The first Hammer movie I saw was late one night at my grandparents’ house, back when horror double bills were a Friday night TV staple. Mostly these were old Universal flicks, but occasionally if I was lucky there’d be a couple of Hammer horrors. I found these much more exciting than their earlier American counterparts, in fact I still do; vivid colour, actual gore, and an undercurrent of sex that provoked definite interest in young Dave. Also, better acting (there, I said it) and none of those awful Hollywood cockney coppers, gor bloimey Guv’nor. From then on, I was predisposed to see any Hammer film that came along, but this was pre-DVD (it was even pre-VHS, which makes me feel very old) so opportunities were limited. A few years and one wonderful technical revolution later, I discovered a video tape in Dad’s not-too-secret ‘special’ pile. It was Countess Dracula, not exactly a typical Hammer film, but it introduced me to the vision of loveliness that was Ingrid Pitt. More importantly it introduced me to Ingrid Pitt’s boobs. That was it; I was lost.
Regular readers to this site may have noticed my curious affection for the DTV martial arts flick. Thus it would be churlish of me to ignore Bloodmoon, a 1997 example of the genre, seeing as it features not one but TWO of my fellow Brits. A handful of Britkickers have made names for themselves as nasty roundeye bad guy types in Hong Kong martial arts films; the likes of Mark Haughton, Sophia Crawford and Jude Poyer have all spent time getting beaten on by Asian stars du jour. Probably the most successful of these is one Gary Daniels, a remarkable martial artist who has a Judge Dredd-style square jaw, the physique of Schwarzenegger and amazing kung fu/karate/kickboxing skills, coupled with the acting ability of a wooden badger. Daniels has appeared in some 30-odd films, but is still best known as the imposing ‘Pony tail fighter’ in Wong Jing’s lame Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter.
Joining Gary in Bloodmoon is fellow Brit Darren Shahlavi, another action type who came to video by way of Hong Kong. He has a spectacular fight at the end of arguably the last of the New Wave of period martial arts films, Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi II. Also appearing is American martial artist Chuck Jeffreys, who among his other acting and stunt credits was fight choreographer on Spider-Man (the 2002 one, not the woeful old TV show). Anyway, that’s far too much trivia on fifth-banana action stars for anyone, so on with the review of Bloodmoon.
Our story opens on the nighttime New York skyline with some reassuringly bad superimposed-moon special effects — so bad in fact that they make the Evil Dead ones look downright polished. We move to a boxing gym where a badass fighter named Eddie Cunningham (Hakim Alston) is training. A banner proclaims the gym as “Home of the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World.” Pretty soon the gym is empty and the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World is left to lock up, standard practice for boxing CHAMPIONS I assume. Suddenly a figure appears, who intones, “there is blood on the moon” (cut to shot of fake window with big red circle painted on it). This is our villain (Shahlavi), and he cuts an imposing figure; black leather trousers, lined opera cape, metal-tipped engineer boots, Gene Simmons hairdo and a curious mask which sits somewhere between a yin-yang symbol and one of Elton John’s more outlandish eyewear choices. After a reasonably spectacular fight the boxing CHAMPION is killed by our villain’s Iron Finger technique.
Next we see a figure on a high-powered motorcycle zooming around some of Manhattan’s more memorable landmarks, in case we’d forgotten we were in New York. Apparently to get to a seedy Harlem gym you have to go via the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and Columbus Circle, stopping on Mulberry Street for some clams at Sal Anthony’s. Although I’ve visited “la grande pomme” three times admittedly I’ve never ridden a motorbike there, so maybe this is the best way. The figure pulls up outside the boxing gym, doing a little spinning jump kick to amuse the police officers guarding the entrance. This is Detective Chuck Baker (Jeffreys) and he is a droll fellow. So droll in fact that he does a few conjuring tricks over the bloody corpse of the boxing CHAMPION. In a line of dialogue so obvious it could have come from Ed Wood’s pen, he looks down at the corpse and says, “Boys and girls, it looks like we got ourselves a homicide.” No clue is too complex for this detective it seems.
On his return to the police station Chief Hutchins chews him out. A shockingly bad Frank Gorshin plays Hutchins, in fact I haven’t seen scenery-chewing on this scale since, um… Frank Gorshin in that episode of Buck Rogers with the Legion Of Death. Hutchins is upset because the killer is taunting him with emails featuring the words “Blood on the moon”. Clearly his expertise with basic email and cheap Photoshop effects means the police consider him to be a computer genius.Meanwhile in the back room of a bar, a Tough Man CHAMPION named Dutch (played by Mr. PPV, The Whole F’n Show, Mr. Monday Night himself Rob Van Dam) is attempting to copulate with a female on top of a pinball machine. Dutch is a bit of a sh*t, we know this because he… well, he looks like one, and is played by Rob Van Dam. Oh, and he calls the girl a ‘b*tch’. Not surprisingly (and because there hasn’t been a fight for about five minutes) the killer arrives and picks a fight with Dutch, using his nifty Iron Finger strike again (I’m not kidding, he actually has two iron fingers). That’s two CHAMPIONS dead then, I wonder if the cops will notice. Sadly the police aren’t going to make this staggering revelation for another hour or so, but bear with them as there’s plenty of fun to be had before then.
Killing Rob Van Dam just isn’t on, so the Chief calls in retired cop Ken O’Hara (Daniels). Now, forgive me if your name happens to be Ken and/or O’Hara but that particular nomenclature just doesn’t have the ring of a true action hero name. Usually he would have been called Steve Ninja or Barry Fist or something, but KEN… I kept wanting to refer to him as Stig O’Hara, the famous lead guitarist of The Rutles. Anyhow Stig, I mean Ken, is introduced to us playing on the beach with his young daughter. I’m not familiar with Manhattan having only visited there a few times (I may have mentioned it in passing), but I can’t recall any beaches. Anyway I digress once again. Some nasty Manhattan beach Hell’s Angels arrive and start to cause a ruckus. Ken, man of peace that he is attempts to smooth things over, until the foolish biker thugs decide to rough up his eight year old. Boo, meanies. This is all it takes for Ken to leap, punch and spinning jump kick into action. He’s still a man of peace at heart of course, as he says, “I didn’t want to fight them; I didn’t have a choice.”
Ken is a Mind Hunter, a super-smart serial killer profiler who quit the job when he got ‘too close’ to the mind of a killer he was tracking and incidentally was horribly injured. Yes folks, we now have a kung fu cop action buddy movie Manhunter ripoff. Chuck arrives at Ken’s house to find his (estranged, naturally) wife waiting to collect their daughter. Seems that all the profiling got in the way of his marriage too. Chuck tries to convince Ken to return, but Ken refuses. “I don’t do this anymore!” he cries, the acting very nearly detectable. Next time we see Ken he is walking around his house at night. There is a thunderstorm outside, mournful soft rock on the soundtrack and angst in the air. He gazes at a photo of an old Japanese guy with a horribly fake moustache before he slips into a monochrome flashback of his torture at the hands of a psycho. “Not again!” screams Ken, in slow motion naturally.
AT THAT VERY MOMENT, the Japanese guy with the fake moustache (Ken Kensei) is meditating in his dojo. He is Master Takaido, and we assume he is a CHAMPION at something. Bad facial hair possibly. Our villain enters and sets up a nifty live video camera-modem link before Master Takaido notices him and declares his spirit unclean. There then ensues a neat Katana fight that is being beamed live by computer to police HQ. Chuck realises that they are seeing the killer at work but is too late to save the Master. Good thing too because Chuck and Ken are still at the ‘mutual dislike’ stage. They won’t reach ‘grudging respect’, let alone ‘admiration and understanding’ for a good half-hour. Of course the two are now thrown together since Master Takaido is Ken’s former Sensei, but not before they accidentally bump into each other at the darkened crime scene and duke it out for a bit.
At the crime scene they also run into Takaido’s adopted American teenage daughter Kelly (Brandie Rocci), who is probably best described as ‘spunky’. She wants to be involved with the investigation, adding a new annoying wrinkle to the plot. Chuck and Ken shake her off long enough for them and their visible boom mike to see sleazy computer hacker Justice (Jeff Pillars), who can figure out the complicated email trickery. Naturally he is a repulsive fat weasel who downloads porn and pees in a thermos. They get a location on the killer, but it’s all a big trick and they end up surrounded by drug dealers. Of course they beat the crap out of them but there’s no masked killer to be found.
Meeting Kelly in the obligatory strip club, the petite blonde takes out a gang of unruly guys who are hitting on her. Ken neglects to help, claiming she is “a former national CHAMPION”. Good job the killer wasn’t there to overhear that, eh? Oh, hang on…who’s that guy in the Gene Simmons wig? Naturally the killer turns up at Kelly’s place shortly thereafter, and a fight ensues. A word on this. I have no problem with guys in wigs doubling women in fight scenes, even when the woman in question is wearing panties and a bathrobe. However if this is a road you choose to go down, it’s not a good idea to let said male stunt double do backflips in which his pink-cotton clad hairy nutsack is clearly visible.
After a short interlude while Ken saves his marriage by going on some fairground rides, our heroes find another dead guy, this time with the word “CHAMP” written next to the body in blood. This actually gives the game away to our doofus cops. “It’s been here all along!” says Ken. No shit, Sherlock. It seems that Master Takaido once held a tournament called the Masters’ Challenge, in which different martial arts champions fought each other. Most of them have been victims, except for two — have a guess if you think our guys pick the wrong one. Meanwhile the real killer lures Kelly to his house and kills her.
By the time Chuck and Ken find Kelly, the killer has kidnapped Ken’s newly reconciled wife and kid. He straps them to a bomb and demands Ken face him in Mortal Kombat…sorry, wrong movie. Naturally it only remains for Ken, Chuck, and the killer to face of in an abandoned factory, the discerning bad movie’s location of choice. If you think Ken kills the bad guy and saves his family…you’d be wrong actually. This movie has a very odd cop-out ending which makes very little sense.
Apart from all that, how is the movie? Well, I daresay there’s some acting in here somewhere but I’m buggered if I can find it. Gary Daniels has spent a long career saying very American-sounding lines in an English accent, something that never works very well. Jeffreys is OK, Rocci is irritating, and Shahlavi has an evil laugh that he must have borrowed from an 80s cartoon. Frank Gorshin deserved an award of some kind for his performance, which is hammier than the pork products stand at a pig auction. Still, all of them are better than the daytime TV rejects playing Ken’s wife and daughter.
Still, this is a kung fu movie so who cares about acting? How does he movie fare to those who like extra chop with their socky? Well, fortunately it does quite well. Director/choreographer Tony Leung Siu Hung worked on such Hong Kong fare as In The Line Of Duty 3, To Be Number One, and Satin Steel, and he puts together some nice action scenes. Luckily he has three very talented martial artists to perform them, with a decent cast of support victims, who lay just enough smack down before dying horribly. There are even some Crouching Tiger-style wire stunts, including at least two where the wire isn’t clearly visible.
My main criticism of the film is that it looks cheap – Ng See Yuen and Seasonal films, the folks behind seminal classics like Drunken Master, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and Secret Rivals produced it. The problem here is the same one that has dogged other Seasonal American productions; you get a lot more bang for your buck in HK than in the USA. The amazing computer graphics look like the sort of thing I could have done on my previous PC with the software that came free with my old printer. A shame, because with a bit more attention to detail this could have been a bargain-basement classic.
As it is the best thing to do is fast-forward to the fight scenes and try not to laugh at the killer’s costume. Or he’ll kick your ass, CHAMP.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Frank Gorshin, Darren Shahlavi, Nina Repeta, Leigh Jones, Jeffrey Pillars, Brandie Rocci, Keith Vitali, Joe Hess, Rob Van Dam, Jen Sung Outerbridge, Michael Depasquale Jr., Ken Kensei, Joe Lewis, Rebecca Rogers, Hakim Alston | Screenplay: Keith W. Strandberg | Director: Kuang Hsiung | Cinematography: Derek Wan | Music: Richard Yuen | Producer: Ng See-Yuen, Keith W. Strandberg
Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.
The businesses in question have pleasantly workaday, provincial names; Butcher’s Film Service, Grand National Films, Present Day Productions, Adelphi Films and the legendary cheapest of the cheap, Danziger Productions. This company was founded by Jewish-American brothers, Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger, who had what one would have to describe as chequered pasts. Edward was a lawyer who had been involved in the Nuremberg trials during his army service. Harry Lee studied music at the New York Academy, and depending on whose account you believe had either played trumpet in a cruise ship band, or been first violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He’d also found time to explore the Amazon and win a Silver Star and Purple Heart. At some point he even managed to market a brand of liqueur, Danziger Gold, so called because of the bits of gold floating in it.
The brothers had previously operated a sound studio in New York, specialising in the dubbing of foreign films for American release. Later they switched to producing features of their own in the US before trying their luck in Britain. The reason the Danzigers abandoned their homeland is, like everything else about them, somewhat murky, though it may have been to avoid the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. They saw the film business as just that; the cheaper you could make the product, the more profit you stood to retain. And the Danzigers made them cheap; as Edward once observed, “nobody makes ‘em cheaper!” It was something of a running joke/horror story among the London acting community, if your current employment was less than salubrious; ‘it could be worse, you could be making a film for the Danzigers.’ Actors who were smart took their salaries in cash on a daily basis.
Initially Edward and Harry Lee rented space from existing facilities, but this was uneconomical for their thrifty productions. After failing to buy Beaconsfield Studios, the brothers purchased some land not far from the famous Elstree. The site contained abandoned aircraft engine testing sheds from world war II. They expanded and converted these buildings into well-equipped soundstages, naming the complex with some hubris ‘New Elstree.’ From here they could knock out a movie in ten days and an episode of TV in two and a half. And knock them out they did; like the rest of the B-producers, mostly murder mysteries and comedy, though with the occasional foray into sci-fi (Devil Girl From Mars, Satellite in the Sky). They called on a stable of solid actors who weren’t stars, or at least not yet – Venerated Horror Icon Christopher Lee starred in a pre-Hammer film entitled Alias John Preston for the company, bemoaning his salary of £75. Other actors would pop up regularly, including Francis Matthews and Dermot Walsh (there was some kind of rule that two out of every three Brit B-pictures had to star Dermot Walsh). Occasionally other companies would rent space at the studio – Quatermass II (a.k.a. Enemy From Space) was filmed there. The Danzigers actually became very successful at TV series, with Mark Saber/Saber of London and Richard the Lionheart (starring, yes, Dermot Walsh) being especially popular.
I’m not really sure why the brothers chose to go with an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, outside of their habit of ‘adapting’ previously existing material, often without credit (rip-off is such an ugly word, isn’t it?). True, interest in horror films based on classic literary works was exploding thanks to, er, some outfit who’s name may or may not begin with an ‘H’. It’s even possible The Tell-Tale Heart was an attempt to hitch a ride on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher. This was released in the UK in the summer of 1960, and if anyone could knock out a cash-in movie in record time, it was the Danzigers. As it happened, The Tell-Tale Heart sat on the shelf for a further three years, and wasn’t released until after the brothers had pulled out of film and TV production altogether (again for somewhat murky reasons, though the studio not being profitable enough is one likely cause). But more on that a little later.
The film starts with a classic Universal-style warning, including a title card with the following cautionary information: “To those who are squeamish, or react nervously to shock…” (there follows a blank screen with the sound of a relentless, sinister beating heart) “close your eyes, and do not look at the screen again until it stops!” The effect is spoiled a little by the ‘boingggg!’ of a kettle drum as the beating starts – composers Tony Crombie and Bill LeSage seemed to think this was a sinister sound as they used it throughout the score, but the effect is sadly more comedic.
When we rejoin the action, we find a man screaming in the grip of a nightmare. His landlady and a friend burst in on him, crying “Mr Poe! Edgar!” The author (for it is allegedly he) takes some form of medication, then drifts off into another dream, where he is now Edgar Marsh (Laurence Payne, TV’s Sexton Blake and both versions of The Trollenberg Terror). Marsh is a timid reference librarian, desperately shy around women, and only able to express any kind of sexuality via his stash of smutty, nude daguerreotypes. Poor guy, if only there had been a worldwide web in Victorian times. Maybe with some kind of cool, steam-powered brass computers to download from ‘Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Celebrated Collection of the Empire’s Finest Suicide Girls, dot com.’ I’m pretty sure speculative fiction writers have imagined a steampunk version of everything else, so why not steampunk internet porn?
Where was I?
Oh yes. From the window of his bedroom, Edgar can see into the chamber of sexy flower shop employee Betty Claire (the lovely Adrienne Corri, Vampire Circus). Edgar is immediately smitten, but is too nervous to talk to her. He asks his much more worldly friend Carl Loomis (the inevitable Dermot Walsh, Ghost Ship) for advice. With Carl’s help, Edgar manages to persuade Betty to join him for dinner, but he’s still painfully shy. Escorting her home, Edgar is afraid the stairway to Betty’s room is too dark and asks to see her to the door. This is somewhat amusing since the interior set is extremely well lit, though we’re clearly meant to think it isn’t. To Corri’s credit she manages to read her line – about a mean landlady refusing to waste money on candles – with a straight face. Anyway, at the door Edgar makes a clumsy pass, and is given his marching orders.
The next day, Edgar is distraught and apologises profusely. Betty, taking pity on the shy fellow, agrees on another date. Unfortunately at the restaurant it’s quickly obvious she is finding Edgar very tiresome, though he remains oblivious. By coincidence Carl is dining there too. Edgar is delighted to see his friend, while Betty is immediately taken with the confident and handsome Carl. Betty is so besotted she fabricates an excuse to interrupt Edgar’s chess game the next day, because she knows Carl is his opponent. To Carl’s credit he warns Edgar not get in too deep, as he can clearly see what sort of woman Betty is. His words fall on deaf ears though; Edgar is already planning to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage. Poor Edgar is now looking like something of an idiot, what with Carl’s reluctance to hurt his friend crumbling, and Betty all but tearing Carl’s pants off in public. Unfortunately that night Edgar, having been rebuffed once more, observes Carl having his fiendish way with Betty in her room. The next morning Carl says he’ll break it to Edgar gently, though Betty doesn’t care as long as they’re together. But Carl never gets the chance; that night the supposedly sick Edgar sends for him, only to beat him to death with a poker.
After Carl has been missing for a few days, Betty contacts the police. The Inspector (John Scott, who had a long career playing policemen in bit parts) is unimpressed. This is not the first time Carl as fled town to avoid either gambling debts or an overly-attentive woman. She visits Edgar at work, and he feigns surprise at the level of her concern for his friend. In fact Edgar seems generally more relaxed and confident around her. However, later that night he is disturbed by persistent, repetitive noises; a clock, a dripping faucet, and finally the beating of Carl’s restless heart from beneath the drawing room floorboards. Betty observes the deterioration in Edgar’s behaviour as the heart torments him, and becomes suspicious. She sees Edgar return from hacking out Carl’s heart and burying it in the park, and realises that he must have have seen their deceitful night of passion. The police are still not interested though, what with Edgar being a respectable member of the community (I love the idea that a reference librarian is surely not capable of committing such a horrible crime).
Betty has no option but to sneak into Edgar’s house while he’s out trying to drown his sorrows. She finds the bloodstained, bent poker and takes it to the police. Finally the Inspector agrees to question him, but Edgar can hardly make out his words as he now hears nothing but the beating of the heart. Unable to stand it any more, Edgar is driven to make a mad confession. He is shot and killed by the Inspector as he tries to escape, and for good measure gets impaled on a spike (which just happened to have been standing in his hallway, apparently). We then jump back to author-Edgar, who tells his friend Carl about this latest horrible dream, how they were both there along with a mysterious girl. Looking from the window, Edgar sees a woman resembling Betty, and the heart begins to beat once more…
The Tell-Tale Heart was among Poe’s most filmed stories even by the time of this adaptation, including a celebrated animated version from a couple of years earlier. The Danzigers’ regular writers, Eldon Howard (Edward’s father-in-law) and future Avengers creator Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), got around this by throwing out almost all of the original text. In the short story – which like a lot of Poe’s work, puts the emphasis firmly on ‘short’ – the narrator kills his elderly landlord because he’s afraid of the old man’s evil eye. Howard and Clemens add an entirely new framework in much the same way Richard Matheson did with Pit and the Pendulum, retaining only the element of the beating heart itself. And the script is extremely good, providing just enough character beats for us to know immediately who these people are. We aren’t explicitly told why Edgar is so terrified and repressed around ladies, but the way he gently caresses a portrait of a stern older woman (presumably his mother) tells us all we need to know.
The cast, despite being made up of B-listers, is excellent. Laurence Payne has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he’s well up to the task. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom as Edgar guilelessly raves about his best friend to Betty, oblivious to the fact that she’s almost drooling in his presence. Edgar’s rage and descent into madness could slip into the ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Payne makes it feel very real and tragic. It’s to his credit that Edgar remains sympathetic even after his terrible crime. Dermot Walsh is also very good, mixing the confidence of the cad-about-town with a genuine reluctance to hurt his friend, and then guilt at having done so. Adrienne Corri has the least enviable task, as her character is probably the least likeable. Betty does little to hide her boredom with Edgar or her lust for Carl, and is clearly indifferent to hurting her first suitor’s feelings. It’s quite satisfying that, although she survives the film (or story-within-a-film), she has to live with the death and dismemberment of her lover.
Director Ernest Morris was a regular on television and the B-picture circuit, working with the Danzigers frequently. He turns in some excellent work here, helped by Jimmy Wilson’s stark black & white cinematography and Norman G. Arnold & Peter Russell’s production design. The Danzigers’ movies often borrowed furniture from The Mayfair Hotel, which they also owned, but the results are impressive. The studio-bound nature of the film (including backlot exteriors on New Elstree’s standing street set) serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and repression in Edgar’s life. Morris makes the most of close-ups on Laurence Payne’s distraught, haggard face, and the sparingly-used special effects (a rug or patch of grass pulsing along with the heartbeat) are very effective. Morris’s best work comes in a scene where Edgar, Betty and Carl go out to dinner. As Edgar and Betty dance, the camera focuses on her gaze, always fixated on Carl even as she is spun around the floor by the delighted, oblivious Edgar.
Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect by any means. The score doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening onscreen, especially as far as that bloody kettle drum goes. The scenes with the police inspector smack a little too much of filler, though not to the extent of most B-pictures of this era. And there are a few amusing missteps, such as Edgar living on the Rue Morgue – it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to be set in London, or at least another English city. This certainly isn’t the only film to make the mistake that Victorian prostitutes were sexy young things rather than prematurely-aged, gin soaked derelicts, but it’s an anachronism that always amuses me.
Though The Tell-Tale Heart must rank among the best work to come out of the Danzigers’ operation, it wasn’t released until after they’d abandoned filmmaking. The movie struggled with the British Board of Film Censors due to the gory and sexual content. In particular, a film where the main character is a voyeur with definite women issues, was troublesome coming in the wake of Peeping Tom earlier the same year. It seems the Danzigers didn’t have the same type of collaborative relationship with the BBFC that Hammer did, and The Tell-Tale Heart languished unreleased until 1963. Thankfully it’s now available on DVD, though if you want to see it I’d recommend the remastered UK release. The American disc from Alpha Video uses a misframed, blown-out print that does the film no favours at all. As well as being a great little movie and one of the best British B-films, The Tell-Tale Heart is a pleasant reminder of when movie producers were fast-talking, cigar-chomping* chancers who were out to make a quick buck, but could sometimes create great work almost by accident. As Brian Clemens said of the Danzigers in a recent interview, “they weren’t the Mafia. But they were close.”
*n.b. I have no evidence that the Danzigers spoke above normal speed or smoked cigars, chomped or otherwise. But you get the idea.
Release Year: 1963 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Díaz, John Scott, John Martin, Annette Carell, David Lander, Rosemary Rotheray, Suzanne Fuller, Yvonne Buckingham, Pamela Plant, Graham Ashley | Screenplay: Brian Clemens, Eldon Howard | Director: Ernest Morris | Cinematography: Jimmy Wilson | Music: Tony Crombie, Bill LeSage | Producer: Edward J. & Harry Lee Danziger
As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.
Tyburn was the brainchild of Kevin Francis, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer and sometime genre director Freddie Francis. The elder Francis had already made successful films for the aforementioned companies, faring slightly better at Amicus. Here he directed a series of effective portmanteau horrors including Tales From the Crypt and Torture Garden, plus the excellent De Sade-themed feature The Skull (we’ll skip politely past The Deadly Bees and They Came From Beyond Space). His work at Hammer was more patchy; Paranoiac and Nightmare are good, Hysteria and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave less so, and The Evil of Frankenstein is largely awful. Kevin started out as a runner on his Dad’s Dracula sequel, which was seemingly enough to give him the film bug. Kev realised that with the help of contacts from Francis Sr.’s address book, he too could produce some Hammer-style gothic horrors. Thus Tyburn was born.
Sadly Francis the younger made a grave miscalculation: he tried to launch a rival to Hammer and Amicus in 1974, when both those studios were in their death throes. Hammer’s demise has been discussed extensively elsewhere on T.C. so I won’t go over ground that Keith has already expertly covered. Amicus was limping along putting out the occasional adventure film like At The Earth’s Core, but would fold soon afterwards as relations between the company’s founders broke down. Tigon, Hammer’s other main rival, had flirted with more modern, gruesome horror movies, but founder Tony Tenser wasn’t happy with this new direction. Tigon switched to distributing terrible (if successful) sex comedies for a few years, before Tenser retired from the film business.
I’m not entirely sure what Francis was thinking, since there’s not a whole lot of information about him. In the one interview I managed to find, he responded to the question of why he started Tyburn with a glib “I needed to earn a living.” In fact the biggest part of his motivation seemed to be the opportunity to work with Peter Cushing, a childhood hero and the reason Francis cites for getting into films in the first place. I can’t really argue with that; who wouldn’t want to work with someone as awesome as Peter Cushing? Certainly Cushing shows up in the bulk of Tyburn’s product, such as it is. Legend of the Werewolf was the third and final Tyburn film released in 1975, after which the company didn’t do much of anything for a decade. Their first production, Persecution, hewed closely to Hammer’s psycho thriller formula, even down to hiring a fading Hollywood female star in the Bette Davis mould (in this case it was Lana Turner). Their second film, The Ghoul, is a remake in all but name of The Reptile, with a full complement of former Hammer talent. By the same token, Legend of the Werewolf will seem familiar to anyone who remembers Hammer’s earlier Curse of the Werewolf, but more on that later.
The film opens with a voiceover by Peter Cushing, describing how races of people throughout history have been forced to flee their homes by persecution. And thus we see a couple of peasants doing just that in what we’ll later discover is France, the mother heavily pregnant. They are apparently Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms in Russia, though the film doesn’t really make this clear. She gives birth as Cusing informs us the child is being born at day-for-midnight on Christmas eve, when wolves are apparently compelled to look after newborns. It doesn’t stop them eating mum and dad, however. A few years later, the hairy feral child is found by Maestro Pamponi (Hugh Griffith, The Abominable Dr. Phibes), owner of the world’s most depressing travelling show. Since his only other attraction is a slightly-tattooed lady, Pamponi seizes the opportunity to parade the caged boy in front of local peasant folk.
But as the boy grows up he loses the excess hair and feral traits, making him largely useless to the show. Now he’s known as Etoile (David Rintoul), a handsome yet simple lad who unfortunately turns into werewolf, when he sees only in red-filter-for-night vision. One full-mooned night he kills Tiny (Norman Mitchell, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), the travelling show’s general dogsbody. Horrified by what happened, Etoile runs away. He finds himself at a rundown zoo on the outskirts of Paris, which has few patrons because of the smell of the sewer running beneath. The zookeeper (Ron Moody, Oliver!) is impressed with Etoile’s affinity with the animals, especially the wolves, and gives him a job.
A group of local young ladies like to come and eat their lunch in the park, and Etoile takes a shine to one of them, Christine (Lynn Dalby). She’s also attracted to the handsome, guileless new arrival. She fails to reveal however that she’s actually a prostitute at a nearby brothel run by Madame Tellier (Marjorie Yates). Incidentally, one of the prostitutes is played by legendary nude model and star of Naked As Nature Intended, Pamela Green. Anyhow, Etoile goes along to the brothel to ask Christine out on a date, and gets turned away. He tries to sneak in and sees Christine with a rich client. Assuming she’s being ravished against her will, he flies into a wolf-like rage and attacks the client. This gets him thrown out and forbidden from seeing Christine again. Later that night in full-on wolf mode, Etoile attacks and kills the punter.
This death proves puzzling for police Inspector Gerard (Stefan Gryff) and judicial surgeon Professor Paul Cataflanque (Peter Cushing!). The signs on the body suggest a wolf attack, but the attacker was too large. More victims, all regulars at the brothel, begin to stack up. Paul investigates and discovers that all of them were clients of Christine. There’s also the body of a poor sewer man with no dialogue other than “Aarrgghh,” played briefly by Hammer’s eternal innkeeper Michael Ripper. Noticing Etoile’s behaviour around the wolves, and a handy sewer grate right by the brothel, Paul puts two and two together. But as his explanation is rather far-fetched, the local Prefect orders all the wolves at the zoo destroyed. Etoile is forced to do it, which causes him to fully wolf out. He escapes into the sewer. Paul follows and tries to help him, but the police are not far behind. Inspector Gerard, armed with a silver bullet on Paul’s advice, shoots Etoile. The hapless wolfman dies in Christine’s arms, along with Tyburn’s hopes of being a successful production company.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the idea behind Tyburn seems to have been to make something akin to classic Hammer. Unfortunately Legend of the Werewolf feels more like a latter day Hammer film, looking massively twee and out of date. Bear in mind it came out in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, Frightmare, Black Christmas and The Wicker Man to name but a few. Even more unfortunate is how Legend of the Werewolf combines the elements of a mid-60s Hammer gothic (mild gore, no nudity) with the substandard production value and leaden pacing of one of their 70s duds. Sets were mostly recycled from stock flats in Pinewood Studios’ scene dock, and they look downright threadbare.
The script doesn’t do much to distinguish itself either. It comes from the familiar pen of John Elder, actually the nom de plume of former Hammer producer Anthony Hinds. The original idea was a combination of two treatments; Kevin Francis’ ‘Plague of the Werewolves’ and Hinds’ ‘Wolf Boy.’ Having read both I’d say most of the elements come from Hinds’ version, which included the Russian immigrants, the 19th century French setting, the travelling show, the zoo and the brothel. Interestingly, Guy Endore’s novel Werewolf of Paris is not cited as a source, which is surprising; this film is very similar in places to Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf from 1961, also scripted by Hinds. That film WAS based on Endore’s book, despite the setting being switched to Spain to use the sets built for an abandoned Spanish Inquisition movie. According to Freddie Francis, the French setting in Legend… was inspired in part by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a film where Francis had served as camera operator. Probably the biggest innovation in the script, which has its roots in the Francis treatment, is the police procedural aspect. This at least gives Peter Cushing something to do.
Cushing is, inevitably, the best thing about the movie. Professor Paul Cataflanque is a typical Cushing hero; a brilliant, educated but compassionate man of science, but one with a mind open to non-scientific explanations. There’s not a great deal to distinguish him from Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes, except that Paul has more of a sense of humour. Cushing was pleased about this and plays it with an amused twinkle in the eye. And let’s be honest; there’s nobody better at playing this kind of character than Cushing. As always, despite being able to phone it in, Pete gives it his all. It’s the fact that he’s consistently so good with such average material that Cushing is my favourite actor ever. On that, Kevin Francis and I are in full agreement.
The remaining cast members are a mixed bag. David Rintoul in his first film role isn’t bad, though he’s no Oliver Reed; he plays Etoile as largely innocent, almost a bit simple, but this works. It makes the character quite sympathetic, as he’s more of a victim than anything. Rintoul didn’t do much film work, but he’s had a long career on television. The most famous name apart from Cushing is Ron Moody, who plays the zookeeper as rather too broad comic relief. The remaining cast are drawn largely from TV guest-starring roles and don’t make much of an impression.
The direction by Freddie Francis is workmanlike, a far cry from his inventiveness on the likes of The Skull or The Creeping Flesh. Francis has a thing for shooting from the POV of the killer – he does it brilliantly in both of the aforementioned films – but here the werewolf-cam red filter quickly becomes annoying. The score is by another late-period Hammer regular, Harry Robinson (The Vampire Lovers), but doesn’t have much to recommend it. The whole thing was recorded in one day so it’s perhaps not surprising.
Legend of the Werewolf was released by Fox-Rank Distributors on a double bill with Hammer’s Vampire Circus, and the pairing actually did decent business. Quite what the audiences made of the stodgy and old-fashioned Tyburn picture in comparison to one of Hammer’s more inventive later works, I don’t know. Certainly Vampire Circus, along with the rest of Hammer’s output, has had the longevity; it recently had a blu-ray release. Meanwhile Tyburn’s films are almost impossible to find. My copy is sourced from an old, long-deleted VHS tape, the same as my copies of The Ghoul and Persecution. And Legend of the Werewolf was Tyburn’s last release for nearly a decade. According to Francis the company did pretty well out of these three films, so quite what happened behind the scenes that prevented any more productions, I don’t know. Fox-Rank’s deal omitted North America, and perhaps the firm’s financial backers had other problems. In any case, Tyburn returned briefly in the mid-1980s with a TV movie called The Bells of Death, starring a very frail old Peter Cushing in his last appearance as Sherlock Holmes. After that, nothing much.
It’s all a bit peculiar, but given the obscurity of the films and the company, I doubt the truth will ever come out. While volumes have been written on every aspect of Hammer, and there’s a decent amount on Amicus and Tigon, I only know of one book about Tyburn. Making Legend of the Werewolf was published by the British Film Institute’s Educational Advisory Service in 1976, as a textbook on a typical British film production for kids taking media studies at school! It’s a frustrating book, going into exhaustive detail about things like the production budget and shooting schedule, but contains scant information on the company itself. So the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw is the old ‘the British film industry was kinda fucked, as usual’ and leave it at that.
Hrm, I wasn’t expecting this review to go all serious and academic and stuff, with references and everything. But the film is a bit too glum to generate a whole mass of riffing, even with Michael Ripper as a sewer attendent.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: United kingdom | Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, Hugh Griffith, Roy Castle, David Rintoul, Stefan Gryff, Lynn Dalby, Renee Houston, Marjorie Yates, Norman Mitchell, Mark Weavers, David Bailie, Hilary Labow, Elaine Baillie, Michael Ripper, Pamela Green | Screenplay: Anthony Hinds | Director: Freddie Francis | Cinematography: John Wilcox | Music: Harry Robinson | Producer: Kevin Francis
I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.
The film opens with a title card informing us that it’s Transylvania, 1874, where those suspected to be vampires are staked through the heart before burial. We immediately see this in action, the eagle-eyed among you possibly recognising future Bond villain Milton Reid as the stake-weilder. As the burial party leaves, a deformed, mute hunchback named Carl (Victor Maddern, Circus of Fear), kills the lone gravedigger and swipes the damaged body. Carl then seeks out a drunken doctor (Cameron Hall), who previously knew the victim and performs a heart transplant on the body. The doctor then makes the mistake of asking for more money, which earns him a stabbing from Carl as an animated bat flutters by. Because, y’know, vampires.
Meanwhile, at the Transylvanian High Court of Justice, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial over the death of a patient. The judge (John Le Mesurier, Dad’s Army) claims the testimony Pierre is relying on, from his teacher Professor Meinster, says the alleged mentor has never heard of Pierre. Thus the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the courthouse lock-up, after being menaced by a crook played by Hammer and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw, Pierre is allowed a few moments to speak to his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley). She vows to find out why Meinster responded in such a strange fashion. Madeleine gives Pierre a locket with a rather fetching image of herself inside. By the way, is it me or are there a lot of people with French-sounding names in Transylvania?
Soon Pierre is transported to different prison than the one he was expecting. The head guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds, The Flesh and the Fiends) is unpleasantly sneery and confiscates the locket. Pierre is placed in a dungeon with a guy named Kurt (William Devlin, Treasure island), who explains the place is worse than Hell, with horrible fates awaiting the inmates. The hunchback Carl, who now lives at the prison, swipes the locket from Wetzler and is mesmerised with Madeleine’s beauty. Hey, it’s Barbara Shelley after all. Pierre is put to work with other prisoners digging graves. One of the sickly inmates collapses, and even Wetzler’s vicious doberman can’t compel him to continue. But on hearing the warden Dr. Callistratus has suddenly returned, the terrified sick man gets up and carries on working. Later, Pierre is Summoned by Callistratus (Sir Donald Wolfit, Dr. Crippen), a strangely vampiric-looking man. Callistratus reveals he deliberately send for Pierre to come to his jail; as a doctor he can assist Callistratus in his research. The warden is working on identifying the different blood groups (it was by not correctly understanding these groups that Pierre killed his patient). As a reward, Pierre gets better quarters, and the run of the prison so he can take samples from the prisoners.
Unbeknown to Pierre, Callistratus has a second laboratory in the basement. Here he has Carl drain the blood from the previously collapsed prisoner, which he then transfuses to himself. Callistratus makes some cryptic comments about his work will go more quickly now that Pierre is helping. Carl discovers Callistratus’s housekeeper (Barbara Burke) spying on them, and before long she’s also an unwilling blood donor. Back at the high court, Madeleine has tracked down Professor Meinster (Henri Vidon), who confirms the letter read out during the trial was a forgery. The chief of justice sends Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman, The Hand) of the prison commission to look into the matter.
At the prison, Kurt tells Pierre about the lab beneath the other lab, and of terrible experiments that take place there. Pierre tries to bluff his way in and Carl attacks him, making Callistratus angry (well, more angry – his default setting seems to be furious). He reveals that he is trying to cure a rare blood condition, one which causes healthy cells to change to a new blood group that attacks all others. Callistratus is trying to find a combination of groups that can be transfused into a diseased subject to cure the condition. Pretty sure that’s not really how blood groups work, but never mind.
Pierre and Kurt try to escape, but it’s a set-up. Kurt is savaged by the guard dogs, apparently to death. Callistratus refuses to call them off as an example to the other prisoners. He tells the authorities that Pierre was killed in the escape attempt. Of course the whole case was a ruse to get Pierre to the prison in the first place, including Auron (who’s in on the whole thing) forging the letter from Meinster. Madeleine doesn’t believe Pierre is dead, so sets herself up as the new prison housekeeper and goes undercover. She quickly finds Pierre is alive, and has discovered evidence of Callistratus performing experiments on the supposedly-dead Kurt. After night falls, Pierre sneaks into Madeleine’s room. Their happy reunion is interrupted by Carl, who is smitten with Madeleine thanks to the locket. Pierre picks the stupidest hiding place in the room (right next to a mirror), allowing Carl to see him. After leaving Madeleine’s room Pierre checks Kurt’s grave and finds it empty. He’s spotted by Metzler, and in the ensuing struggle the guard is killed.
Madeleine is summoned to Callistratus’s chambers, where Auron is also waiting. The prison official recognises her, but does not reveal this immediately. Instead he follows her back to her room and tries to force himself on her. Carl sees this and, thanks to his infatuation, attacks Auron. With things falling apart, Callistratus lures Pierre to the other laboratory, where Madeleine is chained to a wall. Callistratus explains that because of his experiments with blood, superstitious locals branded him a vampire and he was sentenced to die. He infected himself with a blood culture to feign death and enable him to survive a staking and heart transplant, but the infection is now causing his blood to attack the other cells in his body. Now with Pierre’s help, Callistratus thinks he’s made a breakthrough that will cure the condition.
As a final experiment, Callistratus intends to transfuse all of Madeleine’s blood into the barely-alive Kurt, who has been deliberately infected with the culture. Carl though doesn’t want the new object of his affections to be hurt, so Callistratus is forced to shoot him. What’s left of Kurt doesn’t feel like co-operating either, grabbing Callistratus long enough for Pierre to get the better of him. With the mad doctor as a hostage, Madeleine and Pierre escape from the prison. Our hero vows to return after clearing his name, but Callistratus won’t be around to face justice; with the last of his strength, Carl releases the dogs, who in a nicely poetic bit of payback rip Calistratus apart. The end.
Blood of the Vampire’s producers, Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, met in the army film unit during World War II. At the end of hostilities, they partnered up to produce a slew of b-movies from 1948 well into the sixties. Berman and Baker were canny operators, keeping a close eye on what their successful rivals Hammer were doing. To this end they hired regular Hammer writer John Gilling to pen a bunch of the cheap thrillers the future House of Horror were making at the time. When Hammer had hits with sci-fi films based on television serials, they secured the remake rights to ATV’s The Trollenberg Terror (the resulting film better known as The Crawling Eye). Then when Hammer had an even bigger hit with their bloody, Eastmancolor gothic horror pictures, Berman and Baker wanted a piece of that action too. And what better way than by employing the proverbial goose laying all those golden eggs for their rival; Jimmy Sangster.
Blood of the Vampire was released in the summer of 1958, shortly after Hammer’s Dracula and around the time of The Revenge of Frankenstein, both also scripted by Sangster. As you’ve no doubt gathered from the synopsis, despite the vampire trappings (and the rather misleading opening scene) this is more of a Frankenstein story. In particular the theme of using prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments is remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s scheme in the aforementioned sequel, though in that particular film the unwilling participants are patients in a poor hospital. Also the theme of a disfigured servant falling for the female lead, with unfortunate consequences, is almost identical between the two films. I’m not complaining mind you; Sangster usually had to knock out finished scripts at some speed, often after the film had already been announced, and even the best writers only have so many ideas. What’s impressive is that even despite sharing elements, the two projects are different enough to be enjoyable on their own terms. The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s best films, and while Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s still very good. It’s also worth noting that Tony Hinds’ script for the last of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, borrows heavily from this film.
The Hammer formula called for a distinguished actor in lead role. This was usually Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, though André Morell was an acceptable substitute. Berman & Baker went for the prestigious name of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the famous group of actor/managers that included Sirs Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Wolfit appeared in a number of genre films, most likely to fund his theatrical productions, though if you were to suggest to him he was a horror star you’d probably receive an angry response. Wolfit was by all accounts a nightmare to work with; unable to take criticism, awful to his stage companies, and known for filling them with mediocre supporting players who wouldn’t give him any competition. His peers saw him as something of a joke. After Wolfit’s death, his dresser Ronald Harwood wrote a play (later an Oscar-nominated film) entitled The Dresser (good title), about a dresser (see?) trying to keep an ageing, tyrannical leading actor called ‘Sir’ from going off the deep end. I’m sure it was totally fictional and in no way based on real life. Suddenly, Venerated Horror Icon Sir Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula sequels doesn’t seem so bad.
So with that in mind, how is Wolfit as Callistratus? Well, he’s pretty angry throughout; either because he’s a good actor and the part calls for it, or because he wasn’t pleased to be slumming in a derivative horror cheapie, or simply because he’s Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit. That said, it suits the character very well and thus he’s enjoyably nasty. Australian actor Vincent Ball is also good; he mostly did supporting roles in movies including a Carry On (Follow That Camel) and one of my favourite terrible British B-pictures, The Black Rider. Given the chance to step up to the lead, he’s great. After all of the interchangeable, rubbish Pauls and Hanses in Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, when the good-looking hero can actually act (and has a character), it’s worth taking note. Later Ball went back to Australia and worked on TV, including a stint in a soap much beloved of my wife in our university days, A Country Practice. Personally I wasn’t a fan; it was OK but it was no Young Doctors.
Then there’s Barbara Shelley, who requires me to find some way of expressing in words the action of gazing fondly into the distance and sighing. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite horror actresses. She was a step above the usual leading starlet, bringing a fierceness and determination to her characters even if, as written, they didn’t get much to do outside of being menaced. Her transformation from uptight wife to seductive vampire in Dracula, Prince of Darkness is among my favourite Hammer memories, and she was the company’s most prolific lead actress. At this point Barbara hadn’t yet appeared in a horror film for Hammer, though she gave an excellent performance in 1958′s The Camp on Blood Island (and had in fact made her film debut for the company in the little-seen 1952 thriller Mantrap). Her previous genre role had been as the titular Cat Girl in 1957, but this was her first foray into a gothic horror. Naturally, she’s brilliant. That fierce doggedness is very apparent in Madeleine, who despite her obvious fear still puts herself in harm’s way to save Pierre. Strong characters are a trademark of Sangster scripts; note that it was only after he stopped writing gothics for Hammer that those bloody Pauls and Hanses started to creep in.
One of Hammer’s selling points was their ability to make no-budget films look incredibly lavish and expensive, thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson. Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite on a par with Robinson’s work, but it’s pretty damn close. The prison sets are completed on an impressive scale, and only some dodgy matte paintings spoil the effect. Sadly the makeup is less successful, with Carl’s fake eye being the worst culprit. It’s plastered on with little care, can’t move or blink with Victor Maddern’s real eye and it’s not even the same colour. People complain about the prosthetics in Hammer films, but nothing Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton produced is as bad as this. Still, it’s an impressively gory film for the time, especially in the longer ‘international’ version (if you’re really interested this is available on DVD in Italy, though the print used is pretty poor).
Direction is by Henry Cass, who worked with the producers, Berman and Baker, often. His style is serviceable; he’s no Terence Fisher, but he gets the job done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Berman and Baker found much greater success in the 60s on television. They secured the rights to Leslie Charteris’ character The Saint, which became a massively popular show starring Roger Moore. This led to a variety of other series including Department S and The Champions. But I digress.
I’ve just counted and for the second review in a row, I’ve managed to mention the word ‘Hammer’ multiple times for a film not made by that company. This time I’m doing slightly better; 20 uses on Legend of the Werewolf as opposed to 15 here. The problem is, it’s hard to discuss any gothic period horror, or indeed any British B picture from this era, without bringing them up. Such was Hammer’s (make that 16) influence that comparisons are inevitable, and a major reason for that influence was the pen of Jimmy Sangster. Personally I think that’s an awesome legacy.
Release Year: 1958 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Donald Wolfit, Vincent Ball, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern, William Devlin, Andrew Faulds , John Le Mesurier, Bryan Coleman, Cameron Hall, Barbara Burke, Bernard Bresslaw, Hal Osmond, Henri Vidon, John Stuart, Colin Tapley, Otto Diamant, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster | Director: Henry Cass | Cinematography: Monty Berman | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman
Jimmy Wang Yu was one of the most colourful figures ever to emerge from the Hong Kong movie scene. He made his debut in Temple of Red Lotus in 1965, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that he became a megastar. The vehicle was Chang Cheh’s film The One-Armed Swordsman, a movie that gave birth to a new, bloodier and more anti-heroic trend in Hong Kong movies. Jimmy played the main character Fang Kang, a man who loses an arm and then has to learn a devastating one-limbed sword style. The film was so successful that it spawned an official sequel Return of the One-Armed Swordsman in 1969, also directed by Chang Cheh. Then in 1970 Jimmy appeared as The Chinese Boxer, in a movie considered to be the first ‘real’ kung fu film, beating Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss to Hong Kong screens by a year. But the one-armed swordsman persona wouldn’t leave him, and in 1971 he appeared in Shaw Brothers’ collaboration with Japan’s Daiei Motion Picture Co. Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, the 22nd entry in the popular series about a blind Samurai played by Shintaro Katsu.
I have a shocking confession to make: I don’t own many movies featuring dwarves. When our fearless leader Keith suggested submitting a review to the little people roundtable, I was forced to confront this deficiency. A couple of my kung fu flicks might feature cameos by short actors, and sure I’ve got the Weng Weng spy epics, but those are already well served by reviews here. Willow? Too obvious. Seven Dwarfs to the Rescue? Too awful — and given the venerable members of the B-Masters, one that’s quite possibly been covered elsewhere. So I have been forced to fall back on a movie from my home country of Great Britain’s 1970s, one which resides variously under the titles The Monster, I Don’t Want To Be Born, Sharon’s Baby* and A Colossal Bag Of Concentrated Suck (one of these might not be real).
* the kind of attention to detail that made this film such a joy is summed up in the fact that there’s nobody in the movie called Sharon.
The film concerns Lucy Carlesi (venerated soap icon Joan Collins), a former cabaret dancer of some sort, currently attempting to give birth to her first baby. It’s not going well, causing the attending physician Dr. Finch (Donald Pleasence!) to observe “this one doesn’t want to be born!” I have to admit, if the first sight to greet me was creepy-looking Donald Pleasence in a surgeon’s mask I might be a bit reticent too. So our credits play out over Finch and the nurse attempting to forcibly drag the baby from Lucy’s womb. We know this is a difficult process because of the exaggerated zoom effect director Peter Sasdy throws in as Lucy’s POV. This would be a tense scene except for the jazzy lounge music serving as a theme, which surprisingly comes from the baton of Doctor Who composer Ron Grainer.
Anyway, the baby is eventually born whether he wants to be or not, much to the delight of Lucy’s husband Gino (Ralph Bates). Bates, as you probably know, was the guy Hammer tried to break in the 1970s as the next Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. It wasn’t an overwhelming success, probably because Bates never had the charisma of those two legends, but also because he was saddled with fairly indifferent material. Of his Hammer work there’s some good (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) and a fair amount of bad (everything else).
Here, Bates plays an Italian businessman. Cue a performance that escaped from sitcom-land, when some wacky ne’er do well is trying to pass himself off as an Italian count or the Pope or something by going “Pizza! Spaghetti! Chianti!” in a patently false accent. Anyway, Finch tells Gino that his baby is healthy and unusually large. They discuss the baby’s name, Nicholas. “I want-a call-a him good EE-taliano name-a,” explains Gino, “but Loosee, she insist-a! Polpetini! Arrivaderci!” Something like that anyway. Incidentally, the pretty black nurse in this scene is none other than Floella Benjamin, who will be known to my fellow Brits (at least old ones like me) as a popular children’s TV presenter.
Things don’t stay idyllic for very long: after hearing a piercing scream, Finch and Gino race into Lucy’s room to find that she has apparently been bitten by the ba… the baby… OK. I’d wanted to get to the end of the review before addressing this, but honestly I can’t. It’s just too ridiculous not to get out of the way up front. We’re in familiar Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist/Omen territory here, except that instead of a Satanic pregnancy, the Devil’s child or a possessed young girl, what we have here is… a killer baby.
And not just any baby, but a completely benign, affable-looking baby. Every time the wee tyke is supposed to attack, there’ll be a shot of someone leaning over the cot, an off-camera scream, the victim staggering back somehow bloodied, and then a cut to the little fella in his knitted mittens and hat. His expression, far from being sinister, seems to say “don’t look at me; I’m a baby. I still get praise for shitting myself.”
As soon as Lucy and Gino get the baby home, he attacks the housekeeper Mrs. Hyde (Hilary Mason, who’s been in everything from The Six Wives of Henry VIII to Robot Jox), and breast feeding is out of the question. Nicholas is also quite upset in the company of Gino’s sister, Albana, who’s a genuine Sister Albana in that she’s a nun (Eileen Atkins). Increasingly concerned, Lucy confides in her best friend, another cabaret artiste named Mandy. Mandy is played by the goddess in human form that is Caroline Munro, though for some reason her pleasant London accent has been overdubbed by someone else with a slightly different London accent. I’d question the reasons for this some more, but I’m still reeling from the FUCKING KILLER BABY!
While Mandy is at the house, the baby — oh God this is so ridiculous — ‘the baby’ goes crazy and wrecks his room. Distressed, Lucy tells a lengthy tale of her last night at the club where they both worked. Lucy’s act, which seemed to involve being dressed as a gypsy and not removing any clothing, was a smash hit with the rich sheiks and businessmen in the audience. Her act routine involved a hunchbacked dwarf, but again not in an apparently seedy way. I guess my idea of debauched 70s nightclub life is a little distorted. Anyway, the dwarf, Hercules (George Claydon) makes a pass at Lucy backstage, but she’s repulsed. Also she’s in the middle of a torrid affair with the club owner Tommy (John Steiner). Hercules, who doesn’t take rejection well, curses Lucy, telling her she’ll have a baby that will be possessed by the Devil. It’ll also be a giant, as big as he is small. The baby, irritatingly, remains resolutely normal-sized.
And thus the movie progresses with all the required beats. At Nicky’s christening the baby goes berserk, demonstrated by the actor playing the priest faux-struggling and waving the little shawl-wrapped bundle about like a rugby ball. Since the child is clearly, ha, out of control, Dr. Finch recommends a course of sedation and a live-in nurse (Janet Key). Before long the baby is trying to drown the nurse in the bath, and when that doesn’t work he manages to shove her onto rocks in a river. While sitting in his pram. Seriously.
While Lucy has horrible visions of the baby with Hercules’ face (realised by making poor George Claydon dress up as a baby and lie in a cot), Nicky is screaming with rage every time Sister Albana prays, or somehow teleporting dead mice into Mrs. Hyde’s tea. Lucy is still clinging to the idea that there may be a rational, scientific explanation for Nicky’s behaviour, and goes to see Tommy in case he has a family history of killer-baby disease. Y’see, Lucy was still sleeping with Tommy around the time she got pregnant, because I guess he couldn’t resist her gypsy-dancing-with-a-dwarf routine. Tommy turns out to be an unrepentant cad who is now sleeping with Mandy. Lucy meets him at the club where he’s auditioning strippers, which does allow the requisite bit of nudity into the film. Tommy is unimpressed, trying to convince Lucy to return to the stage. The gypsy/dwarf number was apparently such a hit that things have never been the same without it. With his charms failing to work on Lucy, Tommy demands to see the baby for himself. This doesn’t go too well when the little fella punches Tommy in the face.
With this violent bruiser of a child in the house, nerves are strained, so Gino convinces Finch to admit the baby to hospital while he takes Lucy on a therapeutic holiday. Nicky however has other ideas, luring Gino to the garden, slipping a noose around his neck and then dragging him several feet off the ground before hiding the body. A baby does all this, you understand. I feel it needs repeating.
So now with Gino missing Lucy really goes to pieces. Finch, convinced by Sister Albana that there may indeed be Satanic forces at work, goes to the house and finds what appears to be Gino’s decomposed body. Which is impressive given that he only disappeared the previous morning. Nicky doesn’t take too kindly to the discovery and beheads Finch with a garden spade. With everything spiralling out of control, Nicky finally attacks and kills Lucy. Sister Albana’s only option is to perform an exorcism, which has the added effect of causing Hercules to collapse and die mid-performance at the club.
So I suppose the first thing to say about I Don’t Want To Be Born is that there’s nothing particularly inept about it, at least compared to other British horror cheapies of this era. Peter Sasdy was a decent TV and film director, working for Hammer among others. The cast are mostly solid, Ralph Bates’ mama-mia accent aside. Even Joan Collins, an actress who I largely can’t stand, isn’t terrible. This film was made during that period of her career she seems eager to forget, between the early ingénue days and the TV mega-stardom of Dynasty. This was the time Collins moved between TV guest slots and parts in crummy horror films, whether it was being attacked by super-enlarged footage of insects in Empire of the Ants or getting molested by a tree in Tales That Witness Madness. Caroline Munro isn’t in the movie nearly enough, but she does get to wear a basque and stockings, which is very welcome.
The problem here though — and it’s an insurmountable one — is this is a movie about a killer baby. I wish I could elaborate on that more, but every time I try to express my thoughts in a coherent fashion I just want to write KILLER BABY KILLER BABY KILLER BABY! Cinema is the medium of the imagination, and in the hands of a talented filmmaker anything is possible. So I suppose there may be a way to make a genuinely frightening, disturbing film about a killer baby. Sadly, this is not it. I don’t even LIKE babies and I think the little chap is cute. Does he want a lil’ dagger, does he? Yes, oosa cute ickle killer baby, yes you are…
Release year: 1975 | Country: England | Starring: Joan Collins, Eileen Atkins, Ralph Bates, Donald Pleasence, Caroline Munro, Hilary Mason, John Steiner, Janet Key, George Claydon | Screenplay: Stanley Price (screenplay) | Director: Peter Sasdy | Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ron Grainer | Producers: Nato De Angeles, Norma Corney | Alternate titles: The Monster, Sharon’s Baby
As the kind of pop culture savvy, switched-on individual who reads Teleport City, I assume you’re familiar with Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man. But in case you’re not or just need reminding, here’s a quick recap of the plot. Peter Parker sees the girl of his dreams being wooed by a wealthy jock with a flash car. Deciding what he needs is a cool set of wheels, he uses his recently acquired spider powers to enter a wrestling contest for money, only to see through his inaction, his beloved Uncle Ben shot and killed. The 2009 Russian film Black Lightning (produced as all Russian movies apparently are by Night Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov) uses the same plot, but asks the one important question Spider-Man left dangling; ‘what about the car? What about the car??’
Moscow, 2004. Greedy industrialist Victor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Night Watch) is drilling for the vast diamond deposits buried under the city. Despite warnings that this will undermine the foundations of Moscow and possibly kill millions through earthquakes, Kuptsov pushes ahead, but is thwarted when his giant Matrix-style tunneling machine isn’t powerful enough. The only thing with enough energy to complete the plan is the MacGuffin-O-Tron, also known as the Nanocatalyst. This device fashioned from magic moon rocks can increase the power of any normal fuel to over a million times the power of nuclear energy, or something. It was designed in the Soviet days but the project was abandoned.
In the present day, some workers employed by Kuptsov discover the lab where the Nanocatalyst was discovered. There are lots of blueprints and so forth, and also an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga automobile. Seeing the chance to make a profit, they decide to swipe the car and sell it. Which may have a certain significance to college student and our nominated Piotr Parkovich, a.k.a. Dmtry, Dima to his friends (Grigory Dobrygin). Dima is contentious, studies hard, and has serious hots for the new girl, Nastya (the extremely pretty Ekaterina Vilkova, Hipsters). Dima though is constantly upstaged by his rich buddy Maxim (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a sleek white Mercedes (one of the things that tickled me about this movie is how everyone evil drives a Merc. I’m half-expecting to find an interview where one of the writers reveals a Mercedes killed his father). Seeing his son is pretty bummed out, Dima’s Dad (Sergey Garmash, Space Dogs 3D), a poor but upstanding tram driver, buys his son… an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Dima is grateful but not exactly thrilled; this is hardly the car to impress Nastya. So he hides it and tries to get the bus to college, but misses it because of stopping to help an old drunk. And on this day of all days, when nasty Victor Kuptsov is giving a lecture at the college. Dima earns some cutting remarks from Kuptsov, who trots out the old bullshit that successful people help only themselves. But his words strike a chord in Dima, who wants to make enough money to impress the girl he loves. You can probably see where this is going…
Kuptsov meanwhile is annoyed that the Nanocatalyst is nowhere to be found, only a container of previously converted super-energized nanofuel (it’s blue and glowing so you know it’s crazy powerful). From the blueprints it’s apparent that the Nanocatalyst has been built into the missing Volga, so Kuptsov sends his army of heavies out into Moscow to find all the Volgas they can. Meanwhile all is not well in the Dima household. Dima’s new attitude of only looking out for himself and trying to make as much money as possible does not sit well with his poor-but-proud Dad. When Dima Sr. intervenes in a mugging, his son berates him for risking his life for someone else, causing a deep rift between them. Kuptsov’s men observe Dad getting angrily out of the Volga, but stick with pursuing the car. And then Dima makes a startling discovery: his car can fly. Aw, man. The Russians had flying cars back in the 1960s? Way to go, capitalism.
Through an old record he finds in the glove box, Dima tracks down a couple of the scientists who built the car. They are now married, Perepelkin (Valeriy Zolotukhin, Night Watch) and Romantseva (Ekaterina Vasileva). Perepelkin is suspicious, claiming they could never get the Nanocatalyst to work, the project was closed down and chief scientist Elizarov (Juozas Budraitis) was fired in disgrace. Romantseva is more sympathetic and gives Dima the manual for the car. Now that he can circumvent the horrendous Moscow traffic, Dima becomes the star of the flower delivery service he’s been working for. Finally he has some cash to splash around, and takes Nastya to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He discovers quickly that she’s not the rich sophisticate Max said she was, and if she fails the next college exam will have to go back to her family in the country.
Unfortunately with great wealth comes great assholery. Dima gets into a fight with Max, and says a few salacious (and untrue) things about Nastya, which she overhears. Even worse, when he goes to reconcile with his Dad, Kuptsov’s men get there first, and the mugger Dad thwarted earlier is in their employ. Dad ends up bleeding to death in a snowy side-street while Dima sits idly by, refusing to call an ambulance because it doesn’t fit with his new ‘looking out for number one’ philosophy. He realizes too late who the victim is, Dad having already passed away.
At home with his distraught Mum (Elena Valyushkina) and little sister Tanka (Katya Starshova), Dima has the revelation we’ve been waiting for since the opening credits, especially when Tanka tells him “you’ll have to be dad now.” Using the Volga’s super-radio which cleverly doubles as a police band scanner, Dima becomes a hoodie-wearing superhero. He saves a child from a burning apartment block, foils an armoured car robbery and saves a baby in one go, even catches the mugger who killed his Dad (the mugger’s fate is not revealed, but since I don’t think Dima ever knew it was him, this isn’t too much of an oversight – I quite liked the ambiguity, in fact). He also gives the Volga a spiffy new coat of paint, and soon the people and the press are going crazy over this hero they have dubbed ‘Black Lightning.’ My favourite scene in the film is a lovely little moment that pops up about now, when Tanka asks Dima if Black Lightning is real. He says yes, but nobody knows who he is. “I think it’s Dad,” she replies. Brought a little lump to my throat, I don’t mind telling you.
Kuptsov is getting extremely frustrated with his inability to capture the car and the Nanocatalyst. He recalls the three scientists from the original project and convinces them he’s building a new version of the car to help Black Lightning in his heroic work. It transpires that Romantseva and Elizarov were in love, but because Perepelkin wanted her for himself he faked the negative results, knowing Elizarov would be fired. Meanwhile Dima deliberately fails an exam, knowing his place will go to Nastya, who is genuinely struggling. She realizes he’s not the dickhead she thought he was, but in a romantic twist of fate that is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, ends up thinking Maxim is Black Lightning. Max being a genuine dickhead, plays along.
Back at Kuptsov’s facility, Perepelkin finds out about the plot to drill for diamonds and destroy Moscow. Now eager to redeem himself, he tries to escape and get help even though it means likely death. Kuptsov lets him go, betting that Black Lightning will show up to rescue him. Nastya meanwhile has switched her allegiance back to Maxim, admiring his apparent selflessness and heroism. Discovering this, Dima almost lets Perepelkin die just to prove Maxim isn’t the hero, but of course he can’t. “Black Lighting will be there. He has to be there,” he tells Nastya, even though he knows he’s playing into Maxim’s hands (Max is hiding in the toilet at this point). And somehow, Nastya realizes that even though Maxim is apparently the hero, she actually loves Dima.
Unfortunately Dima falls into Kuptsov’s trap, failing to save Perepelkin and losing the Nanocatalyst to the bad guy’s super, rocket-armed flying Mercedes. Kuptsov re-starts the drill with the three scientists tied to it, and Moscow seems doomed. With only his small reserve tank of nanofuel left, Dima is able to stop the drill and recover the Nanocatalyst. Kuptsov is furious and, having worked out who Black Lightning is, kidnaps Nastya, demanding the Nanocatalyst in exchange for her life. Can Dima save the woman he loves and Moscow and defeat the man ultimately responsible for his father’s death? Does a Russian bear shit in the woods?
Y’know, I could say a lot of negative things about Black Lightning. Sure, it’s massively derivative of American comic book movies; as well as the Spider-Man series, it borrows bits of Iron Man, Batman Begins (the score is identical in spots) and Universal’s legal team may have been rubbing their hands over the Delorean-like design of Kuptsov’s flying Mercedes (Universal put the film out internationally though so I assume it was OK). Dima even has a Facebook account where people can ask him for help, Kick Ass style, but I guess those movies were in production at the same time so we’ll let that one go.
On top of that, the plot is pretty thin, and several of the elements could have been fleshed out better. In particular I’d like to have seen the car given a bit more… personality I guess. I don’t mean have it talk or think for itself, but it doesn’t register on-screen the way I think it’s meant to. Partly this is down to Dima’s character never seeming to have much of a bond with it; it’s just a tool for getting the job done. I do wonder if part of this is because the special effects, while good, are used sparingly, so the flying sequences are quite brief. Hey, I doubt they had $150 million to spend so that’s understandable. I also think it’s because Grigory Dobrygin as Dima isn’t a very good actor. He’s a little too blank, is better at being a jerk than a hero, and a times is even a little creepy. The rest of the characters are pure ciphers, though thankfully filled by good actors who make them work for the most part.
And then there are those pesky action sequences. I know that in a movie about a magic flying car it’s probably silly to complain about how much of the action seems to defy physics, but there are moments where I did roll my eyes (like when Black Lightning is flying vertically upwards with another car balanced upright on the front fender – I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work). And a little more time spent on exactly what the car is capable of would have been nice. It seems like the only difference from a normal car is supposed to be the flying thing, and yet BL seems to be indestructible, can apparently go into space without ill effects despite earlier being shown not to be watertight, and a few other things. And honestly, when it comes to super-heroics a flying car is a lot less practical than a dude swinging from a web. Take the moment where a stolen armoured car is about to hit a woman and her baby. BL shunts it from the side, flipping it over. So now it’s still moving forward at speed towards the baby but completely unable to steer. Of course it stops in the nick of time but you get the idea.
And yet… for all its many faults, I found myself going along with Black Lightning, and getting genuinely invested in the outcome. There are some nice moments throughout, and so help me I wanted to see weird, creepy Dima get the girl. I mentioned the sweet little bit with him and his sister, and I all but cheered when Dima thinks he’s sacrificing his future with Nastya to do the right thing. I am something of a sucker for comic book movies, I guess. I even smiled a little at the joke stolen from the Moore-era Bond movies, when a guy about to knock back his fifth vodka sees the flying car and swears off booze forever. So while far from a classic, I’d give Black Lightning a pass, even though it has nothing to do with the DC comics character of the same name – a black guy who shoots lightning.
And so what if they never really address why a bunch of scientists, discovering a magic new power source, would turn it into a flying car? If I had the technology and the resources I’d build that shit yesterday!
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Russia | Starring: Grigory Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Ekaterina Vasileva, Juozas Budraitis, Ivan Zhidkov, Sergey Garmash, Ekaterina Starshova, Mikhail Efremov, Dato Bakhtadze, Igor Savochkin, Sergey Legostaev, Elena Valyushkina | Screenplay: Dmitriy Aleynikov, Aleksandr Talal, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Rostislav Krivitskiy, Vladimir Neklyudov | Director: Dmitriy Kiselev, Aleksandr Voytinskiy | Cinematography: Sergey Trofimov | Music: Yuriy Poteenko | Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Syuzanna Muazen, Pavel Ratner, Iva Stromilova, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel | Original title: Chernaya Molniya
At time of writing (February 2011), the movie arm of Marvel Comics has three big budget summer blockbusters due out this year. Thor, starring Black Swan and Captain Kirk’s dad; Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Agent Smith and Johnny Storm; and X-Men: First Class, starring Mr. Tumnus and January Jones’s tits. Marvel has become quite the movie powerhouse since the first X-Men movie over a decade ago. This is all a far cry from back in the day, when Marvel was giving away the rights to their properties for the price of a deli sandwich, and not even a good deli either. This led to such classic fare as the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series, Albert Pyun’s unique take on Captain America and that Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four that was too awful to be released – of course the same could be said of the big-budget Tim Story version, but that didn’t stop them.
So no surprise then that Marvel saw fit to option their mystical superhero wizard Dr. Strange to an outfit like Full Moon Entertainment. Readers of this site doubtless have at least a passing familiarity with Full Moon and their head honcho Charles Band, but for any newcomers (and to pad out the review a little longer) I’ll recap. For Band the movie business ran in the family. When you’re the son of an independent writer/director/producer like Albert Band, it’s fairly likely you’d want to try out this filmmaking lark for yourself. When your dad is the auteur behind Zoltan: Hound of Dracula, it’s also reasonable to assume that a lot of your output will be utter crap. So it was with the younger Band.
But it’s not all bad. Band’s old company Empire Pictures produced some great Stuart Gordon films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dolls and… well, just those, though this writer has a lingering affection for Robot Jox as well. Empire also put out a number of other cult favourites including Zone Troopers, Trancers and Ghoulies (the latter two directed by Band). Empire eventually folded, and Charles started up Full Moon. And that’s when the floogdates of dreck really opened, because for every Re-Animator there are ten shitty Puppet Master films. In fact I think there actually are ten shitty Puppet Master films. And then there’s the Dollman series, the Demonic Toys series, the Witchouse series, the many Trancers sequels and that one where all of the Universal monsters are played by dwarves.
But even Full Moon couldn’t help but release the occasional decent movie. Subspecies is a highly-regarded take on the vampire mythos, while Stuart Gordon returned to make a couple of interesting flicks for the company (The Pit and the Pendulum, featuring some of Lance Henriksen’s finest scenery-chewing, and Castle Freak). Even more recent, deliberately tongue in cheek fare like The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong show more imagination than the mockbusters and endless giant shark movies from The Asylum and Nu Image. And for that I have a certain admiration for Band. He’s definitely an innovator. The Video Zone featurettes that accompanied Full Moon releases on VHS were DVD extras before the invention of DVD extras, or for that matter DVDs. And hey, if you want a complete collection of puppet master or demonic toys figures of your own, Band’s Full Moon Toys has you covered.
So why aren’t you familiar with the Dr. Strange movie that Full Moon made? Because, er, they never made it. By the time the project was ready to go into production, the option on the character had lapsed. But that wasn’t going to stop Band, who by now had a perfectly good screenpla… a screenplay, and after the liberal application of Wite-Out (other correction fluids are available), Dr. Strange became Dr. Anton Mordrid, Master of the Unknown. In the starring role was Full Moon regular and B-movie fan favourite Jeffrey Combs.
Mordrid lives in an amazing New York apartment full of old books and maps and other things pertinent to his wizardly status, but also lots of NEON! Because THE FUTURE! When not hanging out among the books and the neon, Mordrid is on the astral plane talking to his boss, Monitor, a big disembodied pair of eyes. Monitor serves as an exposition-o-tron, usefully discussing with Mordrid things they both know for the benefit of the audience. Monitor is also kind of a dick. “Mordrid,” he’ll say, “the Death’s Head has escaped. You must fight him.” “But Monitor,” responds Mordrid, “I’m not powerful enough.” “Yes, I know. And first you must cross over to the Other Side.” “But Monitor, crossing over will make me even weaker.” “Oh, cry me a river. Are you still here?”
The Death’s Head is a guy called Kabal, played by Brian Thompson. I love Brian Thompson. In the 80s and 90s he was the action movie heavy called Brian you hired when you couldn’t get Brion James. In fact I’m still sad that Thompson and James never starred together in a movie I just wrote in my head called Brian and Brion Blow Shit up. Thompson fought and was ultimately defeated by everyone from Sylvester Stallone and Cynthia Rothrock to, um, the cast of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. With his Roxx Gang hair and spiffy 90’s shades, Thompson is the perfect guy to play an evil wizard in a movie like this. Kabal is using his alchemical powers of mind control to steal various elements he can use in his dastardly scheme; to unlock the cosmic prison where his demon buddies live to let them destroy the Earth.
Mordrid meanwhile is hanging out at the huge apartment in the building he owns, talking to his raven Edgar (yes, I know) and flirting with his neighbour/tenant Samantha (Yvette Nipar, Robocop: The Series). She’s a police researcher into ancient evil cults and whatnot, so she’s drawn to Mordrid as much for his knowledge as his easy charm and gold silk dressing gown. Mordrid is also a much better prospect than the other guy in Sam’s life, her police contact Det. Tony Gaudio (Jay Acovone), one of those NYC cop stereotypes who could be reading a treatise on nuclear physics and all you’d hear was “cannoli, Jersey, Brooklyn badabing mama mia!”
Mordrid, suspicious at the thefts of alchemical materials, goes to the cosmic prison to discover that yes indeed, Kabal has escaped. Apparently he killed everyone except Mordrid’s friend Gunner (Ritch Brinkley), a guard. Meanwhile on Earth, Kabal has enlisted the help of the kind of heavy metal hoodlums that only exist in movies, Adrian (Keith Coulouris, Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus) and Irene (Julie Michaels, Road House). In order for his spell to work, Kabal needs to drain all of Irene’s blood, which I personally think was a poor choice on his part. Adrian is far more annoying and Irene looks good naked, so unless the spell specifically calls for ‘blood of a rock chick’ I’d have gone with Adrian.
Det. Gaudio is assigned to the case when Irene’s body shows up. Sam recognizes a symbol burned into her forehead as one she saw on Mordrid’s amulet, so suggests the cops go to him for advice. Mordrid meanwhile is increasing his power by inserting a bunch of clear Perspex daggers into himself, when Kabal’s astral form drops by for a chat. “Ah,” sneers Kabal, “the Crystals of Endor!” Which suggests that the rebels must have given the Ewoks some advanced plastic-making technology before they left. Anyway, Kabal is interrupted by the cops, who rather than asking for information simply arrest Mordrid as the no. 1 suspect.
Sam is able to convince Gaudio to let her see Mordrid. She’s wary at first, wondering if maybe he is a murderous occultist whackjob. Mordrid however uses his powers to play an extended mental flashback. When they were kids, Kabal and Mordrid were schooled together in magic and the ‘Dark Arts’ and so forth. But Kabal was seduced by the lust for power etc. and so on, and turned evil. Mordrid defeated him, and has been standing watch on Earth for hundreds of years in case Kabal escaped. Now won over, Sam helps Mordrid escape using his nifty time-stopping amulet.
Kabal needs only one more artifact, a philosophers’ stone, which he finds in a museum. He’s on the verge of releasing all the demons when Mordrid astral-projects into the museum. How do ancient wizards fight to the death? They reanimate a couple of dinosaur skeletons to battle it out. Yes, you heard me, GIANT STOP-MOTION DINOSAUR SKELETON FIGHT! Which is another reason I like Charles Band; the dude needed very little excuse to throw in a bunch of stop motion monsters. Since he usually used stop-motion wiz Dave Allen, these sequences were generally pretty good, and this one is short but a lot of fun. Even Kabal is entertained: as the scenery scampers for cover, Brian Thompson declares “God! Our powers can be amusing!”
I’ve riffed pretty hard on this movie but it’s mostly affectionate, because I rather enjoy Dr. Mordrid. Partly I think it’s because it rips off so many elements from Highlander, which is one of my favourite movies. Partly it’s because I feel well-disposed to any film that throws in some stop motion dinosaurs, and a lot of it is watching Brian Thompson set to maximum Ham. But mostly it’s because of Jeffrey Combs. Combs is always a reliable performer and a welcome presence, but this is a bit of a departure for him. I can’t think of another movie where he plays a romantic lead, and he’s really quite good at it. Of course he’s still Jeffrey Combs, so there’s a slightly sinister, twitchy edge to the character, but since he’s a 400-year old inter-dimensional wizard it fits perfectly. I have one female friend who finds Combs extremely hot in this flick, and inasmuch as I can appreciate such things, I agree. It’s Combs that gets the movie through the rather too frequent dialogue scenes needed to pad out such a low budget film. So even without the qualifier ‘for a Full Moon movie’ I think Dr. Mordrid is well worth watching, if only for Combs and those battlin’ dinosaur bones.
Nostalgia. It’s a dangerous thing, especially when applied to something you haven’t encountered for over 30 years. Take, for example, my favourite TV show as a kid; I lived and breathed The Six Million Dollar Man. I had two different Steve Austin action figures (one with a grippy hand, one without), a rocket ship thing that folded out into a bionic surgery table, some sort of evil robot with a claw and interchangeable face masks*, and even a Jamie Sommers action figure (it was not a doll. Shut up. SHUT UP!). I would spend hours during school playtimes attempting to run in slow motion while making the nininininini…. noise. I’m sure I looked like a complete buffoon, but I didn’t care.
And oh man, what a show that was! I remember every episode being a breathtaking thrill ride, as The OSI battled to stop megalomaniacs trying to use atomic bombs to blow up space stations full of more atomic bombs, while Steve Austin wrestled a robot yeti with laser eyes that also contained an atomic bomb. And between being about six and thirty-six, I never saw The Six Million Dollar Man again. Imagine my disappointment, watching re-runs on SyFy, to discover that Steve spent most of his time helping pretty divorcees in lumberjack shirts fight off evil logging companies in bland-looking (and above all cheap) forests.
Because back in nineteen seventy whatever, my junior brain was incapable of differentiating between awesome and suck. I thought everything was as good as Star Wars (my yardstick for quality in those days). The Black Hole? Totally as good as Star Wars. The Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers movies? Every bit as good as Star Wars. If I’d seen The Humanoid back in the day, I’d probably have told you THAT was as good as Star Wars, and I dare say I also thought today’s review subject was the equal of Lucas’s epic adventure. In fact about the only post-Star Wars sci-fi movie I didn’t think was as good as Star Wars was Starcrash, which I thought was crap. But again that just shows you how badly formed my young synapses were, knowing as I do now that Starcrash is the greatest movie ever made.
The Amazing Captain Nemo was an attempt by Irwin Allen to graft some Star Wars-style laser and robot action onto an underwater adventure, and was originally made to serve double duty as both a movie and TV mini-series, the latter shown as The Return of Captain Nemo. This wasn’t uncommon in the late 70s; As I hinted above, my first exposure to both Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica was in the form of movies that were edited together from episodes of the show (in fact Galactica managed to knock out three of these, including one based on- the Lords of Kobol help us – Galactica 1980). I have a recollection so vague of seeing the TV version of Nemo that for a long time I assumed I must have dreamed the whole thing.
There’s this mad scientist called Professor Cunningham… Let’s just hold it there. Professor Cunningham? That’s what you call a guy whose name strikes terror into all those who hear it? Because that’s not even trying. I’m not suggesting going completely overboard and calling your antagonist Dr. Maim or Count Torture or something, but Professor Cunningham sounds like an avuncular college professor. And – unfortunately – he looks like one too, seeing as he’s played by Burgess Meredith in a costume of grey slacks, grey grandpa cardigan and loose black tie. He’s absolutely not the guy who you expect to be commanding a killer submarine full of robots, and ordering around a 7-foot tall gill man in space armour called Trog or Tor or something. But that’s exactly what he’s doing. The submarine is called The Raven, and looks like a kit bash of a couple of pipes with a Space: 1999 Eagle transporter. It has this really amazing weapon called a Delta Beam, which can apparently blow up whole islands, but for some reason Cunningham instead threatens to destroy Washington using an old-fashioned nuke.
Meanwhile, during some stock footage of naval manoeuvres, a couple of divers make a startling discovery. Commander Tom Franklin and Lt. Jim Porter happen across a mysterious submarine. When they investigate further, they discover it is the Nautilus, and the famous Captain Nemo (José Ferrer) is still aboard in suspended animation. There’s not a whole lot to say about Tom and Jim except that they helpfully wear different coloured wetsuits so you can tell them apart. They are played respectively by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, who look like they were created in a lab from the DNA of Tom Wopat and Larry Wilcox just to be on 1970s TV.
Tom, Jim and their boss Miller (Warren Stevens) convince Nemo to use his genius, and spiffy art-deco sub, to help them take down Cunningham before Washington is destroyed. While a little annoyed that this will divert him from his true goal – searching for the fabled Atlantis – Nemo agrees. It’s a bit of a coup for the good guys since the Nautilus has all kinds of amazing technology years ahead of its time. It has a laser cannon and a nuclear reactor, or at least that’s what Tom and Jim call them, setting up the old chestnut of Nemo snapping “that is only what you call them in your modern futuristic parlance you young whippersnappers you!” or words to that effect.
Nemo tracks down Cunningham fairly easily, and having temporarily neutralised the delta beam, swims out to say hi. No, he really does: he and Tom scuba over to the Raven so that Nemo can ‘look his opponent in the eye’ or some such guff. It’s mostly so Ferrer and Meredith can do a bit of scenery-chewing and we can have a brief underwater laser battle as the good guys escape. I have to say, I really love that someone looked at the exciting shootouts in Star Wars and thought, ‘I wish these were slower and more ponderous, like Thunderball.’ Anyway, the Nautilus uses its laser (or focussed light projecting fabtraption, according to Nemo) to shoot down the nuke, and that’s the end of episode 1.
In order to refuel, Cunningham drills holes in some barrels of nuclear waste that the US has dumped in the ocean. The release of radiation threatens to be catastrophic, so once again the Nautilus is pressed into action to save the day. First though they must take on board an expert in, um, leaking radioactive barrels, I guess. This is Dr. Cook (Mel Ferrer) and his pretty-ish assistant/girlfriend Kate (Lynda Day George). Dr. Cook doesn’t add much to the story, except that he’s actually a traitor in league with Cunningham. He sabotages the Nautilus, though Nemo figures out who the culprit was instantly. But Cook has another trick up his sleeve… a sword cane.
Yes, honestly, that’s his back-up plan. He attacks Nemo, who apparently forgets he has a whole crew of armed officers so that the two Ferrers can have an old-guy sword fight. Cook is killed, and Nemo tricks Cunningham into blowing up an undersea cliff to bury the nuclear waste and saving the day. Oh, and there’s some business with the Nautilus getting stuck in a minefield, but it’s dealt with rather quickly. And that’s the end of episode 2.
For the big finale, Nemo finally discovers Atlantis, which looks pretty much exactly like you’d expect it to: Greek columns and acropolises (acropoli?) and so forth. Then a guy in a toga swims aboard, and declares he is King Tibor (Horst Buchholz), the head honcho of Atlantis. He tells Nemo that having been betrayed by a previous visitor who claimed to have peaceful intentions, the crew of Nautilus will be tried and judged by the Atlantean council. Sort of makes you wonder, if your nation is attacked by a treacherous enemy and you get all suspicious of visitors, why you’d send the king out by himself to make contact. Never mind, he’s got a toga so he must know what he’s doing.
Anyway, Nemo is able to convince the council he’s an OK guy, and returns to the Nautilus with Tibor and a couple of others. But they find the crew frozen, Tom (or is it Jim?) missing, and the ship inoperable. It’s Cunningham again of course; he’s using a mind-control device to overpower Jim (or is it Tom?) and the Atlanteans, and now intends to drain all of the genius ideas from Nemo’s mind. And also use some ball bearings to destroy all the cities on Earth, or something. And naturally it was he who previously conned the Atlanteans. While strapped into Cunningham’s brain-draining machine, Nemo cleverly remembers some footage from earlier in the movie, allowing Tom (or possibly Jim) to break free of Cunningham’s control. They escape, treating us to a slightly more elaborate underwater laser fight, before the final battle between the Raven and The Nautilus. Which isn’t terribly exciting, to be honest, but does end with an explosion. And then Captain Nemo promises never to return to Atlantis. And that’s the end of episode 3.
The Amazing Captain Nemo is a frustrating experience. The episodic structure means that there’s no real through-line of plot to get resolved, and as soon as a problem presents itself, it’s fixed immediately. Plus the removal of a fair chunk of footage from the longer TV edit also causes a number of problems. Character development is non-existent, and presumably the lost scenes would also help fill in some troubling holes in the story. For example, what’s the deal with Cunningham’s weird mutant hench-thing? Was he supposed to be an Atlantean of some sort? Both he and and the toga-wearing Atlanteans refer to Nemo and his crew as ‘aliens,’ so I assumed a connection. There are also unfortunate continuity gaffes that presumably come out of the editing, such as when Nemo orders the Nautilus, last seen resting on the ocean floor, to “dive dive dive!” I’m guessing these gaffes are down to the editing anyway; the script might just suck. And don’t fall for anyone telling you Robert Bloch is responsible for the screenplay, as I assume his contributions were lost among those of the 6 other writers (not including Jules Verne).
So, The Amazing Captain Nemo is just-about-passable afternoon matinee entertainment, assuming you can roll with the ropey model FX (and honestly, how can these be so much worse than the ones in Allen’s earlier Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?). Having seen it again, I can now say with confidence I didn’t imagine it as a six year old child, so peace of mind of a sort has been achieved. And I also now know for certain that even the addition of sweet laser-equipped scuba thrusters isn’t enough to make diving sequences interesting.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and find this old TV show I remember from being a kid. It had a guy with a metal hand that had all these interchangeable gadgets on it, and I’m completely sure it’ll still be awesome…
* The villain turned out to be Maskatron, as described here. I also had the radio back pack, which kind of sucked. I really wanted those critical assignment arms, but it was not to be…
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, Mel Ferrer, Horst Buchholz, Tom Hallick, Burr DeBenning, Lynda Day George, Warren Stevens, Med Flory | Screenplay: Larry Alexander, Robert Bloch, Robert C. Dennis, Norman Katkov, William Keys, Mann Rubin, Preston Wood | Director: Alex March, Paul Stader | Cinematography: Lamar Boren | Music: Richard LaSalle | Producer: Arthur Weiss, Irwin Allen