THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

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THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) – Del Toro’s Latest—A Stop-motion Animation Extravaganza Combined with Impactful Script— Is One of His Best

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GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) works on so many different levels, it’s difficult to know where to start.

So, I guess I’ll start by saying this version of PINOCCHIO is definitely not just for kids, as the themes and story in this one are definitely aimed at adults, even though on the surface it remains a children’s story. That being said, even though it is rated PG, it is rather dark and in spots frightening, and so parents of younger children be forewarned. But for everyone else, enjoy!

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is now available on Netflix, which means you can watch this one from the comfort of your own home. It features exquisite stop-motion animation, and the word that comes to mind when describing it is clear. Everything in this movie looks so clear, clean, and precise. The feel of the animation hearkens back to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s and 70s, vehicles like RUDOLPH THE RED- NOSED REINDEER (1964) and SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970), only it’s a gazillion times better, as if these Christmas specials were shot by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, or perhaps some other cinematic visionary, say like Guillermo del Toro. How about that?

The actors providing the voices all do first-rate jobs, which is no surprise when you have the likes of Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturo, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Christoph Waltz in your cast! Even the songs are memorable. But most of all, and by far my favorite part of this movie, even with its amazing animation, is its script by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the book Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Not only is the story it tells compelling, but it covers anti-war and anti-fascist themes, father/son relationships, and really and most importantly has a lot to say on what death means, and how important it is to love those around you while you have them, because life is so short, and then it’s gone.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO opens in World War I Italy where a woodcarver named Geppetto (David Bradley) lives a quiet happy life with his son Carlo (Alfie Tempest), but this happy time is cut short when a bomb falls from the sky, and Carlo is killed in the explosion. In the years that follow, Geppetto grieves and can’t move past his grief, wasting away as he yearns for nothing else but the return of his son. It’s at this time that the narrator of the story appears, the Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a self-described author who moves into the tree which had grown by Carlo’s grave in order to write his life story, but it’s at this point that Geppetto reaches an all-time low, and in a fit of drunken rage, decides that he’s sick and tired of his prayers not being answered, and he vows to take matters into his own hands. No, he doesn’t have a PET SEMATARY moment and dig up his son’s grave, but he does chop down the tree by the grave and uses the wood to build a puppet in the likeness of his son, but of course it is lifeless, and Geppetto collapses into a drunken stupor.

But as the Cricket observes, the Spirits take pity on Geppetto and decide to magically give the puppet life, and in a scene right out of FRANKENSTEIN, Geppetto awakes and is horrified to see the puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) now alive and claiming to be his son. Pinocchio is jubilant to be alive and in one energetic outburst after another, runs about the house asking question upon question. Geppetto tries to control him and finally tells him to stay home while he goes to church, but Pinocchio wants to go to church and soon follows Geppetto there, even disobeying the Cricket who tries to teach him to listen to his father.

Inside the church, the churchgoers are horrified and cry out witchcraft at the sight of the talking puppet, and Geppetto whisks Pinocchio home. In a heated argument, Geppetto calls Pinocchio a burden, and heartbroken, the puppet runs away and joins the circus operated by the villainous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, Pinocchio has also attracted the attention of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), who sees great value in a wooden puppet who cannot die, and wants him to be part of the national army.

Eventually, Geppetto and the Cricket go off in search of Pinocchio, and in one of the more frightening sequences you’ll see in a PG animated movie, they are swallowed up by a massive sea creature, and they find themselves stuck inside the enormous belly of the beast. Left on his own, Pinocchio sees through the likes of Count Volpe and Podesta and learns that they are using him, and he decides that he must seek out his father and spend whatever time they have left together, setting the stage for an exciting rescue attempt.

On its surface, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is a highly entertaining and visually stunning animated adventure, and beneath the surface is a well-written theme-driven screenplay that knocks it out of the park with its anti-war sentiments and thoughts on life and death.

In one scene, Pinocchio is overjoyed and singing that he’s going off to war because it sounds life fun, and Geppetto tells him that war is not fun, that war is bad, that war took away Carlo from him. It’s a simple scene, and a simple piece of dialogue, but this one moment captures succinctly what this film is all about. War is not a good thing, and that’s an important message to be sure here in 2022, because wars are all around us. The United States alone has been involved in ongoing global conflicts since 2001. The world doesn’t know what it’s like not to be at war.

The film is just as clear with its anti-fascist and anti-nationalist messages, which are equally as important here in 2022 as these movements continue to gain strength around the world.

But the most telling and most resonating message of the movie is its take on death, how life is short, and how we need to enjoy life with those around us while we can. Geppetto grieves greatly over the loss of his son, and nearly loses his life in the years afterwards. At first, he can’t really open himself to accepting Pinocchio because his heart is still with Carlo, but he eventually listens to the advice of the Cricket who basically shouts at him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to accept Pinocchio for who he is. It’s a powerful moment in what the casual observer might dismiss as a children’s movie. This version of PINOCCHIO is much more than that.

And the way this one ends is such a sweet and on-target moment about how to deal with death, that it’s the perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

While this all sounds serious, the film still manages to be fun and upbeat. Most of the comic relief comes from the Cricket, voiced with empathy and gusto by Ewan McGregor. He gets a funny running gag throughout the movie, as every time he begins to sing a certain song about his own father, something dramatic happens and prevents his singing it. The film gets the humor right throughout.

Speaking of gusto, young Gregory Mann is absolutely amazing as Pinocchio. He has so much spirit and energy, and he makes this living, talking puppet completely convincing.

David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, the father who grieves so much for his deceased son it nearly kills him, and as such it takes him a long time to accept Pinocchio. But he is there for the young puppet with words of wisdom and love that eventually make their mark on the wooden youth. Bradley is known to HARRY POTTER fans for playing Argus Filch in that series.

Christoph Waltz has a field day voicing the villainous Count Volpe, and it’s one of my favorite performances in the film. Ron Perlman is memorable as the Podesta, as is Finn Wolfhard as his increasingly sympathetic son, Candlewick.

Tilda Swinton does her thing as the magical Wood Sprite, who Pinocchio visits each time he “dies.” These sequences are otherworldly and magical, and take the movie to a whole different level.

You won’t hear Cate Blanchett’s voice because she voices the monkey Spazzatura, and so she only makes monkey sounds, but this character becomes very important in the story. Spazzatura spends most of the time as the slave to Count Volpe’s master, but as the monkey becomes closer to Pinocchio, things change.

And in a fun bit of casting, Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants himself, voices Mussolini, in a very funny sequence where the Italian dictator arrives to watch Pinocchio perform.

One odd thing about this version of Pinocchio is the near absence of women in the story. Other than the Wood Sprite, there really isn’t another woman character to be found.

Guillermo del Tor has always made visually stunning movies, and the visuals he creates have always been my favorite part of his films. I have actually liked his films less than a lot of other folks have, as I have found that the storytelling in his movies hasn’t been up to par with their visual aspects, and as such, I’ve only been lukewarm to films like NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017). But this new version of PINOCCHIO doesn’t have this problem. Its screenplay is actually a strength.

And so, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson, is now one of my favorite Guillermo del Toro movies.

It also features stop motion animation, which I always enjoy, and which has a long history going back to KING KONG (1933) and even before that, as Kong animator Willis O’Brien had animated movies before Kong. Years later O’Brien’s protege was Ray Harryhausen who would go on to become the undisputed king of stop motion movie animation, with films like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

After watching GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, there’s no doubt in my mind that Ray Harryhausen would have been proud.

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GORGO (1961)

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When you think of giant monster movies, you most likely think of Godzilla and King Kong, arguably the two most famous giant movie monsters of all time, and you probably think of Japan’s Toho Studios, who made so many of those Godzilla movies we love, as well as plenty of other giant monster adventures.

But today’s movie, GORGO (1961), hails from the United Kingdom, a country that historically did not churn out a whole bunch of giant monster movies. And while in some ways the plot borrows heavily from the original GODZILLA (1954), except in this case rather than Godzilla emerging from the ocean to destroy Tokyo, we have Gorgo emerging from the ocean to pummel London, GORGO is a good enough giant monster movie to stand on its own.

In fact, the special effects in this one depicting Gorgo’s assault on London are right up there with Godzilla’s more famous attack on Tokyo. Topnotch stuff! So much so, that this sequence which pretty much takes up the entire second half of the movie, ranks as one of the best monster-attacks-city sequences ever put on film! The movie is only 78 minutes long, and so at the end of the day, GORGO is one action-packed giant monster movie!

But it’s also rather odd in that it’s one of the few monster movies— or any movie for that matter— that doesn’t really feature any women! There are no female main characters, and I think there’s only two women in the film who even speak any lines of dialogue!

Then again, giant Gorgo is a female, as she is a mommy monster in search of her baby monster which gets kidnapped and taken to London. Hmm. Maybe Gorgo’s contract stipulated that she would be the only prominent female in the cast?

Anyway, GORGO is the story of Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) who helm a salvage vessel, and when they discover a sea monster off the coast of Ireland, they capture it and decide to bring it back to London in order to make money off it. These guys obviously went to the Carl Denham school of business! Little boy Sean (Vincent Winter), who lives on the island where Gorgo is discovered, tells Joe and Sam that they shouldn’t capture the monster and take him away, but the adults don’t listen to him. So, Sean secretly stows away on the ship, and when Joe and Sam discover him, they decide to take care of him and pretty much adopt him for the rest of the movie. Er, Sean, where the hell are your parents?

They bring Gorgo to London where he is shown off at a circus and much to Joe and Sam’s delight, makes them lots of money. But it turns out, this is only a baby Gorgo, and when mommy Gorgo emerges from the ocean, she’s none too happy about her son being abducted, and so she swims to London and attacks the city in order to get him back.

And there’s your plot!

GORGO was directed by Eugene Lourie, who must have loved giant monster movies, because this was the fourth time he directed a movie about a giant monster! His first, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), is probably his most famous, as it featured the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and was based on the short story “The Fog Horn,” by Ray Bradbury. Lourie followed this up with THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958), a film about a giant robot, and then he made THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured the special effects of KING KONG creator Willis O’Brien, which told the story of a yet another giant sea monster.

And then he made GORGO. Overall, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is probably his best movie, mostly because it did feature the effects of Ray Harryhausen, but GORGO is a close second, and the attack on London is far more intense than any of the scenes found in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

Even more interesting, these are the only four movies Eugene Lourie ever directed! He should have directed more, because all four of these movies are very good, and two of them, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and GORGO are downright excellent! Lourie passed away in 1991 from heart failure.

Robert L. Richards and Daniel James wrote the screenplay which tells a decent enough giant monster story, with the one glaring oddity being that there are no women in this story whatsoever!

Young Vincent Winter, who played Sean, would become disappointed with acting and turn to working behind the scenes where he would serve as an assistant director for many movies, including the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN (1978). Winter died in 1998 from a heart attack at the age of 50.

Also in the cast is Martin Benson, who played the circus owner who promotes Gorgo in London. Benson is no stranger to genre films, having played doomed Father Spiletto in THE OMEN (1976), and, in the role I remember him most for, playing the weasel-like Mr. Rash in NIGHT CREATURES (1962), Hammer’s pirate adventure starring Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Benson also had a “pressing engagement” in the Sean Connery James Bond classic GOLDFINGER (1964), as his character ends up being crushed in a car by Oddjob.

And speaking of Hammer Films, in the scene where baby Gorgo is paraded around London, you can see Hammer’s THE MUMMY (1959) playing at the theater at Piccadilly Circus.

The impressive special effects were created by Tom Howard, who would later work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Interestingly enough, the same monster suit was used for both mommy Gorgo and baby Gorgo, and the size difference was achieved with different sets and models, as well as different roar sound effects.

When GORGO was released in 1961, there had only been two Godzilla movies released, the original and its sequel GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), but the filmmakers must have had Godzilla in mind because they premiered GORGO in Japan rather than in the United Kingdom.

Japan returned the favor by basically remaking GORGO as MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967) (Its original and better title is GAPPA THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS), a tale in which a mommy and a daddy monster attack Tokyo in order to bring back their baby monster which had been taken to Japan.

The lesson from both these movies is, if you’re going to put a young giant monster in a show, you’d best ask its parents’ permission first! You might also want to include them in the contract and give them a piece of the proceeds!

GORGO is one of the better giant monster movies of yesteryear. In spite of the dubious decision not to feature any female characters in its story other than the giant monster Gorgo herself, this one features really good special effects and a second-half giant monster assault on London that can’t be beat!

The title, by the way, comes from the Gorgon, as Gorgo is short for Gorgon, and it refers to the Medusa tale of the creature so hideous one look at her would turn people to stone. While Gorgo is not that hideous looking, the creature is indeed monstrous and is impressive to behold.

So, you don’t have to be afraid of Gorgo’s face. It won’t turn you into stone. On the other hand, you probably should be afraid of Gorgo’s feet, which will turn you into some itty-bitty pieces of crushed flesh and bone when they step on you.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973) – Kali Battle

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For some reason, the spring season often makes me think of Ray Harryhausen movies. Not sure why, but part of it, I think, is that there is something about the rebirth of trees and flowers and longer daylight hours that evoke feelings of great colorful adventures, the likes of which were captured by the imagination of Ray Harryhausen.

Hence, today’s Picture of the Day, which comes from THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), the second Sinbad movie in Harryhausen’s special effects Sinbad trilogy. The first was THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), followed by GOLDEN, and the third was SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). 7TH and GOLDEN are generally considered the better two movies of the series, and the jury is still out over which one of these two is the best. I find them equally as good.

Our picture of the day comes from the movie’s signature scene, the battle between Sinbad and Kali, the goddess of death. It’s the most memorable sequence in the film and features some of Harryhausen’s best special effects, both in this movie and in his entire career. I still prefer the skeleton battle in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), but the Kali battle in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD is still energetic and exciting.

Ray Harryhausen remains the master of stop motion animation effects. There doesn’t exist a movie with inferior Harryhausen effects. That’s because he always brought his “A” game to every film he put his name on. It’s also why he didn’t make more movies, because he spent as much time as needed to get his effects done right, and so often his projects would take longer to make than the traditional movie.

That’s John Phillip Law as Sinbad in the photo, and he plays the lead hero with a cool, confident charisma that for my money makes him the best Sinbad in the three Harryhausen Sinbad movies. And that’s Tom Baker in the background as the evil magician Koura, the villain who brings Kali to life so she can battle Sinbad and his crew. Baker would of course go on to play Doctor Who in the 1970s.

THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD is a rousing adventure. As seen in this photo, it provides colorful action, impressive set design, and topnotch stop motion animation effects by the best to have ever done it, Ray Harryhausen, and it tells an exciting story to boot.

Grand entertainment for a bright spring day.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)

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For the first time ever, starring in the same movie together, on the big screen, it’s Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing!

The movie? SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970).

Imagine being able to make that claim. Now imagine botching things so badly, making a movie so awful, that barely anyone today even knows this film exists, let alone that it starred Price, Lee, and Cushing.

The movie? SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

Years ago, when I first watched SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, I hated it. And why shouldn’t I have? The movie boasts Price, Lee, and Cushing, but they are hardly in this one at all. The film runs 95 minutes, and the total screen time for all three actors combined is just about 20 minutes! Price is in the film the most, and his character has the biggest connection to the main plot. He and Lee do share one brief scene together, right near the end, but Lee is hardly in the film, and Cushing has only one brief scene.

Then there’s the plot, which makes so little sense it’s ridiculous. Vincent Price is on record in later interviews as saying he never understood the script. He’s not alone.

For someone who was used to Hammer Films which gave Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee the signature roles of their careers, and the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films which starred Vincent Price and largely defined Price’s career, to sit down and watch something like SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN was an insult. What. A. Waste.

But hold the negative review! Why? Because a funny thing has happened over the years.

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, has… dare I say it?… aged well.

There’s something unique about the time period between 1965 and 1975, which places SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN smack dab in the middle, where life wasn’t the way it was before or since, and the arts during that decade were different, and so looking at a film like SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN today, it stands out because it is so unlike the structured Hammer Films and Roger Corman movies which came before it. It’s very similar to how Hammer’s own DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) has aged so well. There’s a newfound appreciation for the oddball groovy style of both these movies that didn’t exist before.

So, I gotta say, watching SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN here in 2022, I…. oh boy… actually really liked this movie!

Okay. It still has its ridiculous plot. And Price, Lee, and Cushing are nowhere to be found for the most part, but knowing this going in, and knowing that they’re just going to show up briefly and add what they do to the insanity of this wild, wild plot, is kind of a fun thing.

So, about that plot. Ready? There are multiple storylines going on, and none of them are laid out all that clearly, but that’s okay, because it’s 1970, and that’s how things were. The main plot is about a vampire killer on the streets of London who sexually assaults women and then drains them of blood. He’s also incredibly powerful and would have fit in quite nicely in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) universe in Las Vegas giving Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak a hard time. It’s also interesting to note that the superhuman vampire who outmuscles squads of police officers and scales the side of a massive hill a la Spiderman predates THE NIGHT STALKER by two years!

Here, his name is Keith, and he’s played by Michael Gothard, who would go on to play another strong silent killer in the Roger Moore James Bond flick FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981). Hot on this killer’s trail is Detective Bellaver (Alfred Marks) and his squad of Scotland Yard’s finest, and if there’s anyone who is at all close to being a main character here, it’s Bellaver. Alfred Marks delivers a strong performance as the wise-cracking no-nonsense detective who seems like he would be at home having his own 1970s cop TV show. Tonight it’s BELLAVER, followed by COLUMBO at 9 and KOJAK at 10. He gets some of the best lines in the movie, and he’s actually really, really good. Unfortunately, he’s not Price, Lee, or Cushing, but he is still really, really, good.

Meanwhile, in an undisclosed fascist country, which resembles Nazi Germany, a crackpot of a leader Konratz (Marshall Jones) is busy killing off all his superiors so that he can become top dog on the food chain. He seems to possess a supernatural power for killing.

Then there’s Dr. Browning (Vincent Price) who in his secluded mansion is performing mysterious experiments involving removing the limbs of his patients while they’re still alive, and a la Dr. Frankenstein creating beings piece by piece who have not yet lived.

What do these three plots have in common? Nothing! Actually, that’s not true. They are tied together, and before this one ends, the film does attempt to make sense of it all, and it largely succeeds, although you have to scratch your head for nearly 90 minutes wondering what the f*ck is going on??? But, it seems our maniac friend Konratz is hiring the good Dr. Browning to create superhumans for him, one of which, Keith, has been on the loose in London draining women of their blood.

Far out man. Like, groovy!

And SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN is far out. Like waaay far out. Like past Neptune far out!

For Price, Lee, and Cushing fans, Price fares the best and actually has a few good lines, and of the three horror icons is the only one who gets to really strut his stuff on screen, even if it’s only briefly. Christopher Lee spends his time as Fremont, a top man in the British government, talking on the phone and looking worried. He does show up at the end and has the pleasure of delivering the final plot twist, as if this unstructured script really needs another direction! And, sadly, Peter Cushing has only one scene, to be a victim, done in by the overly ambitious Konratz.

The crazy far out script was written by Christopher Wicking, who also wrote the screenplay for Hammer’s last Mummy movie, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1972), which is also kind of far out, as well as the screenplay for TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976), Hammer’s last horror movie until 2008, which is really far, far out! So, he has lots of experience with this kind of thing.

Gordon Hessler directed SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Hessler also directed Vincent Price and Christopher Lee in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film I like much more than SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Probably Hessler’s best movie would be THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), featuring the special effects of Ray Harryhausen.

In spite of its ludicrous and choppy plot, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN does enjoy some neat scenes. There are a couple of really well-done police chases, featuring Detective Bellaver and his Scotland yard crew in hot pursuit of the vampiric Keith. Whenever Vincent Price is onscreen, he provides a vibe in the movie that only Price can, and it’s a shame he’s not the actor who is anchoring this one.

Christopher Matthews as a young doctor snooping around on his own trying to learn the secret of what Price’s Dr. Browning is up to also enjoys some quality scenes. Matthews played Paul in SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), the most violent of the Christopher Lee Dracula films, and he was one of the better parts of that one, until he makes the mistake of discovering Dracula’s coffin.

Unfortunately, the plot involving Konratz and his fascist cronies stands out like a convoluted contrived plot device that seems phony and out of place. It’s the weakest part of the movie. Interestingly enough, in the novel The Disoriented Man by Peter Saxon, on which the screenplay is based, it was a group of aliens who were hiring out Dr. Browning’s handiwork, not dictators in the making. Aliens might have made more sense.

But if it’s sense you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. You won’t find any in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

You also won’t find much of Price, Lee, or Cushing. Sadly, they would appear all together in only one more movie, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983), which while giving them much more screen time and plenty of scenes together, isn’t any better of a movie than SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

But SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN has aged rather well. It’s still a convoluted confusing mess, but somehow with the passage of time it’s become more fun.

This winter, if you’re looking to liven things up a bit, check out SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

You’ll be screaming all right, loudly, at your TV, but not for the reasons you expect.

—END–

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ONE MILLION B.C. (1940)

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one million bc battle

After KING KONG (1933), film audiences really had to wait a while before any other giant monsters returned to the big screen. The next major giant monster release really wasn’t until Ray Harryhausen’s special effects driven THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” Of course, the following year Japan’s Toho Studios released GODZILLA (1954) and after that there was no looking back for giant monster fans.

But in between 1933 and 1953 were lean years, with just a couple of films released featuring oversized creatures. One of these films was ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), an adventure about two different cave tribes who have to overcome their differences in order to survive.

One of the reasons they have to fight to survive is there are some prehistoric beasts on the loose. Yup, this isn’t factually accurate, of course, as some of these creatures would have been extinct long before cave people walked the earth, but who’s complaining?

While ONE MILLION B.C. technically isn’t a horror movie, it does feature enormous ferocious creatures, and it is also of interest for horror fans because it features a pre-Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. in the cast.

The plot of ONE MILLION B.C. is pretty much a love story, as Tumak (Victor Mature) and Loana (Carole Landis) who are from opposing tribes meet and fall in love. Loana’s tribe is the more advanced and civilized of the two, and as they welcome Tumak, he learns of their more modern ways and uses this knowledge to help his own people. Meanwhile, life in the stone age is no picnic. There are nasty creatures at every turn, and pretty much all of them want to eat people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Tumak’s father Akhoba, who is a bit rough around the edges and sees nothing wrong with eating all the food first and letting his underlings have the scraps, which is unlike Loana’s tribe, who share their food equally.

While Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney Jr. and the rest of the human cast are all fine, since they’re playing cave people, they don’t really have any lines of dialogue, meaning this one can become tedious to watch.

The real stars in this one are the creatures, and the special effects run hot and cold. Mostly cold. There is a T-Rex like dinosaur that is laugh-out-loud awful. It’s obviously a man in a suit, its size changes, and at times it seems to be no taller than a center for the NBA.

The best effects are when the film utilizes real lizards and makes them seem gigantic. Most of the time this type of effect is inferior, but in this film the “giant” lizards look pretty authentic. The film also does a nice job with the “mastodons” which are elephants in disguise. If anything is done well consistently, it’s the sound effects. All the creatures, regardless of how they look, sound terrifying.

The special effects were actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940).

ONE MILLION B.C. was directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., and while the monster scenes are all rather exciting, what happens in between them is not. In fact, most of the film is pretty much a bore.

But audiences in 1940 didn’t think so. ONE MILLION B.C. was the box office champion that year.

Mickell Novack, George Baker, and Joseph Frickert wrote the standard no frills screenplay.

Victor Mature would go on to make a lot of movies, including SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) and THE ROBE (1953), while Carole Landis, who pretty much gives the best performance in the film, sadly struggled to land leading roles in subsequent movies, ultimately leading to her tragic suicide at the age of 29 in 1948.

And Lon Chaney Jr. of course would make THE WOLF MAN the following year, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Over the years, ONE MILLION B.C. has been overshadowed by its Hammer Films remake, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), which starred Raquel Welch and featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Neither film is among my favorites.

This Thanksgiving, as you prepare to give thanks and dig into that grand turkey dinner, you might want to check out ONE MILLION B.C., a movie that recalls a long ago time when it was humans who were on the holiday menu.

—END—

 

 

 

 

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974)

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golden voyage of sinbad - gold mask

Who is this man with the golden mask?

King Midas?

Nope.

Thanos’ great uncle?

Try again.

It’s the Grand Vizier of Arabia, as played by Douglas Wilmer in the classic adventure/fantasy THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), featuring the spectacular stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen.

I don’t think there’s a movie out there which Ray Harryhausen put his name on that I don’t like. Harryhausen’s special effects are always top-notch, and the films in which they appeared nearly all classics of the genre.

In particular, I especially enjoy Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies. There were three of them: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). The first two are the best. As to which one is number one in the series, that’s a tough call. I’ve watched both these films a lot, and I have to concede that I find these two equally as good.

Sometimes I slightly prefer THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and other times it’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. They’re both excellent movies and both feature fantastic effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The production design and costumes in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD are also phenomenal, which brings us to today’s photo, the man with the golden mask. But first a shout out to director Gordon Hessler who also directed THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a lurid and underrated horror flick starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Here, Hessler keeps the pace quick and the action exciting. There’s also a strong sense of mystery and awe throughout.

I saw THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD at the drive-in movies when I was just 10 years-old, and I was instantly a fan. I was drawn into its fantasy world of magic and monsters, and I was particularly intrigued by the man in the golden mask, as pictured above, which I’ve always thought was a really cool look.

In the film, he hires Sinbad to help locate the Fountain of Destiny.

That’s actor Douglas Wilmer behind the mask. Wilmer made a ton of movies and appeared in everything from Hammer Films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), the Peter Sellers PINK PANTHER films, the James Bond flick OCTOPUSSY (1983), the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies, Ray Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), as well as playing Sherlock Holmes on British TV. Wilmer passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.

John Phillip Law makes for a heroic Sinbad, and the cast also includes Tom Baker as the villain Koura, and the very sexy Caroline Munro.

There’s a lot to like about THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which is chock full of memorable Ray Harryhausen creations. But for me, the most memorable image from the film is Vizier with his mysterious golden mask.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

willis o'brien

Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) – Energetic Adventure by Guy Ritchie Tries to Reinvent King Arthur Legend

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KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) is director Guy Ritchie’s attempt to do for King Arthur what he did for Sherlock Holmes, namely reinvent the character as an action movie hero.

He almost succeeds.

KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD opens with an exciting pre-credit battle sequence featuring giant mastodons and ear-splitting explosions as we witness young Arthur’s father King Uther (Eric Bana) defend his kingdom from attack, only to see it fall when he is betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law).  Young Arthur is whisked away to safety, and in an energetic montage, we watch as the boy is raised in a brothel, receives martial arts training, and earns his street-smarts as he becomes a man.

The adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is the good guy on the block, hanging out with his friends and protecting local innocents from the occasional bullies.  Doesn’t sound much like the Arthur of legend, does it?  That’s because it’s not.  Eventually, Arthur makes his way to the infamous sword in stone, and when he alone can remove it, everyone and his grandmother, including Vortigern, knows who he is.

Arthur seeks vengeance against Vortigern for the death of his parents, while Vortigern sees Arthur as a threat to his kingdom and seeks to annihilate him.   The battle lines are drawn.  May the best man win.  Of course, there’s little doubt here as to who will emerge the victor.

One of the reasons that Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies were so successful was that he had Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role as Sherlock Holmes.  Here, as Arthur, he has Charlie Hunnam.  Now, I’m a big fan of Hunnam from his SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) days, but he plays Arthur as if he’s still playing motorcycle gang member Jax Teller from SONS.  The script doesn’t help his cause as it includes lots of modern-day language and dialogue.  In fact, at times this movie seemed like SONS OF THE ROUND TABLE, and when Arthur was with his buddies, I half expected Hunnam to turn and say “Hey, Ope.  Where’s Clay?”

So, the fact that the Arthur character doesn’t really take hold here isn’t just Hunnam’s fault.  The writers don’t help him.  I like Hunnam, and he gives an energetic performance, but it just never really won me over.  I felt like I was watching a movie about Jax Teller sent back in a time machine to England in the days of King Arthur.

There were parts of KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD that I liked, and there were just as many things about it that I didn’t like.

Usually, in a movie like this, it’s the action scenes that I like the least, as generally they are long, lifeless, and dull, but that wasn’t the case here.  I really liked the action sequences in this one, and the credit for that belongs to director Guy Ritchie. The opening battle sequence with the monstrous mastodons hooked me in immediately and made me take notice that perhaps this film was going to be better than expected.

Later battle scenes are just as lively.  Ritchie’s camera gets right in on the action, and there’s lot of innovative camerawork during these scenes.  The fight sequences here are much more energetic than what I usually see in movies like this.

I really enjoyed both of Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies, as well as his previous movie, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) which was panned by critics.  I liked all three of these movies better than KING ARTHUR, mostly because those films had better scripts.  Ritchie’s work as a director is just as good here as those films, if not better.  Visually and in terms of this being a rousing action movie, the film works.

It also features some pretty cool creatures.  I’ve already mentioned the impressive looking mastodons, but there’s also this creepy sexually charged octopus creature which is a mixture of slimy octopus tentacles and naked women that make it one of the more intriguing beasts I’ve seen in a movie since the days of Ray Harryhausen.  There’s also a giant snake, which of the three, is probably the least impressive but still makes for a very cinematic monster sequence.  There were a couple of times where I thought I was watching a Sinbad movie instead of a King Arthur movie.

The film also has a loud, in-your-face music score by Daniel Pemberton that I liked a lot.  It reminded me of the way James Bernard used to score Hammer Films.  You definitely notice the music. Pemberton also scored Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, another soundtrack that I really liked.

The screenplay, however, is another matter.  Written by director Ritchie, Joby Harold, and Lionel Wigram, it tries very hard to re-invent both the character and the legend, giving both modern-day dialogue and motivations. Arthur seems more interested in protecting his friends than inheriting a kingdom.

The snappy dialogue didn’t really work for me here, as it just seemed out-of-place. When Robert Downey Jr. spoke with updated dialogue as Sherlock Holmes, he still sounded like Holmes.  Charlie Hunnam doesn’t sound like Arthur at all.  Neither does anyone else in the cast sound like they belong in the age of Camelot.

Jude Law plays the villainous Vortigern as a cold-hearted mean-spirited devil and delivers a performance that works up to a point.  He is too one-dimensional to be all that memorable a villain.  Still, he’s a better villain than we get in all those Marvel superhero movies, and a film like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017) would have benefitted from a character like Vortigern, who at least has an agenda.

Astrid Beges-Frisbey plays one of the more intriguing characters in the film, The Mage, a woman who can communicate with animals.  I enjoyed her performance a lot and wish she had been in the film even more.

Djimon Hounsou does a nice job as Bedivere, the man who helps Arthur get his kingdom back, but it’s a rather small role and never takes full advantage of Hounsou’s talents.  Eric Bana briefly adds some class to the proceedings in the opening sequence as the ill-fated King Uther, Arthur’s father.

The rest of the cast all do a pretty good job in various small roles, mostly of Arthur’s friends.  Among these folks, I thought Neil Maskell stood out as a character named Back Lack.  He’s in one of the best scenes in the movie, where Vortigern  holds a knife to his throat to get information from Back Lack’s young son who has to watch his dad get mutilated.

The title, KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD, also did little for me.  It’s a mouthful, and it’s not particularly memorable.

The same can be said of the movie as a whole.  Strangely, I was most won over by the action scenes and the monsters in this one.  The story and the characters left me wanting more, so much so that I wish director Guy Ritchie was working with a different script entirely.

Still, I wasn’t expecting much, and it was better than I expected.

It reminded me of an old Ray Harryhausen SINBAD movie, re-imagined as a Netflix TV series, only not quite as good.

 

—END—

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

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beast from 20,000 fathoms poster

Return with me now to 1953, when the giant monster movie genre was still in its infancy, the year that saw the release of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

Prior to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS,  the world had seen KING KONG (1933), filled with eye-popping special effects by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to make Kong’s quickie (and inferior) sequel SON OF KONG (1933) and later MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), the latter being significant because it introduced O’Brien’s young protegé, Ray Harryhausen, to the world.

Soon after MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen was ready to strike out on his own, and he would provide the special effects for today’s movie, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released a full twenty years after KING KONG, and so for two decades, the giant monster movie lay dormant.  That would change with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which pre-dated perhaps the most famous giant monster, Godzilla, by one year.  Of course, once GODZILLA (1954) stomped onto the world, and Toho Studios opened up the door to their Kaiju universe, giant monsters would never look back.

But it’s quite possible that Toho’s incredible world of monsters may not have happened without the success and influence of Ray Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. And when I put Harryhausen’s name in front of the title, I realize he didn’t direct the movie— that job was handled by Eugene Lourie, who actually would go on to direct two other very significant giant monster movies, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured special effects by Willis O’Brien, and GORGO (1961)— but when you watch a movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, it’s his work that you remember, work that is always top-notch and phenomenal; in short, his name belongs in front of the movies he worked on.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury, who was good friends with Harryhausen.

The movie opens with atomic bomb tests being conducted in the Arctic.  When two scientists visit the scene after the blast to conduct tests, they are shocked to see a giant prehistoric beast roaming through the snow, causing an avalanche which kills one of the scientists.  This plot point, an atomic blast awaking a giant monster, which would become commonplace in the 1950s, was first introduced here in this movie, making THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS the first movie about a giant creature awakened by an atomic blast.

The surviving scientist, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) tries in vain to convince people that he saw a live dinosaur.  Nesbitt eventually makes his way to Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), a prominent paleontologist, and his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and tries to convince them as well, eventually producing enough evidence to get them on board.  However, his contact in the military, Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey)  isn’t so easily convinced.

But when the beast— identified by Professor Elson as a rhedosaurus—  attacks a lighthouse and eventually surfaces in the waters outside New York City, there’s no ignoring the situation.  The beast is very real.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is not only historically significant in that it’s the first of the 1950s giant monster movies, but it’s also an outstanding movie, one of the best giant monster movies ever made.

And the conversation about BEAST begins and ends with the work of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen brought his “A” game to every movie that he worked on.  His stop-motion special effects are always top-notch.  A movie with inferior special effects by Ray Harryhausen does not exist.  The major reason for this of course is Harryhausen’s talent, but another reason is the time he spent on each movie.  Harryhausen never rushed his work, which is why, sadly, there weren’t more movies made with his stop-motion effects.  It often took him years to work on one movie.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is no exception.  It features superior special effects by Ray Harryhausen.  It also features one of the scariest and most memorable scenes from any giant monster movie period— the lighthouse scene.  Which comes as no surprise since this is the scene directly connected to Ray Bradbury’s short story, which was about a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse.

I first saw THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS on TV when I was probably eight years old or so, and the lighthouse scene gave me nightmares and stayed with me long afterwards. In this scene, there are two men in the closed-in confines of the lighthouse, and outside the protective walls, the beast emerges from the ocean, drawn by the light perhaps.  The men inside hear a noise, and look up to see the enormous face of the creature peering through the glass.  The beast then destroys the lighthouse before the men can escape, and as we learn later, eats them.  It’s a terrifying scene.

beast lighthouse

It’s also perfectly shot by director Lourie and Harryhausen.  The matting effect is near perfect, and without a DVD/Blu-ray to freeze fame, it would be very difficult for the naked eye in real-time to see where the real shots of the ocean and the matte shots of Harryhausen’s animation meet.  The chilling black and white photography helps here, and the whole scene is so well done it’s nearly seamless.  The lighthouse itself is also animated, as is the immediate island onto which the rhedosaurus climbs, but the surrounding ocean is not, as it’s the real thing.

There are a lot of other memorable scenes as well.  The rhedosaurus’ first appearance in the snowy Arctic is also quite chilling, and the ending of the film, which takes place by the rollercoaster on Coney Island is also noteworthy.

Beast - snow

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also has an interesting cast.  I could take or leave Paul Christian, whose real name was Paul Hubschmid, as lead hero Tom Nesbitt.  Likewise, Paula Raymond  is just OK as lead love interest Lee Hunter.

It’s the supporting cast that stands out in this one.  Cecil Kellaway does a fine job as the amiable Professor Elson.  Kellaway was a famous character actor with a ton of credits in a career that spanned from the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in such movies as Disney’s THE SHAGGY DOG (1959) and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967).  Kellaway also appeared in two Universal monster movies and was memorable in both of them.  He played Inspector Sampson in the first Invisible Man sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) in which he doggedly pursues Vincent Price’s Invisible Man, and he played the flamboyant magician Solvani in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

Kenneth Tobey plays Colonel Jack Evans.  Tobey of course played the lead hero Captain Patrick Hendry in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and he would play the lead again in Ray Harryhausen’s IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), which tells the tale of a giant monstrous octopus.  Tobey is excellent here in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS in a supporting role.

And yes, that’s Lee Van Cleef as Corporal Stone, the marksman given the daunting task of shooting the fatal radioactive isotope into the wound of the rhedosaurus.

Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger wrote the screenplay, based on the Bradbury short story.  It’s a decent screenplay as it tells a solid story, contains realistic dialogue, and creates sympathetic characters.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also features a compelling music score by David Buttolph.

So, the next time you’re enjoying a giant monster movie, especially one in the Godzilla/Toho/Kaiju universe, remember it might not have happened without the success of Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus, aka THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

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