters, but what we got was pretty interesting and well crafted.

Eighty-Five years later, and I find that the twenty minutes of catastrophic destruction in Deluge still holds up to this day — more emotionally impactful than a lot of the CGI nonsense we get in modern blockbusters — with cinematographer Billy Williams, matte artist Russell Lawson and model builder Ned Mann, all putting in stellar work. I highly recommend checking out this once lost masterpiece – the whole thing is available on Youtube, but I recommend the Kino Lorber Blu-ray as it includes an informative commentary track, as well as a second feature film starring Peggy Shannon – and if you do check out this movie, I hope you will all be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Note: The footage of New York’s destruction was sold by RKO to Republic Pictures, and used in such serials as Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc and King of the Rocket Men, as well as the movie S.O.S. Tidal Wave.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

City on Fire (1979) – Review

By the late 70s, the golden age of the disaster film was coming to a close – Irwin Allen’s 1980 commercial bomb When Time Ran Out would be the nail in the coffin – but in 1979, a joint American/Canadian venture released a movie about an entire city ablaze, a film called City on Fire, and though it couldn’t compete with the big budget disaster films, like 1974’s Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, it still managed to pull off some impressive carnage. Sadly, this was not enough to prevent the film from being a box office disappointment, and the film is now known mostly for being mocked by Joel and the Robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

 

You know you’re doing poorly if you end up in this kind of double bill.

It’s not often we get a Canadian disaster film – though the film is set in some unnamed American city – but like it’s American cousins, City on Fire follows the tried and true method of assembling a star studded cast – with the American stars getting limited screen time to cut down on costs – and then having their “dramatic” lives thrown into disarray by some disaster or another.

We have corrupt mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen), who allowed an oil refinery to be built inside the city limits; Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), rich widow socialite that just so happens to be in town for the dedication of a new hospital – where the film’s climax will take place – and she’s also having an affair with Mayor Dudley. Next we have hospital Chief of Staff Frank Whitman (Barry Newman), who is informed by head nurse Andrea Harper (Shelley Winters) that this new hospital isn’t exactly up to code, and Frank himself is a bit of a sexual player – we are introduced to him blowing off a one-night-stand, who later turns out to be a nurse working at his hospital – so, obviously, he will eventually hook-up with Diana, because you have to have true love win out in a disaster film. Rounding out this all-star cast are Ava Gardner as alcoholic reporter Maggie Grayson, James Franciscus as Maggie’s put-upon producer, and Henry Fonda as Fire Chief Risley, who is clearly in “Boat Payment Theater" mode.

“Has my cheque cleared yet?”

Like many disaster films, there really isn’t much of a plot, and this one's catastrophe is started by a disgruntled employee (Jonathan Welsh), who starts the fire out of sheer spite after being fired, and then for the next two hours we just bounce from one group of characters to another, seeing how they handle the raging fire around them. To pad out the running time, we get a couple kids starting a fire near their tree house – in a scene that works as an anti-smoking PSA – and then there is a subplot dealing with a couple reporters who have photographic evidence of Diana’s affair with the mayor, but none of it really goes anywhere, nor is it all that relevant, and it mostly just acts to add potential victims to the big fire to come. Of course, what audiences have come to see is all the glorious calamity that a major disaster will bring, and director Alvin Rakoff – a man most known for the terribly campy film Death Ship – does pack this film with a considerable amount of fiery carnage, and to spread the budget a bit further, he manages to sneak in plenty of news reel footage of actual fires.

“Stock footage runs rampant throughout the city. Film at Eleven.”

I will tip my hat off to the men and women who make up the stunt team, they provided some truly amazing fire gags for this film– one particular stuntman is bounced off the hood of a passing car, while doing a full body burn, and it is amazing – but you can only afford so much practical effects and stunt work, and when the visual effects end and the people step in to take care of the big moments, well let’s just say things get a little less convincing.

 

Is that a fire or the Aurora Borealis?

Drama kicks into high gear when fire chief Risley informs the Mayor that the new hospital is about to become the center of a Fire Storm — when this happens all the oxygen will be sucked out and everyone inside will suffocate – and so a major evacuation must be organized. It's this rescue attempt that takes up the bulk of the film’s last act – with side moments of Diana helping a woman give birth and Dr. Whitman leading a bunch children in an enforced game of Follow the Leader – culminating in the fire department creating a “tunnel of water” for the evacuees to flee through. As a whole, this stuff works rather well – though the long shots of people staggering down fire-torn streets could have been trimmed to help the pacing – and we do get some good "edge of your seat" moments.

 

I’m curious as to what the film’s water budget was.

City on Fire doesn’t bring anything new to the genre: stock characters deal with their numerous cliché problems amongst the flames, as expected, and aside from the aforementioned stunt work, which I must say again was damn impressive, there is nothing to really set the film apart from its brethren. I will say it’s nice seeing James Franciscus playing a decent human being this time around – he plays total assholes in The Towering Inferno and When Time Ran Out – and many people today only know Leslie Nielson from Airplane parodies and The Naked Gun movies, but he was a fairly respected dramatic actor for decades, and he gives a nice multi-dimensional lift to what would normally be the stock corrupt politician.

“Yes, I’m serious … And don’t call me Shirley.”

Most disaster films deal with natural disasters, earthquakes, storms, tidal waves, or accidents like plane crashes and building fires, but City on Fire is the rare example where there is an actual human villain, and not just some asshole guilty of fire code violations. But what is strange here is that when the film ends, we get this strange monologue from Henry Fonda, where he states, “All it takes is one man, could be anybody... your neighbor, my neighbor... one man to destroy a city.” A nice sentiment to be sure, but at no point in this film did anybody learn about the disgruntled worker who started the fire, and he dies without telling anyone. So where did the fire chief come up with this “one man to destroy a city” idea? One has to assume the filmmakers got to the end of the movie and then had a sudden epiphany, “We need a message,” and stuck on that bit of treacle crap, hoping that the great Henry Fonda could sell it. That this coda was not earned – or really even needed – is a perfect example of writers not really giving a damn about the story, and that if you are going to make your disaster film into a treatise on humanity, then maybe you shouldn’t wait until the last 30 seconds to dive into the subject.

 

“It only takes one cliché character to destroy a city.”

City on Fire was made because Canadian tax incentives allowed the filmmakers to make a disaster film without spending too much money, and though it doesn’t have much in the way of great visual effects, there is enough practical effects and amazing stunt work to give this film a recommend to fans of the genre.

Note: The film is, of course, guilty of "stunt casting " by including numerous stars with a solid history of disaster films under their collective belts, which is always a bit of treat to spot.

City on Fire - Disaster Pedigree:

• Henry Fonda was in The Swarm.
• Ava Gardner starred in Earthquake.
• Leslie Nielsen and Shelley Winters were in The Poseidon Adventure.
• James Franciscus was in both The Towering Inferno and When Time Ran Out.

 

Note: The fire at the oil refinery causes some buildings to randomly explode.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Monster on the Campus (1958) – Review

 In the 50s, atomic monsters or alien invaders were all the rage – from giant tarantulas to flying saucers – but despite their inability to destroy buildings, one other science fiction staple overshadowed them all, and that would be that of the mad scientist. In fact, many of the atomic monster that rampaged across America were created by such scientists “meddling in things that man must leave alone,” and today we will look back on one of the lesser known entries in this genre, Monster on the Campus. Directed by Jack Arnold, legendary director of such classics as The Creature of the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, we get a film that seems to be trying to say something – message pictures were nothing new to this genre – and with Monster on the Campus, you can certainly try and read some deeper meaning into the film, and many people have tried. But all I found was a film about a scientist who was a bit of a dick, nothing more, nothing less.


The main character of Monster on the Campus is Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) – sadly not the Donald Blake who turns into The Mighty Thor – a science professor at Dunsford University, who after receiving a coelacanth (a once presumed extinct fish) from a lab in Madagascar, he soon finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, when dead bodies start piling up around campus. Blake is impressed with the coelacanth’s ability to remain unchanged after millions of years. He informs college student — the fish delivery guy — Jimmy Flanders (Troy Donahue) that, “The coelacanth is a living fossil, immune to the forces of evolution.” Professor Blake lectures his students about evolution and de-evolution, telling them that man is the only creature that can decide whether to move forwards or backwards, and this bit of "science" proves he must have serious tenure because such spoken beliefs would get you kicked out of any credited college or university.

 

“Now students, a word about Scientology.”

What Professor Blake will soon come to understand is that the coelacanth has irradiated blood – the lab that shipped the fish used gamma radiation as a preservative – and any ingestion of the blood will cause the victim to regress down the evolutionary ladder. Jimmy’s German Shepherd licks up some of the irradiated blood and becomes immediately vicious – while also sporting enlarged canines – and later, Blake cuts his hand while transporting the fish into storage – by stupidly sticking his hand in the fish’s sharp toothed mouth – and this results in Molly Riordan (Helen Westcott), assistant to fellow college professor Dr. Cole Oliver (Whit Bissell), being found hanging from her hair, dead in Blake’s backyard, with an unconscious Blake lying next to the body. The police rightfully suspect Blake in the woman’s death – his tie clip is even found in the poor woman’s hand – but when finger and hand prints of a much larger man are found at the scene, the police believe somebody might be after Blake.

 

“I’m a man of science, there is no way I’m a murderer.”

Later, a dragonfly lands on the coelacanth for a little snack – which Blake seems to insist on leaving out unrefrigerated – and soon it is transformed into a prehistoric monster with a two foot wingspan. It at first buzzes around Jimmy and his college sweetheart Sylvia Lockwood (Nancy Walters) – despite dragonflies not having the ability to buzz – and it then enters Blake’s lab where, with the help of the two students, he is able to capture and kill the overgrown insect. Remembering that a dragonfly earlier drank from the coelacanth's corpse, the professor starts to put two and two together, which means he’s about five steps behind everybody in the audience, but shit hits the fan again when he dribbles infected dragonfly blood into his pipe.

Science Note: Prehistoric or not, bacteria from a coelacanth or giant dragonfly would not survive being lit and smoked in a pipe.

Once again, a prehistoric man rampages across the campus – this time killing the policeman sent to bodyguard Blake – yet despite the “evidence,” the college authorities do not hold with Blake’s theory that the killer is a de-evolved madman. It’s when Blake tries to explain to his colleagues, and the police, that this killer could be transforming into a Neanderthal – going step by step over how the events could have taken place – that it finally dawns on him that he himself is the Neanderthal, and because Blake is a complete dick, he doesn’t immediately come clean. Instead, he borrows keys to Dr. Oliver’s mountain cabin, so that he can go off and experiment in private. This, of course, results in a poor forest ranger (Richard H. Cutting) getting killed — an axe brutally embedded in his face — and Blake's beautiful fiancée (Joanna Moore) being menaced by the monster. It is not until this moment that we the audience finally get to see what the Monster on the Campus looks like, and when we do, it is no wonder they kept it hidden until the end.

 

I’ve seen a more convincing mask at Walmart on Halloween.

Monster on Campus is a weird combination of The Island of Doctor Moreau and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the scientist who sent Blake the coelacanth was even named Moreau – with Professor Blake transforming into a hideous creature that would terrorize the populace, but this movie lacks any of the thoughtful philosophies brought up by H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson in those stories. What we are left with is bottom-half Drive-In material – the disturbing death of Molly being the only moment that stood out for me – but at a brisk 76 minute running time, at least the film didn’t wear out its welcome. As mad scientist movies go, it’s not the worst example – with Blake being more of a jerk than truly mad – but overall, the film is a fairly forgettable entry in the genre.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

When Time Ran Out (1980) – Review

The 1970s were the golden age of the disaster film, and producer Irwin Allen is the undisputed “Master of Disaster” with The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure still being the gold standard of the genre. But when the 80s rolled around, the well had just about dried up on the disaster film; thus, when Irwin Allen’s film When Time Ran Out bombed horribly at the box office, it kind of put the genre in a coma, that is, until CGI carnage would resurrect it in the 90s. So what went wrong with When Time Ran Out? Was it a case of a producer being completely bereft of ideas? Or was it the fact that most of the film’s $20 million dollar budget was spent on location shooting, instead of on the much needed special effects?

Irwin Allen’s "When Money Ran Out"

Disaster films often suffer from one key problem, and it's that they're basically soap operas that are simply interrupted by some man-made or natural catastrophe – whether it be an earthquake or a building on fire – and the numerous characters we are introduced to in the moments preceding the disaster events, with all their personal drama and baggage, are somehow supposed to make us care about the survivors. When a small band of people crawled their way up through the bowels of the ship in The Poseidon Adventure, we as an audience were at the edge of or seats, we wanted this plucky group of heroes to make it to safety, but in the case of When Time Ran Out, we have a volcano movie that is so bad that if the Hawaiian island (where this story takes place) was to sink to the bottom of the pacific with all hands, no one would care.

These two will not survive, but then again, who gives a damn?

This film is just overloaded with characters – all in search of a plot – and none of them have more than two dimensions. We first meet hotel magnate Shelby Gilmore (William Holden), who wants to make his secretary Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset) his seventh wife, but she is still in love with Hank Anderson (Paul Newman), an oil rigger who she apparently broke up with years ago to work with Shelby. Then we have Shelby's partner, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), who is cheating on his wife Nikki (Veronica Hamel) with his hotel manager, Iolani (Barbara Carrera), and she's been dodging her own boyfriend's proposals. The island guests include retired circus high wire stars Rene Valdez (Burgess Meredith) and his wife Valentina Cortese, who suffers from a heart condition, and then there is Francis Fendly (Red Buttons), a bonds smuggler who is being tailed by New York cop Tom Conti (Ernest Borgnine). Is that enough victims?  You say you want more?  Well how about we spend some time with one of Hank's oil-rig workers named Tiny Baker (Alex Karras), who has a wager going with cockfighting rival Sam (Pat Morita), and Sam’s wife Mona (Sheila Allen) who owns a local bar. After meeting all these people we are just begging for the island to explode.

Question: Is this not the dumbest place to put a volcano monitoring complex?

It’s clear early on that Irwin Allen and company are not out to do anything new or interesting with the genre, and the biggest tip off to this fact is in the casting of James Franciscus as the asshole hotel owner. He doesn’t want to evacuate the island simply because he his is an idiot and an asshole, and this is basically the same character he played in The Towering Inferno — only in that film he was simply the idiot who would be responsible for the death of hundreds, while in this movie, he is also a cheating bastard and all around douche-bag. The film even lifts the scene of a mob of people charging a helicopter, only in The Towering Inferno it was a panicky mob trying to be rescued, while in When Time Ran Out, this group tries to steal Paul Newman’s helicopter, and they overload it and crash. It’s like Irwin Allen and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant wanted to make the same movie, but dumber and with less likable characters.

Science Note: Paul Newman’s character operates an oil rig near an active volcano. Not only is this stupid on the basis of safety, but with an active volcano there is not enough time between eruptions for any petroleum products to be deposited or to form.

The script is simply chock full of some of the stupidest ideas imaginable, like having a scientific research/monitoring facility on the lip of a volcano's crater, or having said facility outfitted with a “bathysphere” for some moronic up close inspections of the magma.

 

The thing even has a fucking glass bottom!

Overwrought drama and bad science will not necessarily kill your disaster movie – The Rock’s San Andreas is proof of that – but you have to deliver on the goods when it comes to the actual disaster, and this film fails utterly on that expectation. In the roughly two hour running time we barely getting any real volcanic carnage – the monitoring station falls into the volcano, the airport runway buckles, and a tidal wave wipes out the nearby town – but that’s about it, and the volcano itself looks about as convincing as an eighth grade science project.


Science Note: At one point, lava bombs hit near Spangler’s hotel — exploding in a fiery conflagration — and Irwin Allen took the name “lava bomb” a little too literally, for in reality they are just blobs of melted rock and not something that explode as if made of nitroglycerin, as they do in this film.

I’m not sure why Irwin Allen went to all the expense of shooting on location in Hawaii, because aside from some boring moments of Paul Newman picnicking on the beach with Jacqueline Bisset, or the caravan of courage consisting of a bunch of cars fleeing the lava (minus shots of actual lava) through the Hawaiian countryside, we don’t see much of Hawaii — most of the film takes place on obvious sets and in sound-stages.

This film certainly wasn’t going to boost Hawaiian tourism.

When Time Ran Out is the worst example of the disaster genre, as not only is it full of the most boring cliché characters imaginable, but it didn’t spend the money where it was needed. If they had dropped half the cast, maybe they could have afforded actual shots of lava, and instead of Paul Newman sleepwalking through his part – dreaming of his salad dressing empire – we could have had an actual hero to root for. We also got your standard “Boo-hiss” villain, who in this film makes even less sense than his cheap building code-cutting doppelganger from The Towering Inferno, because seriously, who argues against an evacuation when lava bombs are landing outside? There isn’t a credible minute in this film's entire runtime.

Does this look convincing to anyone?

This was Irwin Allen’s follow up feature to two box office bombs, The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure – basically closing the book on the disaster genre for years to come – and after When Time Ran Out died at the box office, Allen never made a theatrical film again, but he did go on to make some great classic television shows like Lost in Space. So that’s nice.

Note: When Time Ran Out is easily one of the worst disaster films out there – mainly for the crime of being monumentally boring – but it certainly had a heavy disaster pedigree with its cast.
• Paul Newman, James Franciscus and William Holden all starred in The Towering Inferno.
• Both Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine starred in The Poseidon Adventure.
• Burgess Meredith starred in The Hindenburg.
• Jacqueline Bisset was in Airport.

 

Seriously, did they spend any money on the effects?

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Land Unknown (1957) – Review

Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of a mysterious plateau – where dinosaurs miraculously still exist – in his 1912 book The Lost World, Hollywood has been more than eager to bring man and prehistoric beast together. Adapting Doyle’s book to the big screen in 1925 was certainly a no brainer, and basing a story on the premise of modern man meeting living dinosaurs was certainly better than the typical way of showing cavemen and dinosaurs living together. Now, with today’s advances in special effects, bringing dinosaurs to life is almost child’s play – with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park still being the benchmark – but back in the 50s, you had two choices when it came to realizing dinosaurs: you either went with the costly and time-consuming stop-motion method – pioneered by the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen – or you went with a guy in a dinosaur suit, as full scale animatronic monstrosities and CGI dinosaurs had not even been dreamt of back then. In 1957, Universal Pictures’ The Land Unknown went the dinosaur suit route – with the occasional use of monitor lizards shot out of scale – in what has become one of the more laughable entries in the genre.


Having decided to continue Admiral Bird’s exploration of Antarctica – especially after discovering areas of strangely warm water had been made – the Navy sends a small crew consisting of Commander Harold Roberts (Jock Mahoney), Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds), and Machinist's Mate Steve Miller (Phil Harvey), to explore the region via helicopter, but to make things interesting, they also sent along female reporter Margaret Hathaway (Shirley Patterson), because you simply can’t have a proper monster movie if you don’t throw a damsel in distress into the mix.

 

“If any of you guys spot a giant ape, you’ll let me know, right?”

When their helicopter encounters an unexpected storm – having been warned by their base ship to turn back – they try to outrun it, but they end up crash-landing in a massive volcanic valley – after having collided with a passing pterosaur – where our four heroes find themselves trapped in a prehistoric world. When Miller discovers that the rotor assembly has been damaged, and they have no replacement parts, it looks like they could be stuck in this “land before time” for good, as the fleet must leave in thirty days or risk being trapped by the ice. Their situation is not helped by Miller accidentally leaving the radio on overnight and draining its battery.

 

“It’s a lovely matte painting this time of year.”

The Land Unknown was originally going to be an expensive science fiction epic – shot in colour and directed by the legendary Jack Arnold – but then Universal suddenly decided to slash the budget and turned what would have been an “A” picture into a “B” budgeted one. Arnold was out and contract director Virgil W. Vogel was in – who had directed the previous year’s Universal monster movie The Mole People – but the biggest victim of the budget cut would be the effects, and boy does this show. Like many low-budget movies starring dinosaurs – such as in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – monitor lizards were used in place of expensive stop-motion dinosaurs, but The Land Unknown is not primarily “known” for the unfortunate use of footage of monitor lizards fighting – though the brutal footage they do use is disturbing – it is actually known for the ridiculous dinosaur suit that some poor sap was forced to wear.

Psychics Note: Our heroes use the helicopter’s blades to fend off the monster, but in reality any such contact with a beast that size would have torn those blades apart.

Aside from the goofy-ass dinosaur costume – a creature that looks constantly in danger of tipping over – the most memorable part of The Land Unknown is the real threat to our heroes, which isn't dinosaurs, but instead the threat of man. While exploring their jungle surroundings, Maggie is abducted by Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon), the lone survivor of a plane crash from the 1947 expedition. Apparently, ten years of living alone in a prehistoric hellscape has not been conducive to good mental health – though he is smart enough to develop a method to combat his dinosaur neighbours – but just how crazy is Hunter? Well, it turns out that the remains of the plane crash, the one that stranded him all those many years ago, most likely has parts that could be used to repair our heroes’ helicopter, and Hunter will only reveal the location of the wreck if the crew agree to leave Maggie behind with him. What is truly weird here is that the idea of Hunter leaving with them is never even broached – he just wants Maggie – and of course, stoic Commander Roberts will have none of that. Henry Brandon’s portrayal of this marooned madman is quite chilling, and his eerie rant to Maggie, when she confronts him about his stealing of their food, is even more so, “It’s mine,” he tells her. “The whole valley is mine. Everything in it belongs to me, including you.”

 

Man truly is the most dangerous game.

The film’s undertone of rape and sexual slavery is downright creepy – not something you expect to find in a dinosaur adventure film – but aside from Hunter’s compelling and dark character, the movie is just rife with the usual clichés of the genre; Roberts is the stoic square-jawed hero, Jack is the able-bodied sidekick, Miller is the resident coward – more than willing to offer up Maggie if it means going home –  and then there is Maggie herself, who faints at each and every threat that comes her way.  No clearer collection of stock characters could be sited than this group, and thus, it makes it look like Hunter had wandered in from a different film – most likely a better one – as his character is so beautifully twisted and dark, yet still with a spark of humanity, and every moment with him on screen is truly compelling.

Maggie: “How long have you been in this valley?”
Hunter: “Ten years. A hundred years. Time has no meaning when you have nothing to wait for.”
Maggie: “How have you managed to stay alive?”
Hunter: “Not on charity or pity or the nobleness of the soul. I survived because I’m the fittest to survive! Because I’ve learned to kill efficiently!”

 

He certainly has better survival instincts than anyone else in this picture.

There are quite a few fun moments in the film – Maggie being harassed by a killer plant being a particularly hilarious one – and the jungle set is quite impressive, but the bargain basement dinosaurs undercut any dramatic tension the director tries to build. It doesn’t matter how Oscar worthy Brandon’s performance is when these moments are counterpointed with him waving a torch at a giant paper mâché dinosaur head, but at least one of the actors was trying. The Land Unknown may not be the best example of the genre, not even holding a candle to films like King Kong, which came out twenty-four years earlier, but there is enough good stuff on display for me to recommend it.

 

This film’s T-Rex is truly unforgettable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Zombeavers (2014) – Review

The horror/comedy subgenre is easily one of the hardest to pull off, as what a person finds funny and what scares them are two very subjective categories, but when it works, it can be a real treat for the viewer; just look at such films as Evil Dead 2 and Shaun of the Dead for some perfect examples of this genre. The key to a successful horror/comedy is in understanding the tropes which make the horror film such a popular genre in the first place; for example the movie The Final Girls took the tropes found in the “Kids at Camp” slasher genre and then twisted it with the addition of elements from Groundhog Day and Pleasantville — this made that film fresh and original — but in the case of writer/director Jordan Rubin’s Zombeavers, the “Cabin in the Woods” trope was blended with the “When Animals Attack” films, and though neither of these genres are comedies, the mash-up of the two brings the level of weird and craziness that's needed to create the comedy element.


The movie opens with two idiots transporting a load of toxic chemicals who let distracted driving cause them to hit a deer, which in turn knocks loose one of the barrels of chemicals, and it's here we get our first homage rip-off to another horror/comedy, that being of The Return of the Living Dead. In that film, two idiots accidentally open a barrel that spews a toxic chemical into the air that turns the surrounding dead into zombies, and in Return of the Living Dead II, the barrels just sort of fall off the back of a military truck — so here we get a blend of the two. But in this film, the barrel drifts down a river to where it eventually jettisons its contents over a beaver colony. As the title suggests, this turns the local critters into murderous zombies, and the idea of something once cute and cuddly turning evil is basically the crux of this movie.

 

The goofy-ass beaver puppets used here work to add to the comic element.

Of course, you can’t have this type of horror film without the perquisite victims and Jordin Rubin, with co-writers Al and Jon Kaplan, trot out that standard collection of horror movie stereotypes to get knocked off one by one; we have Mary (Rachel Melvin), who wears glasses and looks to be auditioning for the role of “Final Girl;” and then there is Zoe (Courtney Palm), the "looser" woman in the group, who is also here to provide the film’s required gratuitous nudity; and finally we have Jenn (Lexi Atkins), whose boyfriend is cheating on her, and this is the reason the three girls headed up to the cabin in the first place, to forget about men. Now a film of this type almost requires this kind of shorthand for its characters — especially when you are dealing with a relatively short running time — but Rubin and the Kaplans do manage to tweak the stereotypes a tad to make things a bit fresher, and they even reference Night of the Living Dead to catch us off guard.

 

Who will be the Final Girl?

As we all know, you can’t have your Cabin in the Woods film without horny boys, so after a day of lazing about in the sun their “Girls Weekend” is crashed by their boyfriends; Tommy (Jake Weary), the blonde lunkhead belonging to Mary, Buck (Peter Gilroy) as the comic relief/sex fiend who is dating Zoe, and then there is Sam (Hutch Dano), who cheated on Jenn and now wants to make amends…or does he? The film manages to provide us with just enough information so that we at least care about some of them when the shit hits the fan and the titular creatures attack. The film also provides us with a creepy hunter (Rex Lyn), and two nice neighbours Myrne (Phyllis Katz) and Winston Gregorson (Brent Briscoe), who are mostly there to add to the film’s body count. The first thing that tips our group off that things may not be quite so peaceful up at this lake, is when Jenn is attacked in the bathroom by what they at first believe to be a rabid beaver, but when the group is attacked the next day — when they are out cavorting on the lake — they soon realize they may be in deeper trouble than they thought.

 

Animal Control will be no help here.

Up until this point, the film could be considered just your run of the mill campy little horror flick — where a group of disposable teenagers are brutally killed one by one — but then we get the “infected” angle, which is a standard element of the zombie film, and that’s when things get a little Looney Tunes as the movie stops being a simple parody of the genre, and becomes its own insane thing. The film at no point took itself seriously — with a title like Zombeavers that’s kind of a given — but even with the gore, and with our heroes playing Wack-A-Mole with the attacking Zombeavers, it was mostly predictable. But when an infected Jenn crawls into Mary’s bed, and tries to eat her — and not in the fun way — things get really bizarre.

 

“Jenn, what big teeth you have.”

Turns out that being bitten doesn’t just turn you into a zombie, but it in facr turns you into a zombie beaver, with big beaver teeth, and even a giant beaver tail, and it was at this moment that the film won me over completely. Zombeavers could easily have been one of those one-joke premise titles — like Sharktopus or Ghost Shark — but instead, it managed to exceed my expectations as a horror/comedy, especially helped by knowing enough about the genre to not wear out its welcome. At a mere seventy-seven minutes, director Jordan Rubin clearly knew how far he could go with his ridiculous premise, and he leaves the viewer wanting more, something a certain Sharknado series should take note of. Zombeavers is an outrageously goofy horror movie that is more entertaining than it has any right to be.

1 Check out the spoilerific Zombeavers theme song.