Sunday, September 19, 2021

THE LOST CONTINENT (Michael Carreras, 1968)

 

This may be the most aptly named Hammer creation since the titular continent is so lost it never appears in the film! Michael Carreras’ clumsy direction and dull screenplay involves a wayward group of monotone characters who have booked passage on a rusty steamship, fleeing from one place to get to another (the cities don’t really matter).

The first scene is interesting even after the awful melatonin-esque Mellotron of the opening credits as a contemporary ship’s Captain and his strange crew of anachronisms perform a sea-burial. As the body splashes to its final rest we hear the Captain’s interior monologue “How did we get here?” The next hour is monotonous as we flash backwards in time as the Corita and its owner Captain Lansing navigate the storm generated by his crew of social misfits and pariahs. There is drinking, sexual misadventure, familial strife, stolen bonds, a bounty hunter and more drinking as the ship begins to fall apart at the seams. Oh, and Cpt. Lansing’s secretive cargo of white phosphorous which has the annoying habit of exploding when it gets wet. Then hurricane Wendy is ignored, then not ignored and kind of happens but we don’t really get to see it. They abandon ship because of a breach in the hull and fear the cargo will be compromised so into a lifeboat (one was already used when some of the crew mutinied: they are never heard from again in the story) to survive the aforementioned hurricane. Which they do, somehow. Then adrift at sea amid rubber-finned sharks who eat a passenger whose daughter then gets the hots for the guy who punched him overboard. Fucking crazy, right? What’s even crazier is the lifeboat finally drifts into violent seaweed and soon bumps back into the Corita; even the bartender is still onboard!

Soon a rubber Kraken attacks the bounty hunter and indecently assaults the nymphomaniac yet she survives with obviously grievous injury which is never mentioned again. Actually we see her later in the film as if nothing ever happened, fully healthy and without traumatic psychological impact. Then a buxom women with balloons tied to her shoulders wearing inflatable shoes takes refuge on the ship and a gun battle ensues against Spanish Conquistadors. Lamenting her friends and the need to return to her colony, you’d think the story would somehow involve this plot point...but you’d be wrong. Instead she leaves and is followed by three crew members and the four of them rest upon a tiny island which is inhabited by a giant rubber and foam crab and scorpion that end up battling each other while our protagonists are captured by the evil Spaniards whose Klan-like leader sports the white dunce-cap and spouts supremacist polemic. Damn, that was a long sentence.

Now our group is captured and taken to an ancient 19th century vessel haunted by descendants of the original crew. Cut to: Cpt. Lansing pummeling his Spanish prisoner for information. Cut back to: our group of four being threatened with death in the Sarlacc Pit and suddenly rescued by Cpt. Lansing and his gang. WTF? How did this happen? In what reality did he have enough time to get his crew together, build a raft with catapult and load twenty barrels of explosives onto said raft? Consider my disbelief unsuspended. I can live with rubber monsters, I can even accept that the flesh-eating seaweed which can crawl up the side of a ship doesn’t grab ankles when trod upon, I even like the mediocre SPFX and miniatures but now you’re messing with physics of time motherfuckers.

This review makes the film sound more exciting than it actually is, I’m afraid. There is just too much filler with dialogues between meaningless characters. 

Final Grade: (C-)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

HELL IS A CITY (Val Guest, 1960)

A loyal cop’s impotent marriage yet strident morality is juxtaposed with a psychotic criminal’s divorce from prison: two men, each alone, who haunt the night streets of Manchester like poltergeists. Director Val Guest’s film noir is bleak and violent, allowing the pugnacious Stanley Baker as the heroic Inspector to reveal his darkest rage one moment then struggle in anguish the next, a conflicted cop who is only trying to do the right thing. It’s a fucking wonderfully nuanced performance!

Don Starling escapes from prison and returns to the scene of his original sin in Manchester, where he stashed the jewels from a robbery five years prior. Now in his old haunts he hunts down his compatriots to make another robbery so he has enough cash to flee the country. But this jurisdiction belongs to his old war buddy Inspector Martineau (Stanley Baker) who knows his mind and manners and going mostly from instinct vows to track him down. Especially after learning that a prison guard, injured during the escape, has now died from his injuries. When the gang’s plan ends in another brutal murder Martineau races to discover where Starling may have flown to: he leverages the lack of honor and need of self-preservation among thieves...and accomplices to murder. But Harry Martineau is no Dirty Harry, there are no obtrusive tactics or unlawful restraints, his morality lays within his vows to the law both criminal and civil. What’s so interesting is that he remains conflicted about these choices yet doesn’t descend to their hellish level even to catch a murderer and bring his to Justice. He won’t betray himself as a man either for another loving embrace or an arrest.

The film is tightly edited and beautifully shot by DP Arthur Grant in Hammerscope (2:35:1) which allows the characters to act with their entire bodies and mannerism without the need to resort close-ups or reverse shot editing. Guest utilizes the entire frame to block the actors so they can move or face one-another while speaking and captures this in medium shot. It’s also filmed mostly on location on the streets and alleys of Manchester for verisimilitude. Even the interiors look worn and used unlike a typical sound stage as if these characters actually lived in them! The set design is unpolished and lived-in which adds to the stark realism. Grant’s deep focus outdoor photography frames the many long shots within the community as if this is more documentary than fiction. Stanley Black’s jazzy score is icing on the cake as it highlights the action yet knows when to allow the scene to breath in silence. One great scene involves a civilian discovering the victim’s body in a field: no music, just the howling of the wind along the moors like a last breath from a dying god. This is not only one of the best Hammer Productions I’ve seen, it is a great Film Noir made two years after Hollywood gave up the ghost.

Martineau catches a bullet and his ex-comrade in arms yet feels a twinge of remorse when Starling hangs for his crimes. His impotent defense of “no one is perfect” sounds awful even to his own ears so he stalks the city beat once again for one last time. Spurning temptation he dissolves into the darkness an honest man but not yet a whole one.

Final Grade: (A)

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (John Gilling, 1961)

Tabitha the tabby cat casts a guilty shadow over those responsible for the cruel murder of her mistress, once upon a midnight dreary. John Gilling’s deft direction coupled with DP Arthur Grant’s beautiful B&W photography with often skewed perspectives elevates this mundanity slightly above its core camp value and outright hokeyness. The characters overact to achieve some sense of terror concerning said kitty that looks more friendlier then menacing. This probably reads better as a novella when we can “hear” the internal monologues about guilt-ridden consciences as opposed to giving them concrete value in a perfectly normal Felis Catus.

The plot is rather absurd and needs the audience to suspend disbelief in order to accept the overacting emotional impact upon the criminal's psyches. There are unintentional laugh-out-loud moments when the conspirators go crazy about the felony feline by throwing knives, screaming and having heart attacks. One of the criminals is attacked by the cat but we never see it: he just appears with obviously fake scratches on his face (I mean, the makeup artist didn't give a fuck about verisimilitude!) and say it clawed him while he napped. But this isn’t a "who-done-it" at all: Gilling reveals the culprit’s identity immediately after the bludgeoning murder. The story is about how the gang of criminals face judgment by pussycat! Will they succeed in their evil plan to gain the inheritance by forgery or will the true Last Will & Testament be discovered? I mean, why not find the document first before killing the poor old lady? Arthur Grant uses some neat lighting effects to give the cat glowing eyes but the close-ups still make the tabby appear friendly and overfed. Mikis Theodorakis’ score seems too strident and undermines any suspense that is created by the killer kitty, sometimes at odds with the skewed visuals. It’s an interesting score but better for another film that isn’t meant to be dependent on psychological dread.

All six conspirators meet their fate at the paws of their tormentor either directly or peripherally so Justice is satisfied. The nice granddaughter, innocently portrayed by the wonderful Barbara Shelley, gets what’s coming to her once the original document is discovered: her inheritance. And the murderous pussy retains its old haunt, a good luck charm for a new family.

Final Grade: (C)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (Val Guest, 1957, UK)



A Botanist looks to satisfy his scientific curiosity by joining an expedition into the Himalayas in search of the fabled Yeti but instead discovers the unfriendly side of human nature. Val Guest adroitly directs this science fiction/horror hybrid in which Nigel Kneale’s intelligent screenplay is more concerned with philosophy and morality than action set pieces. Guest keeps the story moving while the characters pontificate and disagree over moral issues. In Hammer fashion, the film’s low budget is pushed to the maximum with grand set designs such as the Lama’s abode and his Buddhist sanctuary while expertly splicing in stock footage and second unit work to sustain the illusion. It’s not perfect but works rather well. Peter Cushing is excellent as the Botanist Dr. John Rollason who is imbued with compassion, knowledge and curiosity. Forrest Tucker is the ugly American Tom Friend, a role that allows him to deliver his lines like a punch in the face, a man as thick in the head as he is in the torso. The peripheral characters each give excellent performances and seem fully invested in the story: I take this as a sign of the Director’s brilliance as Val Guest has helmed some of the best Hammer films!


The story involves Dr. Rollason serendipitously joining Friend’s expedition while studying fauna in the Himalayas. It’s inferred that he knew Friend’s group was coming and had planned to join while not sharing this information with his wife and cohort. He soon discovers that the expedition isn’t out to collect scientific knowledge but to capture a live Yeti and transport it back to a sideshow for profit. The group is soon faced with strange sounds and footprints high in the mountains and left with strange psychological impressions. Rollason theorizes that the creatures may be psychic and able to influence their minds and perceptions. Soon all Hell breaks loose! A Yeti is shot and killed and its brethren come back to claim the body. Violence and madness ensue mostly off camera (budget restraints, no doubt) but we’re left with the wake of turmoil and confusion amid the explorer's demise…one by one. Finally, Dr. Rollason is confronted by the towering Yeti and their sad eyes, full of wisdom and grace, impart their true intentions. As the lone survivor, he tells the Lama that he failed to discover the Yeti but we know it’s either a purposeful lie or he was “brainwashed” by the psychic powers of the Hominid.


If we’ve inherited the Earth it is but for a brief time, poisoned by radiation and destroyed by greed, while another species waits high in the virginal Himalayas biding their time. I suspect they will make a better world than we have.


Final Grade: (B-)


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (Terence Fisher, 1959, UK)



"Let me please introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste, And I laid traps for troubadours, who get killed before they reached Bombay" - Sympathy for the Devil

Captain Lewis isn’t a man of wealth and taste:  he’s the conscience of the British Crown who must fight against not only a mysterious Cult but the ignorant nepotism of his own Empire. Terence Fisher deftly directs this savage adventure story about the Thuggee Cult of Kali in 80 minutes, wasting little time with exposition and establishing shots and instead focusing upon exploitive violence and caricature.

Captain Lewis is a British officer and a truly good man (exceptionally portrayed by Guy Rolfe) who demands Justice for the missing native Indians and protection for the merchant caravans. Lewis becomes even more personally involved when his house servant Ram Das goes missing while in search of his (Ram Das’) brother. This becomes a crucial plot twist later in the story. Frustratingly for Lewis, Colonel Henderson brings in a familial appointee to investigate the disappearances instead of allowing Captain Lewis to continue his research.  Of course, this new officer, Captain Connaught-Smith is a stuck-up arrogant incompetent buffoon who treats the natives with contempt and bigotry. Lewis eventually takes matters into his own hands while resigning his commission.

Fisher films in black and white Scope which actually gives a mundane and realistically grimy appearance to the story. Fisher balances the frames well and his attention to detail is noted. For example, the British officers are seen in medium shot and close-up sweating profusely and wiping their brows while the native Indians are often relaxed and quite adjusted to the climate. This is never noted in dialogue and a nice touch that is more subliminal than liminal. The violence is rather extraordinary even for Hammer: eyes burnt out with an hot iron hook, flesh seared as part of a ritual, multiple strangulations with silk garrotes, severed hands, corpses being gutted so they don’t swell in the heat, and even the villain being burned alive. Gruesome stuff for a B-movie fable for kids!

Captain Lewis is vindicated in the fiery finale and even though Ram Das is dead, his little brother saves the day and himself. There is a major plot hole/contrivance that makes the viewer scratch their head in wonder but the film rockets along at breakneck speed (literally) until the brutal climax. Captain Connaught-Smith makes his grave and lies in it too.  


FINAL GRADE: [C]



Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CASH ON DEMAND (Quentin Lawrence, 1961)


A man must suddenly face his trial balance, his viperish authority now reduced by fear and crushing anxiety, an automaton now unable to suppress his human nature. Quentin Lawrence directs two of Hammer’s most elegantly acerbic and witty actors in Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell, as they duel with words and morals that begin to decode the enigma of complex ethics and sacrifice for duty.

The plot is a basic heist case that focuses upon a bank manager Fordyce (Cushing) and a thief Hepburn (Morrell) masquerading as a security director from the “home office”. But the story eschews genre tropes and becomes a paranoid and focused character study of the uptight and airtight banker Fordyce, locked in his own vault of personal horrors. Fordyce is an arrogantly small man who rules his staff with clockwork precision and attention, a micro-manager who is as infuriating as he is dull. Fordyce doesn’t demand respect since he doesn’t care what his staff thinks of him, he demands absolute obedience. He looks down his raptor-like nose at his employees, treating them with disdain and contempt. However, Cushing is able to mold his character into a complex human being, as the dark waters of neurosis boil to the surface. We see the man beneath the stoic mask. Hepburn is the gentlemanly and roguish thief, one who is seemingly driven to crime by the sheer pleasure of pulling off the perfect caper, but also a blunt man who will victimize for profit.

The film utilizes a static location to great effect, mostly set within the confines of the manager’s office, like a shrine to a peon, where a man over time has been reduced to a phantom haunting his own life, ethereal yet ghastly to his subordinates: it is the environment of a dead man who has yet to surrender the ability to breath. Hepburn is the devil with the details, he is the catalyst for Fordyce to recognize his weaknesses and offers him salvation. Though Hepburn is a thief whose intent is the 97,000 pounds, he seems just as interested in cursing his nemesis in order to save his soul. This is reflected in the final scene when Hepburn makes his confession and absolves Fordyce of sin. In this case, the profit belongs to Fordyce but not in a measurable way that can be jotted down in a accounting ledger.

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

THE FULL TREATMENT (Val Guest, 1960)


A race car driver finds his life stuck in neutral after a terrible crash on his wedding night, his emotions twisted metal and impotent rage. Val Guest directs this thriller with the accelerator pushed firmly to the floor, a narrative that races through red flags towards a surprising climax.

Alan Colby is a world famous race car driver who can no longer run at full speed, suffering post traumatic stress that relegates him as a passenger to his docile wife. He must conquer the consuming fear of loss of motor control as his hands become weapons, murderous entities that seemingly act of their own accord. Unable to be physically aroused by his beautiful bride, he lashes out with unbridled violence, nearly strangling her with intimacy. Denise sticks by his side and seeks the help of a psychiatrist, but first Alan must swallow his pride and purge his guilty conscious.

Val Guest imbues the film with a riptide of dialogue as the characters trade barbs and malicious tirades, or collapse into crippled silence worn out from the maelstrom. Overlapping conversations heighten the sense of dynamic tension as Alan spins out of control while his wife stands by her man. Dr. Prade utilizes psychiatric gimmicks that would make professionals cringe (oxygen deprivation, drug therapy, hypnotic regression) that works well as a plot device, and finally gets to the root cause of the association between the crash and his urge to strangle his wife. It’s a clever link in the chain of events, as Alan is a man who controls his life with his hands, thundering horsepower his heartbeat…and it’s his hands that betray him. The suspense mounts between the trio: will Alan be cured, are Dr. Prade’s intentions therapeutic, and is Denise faithful?

Though the story relies on pop psychology (but so does Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND) the final suspension of disbelief becomes refreshing and enlightening. The film begins with a car crash and fortunately doesn’t end as one.


Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

MANIAC (Michael Carreras, 1963)


A young girl is sexually assaulted by a stranger and her father tortures the perpetrator, losing his mind in the emotional conflagration. Years later, an unlucky American finds a place in this broken home and suffers the fiery consequences. Michael Carreras’ proficient thriller may be lacking in internal logic but burns like an acetylene torch.

Paul is a young American, exiled to a small French village after settling affairs with his girlfriend, where a stiff drink leads to his dropping a stiff in the drink, so to speak. He flirts with Annette, the beautiful waitress whose dark eyes mirror her troubled past but Paul is seduced by her Mother-in-law Eve, who owns the bar. This ménage a trios is a triple threat and Paul soon follows his heart instead of his morals. After discovering the dark family secret (Eve’s husband is sentenced to an Asylum for murdering the rapist who molested Annette), Paul decides to help Eve with a plan to help her husband escape and start a new life. Paul even balks at the idea since he’s sleeping with a married woman, and he knows Eve's husband doesn’t take to having his family ‘spoiled”, but Eve convinces him that the marriage is mutually ended. Why Eve doesn’t just legally divorce her husband is never explained, but Paul’s good intentions pave the road to hell and brimstone.


The black and white cinematography is exceptional adding to the gritty realism with Cinemascope compositions shot on location, and chiaroscuro effects that deepen the suspense. The film slows considerably when the inspector appears and spouts exposition like a narrator, insulting the audience’s temperament. Carreras smartly cuts away at the film’s explosive nexus of events though the surprise is properly foreshadowed, and the last scene utilizes oblique angles and dizzying heights that bring the thrilling climax crashing to the ground.

Final Grade: (B)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

FANATIC (Silvio Narizzano, 1965)


A cat and mouse game played in the confines of an Victorian mansion, as a young femme feline is hounded by religious dogma. Richard Matheson adapts Anne Blaisdell’s novel NIGHTMARE but embellishes the story with his palsied humor ripe with pre-marital strife, a union falling to pieces before it even joins in holy matrimony.

Patricia decides to visit to her ex-fiancé’s mother-in-law, to pay her final respects to the memory of the man she once loved, to ease the suffering of a woman who has lost both a son and potential daughter. Pat is a fiery American Girl, raised on promises and the spirit of independence, whose vexing relationship with her new lover is apparent from the outset: Patricia takes accelerates towards her fateful destination. She soon learns that Mrs. Trefoile (a wonderfully zany and overwrought performance from Tallulah Bankhead) is a religious nut who has finally cracked, surrounding herself with servants who exploit her madness in hopes of an inheritance, with a minor appearance of Donald Sutherland as Joseph, a mentally challenged handyman.

The film can be read as a treatise on religion when scripture supersedes law and human rights, whether screeched by the extremist or preached by the conservative. Mrs. Trefoile condemns the wicked Patricia because she isn’t pure and has tainted her son’s everlasting soul, and locks her up until she can be spiritually cleansed. The story also becomes a conflict between beauty and the beast: in other words, youth and old age. Patricia is forbidden from wearing makeup and wearing red (the Devil’s color) so she can be a sexless form of clay and mud. But Mrs. Trefoile was once a refined beauty, revealed in her secret room dominated by a painting of her deceased son, painted shortly before his death.


Patricia attempts escape after escape and is never willing to compromise her life, and spends most of the film in bondage, slapped around, and verbally abused. Mrs. Trefoile does god’s work and punishes her perverted servant, and suffers the consequences of trusting a backstabbing maid.

Final Grade: (B)