So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
There are a lot of times when I don’t remember a movie (sometimes mere hours after watching it), but I remember a particular scene or vague theme from the movie. This has come up several times before. For instance, before I rewatched it, all I could remember about Treasure of the Four Crowns was the scene where fireballs on ridiculously visible wires were flying around. With Sword and the Sorcerer, even though I watched that movie about seven billion times when I was ten years old, all I could remember was “guy falls into room of naked women” and “guy makes witch’s chest explode, then catches her heart.” Although there were many times when I remembered both the scene and the title of the movie in which it appeared, there are many other times when I have no recollection at all of the film’s title. It is in these instances that the Internet has proven to finally be worth all the trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of social and technological evolution finally lead to the moment when I can look up “screaming banshee on moors” and find out in which movie it appears.
That movie was, of course, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I thought it was Cry of the Banshee, but when I rewatched that film, I found that it contained no screaming banshee on the moors, or any banshee of any type for that matter. Luckily, the internet was there for me. And it was there for me again, very recently, when I was trying to remember the title of a movie about which all I could recall was, “frog man in center of hedge maze.” Actually, I remembered one other scene, which was of a woman looking out a dusty window and seeing some creepy guy in a cape dashing across the moonlit lawn, but it turns out that was a bizarre combination of a bit from The Maze combined with a bit from, I’ve been told, Munsters Go Home.
This time, the movie was The Maze, and when I finally tracked it down (because even if something isn’t in print, the internet also helps you find old copies), I discovered two ways in which my memory was faulty. First, of course, was the fact that I couldn’t remember the title of the movie I’d seen. Second, it turns out I’d never seen the movie. Yet still the concept “frog man in center of hedge maze” haunted me. It turns out that, when I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me the plot of this movie as a spooky bedtime story. Granted, stories about murderous frog men lurking in the center of a hedge maze may seem like a strange bedtime story, but I was a strange kid, and anyway, children’s bedtime stories used to be all full of cannibalism and witches and trolls who steal the fingernails of naughty little boys and girls who don’t eat their stinky boiled kale. In comparison to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, regaling me with the adventures of a man-frog in a hedge maze is small potatoes. But it did result in me spending most of my life thinking I’d seen the movie — which, as I explained, I discovered to be untrue once I actually did watch it. It also fueled, or so my theory goes, by continuing obsession with hedge mazes, especially hedge mazes that are occupied by weird magical creatures and monsters. Preferably sexy, naked nymphs and such, because if I have to be murdered by a charming but malicious magical being, I’d much rather it be a sexy flying girl with pointy ears and no clothes than a lurching man-frog in a threadbare suit or a shirtless guy with goat legs and a fondness for Zamfir records.
While I was disappointed in the subjectivity of my memory — what other grand adventures are merely lies I told myself so many times that even I started to believe them — I was happy to have this movie on hand to watch for the first time, even if the big reveal of the ghoulish dark family secret was already known to me. In fact, knowing the shock ending ahead of time is probably or th better. If you went into this film with some degree of anticipation, after all, the big reveal would be something of a letdown, to say the least. Conversely, if you go into a movie knowing little about it other than “frog man in center of hedge maze,” it’s much easier to be pleasantly surprised by the bulk of the film and pleasantly amused by the shoddiness of the nightmarish man in a monster suit waiting for you at the center of the labyrinth.
The Maze is a film tailor-made to appeal to me. It has a gloomy castle, gratuitous fog, a hedge maze, a cute woman in a bullet bra, creepy butlers, secret passages, and a “jolly good, old chap” kind of guy who smokes a pipe and enjoys motoring through the countryside whilst wearing his Harris tweed. And, of course, it’s got the man-frog. It’s black and white, and since it’s the sort of movie that is unlikely to ever be lovingly restored — that exhaustive process being restricted to classic works of art like Caligula and Zombie Lake — it remains available primarily in grainy, murky bootleg copies. Now, I’ve never been a quality freak, especially for old films. For newer ones, yeah sure. I want them looking the way they’re supposed to, at the correct aspect ration, in the correct language, with all the scenes intact. But for a lot of old films, I kind of like seeing them all grainy and beat up, with the dust specks and the random missing frames and that greatest of old film friends, the stray piece of hair. Not that I would turn down a proper copy of The Maze, or of any old film, but having a pristine and remastered version doesn’t mean that I’ll be willing to get rid of my crappy old copy. What I would like to see is a copy of The Maze that restores the film to its full 3D glory, even though from what I can judge, the 3D would be pretty lackluster, unless you are really excited by gratuitous “bat flies at the camera” 3D effects.
Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) is about to married to his lovely fiancee, Kitty (Veronica Hurst), and to celebrate they are frolicking in some sun-kissed paradise with, for some reason, Kitty’s dry-witted aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). Fun in the sun is interrupted when Gerald gets an urgent telegram from his uncle. It turns out that Gerald has a family castle in the highlands of Scotland, and all sorts of weird things happen in it. As a boy, Gerald remembers being locked in his room at night whenever he and his family visited the castle, and that there was a massive hedge maze into which no one was ever allowed. He departs to tend to whatever emergency his uncle has been contacted about, but Kitty and Edith become increasingly worried when they receive no word from him. When a letter does arrive, it only distresses them more. Gerald calls off the wedding, breaks his engagement to Kitty, and forbids them from ever visiting or contacting him again. Kitty is understandably perplexed, and rather than merely accept Gerald bizarre, out of the blue proclamation, she and Edith pack up and head for Scotland to see what’s up at the ominously named Craven Castle.
Gerald is, needless to say, distressed by their sudden arrival, just as they are distressed by the fact that his hair has turned white and he seems to have aged considerably. He is adamant that they must leave immediately, but Kitty keeps devising excuses to stick around until she has figured out what the heck is going on and why Gerald has suddenly become so hostile and elusive. Clues begin to prevent themselves later that very night, when they hear Gerald and his two servants dragging something out of the off-limits guard tower and into the maze. Kitty discovers a secret passage in her room that leads to a long-forgotten room with a window (most of the windows in the castle have long since been bricked up) and observes the men hauling something into the maze. On the second night, Edith fakes out Gerald and leaves her room before it is locked for the night. While exploring the castle, she stumbles across…some hideous thing…that scurries from her view an disappears into the shadows before she can get a proper look at it. This tears it for Gerald, who insists that they get lost. Kitty counters by arranging to have a group of their friends show up, hoping that familiar faces and friendship will snap Gerald out of his funk and force him to come clean about the mysterious shenanigans. Her scheme almost works. Gerald even smiles at some point. But then it all goes horribly wrong. Everything comes to a head that night, and the horrible truth is revealed.
The Maze depends heavily on atmosphere. For the bulk of the movie, very little actually happens. Small tidbits are thrown the viewer’s way to keep them interested — a fleeting glimpse of a glistening creature, a weird webbed footprint, the frequent foreboding stares of the butlers — but if this sort of movie isn’t your thing, it’s going to bore you pretty quickly. Lucky for me, this sort of movie is my thing, and I found the whole thing engrossing. Richard Carlson, who already had a long list of credits, including at least one other Scotland-based horror tale (an episode of Lights Out entitled “The Devil in Glencairn”), does a wonderful job of transforming Gerald from happy-go-lucky regular guy to world-weary crank, and he does so in a manner that makes you both sympathetic (you know he bears some horrible family secret) and irritated (why won’t he just trust someone?). But then, I guess I’ve never had a giant frog for a great great great great uncle, so who am I to judge? I do, however, have an uncle who refuses to put his teeth in, and I don’t think it’s an entirely dissimilar circumstance.
Veronica Hurst, aside from being gorgeous, also does fairly well with a character who stays within the realistic bounds of femininity at the time (oh for the days women investigated unspeakable horrors whilst dressed in a shimmering cocktail dress and heels) but also emerges as strong-willed and determined in her unwillingness to simply let Gerald be a spooky jerk. That said, she may be one of the worst amateur sleuths in the history of amateur sleuthing. Although she constantly foils Gerald’s plans to send her and Edith away, nothing ever really comes of the time she buys herself. Edith, for that matter, is set up as sort of the stolid voice of reason, but her sneaking about never bears much fruit, either. It gets to be frustrating at points, and even though both women are fairly well portrayed for the time, one can’t help but with there was a bit more of the modern in them, thus allowing Kitty to grab Gerald by his tweed lapels and knock some sense into him. I mean, he has a dark spooky family secret, but it’s not that dark or spooky. Kitty sort of stand sup to him by defying his orders to skedaddle, but it would have been nice to see her actually confront the guy and not let him glower and frown his way out of it.
The supporting cast,lead by Katherine Emery as Edith and Michael Pate as William the butler, is also excellent. With the exception of Veronica Hurst, who was only in her very early twenties at the time, The Maze is yet another in a long line of classic examples of how a film can be lent an added air of gravity and importance by filling the cast with actual adults rather than teenagers. These are all experienced players, and they handle the film with dedication, so much so that when the final reveal of the creature proves to be somewhat comical both by today’s standards as well as, I would assume, the standards of the time, it hardly matters. They sell it regardless, and after the initial guffaw at the sight of this man-frog, The Maze makes it really easy to get over creature design short-comings. It helps that the creature is only on screen for a brief moment, but what helps more is that the entire cast sells the tragedy of the situation.
There is also some attempt to justify scientifically the appearance of the creature, who it turns out, is a horribly deformed member of the MacTeam family. Kitty discovers Gerald reading a book about human deformation, and Gerald explains that the human fetus goes through many stages of evolution before obtaining its final form, including one that is amphibian in nature. As with most horror film science, the end result is somewhat dubious but wholly believable within the confines of the film’s reality. Once again, this is the product of a cast that is committed to selling the plot of the film, even at its most outlandish moments.
Complimenting and, usually, overpowering the cast is the cinematography, production design, and director. William Cameron Menzies isn’t exactly a well-known name among modern horror fans, but he directed a number of early horror efforts, including 1931’s The Spider and 1932’s Chandu the Magician, both films that drew heavily upon the world of magic and illusionists, as well as 1936’s Things to Come (based on the predictions of H.G. Wells) and 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad. However, what’s probably more important to the success of The Maze is his long career and vast experience as a production designer and art director. In this role, Menzies is perhaps better known. His experience in this field reaches as far back as 1918 and includes a whole slew of famous films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdhad, Pride of the Yankees, and in 1939, a little something called Gone with the Wind. A couple Oscars and a few other assorted awards later, he found himself directing The Maze, as well as serving as the film’s art and production designer. These multiple roles make it possible to say that the movie is, every step of the way, the director’s vision. It also means that the guy responsible for the burning of Atlanta sequence is also the guy responsible for the man-frog in this film. Menzies was no stranger to horror of science fiction, having previously directed the sci-fi cult classic Invaders from Mars. Although the direction itself in The Maze is best characterized as “blandly competent,” the unassuming nature of the direction allows the mood to take center stage.
And that’s a wise decision, since it’s the film’s strongest character and was obviously the aspect in which Menzies was more interested. We barely get a glimpse of Craven Castle (obviously because of budgetary concerns — this is a low budget film, after all), but when we do, it is all twisted brambles and gnarled trees. When Kitty and Edith first arrive, the moors are awash in fog. Everything inside the castle is shadows and gloom. Even when sets aren’t draped in moroseness and cobwebs, it feels like they are. When the atmosphere takes front stage, the film is very effective. When it relies on the script, it is decidedly less so. And even within Menzies’ otherwise acceptable if pedestrian directing style, there are a number of curious decisions. Most noticeable is the bizarre set-up during narration sequences featuring Katherine Emery, which are framed so that she is visible from the chin up at the very bottom of the screen, with the rest of the frame filled with nondescript ceiling and room. If I had to guess, I would say this was not an artistic decision, but was rather the product of a camera being improperly positioned and there not being enough time, money, or interest in reshooting these sequences. Still, these are minor gaffes in comparison to the film’s biggest misstep, which is promising a horrible monster terrifying beyond all belief and then delivering…well, you know by now.
Augie Lohman was the special effects supervisor, so one has to assume that blame for the appearance of The Maze‘s signature monster should be pinned on him — though Menzies ultimately made the decision to go with the creation. Judging by his long list of credits, which includes special effects for everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick to Barbarella, one has to assume that Lohman was good at what he did. But The Maze represents his first real foray into the realm of the fantastic, having previously worked on adventure and crime films. I don’t know if it was his relative inexperience (hard to believe since three years later he was working magic in Moby Dick), or a function of time and money that resulted in the final product. To some degree, he was hamstrung by the story. The Maze was based on a novel by Maurice Sandoz, so the nature of the beast as already set. I would imagine that even the most adept effects man in the early 1950s would have a hard time when saddled with the assignment “make me a man-frog!” Modern effects technology could probably dream up something more effective, but then, modern scripting would probably ditch the idea of a frog entirely and go with something more legitimately terrifying, like a boll weevil or a marmoset. So maybe Lohman was just faced with an impossible task and did the best he could.
Which, in all honesty, was pretty bad. If you didn’t know ahead of time that the monster was going to be a colossal let-down, then that first reveal, when Kitty stumbled upon the creature while wandering desperately through the maze, would pretty much undo all the hard work the atmosphere of dread put into the rest of the film. To make matters worse, rather than walking upright like a man, the frog creature is down on all fours — which might have worked it the suit was designed to better mimic a four-legged creature. Instead, it’s designed in the same way that the Anguilas costume from the Godzilla movies was designed, meaning that the hind legs are bent because the guy in the suit is just crawling around. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems like even the makers of The Maze couldn’t justify trying to pass off a frog’s “ribbit” as a terrifying noise and so instead rely on…elephant noises? Huh. How about that? The end effect is singularly laughable.
On the scale of scary animals, frogs have to be at the bottom of the list. I mean, maybe even lower than giant killer bunnies. Sure, some people think frogs are “icky,” and like me, many of you know from first-hand knowledge that if you catch one, they are going to defend themselves by peeing on your hand, but other than that, the number of people genuinely terrified by frogs must be very small and limited to a few women who had bad experiences as girls with naughty little country boys dropping frogs down the back of their dress (not that I ever did that to anyone), and members of various Amazonian tribes who have to deal with those frogs that are the size of a fingernail but will cause you to die an agonizing and certain death by poison if you touch them. Oh, and maybe Spider-Man, who I think once tackled a dastardly frog guy. Even the Australians, who have come as close to anyone to doing actual real world combat against giant frogs, consider them a nuisance more than a nightmare of hell that will cause a woman to hold her left hand up in front of her face while biting the knuckles on her right. I mean, sure. If I was out at night, wandering through the hedge maze of a spooky Scottish castle, and I stumbled upon a gigantic frog, I’m sure I’d be taken aback, perhaps even a little startled. But once the initial shock wears off, and provided he doesn’t shoot a gigantic sticky tongue out at me, I think I’d recover fairly quickly and go into “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” mode — which is a mode I go into with disturbing frequency.
It should be noted, however, that the above statement is only suitable for instances in which you encounter an actual giant frog in a hedge maze or a haunted cove. Saying “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” whilst in a gym locker room or standing at the urinals lends the phrase an entirely different and perhaps controversial air.
In the end, though, the monster is played more for tragedy than terror, so if you know in advance that the build-up is let down by what’s being built up to, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the movie, have you chuckle at the sight of the monster when it finally shows up, then move on with very little harm done. There have certainly been sillier looking monsters (Giant Claw, I’m looking in your direction), but few that are surrounded by as much somber atmosphere and seriousness.
I have a tremendous affinity for this film, even though I think when my mom told it to me as a bedtime story, she changed things up a bit. Because I’m pretty sure in my version of the movie, the man-frog lived in the center of the maze (in actuality, he lives in the locked guard tower and is carried tot he maze at night so he can swim in the pond in its center) and the dragging and scraping sounds were made by the servants dragging some poor chump out to the maze to be eaten alive (the reality in the movie being that the monster never actually kills anyone, though one maid dies of fright upon seeing it). But still, after setting the record straight in my own mind, I still think The Maze is an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, film that boasts some tremendous mood and a hearty chuckle. The script does tend to run in place for too long — Kitty diligently investigates the situation but never makes any real progress — but I have a pretty high tolerance for films comprised mostly of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping scotch and pondering things. I didn’t find The Maze to be boring even when it was biding its time, and I think the build-up is quite nice even if the pay-off is more side-splitting than horrifying. Screenwriter Daniel Ullman, who worked mostly in television but also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island (where his script is once again upstaged by production design and special effects), redeems himself int he film’s final moments, which actually succeed in making you feel sorry for our doomed man-frog beastie, but the bulk of The Maze, be warned, is people sitting in chairs discussing things that should be resolved much quicker than they are.
So I reckon if you are looking for a great monster and cracking good dialog, you’re probably better off elsewhere. But I found a lot to like in The Maze, even if my mom’s version of the movie was better, and I would gladly wander through it again…even knowing what’s waiting in the center for me.
Release Year: 1953 | Country: United States | Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lillian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes | Writer: Daniel Ullman | Director: William Cameron Menzies | Cinematographer: Harry Neumann and William Menzies | Music: Marlin Skiles
There are those in the world who write about the career of Rutger Hauer in much the same way that other people write about the film career of Elvis Presley, the general approach being one of “ain’t that a damn shame?” Hauer made a name for himself in America when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s seminal dystopian sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner as Roy Batty, the leader of a gang of renegade androids being hunted down by Harrison Ford, presumably because they kidnapped his family or were on his plane without first obtaining the proper permissions. Hauer was already a familiar face to the ten non-Dutch people who watch Dutch films, and among that small population, the five fans of Dutch cinema who would actually watch Paul Verhoven films. When he appeared as a ruthless terrorist in Night Hawks, people started to take notice. Here was something interesting about the guy. And something scary. When a screenwriter told you Rutger Hauer was a murderous madman, you believed them.
A year later, Blade Runner catapulted Hauer into even wider American consciousness, and it seemed like he was destined for great things. But Blade Runner wasn’t quite the hit then that it has become today. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in the fantasy film Ladyhawke, which while not a blockbuster, certainly earned its fair share of fans and let Americans see Hauer as something more than a scary cyborg who howls, drives nails through his own palm, and spends his spare time catching pigeons and jumping around on rooftops. Hauer went on to appear in a string of modest genre hits throughout the 1980s, including The Hitcher, where he fed Pony Boy severed fingers, Flesh + Blood, where he competed for screen time with the frequently nude Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Blood of Heroes, where he and Joan Chen got to slam dog skulls onto a stick in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, while each of these films found an audience, none of them became much more than cult hits. Hauer’s intensity, his on-screen charisma, and his scary-yet-hot look seemed to imply that he was going to be big, just as soon as he found the right movie. And then something weird happened.
Exactly when and where, I can’t say for certain, though I’m willing to say things started to derail round about Blind Fury, which casts Hauer as a blind swordsman fighting the Mob. The modern-day mob, that is, the one with guns and hand grenades and black Crown Victorias; the one that would probably be able to kill just about any swordsman, let alone a blind one. Couple that with the movie where Hauer played a rogue cop who doesn’t play by the rules, battling evil terrorist Gene Simmons, and things really start to wobble. His long-anticipated portrayal of the vampire Lestat (Apparently he was Anne Rice’s personal choice) never happened, and by the time the movie was made, Hauer was too old, and the role went to Tom Cruise.
Throughout the 1990s, Hauer appeared in a series of misfires coupled with small roles (usually as the villain) in films with cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which wasn’t a hit at the time) and a role in the Most Dangerous Game inspired Surviving the Game, where he got to hunt Ice T. After initial excitement Hauer generated when he made the leap to America, it seems like studios lost any faith in him as a draw. Before too long, he found himself in direct to video film hell, and there he has remained alongside Seagal, Van Damme, and Mark Dacascos (actually, frequently alongside Mark Dacascos), emerging from time to time to appear in a supporting role in higher profile projects like Batman Begins and Smallville.
You could bemoan the state of his career and look at his appearance in things like Dracula III and Scorcher as something to be sad about as you think about what could have been. On the other hand, Hauer is one of that breed of actor who works consistently, averaging four or five movies a year, getting free vacations to whatever location is being used that week, and showing up for small roles in big films at least once a year. Most actors would be more than happy to fail in the way Hauer has failed.
Redline, which was originally titled Deathline, has nothing to do with the underground street racing circuit. For a movie about that, you will have to go see Redline — the one that features a car on the front cover, instead of Rutger Hauer. Both movies feature lots of hot ladies in really tiny mini-skirts. But the Redline we want is a movie that sees Hauer and his partners Merrick (Dacascos, who is Russian this week) and Marina (Yvonne Scio) as a trio of smugglers in the Russia of the near future, running some sort of biotech you would assume becomes central to the plot at some point. It never does, but it does give us an early opportunity for Merrick and Marina to betray Hauer’s Wade and shoot him dead, presumably over the lack of judgment he demonstrates in choosing his outfit from the Glenn Fry “Smuggler’s Blues” collection at Sears. Merrick then gets to be doubly evil, thus justifying his growing of a goatee, by betraying Marina as well. The corpses are picked up by Russian police, and for some reason Special Prosecutor Vanya (Randall William Cook) decides to use top secret military technology to bring Wade back from the dead. Thus revived, Wade promptly sets out to do two things: see some boobs, and kill Merrick.
Wade seems to have very little problem with the first task, as the Russia of the near future is much like the Russia of the present: full of hot chicks in skimpy outfits, dancing to bad techno music. Somehow, among all the aspiring models, porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes that Eastern Europe has to throw at him, Wade ends up meeting Katya (also Scio), who happens to look just like Marina. One would expect that this, a story about a resurrected man on a mission of vengeance encountering the a woman who is the spitting image of his deceased true love, would then go right into Rutger Hauer getting wrapped up like a mummy and doing that stiff-armed swat to the shoulder that has killed so many old British guys who dared disturb the tomb of Amon-Ra. Instead, it just continues with the second of Wade’s goals, which is to kill Merrick, who has become a player in the Russian mob, though one whose position seems tenuous. I reckon the Russian mob has a thirty-day trial period like any business thinking of hiring a contractor to a full time position.
Of course, if that was the plot, this movie would be far too simple. So we get layer upon layer of ulterior motives. Why did Vanya bring Wade back from the dead? Why do they keep cutting to random scenes of the Russian president (Agnes Banfalvi) giving speeches? Why is Katya helping Wade? Does Mark Dacascos own any shirts, and if he does, is he capable of buttoning the top few buttons? Is there going to be an ill-advised fight scene between Dacascos and Hauer? On the way to answering these and other questions the movie won’t make you care about very much, we get to see Rutger Hauer shoot a lot of people. He also gets beat up by a naked female body builder and a topless female boxer who seem to be hanging out in a mansion-turned-nightclub for no real reason other than all Russian mob meetings include a techno dance party and naked female boxers and bodybuilders, gets to have sex with a couple women in a shower (oh yes — there will be naked Rutger Hauer), gets to have sex with Yvonne Scio, and probably does it a few more times, but I lost track. So if you’ve been looking for a movie where most of the running time is devoted to Rutger Hauer shooting and screwing, this is your lucky day.
There not much in the way of redeeming factors for this film, but that’s never stopped me before. I seem to have a limitless capacity to appreciate dumb direct to DVD movies starring Rutger Hauer and/or Mark Dacascos. Couple that with my previously established weakness for what most of the world considers two-star sci-fi films, and I really had no hope of coming out of Redline as a member of the minority of people who actually enjoyed the film. It’s science fiction only in the most bare-boned sense. Hauer and his pals run illegal biotech, but that never matters. There are devices that let you have VR-style dreams, mostly about banging a couple hot Russian chicks in the shower, but we already have the internet, which is full of places where you can go to pretend you are banging two hot Russian chicks in the shower. The future looks pretty much like the present — which probably isn’t that far off from the truth — and the remnants of Soviet Russia that are littered around lend the film an interesting look. The sprawling mansions, underground dance clubs, and crumbling Soviet-era tenements afford the film a cheap but convincing setting that is a far cry from Blade Runner but better than, say, Flash Future Kungfu.
Hauer’s performances can be hit or miss, depending on his mood. He’s actually fairly engaging in this movie, even if he spends half of it on autopilot. There are moments when he actually acts, and you get to see a little flash of the magic that Hauer once possessed. He’s a little heavier these days than when he played the ultimate combat cyborg and ran around in little black leather biker shorts (obviously purchased from the same store Sting shopped at for Dune), but for a cat in his 50s, he’s still doing OK, and he certainly looks to be in better shape for this film that he was in a lot of his previous direct to video outings — possibly because he knew he was going to be in the nude, as they say, though not as frequently as his female co-star, Yvonne Scio.
Scio’s a beauty (I’d go with Kylie Minogue beets Anna Falchi), and she’s a far better actress than one usually expects from these sorts of films. Redline seems to be her first English language film after a career in her native Italy. Since then, she’s appeared in some bit parts, some television shows, and probably most notable to the sort of people who frequent Teleport City, the Sci-Fi Channel original movie A.I. Assault. I quite like her. She has natural charisma and energy, and even though she’s from the “skinny ass-kicker” mold I so rarely buy into, she handles the action scenes believably. The final revelation regarding her character is somewhat ridiculous, but then, pretty much everything about this movie is somewhat ridiculous. Plus, she’s an actual woman, born in 1969, not a teenager, and she’s kept her freckles. Yeah, I dig Yvonne Scio.
Completing the main cast is our man Mark Dacascos, the Don “The Dragon” Wilson of the 21st century. Dacascos got his start back in the 80s, with a series of bit parts and minor television roles. In 1993, he starred in a movie called Only the Strong, which tried unsuccessfully to convince people that a martial arts based danced practiced mostly by dumpy hippy chicks in dirty linen pants and white dudes with dreadlocks and devil sticks was somehow awesome and the preferred style of combat for all vicious street thugs in Rio, who apparently are more than willing to put their bloodlust on hold long enough for the resident dude with a boom box to find a song with the right rhythm for the fight. While that movie may not have been any more successful than Rooftops at convincing us that capoeira would ever defeat gymkata or Tony Jaa with big-ass elephant tusks strapped to his arms, it did convince a lot of people that Dacascos was someone on which they should keep an eye. In the early 1990s, a lot of Americans were discovering Hong Kong cinema and getting caught up in the films of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao (among others). So the folks prone to paying attention to such things wondered if there wasn’t an American star who could even come close. Exposure to Chan’s hyper-kinetic, stunt-driven action style meant that audiences were no longer going to buy into guys like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The answer from the U.S. seemed to come in the form of one of two people: Brandon Lee or Mark Dacascos. But then Brandon died, and Dacascos just never clicked with audiences. He went on to star in Double Dragon, a movie that asked audiences to believe that Mark Dacascos would play second kungfu fiddle to a guy from Party of Five — the most unbalanced kungfu match-up since Bruce Lee fought Gig Young. Dacascos then became the go-to guy for direct to video action films now that Don Wilson was slowing down, and they were unable to fit anymore numerals after the Bloodfist title. Even in DTV hell, Dacascos managed to shine from time to time. He starred in both Crying Freeman and Sanctuary, two adaptations of manga drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami. When they adapted The Crow for a television, Dacascos played the role formerly inhabited by Brandon Lee (more or less — I know they are all supposed to be different Crows, but really — a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up is a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up). He appeared in the rotten Hong Kong action film China Strike Force, a movie that decided the final fight shouldn’t be between Dacascos and Aaron Kwok (two actors who know how to fight on screen), but should instead be between Kwok and Coolio…on top of a precariously balanced sheet of glass, meaning that 1) the fight consists mostly of the guys trying to keep their balance and 2) the fight would have stunk anyway, because it was Coolio versus Aaron Kwok. Shortly thereafter, he reminded people how awesome he could be when he showed up in Chris Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf as a silent native American bad-ass.
Since then, he settled into a comfortable and prolific career in movies only people like us would ever watch, including Solar Strike, The Hunt for Eagle One, Alien Agent, and of more recent infamy, I Am Omega, The Asylum film studio’s quickie rip-off of both The Omega Man and I Am Legend (Asylum being the people who gave us such films as Snakes on a Train, The Da Vinci Treasure, and Pirates of Treasure Island, among countless others). Although he usually ends up throwing a punch or a kick here and there, these days he relies very little on his athleticism and martial arts prowess, concentrating instead on his ability to sit in hot tubs, shoot people, and pass for pretty much ethnicity the screenplay calls for.
He also seems to appear with shocking frequency alongside Rutger Hauer, making them sort of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of crappy direct to video action and sci-fi films. The partnership that began here with Redline continued with Scorcher and not one but two Hunt for Eagle One movies. Here’s to wishing them a long and fruitful joint career as the lords of direct to video action films.
Speaking of the lords of direct to video, you can’t escape any discussion of Redline — and lord knows the world is crawling with people who want to discuss a sci-fi action film in which Rutger Hauer gets beat up by a naked female bodybuilder — without mentioning the director, Tibor Takacs. The man is responsible for at least one film a week that plays on the Sci-Fi Channel. He’s perhaps best known for directing the 1987 cult classic The Gate, but since then he’s blessed the world with a whole slew of horrible crap that I seem to watch with alarming regularity and joy: Viper, Tornado Warning, Rats, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Ice Spiders, Mega Snake…Mansquito! He gave the world Mansquito, for crying out loud! And somewhere in there, he managed to direct a Sabrina the Teenage Witch film. His relationship with Dacascos goes as far back as Sanctuary and Redline, both in 1997, and they worked together again on The Crow television series. You know, if you told me that as of tomorrow, all films were going to be directed by Tibor Takacs, star Mark Dacascos and Rutger Hauer (and hot chicks in short skirts), and involve fighting giant snakes and/or spiders, my only real regret would be that there would then be no more Uwe Boll films.
Come to think of it, why hasn’t Mark Dacascos been in an Uwe Boll film yet?
Takacs also wrote the screenplay for Redline, along with a guy named Brian Irving who seems to be Takacs’ frequent partner in crime. They collaborated together on Rats, Sanctuary, and Nostradamus. Like I said, turn on the Sci-Fi Channel any Saturday, and you are pretty likely to see a film these guys made.
I suppose that this being a work of speculative fiction, one could search for meaning amid all the chaos and scenes of Rutger Hauer killing people. Beneath the sci-fi and action film veneer, this ends up being a political thriller as well, possibly even a spy film. But to read too much meaning into anything is to ignore the greater body of work this writer-director has created. His vision of the future plays like a version of modern-day Russia with a a bunch of Strange Days grafted on to get the film put in the science fiction section. There’s absolutely no reason the mysterious Special Prosecutor needs to resurrect a dead Rutger Hauer in order to sick him on the members of a Russian gang as part of some convoluted plot to assassinate the too-friendly and reform-minded president. It seems like his method of planning is to never let anything be done in one step if it can be done in ten. The guy might have even succeeded with his coup had he spent more time figuring out how to just shoot the president, and less time bringing Rutger Hauer back from the dead and hatching assorted schemes with Mark Dacascos, in an attempt to manipulate Dacascos into crossing his mob bosses, so that…oh, really. You know what? Very little of it makes a lick of sense, and if you try and dissect it any further than “Rutger Hauer looks at boobs and tries to kill Mark Dacascos,” you are probably going to give up. At least Takacs didn’t make the future some totally dystopian Blade Runner meets 1984 (this being before The Matrix) cliche.
In fact, I like the whole idea of scifi films set in Russia and Eastern Europe. The 80s and 90s were dominated by the William Gibson-esque assumption that the future would be dominated by Japan, and everything would be controlled by steely-eyed yakuza in black suits, with a tendency to still use samurai swords even though the rest of the world moved on to guns a couple centuries ago. While Japan still enjoys the reputation of happening fifty years in the future thanks in no small part to their love of flashing cell phones and disturbingly realistic robotic love dolls, it turns out that the future is probably going to play out in places like Russia, China, and oh, let’s say India even though they don’t like science fiction. Russia certainly lends itself to easy sci-fi. You hardly even have to dress the set. Now all we need is a movie where the dejected future samurai corporate hitmen of Japan have to fight for their livelihood against a bunch of future Russian mob corporate hitmen.
So, what have we said? None of it makes any sense, right? The pace is awkward. Not exactly slow, because Rutger Hauer is always killing people or getting it on, or Mark Dacascos is always getting in or out of the hot tub, but there’s no real energy to most of the action. It’s a Canadian co-production, and Canadian films often have a weird feel tot he pace. But then, Canadian films are rarely this mean and scummy, so that compensates somewhat for the meandering clip. Much of the film feels like running in place, albeit fairly amusing running in place, because Rutger Hauer is walking around blowing the hell out of anything and everyone with almost no consequences at all (eventually, they put a bounty out on him, which delights the bloodthirsty hobo vigilantes to no end) and not the slightest concern. As far as we can tell, he was a smuggler, but not a killer, so for him to suddenly become a nonchalant killing machine who will just haul off and blow away anyone with even the most tenuous appearance of guilt or malice is…well, I guess if you were a dead guy walking around Russia looking to avenge your own murder, maybe that’s the sort of thing that makes you put less value on life. Or maybe Tibor Tikacs just didn’t give a shit and figured that watching Rutger Hauer shoot like a thousand guys is more fun than watching Rutger Hauer shoot one guy then agonize about the moral implications of his actions afterward.
All that negative stuff aired, it’s probably no surprise that I actually kind of like Redline. It’s a modestly entertaining, largely tasteless exercise in gratuitous sex, sleaze, and violence, and that’s usually all it takes to make me happy. Throw in some engaging actors, lots of skimpy outfits, big guns, a ludicrous plot, insane amounts of murder that never seem to attract the attention of the police, and Rutger Hauer getting the sleeper hold put on him by a naked bodybuilder chick, and you have the recipe for a decent if idiotic trip to the near future.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: Canada and The Netherlands | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Mark Dacascos, Yvonne Scio, Patrick Dreikauss, Randall William Cook, Michael Mehlmann, Ildiko Szucs, Istvan Kanizsay, John Thompson, Gabor Peter Vincze, Scott Athea, Attila Arpa | Writer: Tibor Takacs and Brian Irving | Director: Tibor Takacs | Cinematographer: Zoltan David | Music: Guy Zerafa | Producer: Brian Irving | Alternate Titles: Deathline, Armageddon, The Syndicate
It’s not that Event Horizon isn’t the kind of movie I would write about. Haunted spaceships and Sam Neill ripping out his own eyeballs is right up my alley. No, the reason isn’t the content, but rather, that fact that this is one of those movies that already has a lot of words spent on it from a variety of sources both in the mainstream and in the realm of cult film fandom. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what i might have to add that is new. In some cases, I can come up with something — some tiny, meaningless tidbit that is a throwaway line in a movie that then allows me to write endlessly on some idiotic and obscure point. But upon watching Event Horizon, I was left with a distinct lack of ideas when it came to thinking about how I might approach writing about this film with some degree of originality. And now that I’ve finished the first paragraph, I still have no idea, so with any luck, something will pop up as I stumble along.
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern
There are a couple key themes that define Teleport City and to which I frequently refer. First among these is that Teleport City was always envisioned as a response to the taunt, “Get a life!” or, alternately, “Get a girlfriend!” Part of the reason the reviews I write so often diverge into tangential stories about silly adventures, history (both accurate and suspect), and the circumstances under which I’ve viewed these movies and how said circumstances have influenced my reactions is because I like to illustrate what I’ve learned and experienced first-hand from my many strange years in cult film fandom: that we do have lives, often exceptionally fun lives at that. The second of the over-arching themes that inform Teleport City is that you should be happy this is your hobby, because you will never want for new material. No matter how much you’ve seen, you’ve never seen it all, and you will discover new and amazing films from all over the world with pleasing regularity. Exploring these films leads, often, to exploring other cultures, other countries, other customs and histories, and learning about far more than simply the film you happen to be watching.
Case in point would be the little sub-genre — “family” might be more appropriate — known as “krimi,” a series of fantastical German murder mystery movies based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace and drawing influence from a sprawling landscape of source material that includes pulp adventures, noir crime dramas, James Bond, and old horror films. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of “krimi” films. Back in the day, I had a German film class in what we then referred t as “college,” or sometimes “university.” Back in this time period, I would ride to class on my pennyfarthing bicycle beneath trees dripping with the vibrantly colored leaves of fall, my letterman sweater rakishly unbuttoned and my books slung around my shoulder in a satchel, whistling the latest hit by The Ink Spots and thinking of my sweetheart Annabeth and the grand we time we’d have that weekend when I would borrow my chum’s horseless motor carriage to drive her up to the country for a picnic, where I would serenade her with some ukulele playing. Oh, that was truly the golden fall of ’92!
The film class covered the basics of German film — meaning we watched some Metropolis, Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Triumph of the Will, Jew Suss, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum, American Friend, The Seventh Cross, and the dreaded The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Although the professor was a grand man and once scheduled a make-up class at his own home, where he had an early, pre-flatscreen television version of a home theater, an indoor pool, and a feast of spaetzel and bratwurst (apparently being the head of the Germanic and Slavic Languages department married to the head of the Russian Language department has its perks beyond just being able to stage the siege of Stalingrad in your back yard every night), and even though he taught me the word vergangenheits-bewaltigung, there was no mention of krimi. For that matter, there was no mention of the Jerry Cotton FBI-adventure films starring George Nader, or of Superargo, so in the end, I have to question the quality of education I received. Still, and despite The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, one of the better film classes I took, even though (and possibly because) the professor wasn’t trained in film studies. Plus, Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler was a fine book, and the class itself benefited from sharing a semester with a “Women and Film” class which was excruciating (this is what you get when you do schedule drop-add at the last minute — please, o Lord! No more Jane Campion!).
I also learned that I wanted a Wiemar Republic era nightclub in my house. Later, of course, I became more of a grown up and dispensed with such childish fantasies. Nowadays, I want a Jess Franco nightclub in my house.
With this basic foundation in German cinema, it was many years before I visited that nation’s movies again, and when I did, it was a decidedly different type of film than those I’d been watching in school. Fewer pensive stares and excessively long takes, and more George Nader and his perfectly sculpted hair jumping out of Jaguar cars and shooting gangsters. When the book Fear Without Frontiers came out, I got my first glimpse at the weird world of krimi and knew, immediately, that this was a type of film I was going to want to see. As is often the case, however, recent knowledge and enthusiasm abut a certain film or type of films has no direct correlation to the ability to actually obtain and watch the movies. So while I could sit in my study, contentedly puffing on my pipe and sipping a glass of fine Glenrothes as I marveled at photos of skull-faced killers and arch-villains in pointy crimson hoods or frog outfits, I could not carry my enthusiasm out to my own home theater for viewing. My only option at the time was to shell out stacks of lettuce in exchange for bootleg copies of dubious quality.
But the era of DVD often rewards the cheap and patient, and too long ago, Alpha Video — DVD-era heir to the throne of Goodtimes Video — was kind enough to make bootleg copies of dubious quality unnecessary, as one could now freely purchse semi-bootleg copies of dubious quality, but for four dollars instead of fourteen. Alpha Video dumped a number of krimi onto cheap DVDs, followed shortly by an “Edgar Wallace Collection” released by Retrocinema. I also discovered that some of the films I already owned were, in fact, based in some degree on the works of Edgar Wallace, though in at least some of these cases, the connection is dubious. In others, the whims and obsessions of the director override any other identity the film may possess. That is to say, The Devil Came from Akasava is not a krimi; it is a Jess Franco film. Slowly, and far more lazily than someone who possesses actual drive and motivation, I was able to piece together a half-ass knowledge of the history of Edgar Wallace and how the Germans came to love him so much that they based a bunch of cheap movies on his stories.
Wallace was born in the London slums in the latter half of the 1800s, his father an actor, his mother a dancer — two professions and a life that we can see reflected as major influences in Wallace’s work. In 1896, he found himself stationed in South Africa, serving in the Boer War and developing a nascent writing career as a reporter. His work attracted the attention of none other than Rudyard Kipling, who encouraged Wallace to continue his writing career. Wallace, himself a great admirer of Kipling, wisely took the advice, and before too long, he was making enough money as a foreign correspondent in South Africa to afford a wife and a comfortable existence for the both of them. Then, just as quickly, he lost all his money, because that’s the way us writers are. After returning to England in 1902, he published his first serialized novel in 1905, but once again he proved a better writer than financial adviser, as a crackpot promotional scheme that offered readers a reward if they could figure out the solution to the book resulted in lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the loss of his copyright for the story.
But at least he had a new career, even if he had to maintain it to stay one step ahead of poverty — something I’m sure no other writer has ever experienced. It was a relatively unspectacular career for some time, but in 1921, something suddenly caught fire. It was in this year that Wallace’s name became synonymous with mystery writing. By 1928, it is reported that nearly a quarter of the books being printed in England were Edgar Wallace mysteries. He managed to get himself a plum job as the figurehead president at British Lion Films, which meant that he would be getting cuts of all future and past films based on his work. In 1931, after an unsuccessful bid for Parliament (the gambling habit came back to haunt him), he went to the United States and attempted to scare up a screenwriting job for himself. He had a hard time finding takers for any but one of his scripts, and that one he managed to sell to RKO Pictures, though they insisted on a different title, something more exotic than The Beast. And so was born King Kong. Wallace died shortly afterward, in 1932. By that time, he had written some 250 books and plays, countless short stories, and left his family $68,000 — not a bad sum in 1932, so long as you ignore that it was countered by the $400,000 in debt he amassed as a result of gambling on the ponies and a love of throwing big parties.
One of his sons, Bryan Edgar, himself a budding writer, took on the task of selling his late father’s work for the screen and of writing new books in the style of and “inspired by the work of Edgar Wallace.” So I guess he was like a proto-Christopher Tolkien. When Bryan Edgar moved to West Germany after the war, he brought with him the infectious enthusiasm for his father’s work that had resulted in so many books and so many films based on those books. Wallace’s stories were very popular in Germany throughout the 1920s, thought exactly how this came to be I’m not sure. I guess it was part of the treaty the Allies made Germany sign at the end of World War I. “Cede all territories, disarm and disband your military, make Kaiser Wilhelm shave his mustache, and oh yes, you must read Edgar Wallace novels” — that’s the actual text of the Treaty of Versailles, though I would by irresponsible if I didn’t mention that there is a hand-written addition, in pencil, from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, ever anxious to be fair and forgiving, that says, “You can sell the books after you are done reading them, or trade them for a slice of bread.” Needless to say, this conciliatory amendment enraged David Lloyd George, who proceeded to doodle a picture on the back of the treaty of Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Lloyd George, he was caught doing this by Georges Clemenceau, who used this knowledge to force England to cede its claim to Wilhelm’s mustache, which would now become the property of France and be placed prominently on the face of Clemenceau himself so as to teach Lloyd George a lesson about being naughty.
See the important things you learn when you read a review at Teleport City?
Anyway, much like the British, the Germans were keen on making cinematic adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels. However, all production of these films was halted, and indeed the books themselves were banned, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. When Bryan Edgar Wallace arrived in West Germany after the war, his appearance coincided with a general revival of interest in crime films, thanks in no small part to the films of the French New Wave, who were keen on drawing influences from old American noir and crime films and championing genres of cinema previously dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration. The atmosphere was right, and before too long, interest in Wallace’s works was revived, and so too was the production of films based on those novels. In 1959, with the release of The Fellowship of the Frog, the krimi was born.
There were two competing studios cranking out Edgar Wallace movies at the time, though most fans consider the string of films released by Rialto to be the definitive krimi series. Most of the films were dubbed into English for American audiences, and some were retitled for distribution elsewhere. Over time, the films based of works by Edgar Wallace became mixed in with the films based on the works of Bryan Edgar Wallace, writing in his father’s style. The result is a bit confusing, especially so far removed from the original years of release and with so little information previously available. The end result is a wonderful krimi maze as convoluted and confusing, yet fun to wander through, as the plots of the films themselves.
Phantom of Soho is among the films attributed to Edgar Wallace but actually the work of his son, and rather than being one of the Rialo productions, was made by the studio CCC. As far as krimi go, it is not considered to be the best, but that’s no indication that it isn’t very good, and it still serves as a textbook example of the shared elements of Edgar Wallace krimi. As with all exceptionally convoluted and twisted stories, it can be distilled into one very simple idea: someone is killing people in and around a cabaret in London’s seamy Soho district, and Scotland Yard needs to catch the killer. As with most “whodunits,” we encounter a number of possible suspects, including a massage therapist employed by the owner of the club, a knife-throwing fake Arab, a beautiful dancer and photographer, a salty old fisherman, a writer, and even the chief of Scotland Yard himself. Attempting to crack the case is stolid British inspector Patten (Dieter Borsche) and his rather bizarre assistant, Hallam (Peter Vogel). Cracking the case consists of the two inspectors spending a lot of time hanging out in the nightclub that seems somehow inextricably linked to the strange murders. Soon, we are neck deep in a plot that involves insurance fraud, blackmail, lots of women in black lingerie, and lost of people skulking about dark, twisting, and excessively foggy Soho streets.
Although Phantom of Soho is not a Rialto production, and although it is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his father, it’s still quite a fun, old fashioned mystery with a few modern twists (primarily in the form of half-naked women parading about the place, and even a couple very brief glimpses of nudity — which must have been novel at the time for a mainstream film, and it contains pretty much everything that defines the krimi. First and foremost, there is the outrageous villain. The titular phantom of Soho is perhaps less outlandish than some of its krimi compatriots, largely because the phantom remains unseen for the majority of the film, represented only by a point of view shot in which we see only the killer’s hands, wearing sparkly silver gloves and brandishing a knife. But when the appearance of the phantom is finally revealed, it is suitably creepy and fulfills the krimi tendency to feature criminal masterminds in outfits that are at once very cool and utterly absurd. I don’t see how, even in a seedy neighborhood, you could parade around in sparkly gloves, a funerary shroud, and a decaying skull mask without attracting at least some attention, but then, this is only a loose interpretation of reality, so I guess such things are permissible. Edgar Walllace was a pulp writer, after all, and the pulps thrived on such villains. And besides, around this same time, Kriminal would have been running around in a full-on skeleton-themed body stocking, so maybe it was just one of the many trends of London in the swingin’ 60s.
We also have the requisite cast of potential suspects, suspicion being removed from them one by one and each succumbs to the blade o the mysterious phantom, until finally we are left with the core possibilities: the writer, the dancer/photographer, the doctor/physical therapist, the club owner, and the chief of Scotland Yard. All are connected in some way to a plot involving the sinking of an ocean liner in order to collect on the insurance money (this is not a central mystery to the plot, and is revealed fairly early in the story). The eventual reveal isn’t entirely a surprise, but then, it rarely is these days, given how many movies have been made in this style. And besides, the fun of the krimi is rarely in being fooled by the unmasking of the killer. It’s in the ride, and Phantom of Soho is an interesting ride indeed, steeped in eerie atmosphere cribbed from film noir and old horror films. The Soho of this movie is a fantastic, almost mythical creation, the result of someone who might never have been to Soho trying to make it up based on the things they’ve heard about it — not at all unlike American and Italian Westerns serving up a mythical version of the Old West based on legend and romance rather than hard facts.
This Soho is, as I said, covered in fog at all hours of the day and night. Clandestine couplings and seedy goings-on take place in every club, in the shadows of every alley, the rooms of every hotel, every movement softened to impressionism by the ever-present mist that clings to the neighborhood like the shroud of death itself. The Phantom of Soho exists in a fantasy world composed of such images — similar in a way to the city occupied by the heroes and villains of Streets of Fire so many years later — and seemingly equal parts 1920s romanticism and 1960s modernism, resulting in a film that exists in a time and place that is familiar but not quite real. This is realized through the use of studio sets and location shooting on the streets of Hamburg. The final product is a recreation of London that is completely unreal yet totally believable, obviously recognizable but with a hint of the alien, as if something lurking in that fog just isn’t quite right. It is the conjuring of this mood that serves to be the greatest attribute of The Phantom of Soho, for the plot itself is somewhat slow and prone to lots of talking.
Just as the movie strives to create a mythical London, so too does it strive to create fiction-perfect ideals of Scotland Yard inspectors in the persons of Patten and Hallam. Patten is the stock stoic cop in a trenchcoat, navigating the seedy underbelly of London without ever seeming to be uncomfortable or distracted by the women in their underwear that thankfully populate the focal point of the crimes. His opposite number is Hallam, who represents one of the genuinely funny comic relief character, primarily because the comedy of his character comes not from broad attempts at slapstick, but rather from the fact that the presentation of the character is just so weird. It’s a Germanic interpretation of the famous dry wit of the Brits (“At last, I can realize the dream of arresting my own boss.”). In a modern production of this film, Hallam would be played by Cripsen Glover. As it is, Peter Vogel looks like a Peter Sellers character and really makes the whole film worth watching — well, him and Helga Sommerfeld as Corrine, the dancer/photographer who spends most of the movie in fetching black lingerie and little else. Actor Peter Vogel was a tragic case, obviously talented but prone to depression. He attempted to kill himself on one occasion, by jumping out of a window during a film premier, and succeeded in another attempt at suicide, this time by poisoning himself. I really don’t know the details of his life and career, but his turn as Hallam is really inspired.
But if there is a real star of the film it’s the art design and direction. Director Franz Josef Gottlieb spent the 60s directing similar murder mysteries and pulp-inspired adventures, bringing an avant garde touch to his films that was most likely informed by French interpretations of American noir and the old German horror film’s fascination with expressionism and strange shot set-ups. The Phantom of Soho is full of arty composition and awkward angles, but far from feeling gratuitous, these decisions seem perfectly in line with the bizarre feel of the film and the desire to create a sense of familiar reality that is, at the same time, disturbingly unreal. This is probably thanks largely to Swiss cinematographer Richard Angst, whose career stretched as far back as the pre-Hitler Weimar era of the 1920s. Very early in his career, Angst found himself working alongside Leni Riefenstahl, one of Germany’s most talented and most notorious film personalities, on Arnold Frank’s demanding cycle of mountaineering adventure films: The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mount Blanc, White Frenzy, and S.O.S. Iceberg. Cutting his teeth in the silent era of German film undoubtedly informed the cinematographer’s sense of the surreal, and his experience on those challenging films helped him become one of the great cinematographers of early adventure cinema. In 1959, when legendary German director Fritz Lang returned to Germany for the first time since World War II (Lang not being especially friendly with the Nazis, nor they with him), he hired Angst for the color remake of his earlier India-themed epics, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. Angst’s approach to Phantom of Soho works wonderfully, infusing the film with a unique feel and tying it through imagery to the horror films of the silent era, just as the plot of the film would later tie into a new type of thriller: the Italian giallo.
There is much that is similar between the krimi and the giallo, and especially The Phantom of Soho, which is one of the more lurid krimis, and the work of Dario Argento. The krimi films grew from the pulp stories, with a dash of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes thrown in, and integrated the whodunit mystery with elements of horror and the fantastic. Giallo would take the same hybrid approach, one foot in horror and the other in the murder mystery, though the Italians did not carry over the reliance on a pulpy, outrageous villain in a crazy costume. But much of what we can see in the giallo cycle of the 1970s is present already in The Phantom of Soho: the mysterious killer, the list of suspects, the preoccupation with seedy locations, the inclusion of art and artists (specifically, writers, models/dancers, and photographers), and the protagonists working his way doggedly through a progressively more tangled web are all elements that became de rigueur for gialli — themselves outgrowths of the Italian pulp novels from which they take their name (“giallo” or yellow — because the books were easily identified by their signifying yellow covers).
Central to the plot of The Phantom of Soho is both photography and, even more so, writing. Among the many potential suspects in the film is a woman with a successful career as a writer and an intimate relationship with the head of Scotland Yard. She challenges the inspectors to solve the case before she does, confident that as a writer with a fresh and sometimes outlandish imagination, she is better suited for working such an unusual case as that of the phantom of Soho. In this sense, the movie becomes a story that is writing itself as it goes. Argento would use this same concept in his 1982 thriller, Tenebrae, which while not being a remake of The Phantom of Soho, certainly uses the Bryan Edgar Wallace story and the related movie as its inspiration and basis.
Although the pace of the film is slow — too slow for some people, with too meager a pay-off at the end — I think it’s a great little movie. The atmosphere is incredible, the cinematography inventive, and the story both strange and entertaining. It plays an important role in the long history of thrillers, and especially n thrillers infused with elements of the horrific. As an introduction to the world of Edgar Wallace and German krimi, one should probably start with The Fellowship of the Frog or any of the Rialto productions available on DVD. Being written by Wallace’s son and produced by CCC, The Phantom of Soho is more of a “related tangent,” and shouldn’t be used as a basis for building a working knowledge of krimi — though it absolutely should be included in any expansion of one’s knowledge.
Release Year: 1964 | Country: Germany | Starring: Dieter Borsche, Barbara Rutting, Hans Sohnker, Peter Vogel, Helga Sommerfeld, Werner Peters, Hans Nielsen, Stanislav Ledinek, Otto Waldis, Hans Hamacher, Elisabeth Flickenschildt | Writer: Ladislas Fodor | Director: Franz Josef Gottlieb | Cinematographer: Richard Angst | Music: Martin Bottcher | Producer: Artur Brauner | Original Title: Das Phantom von Soho
Although England’s Hammer Studio made a variety of films, the trio of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy solidified the direction of the studio and its identity with the public for the remainder of its life. And not without good reason. In their heyday, and even long after the studio had fallen into disrepair, Hammer showed a panache for producing lavish looking Gothic horror that was simply unmatchable. America’s AIP came close with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired cycle of films starring Vincent Price, but no one could approach Hammer’s consistency and longevity in producing world-class horror. Starting in 1958 and continuing throughout the 60s, and into the studio’s final days in the first half of the 1970s, Hammer produced an unbelievable string of incredible horror films — almost every one of them a hit — buoyed by the one-two punch of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s Dracula films and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein series.
Among the many things that puzzle me in life is the question of why there aren’t more horror films set amidst military conflicts and wars. Not that aren’t any, but there aren’t nearly as many as one might think, giving how easily wartime settings should lend themselves as backdrops to horror films, to say nothing of the fact that it was the landscape of World War I that informed the art and set design on many of the old Universal and German horror classics. That conflict in particular, with one foot in the horror of modern warfare and the other in…well, the horror of 19th century warfare, seems particularly well suited for horror films. The strange combination of Industrial Revolution weapons and vehicles with ornate imperial uniforms, peasants, kingdoms, horse-drawn artillery, and of course, No Man’s Land, trench warfare, bombed out old European buildings and castles — horror films set amongst this carnage seem to practically write themselves, and yet wartime horror films are all but non-existent.
Certainly, some exist, and perhaps I’m the only one who look sat the battlefields of past wars and sees potential for horror-themed entertainment. Chalk it up to my childhood obsession with Weird War Tales comic books, those oft-mentioned on this website stories about skeletal Nazis drifting across war-ravaged, mist-enshrouded landscapes while a terrified GI crouches in a trench. Or my personal favorite, the one with a cover where a centaur is attacking a Panzer. What the hell was going on with that one? I guess if I had my millions, I’d blow a lot of it on the usual stuff people blow easy millions — top hats, monocles, stuff like that — and the rest I’d devote to remastering and releasing on DVD obscure Eurospy films mostly for myself, and to producing a long series of horror films set during the two World Wars and featuring green fog and skeletal specters clad in tattered military uniforms. Heck, it’s better than losing it all to some shyster investment banker.
Anyway, like I said, there aren’t many horror films set amidst wars. There was one about two guys stuck in a trench in WWI, I think. And I’m not sure I count Manticore, even though I seem to have watched that movie like a dozen times. There are thousands of films in my “to watch” pile, including many incredible classics, and I never get around to viewing them. How is it, I ask myself, I continue to fail to watch these films but have seen Manticore and Zoolander like ten thousand times? But other than a precious few, and discounting movies that feature soldiers but are not set in actual wars, this weird little subgenre with which I’m obsessed remains curiously unpopulated. Maybe it’s because most horror films are incredibly low budget affairs, and they simply can’t afford the costuming, props, locations, and scenes of battle that would be required to properly set the stage. Maybe horror film screenwriters are just young, and they don’t know enough about such conflicts to use them as a backdrop for a film — not that not knowing much has ever stopped a screenwriter, especially a horror film screenwriter. Their offenses against even the most basic of police procedures are long-running and often astounding.
Perhaps war is simply a horrible subject in itself, and lending a supernatural air to it is seen as tasteless. Ha ha ha! Yeah, I know. The genre that gave us sub-genres like torture porn, slashers, and Rob Zombie is worried about offending the sensibilities of the world’s remaining Great War veterans. Perhaps, then the problem is that the people who have ideas for World War horror films (One or Two, either would be effective), like me, are lazy, like me, and the scripts remain as little more than half-finished ideas inside their heads. I also tend to wonder why there are so few movies about the American Revolution, what with it being kind of a big deal not just in American history, but in shaping the course of the world as a whole. I suppose the rest of the world isn’t as excited about watching a cast of thousands in powdered wigs run at each other with matchlock rifles and bayonets. Maybe I’ll do an American Revolution horror film.
Among the few battlefield horror films we find the Korean production R-Point, set during the Vietnam War and involving, among other things, spooky ghosts, cemeteries, swamps full of corpses, and a spooky old French Plantation mansion. Unknown to many of my generation and later — and probably earlier than that — South Korea had the second largest contingent of non-Vietnamese troops in the conflict, after the United States. For them, the conflict in Vietnam played out much like an extension of the Korean War, with the North Koreans playing a role on the side of the North Vietnamese. Over the course of the war, and starting in 1964, South Korea sent over 300,000 troops into Vietnam, where they developed a reputation for being highly skilled and effective combatants — so much so that the Americans looked to Korean theaters for guaranteed safety while the North Vietnamese warned their troops to avoid engaging Korean battalions if at all possible.
Sadly, very little of that effectiveness seems to be on display in the troops that make up the special squadron of this film, unless we are measuring their effectiveness at screaming, flailing, falling down, and blubbering like little babies at even the slightest of inconveniences. R-Point centers around a group of soldiers who are assigned the task of traveling to a remote station — Romeo Point — to investigate the disappearance of a previous platoon of Korean soldiers. The previous group was presumed dead as a result of some sort of guerrilla attack until a distorted, bizarre distress message was radioed in by an unidentified member of the platoon.
The assembled task force includes pretty much all the war movie stereotypes: the stoic CO, the world weary veteran, the nerdy radio operator, the blowhard, so on and so forth. I don’t know the Korean equivalent of a guy from Brooklyn who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and is probably nicknamed Brooklyn, but I’m sure whatever it is, this movie had one. Stoic Lieutenant Choi (Kam Woo Sung) leads the bunch and is one of the only guys with any sort of stand-out personality — that personality being “stoic guy.” Things start of predictably enough, with the task force traveling up river to R-Point, only to be ambushed by a Vietcong commando. After an intense firefight, they discover the commando is a woman. Badly wounded, Choi orders her shot to finish the job, but no one can bring themselves to do it, instead leaving her to die a slow death — which seems considerably worse, if you ask me.
Upon arrival at R-Point, they discover it to be a vast lakebed, now largely drained and overgrown, not to mention prone to severe bouts of ominous fog. After holing up in a decaying French mansion, they set about searching for some trace of their comrades. It isn’t long, however, before things start to get really weird. Soldiers start catching glimpses of other people disappearing into the shadows or running through the treeline. A group of Americans chopper in one night and deliver further ominous warnings about R-Point, detailing the location’s long history of slaughter and mass graves. And then one by one, members of Choi’s detachment start vanishing, turning up dead, or going insane.
There is much that R-Point does incredibly well, and several things it does poorly. So as to end on a high note — because I really did like this movie — we’ll tackle the negative first. And nothing stands out as a bigger negative than the behavior of the soldiers. They quickly degenerate into a state of shrieking and crying and falling over, becoming largely indistinguishable from one another, as well as becoming keenly irritating. I don’t expect people not to be scared when they are being hunted by ghosts and staying in a creepy old bombed out mansion, but one expects at least some degree of discipline and training to be on display at some point. But almost from the very beginning, with the exception of Choi and grizzled vet, Sergeant Jin (Byung-ho Son), the entire group is crying, cowardly, and incompetent. A better balance between soldiers trying to get their heads around their increasingly macabre circumstances and soldiers who are overwhelmed by it would have made for a much better movie, and one that deals with the complexity of entering a warzone and coming face to face with literal ghosts in a much more intelligent fashion. Instead, the movie becomes a long succession of crying, scares staged around dudes squatting over the latrine, and guys going, “Wait! Where did Corporeal So-And-So go???”
The film also falls back on the now-tired old Asian horror film chestnut of a spooky girl with long hair, which is a shame after the film goes through so much trouble to set itself up as something wholly different from the usual piles of Ring-inspired spooky girl horror films from Japan and Korea (among others). What really makes this a crime is that she is so blatant and obvious a presence in a film that otherwise relies very heavily on the effective exploitation of half-seen shapes in the shadows and momentary glances of something that was maybe there, maybe not. Shoehorning the female ghost into things not only undercuts the basic mystery, but seems wildly out of place, as if a producer somewhere along the way panicked and insisted that they put a female ghost with long hair into the film at some point. Her scenes are weak not just because she is photographed with such solidity, but also because the film doesn’t seem that committed to her presence, as if it is shrugging and saying to us, “Look, I didn’t want her in, either, but that producer insisted. Stick with me, and we’ll get to more scenes of creepy caves and ghostly soldiers pretty soon.”
So those are the negatives — provided one takes the appearance early in the film of an anachronistic DHL deliveryman in modern, bright yellow uniform to be amusing but ultimately harmless — and each negative is acutely noticeable and undermines the film in a way that can’t really be ignored. Because of these, I can understand people dismissing this film as an interesting failure. But it can be made up for if the movie exhibits strengths in other categories, and in that regard, R-Point succeeds admirably. First and foremost, this movie is creepy. Really creepy. The initial reveal of the French mansion that will become Choi’s base of operations is incredibly effective, fading into view as the sun rises on a gray and foggy day, and looming over the soldiers like the embodiment of all the death and decay perpetrated by the war. As far as the “old dark house” trope of ghost films go, this place is one of the best.
But it’s not left up to the mansion to shoulder all the creep factor. Drawing perhaps on the influence of Apocalypse Now in making the jungle seem surreal and eerie, R-Point works wonders with its surroundings, bringing out not just the fear of wartime attack in the jungle, but a very palpable sense of supernatural dread lurking behind every banana leaf and twisted root. The endless swaying fields and swamps of R-Point itself are equally as spooky, allowing any number of half-seen bugaboos to come and go in the corner of your eye. Among the most effective of these is a scene in which one of Choi’s men becomes separated from his search team, only to catch up with what he thinks is them, silently moving forward through the weeds and ignoring his attempts to catch their attention. Slowly, each soldier crouches down to take cover, fading into the brush around them and disappearing. It’s a damn good scene and really plays to this film’s strengths far more than the gratuitous female ghost nonsense.
Other effective scenes include the discovery of a downed helicopter, a swamp full of decaying bodies, and Jin’s exploration of a cave. In each of these scenes, as with the one above, the film draws its strength from the feeling that something might be there. The juxtaposing of very familiar wartime iconography — the HUEY helicopter, the fact that the soldiers moving through the weeds look almost exactly like the statues in Washington DC’s Korean War Memorial — with things that are otherworldly and not quite right. It infuses the entire film with a sense of creeping unease, that odd feeling one gets when one realizes that something they thought was familiar has been transformed into something recognizable buy also wholly alien in nature. Had R-Point stuck to that, instead of falling back onto the now unwelcome female ghost cliche, it would have been a great movie. Even with these missteps, though, it manages to be a good movie, if somewhat disappointing because it’s obvious how much better it almost was. If nothing else, it proves that the combination of war with supernatural horror makes for some striking, effective imagery.
Director-screenwriter Su-Chang Kong, who also wrote the thriller Tell Me Something, wasn’t terribly experienced when he penned this script, and that perhaps goes a long way to explain the failure of the film to avoid the ghostly girl cliche and do something more with the soldiers than make them cry and complain and whine about going home because they are scared. Man, the more I think about that, the more it irks me. Still, when his script is strong, it’s really strong, and for the most part, he keeps the horror oblique and never fully explained. At times, it seems like Choi, and then Jin, might know more than they are letting on. At no time is the exact nature of what is haunting, possessing, and killing them fully explained. This makes the horror much scarier. Attempts to lend some explanation through the appearance of the female ghost collapse, and R-Point would have been better off never offering any clear explanation at all.
As a director, Kong fares much better, even though this was his first film. Working with cinematographer Hyeong-jing Seok (Kilimanjaro), Kong creates a thoroughly eerie atmosphere without resorting to lots of CGI. He allows the camera to linger just as often as he employs fast editing to imply ghostly appearances. Kong is also successful at turning everything into something spooky looking, including the jungle, the decrepit mansion, an old cobweb-covered radio unit, and a crumbling temple choked by vines. He also keeps the film well-paced for the most part — though even solid direction and art design has a hard time interesting me in yet another scene of two guys getting scared while squatting over the latrine. For the most part, though, R-Point moves at a slow pace punctuated by moments of surprising wartime violence or chilling horror film imagery. It’s too bad that Kong the screenwriter lets down Kong the director from time to time.
There’s little point in analyzing the acting, as most of it is comprised of guys crying, falling down, and begging to go home. I mean, you certainly believe these guys are scared, but it gets annoying. It also makes it hard to tell who is who — which actually works to the film’s advantage when the soldiers have their revelation about the first soldier to die. The non-blubbering, non-hysterical acting is largely left up to Woo-seong Kam as Choi and Byung-ho Son as Jin. I’d never seen Kam in anything before, or since for that matter, and he has few films to his credit despite being quite good in his role here as a man attempting to hold onto his sanity and decipher the weirdness occurring around him. Byung-ho Son I’d seen once before, in 1999’s Yuryeong (aka Phantom Submarine). He’s also quite good here as the older, more experienced soldier trying to hold the force together while they all go to pieces and Choi becomes obsessed with figuring out what the hell is going on.
R-Point is a decent entry in the war-horror film, creating many incredibly effective scenes but ultimately proving to be a bit of a disappointment because it’s almost a great film, which is often worse than just being a bad film. This is one of those movies that just needed one more revision of the script to really make it something special. Still, if you can get over how great the film could have been, you can still enjoy how good it is. Not without noticeably flaws, many of which are large enough to make not liking the film perfectly understandable, R-Point still manages to be creepy as hell in many places and an interesting film to think about. It also seems to know when it’s doing something right, and when it’s doing something wrong. Less female ghost with long hair, more war-horror would have been a vast improvement. R-Point still succeeds at being scary, and at having a little more going on upstairs than the usual horror film — especially when it comes to transposing supernatural horror on top of real world war horror, and letting the decay and spookiness of one frequently stand in for the other. It’s just too bad that, like the soldiers in the film, it couldn’t prevent itself from taking those missteps it so obviously recognizes as such.
Shaan is an over-the-top Bollywood masala film that plays in very much the same vein as Don or The Great Gambler — which makes sense, since all three of them star Amitabh Bachchan. For me, they work as sort of a trilogy, even though none of the films is technically connected to the other in any official capacity. But they share so much, both in terms of pacing and overall atmosphere (and the fact that Amitabh’s character is named Vijay in all three films), that I like to think of them as some great, flared slack-clad, bow-tie sporting, kungfu-packed epic saga. Shaan is actually the least of the three films, but that by no means implies that it is anything less than absolutely sublime. Heck, as soon as the credits start rolling, projected as they are on the swaying rump of a sexy lass, you know you’re in for a real treat.
What is it, to be a man? This is the question, indeed, many of us ask ourselves. In this, our post-macho, post-feminist, post-metrosexual era, what then becomes the measure of a man? What is it that defines his life, gives him meaning, makes him a man? Indeed such a question is difficult to answer, at times perhaps even seemingly impossible. And so we enter an era of confusion, of aimlessness, until at last something emerges from the chaos to point the way, to illuminate us, to help us along on our journey and, at long last, make the answer as clear as the crystal blue waters of Cozumel. What is it, to be a man? Let Franco Nero tell you. No, no — let Franco Nero show you.
The first fifteen minutes of Enzo G. Castellari’s Shark Hunter play as follows. We meet the titular shark hunter, Franco Nero, looking like he just stumbled out of the jungle and fell into a puddle of crazed hippie biker, while perched on a rock overlooking the ocean. Suddenly a shark catches his eye, causing him to leap up, run down the beach while accompanied by the sounds of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis prog rock, and struggle to haul the thrashing beast to shore. He then retires to his open air beach bungalow to make love to his beautiful Mexican senorita, then goes to a bar where he beats the crap out of half a dozen thugs. Happy that Franco has whooped ass on the goon squad, a local takes him out for a bit of parasailing. I know, I know. You’re thinking to yourself that while hauling in a fishing line hooked to a man-eating shark is tough, and making love on the beach to a sexy gal is tough, and beating up half a dozen hired bruisers is tough, there’s not much that’s tough about parasailing. That’s what sunburned fat Americans do when they visit resorts, right? What’s so tough about that? Well, nothing. But while Franco does admittedly get a kick out of the parasailing, what makes this tough parasailing is that, while in mid-air, he spies a shark in the water below, let’s out a primal whoop of excitement, cuts himself loose from the parachute harness, plunges into the water, and immediately starts punching the shark in the face.
Although everything about the movie, from the title to Franco Nero’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for punching sharks in the face, would lead you to believe that this is going to be another in the brief but highly enjoyable line of Italian Jaws rip-offs along the lines of director Castellari’s own L’Ultimo Squalo, a film that so closely aped (or sharked) Jaws and Jaws 2 that an injunction was issued against it, spoiling big plans to unleash it in American movie theaters and, in fact, even going to far as to ensure that it would never see the light of day even on home video. However, after the insane opening and Franco Nero’s lesson on how to be a real man, Shark Hunter settles down into being a rip-off not of Jaws, but of another American film, 1977’s The Deep starring Nick Nolte and Jaqueline “Miss Goodthighs” Bisset as scuba divers who stumble across a fortune in sunken drugs. That film was remade in 2005 as Into the Blue, starring Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. That movie was completely idiotic, but I enjoyed it if for no other reason than it had cool scuba scenes and lots of shots of Paul Walker and Jessica Alba being scantily clad. Plus, it’s not like doing a dumb remake of a movie that was pretty dumb to begin with was any great crime against cinematic art. Of course, I also like The Deep, and it used to scare the crap out of me as a kid.
You see, I come from a long line of scuba divers, and by “long line” I mean my dad and, later, my sister. But I grew up around diving and diving equipment, and as a kid I used to get into my old man’s trunk full of equipment and get gussies up in the way-too-large for me wetsuit and flippers, mask, and dive knife, which I referred to more dramatically as the shark knife. I’d then stomp around the basement, playing Thunderball and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and trying to throw the knife into the bare 2x4s of the unfinished walls. When I got to watch The Deep on our brand new Betamax video machine, it enthralled and terrified me. I loved all the scuba stuff, and even at a young age I know there was something special about Jaqueline Bisset in a bikini. But the one thing anyone remembers about that movie is the moray eels. My dad used to tell me outrageous tales about moray eels, and how the way their teeth curved in meant that once they bit you, it was impossible to remove them. You just had to pull out your knife and amputate your arm. The Deep certainly backed those stories up, and for years, the sight of sharks and barracuda did little to phase me, but I was always wary of eels. Even after I learned that moray eels are basically docile so long as you don’t go shoving your arm into their hidey holes, I still get antsy when I turn around underwater and see one of them floating there, staring at me inquisitively with that horrible, evil grin they all have.
Shark Hunter, however, is better than either The Deep or Into the Blue, and Franco Nero looks less like Nick Nolte in The Deep and more like Nick Nolte in his more recent mug shot. But the gist of Shark Hunter is that Nero’s character, Mike di Donato, gets pressured by a local gangster into helping salvage a downed plane full of loot. Franco and his parasailing buddy try to figure out a way to get the gangsters off their back and outsmart them. Despite the expectation generated from a title like Shark Hunter, there isn’t much shark action in this film other than the beginning and the very end. Most of the action revolves around Franco Nero in his ratty shirt and bell-bottom dungarees getting into fights on the beach, only to have his beloved Juanita (Patricia Rivera) threatened by the gangsters. And there’s a lot of scuba diving, sometimes with sharks present, which is a touchy subject for a lot of people.
Scuba scenes usually get a bum rap in movies for being somewhat slow moving and boring. They do happen underwater, after all. I actually think a lot of scuba diving scenes are kind of keen, owing to my enjoyment of scuba diving, and depending on how they are filmed. Thunderball, for example, has pretty thrilling scuba scenes. All those Jacques Cousteau documentaries have cool scuba scenes. The Incredible Petrified World does not succeed as well with its many scuba scenes of guys sort of doing nothing for like ten minutes at a time. Anyway, point is that scuba scenes don’t have to boring, even if they frequently are. Shark Hunter has pretty good scuba scenes, though one wonders why Nero spends so much time diving in his blue jeans when he later reveals he owns perfectly good shorts and a wetsuit. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim in blue jeans, but it’s not pleasant. The scuba scenes are also aided by the fact that Castellari was fond of slow motion action scenes anyway, so you hardly even notice the diving is slow. At least he didn’t film them in slow motion.
Castellari and Nero worked together several times before most notably on the superb 1971 poliziotteschi thriller High Crime. Among the many, many directors who made a living in the murky waters of Italian exploitation films, Castellari was one of the best when he was on his game. Like Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Margheriti, Castellari managed to direct some really great action films. He also managed to direct some really awful ones. Castellari, however, directed fewer truly awful films than did Lenzi and Margheriti, possibly because Castellari managed to avoid having to make crappy cannibal movies. Where as other directors skipped from one genre to the next based on whatever trend was at the forefront of exploitation cinema that week, Castellari stayed pretty well grounded in action films. He avoided horror almost entirely. Even when he ventured into the realm of other genres — most notably a few post-apocalypse Road Warrior rip-offs in the 1980s — he treated them more or less like action films. The one time he worked almost completely outside the realm of what he was familiar with was 1989’s Sinbad of the Seven Seas, and we can see how that worked out for him. By the 1980s, there was no doubt Castellari knew his stuff, even if he wasn’t exactly what you might call a visionary artist. He did have his style though, and he seems interested in Shark Hunter, which he keeps moving along nicely and crammed full of action both above and below the ocean surface.
If there’s anything to criticize in Castellari’s direction, it’s the choice to use footage of real sharks being caught and killed. This only happens once or twice, and I suppose scenes of shark fishing are more defensible than other scenes of real animal cruelty that pop up in Italian exploitation films, but it’s something to warn people about. I understand why they used real footage, though I don’t necessarily agree with the decision. But then, I used togo fishing, and lord knows we used to take pictures of ourselves with our fish, so I guess that’s why I can’t see to getting too worked up about the scenes of a hooked shark in this movie, as opposed to the far more frequent and far more abusive animal killing that goes on in those cannibal films.
Franco Nero is in good form here, looking completely deranged and badly in need of a shower. You’d think a dude who constantly went swimming and shark punching in the clear waters of Cozumel, Mexico, wouldn’t have so much soot and crap smeared all over his face, but then you’d also expect that a guy with a girlfriend that pretty would have at least two pairs of clothes. But the only thing he has is his outfit, and then the same outfit with a hat and sunglasses. Nero throws himself headlong into the role though, lending it gravity and a great intensity, and the look is pretty spectacular. Nero made a career out of playing bad-asses, and while he’s not as bad-ass here as he was in some of his old cop films, he still punches sharks in the face and jumps out of parachutes to wrestle them. Eventually, the movie gets around to explaining why sharks piss him off so much, but it’s pretty uneventful and predictable. He goes on to have family members killed in a traffic accident, but he doesn’t run around Mexico punching cars and trying to drag them back to his bungalow. And given how much the guy hates sharks, and how he seems to spend all day sitting around just waiting for a change to sock one in the jaw, you have to wonder they come to his aid all Aquaman-style during the underwater finale. I guess they respect his predatory, killer instinct and knotty tangle of blond locks.
Helping the movie be that much cooler is the music by Italian exploitation film staples Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis. Blending rock, prog, and film orchestration, G&M, who also worked under collective name Oliver Onions for some reason, turn in a great score that perfectly matches the action and fires up the blood. Pairing all that with nice location work in Cozumel — my dad’s favorite dive spot, incidentally — makes for an all-around thrilling action film that is far different than the Jaws inspired title would otherwise lead you to believe.