Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
Though the first Female Prisoner Scorpion (or Joshuu Sasori) film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was Ito’s debut as a director, he had already served an apprenticeship in trangressive genre filmmaking as a frequent assistant director to Teruo Ishii during his early years at Toei Studio. Ishii, who directed the popular Abashiri Prison films, is probably best known outside of Japan for controversial mindbenders such as Horrors of Malformed Men and the Joy of Torture series, as well as for the Super Giant serials that were repackaged for US television as the Starman films (and which were, despite being aimed squarely at the kids, some of the most disconcertingly dark examples of Japanese superheroism committed to film). It’s hard not to assume that some of Ishii’s hallucinatory sense of invention rubbed off on Ito, especially given the aversion to the ordinary that’s apparent in his filmmaking style.
The source material for the Scorpion films was the popular manga series Sasori, which was created by artist Tooru Shinohara and began its run in Japan’s monthly Big Comics magazine in 1970. This inspiration explains a lot of Ito’s more striking visual constructions, which were clearly an attempt to emulate the violent expressiveness of manga’s graphic style. While he was successful in this regard, Ito would have a tougher time preserving Shinohara’s conception of his heroine in translating her to the screen. As presented in the manga, Sasori was a foul-mouthed street brawler, an earthy characterization that lead to some objections on the part of the star who was assigned to play her — a star who clearly had very definite ideas about how she did and did not want to be represented on screen.
That star, of course, was Meiko Kaji, who has gone on to achieve cult icon status worldwide due to her role in Toho’s Lady Snowblood films, as well as for her turn as Scorpion. Kaji had recently come over to Toei from Nikkatsu, fleeing her former studio when it made the turn from action movies to the almost exclusive production of kinky soft-core films. Before that time, she had attained stardom with her lead role in Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of films, which were somewhat milder early forays into the Pinky Violence genre. Now being groomed as an action star at Toei, Kaji was likely a natural choice for the role of Sasori. However, the actress didn’t take kindly to the comic character’s expletive-spouting demeanor, which resulted in Ito taking Sasori’s screen incarnation in a markedly different direction.
As resonant as it is, Shunya Ito’s style is anything but subtle, and the director wasn’t averse to presenting his characters as boldly drawn archetypes. As such, Sasori was reimagined as something far more elemental than in her manga depiction, as a wraith-like embodiment of feminine rage. The Scorpion films are essentially Pinky Violence movies, after all, and are even more explicit and mantra-like than other films in that genre in presenting the state of balance between the sexes as being a literal war, with men as an oppressive force representing all of society’s ills. As the series’ theme song — a mournful enka ballad sung by Kaji herself — makes abundantly clear, all that women can expect from these men is betrayal — or, as Kaji’s character says at one point, “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”.
Female Prisoner #701 even goes on to extend culpability for that betrayal to the nation itself. Ironically framed images of the Japanese flag abound. And, early in the film, when Matsu — aka Scorpion — loses her virginity to the man who will ultimately sell her out, we’re shown a red spot of blood on a white sheet that spreads in mimicry of the flag’s design. (I’ve got to say that, in their desperate attempts to lure audience members of both sexes with seemingly very opposite types of catharsis, the makers of Pinky Violence movies really came up with a unique combination, seemingly drawing in part from the Hollywood “Women’s Pictures” of the forties: Think Mildred Pierce with lots of tits and gore.)
So clearly Matsu has a lot to be angry about. And, indeed, her rage goes so deep that it seems to render her almost superhuman, burning within her like an empowering nuclear core. She is capable of dying, you imagine, but is just too pissed off to ever let it happen. Given that this is the character’s one essential trait, Kaji’s portrayal of her basically boils down to one facial expression. Which is not meant in the least as a criticism of Kaji’s performance — because, you see, it’s a really good facial expression. In fact, during those moments in Female Prisoner #701 when Kaji is not making that expression, the audience is left in a tense holding pattern, waiting for that expression to make its appearance. Because, when it does, it means that some deserving soul is about to do some serious suffering.
While not conventional on its own merits, Female Prisoner #701 is definitely the most conventional of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed. This is partly because it’s saddled with the responsibility of telling its protagonist’s back-story, a seeming necessity that, once you’ve seen the other films, doesn’t end up seeming all that necessary at all. As portrayed by Kaji, Matsu is such a force of nature that it doesn’t really matter why she became who she is. She just is. Still, that this element is included in Female Prisoner #701 certainly doesn’t take away from the film. And being that it shows our heroine’s transformation from a naive and vulnerable young woman into the dagger-eyed vengeance engine that she becomes, it affords Kaji the opportunity to show a bit more range, as well as say a few more scattered lines of dialog than she does in the subsequent films, in which she’s practically mute.
Providing Matsu with a story of how she came to be in prison — one that, while not presenting her as innocent, clearly shows her as a victim, and hence worthy of audience sympathy — is also one of the aspects that makes Female Prisoner #701 hew more closely than the other films to the conventions of the typical WIP film. Another is that it is the only of the original Scorpion films whose action — beyond flashbacks — takes place almost entirely within the prison’s walls. The two succeeding films would increasingly stretch their creative and locational legs, gradually doing away with their dependence on the prison setting as they set out to explore more and more bizarre thematic territory (culminating in Ito’s farewell to the series, the sublime, hauntingly beautiful Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, which tops the previous two both in terms of depravity and genuine emotional impact).
Female Prisoner #701 begins with an escape attempt by Matsu and her partner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), which is foiled when Yuki is injured and Matsu refuses to leave her side. (Matsu’s relationship to Yuki is never spelled out, but the younger prisoner is the only other character in the movie toward whom Matsu shows any amount of tenderness or concern.) It’s clear that this escape is not the first act of defiance on Matsu’s part, and it further strengthens the resolve of the dictatorial warden (Fumio Watanabe) to break her will once and for all — a project he pursues variably on his own or by proxy through the efforts of his cretinous guards and the cackling group of hags who have been granted trustee privileges by him. Resolve is something that Matsu is no stranger to, of course, and she matches the warden’s every attempt at suppression, not only with increasing deployments of THE LOOK, but also with increasingly creative acts of payback against his minions. It’s a cycle of perpetually regenerating enmity between Matsu and the warden that we will see continue into the next film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.
In the aftermath of the scuttled breakout, as Matsu lies hog-tied in a dungeon-like solitary cell, we’re given a dream-like flashback of the events that lead to her ending up in the nick. It seems that on the outside Matsu fell hard for a narcotics cop named Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) — so hard, in fact, that when Sugimi asked her to take part in an undercover sting operation he was involved in, she readily agreed. It is only after we’ve seen Matsu’s cover blown, and her viciously raped by the members of the gang she’s infiltrated, that we find that Sugimi is actually working in league with a rival Yakuza gang, and is about as crooked as they come. His true nature revealed, the evilly chuckling Sugimi callously tosses a few crumpled bills in the ravaged girl’s direction and summarily casts her aside. As might be expected, this occasions the first appearance of THE LOOK, and, not soon thereafter, Matsu is accosting Sugimi in a freaky, topless, street corner knife attack. This attack, sadly, is nowhere near as effective as it is picturesque, and soon our scorned heroine is in custody.
Now I realize that the above related plot details are women’s prison picture rote to the point of being generic. But you have to keep in mind that, as they are playing out, director Ito deploys all the tools available in his visual arsenal to keep the viewer as disoriented as possible. The camera pivots restlessly so that you can never know, when a person enters a room, whether he or she will appear to be walking on the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Self-conscious use of live theater-style movable sets is made to shift background locations as the foreground action remains the same. Bold comic book-style visual signifiers are used to express intense emotion, as when Matsu’s hair arranges itself into the shape of flames as she lies atop a red back-lit glass floor. There’s a haunting, horror movie feel to many of these visuals, made most explicit in a scene where a fellow inmate who is attacking Matsu transforms into a leering kabuki demon — at which point the lighting abruptly switches from naturalistic to that patented Mario Bava green, and the remainder of the scene plays out as a surreal, slow motion nightmare. All of this serves to underscore the fact that the ritualistic predictability of the movie’s plot is not beside the point, but rather the point itself, since Ito is far more interested in presenting archetypal conflicts than he is in exploring the peculiarities of character, or presenting us with novel situations.
The aforementioned kabuki demon attack has the unfortunate side effect for the warden of him ending up with a shard of glass embedded in his eye socket, an injury which understandably further stokes his desire to crush Matsu’s spirit. (I won’t get all Women’s Studies and touch upon the whole “male gaze” thing here, but the wound is definitely significant, foreshadowed as it is by a shot earlier in the film in which the image of Matsu is framed within the watching eye of one of the guards.) This leads to him really turning the screws, subjecting not just Matsu to all kinds of humiliations and forced labor, but the other prisoners, as well, in the hope that they will turn against Matsu as a result. Meanwhile, Sugimi and his boss begin to worry that Matsu will tell the authorities what she knows about Sugimi’s crooked dealings, and decide to have her eliminated. Of course, what Sugimi doesn’t realize is that Matsu’s overwhelming desire to carve him up like a Christmas turkey is pretty much the only thing that is keeping her going, and she would lose all hope of making that dream a reality if he were to be locked safely away in prison. On the contrary, the corrupt cop is so deluded by arrogance and self-regard that he entertains the notion that Matsu still has feelings for him. And so, just to be on the safe side, he recruits Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama), a sociopathic fellow inmate of Matsu’s, to do his dirty work.
Eventually the warden’s quest to get under the scorpion’s shell leads him to send a young female guard into Matsu’s cell posing as an inmate. The hyper-vigilant Matsu is quickly clued in by her new roommate’s inquisitiveness, however, and, being a true Pinky Violence heroine, proves that she is not above using her body to turn the tables. Apparently those bottomless reserves of white hot rage of hers provide Matsu not only with the power to endure all manner of physical hardships, but superhuman lovemaking skills as well. Because, after only a few moments of Matsu’s ministrations, the guard, Kitoh, is reduced to being little more than a pleading love slave. Later, when the warden relieves the young rookie of her spying duties, she has a melt-down that is one of the film’s most hilariously over-the-top moments, hysterically begging her superiors to send her back into the cell with Matsu to continue her mission. As depicted by Ito, Matsu’s seduction of Kitoh provides an example of another distinction between the director and his aforementioned fellow in artsy grindhouse excess, Norifumi Suzuki. While Suzuki wasn’t shy about piling on scenes of nudity and soft-core sex, he frequently neglected to make those scenes the least bit erotic, perhaps because he was more preoccupied with being shocking than arousing. (Some moments in Convent of the Holy Beast are exceptions to this… Either that, or I just have a thing for nuns.) Shunya, on the other hand, shows here that he is capable of delivering an erotic scene that packs some serious heat.
By the way, the actress playing Kitoh is Yumiko Katayama, who might be recognizable to those of you who grew up with Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot as the lone female member of that Tokusatsu series’ heroic Unicorn organization. Not too long after that, Katayama changed her focus a bit by becoming the Pinky Violence genre’s go-to girl for extensive nudity. I’d like to think that this change in direction was the result of generosity, rather than desperation, on her part. But, whatever the case, I have to say that it escapes me as to why she never made it beyond playing supporting roles in these films, because she is not only striking, but possessed of an intense presence, and has delivered solid and memorable performances in every film I’ve seen her in — the final Delinquent Girl Boss film, in particular.
Female Prisoner #701, beneath it’s hallucinatory exterior, pretty much follows the narrative rules of the prison picture through to its conclusion, which means that the warden’s draconian policies ultimately lead to a prison revolt — though one played out on a wildly expressionistic set complete with a painted backdrop of a sky consumed by a blazing red vortex. The prisoners take several guards — who are subsequently gang raped — hostage and hold up in one of the prison’s supply warehouses, where the hired killer Katagiri sets about trying to turn her keyed-up fellow inmates against Matsu.
This leads to Matsu being hung in chains from the rafters and mercilessly beaten, a predicament which she endures with predictably Christ-like stoicism. Finally, a raid by the guards and a fire in the warehouse provide the cover Matsu needs to escape, in turn giving her the opportunity to hit the streets of Tokyo and prove the deservedness of her nickname. It is in these final scenes where Meiko Kaji really puts the weight of action behind THE LOOK, methodically dealing out retribution to Sugimi and his gang like a silent angel of vengeance — albeit a particularly pimped-out angel of vengeance in a wide-brimmed hat and dramatic ankle-length coat.
Female Prisoner #701 is a thrilling piece of exploitation cinema, as well as a challenging work of visual artistry. But, as great as it is, it merely set the stage for what was to come. With its follow-up film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, director Ito would give much freer reign to his experimental tendencies, and the result would haunt and intoxicate in equal measure.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933′s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
The Pinky Violence films of Norifumi Suzuki represent one extreme of the tendency of Japanese exploitation films of the seventies to combine a very high level of craftsmanship with an unflinching preoccupation with human behavior at its most sleazy and mysteriously perverse. I’ve found some of his films very difficult to get through, while others — such as Convent of the Holy Beast and the film I’m discussing here, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom — I was able to ride out on a seductive wave of Norifumi’s combined visual imagination and sheer audacity. However, unlike Shunya Ito, whose distinctive vision lifted the Female Prisoner Scorpion films damn near the level of art, Norifumi produced trash that, while littered with artistic touches and surprising moments of beauty, never really quite rose above the level of trash. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike Ito, he had a habit of punctuating the episodes of exaggerated sexual violence that characterize much of his work with moments of direly unfunny juvenile comedy, a mixture that in most cases added up to one pretty noxious cocktail.
Further making Norifumi’s films a tough proposition is the fact that — unlike tamer examples of the Pinky Violence genre, such as those in the Delinquent Girl Boss series — he never gives us a relative innocent to root for amongst the hard cases that populate the amoral universe he creates. His heroines have typically been reduced by their surroundings to being little more than cold-eyed engines of vengeance, and we side with them only because they are the least odious of the options we’re given to choose from. Furthermore, because the society they inhabit is one that has so clearly gone completely off the rails, we can’t realistically root for them to triumph over it, but rather to simply tear the whole fucking thing down once they’ve come out the other side.
Still, I have to admit that I get a kick out of some of Suzuki’s films — Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom in particular — for how he so spiritedly endeavors to offend seemingly every conventional notion of decency that he can get within his sights. His masters at Toei Studio, seeking to boost their audience by courting controversy, encouraged him to do this, of course — and judging from the results, that encouragement was akin to coaxing a chronic binge eater toward a free buffet. While I’m pretty sure that his motivations didn’t go beyond the commercial, Suzuki, in the course of exercising his aesthetic scorched-earth policy, seems to have tapped into the subversive spirit of certain underground filmmakers of his era, delivering an all-inclusive “fuck you” to society and its combined pieties and hypocrisies with the gleeful enthusiasm of a confirmed outsider. In fact, if its female cast were to be replaced with a troupe of drag queens, Lynch Law Classroom would be in many ways indistinguishable from one of John Waters’ early movies.
But the stars of Lynch Law Classroom are, of course, not drag queens, but real women, a fact which the film offers ample proof of by having their clothing rent from their bodies as often as possible. In the case of leads Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, they are so womanly, in fact, that, despite both actresses putatively being in their early twenties at the time, its difficult to buy them as highschoolers. However, this is not only pretty much par-for-the-course for this type of film, but also one of the least credibility-challenging aspects of the insane alternate reality that it presents, and in the end is only one of the things that contributes to the movie coming off as some kind of surreal allegory.
The Terrifying Girls’ High School series, which was comprised of four films in total, came into being as sort of a companion to Toei’s popular Girl Boss — or Sukeban — series, the first four of which were directed by Suzuki. Running from 1971 to 1974 — and spanning six entries in total — the Girl Boss movies each starred one or both of the studio’s top two ass-kicking, clothes-shedding female stars, the aforementioned Ike and Sugimoto. Though Ike was the bigger star of the two, Sugimoto was a close enough second to keep Ike on her toes, and the two, when sharing the screen, were usually cast on equal terms, often as leaders of rival girl gangs. Being that they were so identified with the Girl Boss films, it was only good business to cast them as the leads when Suzuki set out to direct the first Terrifying Girls’ High School film, Women’s Violent Classroom, in 1972. Sugimoto would only stay with the series as long as Suzuki, however, and both she and the director would leave after the second entry, making Lynch Law Classroom their farewell to the franchise. (I know next to nothing about the remaining two films in the series, but the title of the third entry, Delinquent Convulsion Group, is pretty hard not to be tempted by.)
Lynch Law Classroom lives up to any possible interpretation of its title by setting its action in a girls’ reform school that is not only terrifying as advertised, but also populated by girls who themselves are mostly terrifying. That this institution is named The School of Hope for Girls is just one of its many distinctly Orwellian attributes, seeing as its dungeon-like jail is referred to as the “Introspection Room” and its doddering, clueless administrator, Principal Nakata, natters on about turning wayward girls into “good wives and wise mothers” while all manner of depravity and vice plays out under his nose. Those who truly set the tone at the school are its chairman, Sato (Nobuo Kaneko), a corrupt politician with ties to the Yakuza and seemingly the entire city bureaucracy in his pocket — and who treats the student body as his personal harem — and the cravenly ambitious vice principal Ishihara (Kenji Imai), who operates the school as a front for Sato’s various unseemly dealings while scheming to further his own designs on power. Acting as Ishihara’s personal police force within the school is the Disciplinary Committee, a sort of schoolgirl Gestapo lead by the sadistic Yoko, who keep their fellow students in line by means of lots of diabolically imaginative — and mostly genital-based — torture, while also assisting Ishirara in his criminal activities outside the school walls. The members are compensated by Ishihara with funds from a bogus scholarship.
This film is indeed strong medicine, but the faint-hearted viewer can at least be assured in the knowledge that he won’t be lulled into a false sense of security before it delivers its worst. On the contrary, you will know in no uncertain terms within the first thirty seconds of Lynch Law Classroom whether it’s something you’re going to be able to hang with, and can then plan your next ninety minutes accordingly. Greeting us with the distorted sound of a woman screaming in agony and fear — accompanied by the familiar Toei logo — the film quickly proceeds to a shot of a bound woman’s blouse being torn open, and then of a scalpel being drawn across the exposed breast beneath. This is the handiwork of the Disciplinary Committee — kitted out in school uniforms uniquely accessorized with fascistic armbands and matching bright red surgical masks — who have decided to teach their latest charge a lesson by forcing her to watch as her blood is slowly drained into a series of beakers in the school’s science-lab-cum-torture-chamber. Before this can be completely accomplished, however, the terrified captive manages to make a break for it, ending up on the school roof, where, outnumbered by the evil Yoko and her fellow D.C. members, she is forced over the edge and plummets to her death. Making this sudden visual assault just that much more jarring is composer Masao Yagi’s nerve-jangling musical accompaniment, which is made up of ominous analog synth washes perforated by hysterical stabs of abstract guitar and saxophone.
We will soon learn that this latest victim of the Disciplinary Committee was a student by the name of Michiyo Akiyama, who, in her life on the outside, was lieutenant to a notorious Yokohama girl gang leader known — thanks to her ever-present crucifix necklace — as Noriko the Cross — or, more poetically “The Boss With the Cross”. And it’s not long before Noriko (Sugimoto) — either by coincidence or design — arrives at the school herself, bringing along with her two other hard cases, Kyoko Kubo (Seiko Saburi) and the inexplicably cowgirl-attired Remi “The Razor” Kitano (Misuzu Ota). Noriko is soon made aware of Michiyo’s fate by Tomoko, an over-achieving young innocent whose angelic demeanor (a) makes it something of a mystery as to how exactly she ended up at the School of Hope in the first place and (b) in the shark infested waters of Lynch Law Classroom, has the virtual effect of painting a gigantic, day-glo target on her forehead (which doesn’t make her eventual fate, however predictable, any less disheartening when it comes).
Noriko vows to avenge Michiyo’s death, shrewdly perceiving that it’s not just the girls of the Disciplinary Committee, but the whole school (and by extension — given that the film so obviously presents the school as merely an organ of the corrupt society it serves — the whole world) that is her enemy. Remi and Kyoko pledge to help her bring the school down, and are joined in doing so by two other inmates, Junko “The Jacker” and Nobue “The Pipe Basher”, both of whom are former gang members impressed by Noriko’s street credentials. Eventually the group also comes to benefit from the assistance of Wakabayashi (Tsunehiko Watase), an unscrupulous tabloid journalist who hopes to in turn use the girls in a blackmail scheme against Sato and the various officials who make up his power base.
It’s fitting that Wakabayashi, the only man to side with Noriko and her crew, would do so out of purely mercenary interests. Lynch Law Classroom is a Pinky Violence film, after all, and as such presents a world whose male population is made up exclusively of cartoonish grotesques who are as oafish as they are predatory (in one scene, for instance, Principal Nakata is shown literally drooling). Less “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, these films’ portrayal of the disparate spheres in which the sexes travel is more like “Men are from the Hell, Women are Just Visiting… and Will be Leaving as Soon as They Can Work Out How”. In the meantime, while negotiating this hostile terrain, the only way that these women can survive is by hewing close to their own. In this light, the women of the Disciplinary Committee are as despicable for being traitors to their gender as they are for their murderous acts (a fact that’s placed in unflattering relief when, as we’ll later see, other of the film’s female rivals initiate a temporary laying down of swords to deal with the threat at hand). Other movies in the genre mitigate this message somewhat by including at least one marginally sympathetic male character, who is usually a love interest for one of the female leads. But Lynch Law Classroom is the rare exception that doesn’t even toss us guys — nonetheless drooling oafishly at home over all of the flesh and smut that’s being proffered — that thoroughly gnawed-over bone. The result is that the most flattering reflection of ourselves that we have to gaze upon is the oily, cash-driven manipulator Wakabayashi.
Given this milieu, it’s not surprising that the women of Lynch Law Classroom view sex as little more than a tool of brute exchange. Correspondingly, most of Noriko and her crew’s master plan to bring about the school’s downfall involves them plying their bodies like so much insensate meat. The first such gambit involves the bisexual Kyoko engaging in a furtive bathroom stall seduction of Toshie, a member of the Committee who, after a little below-the-belt coaxing, freely confesses to the group’s involvement in Michiyo’s death. This indiscretion leads to Toshie being on the receiving end of one of the Committee’s more creative acts of pelvic retribution, involving her doing lots of push-ups with a light bulb housed in her nethers. This is followed by an episode in which the girls lure old Principal Nakata to a no-tell motel and basically gang rape him. His resistance is short-lived, of course, and soon his cries of joy at winning the jailbait jackpot are being broadcast over the school P.A. system with predictably career-ending results.
The girls’ final act of strategic harlotry involves them tricking a group of Sato’s influential supporters into participating in an “orgy” while Wakabayashi secretly photographs them for blackmail purposes. This is an inexplicably creepy scene, shot under an eerie red light and depicting the girls, all wearing masks to hide their identities, lying as silent and motionless as corpses as the goonish officials maul and grope them to their hearts’ content. Filmed with the same voyeuristic eye for pervy detail as the previously described erotic episodes, this was just one of the sex scenes in Lynch Law Classroom that left me wondering exactly who was meant to be titillated by it. (Another was the one in which a profusely sweating Nobuo Kaneko gives a matronly middle-aged teacher a thorough going over with a vibrator.) These films are, after all, meant to function as soft-core sex films to some extent, but Suzuki, in signature fashion, seems to have abandoned that mandate in favor of simply trying to freak his audience out.
Reiko Ike finally makes her entrance at Lynch Law Classroom‘s midway point, playing Mako, a rival gang leader who shows up at the school to settle an old score with Noriko. (An interesting aspect of The School of Hope is that, despite it being a reform school, both students and outsiders are apparently free to come and go as they please.. or at least whenever the plot requires it.) Noriko pleads with Mako to set aside her beef until after Noriko has settled her own score with the school, and Mako agrees, though not before forcing Noriko to jump over a bunch of oil barrels on a motorcycle — a scene that will no doubt hold a special place in the hearts of audience members with a fetish for schoolgirl stunt cyclists. Ike doesn’t really end up having a whole lot to do in the film, and seems to be gracing Lynch Law Classroom with her presence mainly for her marquee value. Still, she’s a welcome presence, injecting the film with a bit of flashy style thanks to her gold lame motorcycle jacket and pleather pants ensemble, as well as providing a mutually complimentary contrast with Sugimoto. The pair work well together, Ike being more of a traditional sexpot, and Sugimoto, lean and intense, cutting a figure more akin to that of fellow Toei action heroine Meiko Kaji.
From this point out, both the action and the depravity in Lynch Law Classroom kicks into high gear, with Noriko and her gang’s clashes with their enemies escalating toward the final showdown. With all of the Christian iconography that’s getting hurled around — not to mention the Pinky Violence genre’s typically literal approach to feminine martyrdom — it can’t come as too much of a shock when the girls of the Disciplinary Committee finally manage to get Noriko trussed-up in a crucifixion pose with electrodes jiggered to her tender bits. Fortunately, Mako barges in to save the day before too much of a crack can be put in Noriko’s stoic exterior. Meanwhile, the powers that be at The School of Hope prepare for the institution’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, and Chairman Sato’s first order of business, upon arriving in town, is to select a virgin to defile from among the student population. We know, with a queasy sense of inevitability, that when he points into the yearbook and says “that one” he’s singling out the trusting young innocent Tomoko.
Given all of the callous and exploitative sexual shenanigans that have preceded it, it’s somewhat surprising when Suzuki ends up playing the rape of Tomoko for all its tragic weight. Though neither graphic or prurient in its presentation, it’s an excruciating scene to watch, and Suzuki — who has spent a good piece of the preceding running time training the camera on his actresses’ crotches — suddenly transforms himself into an outraged moralist, effectively shouting at the audience “My god, look what is happening to this child!” Amazingly, it’s an abrupt tonal shift that works, and we’re startled to learn that, all this time — and despite all appearances — Lynch Law Classroom actually had a soul and a conscience. And it was Tomoko. Which of course means, given the film’s worldview, that Tomoko is not long for this life. Suzuki handles Tomoko’s subsequent suicide with the same solemnity and funereal sense of visual poetry as he did her defilement, closing the episode with a visceral emotional punch and setting the stage for the unhinged catharsis that is to follow.
That Lynch Law Classroom ends with a nihilistic orgy of violence pretty much goes without saying. Given all that has lead up to it, it really couldn’t be any other way. Still, that doesn’t make the sight of hundreds of screaming schoolgirls frantically smashing the School of Hope to pieces with bats and throwing rocks at cowering riot police from behind makeshift barricades any less exhilarating. It’s the hard-earned, protracted howl of rage that the film has been implicitly promising us all along, and Suzuki doesn’t shortchange us in the least. In fact, he even throws in a shot of a burning Japanese flag for good measure. Sure, no solutions to society’s ills are offered, but for anyone who has ever, in a weak moment, seen the world as this movie presents it — as a place in which anything innocent or pure exists only to be shit upon — it definitely hits a sweet spot.
There’s no escaping the fact that Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom is one nasty little beast, and I have never been more serious in saying that a film is not for everyone than I am in this case. There is, however, the possibility that some viewers might even get a secret thrill out of hating it, and decrying it for all of the many things it contains that are vile and offensive. Me, I like it. Sure, it has a sleaziness that prevents it from completely rising above its tawdry skinflick roots, but it also has a genuinely feral quality that goes way beyond the bounds of typical exploitation fare. And the intermittent flashes of beauty that it contains only serve to further spotlight that convulsive wildness. The movie has real teeth, and it makes me glad that, for all the antisocial madmen out there who have devoted their energies to activities that have perhaps left this world a worse place than they found it, others, like Norifumi Suzuki, have simply picked up cameras and committed their visions of it to film, as seriously fucked up as those visions may be.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: Japan | Starring: Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, Seiko Saburi, Misuzu Ota, Rie Saotome, Tsunehiko Watase, Yuuko Mizusawa, Yukiko Asano, Ryoko Ema, Emi Jo, Rena Ichinose, Rika Sudo, Takako Yamakawa, Kaya Hodumi, Nobuo Kaneko, Kenji Imai, Nobuo Kaneko | Writer: Tatsuhiko Kamoi | Director: Norifumi Suzuki | Cinematographer: Jubei Suzuki | Music: Masao Yagi | Producer: Kanji Amao
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt
When The Land That Time Forgot ended, it left hero Doug McClure and heroine Susan Penhaligon stranded in the tropic prehistoric lost world of Caprona in Antarctica, fated to wander the strange world of dinosaurs and cavemen while wearing big-ass furs and mukluks. Would rescue ever come? Would their hopeless message in a bottle thrown into the tumultuous seas at the end of the earth ever be found. If so, would it be believed? Well, we know from the first film that the account of the strange adventure to Caprona was found (though how the account, written by one man, could include detailed descriptions of things that happened while he was not around, is a question best left not asked in a movie about a u-boat crew fighting dinosaurs). Two years later, the answer to whether or not anyone would believe it was also answered. Unfortunately, the answer came in the form of The People That Time Forgot, a phenomenally boring follow-up that reduces Doug McClure’s role to little more than a cameo, kills off Susan Penhaligon in between the two movies, and seems to think that what people really wanted from a sequel to The Land That Time Forgot was fewer dinosaur fights and caveman rumbles, and more scenes of people walking across gravel-strewn landscapes.
The inaction begins with Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne, son of John), airplane pilot and friend of Bowen Tyler (McClure, remember — his character did have a name), preparing to mount a rescue mission after having received word of the message-in-a-bottle account of the events from the last film. McBride encounters relatively little skepticism either from the scientific community, the Navy, or the press. It seems accounts of Caprona have popped up from time to time in the past, and this is their best chance, using the navigation information Bowen recorded from their journey on the German submarine, to pinpoint the exact location of the mysterious land and, if possible, rescue Lisa and Bowen. But unlike the ill-fated experiences of the Germans and Brits who wound up there by accident, McBride is determined to mount a properly provisioned rescue mission, employing the latest cold weather ships, radio equipment, and an airplane. Accompanying him, besides assorted stoic British sailors, are his trusty sidekick mechanic, a biologist, and Charly Cunningham (Sarah Douglas), a reporter for the London Times whose inclusion in the expedition was one of the provisions of the newspaper financing the mission.
Things start off well, both for the film and the expedition. The ship gets McBride close enough to use the plane, and after successfully navigating through the high mountains, the pilot and his crew soon find themselves on the unmistakable outskirts of Caprona. The weather turns warmer, there are a few more trees (though nothing like the lush primordial forests in the last movie), and they are attacked by a stiff, fake-looking pterodactyl. Truly we are home. The battle forces the plane to make an emergency landing, and while the mechanic repairs the damaged rudder and makes “comical” comments, McBride and Charly set out on foot in a basically random direction in hopes of finding Bowen and Sarah. They encounter a dinosaur here and there, but for the most part, their trek is exceedingly dull.
I can’t really put my finger on why, even when there are dinosaurs on screen, it seems like there aren’t dinosaurs on screen. I think it’s because there’s no real sense of interaction with the creatures. The last film had all sorts of crummy looking composite shots so we could see Doug McClure sneaking around dinosaurs. This time, it feels like we’re watching stock footage. In fact, yeah. That’s exactly it. With the exception of one scene where Sarah Douglas takes a photo of a stegosaurus, the whole film feels like one of those old impoverished jungle adventures, like White Pongo or White Gorilla — films comprised almost entirely of shots of the cast walking through a set, intercut with stock footage of elephants and giraffes. This isn’t stock footage (though I suspect one or two shots of being unused footage from The Land that Time Forgot), but it feels like it. Until the very end, the dinosaurs are little more than parts of the set that cause the cast to make terrified faces, except for Patrick Wayne, who makes the same face for the entire film, regardless of what terrors or wonder might be confronting him. At the end, they finally fight a dinosaur, but it’s really too little too late. This movie needed to be packed with scenes of our heroes fighting dinosaurs, and it’s not.
Eventually, they begin to reach the more temperate regions of Caprona, here realized by location shooting in an actual forest (the Canary Islands, to be exact). Where as the last movie relied largely on a mix of location work with sets to create a believable if somewhat fantastic jungle, this movie looks like it was filmed in a pretty average clump of trees. Funny how that happens sometimes. The actual tropical island isn’t a very convincing tropical island, where as the last film — which I think was filmed on a set and probably in a London park — was more interesting looking. Sort of like how The Greatest Story Ever Told was shot in Arizona and Utah, because the filming they did on location in the actual Holy Land didn’t look Holy Land enough.
However, the location shooting also lends the film a more wide-open feel, though given how little impact that has, it would have been nice if they’d skimped on location shooting and used that money to buy more crummy dinosaur props or a tiny fur bikini for Sarah Douglas.
It’s also notable that, from this point on (which means, for most of the movie), the dinosaurs are gone until the very end. Instead, our intrepid trio (one forgets that the biologist is even along for the ride, from time to time) encounters big-breasted cavegirl Ajor (former David Bowie backup singer Dana Gillespie, who played a similar role in Hammer Studio’s 1968 lost world adventure film, The Lost Continent). I wouldn’t normally make a point of mentioning the breasts of a female character (or really, I probably would, but just play along), but in this case they seem to be the primary reason her character exists. Ajor is far more advanced and bosomy than the cavemen we saw in the last movie, and what’s more, she speaks English! At least that’s an improvement over the last film. When faced with choosing between a big-boobed cavegirl who speaks in pidgin English or a thick-browed caveman who shrieks a lot, I think the choice is clear. Also, she understands feathering and advanced hair-teasing techniques. All of these skills were taught to her, McBride discovers, by Bowen Tyler, who Ajor reveals has been captured by an even more advanced race, the Nagas.
It turns out that the Nagas are so advanced that they, completely isolated from all cultural influence in the rest of the world, have evolved to dress and fight exactly like medieval Japanese samurai, right down to the katanas, flag bearers, and big kabuto helmets with gruesome face masks. Despite all those advances, however, they still live in caves and are ruled over by a fat, hooting, grunting dude in a fur loincloth (big Milton Reid, once again). It’s as if the nation of Japan decided one day that they wanted to be ruled over ruthlessly by George the Animal Steele. But instead of ripping open a turnbuckle cover with his teeth, Sabbala pencils in Charly and Ajor for sacrifice to the…wait for it…yep, the angry volcano god. Then he throws McBride and the biologist, Norfolk (Thorley Walters), into his skull wall prison. In the prison, McBride is finally reunited with Tyler. And now, with a couple of two-fisted, good ol’ American boys on the job, these merciless rulers of Caprona’s crappy non-dinosaur infested southern region are primed for a beat-down.
By 1977, England’s Amicus Productions was dead. The People That Time Forgot was really not so much a production as it was one of those nervous twitches a corpse sometimes makes. The only thing that even got the movie finished was money from American International Pictures, who had already been propping up Amicus for their last two Kevin Connor directed adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventures. The People That Time Forgot feels much more like an AIP film than it does an Amicus film, and the budget must have dwindled to the point where even Kevin Connor couldn’t scrape together enough crappy special effects to fill the movie as he had in The Land That Time Forgot or 1976′s At the Earth’s Core. So almost all the action involves people. Sometimes they are cavemen, sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, they are samurai. There are only a couple of really crummy dinosaurs. It turns out that if your movie has dozens of crappy looking dinosaurs, it’s probably going to be pretty cool. But if your movie only has one or two crappy looking dinosaurs, then all you can think about is how crappy it is that you are getting so few crappy dinosaurs.
And even if you make your peace with the fact that you’re not going to get any dinosaur action, you still have to deal with the fact that there’s really not much caveman action either. McBride has a run-in with a tribe that has been chasing Ajor, but it’s short-lived and fairly thrill-free. So even if you reconcile yourself to the fact that there is no dinosaur action and precious little caveman action, then you find yourself depending on John Wayne’s son versus lost world samurai ruled over by a mostly naked fat guy painted green.
And even then, you’re going to be disappointed, because most of the samurai action is restricted to scenes of guys walking back and forth. That they are wearing samurai armor for no good reason doesn’t make it any more interesting. Also, I don’ think samurai wore their armor 24/7. Like, if you are on guard duty in the cramped caverns of your poorly lit cave dungeon, you really don’t need battle armor and a giant helmet with a faceplate. I guess they took the time to evolve the ability to think of Japanese armor, so they decided they were going to get their money’s worth. While I imagine samurai armor would help you in a battle against cavemen, it’s probably less effective against a T-Rex or any of the other monsters we know inhabit Caprona. Or at least, that inhabited it in the last movie. So maybe this is really the only time they get to break it out and show it off, since even though it’s effective against cavemen, they are probably too primitive to admire your craftsmanship. At least John Wayne’s son will appreciate your craftsman’s effort.
The lack of dinosaurs without anything to fill the void is the film’s major misstep. The next major misstep is reducing Doug McClure to a cameo. The structure of The People That Time Forgot is very similar to another colossal letdown, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. OK, so maybe Planet of the Apes was a more prestigious sci-fi film than The Land that Time Forgot, but the overall result for someone like me is the same. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is about a guy who wasn’t in the last film, who travels to the mysterious lost world-esque planet of the apes, has some dull adventures, then ends up underground in a jail where he meets Charlton Heston reprising his role in a cameo. And then they break out, there’s some fist fights, Charlton Heston dies, and everything explodes.
The People that Time Forgot plays out almost identically. Patrick shows up in Caprona, has some dull adventures, finds Doug McClure in a cave. There’s some fist fights, Doug dies, and then stuff explodes. Aping Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not a good move, and reducing your single remaining interesting character to a ten minute cameo at the very end of the film is even worse.
Actually, scratch all that. This film’s major misstep is that it casts Sarah Douglas in a role, has her character set up to be sacrificed to a primitive volcano god, and never puts her in a cavegirl outfit! Having almost no Doug McClure action is justifiable if you say, “Sorry, but we spent the little money we had on convincing Sarah Douglas to wear this tiny loin cloth. We couldn’t afford any more Doug McClure after that.” That’d be fine. But no. She stays fully clothed the entire time. Doug shows a little more flesh, which is welcome, but he’s grown out that big Jeremiah Johnson beard, so it’s hard to even tell. A travesty! Sarah Douglas, in case you weren’t around at the time, is probably best known either as the evil woman in Superman II or as the evil woman in Conan the Destroyer — two films in which she was more skimpily clad than she was in this movie, where she was in a land of scantily clad cave people. Still, despite my dissatisfaction with her sacrificial attire, Douglas is the closes thing this movie has to a good performance. She has an easy charm about her — surprising since I’ve been taught from all her other roles to be terrified of her.
In her place, the scantily-clad chore goes to Dana Gillespie. Gillespie was a former future pop icon. The one-time girlfriend of Bob Dylan, she was supposed to be some sort of folk rock star. That didn’t pan out. Some years later, she became David Bowie’s pet project after she sang back-up vocals for him during the Ziggy Stardust days. She completed an album, but I don’t think it flew off the shelves. I heard it and think it’s pretty crummy. She had slightly better luck on stage, appearing as Mary Magdalene in the original run of Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1968, she appeared in one of Hammer’s several “lost world” mini-epics, The Lost Continent. It was nearly ten years later when she appeared in The People that Time Forgot, allowing her breasts to do most of the acting for her. Still, it should be noted that her feathered hair is almost as big as her boobs, so it’s not like I’m reducing her to a single, degrading aspect of her physical appearance instead of judging her performance more rationally. But then, it’s also hard to judge a performance when your only lines are, “Tyler!” and “You are…friend of Tyler?” Given my druthers, I would have had Gillespie and Douglas switch costumes. Or I would have dropped Gillespie entirely and just given more screen time to Douglas, no matter what she was wearing.
Oh yeah, somewhere in that mix is Patrick Wayne. I can’t remember how unclothed he gets, because I’m more of a Doug McClure man. Coincidentally, much of Patrick’s filmography seems comprised of small parts in the films of John Wayne. What are the chances, huh? Well, Patrick Wayne is about as good an actor as his old man, only he doesn’t have any of the charisma or macho allure than compensated for the elder Wayne’s limited range. In 1977, Patrick had arguably his biggest role, that of Arabian sailor Sinbad (he’s even less Arabian than John Phillip Law!) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. In the greater scheme of Sinbad movies with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, Eye of the Tiger is a lesser affair, though still plenty of fun. Plus, it features a pretty solid supporting cast that includes Jane Seymour and scruffy Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who).
That along with a bunch of stop motion monster effects was more than enough to make most people fail to notice how stiff an actor Patrick Wayne was. Thing is, a movie like that needs a stiff in the lead. It needs a piece of petrified wood off which it can bounce all its fantastic stuff. After all, those are Ray Harryhausen movies. Few people remember who directed them, or starred in them. Heck, I was out of college before I even realized different guys had played Sinbad in the various movies. Because everyone remembers the special effects, and everyone went to the films for the special effects. To have some talented lead actor getting in the way would have distracted from the films’ appeal.
The People that Time Forgot should operate under the same premise. Unfortunately, there’s very little fantastic stuff to distract from Wayne’s stiffness. With no dinosaurs and minimal caveman action, all we’re left to focus on is Wayne’s performance. Well, Wayne’s performance and Dana Gillespie’s gravity-defying breasts. I failed to be sufficiently interested by either (as a scantily-clad cavewoman, Gillespie is passable, but she’s no Caroline Munro or Raquel Welch). And there’s no talented supporting cast to pick up the slack. Sarah Douglas gives it her all, but there’s only so much you can do with a script that gives you nothing but “your character walks across a field, then across a gravel pit.” Patrick Wayne is a wooden hero with no charisma and no awesome monsters to make you forget he’s there. People who knock Doug McClure’s one-note performances should take a look at Patrick Wayne to see what stiff really is. McClure exudes an effortless charisma and believability. A movie teaming up McClure and Sarah Douglas would have been way better. Patrick Wayne exudes nothing. Plus, he looks a lot like Charlton Heston, way more than he looks like his own dad. I have some conspiracy theories about that one, and I consider them at least as likely to be true as theories about super-powered WWII Nazis operating UFO bases at the North Pole.
Some people consider this movie better than its predecessor. I cannot count myself among those people. While I love The Land that Time Forgot, I hate this movie. Well, maybe I don’t hate it, but I sure don’t like it. I was bored silly through most of the film, and it falls into that rare category of film I say you could give a miss. In fact, it reminds me in many ways of War Gods of the Deep, another surprisingly disappointing film I want to like more than I do and that sounds much cooler in summary than it actually is to watch. I mean, John Wayne’s son and the evil chick from Superman II versus samurai cavemen is a good pitch, but Amicus was too broke to deliver even the cheap-ass fun they delivered with The Land that Time Forgot, and AIP seemed to be interested in little more than getting something on the screen and ending their relationship with the doomed British studio.
It would have been nice to see Amicus, who had given the world so many entertaining films go out on a higher note. But then the same could be said of Hammer, who bit the dust around the same time and with a similarly wretched film to serve as their swan song. If Amicus was the scrappy Hammer wannabe, then The People that Time Forgot is their ode to Hammer going out on To the Devil…A Daughter. In retrospect The Land that Time Forgot would have been a poetic place for Amicus to end — with volcano erupting, boat sinking, and its stars facing a seemingly hopeless situation. Instead, they decided to show us the aftermath of the collapse, and give us Milton Reid in a skimpier outfit than Sarah Douglas (or Dana Gillespie, for that matter).
Release Year: 1977 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Patrick Wayne, Doug McClure, Sarah Douglas, Dana Gillespie, Thorley Walters, Shane Rimmer, Tony Britton, John Hallam, David Prowse, Milton Reid, Kiran Shah | Writer: Patrick Tilley | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: John Scott
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
By 1965, the year this film was released, American International Pictures had enjoyed considerable success mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a series of films starring Vincent Price (and Ray Milland, once) and directed by Roger Corman. The streak began with Corman’s low-budget but lavish looking adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher and continued with The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. These films represented something new and relatively risky for AIP, then a studio that specialized in making cheap, fast black and white double features. Corman, inspired by the work that was happening at England’s Hammer Studio, convinced AIP to let him shoot in color, a single film, with a bigger budget (though still tiny) and longer shooting schedule (though still incredibly fast). The resulting film, The Fall of the House of Usher, did big time box office for AIP, is considered one of the all-time great horror films, and convinced AIP of a couple things. First, that color films with more money put into them were a worthwhile investment, especially when someone as good as Corman at turning out expensive looking results for pennies was on board. Second, that they should tack Edgar Allan Poe’s name onto everything and plumb his works mercilessly.
Although all the films in the first AIP Poe cycle were good, and most of them were great, several of them had very little to do with the Poe poem or short story from which they took their name. The Raven, for example, uses the Poe poem for its opening scene, with Price being plagued by a mysterious raven. But as soon as the raven starts wisecracking in Peter Lorre’s voice, you can guess that the Poe material is out the window. The Pit and the Pendulum takes the Poe source material and extends it with a number of subplots original to the screenplay or snatched piecemeal from other sources. And in the case of The Haunted Palace — one of the very best films in the Poe cycle — it wasn’t based on Poe at all. It was actually based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. But AIP felt that audiences wouldn’t know who the hell Lovecraft was. Distributors agreed. And so, despite Corman’s protests, it became an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
Dubious connections to the source material not withstanding, all of the films were very good (well, I’m not that fond of Tales of Terror, but that’s because I don’t care for anthology films), thanks to the line-up they enjoyed: Corman as director, Price (and Milland once) as star, and Richard Matheson as the screenwriter (most of the time). Matheson was to AIP horror what Jimmy Sangster was to Hammer horror: consistently wonderful. In 1965, AIP decided to stretch Poe’s connection even further, tapping one of his short tales called The City in the Sea as a source for War Gods of the Deep. But other than having Price read some of the story for the opening credits, War Gods of the Deep has very little to do with Poe. AIP would take a similar approach during it’s second round of Poe horror films, with The Witchfinder General being retitled Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm — a title justified by having Price read some of the original poem before the film launched off into a plot that has pretty much nothing to do with the poem or Poe. In that case, however, the movie was good.
In the case of War Gods of the Deep, the results were…not as impressive. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Although Roger Corman wasn’t directing, AIp assigned Jacques Tourneur to the film. Tourneur is perhaps best known as the director of such films as Night of the Demon and the Val Lewton produced films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. All of them are considered classics, and deservedly so. On top of that, he directed one of the all time great noir films, 1947′s Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum. And then there was the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler epic The Flame and the Arrow. By the 1960s, however, Tourneur’s best years were perhaps behind him, and he found himself working in television and at AIP, first as director of the Poe-esque Comedy of Terrors which features one of my all-time favorite idiotically hilarious scenes (when awful opera singing causes Vincent Price’s undertaker top hat to pop off wit a “boop!” sound effect), and then as director on War Gods of the Deep.
And while the film isn’t written by Richard Matheson (most famous for being the author who penned I Am Legend, the book that inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to Last Man on Earth to The Asylum’s I Am Omega), AIP did get Charles Bennett, who was no slouch in the screenwriting department. Among his sundry credits are the very first filmed version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the black and white version made as part of the Climax! television series, where James Bond goes by Jimmy and was played by Barry Nelson. Bennett also wrote plenty of classic scripts, including work for Hitchcock (Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent), the adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines, and Tourneur’s own Night of the Demon.
He was also frequently tapped by producer Irwin Allen both for movie (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and television (Land of the Giants, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series) scripts. Of course, there are a few turkeys in his resume, including the epic misfires The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen’s attempt to tell in sweeping epic fashion the complete history of mankind, from caveman times to the present and starring pretty much every B lister and has-been ever, from the past their prime Marx Brothers to Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Heddy Lamar, and of course, Vincent Price as Ol’ Mr. Scratch) and Cecil B. DeMille’s sweeping and often dull tale of piracy and romance on the 19th Century Georgia coast, Reap the Wild Wind. On the other hand, that’s the movie where Bennett was smart enough to write a scene where John Wayne battles a giant squid, so that counts for something. Still, that’s a basically solid resume, especially for this type of film.
Despite the presence of Vincent Price and the shaky Poe tie-in, War Gods of the Deep isn’t considered part of the Poe cycle, not so much because it wasn’t directed by Corman, but more because it plays out less like a gothic horror film and more like the Clif Notes version of a Jules Verne fantasy adventure film. Of course, Disney had already made pretty much the be-all and end-all Jules Verne fantasy adventure film in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Anything else was going to pale in comparison to a film that had the benefit of Disney’s vast financial resources and Kirk Douglas shaking his bon-bon while singing sea chanties and wearing a jaunty little cap. But that never stopped AIP, or anyone else for that matter. And so, in 1965, Tourneur, Bennett, Price, and AIP took us under the ocean for what we all hoped would be a really cool adventure film.
And things start off well enough. Beautiful Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Pajama Party) is minding her own business in her castle by the coast bedroom when, all of a sudden, she is attacked and kidnapped by a hideous gillman who looks like that dude who helped Lando fly the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Perturbed by the kidnapping of his beloved by this uppity haddock, square-jawed hero Ben Harris (reliable Tab Hunter) and his nebbish, ferret-faced sidekick Harold Tufnell-Jones (Disney live-action film regular David Tomilson) follow in leisurely pursuit. And for some reason, Tufnell-Jones (presumably an ancestor of legendary heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnell) insists on bring along his trusty pet: a chicken in a basket. Why exactly, this guy goes everywhere with a chicken is a mystery. Why he is a bachelor, of course, is not. Tufnell-Jones and his chicken are there to provide frequent comic relief. Guess how many times you will laugh at their shenanigans!
Ben and the chicken lover soon find themselves in a maze of sub-aquatic (but never the less dry) caves inhabited by a population of long-lived men ruled over by the mad Captain Hugh (Vincent Price). It seems that Price and his men were once smugglers and, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon this network of sub-aquatic caves leading to the remnants of a city constructed by a highly advanced civilization. By the time Price arrived, however, the society was centuries into decline, the secrets of their technology being lost and the former inhabitants being reduced to nothing more than animalistic gillmen. Price and company made themselves at home amid the decaying remains of the city under the sea, and something about the air down there and the lack of exposure to UV light has resulted in them living for hundreds of years.
Price commands the gillmen, for they consider him their god for one reason or another (no problem — I sort of consider him a god as well) and he had them kidnap Jill for the usual reason: she is the exact spitting image of the captain’s long dead true love. When our heroes arrive to rescue her, they promptly get captured but stave off execution by pretending to be geologists who can help Price out with the big problem: the volcano. Everyone spends some time stalking around the cave-palace, which like pretty much every undersea kingdom in the history of movies about undersea kingdoms, is threatened by a nearby underwater volcano that is going to erupt any moment now. Eventually, Ben, Jill, and their comic relief load are forced to don unwieldy Victorian-style scuba gear (which, for some reason, demands gigantic helmets into which you can fit a man’s head and his accompanying chicken) and flee for their lives with Hugh and his murderous followers in hot pursuit.
And by hot pursuit, I mean…well, let me explain this in detail. You see, everyone is underwater. When you are in water, you swim. It’s really the best way to get around. That’s why all fish do it. That’s why pretty much everyone does it except for those sprinters who practice by trying to run underwater. That established, we then move on to the fact that watching people swim in movies is usually boring. The pitfalls of scuba scenes in cinema are well documented. So how could you take a scene — scuba diving underwater — that could be really boring even if properly done, and ensure that it’s even more boring than you could possibly imagine? Well, instead of swimming, the people could be walking underwater. Yes, indeed. War Gods of the Deep is one of the only movies that thought what people really wanted to see was a foot chase on the floor of the ocean, with people flopping about awkwardly and moving incredibly slowly. But that’s not really enough, you also have to make the scene go on for like ten minutes, and pad it out with dialog-free close-ups of Tufnell-Jones and his chicken looking around.
Now keep in mind that I have a pretty big tolerance for underwater scenes, owing largely to my fascination with what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world” and my love of diving. So trust me when I tell you that this underwater foot chase scene is one of the most horribly boring scenes I’ve ever seen. They try to spice things up by having guys shoot crossbows from time to time, but since no one ever actually gets hit, that never pays off. And every now and then, some of the gillmen swim up and mess around with Ben and the crew, presumably confused by the fact that these humans are walking underwater instead of swimming (thus the ability of the gillmen to swim circles around them). Despite the fact tat the gillmen can swim, breathe underwater, and aren’t weighed down by cumbersome iron helmets, they aren’t very effective at attacking our slowly fleeing heroes. You can pretty much defeat them by swatting at them in that slow-motion way that occurs when you are underwater. It’s a tremendous relief when everyone resurfaces inside some weird temple. The volcano explodes, a giant hand falls on Vincent Price, and a singularly terrifying moment occurs when the heroes put their scuba gear back on. Dear God, no! Please! No more scenes of people awkwardly walking around underwater! This time, however, we’re in luck, because the good guys crawl out of the water and the movie ends.
I’m not sure what went wrong. Good director, good screenwriter, a good cast. I mean, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure, but he’s fine in this role, even though a lot of people pick on his performance. He’s a one-note character, but so is everyone else. And Hunter proves adept at singing the note “stiff straight man.” Susan Hart is vapid and has nothing to do, but she does that nothing well. There’s no chemistry at all between her and Hunter, and once again, as I did with Arabian Adventure, I can’t help but think that this movie would have been greatly improved if our lovers were played by Doug McClure and Caroline Munro. But Hunter and hart are acceptable. Heck, even comic relief guy is unfunny but relatively inoffensive and easy to ignore. To some degree, the blame for this misfire falls on the producer, Louis Heyward, who insisted on monkeying with the script endlessly and much to Tourneur’s annoyance. But AIP sided with Heyward in the conflict, and his changes remained despite the protests of Tourneur, Vincent Price (who had great respect for Tourneur and very little respect for Heyward), and original screenwriter Bennett. But that can only go so far in explaining things — the nail in the coffin of an already flawed work, as it were.
And you know, if I’m replacing cast members, we might as well get rid of David Tomlinson and replace him with Terry-Thomas.
Maybe the whole thing played out better on paper, and no realized how boring it was going to be when actually committed to film. Actually, let me alter that. This movie really isn’t terrible up until the underwater foot chase. It’s no classic of fantasy adventure cinema, but it’s harmless enough. But the underwater footage deep sixes the rest of the movie, which just isn’t buoyant enough to stay afloat with the dead albatross of the underwater foot chase around it’s neck. Is that enough seafarin’ allusions for ya? Then let’s stop beating that dead seahorse and move on to some of the film’s other problems. First and foremost is, and I never thought I’d say this, Vincent Price’s performance. We’ve seen Price play it cool and reserved before to great effect, but the decision for him to play mad Cap’n Hugh with Fall of the Hous eof Usher style reserve was, in my opinion, a tremendous mistake. This movie could have survived its dreadful underwater chase scene if Price had been hamming it up and playing Hugh as crazy and nutty as the script alludes to him being.
Instead, Price’s Hugh comes off as dull. The script is too thin to lend the character a sense of gravity, so there’s no real emotional reaction to him. He’s a villain you hate, or love to hate, or relish, or grow to sympathize with. He merely exists on film for a duration of time, and then a big stone hand falls on him. I mean, this is a mad sea captain living in an undersea city that looks like a crumbling Victorian castle and commanding an army of mutant gillmen while giving speeches about the end of the world. Why on earth would anyone think to play that character with quiet reserve? Vincent Price is, as I think I’ve written before, one of my favorite actors. Quite possibly, he’s my most favorite actor. He never gives less than 100%, and he doesn’t give less than 100% here. But the character is so boring, and Price plays it so straight, that War Gods of the Deep becomes perhaps the only film in which Price is upstaged by a irritating guy with a chicken in a basket.
Speaking of the chicken — what the hell was that about? It’s not like the chicken ever does anything wacky, or like it jumps out and pecks Price on the foot or something. It is simply carried around for the entire movie, having no point at all. Even within the realm of unfunny comic relief, surely no one thinks the mere presence of a chicken is hilarious. A monkey, sure. But a chicken? I don’t get it. This was apparently one of Louis Heyward’s most important contributions t the script, and it’s obvious why everyone else involved with the film thought the guy was a jack-ass. It’s just another way to pad out a really threadbare script. It seems like Bennett got a great concept but quickly wrote himself into a corner, possibly because of budgetary constraints — but I’m not going to buy that considering how many exciting and imaginative films were done with as little or even less money.
Not being able to come up with anything for anyone to do, the movie falls back on repetitive dialog scenes in which Vincent Price explains to us that the glowing,pulsating volcano is a threat (because we wouldn’t have figured it out after the first warning) or in which Tab Hunter and the guy with the chicken ask other people if they remember how to get to the surface. The sudden presence of a beautiful woman who is to be the sole property of the captain amid an undersea kingdom populated entirely by men lends itself to potential conflict, but that’s never bothered with. Or the use of the dim-witted gillmen as thugs and sacrificial lambs who perhaps begin to resent the captain’s manipulation of them? But no, it never goes in that direction either. Like the characters in the movie, it just sort of half-heartedly wanders around the same caverns over and over, until the volcano finally erupts.
Still, as dull as this film turns out to be, there are some redeeming qualities. Well, there’s one. The sets are really nice. And the gillmen are kind of cool looking, even if they end up having very little to do. Tourneur — accustomed to working in black and white and employing shadows to great effect — turns out to be equally adept at manipulating th candy colored Technicolor hues. Although War Gods of the Deep isn’t a good film to watch, it’s a great film to look at. Tourneur’s direction coupled with cinematography by Stephen Dade is gorgeous to behold. And as with the sets, War Gods of the Deep has excellent costumes and the look of a much more expensive production than it actually was.
But that’s precious little to go on, especially when you could be spending your time with far superior aquatic adventures, like the aforementioned Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Japanese film Atragon (from which this film steals some scenes, incidentally). This is also a sad film to end up being the last in Tourneur’s career. If only a giant squid had attacked the city or something, but no. That would have been something interesting, and this film is committed to making sure nothing interesting happens. It’s all, as I said, a tremendous disappointment given the talented cast and crew assembled. But it’s one misstep after another, making War Gods of the Deep the extremely rare crappy fantasy film I actually can’t recommend. Well, maybe watch it once…but just once.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States and England | Starring: Vincent Price, David Tomlinson, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, John Le Mesurier, Harry Oscar, Derek Newark, Roy Patrick | Writer: Charles Bennett, Louis Heyward | Director: Jacques Tourneur | Cinematographer: Stephen Dade | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: George Willoughby | Alternate Titles: City Under the Sea