Friday, 30 May 2014

Count Down part six: Scar Issue

The original Bat Man returns at last in his final ‘traditional’ adventure

Scars of Dracula (1970)
It’s been a while since I last looked at a Hammer Dracula film, purely because Scars of Dracula, once found in every video rental store in the mid eighties, has proved very difficult for me to track down.
And although some time has passed before I could see this film again, it actually has a reputation for returning Dracu-Lee to the screen with almost indecent haste, a mere 5 months after his previous Hammer outing.
And that’s only one reason why Scars of Dracula is regarded as the ‘odd man out’ in this film series, despite there being much odder entries to come.
Another is the fact that, despite some ingenious attempts by Fans to ‘ret-con’ the films lineage, it remains the only Hammer Dracula so far not to fit within the other’s strict continuity. Last dispatched in a Victorian London Church, Scars of Dracula begins back in the Count’s Middle-European mountain stronghold in a seemingly earlier age, being reconstituted by a blood-regurgitating bat (I kid you not).

Bat out of hell.

Perhaps this break from the previous films’ established timeline occured because Scars was made with a purpose in mind rather than simply extending the series and keeping the American cash flowing.  Writer Anthony Hinds specifically wanted to return to Stoker’s novel and depict the Count once more as ‘an icily formal host’, giving Lee more lines than he’d had in the role since 1958. Hinds also wanted to return to the supernatural nature of Stokers creation, showing Dracula able to control other blood-drinking creatures of the night and finally bringing the novel’s famous sequence of the Count scampering up the vertical side of his castle like a lizard, to the screen. 

Does whatever a spider can…

The character of manservant Klove from the first sequel is also brought back, this time played with considerably less refinement than Philip Latham’s original by an extremely unkempt Patrick Troughton (the actors were to appear together as Time Lords in The Five Doctors, many years later).

So far, so atmospheric, but the elements of contemporary cinematic sex and violence were to have an even stronger influence on the screenplay.

The first of these is by far the most harmless, with Christopher Matthew’s Paul (a popular name in these films) fulfilling the role of a Confessions-esque cheeky chappie, seemingly unable to cross any night-time threshold without ending up in bed with a ubiquitous barmaid, Burgomasters daughter, or vampiress.  This is made all the more ridiculous because, quite frankly Matthews looks like a young Ernie Wise in a tweed jacket, and exudes about as much charm.

After a tryst with the lovely Anouska Hempel as wanton vampire ‘bride’ Tania, (another nod to the original source material almost submerged by the early seventies excesses of the screenplay), they are both punished horribly at the avenging Count’s hands, or in poor Tania’s case: blade. 

Anouska, yah, yah

Dracula is certainly a piece of work in this film, veering from coldly polite chatter with his ‘guests’ to acts of sudden and extreme violence.  Most of it is directed at poor Klove in almost sado-masochistic scenes, before he finally leaves his masters’ service via express elevator to ground floor from the battlements.  This emphasis on graphic violence perhaps also echoed the changing tastes of the times.

Our heroes are young Simon, the unfortunate Paul’s younger brother (played by Minder-to-be Dennis Waterman), and Sarah, who can’t seem to choose between the two of them.  She in turn is coveted by Klove, earning g his Master’s displeasure as Dracula himself seems to view Sarah as a substitute Bride.  So we have a love pentangle?

I could be so good for you…

Jenny Hanley makes a lovely female lead, and has fond anecdotes of falling foul of Lee (not taking it seriously enough) co-star Dennis Waterman (for being ‘too posh’) and her costume (the distracting, reinforced bustier had to be beaten flat by the cameraman, when the empty garment was seen laid out on a bed).

The end of the film neatly bookmarks the prologue, where Dracula’s army of bats had bloodily massacred the village womenfolk taking refuge in a Church.  “The Devil has won” utters the stunned Priest.
The Almighty makes a comeback in the final sequence, however, when a bolt of lightning strikes a metal shaft wielded by the Count as he is about to skewer Simon, sending the fiercely-blazing Lord of the Undead plummeting from the turrets to his doom.

It’s a spectacular end to the final old-school depiction of the Count by Hammer, but the film marked a serious faltering terms of box office returns and enthusiasm from American backers and distributors. In fact, Warner Bros passed on backing the film at all, resulting in a less characteristically opulent look and feel for a Hammer production.  In his autobiography, Christopher Lee sums up his memories of the production thus: “Everything was over the top, especially the giant bat whose electrically motored wings flapped with slow deliberation as if it were doing morning exercises. The idea that Dracula best liked his blood served up in a nubile container was gaining ground with the front office and I struggled in vain against the direction that the fangs should be seen to strike home, as against the more decorous (and more chilling) methods of shielding the sight with the Count’s cloak.”
An injection of new blood was needed to save the franchise, and sure enough, the next film was to certainly ring the changes.

A lovely design sketch of the Count’s castle vault for this film, which ironically became the last time Hammer’s Dracula would rest in this time and setting.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Bore in the Pacific

Godzilla’s back, and that’s all you’ll see of him for an unforgivably huge portion of this film...

 Gojira is sixty years old, the product of a still-numbed nations attempt to come to terms with the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined with that same country’s love of Dragons.  He lives in mainstream consciousness through expressions like ‘Bridezilla’ and most are aware of him. Of these, a subsection know that he’s the ‘King of monsters’, and love the idea of a primordial behemoth protecting us from alien attack and less benign colossal beasts, (or Kaiju as the Japanese call them).  And finally, there’s the tiny sliver of the population who’ve actually sat through a Godzilla film (and I don’t mean the unlamented Roland Emmerich effort from the late nineties) and perhaps even enjoyed the experience.

Personally, I’ve seen a handful of the original Japanese studio Toho productions – and while I appreciate that they are an acquired taste, I generally enjoy the man-in-suit hokum, and the mind-bendingly complex continuity behind this endless cycle of films and it’s many off-shoots.  Godzilla himself has different self-contradictory origins and timelines.

I need to do a lot more research before even beginning to try and categorise and date
these different versions of Godzilla (represented hereby some beautifully detailed kits
bought from an Asian fruit and vegetable warehouse, of all places) .
The relatively diminutive creature on the left is probably the earliest (Godzilla, 1954),
ending with the hulking green figure (Godzilla 2000: Millennium, 2000) on the right.
 When I first heard about the King of Monsters, however, I hated him with a passion.  And that was because the pull-out  ‘album’ free with Monster Fun comic back in 1975, which provided cut-out and paste-in pictures every week, told me that my all-time favourite: King Kong had fought something called Godzilla and that the outcome was unknown.  “No-one knows because the referee hasn’t been seen since!” chortled the caption under the still-empty space where this mysterious interloper was eventually going to be pasted.
Not only this Godzilla person dared to accost my beloved Kong, and not only did I still not know what he even looked like – but there was no confirmation that Kong had kicked his brobdinagian backside.  Maybe he hadn’t…
When the picture arrived, admittedly rather poorly drawn, I assumed it was a just another dinosaur until I looked more closely. THIS was Godzilla – a cross between the T-Rex Kong had already vanquished and a stegosaurus?  Ridiculous!

It was many, many years before I finally saw the film in question: King Kong vs. Godzilla, and am happy to accept the theory that the Toho Kong is a different creature altogether.  Looking like a sixty-foot man in a baggy ape suit with a strange papier mache mask, this creature sports the unlikely ability to store electricity from lightning in his simian fingers.  On the other hand, after spending most of the film as the ‘under-ape’, this battered and beleaguered avatar of Kong does indeed rally at the end and appear to win, so that’s OK too.

A rare instance of 'Kong’ gaining the upper hand, and showing how a Kaiju battle should be done.
Despite all this, I found I had room in my heart for Godzilla too, which made my disappointment with the aforementioned 1998 Hollywood effort all the more sharp.  It was spectacular, but Godzilla had somehow become an egg-laying, mutated iguana*, with the incredible ability to swim across the Pacific and come ashore in New York. He/she was also clearly the villain, and met an ignoble end at the hands of a cut-rate, bland American cast and a confused looking Jean Reno.

The Japanese displayed their disdain for this version of their biggest movie icon by renaming him ‘Zilla’ (taking the ‘god’ out of his name) and pitching this leggy US interloper against the real thing in Godzilla’s shortest fight ever.

So I was excited as anyone when I heard that Gareth Edwards, Director of the fabulous 2010 film Monsters, was directing a new US version of Godzilla. This time, they were surely going to get it right, and certainly the trailers and ecstatic reviews I had read pointed to this very much being the case.  In the meantime, I had finally got around to watching Breaking Bad, and was looking forward to seeing the charismatic Bryan Cranston as the lead in a film showcasing a heroic Godzilla defending us from a monstrous global threat.

Oh dear. 
After the first hour in I was already silently forgiving Roland Emmerich – at least he gave us a film with something purporting to be Godzilla actually in it. 
Generally I enjoy the gradual build up to a big reveal, but there has to be a pay off-to reward our suspense and patience. Most of this film involves Godzilla’s leisurely paddle across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco.  Admittedly, the sight of his spinal plates towering out of the ocean like a charging volcanic reef is an arresting one, but pales as it becomes clear that this is all we’re going to get for a long time.  The outcome of Godzilla’s mid-point night emergence in Honolulu is glimpsed on a muted TV screen which no-one is even bothering to watch, and no wonder, his ‘seeing off’ the male Muto (Massive Underground Terrestrial Organsim, one of the villains of the film) looks to have all the energy of a slow motion glove puppet scuffle.  And then the King of Monsters wades back to resume his dip and we are forced to spend yet more time with a very un-engaging human cast.  A major disappointment was Cranston unexpectedly fulfilling the old mentor role and exiting early to leave us in the bland hands of his son.  The vast majority of this film expects us to care about his family the witless military grunts we have no choice but to keep company with.  Even Ken Watanabe gives a very one note performance, uttering the occasional portent-laden pearls of wisdom, but mostly just looking bilious while Sally Hawkins is another wasted opportunity as an equally worried-looking she-nerd.
In Monsters the human cast were edgy and interesting, but here they are saccharine, two-dimensional ciphers, who could be accused of holding up the action, if only there was some…

Futilely, I was still holding out for the big showdown at the end, where Godzilla finally completes his customs and passport documentation at the San Francisco Port before getting on with stopping the Muto threat, as only he can.  If the film delivered in its climax, then even now all else could be forgiven.
There!  In the smoke - is that the movie climax?
Oh dear, again. 
It starts well, but then what we do glimpse through the ever present smoke and asbestos dust just appears to be more of the ponderous ineffectual flailing which we glimpsed in Hawaii, all those hours ago.  Maybe we really do need athletic Japanese Gentlemen in enormous rubber suits to make this kind of thing work properly.
Because, to be honest, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant brought a more titanic struggle to the screen in Bridget Jones diary, and without offending us by constantly cutting to other actors mid-tussle, whom we long gave up caring about, if we ever did in the first place.

Perhaps this is all the final part of some kind of American revenge plot against Toho studios for what they did to Americas’ favourite giant monster back in the 1960s with their two Kong films.  If this is the case, then let’s please call it quits because now it’s even: they dissed Kong twice and Hollywood has now roundly done the same to Godzilla.

Looking at the box office returns and many reviews I might be alone in my issues with this film. The two worthy gentlemen I saw it with are no strangers to this genre and enjoyed it very much.  Admittedly there is the occasional memorable scene, my favourite being the sudden panicked inland exodus of terrified seabirds as Godzilla approaches the coast.  And the Kaiju do at least look amazing, Godzilla in particular. But it isn’t nearly enough.
A reviewer on the Rotten Tomatoes site (which I turned to for reassurance that I wasn’t the only person feeling this way) sums it up best:
“Godzilla handles everything the military hurls at him: ships, guns, planes, rockets, even a squadron of Halo paratroopers. The only thing that can cut him down to size is being relegated to a supporting role in his very own movie.”

Ed-zilla, the world's sleepiest photo-bomber...

Monday, 19 May 2014

Mythology in Motion

A true titan of legend passed away last year:
the ingenious Ray Harryhausen

 When I began this blog last year, one of the first images I posted was a still from Jason and the Argonauts, along with promises to look at some of effects master Ray Harryhausen’s enduring creations.

His influence on film and the childhoods and subsequent careers of so many simply can’t be underestimated, and the fact that he also passed away last year makes it doubly remiss of me to take so long to write about him.

Most of us will never forget our first Harryhausen film, whether it’s the Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad strutting endearingly around on his hooves as if he’s balancing precariously in high heels; or the plethora of prehistoric fauna menacing Raquel Welch in Hammer’s One Million Years BC.

 As I’ve written before about Harryhausen’s greatest influence: King Kong, what set his films apart was promises of gigantic beasts from myth and legend in the film posters were always fulfilled in spades, and not just glimpsed in the final reel.  There seemed no limit to the wonders Harryhausen could conjure and put up on the screen, living, breathing visions from dreams and nightmares, interacting with actors so completely that it really did seem like magic.

 My earliest memory of a Ray Harryhausen/producer Charles Schneer film would be the same as most people’s – the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts is embedded in our collective consciousness like a race memory, seemingly regardless of whether everyone has actually seen the film or not. Imbuing these relentless, fleshless warriors with so much character is an achievement bettered by none, but hommaged by many.  Even Harryhausen himself referenced the scene in his final Sinbad film.
I have very vague childhood memories of castaway’s corralling the giant prehistoric bird in Mysterious Island (often mistakingly assumed to be a ‘giant chicken’) but my first, cinematic experience was Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1976.  I still recall the TV trailer, reeling off the wonders on show like a carnival huckster: “Come face-to-face with the prehistoric Trog, see Sinbad battle the sabre tooth tiger, guardian of the secret shrine...”

I went with a pen-friend visiting for the summer holidays, and was young enough to uncomplainingly have my younger sister tag along too.  It was Christmas Eve, and we were already excited by the prospect of the following day and hyped-up on the bag of ‘candy cane off-cuts’ from a confectionary factory which we’d been given to crunch our way through.
Oblivious to the fact that this was the least-regarded of three Sinbad epics, or the leading man was less-animated than Harryhausen’s marvellous menagerie and that this kind of film was approaching its twilight years, we loved it and excitedly chattered about every scene with a monster in it all the way home.  We were also oblivious to the fact that a film called Star Wars lay just around the corner, ready to sound the death knell for the classic, if cheerfully unsophisticated, Saturday afternoon entertainment we’d just lapped up.

Ten year old me completely failed to recognise second Doctor Patrick Troughton
in Eye of the Tiger, but looking at his make-up, perhaps it’s not too surprising…

Harryhausen and Schneer were to rally with their biggest film ever, the star-studded Clash of the Titans in 1981 (I am never going to mention the wretched remake and sequel here), but it was also to be the swansong of the Master of Dynamation (as Harryhausen called his effects process). Public taste and studio systems had turned towards huge teams of effects technicians and the burgeoning power of computers.

Ursula Andress, Laurence Olivier, wonder whatever became of Maggie Smith?

Harryhausen might be gone, but his influence and lovingly-preserved films remain.  
I recently watched The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for the first time, now coming to one of his films with considerable foreknowledge and expectation. Perhaps it is age which means I now watch as much for the human players as the monsters and adventure.

Boasting the best Sinbad in the form of ‘loveable rascal’ John Phillip Law, Golden Voyage also features the best villain in Tom Baker’s ‘audition piece’ for Doctor Who: evil magician Koura.  Like Raquel Welch in the previous decade, the allure and devastating physique of Caroline Munro: ‘the Queen of British Fantasy films; threatens to eclipse any stop-motion spectacle on screen.  

Rounding out a great cast; a very young Martin Shaw swashes his buckle as Sinbad’s first mate.
The set pieces are spectacular, featuring a classic example of Harryhausen’s skill in the many-armed sword-wielding Kali, and a thrilling showdown between the monstrous centaur and a fabulous gryphon.  Golden Voyage is held to be a highlight of Harryhausen’s career, and I can only agree: the extremely difficult and rare feat of featuring human characters every bit as captivating as the many legendary wonders on offer is achieved with aplomb.

Fortunately, his prolific output means that I still have several Harryhausen films to see, and I’m looking forward to revisiting a more innocent age when a single genius laboured millimetres at a time to bring myth and magic to the screen

Ray Harryhausen: 1920-2013

Friday, 2 May 2014

We Three Kongs part three: The King of Diamonds

The beginning can be a good place to end, but will this film now seem as prehistoric as some of its ‘co-stars’?

The monochrome monarch, still looking good for an octogenarian.

 I’ve poured far too much rose-tinted, nostalgia-blinkered praise on the original King Kong in previous posts. If I’m going to fairly compare it to the two remakes already covered, then the 1933 film needs to be taken on its own merits, even if it is now an astonishing 81 years old.  But whereas the remakes owe their inspiration directly and exclusively to this film, the original was forged at a time when the world map really did hold vast unexplored regions where only imagination could fill in the gaps.

The art department's early concept painting of an unnaturally massive ape
influenced the eventual direction of the story.

Ever hear of Kong?
A Malay superstition isn’t it?  Some kind of spirit, or a god?

 King Kong ‘33 spends most of its first hour building the audience’s anticipation in a master class application of ominous portent and suspense. Early on, Robert Armstrong’s brash but likeable Carl Denham films Fay Wray on board the Venture, directing her to look up, higher, even higher before unleashing one of her mighty screams. Unnerved, First mate Jack Driscoll turns to Captain Englehorn and mutters “What does he think she’s going to see?”   
It’s a scene which makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, even now.

Immediately the audience is hooked: both afraid of, yet desperate to discover the secret of the Venture’s mysterious destination. The studio, RKO productions, pushed hard for an earlier reveal of the film’s title character, but creator Merian C Cooper wisely resisted.
And when we do eventually see what Denham somehow knows is in store for Wray’s poor Ann Darrow, the film abruptly changes gear and rattles along at break-neck speed, piling one fantastic vision atop another with astonishing courage and ambition.  Sequences which contemporary films might shy away from, with access to everything which CGI can conjure, are flung fearlessly onto the big screen.  Even Peter Jackson didn’t further inflate his remake’s running time with the cathedral–like cavern of Kong’s lair and the sinister, bubbling pool from which the elasmosaurus slithers to menace Ann Darrow.

The question of who would win in a fight between Nessie and Kong
is comprehensively resolved.
And yet this 1933 film preserved its pace by jettisoning other painstakingly-realised sequences for the greater good. A battle with a family of triceratops, the Venture crew’s pursuit by a styracosaurus (explaining why they don’t just abandon the chasm-spanning log when Kong appears), the notorious ensuing spider pit scene, and scenes of Kong scaling Skull Mountain were all sacrificed, helping pare down the running time by 20% to its final 100 minutes.
When RKO, still doubtful of the finished film’s ability to succeed in such economically desperate times refused the budget for an original film score, creator Merian C Cooper stumped up the considerable sum himself, allowing composer Max Steiner (a student of Mahler and Brahms) to realise what has become an enduring classic of film music.

Of the stars themselves, Kong is the undisputed ‘eighth wonder of the world’, then and forever more.  Knowing how he was brought to life somehow makes the achievements of modeller Marcel Delgado and legendary animator Willis O’Brien even more astonishing 80 year later. Admittedly, still photographs of any of the 18 inch and 24 inch models look somewhat crude in isolation – Kong is a bow-legged, tusked and pointed-headed guess at what a gorilla might look like. An embodiment of the mythical-as-a-unicorn ‘killer ape’.
The two 18 inch models wait to be brought to life by animator Willis O'Brien.
But once he is animated, true magic takes hold and Kong becomes a character who exudes personality with every gesture, large or small.  My favourite is his dangling foot while he awaits the doomed elevated subway train at the beginning of his New York rampage. Toes swinging idly beneath him as Kong is fascinating by the approaching lights of the engine; he is the picture of a child engrossed with a new toy.  Even the technical problem which O’Brien feared would ruin all his efforts – the Kong model’s rabbit-skin fur retaining the indentations of the animator’s fingertips - actually adds to Kong’s vitality. The subtle movement can suggest his coat either bristling with rage, or rippling with the movement of the mighty muscles beneath, at appropriate moments.

A fan of boxing and a bit of a scrapper himself, Willis O’Brien imbued Kong
with pugilistic inclinations when taking on the larger Tyrannosaurus in this epic stoush
(colourised cinema still).
If one thing has become clear in reviewing all the versions of this story, it is that King Kong is not merely a solo star vehicle for our hero, but a duet – the leading lady is as intrinsic to the story as Kong; the Beast has no soul without Beauty.  And that has never been more apparent than here – Fay Wray completely and utterly deserves her place in popular culture.  Beautiful, sweet-natured and brave, her Ann Darrow is a woman that a Kong of any age would fall in love with. A ‘classic hottie’ as a workmate of mine would say.

Ann and Jack’s wardrobes suffer in the escape from Kong…
Ms Wray lived a long and eventful life, out-growing her label as the ‘Scream Queen’ to become a true icon of cinema; finally passing through another famous set of gates just before she was able to perform a cameo in Peter Jackson’s remake.  A few nights later, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honour.

The original King Kong has been restored and recovered throughout the years.  The scene where he peels off an unconscious Ann’s dress (which strikes me as more akin to the innocent plucking of petals from a flower than anything lascivious) was cut on release and missing for many years.  Being privileged to watch a lovingly cleaned-up print on DVD emphasizes how timeless this film is.  Certain social attitudes and the odd performance will always set this production in its own era, but it has dated far less obviously than some films made many decades later.  Throw-away lines still ‘pop’ (“Some kind of gorilla?  Gee don’t we have enough of that in New York?”), and the sense of wonder and emotional impact has lost little of its power.
One theory, which I subscribe to, is that King Kong ’33 has transcended its own admittedly outrageous storyline to become a monument to the magic of motion pictures.  At the very dawn of what we still understand cinema to be, a ‘monster movie’ managed to epitomise the scope, energy, beauty and potency which this burgeoning art form was capable of, and has rarely been bettered since.

So here ends my exhaustive (or exhausting, as someone remarked) look back at the three film versions of King Kong.  One sequel has very pleasantly surprised me with its freshness and integrity; deserving a far better reputation than ‘received wisdom’ has too-long dictated, while the other has lost much of its shine in less than ten years.  Unsurprisingly, the original remains “king of his world” and reigns supreme.
However, the 1933 and 1976 films both spawned official sequels, so later this year I’ll be revisiting ‘The Sons of Kong’.

One of the twentieth century's most famous images.