In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
Anyway, as much as we pointed and laughed at Angelfist, which also triumphantly proclaimed “Starring Eight Billion Time American Karate Champion Cat Sassoon” or something to that effect, we never actually got around to renting it. At the time, we had so many old Shaw Bros. and Ocean Shores releases to work through that piddling around with a Roger Corman karate movie seemed rather a poor use of our time. Alas, I was so young and naive back then, and in my then recently discovered fervor for Hong Kong action cinema, I turned my nose up at so many films that… well… deserved to have noses turned up around them. But now I know better and willingly embrace such films. Thus, back when skinnyguy.com was still around and you could buy 50 crappy VHS action and kungfu films for like five bucks, I ended up with my very own copy of Angelfist, along with about a hundred Godfrey Ho/Thomas Tang/Joseph Lai ninja movies starring Richard Harrison. So whenever I complain to you about my financial woes, you can always respond by going, “Don’t you own copies of Ninja Phantom Heroes and Diamond Ninja Force?” And I will have to hang my head in shame, even if deep inside I am secretly proud of owning such movies.
Just as I was pleased that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” is not a description of a single film but of an entire genre, so too am I happy that “movies featuring nude kickboxing” yields expansive enough results that I can sit back and say, “You know, I think I’m going to become an expert in films that feature nude kickboxing.” Angelfist certainly doesn’t fail to deliver in the nude kickboxing arena, though it does fail to deliver in just about every aspect that a movie might otherwise strive to achieve. It joins a storied list of films that includes Angel of Destruction, Redline, Girls on the Run, Rolls Royce Baby, Naked Fist, and Kungfu Leung Strikes Emanuelle in my collection of nude kickboxing movies. Rolls Royce Baby in particular teaches us that there’s nothing appealing about watching a sleazy Eurotrash lounge lizard do full frontal nude katas. In general, nude karate is not a sport that lends itself to the male anatomy, though I don’t begrudge any man who chooses to make it his chosen form of exercise. If only they’d had the good sense to accompany his workout with a similar scene of Lina Romay, but she’s spending too much time in that movie standing on her head while nude for no good reason other than it never hurts to feature Lina Romay nude and standing on her head. I know there are plenty of other films out there featuring nude martial arts, and I intend, one by one and while dressed like Coffin Joe, to possess them all.
So it turns out the awkward looking blonde on the video box isn’t Cat Sassoon at all. We’ll get to the blonde later. It turns out Cat Sassoon is the daughter (in real life, that is) of shampoo empire tyrant Vidal Sassoon, who I assume achieved his high rank in society through liberal use of karate fighting thugs, and even now he forces hobos and prostitutes to fight in underground martial arts tournaments where the combat takes place in huge pools of mousse. Catya’s biography is one of a typical “live fast, die young” (she did both) Hollywood kid, and I’m not sure at what point she picked up the various karate championships the movie celebrates as being in her possession (actually, she picked them up when Roger Corman invented them and assigned them to her via movie poster). She seems to have spent most of her short life doing drugs and being a supermodel thanks, in large part, to the fact that she was the daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams. At some point, she parlayed her modeling and “daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams” gig into a movie career and appeared in the film Tuff Turf, the movie that had the unenviable task of making James Spader seem like a bad-ass. From there, it was straight to the bottom of the barrel, and before too long she found herself in The Philippines working in films by our main man, Cirio Santiago.
As far as authentic martial arts bad-assery, and despite the claims made on the cover of this movie, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Cat Sassoon was possibly one of the very worst of the many “next female martial arts superstars” that surfaced in the 80s and 90s with dubious claims about winning international tournaments and Vidal Sassoon Hair Mousse Kumites. She’s definitely not to be measured alongside actual bad-asses like Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, both of whom made awesome movies in Hong Kong before coming back to America to make movies that were just awesomely bad. But they both knew their stuff, cut their teeth in Hong Kong, and had easy to verify martial arts careers. The waters get murky really quickly beyond them, though.
I’m ranking Sassoon — who must have been slapped on the back while eating lemons, thus freezing her face in an expression of pouty disgust (Joe Bob Briggs described her as having “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist”) — below Mimi Lesseos (who at least worked as pro wrestler before trying her hand at being the next direct-to-video female martial arts superstar), although Angelfist is remarkably better than anything Mimi Lesseos ever starred in. Probably above Maria Ford, who did time in her own bargain basement Filipino nude kickboxing movie, Angel of Destruction). It’s a hard call. And maybe above some of the women who tried to do martial arts in various Andy Sidaris T&A masterpieces. But whatever the case, when you’re locked in a battle for last with Maria Ford and former Playboy Playmates, well, you’re a long way from the surface. Plus, the trailer for Angel of Destruction has the narrator saying “She gets caught between a rock…and a hard place!” as they show Maria Ford kicking a rapist in the balls, so that might actually get the edge.
The claim is that she’s a “WKA North American Forms and Weapons champion,” but if this is true, the WKA doesn’t seem aware of it. Of course, I suppose Cirio Santiago could have created a different WKA than the World Kickboxing Association. Maybe it stands for “Women Kick Ass” or “Wonderfully Krappy Awfulness.” I think everyone who ever starred in a martial arts movie got to be the champion of some organization or tournament. In 1992, my friends and I shot about two minutes of an epic we were going to make about a Misfits-loving zombie who returns from the grave, is disillusioned by how punk went all hippie-crusty or metal, and so decides to destroy the world, with only the staff of a local Chinese restaurant to stop him. I think as a result of filming those two minutes, which consisted I think of footage of me jumping over a railing in a parking garage, I became de facto two time world champion in forms and combat for the Global Regional Karate Union of North Florida.
So if we’re going to drown at the bottom of the barrel with the late Cat Sassoon, we might as well do it in the company of another daft movie by Cirio Santiago. Of course, this movie, with its gratuitous martial arts tournament footage, is positively rational compared to some of his more feverish efforts, but that still leaves plenty of room for you to shake your head and say, “No! No. Wait, what?” The gist of the thing is this: while either vacationing or working as a photographer or participating in a karate tournament, a woman named Kristie (Sibel Birzag, who appeared in Angelfist and…oh, just Angelfist) catches an assassination on film. Although she phones the American embassy with news that one of their top generals has just been murdered by dudes with pantyhose on their head, and that she has photographic evidence, no one seems to consider it all that big a deal. Must be the same army as we saw in American Ninja, where the continuous slaughter of American soldiers at the hands of Filipino ninja hijackers didn’t really raise much of an eyebrow. So rather than go into the embassy or the police or anything, she goes and competes in a round or two at a karate tournament where all the women wear sexy leotards, halter tops, and thongs instead of actual martial arts clothing. She then has the film delivered not to the embassy or the police, but to a friend who works as a nude dancer at a club that specializes in the world’s least enthusiastic stripping. And then, of course, she gets murdered.
When the woman’s Los Angeles cop sister (Cat Sassoon) gets wind of the murder, she travels to the Philippines to solve the case and deal out plodding kungfu justice to those responsible, even though the local authorities use the “I know you’re a cop back in LA, but this is Manila. We do things different here,” shtick, which has never deterred a single rogue cop ever. It’s no more effective than “I just spent the entire morning getting my ass chewed out by the mayor,” or “your methods are too extreme, Inspector Nico!”
Along the way, Cat will enter the martial arts tournament in place of her sister, since movies have taught us that all gangsters and would-be revolutionaries are also shady martial arts tournament promoters. Ostensibly, this has something to do with getting close to…I don’t know. There were some Mexican drug dealers, or something, and some of the revolutionaries responsible for the murder are involved. Look, I sort of lost track, so I’m going to say that Cat enters the tournament so that she can keep land developers from knocking down the local community center in order to make room for a shopping mall. The primary purpose of the tournament really is to pad out the film’s running time with lots of really bad martial arts bouts and only slightly more interesting shower scenes in which Cat Sassoon proves that no amount of shampoo empire money can buy you decent martial arts skills or a decent pair of fake boobs in the early 1990s. I’m sure hers, which she shows often in this film, cost a lot of money, but that doesn’t stop them from looking like someone took a couple honeydews, wrapped them in those pointy little knit caps worn by Tibetans and hippies, then strapped them to Cat’s chest. Thhis is one of those extremely rare moments where the nudity comes and I say, “You know, why don’t we just put those away for now?”
Anyway, you better get used to them, because as I said, she pulls them out pretty often, God bless ‘er, including during a scene where she is attacked in her hotel room by a bunch of ninjas and has to fight them off while wearing nothing but a pair of panties. The two most striking things about this scene are how awful Cat’s martial arts are, and how no matter how much she tumbles and stumble around, her breasts remain completely motionless, like a couple of gyroscopes with a fake tan.
And she’s not alone. Joining her in her quest to showcase gratuitous boob shots and astoundingly awful karate fights is lovely Melissa Moore (and her much more natural breasts), a Versailles (that’s vur-sails to y’all — if the French didn’t want you to pronounce the “L’s” then they shouldn’t have put them in the word), Kentucky native who found herself slumming it in all sorts of movies like Hard to Die, Vampire Cop, and Sorority House Massacre 2, among many others. The martial arts she showcases in the film don’t look any less awkward. You know though, maybe it’s me. I mean, I’m no kungfu master, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the proper fighting stance for the martial art they’re using is indeed to curl your arms up like an Incan ice mummy and mash them against your chest.
Whatever the case, I like Melissa regardless, even though her part consists mostly of sitting in the audience and watching Cat fight while nodding to herself. Well, when she’s not busy taking showers. And apparently someone else likes her too, because there’s a comic book about her, Melissa Moore, Bodyguard from Draculina Publishing. I’m not a big reader of comic books, so I don’t know too much about it. Somehow, I think that even if I was a big reader of comic books, I still wouldn’t know too much about it. Never the less, I’m still glad it exists.
So now that I’ve had some fun ribbing the ladies, let me say that I love that both of them are willing to give their all, however much that may be, for a movie like this. I mean, good or bad, Moore and Sassoon are in there, taking their lumps and starring in crummy kungfu films. I love ‘em both for it. Working the Corman-Santiago Manila circuit can’t be steak and onions, as stories from the likes of Walter Hill and Pam Grier attest to. And I don’t know about Melissa Moore, but Cat Sassoon certainly didn’t have to do anything more than sit back and live off the sudsy wealth of her family. Instead, she went to the Philippines and made low-budget action films. Good for her! And as for Moore — what can I say? I have a soft spot for Kentucky girls. I’d love to do a long interview with her or pay to have her write a book. As I’ve said many times before and will doubtless say as long as I keep reviewing crappy low budget Roger Corman productions shot in the Philippines, the stories behind these films are probably way more interesting than both the films themselves and the making of stories behind the standard Hollywood project. So if I poke fun at the ladies, it’s done out of love and with nothing but good nature.
Not so much, though, for the comedy relief male sidekick and the usual host of “You kicked their ass? But…but…you’re a woman!” and “That was amazing! Could you teach me some of that kungfu jazz?” shtick that invariably follows him and his Chess King wardrobe around. And since I’ve cracked jokes at the expense of poor Cat Sassoon, who wanted nothing more than to make shitty kungfu films and show us her fake boobs as often as possible (and don’t think I don’t appreciate her for that), I might as well mention that actor Michael Shaner looks like someone mashed Matthew Modine and John Malkovich together. There’s something not quite human about him, like he’s a clay-faced shape shifter doing its best to approximate what a human douchebag looks like. The big difference between Shaner and Sassoon is that by the end of the movie, Sassoon’s crappy acting, terrible martial arts, willingness to show off her weird fake boobs, and her overall strange appearance won me over. Heck, I’m ready to buy more Cat Sassoon action films on 50 cent VHS. Conversely, I want to punch Shaner in the face, even though I know it’s sculpted out of clay and butterscotch pudding, or whatever shape shifters are made of. You know what, Shaner? Your wardrobe isn’t even good enough to be Chess King.
Both Moore and Sassoon turn in nude kickboxing scenes, though I think Moore’s only counts half a point since it’s just a ripped shirt. But Sassoon goes full on, in just her lacy red panties, showing off her otherworldly fake boobs and accompanying fake tan that, coupled with the oily misting job they did on her to give her that fresh out of the shower appearance, makes her look like a particularly aggressive Nathan’s brand hot dog. This is without a doubt the second finest nude kickboxing scene I’ve witnessed (it’s going to be hard to beat the scene from Girls on the Run, though, because that’s a nude kickboxing scene directed by Cory Yuen Kwai). But Cat Sassoon holds nothing back. She throws all her energy into the scene, jumping around awkwardly, growling, yelling, and a few times doing spinning kicks while her face is obscured by a huge dollop of Vaseline or something on the lens.
I think they might have been trying to obscure the fact that a male stuntman with fake orange boobs attached to him was standing in for Sassoon. If that’s the case, oh man! What must that guy’s day have been like? One stuntman shows up and hears, “Well, you’re in the fight, and Cat Sassoon is going to be all greased up and naked, and she’s going to kick you then straddle your face.” And yeah, Cat may look a little weird, but whatever man, and if she’s nude and straddling my face then I still call that a good day at work. So the other stuntman is like, “This is gonna be an awesome day!” until he finds out that his job is to grease up, put on fake boobs and a pair of red lace panties, and be a stand-in for a nude kickboxing woman. And then his children will ask, “What did you do at work today, daddy?”
The rest of the cast seems comprised largely of Filipino kickboxing women who show up for matches and disappear again during the shower scenes (I’ve never seen a Filipino martial arts tournament locker room with so many white women in it). I guess most of these women have some actual martial arts background, but that doesn’t matter all that much since real life tournament martial arts are pretty boring to watch if you’re not an avid practitioner. They’re not any better here and are probably somewhat worse. There are also a couple rebels, and the usual assortment of white guys playing generals, diplomats, and other figures of authority. None of them are really worth mentioning. There is a guy named Mr. Carrion, which I suppose is a slightly better name than Mr. Rottin’ Guts McGee, but just barely.
This is one of the films, one of the many films, that force me to grapple with an assortment of moral questions related to passing judgment. Because this is a terrible, terrible movie, and I like it. It’s completely idiotic, and I like it. I have no justification for this adoration, and certainly I hesitate to tell others they should check it out. The acting is bad, the martial arts are worse, and the direction is nondescript. But like Cat Sassoon herself, somehow all the negatives add up to a decently dumb and entertaining 80 minutes. The action may indeed be bad, but there’s a lot of it. Like Melissa Moore and Cat Sassoon, all this movie wants to do is entertain you. And like its stars, the results are pretty feeble even if the effort is enthusiastic. Liking bad movies is pretty common. Liking bad martial arts movies is a much more, let’s say exclusive, calling. They’re still way easier to like than bad comedies and bad Steven Seagal films, but in a genre where bad stories and acting are glossed over in light of good action scenes, you better have good action scenes. When you don’t, there’s not much going on.
Except, you know, nude kickboxing.
Odd that movies like this are why, in the 1990s, I would write long screeds about how dreadful American martial arts movies are and how it’s a shame the US isn’t paying more attention to Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now that the US is paying more attention to those guys — a bit too late for them to really deliver much that is worth paying attention to, sadly — I find that the crummy little low-budget productions from America and the Philippines have grown more attractive to me. And isn’t it funny that a number of the Hong Kong action stars of the 80s and 90s, once the action boom faded, sought to ply their trade in The Philippines. Somewhere in Hong Kong, the Chinese Roger Corman has Yuen Biao and Yukari Oshima in his office and is, no doubt, reaching for the bright red rotary dial phone that connects all producers in the world directly to the ghost of Cirio Santiago.
Release Year: 1993 | Country: Philippines and United States | Starring: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Sibel Birzag, Tony Carreon, John Crank, Roland Dantes, Sheila Lintan, Ken Metcalfe | Writer: Anthony Greene | Director: Cirio Santiago | Cinematographer: Joe Batac | Music: Stephen Cohn | Producer: Cirio Santiago and Roger Corman | Alternate Titles: Fatal Angel
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unphased by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963′s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933′s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt
When The Land That Time Forgot ended, it left hero Doug McClure and heroine Susan Penhaligon stranded in the tropic prehistoric lost world of Caprona in Antarctica, fated to wander the strange world of dinosaurs and cavemen while wearing big-ass furs and mukluks. Would rescue ever come? Would their hopeless message in a bottle thrown into the tumultuous seas at the end of the earth ever be found. If so, would it be believed? Well, we know from the first film that the account of the strange adventure to Caprona was found (though how the account, written by one man, could include detailed descriptions of things that happened while he was not around, is a question best left not asked in a movie about a u-boat crew fighting dinosaurs). Two years later, the answer to whether or not anyone would believe it was also answered. Unfortunately, the answer came in the form of The People That Time Forgot, a phenomenally boring follow-up that reduces Doug McClure’s role to little more than a cameo, kills off Susan Penhaligon in between the two movies, and seems to think that what people really wanted from a sequel to The Land That Time Forgot was fewer dinosaur fights and caveman rumbles, and more scenes of people walking across gravel-strewn landscapes.
The inaction begins with Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne, son of John), airplane pilot and friend of Bowen Tyler (McClure, remember — his character did have a name), preparing to mount a rescue mission after having received word of the message-in-a-bottle account of the events from the last film. McBride encounters relatively little skepticism either from the scientific community, the Navy, or the press. It seems accounts of Caprona have popped up from time to time in the past, and this is their best chance, using the navigation information Bowen recorded from their journey on the German submarine, to pinpoint the exact location of the mysterious land and, if possible, rescue Lisa and Bowen. But unlike the ill-fated experiences of the Germans and Brits who wound up there by accident, McBride is determined to mount a properly provisioned rescue mission, employing the latest cold weather ships, radio equipment, and an airplane. Accompanying him, besides assorted stoic British sailors, are his trusty sidekick mechanic, a biologist, and Charly Cunningham (Sarah Douglas), a reporter for the London Times whose inclusion in the expedition was one of the provisions of the newspaper financing the mission.
Things start off well, both for the film and the expedition. The ship gets McBride close enough to use the plane, and after successfully navigating through the high mountains, the pilot and his crew soon find themselves on the unmistakable outskirts of Caprona. The weather turns warmer, there are a few more trees (though nothing like the lush primordial forests in the last movie), and they are attacked by a stiff, fake-looking pterodactyl. Truly we are home. The battle forces the plane to make an emergency landing, and while the mechanic repairs the damaged rudder and makes “comical” comments, McBride and Charly set out on foot in a basically random direction in hopes of finding Bowen and Sarah. They encounter a dinosaur here and there, but for the most part, their trek is exceedingly dull.
I can’t really put my finger on why, even when there are dinosaurs on screen, it seems like there aren’t dinosaurs on screen. I think it’s because there’s no real sense of interaction with the creatures. The last film had all sorts of crummy looking composite shots so we could see Doug McClure sneaking around dinosaurs. This time, it feels like we’re watching stock footage. In fact, yeah. That’s exactly it. With the exception of one scene where Sarah Douglas takes a photo of a stegosaurus, the whole film feels like one of those old impoverished jungle adventures, like White Pongo or White Gorilla — films comprised almost entirely of shots of the cast walking through a set, intercut with stock footage of elephants and giraffes. This isn’t stock footage (though I suspect one or two shots of being unused footage from The Land that Time Forgot), but it feels like it. Until the very end, the dinosaurs are little more than parts of the set that cause the cast to make terrified faces, except for Patrick Wayne, who makes the same face for the entire film, regardless of what terrors or wonder might be confronting him. At the end, they finally fight a dinosaur, but it’s really too little too late. This movie needed to be packed with scenes of our heroes fighting dinosaurs, and it’s not.
Eventually, they begin to reach the more temperate regions of Caprona, here realized by location shooting in an actual forest (the Canary Islands, to be exact). Where as the last movie relied largely on a mix of location work with sets to create a believable if somewhat fantastic jungle, this movie looks like it was filmed in a pretty average clump of trees. Funny how that happens sometimes. The actual tropical island isn’t a very convincing tropical island, where as the last film — which I think was filmed on a set and probably in a London park — was more interesting looking. Sort of like how The Greatest Story Ever Told was shot in Arizona and Utah, because the filming they did on location in the actual Holy Land didn’t look Holy Land enough.
However, the location shooting also lends the film a more wide-open feel, though given how little impact that has, it would have been nice if they’d skimped on location shooting and used that money to buy more crummy dinosaur props or a tiny fur bikini for Sarah Douglas.
It’s also notable that, from this point on (which means, for most of the movie), the dinosaurs are gone until the very end. Instead, our intrepid trio (one forgets that the biologist is even along for the ride, from time to time) encounters big-breasted cavegirl Ajor (former David Bowie backup singer Dana Gillespie, who played a similar role in Hammer Studio’s 1968 lost world adventure film, The Lost Continent). I wouldn’t normally make a point of mentioning the breasts of a female character (or really, I probably would, but just play along), but in this case they seem to be the primary reason her character exists. Ajor is far more advanced and bosomy than the cavemen we saw in the last movie, and what’s more, she speaks English! At least that’s an improvement over the last film. When faced with choosing between a big-boobed cavegirl who speaks in pidgin English or a thick-browed caveman who shrieks a lot, I think the choice is clear. Also, she understands feathering and advanced hair-teasing techniques. All of these skills were taught to her, McBride discovers, by Bowen Tyler, who Ajor reveals has been captured by an even more advanced race, the Nagas.
It turns out that the Nagas are so advanced that they, completely isolated from all cultural influence in the rest of the world, have evolved to dress and fight exactly like medieval Japanese samurai, right down to the katanas, flag bearers, and big kabuto helmets with gruesome face masks. Despite all those advances, however, they still live in caves and are ruled over by a fat, hooting, grunting dude in a fur loincloth (big Milton Reid, once again). It’s as if the nation of Japan decided one day that they wanted to be ruled over ruthlessly by George the Animal Steele. But instead of ripping open a turnbuckle cover with his teeth, Sabbala pencils in Charly and Ajor for sacrifice to the…wait for it…yep, the angry volcano god. Then he throws McBride and the biologist, Norfolk (Thorley Walters), into his skull wall prison. In the prison, McBride is finally reunited with Tyler. And now, with a couple of two-fisted, good ol’ American boys on the job, these merciless rulers of Caprona’s crappy non-dinosaur infested southern region are primed for a beat-down.
By 1977, England’s Amicus Productions was dead. The People That Time Forgot was really not so much a production as it was one of those nervous twitches a corpse sometimes makes. The only thing that even got the movie finished was money from American International Pictures, who had already been propping up Amicus for their last two Kevin Connor directed adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventures. The People That Time Forgot feels much more like an AIP film than it does an Amicus film, and the budget must have dwindled to the point where even Kevin Connor couldn’t scrape together enough crappy special effects to fill the movie as he had in The Land That Time Forgot or 1976′s At the Earth’s Core. So almost all the action involves people. Sometimes they are cavemen, sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, they are samurai. There are only a couple of really crummy dinosaurs. It turns out that if your movie has dozens of crappy looking dinosaurs, it’s probably going to be pretty cool. But if your movie only has one or two crappy looking dinosaurs, then all you can think about is how crappy it is that you are getting so few crappy dinosaurs.
And even if you make your peace with the fact that you’re not going to get any dinosaur action, you still have to deal with the fact that there’s really not much caveman action either. McBride has a run-in with a tribe that has been chasing Ajor, but it’s short-lived and fairly thrill-free. So even if you reconcile yourself to the fact that there is no dinosaur action and precious little caveman action, then you find yourself depending on John Wayne’s son versus lost world samurai ruled over by a mostly naked fat guy painted green.
And even then, you’re going to be disappointed, because most of the samurai action is restricted to scenes of guys walking back and forth. That they are wearing samurai armor for no good reason doesn’t make it any more interesting. Also, I don’ think samurai wore their armor 24/7. Like, if you are on guard duty in the cramped caverns of your poorly lit cave dungeon, you really don’t need battle armor and a giant helmet with a faceplate. I guess they took the time to evolve the ability to think of Japanese armor, so they decided they were going to get their money’s worth. While I imagine samurai armor would help you in a battle against cavemen, it’s probably less effective against a T-Rex or any of the other monsters we know inhabit Caprona. Or at least, that inhabited it in the last movie. So maybe this is really the only time they get to break it out and show it off, since even though it’s effective against cavemen, they are probably too primitive to admire your craftsmanship. At least John Wayne’s son will appreciate your craftsman’s effort.
The lack of dinosaurs without anything to fill the void is the film’s major misstep. The next major misstep is reducing Doug McClure to a cameo. The structure of The People That Time Forgot is very similar to another colossal letdown, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. OK, so maybe Planet of the Apes was a more prestigious sci-fi film than The Land that Time Forgot, but the overall result for someone like me is the same. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is about a guy who wasn’t in the last film, who travels to the mysterious lost world-esque planet of the apes, has some dull adventures, then ends up underground in a jail where he meets Charlton Heston reprising his role in a cameo. And then they break out, there’s some fist fights, Charlton Heston dies, and everything explodes.
The People that Time Forgot plays out almost identically. Patrick shows up in Caprona, has some dull adventures, finds Doug McClure in a cave. There’s some fist fights, Doug dies, and then stuff explodes. Aping Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not a good move, and reducing your single remaining interesting character to a ten minute cameo at the very end of the film is even worse.
Actually, scratch all that. This film’s major misstep is that it casts Sarah Douglas in a role, has her character set up to be sacrificed to a primitive volcano god, and never puts her in a cavegirl outfit! Having almost no Doug McClure action is justifiable if you say, “Sorry, but we spent the little money we had on convincing Sarah Douglas to wear this tiny loin cloth. We couldn’t afford any more Doug McClure after that.” That’d be fine. But no. She stays fully clothed the entire time. Doug shows a little more flesh, which is welcome, but he’s grown out that big Jeremiah Johnson beard, so it’s hard to even tell. A travesty! Sarah Douglas, in case you weren’t around at the time, is probably best known either as the evil woman in Superman II or as the evil woman in Conan the Destroyer — two films in which she was more skimpily clad than she was in this movie, where she was in a land of scantily clad cave people. Still, despite my dissatisfaction with her sacrificial attire, Douglas is the closes thing this movie has to a good performance. She has an easy charm about her — surprising since I’ve been taught from all her other roles to be terrified of her.
In her place, the scantily-clad chore goes to Dana Gillespie. Gillespie was a former future pop icon. The one-time girlfriend of Bob Dylan, she was supposed to be some sort of folk rock star. That didn’t pan out. Some years later, she became David Bowie’s pet project after she sang back-up vocals for him during the Ziggy Stardust days. She completed an album, but I don’t think it flew off the shelves. I heard it and think it’s pretty crummy. She had slightly better luck on stage, appearing as Mary Magdalene in the original run of Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1968, she appeared in one of Hammer’s several “lost world” mini-epics, The Lost Continent. It was nearly ten years later when she appeared in The People that Time Forgot, allowing her breasts to do most of the acting for her. Still, it should be noted that her feathered hair is almost as big as her boobs, so it’s not like I’m reducing her to a single, degrading aspect of her physical appearance instead of judging her performance more rationally. But then, it’s also hard to judge a performance when your only lines are, “Tyler!” and “You are…friend of Tyler?” Given my druthers, I would have had Gillespie and Douglas switch costumes. Or I would have dropped Gillespie entirely and just given more screen time to Douglas, no matter what she was wearing.
Oh yeah, somewhere in that mix is Patrick Wayne. I can’t remember how unclothed he gets, because I’m more of a Doug McClure man. Coincidentally, much of Patrick’s filmography seems comprised of small parts in the films of John Wayne. What are the chances, huh? Well, Patrick Wayne is about as good an actor as his old man, only he doesn’t have any of the charisma or macho allure than compensated for the elder Wayne’s limited range. In 1977, Patrick had arguably his biggest role, that of Arabian sailor Sinbad (he’s even less Arabian than John Phillip Law!) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. In the greater scheme of Sinbad movies with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, Eye of the Tiger is a lesser affair, though still plenty of fun. Plus, it features a pretty solid supporting cast that includes Jane Seymour and scruffy Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who).
That along with a bunch of stop motion monster effects was more than enough to make most people fail to notice how stiff an actor Patrick Wayne was. Thing is, a movie like that needs a stiff in the lead. It needs a piece of petrified wood off which it can bounce all its fantastic stuff. After all, those are Ray Harryhausen movies. Few people remember who directed them, or starred in them. Heck, I was out of college before I even realized different guys had played Sinbad in the various movies. Because everyone remembers the special effects, and everyone went to the films for the special effects. To have some talented lead actor getting in the way would have distracted from the films’ appeal.
The People that Time Forgot should operate under the same premise. Unfortunately, there’s very little fantastic stuff to distract from Wayne’s stiffness. With no dinosaurs and minimal caveman action, all we’re left to focus on is Wayne’s performance. Well, Wayne’s performance and Dana Gillespie’s gravity-defying breasts. I failed to be sufficiently interested by either (as a scantily-clad cavewoman, Gillespie is passable, but she’s no Caroline Munro or Raquel Welch). And there’s no talented supporting cast to pick up the slack. Sarah Douglas gives it her all, but there’s only so much you can do with a script that gives you nothing but “your character walks across a field, then across a gravel pit.” Patrick Wayne is a wooden hero with no charisma and no awesome monsters to make you forget he’s there. People who knock Doug McClure’s one-note performances should take a look at Patrick Wayne to see what stiff really is. McClure exudes an effortless charisma and believability. A movie teaming up McClure and Sarah Douglas would have been way better. Patrick Wayne exudes nothing. Plus, he looks a lot like Charlton Heston, way more than he looks like his own dad. I have some conspiracy theories about that one, and I consider them at least as likely to be true as theories about super-powered WWII Nazis operating UFO bases at the North Pole.
Some people consider this movie better than its predecessor. I cannot count myself among those people. While I love The Land that Time Forgot, I hate this movie. Well, maybe I don’t hate it, but I sure don’t like it. I was bored silly through most of the film, and it falls into that rare category of film I say you could give a miss. In fact, it reminds me in many ways of War Gods of the Deep, another surprisingly disappointing film I want to like more than I do and that sounds much cooler in summary than it actually is to watch. I mean, John Wayne’s son and the evil chick from Superman II versus samurai cavemen is a good pitch, but Amicus was too broke to deliver even the cheap-ass fun they delivered with The Land that Time Forgot, and AIP seemed to be interested in little more than getting something on the screen and ending their relationship with the doomed British studio.
It would have been nice to see Amicus, who had given the world so many entertaining films go out on a higher note. But then the same could be said of Hammer, who bit the dust around the same time and with a similarly wretched film to serve as their swan song. If Amicus was the scrappy Hammer wannabe, then The People that Time Forgot is their ode to Hammer going out on To the Devil…A Daughter. In retrospect The Land that Time Forgot would have been a poetic place for Amicus to end — with volcano erupting, boat sinking, and its stars facing a seemingly hopeless situation. Instead, they decided to show us the aftermath of the collapse, and give us Milton Reid in a skimpier outfit than Sarah Douglas (or Dana Gillespie, for that matter).
Release Year: 1977 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Patrick Wayne, Doug McClure, Sarah Douglas, Dana Gillespie, Thorley Walters, Shane Rimmer, Tony Britton, John Hallam, David Prowse, Milton Reid, Kiran Shah | Writer: Patrick Tilley | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: John Scott
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
By 1965, the year this film was released, American International Pictures had enjoyed considerable success mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a series of films starring Vincent Price (and Ray Milland, once) and directed by Roger Corman. The streak began with Corman’s low-budget but lavish looking adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher and continued with The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. These films represented something new and relatively risky for AIP, then a studio that specialized in making cheap, fast black and white double features. Corman, inspired by the work that was happening at England’s Hammer Studio, convinced AIP to let him shoot in color, a single film, with a bigger budget (though still tiny) and longer shooting schedule (though still incredibly fast). The resulting film, The Fall of the House of Usher, did big time box office for AIP, is considered one of the all-time great horror films, and convinced AIP of a couple things. First, that color films with more money put into them were a worthwhile investment, especially when someone as good as Corman at turning out expensive looking results for pennies was on board. Second, that they should tack Edgar Allan Poe’s name onto everything and plumb his works mercilessly.
Although all the films in the first AIP Poe cycle were good, and most of them were great, several of them had very little to do with the Poe poem or short story from which they took their name. The Raven, for example, uses the Poe poem for its opening scene, with Price being plagued by a mysterious raven. But as soon as the raven starts wisecracking in Peter Lorre’s voice, you can guess that the Poe material is out the window. The Pit and the Pendulum takes the Poe source material and extends it with a number of subplots original to the screenplay or snatched piecemeal from other sources. And in the case of The Haunted Palace — one of the very best films in the Poe cycle — it wasn’t based on Poe at all. It was actually based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. But AIP felt that audiences wouldn’t know who the hell Lovecraft was. Distributors agreed. And so, despite Corman’s protests, it became an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
Dubious connections to the source material not withstanding, all of the films were very good (well, I’m not that fond of Tales of Terror, but that’s because I don’t care for anthology films), thanks to the line-up they enjoyed: Corman as director, Price (and Milland once) as star, and Richard Matheson as the screenwriter (most of the time). Matheson was to AIP horror what Jimmy Sangster was to Hammer horror: consistently wonderful. In 1965, AIP decided to stretch Poe’s connection even further, tapping one of his short tales called The City in the Sea as a source for War Gods of the Deep. But other than having Price read some of the story for the opening credits, War Gods of the Deep has very little to do with Poe. AIP would take a similar approach during it’s second round of Poe horror films, with The Witchfinder General being retitled Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm — a title justified by having Price read some of the original poem before the film launched off into a plot that has pretty much nothing to do with the poem or Poe. In that case, however, the movie was good.
In the case of War Gods of the Deep, the results were…not as impressive. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Although Roger Corman wasn’t directing, AIp assigned Jacques Tourneur to the film. Tourneur is perhaps best known as the director of such films as Night of the Demon and the Val Lewton produced films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. All of them are considered classics, and deservedly so. On top of that, he directed one of the all time great noir films, 1947′s Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum. And then there was the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler epic The Flame and the Arrow. By the 1960s, however, Tourneur’s best years were perhaps behind him, and he found himself working in television and at AIP, first as director of the Poe-esque Comedy of Terrors which features one of my all-time favorite idiotically hilarious scenes (when awful opera singing causes Vincent Price’s undertaker top hat to pop off wit a “boop!” sound effect), and then as director on War Gods of the Deep.
And while the film isn’t written by Richard Matheson (most famous for being the author who penned I Am Legend, the book that inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to Last Man on Earth to The Asylum’s I Am Omega), AIP did get Charles Bennett, who was no slouch in the screenwriting department. Among his sundry credits are the very first filmed version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the black and white version made as part of the Climax! television series, where James Bond goes by Jimmy and was played by Barry Nelson. Bennett also wrote plenty of classic scripts, including work for Hitchcock (Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent), the adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines, and Tourneur’s own Night of the Demon.
He was also frequently tapped by producer Irwin Allen both for movie (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and television (Land of the Giants, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series) scripts. Of course, there are a few turkeys in his resume, including the epic misfires The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen’s attempt to tell in sweeping epic fashion the complete history of mankind, from caveman times to the present and starring pretty much every B lister and has-been ever, from the past their prime Marx Brothers to Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Heddy Lamar, and of course, Vincent Price as Ol’ Mr. Scratch) and Cecil B. DeMille’s sweeping and often dull tale of piracy and romance on the 19th Century Georgia coast, Reap the Wild Wind. On the other hand, that’s the movie where Bennett was smart enough to write a scene where John Wayne battles a giant squid, so that counts for something. Still, that’s a basically solid resume, especially for this type of film.
Despite the presence of Vincent Price and the shaky Poe tie-in, War Gods of the Deep isn’t considered part of the Poe cycle, not so much because it wasn’t directed by Corman, but more because it plays out less like a gothic horror film and more like the Clif Notes version of a Jules Verne fantasy adventure film. Of course, Disney had already made pretty much the be-all and end-all Jules Verne fantasy adventure film in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Anything else was going to pale in comparison to a film that had the benefit of Disney’s vast financial resources and Kirk Douglas shaking his bon-bon while singing sea chanties and wearing a jaunty little cap. But that never stopped AIP, or anyone else for that matter. And so, in 1965, Tourneur, Bennett, Price, and AIP took us under the ocean for what we all hoped would be a really cool adventure film.
And things start off well enough. Beautiful Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Pajama Party) is minding her own business in her castle by the coast bedroom when, all of a sudden, she is attacked and kidnapped by a hideous gillman who looks like that dude who helped Lando fly the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Perturbed by the kidnapping of his beloved by this uppity haddock, square-jawed hero Ben Harris (reliable Tab Hunter) and his nebbish, ferret-faced sidekick Harold Tufnell-Jones (Disney live-action film regular David Tomilson) follow in leisurely pursuit. And for some reason, Tufnell-Jones (presumably an ancestor of legendary heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnell) insists on bring along his trusty pet: a chicken in a basket. Why exactly, this guy goes everywhere with a chicken is a mystery. Why he is a bachelor, of course, is not. Tufnell-Jones and his chicken are there to provide frequent comic relief. Guess how many times you will laugh at their shenanigans!
Ben and the chicken lover soon find themselves in a maze of sub-aquatic (but never the less dry) caves inhabited by a population of long-lived men ruled over by the mad Captain Hugh (Vincent Price). It seems that Price and his men were once smugglers and, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon this network of sub-aquatic caves leading to the remnants of a city constructed by a highly advanced civilization. By the time Price arrived, however, the society was centuries into decline, the secrets of their technology being lost and the former inhabitants being reduced to nothing more than animalistic gillmen. Price and company made themselves at home amid the decaying remains of the city under the sea, and something about the air down there and the lack of exposure to UV light has resulted in them living for hundreds of years.
Price commands the gillmen, for they consider him their god for one reason or another (no problem — I sort of consider him a god as well) and he had them kidnap Jill for the usual reason: she is the exact spitting image of the captain’s long dead true love. When our heroes arrive to rescue her, they promptly get captured but stave off execution by pretending to be geologists who can help Price out with the big problem: the volcano. Everyone spends some time stalking around the cave-palace, which like pretty much every undersea kingdom in the history of movies about undersea kingdoms, is threatened by a nearby underwater volcano that is going to erupt any moment now. Eventually, Ben, Jill, and their comic relief load are forced to don unwieldy Victorian-style scuba gear (which, for some reason, demands gigantic helmets into which you can fit a man’s head and his accompanying chicken) and flee for their lives with Hugh and his murderous followers in hot pursuit.
And by hot pursuit, I mean…well, let me explain this in detail. You see, everyone is underwater. When you are in water, you swim. It’s really the best way to get around. That’s why all fish do it. That’s why pretty much everyone does it except for those sprinters who practice by trying to run underwater. That established, we then move on to the fact that watching people swim in movies is usually boring. The pitfalls of scuba scenes in cinema are well documented. So how could you take a scene — scuba diving underwater — that could be really boring even if properly done, and ensure that it’s even more boring than you could possibly imagine? Well, instead of swimming, the people could be walking underwater. Yes, indeed. War Gods of the Deep is one of the only movies that thought what people really wanted to see was a foot chase on the floor of the ocean, with people flopping about awkwardly and moving incredibly slowly. But that’s not really enough, you also have to make the scene go on for like ten minutes, and pad it out with dialog-free close-ups of Tufnell-Jones and his chicken looking around.
Now keep in mind that I have a pretty big tolerance for underwater scenes, owing largely to my fascination with what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world” and my love of diving. So trust me when I tell you that this underwater foot chase scene is one of the most horribly boring scenes I’ve ever seen. They try to spice things up by having guys shoot crossbows from time to time, but since no one ever actually gets hit, that never pays off. And every now and then, some of the gillmen swim up and mess around with Ben and the crew, presumably confused by the fact that these humans are walking underwater instead of swimming (thus the ability of the gillmen to swim circles around them). Despite the fact tat the gillmen can swim, breathe underwater, and aren’t weighed down by cumbersome iron helmets, they aren’t very effective at attacking our slowly fleeing heroes. You can pretty much defeat them by swatting at them in that slow-motion way that occurs when you are underwater. It’s a tremendous relief when everyone resurfaces inside some weird temple. The volcano explodes, a giant hand falls on Vincent Price, and a singularly terrifying moment occurs when the heroes put their scuba gear back on. Dear God, no! Please! No more scenes of people awkwardly walking around underwater! This time, however, we’re in luck, because the good guys crawl out of the water and the movie ends.
I’m not sure what went wrong. Good director, good screenwriter, a good cast. I mean, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure, but he’s fine in this role, even though a lot of people pick on his performance. He’s a one-note character, but so is everyone else. And Hunter proves adept at singing the note “stiff straight man.” Susan Hart is vapid and has nothing to do, but she does that nothing well. There’s no chemistry at all between her and Hunter, and once again, as I did with Arabian Adventure, I can’t help but think that this movie would have been greatly improved if our lovers were played by Doug McClure and Caroline Munro. But Hunter and hart are acceptable. Heck, even comic relief guy is unfunny but relatively inoffensive and easy to ignore. To some degree, the blame for this misfire falls on the producer, Louis Heyward, who insisted on monkeying with the script endlessly and much to Tourneur’s annoyance. But AIP sided with Heyward in the conflict, and his changes remained despite the protests of Tourneur, Vincent Price (who had great respect for Tourneur and very little respect for Heyward), and original screenwriter Bennett. But that can only go so far in explaining things — the nail in the coffin of an already flawed work, as it were.
And you know, if I’m replacing cast members, we might as well get rid of David Tomlinson and replace him with Terry-Thomas.
Maybe the whole thing played out better on paper, and no realized how boring it was going to be when actually committed to film. Actually, let me alter that. This movie really isn’t terrible up until the underwater foot chase. It’s no classic of fantasy adventure cinema, but it’s harmless enough. But the underwater footage deep sixes the rest of the movie, which just isn’t buoyant enough to stay afloat with the dead albatross of the underwater foot chase around it’s neck. Is that enough seafarin’ allusions for ya? Then let’s stop beating that dead seahorse and move on to some of the film’s other problems. First and foremost is, and I never thought I’d say this, Vincent Price’s performance. We’ve seen Price play it cool and reserved before to great effect, but the decision for him to play mad Cap’n Hugh with Fall of the Hous eof Usher style reserve was, in my opinion, a tremendous mistake. This movie could have survived its dreadful underwater chase scene if Price had been hamming it up and playing Hugh as crazy and nutty as the script alludes to him being.
Instead, Price’s Hugh comes off as dull. The script is too thin to lend the character a sense of gravity, so there’s no real emotional reaction to him. He’s a villain you hate, or love to hate, or relish, or grow to sympathize with. He merely exists on film for a duration of time, and then a big stone hand falls on him. I mean, this is a mad sea captain living in an undersea city that looks like a crumbling Victorian castle and commanding an army of mutant gillmen while giving speeches about the end of the world. Why on earth would anyone think to play that character with quiet reserve? Vincent Price is, as I think I’ve written before, one of my favorite actors. Quite possibly, he’s my most favorite actor. He never gives less than 100%, and he doesn’t give less than 100% here. But the character is so boring, and Price plays it so straight, that War Gods of the Deep becomes perhaps the only film in which Price is upstaged by a irritating guy with a chicken in a basket.
Speaking of the chicken — what the hell was that about? It’s not like the chicken ever does anything wacky, or like it jumps out and pecks Price on the foot or something. It is simply carried around for the entire movie, having no point at all. Even within the realm of unfunny comic relief, surely no one thinks the mere presence of a chicken is hilarious. A monkey, sure. But a chicken? I don’t get it. This was apparently one of Louis Heyward’s most important contributions t the script, and it’s obvious why everyone else involved with the film thought the guy was a jack-ass. It’s just another way to pad out a really threadbare script. It seems like Bennett got a great concept but quickly wrote himself into a corner, possibly because of budgetary constraints — but I’m not going to buy that considering how many exciting and imaginative films were done with as little or even less money.
Not being able to come up with anything for anyone to do, the movie falls back on repetitive dialog scenes in which Vincent Price explains to us that the glowing,pulsating volcano is a threat (because we wouldn’t have figured it out after the first warning) or in which Tab Hunter and the guy with the chicken ask other people if they remember how to get to the surface. The sudden presence of a beautiful woman who is to be the sole property of the captain amid an undersea kingdom populated entirely by men lends itself to potential conflict, but that’s never bothered with. Or the use of the dim-witted gillmen as thugs and sacrificial lambs who perhaps begin to resent the captain’s manipulation of them? But no, it never goes in that direction either. Like the characters in the movie, it just sort of half-heartedly wanders around the same caverns over and over, until the volcano finally erupts.
Still, as dull as this film turns out to be, there are some redeeming qualities. Well, there’s one. The sets are really nice. And the gillmen are kind of cool looking, even if they end up having very little to do. Tourneur — accustomed to working in black and white and employing shadows to great effect — turns out to be equally adept at manipulating th candy colored Technicolor hues. Although War Gods of the Deep isn’t a good film to watch, it’s a great film to look at. Tourneur’s direction coupled with cinematography by Stephen Dade is gorgeous to behold. And as with the sets, War Gods of the Deep has excellent costumes and the look of a much more expensive production than it actually was.
But that’s precious little to go on, especially when you could be spending your time with far superior aquatic adventures, like the aforementioned Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Japanese film Atragon (from which this film steals some scenes, incidentally). This is also a sad film to end up being the last in Tourneur’s career. If only a giant squid had attacked the city or something, but no. That would have been something interesting, and this film is committed to making sure nothing interesting happens. It’s all, as I said, a tremendous disappointment given the talented cast and crew assembled. But it’s one misstep after another, making War Gods of the Deep the extremely rare crappy fantasy film I actually can’t recommend. Well, maybe watch it once…but just once.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States and England | Starring: Vincent Price, David Tomlinson, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, John Le Mesurier, Harry Oscar, Derek Newark, Roy Patrick | Writer: Charles Bennett, Louis Heyward | Director: Jacques Tourneur | Cinematographer: Stephen Dade | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: George Willoughby | Alternate Titles: City Under the Sea
For many years, England’s Amicus Productions was the scrappy studio living in the shadow of and following the lead of the higher profile Hammer Studio. In fact, so closely did Amicus follow Hammer’s horror lead that much of their output continue to be mistakenly labeled as Hammer Horror. Amicus often used the same actors — including Peter Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — and directors — including Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker — and went for a similar feel. There are, however, several differences. For starters, most of Amicus’ horror films were set in the present day, or at least more recently than Hammer Victorian-era gothic tales. Also, having been founded by Americans, Amicus often looked overseas for established genre talent rather than sticking primarily to English stars. Thus, you get a film like Madhouse or Scream and Scream Again, both of which starred American horror icon Vincent Price. And finally, although Amicus is known these days primarily for their horror output — and especially their horror anthology films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Vault of Horrors, and Tales from the Crypt — they also produced a number of science-fiction and sci-fi tinged horror films. Hammer did this as well, at least for a little while and most successfully with their Quatermass films, but once Dracula, the mummy, and Frankenstein became established hits, Hammer pretty much jettisoned sci-fi in favor of straight Gothic horror. Amicus, on the other hand, constantly dabbled in the speculative genre.
Their first, and easily their best known sci-fi outings, if for no other reason than the association they have with one of the biggest sci-fi cult hits of all time, are their two Doctor Who films starring Peter Cushing as the mysterious time-traveler. At the time, the television series was still shot in black and white. Amicus looked toward two of the very best story arcs from the first Doctor’s series (William Hartnell’s stories The Daleks and The Daleks’ Invasion of Earth), and redid them, only with a bigger budget and in eye-popping color. Although the movies were rehashes with some departures from the series (Peter Cushing, for example, actually refers to himself as “Doctor Who” and with no hint of being an alien — which, while out-of-step for the series as we know it, was still in line with the series at the time), they were hits for Amicus. The appeal of seeing Doctor Who in color and starring one of England’s most beloved actors was a huge draw.
Amicus dabbled in sci-fi on and off in the ensuing years, with generally good results (They Came From Beyond Space), and one or two clunkers (The Deadly Bees). When the British film industry tanked at the beginning of the 1970s, small studios like Amicus were hit particularly hard. Hammer collapsed entirely, despite making some of their best horror films during the early years of that decade. Amicus limped on, however, producing some genuinely interesting films, like the bizarre and enjoyable mash-up of horror, science fiction, and Eurospy films that was Scream and Scream Again. As the decade wore on, the belt-tightening became more and more extreme. Looking for a way to keep their craft afloat, Amicus decided to put their faith in a series of science fiction/fantasy adventure films based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It didn’t work, for a number of reasons, even though the films proved relatively popular with kids and remain nostalgic favorites for people like me.
The first of these films was The Land that Time Forgot, not to be confused with The Land Before Time. Both feature dinosaurs, but only one features a shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl dangling from absurdly visible wires.
When I was a kid, The Land That Time Forgot played pretty regularly on television. Although I know I saw it in the theaters (it was distributed in America by AIP, whose infusion of cash as co-producers was the only thing that enabled Amicus to get these final films finished), my memories are of watching it on television, and fairly frequently at that. These days, now that I have progressed from being a five year old with the mentality of an eight year old, to being a forty-year old with the mentality of…well, a nine year old if we are generous, I can see just how threadbare the productions really were. It didn’t matter to me then, of course, and it didn’t matter to most kids despite the fact that so many people try to project the sophistication of their adult life onto their childhood. “Even as a kid, I could tell these films were cheap,” they claim, and it’s almost never true. Most children view films differently than adults. When a film is cheap and boring, the cheapness doesn’t really register (what do you have, at age six or seven, to even judge cheapness by) and the boring parts wash over you like water off a duck’s back. You tune out when it gets boring, and all you remember afterward are the cool parts. Thus, even really crummy movies can seem relatively enjoyable, because you don’t remember the dull bits; all you remember is the shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl. Oh sure, I know some of you watched these movies with the keen eye of a wizened critic even at age six, and you turned your nose up at how juvenile they were even when you were juvenile. Well, I hope you had fun watching Kramer versus Kramer as a child, while the rest of us were watching dinosaurs fighting a submarine while Doug McClure punched cavemen in the face. I’m sure your childhood was much better off for your refined sense of cinematic value when you were in first grade.
I, of course, was hopelessly lowbrow and common as a child. As an adult, as you know by know, I am equally hopeless and lowbrow. While that means that I am still pleased by loads of cheap juvenile crap while being bored by indie films in which quirky dysfunctional families learn to accept one another, it also means that I also get to enjoy most of my filmgoing experiences, shrugging off most films with an, “Ehh, that was all right.” It keeps me happy and keeps the blood pressure low, even if it deprives me of any claim to righteous fury over how base and moronic most entertainment has become. I’ve made my peace with this, and I’m happier rolling with the punches and genuinely enjoying films than I am getting upset about something as silly as a movie. Which means than even though I can see how floppy the rubber dinosaurs are, and even though I can see the wires on the pterodactyl, and even though I can tell the caveman in its mouth is a wind-up action doll, I still really enjoy The Land That Time Forgot.
The year is 1916 or 1917. The United States has yet to enter into World War I, which has yet to be named World War I, but we are more visible in our support of the Allied cause. In turn, Germany has announced the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare. At the start of the war, Germany operated its much feared u-boat fleet under certain restrictions in regard to the rules of good sportsmanship during a war. They would not, for example, attack civilian vessels, limiting themselves to torpedoing identifiable military ships belonging to their enemies (mostly England). As the war in Western Europe ground to a stalemate, Germany began to revise their u-boat strategy, first attacking any ships belonging to their enemies, and then any ships belonging to anyone they though might be helping their enemies (thus bringing American ships under fire). And then, finally, they pretty much started torpedoing anything that wasn’t German. The policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was one of the major tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war (though it wasn’t the coup de grace — that being a telegram from Germany pitching a plan to bring Mexico into the war on the side of the Germans). The Germans maintained that most of the so-called civilian ships they attacked were carrying weapons and supplies to the beleaguered Brits, who were deviously smuggling equipment from American suppliers aboard such civilian craft.
The Land that Time Forgot picks up its story during this time of expanding u-boat warfare. German submarine captain Von Schoenvorts has just finished torpedoing a ship of the type described above: civilian but suspected of containing smuggled supplies. Despite the job being well done, and although he believes in the German cause, Von Schoenvorts is in no mood to celebrate killing civilians. He’d be even less celebratory if he knew one of the civilians who survived was American entrepreneur Doug McClure, here playing a guy named Bowen Tyler, but he’s pretty much just Doug McClure. Isn’t he always? And aren’t we always thankful for it? McClure is adrift now, along with the one other survivor who, lucky for McClure, happens to be lovely and female (Susan Penhaligon), and lucky for the script, also happens to be a scientist. I think she’s a biologist, but really, she seems to be one of those classic movie style scientists who knows a lot about everything. Thanks to my sister, herself a biologist, I have met many other scientists and many other biologists, and they always seem to be very specialized in what they do. My sister, for example, can tell you pretty much everything you need to know about various types of bats and blind cave fish, but I think if you dropped a caveman off in her lab and asked her about him, she’d have little more to say than what could be gleaned from watching Encino Man, which is that cavemen love to party and swing from things. But Susan Penhaligon’s Lisa Clayton is as comfortable finding her way around a protozoa as she is a caveman, a diplodicus, or Doug McClure. She’s also handy with geography, and she probably knows a few things about botany. But not mechanical stuff. That’s for the guys, and luckily, Doug McClure happens to be the son of a guy who designs submarines. But it is the early 20th Century, so perhaps science was still more generalized, like how centuries before, Sir Isaac Newton could be good at calculus, physics, and poking metal rods into his own eye sockets to see how deformation of the eyeball affected seeing.
When it happens that a few other survivors float by, all of them British sailors, and our merry band happens to find the U-boat that torpedoed them, the gang is well-suited for a hostile take-over. So begins a cat-and-mouse battle between the Germans and Brits plus Doug McClure, with each side trying to either out-muscle or out-sneak the other side to get the upper hand and win/lose control of the submarine. Now you might be wondering whether you’re watching a movie about Doug McClure fighting dinosaurs or a WWI era submarine adventure. And indeed, the first half of this film concerns itself primarily with Great War U-boat shenanigans. However, I never really found these proceedings to be dull, as not only do I like WWI stuff, but I also like the glimpses into the characters — specifically von Schoenvorts (himself an amateur naturalist). When the move/counter-move mini-war on the sub results in the ship ending up off the coast of Antarctica, very low on fuel and with no hope of reaching a supply ship or port, the two sides form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to figure out how the hell to get themselves out of the mess they’ve gotten into. A large cave from which pours forth warm, fresh water, seems the best possible alternative, because when in doubt, why not take your submarine into a completely uncharted cave. But they do, and despite some close scrapes, they safely navigate through and into…
An amazing tropical prehistoric wonderland!
Previously, we looked at the Doug McClure fantasy adventure film At the Earth’s Core, from the same production company and director, and reflected briefly on the history of hollow earth theories that inspired the various “world within the world” adventures stories like Pellucidar, the series upon which the film was based. This time around, we’re tackling a theory that had a very similar evolution from scientific theory to discredited crackpot theory to fodder for pulp sci-fi and adventure writers. And once again, tracing the origins of such beliefs takes us far back in time. As with the caves and earthquakes, fissures and sinkholes, that most likely let primitive man to conceptualize a world below the surface of the earth, so too can we assume that the birth of the idea of the arctic as a place of magic comes from it being an equally impenetrable and difficult to understand region. In the days before performance fleece and Russian ice breakers, the remote, freezing north must have been nearly as impenetrable as the depths of the oceans. But men ventured there, from time to time, and when they did, who knows what things they beheld — augmented, of course, by the old timey storytellers’ penchant for bullshit.
Early accounts of Greek thinkers theorized that, because the northern stars didn’t seem to rotate around the earth in the same fashion as other stars, that they must be above an equally unusual land. Although polar exploration was likely out of the question, the Arctic circle itself was within reach of ancient man, provided he brought enough furs and mukluks. But the Greeks simply made up their own stories about this curious place to the north, beneath the Arktos constellations. They “theorized” — perhaps with the aid of Dionysus — that this land existed above the north wind, and thus was pleasant in climate if you survived the curtain of murderous cold that surrounded it. The land was, furthermore, once populated by advanced beings known as the Hyperboreans who, being lucky enough to live in such an awesome world, were basically gods. However, the toil of a perfect existence eventually wore them down, and out of boredom, the Hyperboreans drowned themselves.
In 330 B.C., someone actually did bother to set out for these mysterious northern lands. Greek astronomer Pytheus purportedly sailed north of the British Isles and discovered there a land he dubbed Thule, where during the Summer Solstice the sun did not set. Pytheas attempted to continue his harsh northward trek, but the ship was turned back by an impenetrable wall of what he referred to as “sea lungs.” Fantastic at the time, we can today understand the basic truths behind Pytheas’ accounts. Thule could be any of the lands north of Britain: The Shetlands, the coasts of assorted Scandanavian countries. Non-setting suns in these regions at certain times of the year are understood and accounted for. And sea lungs are, more than likely, massive icebergs and floes.
Long after Pytheas journey to the north, more and more stories began to filter down, often from early British and Norse sailors. These stories, given the average ancient sailor’s taste for embellishment, became increasingly fanciful. Aside from the ancient Greek idea of a lush tropical paradise beyond the curtain of cold, these early explorers added pygmies and various monsters to the mix. In the late 1500s, England mounted official expeditions to the region, largely in hopes of laying claim to it as part of the empire. It was even claimed that King Arthur, the quasi-mythical father of what was then modern England, mounted expeditions to the arctic regions. The early Elizabethan efforts, while both brave and groundbreaking, did little to advance the cause of the northernmost world being within England’s sphere of influence. It turns out that the chief problem with exploring the Arctic is that most of the people who try it die of starvation and exposure, provided they aren’t frozen or drowned when their ships hits an iceberg. Or they simply go mad when they find their ships iced in and unable to free themselves. Despite all that, it was during this era that England established tenuous toeholds in places as far north as the Baffin Islands.
Exploration picked up again in the 1800s. This time it was ignited by stories of a navigable “northwest passage,” a sailing route clear of ice than would allow ships to sail over the top of the world, thus saving untold months that had to be spent sailing around the giant continents that got in the way of easy cruising between, say, England and India. This time, they weren’t just shooting for the arctic regions; they were aiming for the very Pole itself. Not surprisingly, a science fiction writer beat them to it. Although little of it made it into subsequent — and more familiar — film versions, Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein, is concerned at least partially with an ill-fated arctic expedition, the captain of which seems bitterly and ironically disappointed that there isn’t any mystical tropical paradise to greet them at journey’s end. There is, instead, only more and harsher cold. It is on this expedition that they encounter another ill-fated arctic traveler, Victor Von Frankenstein, traveling with his now infamous creature. While most film versions of the story concern themselves purely with the creation of the monster in Frankenstein’s Jacob’s Ladder-strewn laboratory, and the eventual destruction of the creature by torch-wielding peasants storming the castle, the book actually ends with the creature escaping toward the North Pole, presumably going there to die.
Exploiting the fervor over dramatic leaps in exploring the world during the 1800s and relying on the old myths and legends, the science fiction and pulp writers of the era began cranking out a number of stories about the discovery of strange lands at the top and bottom of the world. Most of these fell within the realm of what we can today classify as “lost worlds” literature. As the remote corners of the earth became less remote, new discoveries of ancient civilizations were happening with stunning rapidity. Most dramatic among these was the excavation of ancient Egyptian sites, but similar excavations and scientific expeditions were taking place everywhere from the heart of the Amazon Jungle to the steppes of Mongolia. Scientists were having a field day, and so too were the writers of fantastic fiction. In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe entered into the game with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a fictionalized account of a man’s incredible adventure at the South Pole and of the mysterious creatures he encountered. Incredibly, the story was thought for a time to be a work of non-fiction.
When explorers finally did penetrate the top of the world, thus dispelling any myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth, it did little to dispel myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth. H.P. Lovecraft wrote a pseudo-sequel to Poe’s work, entitled At the Mountain of Madness, which proffers the hole into which Pym fell into lead to a land populated by his now famous shoggoths. A group of German mystics founded something called the Thule Society in 1912, combining the more or less believable accounts of Pyhtean’s voyage north with the more fantastical old belief in the Hyperboreans, then layering on top of that a healthy dose of master race B.S. and anti-Semitism. According to the Thule Society, Thule wasn’t just a name for some existing northern land before such places had names known to Greeks. It was, in fact, an actual island, one populated by the super-advanced Hyperboreans who, like the Atlanteans (and the Muu-ians, and the Lemorians, and presumably the Seatopians), perished when their island paradise sank into the sea. However, a few Hyperboreans escaped and became the German race, condemned to live out their lives on the European mainland amid all the Jews and other inferior races who wore pants and stuff, instead of the silver lame mini-tunics with golden shoulder pads and tiaras, which is what I assume all super-advanced inhabitants of lost continents wore. The Thule Society eventually went on to be a Nazi farm team, and no one in the Thule Society’s Nazi wing ever addressed the fact that while the Jews may have been inferior, at least their continent never sank into the sea.
You would think that something as daft and racist as the Thule Society would have finally put the “mystic arctic” theories to rest. But then, you’d be underestimating the strong desire of people to believe really ridiculous shit. In fact, post World War II, theories about secret paradises above the Arctic Circle enjoyed a resurgence, with the claim now added that the North Pole was a base for UFOs piloted not by space aliens with an affinity for anally probing Midwestern farmers, but by Nazis who had escaped after Word War II and rediscovered ancient Hyperborean technology, allowing them to build experimental flying saucers to be used when the Fourth Reich rose up and conquered the world. Once again, pulp writers had a field day. These days, despite the fact that commercial flights pass over it and young women ski across it, and rich people drink champagne and go there on giant Russian ships to look at polar bears, conspiracy theories about secret UFO bases, gateways to the hollow earth, and lush tropical paradises at the North Pole still enjoy a surprising degree of popularity, with all the evidence to the contrary dismissed as “a government cover-up.” Such theories were lent further fuel when, in 2004, researchers began digging up fossil evidence that at some point (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of years ago) the Arctic enjoyed a subtropical climate. That this would have been long before the dawn of man is of little consequence, the Hyperboreans of course being a totally different race. Unfortunately, arctic researchers have turned up little more than the fossilized remnants of plants. To date, they have found no ray guns, UFOs, or silver lame mini-tunics — that they’ve told us about.
Amid all of this (1922, to be exact), Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story The Land that Time Forgot. And many years later, a nearly bankrupt Amicus Productions sent Doug McClure to the fantastic tropical lost world of Caprona, where he and the combined German and British crew soon discover the land is positively crawling with dinosaurs — and dinosaurs from various epochs. They also discover cavemen who, like the dinosaurs, seem to be in varied states of evolutionary advancement. Through her incredible ability to interpret caveman grunts and chest slapping, as well as her ability to look through a microscope with von Schoenvorts, Lisa is able to divine the mysteries of Caprona. It seems that evolution in this lost world occurs not over a period of millennia, but within the span of a single lifetime, with great evolutionary leaps being taken as part of a mysterious metamorphosis. The further south one travels, the more advanced the humans become. While Lisa and von Schoenvorts are fascinated by this biological phenomenon, and while Doug McClure seems happy to pal around with a caveman and shoot dinosaurs, most of the sailors on both sides are keen to get the hell out of Caprona so they can stop being eaten by dinosaurs and return to the safety and luxury of World War One. When they discover crude oil, they discover the means of their escape. However, like all lost worlds, this one is menaced by a restless volcano that could blow at any minute.
As with Kevin Connor’s other adventures based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land that Time Forgot is low-budget and crammed with tons of really awful special effects. In 1925, Harry Hoyt and Marion Fairfax’s silent film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World became the first “lost world” movie, and it was said at the time that the special effects work of Willis O’Brien (who would later go on to do the effects for the original King Kong) were so good that audiences would be completely fooled into thinking the film was a documentary with actual footage of living dinosaurs. I don’t know how many people did believe the dinosaurs were real, but it’s safe to say that the effects in 1925 were far better than the effects we see in 1975. The effects in The Land that Time Forgot aren’t quite as bad as, say, Mighty Gorga, but they are pretty bad.
On the other hand, they are also colorful and hypnotic. As a kid, I was fascinated by them and not phased by how shoddy they were. As an adult, I still think they are fun. Plus, what the movie lacks in quality it more than makes up for in quantity. Once the u-boat arrives in Caprona, all vestiges of the rather serious World War One maritime adventure vanish, and the dinosaur and caveman attacks come more or less non-stop. As McClure and his buddies venture further and further south, the evolutionary mysteries of the lost world become even more puzzling. So do the geographical mysteries, because although it is assumed that they have hiked days away from the lake that is their base, everyone seems to be able to jog back to the submarine within a matter of minutes.
The cast, comprised mostly of professional British stalwarts, is solid. McClure turns in his usual performance, but that’s really all I ever want from him. Yet again, he’s a regular Joe who runs up against the fantastic and deals with it mostly by punching it in the face. Some people don’t care for McClure’s style. I’m not among those people, but even if I was, I’d have to admit that his final “we are so fucked” expression as he watched the submarine disappear is incredible. Connor’s direction is, also, about the same as always, meaning that he correctly positions the camera and shoots his scenes, but never adds very much character to the film. I sort of prefer that style of direction to the overbearingly tricky “look at me and how clever I am” style of self-indulgent direction we see today. Connor recognizes that his movie is colorful and full of crude rubber dinosaur, and you don’t add much to the formula by zooming the camera around and doing lots of crazy editing.
Although I’m sure this film benefits in some degree from my own nostalgia regarding it, the end result is the same. I really like it. It’s one of those rainy Saturday afternoon matinee films that seeks to do little more than entertain you. Aside from plenty of fun dinosaur and caveman adventure, The Land that Time Forgot offers up really one of the most downbeat and apocalyptic endings of any movie aimed at kids. As McClure tries to rescue Lisa from a band of slightly more advanced cavemen (naturally they kidnapped her), the volcano erupts (also naturally). As they struggle to make it back to the submarine, the truce between the Germans and the Brits finally starts to break down. Von Schoenvorts, the sentimentalist, wants to wait for McClure and Lisa. His first mate, a realist, wants to leave before it’s too late. In the end, no one wins, as pretty much everyone guns down everyone else, and the cave collapses, crushing the submarine and the few in it who were still alive. McClure and Lisa are stranded in Caprona, with nothing to do except follow the land’s mysteries ever further south, until at last they reach what is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world. There, they toss a message in a bottle into the raging Antarctic seas, hoping against all hope that someone, someday, will find it, believe it, and come rescue them.
And unfortunately, someone did.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Doug McClure, John McEnery, Susan Penhaligon, Keith Barron, Anthony Ainley, Godfrey James, Bobby Parr, Declan Mulholland, Colin Farrell, Ben Howard, Roy Holder | Writer: James Cawthorn, Michael Moorcock | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: Douglas Gamley
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”
A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.
By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.
In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.
American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.
In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.
It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.
Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?
None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.
Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.
For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.
Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.
Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.
I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.
That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.
But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.
Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.
So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.
So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.