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.
Kaala Sona is another example of the Basmati — or “Curry” — Western, that Bollywood take on the Western that seems to draw more on the European model than the American for its inspiration. Of course, the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay, released at roughly the same time, is considered the gold standard of that genre, and Kaala Sona follows along much the same pattern. Like Sholay, for instance, it’s a Western in feel rather than period, setting its action in the present day while taking advantage of some of the still relatively untamed regions lying within India’s borders. Such an approach allows both films to highlight a favorite Bollywood theme: the urbanized ne’er-do-well who, in being called upon to defend a rural community from a destructive outside force, has his soul awakened to the simple and essential virtues embodied by that community. (In more recent films, that urbanized ne’er-do-well tends to be, more specifically, a Westernized product of the Diaspora, but same idea.)
For many years, England’s Amicus Productions was the scrappy studio living in the shadow of and following the lead of the higher profile Hammer Studio. In fact, so closely did Amicus follow Hammer’s horror lead that much of their output continue to be mistakenly labeled as Hammer Horror. Amicus often used the same actors — including Peter Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — and directors — including Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker — and went for a similar feel. There are, however, several differences. For starters, most of Amicus’ horror films were set in the present day, or at least more recently than Hammer Victorian-era gothic tales. Also, having been founded by Americans, Amicus often looked overseas for established genre talent rather than sticking primarily to English stars. Thus, you get a film like Madhouse or Scream and Scream Again, both of which starred American horror icon Vincent Price. And finally, although Amicus is known these days primarily for their horror output — and especially their horror anthology films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Vault of Horrors, and Tales from the Crypt — they also produced a number of science-fiction and sci-fi tinged horror films. Hammer did this as well, at least for a little while and most successfully with their Quatermass films, but once Dracula, the mummy, and Frankenstein became established hits, Hammer pretty much jettisoned sci-fi in favor of straight Gothic horror. Amicus, on the other hand, constantly dabbled in the speculative genre.
Their first, and easily their best known sci-fi outings, if for no other reason than the association they have with one of the biggest sci-fi cult hits of all time, are their two Doctor Who films starring Peter Cushing as the mysterious time-traveler. At the time, the television series was still shot in black and white. Amicus looked toward two of the very best story arcs from the first Doctor’s series (William Hartnell’s stories The Daleks and The Daleks’ Invasion of Earth), and redid them, only with a bigger budget and in eye-popping color. Although the movies were rehashes with some departures from the series (Peter Cushing, for example, actually refers to himself as “Doctor Who” and with no hint of being an alien — which, while out-of-step for the series as we know it, was still in line with the series at the time), they were hits for Amicus. The appeal of seeing Doctor Who in color and starring one of England’s most beloved actors was a huge draw.
Amicus dabbled in sci-fi on and off in the ensuing years, with generally good results (They Came From Beyond Space), and one or two clunkers (The Deadly Bees). When the British film industry tanked at the beginning of the 1970s, small studios like Amicus were hit particularly hard. Hammer collapsed entirely, despite making some of their best horror films during the early years of that decade. Amicus limped on, however, producing some genuinely interesting films, like the bizarre and enjoyable mash-up of horror, science fiction, and Eurospy films that was Scream and Scream Again. As the decade wore on, the belt-tightening became more and more extreme. Looking for a way to keep their craft afloat, Amicus decided to put their faith in a series of science fiction/fantasy adventure films based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It didn’t work, for a number of reasons, even though the films proved relatively popular with kids and remain nostalgic favorites for people like me.
The first of these films was The Land that Time Forgot, not to be confused with The Land Before Time. Both feature dinosaurs, but only one features a shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl dangling from absurdly visible wires.
When I was a kid, The Land That Time Forgot played pretty regularly on television. Although I know I saw it in the theaters (it was distributed in America by AIP, whose infusion of cash as co-producers was the only thing that enabled Amicus to get these final films finished), my memories are of watching it on television, and fairly frequently at that. These days, now that I have progressed from being a five year old with the mentality of an eight year old, to being a forty-year old with the mentality of…well, a nine year old if we are generous, I can see just how threadbare the productions really were. It didn’t matter to me then, of course, and it didn’t matter to most kids despite the fact that so many people try to project the sophistication of their adult life onto their childhood. “Even as a kid, I could tell these films were cheap,” they claim, and it’s almost never true. Most children view films differently than adults. When a film is cheap and boring, the cheapness doesn’t really register (what do you have, at age six or seven, to even judge cheapness by) and the boring parts wash over you like water off a duck’s back. You tune out when it gets boring, and all you remember afterward are the cool parts. Thus, even really crummy movies can seem relatively enjoyable, because you don’t remember the dull bits; all you remember is the shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl. Oh sure, I know some of you watched these movies with the keen eye of a wizened critic even at age six, and you turned your nose up at how juvenile they were even when you were juvenile. Well, I hope you had fun watching Kramer versus Kramer as a child, while the rest of us were watching dinosaurs fighting a submarine while Doug McClure punched cavemen in the face. I’m sure your childhood was much better off for your refined sense of cinematic value when you were in first grade.
I, of course, was hopelessly lowbrow and common as a child. As an adult, as you know by know, I am equally hopeless and lowbrow. While that means that I am still pleased by loads of cheap juvenile crap while being bored by indie films in which quirky dysfunctional families learn to accept one another, it also means that I also get to enjoy most of my filmgoing experiences, shrugging off most films with an, “Ehh, that was all right.” It keeps me happy and keeps the blood pressure low, even if it deprives me of any claim to righteous fury over how base and moronic most entertainment has become. I’ve made my peace with this, and I’m happier rolling with the punches and genuinely enjoying films than I am getting upset about something as silly as a movie. Which means than even though I can see how floppy the rubber dinosaurs are, and even though I can see the wires on the pterodactyl, and even though I can tell the caveman in its mouth is a wind-up action doll, I still really enjoy The Land That Time Forgot.
The year is 1916 or 1917. The United States has yet to enter into World War I, which has yet to be named World War I, but we are more visible in our support of the Allied cause. In turn, Germany has announced the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare. At the start of the war, Germany operated its much feared u-boat fleet under certain restrictions in regard to the rules of good sportsmanship during a war. They would not, for example, attack civilian vessels, limiting themselves to torpedoing identifiable military ships belonging to their enemies (mostly England). As the war in Western Europe ground to a stalemate, Germany began to revise their u-boat strategy, first attacking any ships belonging to their enemies, and then any ships belonging to anyone they though might be helping their enemies (thus bringing American ships under fire). And then, finally, they pretty much started torpedoing anything that wasn’t German. The policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was one of the major tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war (though it wasn’t the coup de grace — that being a telegram from Germany pitching a plan to bring Mexico into the war on the side of the Germans). The Germans maintained that most of the so-called civilian ships they attacked were carrying weapons and supplies to the beleaguered Brits, who were deviously smuggling equipment from American suppliers aboard such civilian craft.
The Land that Time Forgot picks up its story during this time of expanding u-boat warfare. German submarine captain Von Schoenvorts has just finished torpedoing a ship of the type described above: civilian but suspected of containing smuggled supplies. Despite the job being well done, and although he believes in the German cause, Von Schoenvorts is in no mood to celebrate killing civilians. He’d be even less celebratory if he knew one of the civilians who survived was American entrepreneur Doug McClure, here playing a guy named Bowen Tyler, but he’s pretty much just Doug McClure. Isn’t he always? And aren’t we always thankful for it? McClure is adrift now, along with the one other survivor who, lucky for McClure, happens to be lovely and female (Susan Penhaligon), and lucky for the script, also happens to be a scientist. I think she’s a biologist, but really, she seems to be one of those classic movie style scientists who knows a lot about everything. Thanks to my sister, herself a biologist, I have met many other scientists and many other biologists, and they always seem to be very specialized in what they do. My sister, for example, can tell you pretty much everything you need to know about various types of bats and blind cave fish, but I think if you dropped a caveman off in her lab and asked her about him, she’d have little more to say than what could be gleaned from watching Encino Man, which is that cavemen love to party and swing from things. But Susan Penhaligon’s Lisa Clayton is as comfortable finding her way around a protozoa as she is a caveman, a diplodicus, or Doug McClure. She’s also handy with geography, and she probably knows a few things about botany. But not mechanical stuff. That’s for the guys, and luckily, Doug McClure happens to be the son of a guy who designs submarines. But it is the early 20th Century, so perhaps science was still more generalized, like how centuries before, Sir Isaac Newton could be good at calculus, physics, and poking metal rods into his own eye sockets to see how deformation of the eyeball affected seeing.
When it happens that a few other survivors float by, all of them British sailors, and our merry band happens to find the U-boat that torpedoed them, the gang is well-suited for a hostile take-over. So begins a cat-and-mouse battle between the Germans and Brits plus Doug McClure, with each side trying to either out-muscle or out-sneak the other side to get the upper hand and win/lose control of the submarine. Now you might be wondering whether you’re watching a movie about Doug McClure fighting dinosaurs or a WWI era submarine adventure. And indeed, the first half of this film concerns itself primarily with Great War U-boat shenanigans. However, I never really found these proceedings to be dull, as not only do I like WWI stuff, but I also like the glimpses into the characters — specifically von Schoenvorts (himself an amateur naturalist). When the move/counter-move mini-war on the sub results in the ship ending up off the coast of Antarctica, very low on fuel and with no hope of reaching a supply ship or port, the two sides form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to figure out how the hell to get themselves out of the mess they’ve gotten into. A large cave from which pours forth warm, fresh water, seems the best possible alternative, because when in doubt, why not take your submarine into a completely uncharted cave. But they do, and despite some close scrapes, they safely navigate through and into…
An amazing tropical prehistoric wonderland!
Previously, we looked at the Doug McClure fantasy adventure film At the Earth’s Core, from the same production company and director, and reflected briefly on the history of hollow earth theories that inspired the various “world within the world” adventures stories like Pellucidar, the series upon which the film was based. This time around, we’re tackling a theory that had a very similar evolution from scientific theory to discredited crackpot theory to fodder for pulp sci-fi and adventure writers. And once again, tracing the origins of such beliefs takes us far back in time. As with the caves and earthquakes, fissures and sinkholes, that most likely let primitive man to conceptualize a world below the surface of the earth, so too can we assume that the birth of the idea of the arctic as a place of magic comes from it being an equally impenetrable and difficult to understand region. In the days before performance fleece and Russian ice breakers, the remote, freezing north must have been nearly as impenetrable as the depths of the oceans. But men ventured there, from time to time, and when they did, who knows what things they beheld — augmented, of course, by the old timey storytellers’ penchant for bullshit.
Early accounts of Greek thinkers theorized that, because the northern stars didn’t seem to rotate around the earth in the same fashion as other stars, that they must be above an equally unusual land. Although polar exploration was likely out of the question, the Arctic circle itself was within reach of ancient man, provided he brought enough furs and mukluks. But the Greeks simply made up their own stories about this curious place to the north, beneath the Arktos constellations. They “theorized” — perhaps with the aid of Dionysus — that this land existed above the north wind, and thus was pleasant in climate if you survived the curtain of murderous cold that surrounded it. The land was, furthermore, once populated by advanced beings known as the Hyperboreans who, being lucky enough to live in such an awesome world, were basically gods. However, the toil of a perfect existence eventually wore them down, and out of boredom, the Hyperboreans drowned themselves.
In 330 B.C., someone actually did bother to set out for these mysterious northern lands. Greek astronomer Pytheus purportedly sailed north of the British Isles and discovered there a land he dubbed Thule, where during the Summer Solstice the sun did not set. Pytheas attempted to continue his harsh northward trek, but the ship was turned back by an impenetrable wall of what he referred to as “sea lungs.” Fantastic at the time, we can today understand the basic truths behind Pytheas’ accounts. Thule could be any of the lands north of Britain: The Shetlands, the coasts of assorted Scandanavian countries. Non-setting suns in these regions at certain times of the year are understood and accounted for. And sea lungs are, more than likely, massive icebergs and floes.
Long after Pytheas journey to the north, more and more stories began to filter down, often from early British and Norse sailors. These stories, given the average ancient sailor’s taste for embellishment, became increasingly fanciful. Aside from the ancient Greek idea of a lush tropical paradise beyond the curtain of cold, these early explorers added pygmies and various monsters to the mix. In the late 1500s, England mounted official expeditions to the region, largely in hopes of laying claim to it as part of the empire. It was even claimed that King Arthur, the quasi-mythical father of what was then modern England, mounted expeditions to the arctic regions. The early Elizabethan efforts, while both brave and groundbreaking, did little to advance the cause of the northernmost world being within England’s sphere of influence. It turns out that the chief problem with exploring the Arctic is that most of the people who try it die of starvation and exposure, provided they aren’t frozen or drowned when their ships hits an iceberg. Or they simply go mad when they find their ships iced in and unable to free themselves. Despite all that, it was during this era that England established tenuous toeholds in places as far north as the Baffin Islands.
Exploration picked up again in the 1800s. This time it was ignited by stories of a navigable “northwest passage,” a sailing route clear of ice than would allow ships to sail over the top of the world, thus saving untold months that had to be spent sailing around the giant continents that got in the way of easy cruising between, say, England and India. This time, they weren’t just shooting for the arctic regions; they were aiming for the very Pole itself. Not surprisingly, a science fiction writer beat them to it. Although little of it made it into subsequent — and more familiar — film versions, Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein, is concerned at least partially with an ill-fated arctic expedition, the captain of which seems bitterly and ironically disappointed that there isn’t any mystical tropical paradise to greet them at journey’s end. There is, instead, only more and harsher cold. It is on this expedition that they encounter another ill-fated arctic traveler, Victor Von Frankenstein, traveling with his now infamous creature. While most film versions of the story concern themselves purely with the creation of the monster in Frankenstein’s Jacob’s Ladder-strewn laboratory, and the eventual destruction of the creature by torch-wielding peasants storming the castle, the book actually ends with the creature escaping toward the North Pole, presumably going there to die.
Exploiting the fervor over dramatic leaps in exploring the world during the 1800s and relying on the old myths and legends, the science fiction and pulp writers of the era began cranking out a number of stories about the discovery of strange lands at the top and bottom of the world. Most of these fell within the realm of what we can today classify as “lost worlds” literature. As the remote corners of the earth became less remote, new discoveries of ancient civilizations were happening with stunning rapidity. Most dramatic among these was the excavation of ancient Egyptian sites, but similar excavations and scientific expeditions were taking place everywhere from the heart of the Amazon Jungle to the steppes of Mongolia. Scientists were having a field day, and so too were the writers of fantastic fiction. In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe entered into the game with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a fictionalized account of a man’s incredible adventure at the South Pole and of the mysterious creatures he encountered. Incredibly, the story was thought for a time to be a work of non-fiction.
When explorers finally did penetrate the top of the world, thus dispelling any myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth, it did little to dispel myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth. H.P. Lovecraft wrote a pseudo-sequel to Poe’s work, entitled At the Mountain of Madness, which proffers the hole into which Pym fell into lead to a land populated by his now famous shoggoths. A group of German mystics founded something called the Thule Society in 1912, combining the more or less believable accounts of Pyhtean’s voyage north with the more fantastical old belief in the Hyperboreans, then layering on top of that a healthy dose of master race B.S. and anti-Semitism. According to the Thule Society, Thule wasn’t just a name for some existing northern land before such places had names known to Greeks. It was, in fact, an actual island, one populated by the super-advanced Hyperboreans who, like the Atlanteans (and the Muu-ians, and the Lemorians, and presumably the Seatopians), perished when their island paradise sank into the sea. However, a few Hyperboreans escaped and became the German race, condemned to live out their lives on the European mainland amid all the Jews and other inferior races who wore pants and stuff, instead of the silver lame mini-tunics with golden shoulder pads and tiaras, which is what I assume all super-advanced inhabitants of lost continents wore. The Thule Society eventually went on to be a Nazi farm team, and no one in the Thule Society’s Nazi wing ever addressed the fact that while the Jews may have been inferior, at least their continent never sank into the sea.
You would think that something as daft and racist as the Thule Society would have finally put the “mystic arctic” theories to rest. But then, you’d be underestimating the strong desire of people to believe really ridiculous shit. In fact, post World War II, theories about secret paradises above the Arctic Circle enjoyed a resurgence, with the claim now added that the North Pole was a base for UFOs piloted not by space aliens with an affinity for anally probing Midwestern farmers, but by Nazis who had escaped after Word War II and rediscovered ancient Hyperborean technology, allowing them to build experimental flying saucers to be used when the Fourth Reich rose up and conquered the world. Once again, pulp writers had a field day. These days, despite the fact that commercial flights pass over it and young women ski across it, and rich people drink champagne and go there on giant Russian ships to look at polar bears, conspiracy theories about secret UFO bases, gateways to the hollow earth, and lush tropical paradises at the North Pole still enjoy a surprising degree of popularity, with all the evidence to the contrary dismissed as “a government cover-up.” Such theories were lent further fuel when, in 2004, researchers began digging up fossil evidence that at some point (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of years ago) the Arctic enjoyed a subtropical climate. That this would have been long before the dawn of man is of little consequence, the Hyperboreans of course being a totally different race. Unfortunately, arctic researchers have turned up little more than the fossilized remnants of plants. To date, they have found no ray guns, UFOs, or silver lame mini-tunics — that they’ve told us about.
Amid all of this (1922, to be exact), Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story The Land that Time Forgot. And many years later, a nearly bankrupt Amicus Productions sent Doug McClure to the fantastic tropical lost world of Caprona, where he and the combined German and British crew soon discover the land is positively crawling with dinosaurs — and dinosaurs from various epochs. They also discover cavemen who, like the dinosaurs, seem to be in varied states of evolutionary advancement. Through her incredible ability to interpret caveman grunts and chest slapping, as well as her ability to look through a microscope with von Schoenvorts, Lisa is able to divine the mysteries of Caprona. It seems that evolution in this lost world occurs not over a period of millennia, but within the span of a single lifetime, with great evolutionary leaps being taken as part of a mysterious metamorphosis. The further south one travels, the more advanced the humans become. While Lisa and von Schoenvorts are fascinated by this biological phenomenon, and while Doug McClure seems happy to pal around with a caveman and shoot dinosaurs, most of the sailors on both sides are keen to get the hell out of Caprona so they can stop being eaten by dinosaurs and return to the safety and luxury of World War One. When they discover crude oil, they discover the means of their escape. However, like all lost worlds, this one is menaced by a restless volcano that could blow at any minute.
As with Kevin Connor’s other adventures based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land that Time Forgot is low-budget and crammed with tons of really awful special effects. In 1925, Harry Hoyt and Marion Fairfax’s silent film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World became the first “lost world” movie, and it was said at the time that the special effects work of Willis O’Brien (who would later go on to do the effects for the original King Kong) were so good that audiences would be completely fooled into thinking the film was a documentary with actual footage of living dinosaurs. I don’t know how many people did believe the dinosaurs were real, but it’s safe to say that the effects in 1925 were far better than the effects we see in 1975. The effects in The Land that Time Forgot aren’t quite as bad as, say, Mighty Gorga, but they are pretty bad.
On the other hand, they are also colorful and hypnotic. As a kid, I was fascinated by them and not phased by how shoddy they were. As an adult, I still think they are fun. Plus, what the movie lacks in quality it more than makes up for in quantity. Once the u-boat arrives in Caprona, all vestiges of the rather serious World War One maritime adventure vanish, and the dinosaur and caveman attacks come more or less non-stop. As McClure and his buddies venture further and further south, the evolutionary mysteries of the lost world become even more puzzling. So do the geographical mysteries, because although it is assumed that they have hiked days away from the lake that is their base, everyone seems to be able to jog back to the submarine within a matter of minutes.
The cast, comprised mostly of professional British stalwarts, is solid. McClure turns in his usual performance, but that’s really all I ever want from him. Yet again, he’s a regular Joe who runs up against the fantastic and deals with it mostly by punching it in the face. Some people don’t care for McClure’s style. I’m not among those people, but even if I was, I’d have to admit that his final “we are so fucked” expression as he watched the submarine disappear is incredible. Connor’s direction is, also, about the same as always, meaning that he correctly positions the camera and shoots his scenes, but never adds very much character to the film. I sort of prefer that style of direction to the overbearingly tricky “look at me and how clever I am” style of self-indulgent direction we see today. Connor recognizes that his movie is colorful and full of crude rubber dinosaur, and you don’t add much to the formula by zooming the camera around and doing lots of crazy editing.
Although I’m sure this film benefits in some degree from my own nostalgia regarding it, the end result is the same. I really like it. It’s one of those rainy Saturday afternoon matinee films that seeks to do little more than entertain you. Aside from plenty of fun dinosaur and caveman adventure, The Land that Time Forgot offers up really one of the most downbeat and apocalyptic endings of any movie aimed at kids. As McClure tries to rescue Lisa from a band of slightly more advanced cavemen (naturally they kidnapped her), the volcano erupts (also naturally). As they struggle to make it back to the submarine, the truce between the Germans and the Brits finally starts to break down. Von Schoenvorts, the sentimentalist, wants to wait for McClure and Lisa. His first mate, a realist, wants to leave before it’s too late. In the end, no one wins, as pretty much everyone guns down everyone else, and the cave collapses, crushing the submarine and the few in it who were still alive. McClure and Lisa are stranded in Caprona, with nothing to do except follow the land’s mysteries ever further south, until at last they reach what is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world. There, they toss a message in a bottle into the raging Antarctic seas, hoping against all hope that someone, someday, will find it, believe it, and come rescue them.
And unfortunately, someone did.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Doug McClure, John McEnery, Susan Penhaligon, Keith Barron, Anthony Ainley, Godfrey James, Bobby Parr, Declan Mulholland, Colin Farrell, Ben Howard, Roy Holder | Writer: James Cawthorn, Michael Moorcock | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: Douglas Gamley
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines’ Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino’s have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!
Filipino cinema had not always been that way, however. In fact, the previous decade had been what is now considered a golden age for the country’s film industry, dominated by a quartet of major studios known as “The Big Four”, who turned out relatively lavish prestige productions built around their respective stables of glamorous stars. Financial troubles and the resulting defection of contracted talent started to take their toll on those studios toward the end of the fifties, and by the mid sixties Sampaguita Productions was the last of the Big Four left standing.
And the landscape that Sampaguita found itself a part of was a markedly changed one, made up of dozens of scrappy independent production companies seeking to turn a quick profit by grinding out hastily produced imitations of whatever international product Filipino audiences were paying to see at the moment. This translated primarily into countless indigenous interpretations of the James Bond and Eurospy films (resulting, among others things, in the phenomenally successful and long running Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 series), Spaghetti Westerns. and, of course, the ubiquitous Batman television series and the numerous European costumed capers inspired by it. In this sense, Sampaguita’s 1966 production James Batman can be seen as one of the studio’s efforts to go with the dollar-chasing flow of this new industry environment.
Another tendency in Filipino cinema that is at play in James Batman — one that, in fact, can still be seen in the industry’s current cinematic output — is a fondness for broad, Mad Magazine-style lampoons of Western pop culture products. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to see this as reflecting some ambivalence on the part of the Filipino people regarding the inescapable cultural influence of their former occupiers, but, whatever the case, the result was that, alongside more earnest efforts such as the Agent X-44 films, Pinoy filmmakers were producing an equal number of spoofs along the lines of James Bone, which starred the emaciated comedian Palito as a skeletal superspy.
This particular trend was a boon to one performer born Rodolfo Vera Quizon, who, under the name Dolphy, would go on to become the most beloved screen comedian in the history of Pinoy cinema (such was his popularity at the time of making James Batman that he had recently had the gig of warming up the crowd for The Beatles during the mop-topped ones’ ultimately disastrous visit to the islands). After initially rising to fame in the fifties in a series of cross-dressing roles (sure-fire comedic gold in the macho culture of the Philippines), Dolphy had, by the mid-sixties, reinvented himself somewhat in a series of secret agent spoofs such as Dr. Yes, Dolpinger, Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (all 1965) and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (1966). Dolphy didn’t limit himself to parodying the spy genre, and also lampooned comic characters such as Tarzan and Captain Barbell during this period — and for James Batman combined the two with a dual performance as comedic versions of both James Bond and Batman.
What makes James Batman such a strange animal — aside from the obvious — is that, in parodying the James Bond films of the mid sixties and the Adam West Batman television series, it’s spoofing two things that are already spoofs themselves. On top of that, the film, in addition to delivering lots of very broad slapstick comedy, also strives to function as a proper action film, and as such features quite a lot of fairly soberly staged fight sequences and action set pieces. In fact, by the time we reach the final act, most of the comic antics have been dispensed with, and James Batman plays out its remaining length as a fairly straightforward action melodrama. The result is that the movie gets to have it both ways by presenting Batman and James Bond, as the objects of parody, as cowardly and preening, while still having them go on to perform the daring heroic feats that the audience expected of them.
James Batman‘s action starts at what is apparently some kind of congress of Asian nations, at which a Fu Manchu-like emissary of the criminal organization CLAW shows up to make extortion demands and threaten nuclear annihilation upon those who would not comply. What was most striking to me about this scene was the CLAW emissary’s sidekick, who was played by a very elderly man who looked both disoriented and confused throughout, leading me to speculate that someone’s grandfather had been put to work during furlough from the rest home. Anyway, the combined nations decide that the threat from CLAW is so great that the services of both Batman and James Bond are required. An actually kind of funny scene follows in which the movie’s distinctly childish and self-regarding versions of both Batman and Bond, who are obviously none too fond of one another, sit before the committee and argue why each of them should be given the job exclusively — an argument that quickly devolves into each of them shouting “pick me!” at the delegates.
One of the perks of the job for Batman is that it will increase his proximity to the chairman’s beautiful young daughter, Shirley. Unfortunately, while Shirley is crazy about Batman (exemplified by a shot of her gazing dreamy-eyed at a magazine that confusingly features a photo of Batman and Robin as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward), she has no time for Batman’s alter ego, Dolpho, despite the insistence of her controlling older sister Delia that Dolpho, with his many millions, is a prime catch. Meanwhile, the members of CLAW — which include a cloaked figure called Drago, an especially tall and roided-up interpretation of The Penguin, a guy with a spiked ball for a hand, and a masked female called The Black Rose who is clearly derived from the character in Chor Yuen’s Cantonese film of the same name — have learned that Bond, Batman and “Rubin” are on the case, and determine to eliminate them before they interfere with their plans.
In addition to former Sampaguita contract player Dolphy, the cast of James Batman serves as something of a showcase for Sampaguita’s house talent at the time. Boy Alano, who plays Rubin, began his acting career at the age of ten, when he co-starred in the 1951 film Roberta, a smash hit that helped rescue the studio from bankruptcy following a fire that consumed a large part of its property. Bella Flores, who plays Delia, had portrayed the female heavy in that same film, and her performance was so iconic that it pretty much doomed her to the type of bad girl roles we see her essaying here. Finally, Shirley Moreno, who plays “Shirley”, was a recent discovery whom Sampaguita head Dr. Jose Perez had that year included in a promotional launch of the studio’s new faces dubbed “Stars 66″. Despite the Spanish surname, the fair-skinned, conspicuously Anglo-looking Moreno serves as a perfect example of the Caucasian standard of feminine beauty that dominated in the Pinoy film industry at the time — and still does to some extent today.
With its simple set-up out of the way, James Batman proceeds along a trajectory not unsimilar to that of most spy films of its era, trotting out a succession of action set pieces based around the villain’s serial attempts to pick off our heroes. Only, in this case, those set pieces are punctuated by gag scenes in which, to give a few examples, Batman gets pantsed and produces condiments from his utility belt, and James Bond gets bitten on his bare ass by a rubber centipede. Alano’s portrayal of Rubin as somewhat of a cretin also provides the opportunity for some Three Stooges-style rough stuff, since Dolphy/Batman is frequently driven to violence by his idiocy. Elsewhere, the level of the movie’s humor can best be summed up by the phrase “boobies… hee hee”.
For the most part, Dolphy’s scripted dialog is painfully unfunny, but what struck me as I watched James Batman is how he comes across as being a genuinely funny guy despite that. This is conveyed mostly through what appear to be throwaway bits of physical improv — such as when, as Batman, he follows a pre-crime-fighting snack by casually wiping his hands on Rubin’s cape — and by a genuinely quirky repertoire of mannerisms and physical gestures that make the most of his spindly frame and boney, thin-lipped countenance. I think that what really works for Dolphy is his somewhat sadsack, sour-faced demeanor, an aspect that not only serves to distance him from the goofy obviousness of the humor he’s perpetrating, but also provides a contrast to the type of desperate, googly-eyed antics so often seen in cinematic comic relief characters from this period.
As mentioned before, Dolphy’s portrayals of Bond and Batman veer toward the comically vain and juvenile — an exercise in broad-stroke subversion that’s aided by some equally unsubtle costuming choices. These include Batman/Dolphy’s baggy long johns-based costume that continually slips to his knees, and which is adorned with a chest emblem that looks like a female silhouette better suited for a semi’s mud flaps. Bond/Dolphy, for his part, is decked out in a stunning plaid three-piece suit with matching Trilby, an ensemble that is really shown to best advantage during a makeout scene that takes place on an identically patterned couch. (Though, to be honest, whether this outfit was actually intended to look ridiculous, or was instead someone’s actual idea of high style was unclear to me.) Interestingly, despite being the only character to receive a satirical rechristening, “Rubin” gets to wear a costume that is entirely faithful to that of his inspiration.
Predictably, James Batman looks like it was made for about a dollar, but that doesn’t mean that efforts weren’t made to make it look as good as possible under the circumstances. Director Artemio Marquez and cinematographer Amaury Agra imbue the film throughout with fluid camera work and imaginative, comic book-influenced compositions, and the many action sequences are generally well staged and shot. Furthermore, the black and white photography serves to some extent to mask the heavy cardboard and construction paper content of the sets, and elements such as the modified Cadillac that serves as the Batmobile actually don’t look too bad as long as the camera doesn’t dwell on them for too long. Spicing things up further are some interesting location choices, including the operational processing plant in which the climactic battle scene is staged, which looks like it must have presented some very real hazards for the actors involved.
James Batman comes to a dramatic head when the CLAW gang, in accordance with their supervillain mandate, kidnap Shirley and abscond with her to their secret headquarters. Bond, Batman and Rubin are close behind, of course, and, with the aid of two undercover agents working within the organization, lay siege to the compound, all the while dodging the deadly cartoon rays shooting from the giant lady fingers that ornament Drago’s throne room. All leads to a dramatic reveal of the real brains behind the organization and, ultimately, some stock footage explosions. It’s a climax that offers the type of crossover thrills that only a flagrant disregard for international copyrights can guaranty — and if you’re the type of fanboy for whom a fight between James Bond (or, at least, a malnourished-looking, Pacific Islander version of same) and The Penguin represents sheer nirvana, it should seal the deal on whether or not you are going to begin the long grey market search for a murky dub of the film.
Personally — and much to my surprise, given my expectations going in — I’m going to come down reservedly on the pro side of the James Batman argument. This is due in part to the fact that, given that the majority of Filipino films from its era have been lost, it is one of the few remaining examples of films of its type. But I also have to say that, despite it being every bit as stupid as I expected it to be, it was still entertaining, and proceeded at a fast enough clip that none of its potential irritants were with me long enough to do much damage. Points are also in order, I feel, for the fact that its humor, no matter how juvenile, really does have a subversive component to it; the underdog lover in me just has to feel a little warm and fuzzy about inhabitants of a downtrodden island nation like the Philippines so gleefully thumbing their noses at institutionalized symbols of Western might like James Bond and Batman. That in doing so they manage to make the voraciously plundering pulp cinema of Turkey seem reverent by comparison is even more impressive. Plus, you know, boobies… hee hee.
What with my recent cinematic diet consisting mostly of overheated Bollywood masala movies and plagiarism-filled Thai man-in-suit monster sagas, I’ve gotten well past the point where it’s time to mix things up a bit. And what better respite than to watch some attractive French people screwing and languorously declaiming about the futility of it all? Granted, that isn’t an entirely accurate description of Slogan; For one, the attractive person in that scenario is Jane Birkin, who is British, while the French one is Serge Gainsbourg, who once famously summed up his position on ugliness by saying that he preferred it to beauty because it endured. Still, there’s no hint of either Amitabh Bachchan, Turkish people in ill-fitting superhero costumes, or latex creatures of any kind within miles of this picture, which is all that I’m really asking for.
Much has been said about Serge Gainsbourg in his roles as songwriting genius, pop music provocateur, archetypal seedy Frenchman, and guy who told Whitney Houston he wanted to do her on national television, but very little has been said about his career as a support player in European B movies. How could this be? After all, long before he made his mark on the French pop scene in the mid-sixties, Gainsbourg had paid the bills by both scoring and appearing in a string of films, a number of which were well within the purview of a site like Teleport City. These included a pair of Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Brad Harris Samson films, which were made before both Parolini and Harris moved on to the Kommissar X series. Both these and the earlier peplum Revolt of the Slaves put Gainsbourg’s somewhat ferret-y looks to good use, playing up the more sinister aspects of his physical demeanor in a series of juicy villain roles. Gainsbourg would also contribute to the Eurospy genre with his appearance in one of the Roger Hanin “Tiger” films (which he also scored), Carre de Dames pour Un As.
Of course, by the time of starring in Slogan in 1969, Gainsbourg had become an established figure in the French pop music scene, having written hit songs for such stars as France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Petula Clark and Brigitte Bardot, as well as making a dent in the charts on his own with solo recordings of classics like “Qui est In Qui est Out”. As such, Slogan, unlike those earlier meal-tickets, shows all the signs of having been built around Gainsbourg’s by this time well established persona. As a result we get the extravagantly dissolute 40 year old pop maverick Serge Gainsbourg starring as extravagantly dissolute 40 year old advertising maverick Serge Faberge, who embarks upon an ill-fated affair with Evelyne, an 18 year old British model played by then 22 year old British actress Jane Birkin. Slogan, in fact, plays out very much like one of Gainsbourg’s songs from the period: Sexy and stylish on the surface and loaded with sly pop culture references, but at its heart a melancholy rumination on mortality and loss.
However, whatever the intentions behind Slogan might have been at the time, when watching the film today, they tend to get overshadowed by events that we now know were taking place behind the scenes: namely that Birkin and Gainsbourg were making a love connection that would result in one of pop’s most iconic romances. Birkin was still a relative newcomer at the time, having made her initial splash in 1966 with Antonioni’s Blow-up, a film in which she appeared only briefly but also very nakedly. Long-limbed, lank-haired and coltish, with an ethereal blue-eyed gaze, Birkin so embodied a certain aspect of the late 60s aesthetic that some of her early films seemed to use her as more of a design element than an actress. As legend has it, Birkin, curious about her aloof costar, finagled a dinner invitation which lead to a long night of clubbing in Paris — including stops at a transvestite bar and a club where American bluesman Joe Turner was playing — that ended with the hard drinking Gainsbourg passing out in his hotel room.
As inauspicious as it may sound, that night would mark the beginning of a passionate love affair that, over the course of its twelve year duration, would not only produce two children (the actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg being one of them) but also provide the spark for a number of dazzling pop artifacts. As an initial volley, the newly formed Birkin/Gainsbourg union announced their love to the world with what would become one of Gainsbourg’s biggest and most notorious international hits, the duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot had begged him not to release it for fear that the track might jeopardize her marriage. The final version, which featured Birkin very convincingly feigning orgasm while Gainsbourg mutter/crooned phrases such as “Physical love is a dead end”, would go on to directly influence Donna Summer’s disco breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” and cement Gainsbourg’s undying reputation as the dirty old man of French pop.
Obviously one of the more fruitful muse/mentor relationships of its type, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s affair would also serve as the impetus for, among other things, Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson and his directing debut, a 1976 feature also titled Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus that starred Birkin in the lead role. The pair would also continue to star together on screen, even returning to Serge’s Eurotrash cinema roots for Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye — a film that, despite having a title that’s as giallo as all get-out, was in reality just an underwhelming gothic thriller.
So knowing all of this today, it’s difficult to watch Slogan without losing sight of its tale of an ill-advised affair between two shallow and self-absorbed characters for all of the romantic sparks, both actual and perceived, that we see flying between its stars. And, while Slogan is far from a terrible film on its own merits, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it distracts us from just how insufferably annoying those characters are. Gainsbourg’s Serge Faberge is a work-obsessed, habitual womanizer in the throes of a midlife crisis gone nuclear who, being also a married man with a baby on the way, employs all of the deceptions, both of himself and others, that such a combination of traits requires. Birkin’s Evelyne, on the other hand, is insecure, needy and destructively impulsive, and, when she’s not simply seducing the camera with her very Birkin-ness, prone to sulking and shrill tantrums made even less tolerable by a French accent that’s clangy even to a non-speaker.
Despite whatever flaws can be found in Gainsbourg and Birkin’s performances, it cannot be said that they aren’t courageous or lacking in vanity. This is especially true in Gainsbourg’s case, as the age difference between Faberge and Evelyne (and by extension between he and Birkin) and its implications are far from glossed over, and in fact are repeatedly highlighted as a symptom of Faberge’s benighted struggle with his impending mortality. Gainsbourg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his character, which is remarkable, given that the chain-smoking, coolly detached exterior that this frightened and confused man hides behind is so nearly indistinguishable from his own public persona. As a result, those scenes in which Gainsbourg/Faberge morosely obsesses over his growing paunch, or sheepishly tells his pregnant wife lies that you can tell he’s desperately trying to believe himself, are more than a little uncomfortable to watch, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to Gainsbourg’s integrity as a performer.
At Slogan‘s outset, Faberge meets the young Evelyne by chance while in Venice to accept an advertising award — an occasion which he has already used as an opportunity for a pre-arranged extramarital tryst with another young model. At first, all is laughing strolls and romantic montages set to a fantastically lush and swirling Gainsbourg score, but soon Evelyne, either too naive or too self involved to truly take Faberge’s measure, wants more. Not surprisingly, Faberge is put off by her sudden demands for commitment. You’d expect that he’d be happy to be rid of her at this point, but when Evelyne runs back to England and announces plans to marry the fiancé she previously ditched for Faberge, Faberge follows and brings her back to Paris. At this time, as at others, it seems that Faberge is continuing the relationship more out of obstinacy than anything else, wanting to prove to his wife, his friends and, most importantly, himself that it’s one based on authentic, deep feelings rather than merely his own desperate clinging to youth.
Faberge eventually separates from his wife and moves into an apartment with Evelyne, where, after a brief honeymoon period, the lovers’ bickering begins to escalate. Meanwhile, Faberge has won a lucrative advertising contract with Shell Oil (about as naked a symbol of brute American capital as you could place within this context) and, despite his announced intention to begin work on a “real movie”, his subsequent preoccupation with the campaign drives a further wedge between them. Finally, with a year come and gone, Serge and Evelyne return to Venice for another award ceremony, only to encounter that natural enemy of cradle-robbing old men everywhere: studly young Italian boys.
Throughout Slogan there are scenes of Faberge meeting with his colleagues and clients in which the advertising industry’s — and, by extension, the culture at large’s — obsession with youth is given ample play (“The youngsters will buy it” is a constantly heard refrain). And this wouldn’t be a sixties film if there weren’t some none-too-subtle ironic juxtapositions of televised war and disaster footage for all of that to play out against. In this context, the adman serves as an especially insidious representation of the establishment, as his goal is to decode the language of youth in order to exploit if for his own commercial gain. Given that, it’s possible that Serge’s humiliation at the hands of youth is meant as some type of poetic justice. But positioning Serge Gainsbourg as “The Man” simply doesn’t work here because, well… he’s Serge Gainsbourg. Regardless of how old — or ugly — he is, the man is just too cool to stand in for the calcified values of his generation.
This is another aspect of Slogan that may be undermined by the obvious romantic chemistry between its stars. The age difference, because it is explicitly acknowledged up front, actually becomes less of a problem, especially since Gainsbourg, gnomic, jug-eared and clean shaven as he is (it was reportedly Birkin who encouraged the perpetual three-day stubble), has enough of the mischievous boy about him to make the connection between the two seem credible. Finally, the film (which, by the way, includes among its three writers Melvin Van Peebles!) can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to punish the character Faberge or celebrate the icon Gainsbourg. All of those combined self-inflicted losses that we might expect to leave Faberge reeling at the film’s conclusion instead appear to have left him unchanged, and as the credits roll, he’s slyly chatting up a new sweet young thing, much as we might expect Gainsbourg’s more id-driven alter ego, Gainsbarre, to do. Then again, this might be another one of those disservices done to Slogan by hindsight, as, at this point, its impossible to look at Birkin and Gainsbourg and see anything but Birkin and Gainsbourg, and hence impossible to see Slogan at all clearly as the film that it was initially intended to be.
To the extent that it concerns people who are obsessed with surfaces, Slogan is also a movie about things, and, as such, it contains enough dome-topped, modular and polychromatic plastic appliances and fixtures to fuel a retro-fetishist’s fever dreams for years to come. Faberge’s office and the apartment he shares with Evelyne in particular look like they could have been inhabited by characters from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. Both director Pierre Grimblat and cinematographer Claude Beusoleil do a nice job of contrasting these sterile modern surfaces with the timeworn beauty of Venice featured in those scenes at the films opening and close, accentuating on one hand the sense of tragic romance at the film’s core and, on the other, its depiction of the manufactured distances that people place between one another.
While many of Slogan‘s no doubt modest intentions may have become obscured by the imposing backward reaching shadows cast by its stars and their legacies, it still provides an illuminating snapshot of one particular aspect of its cultural moment. By that I refer to the collective mid-life crisis that, as the sixties crept into the seventies, seemed to effect an entire generation of middle-aged and middle-class adults who, finding themselves abandoned outright by the youth obsessed commercial culture of their time, began to embrace a sort of neutered version of the hippy counterculture, free of all the utopian idealism and leftist political rhetoric, but with all of its hedonism and obsession with self-actualization intact, leading to some of the most stomach turning excesses of 1970s “adult” culture. This way lay wife-swapping fondue parties, porno chic, EST and Mike Brady’s perm, and I believe that, after Serge Gainsbourg, we wouldn’t see a man in his forties adopt a remotely swinging persona without looking like a complete dork until the arrival on the scene of George Clooney many years later. So savor the moment, people.
If you are interested in good music, sixties European style, attractive people, sexy romance, or just really enjoy watching people smoking cigarettes, there are so many reasons to see Slogan that for me to evaluate it as a film using the conventional standards seems completely beside the point. While it’s certainly an engaging and stylish little movie, there’s little doubt that it would even be available for our consideration today if not for its two stars and the particular place that it holds in their legend. As such, it comes to us more as an artifact of a specific time and place than as something to be experienced on its own terms. Fortunately, that time and place is — to me, at least — a particularly magical one, making Slogan a worthy object of fascination regardless of how successful it might have been in achieving its goals.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: France | Starring: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Andrea Parisy, Daniel Gelin, Henri-Jacques Huet, Juliet Berto, Pierre Doris, Marie-Christine Boulard, Gilles Millinaire, James Mitchell, Kate Barry | Writers: Francis Girod, Pierre Grimblat, Melvin Van Peebles | Director: Pierre Grimblat | Cinematographer: Claude Beausoleil | Music: Serge Gainsbourg | Producer: Francis Girod
So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
When watching one of the Insee Daeng movies — or any other existing example of popular Thai cinema from the 1960s — it’s possible to see a separate story being told in the countless pops, skips and scratches that riddle the severely weathered and damaged available prints, much as you might see a story in the lines etched in an aged human face. And that story, depending on how you look at it, can be either a sad one or a happy one. On the one hand, those wounds and blemishes speak of a unique part of world popular cinema that is on the verge of being lost to history — the ragged condition of each surviving film testifying to the many, many more that have ceased to exist entirely. On the other, as with a child’s threadbare teddy bear, that conspicuous wear and tear serves as evidence of just how much these movies have been loved and enjoyed by their intended audience, thread over and over again through projectors — be they in urban cinemas or makeshift outdoor screenings in small villages — until there was little left of them to thread; in short, loved by their audience to the extent that today they have been virtually devoured.
The filter of age and decay that one necessarily has to watch these films through can also, from a particular vantage point (mine, for example), provide them with an additional layer of beauty and mystique on top of the already strange and distinctive visual experience they provide. After all, in an age when engineered distress and decay are a standard part of the image-maker’s palette, it’s conceivable that someone would actually make something that looked like this intentionally (and, in the case of Grindhouse, to some extent already has). Adding to this illusion of intentionality is the manner in which most of these films are presented today on disc; to compensate for many of them being filmed without sound — with dialog and sound effects to be provided by live actors in the theaters where they were shown — the VCD versions of the films include an audio track with actors reading the dialog along with the movie. The result is a sound track — complete with anachronistic 1980s music — that progresses smoothly over the jumping and skittering image we see on screen, accounting for every beat created by the missing frames.
As you might have gathered from the above, there is a lot that makes these older Thai films less than accessible to Western viewers. In addition to their far from pristine condition, there is the jarring experience of watching them with the provided audio tracks — really more a form of dramatic narration than dubbing, since little attempt is made to match lip movement, or to create the kind of aural ambience that would suggest the voices were actually coming from the people on screen. Furthermore, because these are very low budget films, they often depend a lot on long scenes of verbal exposition to move their action forward, which makes negotiating their sometimes convoluted plots without the aid of subtitles near impossible.
Still, there is a vibrancy and energy to these films that makes them worth sampling. If for no other reason, they should be seen for their unique look, one that is singular in world cinema: a retina-busting suffusion of burst color, which was the result of the inexpensive 16mm color reversal film stock commonly used at the time (and which, because it yielded no negative, was another reason for the lack of clean prints today). With all of the high-contrast, over-saturated hues on display, constantly shouting for attention, even scenes in which nothing is happening give the appearance of being on the verge of jumping from the screen. Considering all of these factors, I think it’s best to approach these films with a goal of immersion rather than comprehension — aided, of course, by an ample dose of your favorite intoxicant.
Since I suppose it’s possible that there are people who don’t enjoy partaking of inebriants and watching weird movies that they don’t understand (though, if there are, I don’t want to know them), it’s a good thing that there exists the PAL region DVD release of Insee Thong, aka The Golden Eagle, the final film in the Insee Daeng — or Red Eagle — series from 1970. Not only does the DVD feature English subtitles, but there is also a subsequently-added Thai language dub track that includes Foleys and sound effects in addition to synchronized dialogue (though the mostly disco-fied music still manages to be conspicuously ahead of period). The condition of the print, however, is still pretty dire — but, as I’ve indicated above, that’s really part of the whole experience.
The character of The Red Eagle was created by popular Thai novelist Sek Dusit in 1954. In a series of books that lasted into the sixties, the author chronicled the adventures of Rome Ritthikrai, a seeming ne’er-do-well who, under the cover of night, would don a red, eagle-shaped mask to take on the forces of organized crime and international communism. Masked vigilante heroes of this type were a common feature of the pulp crime novels that became popular in Thailand during the postwar years, but, of all of them, The Red Eagle proved to be the most enduring. That the character is still fondly remembered today may in large part be due — as much as to the character itself — to the fact that, when it came time for the Red Eagle to make the transition to the big screen, the man chosen to portray him was Mitr Chaibancha, inarguably the biggest star of 1960s Thai cinema.
A man of humble origins who made the transition from boxer to film actor in the late fifties, Chaibancha at his peak was in such demand that, during the years of his box office reign, he starred in nearly a third of all of the films produced in the country (though other estimates put it closer to half), making literally hundreds of films by the time of his premature death in 1970. While this prolific output made the prospect of him being cast as The Red Eagle a near statistical certainty, Chaibancha, though by necessity capable of carrying off a variety of roles, had a reputation as an action hero that made him an obvious choice. Making his debut as the masked hero in the late fifties, Chaibancha would return to the part again and again, fronting a series of films that extended through the decades’ end. In the process he would forge an identification between star and role that survives among his public to this day.
As portrayed on-screen by Chaibancha (and perhaps as also portrayed in the novels, though I haven’t had the opportunity to read them), The Red Eagle, despite his somewhat super-heroic appearance, doesn’t appear to be blessed with any exceptional powers, or even to possess much more than the average amount of strength or agility. In fact, most of his exploits seem to simply require a penchant for breaking and entering into the homes or offices of his chosen prey, tip-toeing around in the shadows, stopping to seduce whatever convenient female he comes across in the process, and then blasting his way out with his trusty sidearms once detected (which seems to happen in most cases). In this sense, he bears a family resemblance to that staple of popular narrative the world over, the masked bandit with a conscience, specifically of the sleek, cat burglar variety we see in Asian films like Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose and The Lizard, and — though in a decidedly more amoral guise — in European pop culture in the form of characters like Diabolik and Kriminal. True to that model, The Red Eagle, though a patriotic hero, works in opposition to the law, and must often evade capture by the police in the course of his self-appointed mission to protect Thailand from nefarious interests.
Though there are certainly many precedents for The Red Eagle, where Chaibancha really stakes out some unique territory in costumed hero lore is in his portrayal of The Red Eagle’s alter ego, Rome. Taking the idea of the effete society boy turned masked avenger to an absurd extreme, Chaibancha plays Rome as, not just a hard drinking playboy, but a hopeless lush, a grown man who drinks like a suicidal frat boy and ends most evenings getting hurled face-first from one or other of Bangkok’s most posh nightspots. As he presents himself to the public, there’s nothing the least bit suave or charming about Rome. At the beginning of the 1968 film Jao Insee, for instance, we watch the pathetic spectacle of Rome careening haphazardly from table to table, hand cupped over mouth, as well-heeled nightclub patrons duck and weave to avoid the projectile spray that appears to be impending. Of course, it’s all an act; and it’s a good one. No one would ever suspect this sad, gin-soaked creature of being The Red Eagle, even if he told them that he was — which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Rome, in a drunken stupor, to do.
Always on hand at the end of Rome’s latest feigned bender, standing by patiently to help pour him into her waiting car, is his faithful girlfriend, Oy, whose back-watching duties extend to Rome’s activities as The Red Eagle. Oy is played by the beautiful Petchara Chaowarat, an actress who was paired with Chaibancha in well over a hundred pictures. Their track record of hit films together made them one of Thai cinema’s iconic screen duos. As portrayed by Chaowarat, Oy has a substantial role in The Red Eagle’s adventures, not only assisting him in strategizing his next move — and helping him make his getaway when it goes awry — but also on occasion fighting at his side. In Jao Insee, one of the films in the series that precedes Insee Thong, she even becomes a masked avenger in her own right to help the Eagle capture a particularly elusive villain.
It’s unclear the extent to which Oy is aware of the philandering that’s involved in the Eagle’s nightly crime fighting duties, but it’s hard to believe that she’s completely ignorant of it. In 1963’s Awasan Insee Daeng, for instance, it’s left to Oy to breach the villain’s hideout and rescue a trio of captive beauties, each of whom the Eagle has romanced — for ostensibly strategic purposes — at one point or other in the course of the film. If she is indeed aware of it, it’s difficult to say whether her apparent blasé attitude toward the fact is indicative of Thai sexual politics at the time or simply a symptom of Rome and Oy having a particularly progressive relationship.
In Insee Thong, the final film in the series — and the first to be both directed and produced by Chaibancha — Rome and Oy find themselves in a unique situation (though not so unique to anyone familiar with Mexican lucha films). An impostor is posing as The Red Eagle to pull off a string of assassinations. Though Rome has promised Oy that he will give up his crime fighting activities and settle down, he finds this insult to his reputation too much to bear, and so decides to don the eagle mask one last time. Following a logic that is perhaps unique to Rome, he also decides that, until the Eagle’s name is cleared, he will need to operate under a new guise, that of The Golden Eagle. This fools no one, of course (The Golden Eagle’s costume is identical to that of The Red Eagle, only gold), least of all the police, and soon Rome finds his search for the real killers hampered by the diligent efforts of police captain Chart, a dedicated and longtime believer in the Eagle’s inherent rotten-ness.
The real force behind the assassinations is the Red Bamboo Gang, a shadowy organization with ties to Red China whose ultimate goal is the communist takeover of Thailand. While gang member Poowanant goes about murdering the gang’s political enemies under the fake Red Eagle guise, their leader, Bakin, sets about extorting money from the country’s wealthy businessmen by using an even more unconventional means. Bakin, we are told, learned hypnotism from “the same place as Rasputin”, and the real key to his power is that he can not only hypnotize others, but also “himself” and “his soul”. The result of this, in the first case, is him somehow being able to physically split himself in three — which, we are further told, makes him immortal — and, in the second case, being able to project his image via a red crystal Buddha statue that is given anonymously to all those who fail to meet his blackmail demands. The unvarying result of these poor souls seeing Bakin’s fearsome visage emanating from the seemingly innocuous gift is death by heart attack.
By means of his usual nocturnal incursions, strong-arm tactics, and tactical dalliances (which this time include the bedding of a gang higher-up’s comely niece), The Golden Eagle eventually susses out the gang’s plan. After discovering the whereabouts of Bakin’s Island headquarters, he notifies the authorities, thus setting in motion a climactic set piece that — judging from this film, Awasan Insee Daeng and Jao Insee — appears to be something of a Red Eagle standby: a hyper-violent and chaotic Bondian assault on the villain’s compound in which the Eagle, Oy and armies of armed-for-bear policemen run around firing at will at the evildoers’ colorfully outfitted foot soldiers, be they retreating or advancing. As this mini D-Day rages on the beach outside, the Eagle slips into the compound to stage his final confrontation with Bakin and his seemingly unstoppable commie voodoo.
Sprinkled throughout the machinations of Insee Thong‘s plot is a liberal amount of broad humor, as if we needed further cluing in that we shouldn’t be taking all of this too seriously. This consists of the usual crowd-pandering comic relief in the form of bungling policemen and officials, as well as Rome’s recurring drunken pratfalls, and also (we now know, thanks to the subtitles) lots of lowbrow jokes. It seems that Rome is not only a drunk, but also a bit of a potty mouth; In an early scene he tries to dissuade a friend from opening a possibly booby-trapped gift by telling him “It might have dog shit in it.” Also in evidence is that confusing brand of casual homophobia one comes across from time to time in Asian cinema, the kind that expresses hostility toward homosexuals while at the same time seeming to acknowledge them as a common and normal part of everyday life. Still, as groan-inducing as this all may be, Insee Thong has so much on its narrative plate that it never sets its feet in one place long enough for any of these missteps to completely trip it up.
Insee Thong‘s final scene sees The Red Eagle vindicated and suited up in all his restored glory. Triumphant over evil once more, he grabs hold of a rope ladder hanging from a waiting helicopter and is carried out across the sea and toward the horizon. The scene was shot in one long take without a stunt double. Mitr Chaibancha, unable to hold on as the helicopter started out over the ocean, lost his grasp on the ladder and fell hundreds of feet to the beach below. Originally the footage of this fatal fall was included in Insee Thong, but has since been replaced with a freeze frame accompanied by text describing the circumstances of Chaibancha’s death. A permanent shrine, featuring a statue of Chaibancha and numerous photographs from his films, was erected at the site of his fall and is still visited by his fans today. His death is further commemorated in one of the strangest DVD extras I’ve had the opportunity to witness, a documentary short entitled “The Cremation of Mitr Chaibancha”, in which attendant’s are shown holding Chaibancha’s corpse up to the temple windows so that the throngs of fans gathered outside can have a final look at him. As unpleasant as this may be for some to watch, it goes a lot farther than any mere words can to communicate the intensity of feeling that Chaibancha inspired in his public.
When the circumstances of a film’s creation are as tragic and momentous as those of Insee Thong, it’s tempting to reserve for it nothing but respectful praise. Still, it must be said that Insee Thong, while highly entertaining, is no great film — and it’s not too difficult to assess the flaws in its construction that account for that. There’s the aforementioned over-abundance of grating humor, for instance, as well as the fact that Chaibancha obviously isn’t in as near fighting trim as he was in previous outings. But to judge the film by those shortcomings would be unfair, because the charms that would mitigate them — all of those things that are wonderful about Insee Thong — are less easy to fully appraise. For, even with a forgiving attitude, its difficult for the film’s ragged condition not to provide some obstacles to its full appreciation — especially in those moments when it becomes obvious that there are substantial parts of Insee Thong missing. More than once, major plot developments (such as the death of a main character) are referred to in the past tense without having occurred on screen. In addition to this, the color in the existing print is considerably washed-out, making it possible for us only to imagine just how head-spinning its array of lurid tones might have been had we been able to see them in all their glory. Regardless of all of these concerns, however, the film is an important one that should be seen by anyone with an interest in Thai cinema. And for those who are simply curious, the hint of greater thrills it provides just might be enough to inspire further exploration.
In the years since Mitr Chaibancha’s death, The Red Eagle has continued to stake out a place in Thailand’s popular culture. The late nineties saw broadcast of a Red Eagle television series (notable to martial arts fans for featuring a young Tony Jaa as the lead’s stunt double) and, most recently, director Wisit Sasanatieng announced plans to bring the character back to the big screen. This last bit of news is a happy one for all concerned. Sasanatieng’s mind-blowing 2001 feature Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talai Jone) was widely — and justly — praised for its audacious visual style, but many in the West missed the fact that that style — popping with high-contrast, saturated colors — was a direct result of Fah Talai Jone being one long, passionate love letter to the very Thai cinema of the sixties of which Insee Daeng was a product. This deep affection, along with Sasanatieng’s international stature, puts him in a unique position to update this iconic Thai hero while at the same time introducing new audiences to the joys of that strange and vibrant corner of world cinema past from which he sprang.
And broader awareness of those earlier films could only be a good thing, right? After all, it could perhaps even lead to release on DVD of the other surviving films in the Red Eagle series — which is the type of thing that I’m generally in favor of. But I have to say that, in comparing Insee Thong to those earlier films, I found that the latter film was made somewhat less enjoyable for me by being made more comprehensible. After all, without those subtitles, I wouldn’t have known that it didn’t really make sense, and so would have remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that it was incomplete. Better just to pop in one of those unsubtitled VCDs of the earlier films and get lost in the colorful nonsense of it all. That to me is pure cinema, after all. And pure cinema is what these movies are all about.
Watching Feroz Khan and Vinod Khanna in Qurbani, you might conclude that their characters are simply too confident in their rugged masculinity to have any qualms about being overtly demonstrative in their affections for one another. However, if you consider that it’s the knee-weakeningly gorgeous Zeenat Aman, the alleged love interest of both men, who’s being wholly ignored while they engage in all their tender hugging, shoulder rubbing and cheek tugging, you might be lead to another conclusion altogether. Of course, men in Bollywood movies are famously free in their capacity for brotherly PDA. That the tendency seems to stand out in especially stark relief in this case is most likely due to the musky, grease-stained backdrop of balls-out, testosterone-bleeding action mayhem that Qurbani provides for it to play out against. In other words, Qurbani is one of those action movies that just goes that extra distance to confirm what a lot of us already thought these movies were all about in the first place.
There are a lot of times when I don’t remember a movie (sometimes mere hours after watching it), but I remember a particular scene or vague theme from the movie. This has come up several times before. For instance, before I rewatched it, all I could remember about Treasure of the Four Crowns was the scene where fireballs on ridiculously visible wires were flying around. With Sword and the Sorcerer, even though I watched that movie about seven billion times when I was ten years old, all I could remember was “guy falls into room of naked women” and “guy makes witch’s chest explode, then catches her heart.” Although there were many times when I remembered both the scene and the title of the movie in which it appeared, there are many other times when I have no recollection at all of the film’s title. It is in these instances that the Internet has proven to finally be worth all the trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of social and technological evolution finally lead to the moment when I can look up “screaming banshee on moors” and find out in which movie it appears.
That movie was, of course, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I thought it was Cry of the Banshee, but when I rewatched that film, I found that it contained no screaming banshee on the moors, or any banshee of any type for that matter. Luckily, the internet was there for me. And it was there for me again, very recently, when I was trying to remember the title of a movie about which all I could recall was, “frog man in center of hedge maze.” Actually, I remembered one other scene, which was of a woman looking out a dusty window and seeing some creepy guy in a cape dashing across the moonlit lawn, but it turns out that was a bizarre combination of a bit from The Maze combined with a bit from, I’ve been told, Munsters Go Home.
This time, the movie was The Maze, and when I finally tracked it down (because even if something isn’t in print, the internet also helps you find old copies), I discovered two ways in which my memory was faulty. First, of course, was the fact that I couldn’t remember the title of the movie I’d seen. Second, it turns out I’d never seen the movie. Yet still the concept “frog man in center of hedge maze” haunted me. It turns out that, when I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me the plot of this movie as a spooky bedtime story. Granted, stories about murderous frog men lurking in the center of a hedge maze may seem like a strange bedtime story, but I was a strange kid, and anyway, children’s bedtime stories used to be all full of cannibalism and witches and trolls who steal the fingernails of naughty little boys and girls who don’t eat their stinky boiled kale. In comparison to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, regaling me with the adventures of a man-frog in a hedge maze is small potatoes. But it did result in me spending most of my life thinking I’d seen the movie — which, as I explained, I discovered to be untrue once I actually did watch it. It also fueled, or so my theory goes, by continuing obsession with hedge mazes, especially hedge mazes that are occupied by weird magical creatures and monsters. Preferably sexy, naked nymphs and such, because if I have to be murdered by a charming but malicious magical being, I’d much rather it be a sexy flying girl with pointy ears and no clothes than a lurching man-frog in a threadbare suit or a shirtless guy with goat legs and a fondness for Zamfir records.
While I was disappointed in the subjectivity of my memory — what other grand adventures are merely lies I told myself so many times that even I started to believe them — I was happy to have this movie on hand to watch for the first time, even if the big reveal of the ghoulish dark family secret was already known to me. In fact, knowing the shock ending ahead of time is probably or th better. If you went into this film with some degree of anticipation, after all, the big reveal would be something of a letdown, to say the least. Conversely, if you go into a movie knowing little about it other than “frog man in center of hedge maze,” it’s much easier to be pleasantly surprised by the bulk of the film and pleasantly amused by the shoddiness of the nightmarish man in a monster suit waiting for you at the center of the labyrinth.
The Maze is a film tailor-made to appeal to me. It has a gloomy castle, gratuitous fog, a hedge maze, a cute woman in a bullet bra, creepy butlers, secret passages, and a “jolly good, old chap” kind of guy who smokes a pipe and enjoys motoring through the countryside whilst wearing his Harris tweed. And, of course, it’s got the man-frog. It’s black and white, and since it’s the sort of movie that is unlikely to ever be lovingly restored — that exhaustive process being restricted to classic works of art like Caligula and Zombie Lake — it remains available primarily in grainy, murky bootleg copies. Now, I’ve never been a quality freak, especially for old films. For newer ones, yeah sure. I want them looking the way they’re supposed to, at the correct aspect ration, in the correct language, with all the scenes intact. But for a lot of old films, I kind of like seeing them all grainy and beat up, with the dust specks and the random missing frames and that greatest of old film friends, the stray piece of hair. Not that I would turn down a proper copy of The Maze, or of any old film, but having a pristine and remastered version doesn’t mean that I’ll be willing to get rid of my crappy old copy. What I would like to see is a copy of The Maze that restores the film to its full 3D glory, even though from what I can judge, the 3D would be pretty lackluster, unless you are really excited by gratuitous “bat flies at the camera” 3D effects.
Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) is about to married to his lovely fiancee, Kitty (Veronica Hurst), and to celebrate they are frolicking in some sun-kissed paradise with, for some reason, Kitty’s dry-witted aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). Fun in the sun is interrupted when Gerald gets an urgent telegram from his uncle. It turns out that Gerald has a family castle in the highlands of Scotland, and all sorts of weird things happen in it. As a boy, Gerald remembers being locked in his room at night whenever he and his family visited the castle, and that there was a massive hedge maze into which no one was ever allowed. He departs to tend to whatever emergency his uncle has been contacted about, but Kitty and Edith become increasingly worried when they receive no word from him. When a letter does arrive, it only distresses them more. Gerald calls off the wedding, breaks his engagement to Kitty, and forbids them from ever visiting or contacting him again. Kitty is understandably perplexed, and rather than merely accept Gerald bizarre, out of the blue proclamation, she and Edith pack up and head for Scotland to see what’s up at the ominously named Craven Castle.
Gerald is, needless to say, distressed by their sudden arrival, just as they are distressed by the fact that his hair has turned white and he seems to have aged considerably. He is adamant that they must leave immediately, but Kitty keeps devising excuses to stick around until she has figured out what the heck is going on and why Gerald has suddenly become so hostile and elusive. Clues begin to prevent themselves later that very night, when they hear Gerald and his two servants dragging something out of the off-limits guard tower and into the maze. Kitty discovers a secret passage in her room that leads to a long-forgotten room with a window (most of the windows in the castle have long since been bricked up) and observes the men hauling something into the maze. On the second night, Edith fakes out Gerald and leaves her room before it is locked for the night. While exploring the castle, she stumbles across…some hideous thing…that scurries from her view an disappears into the shadows before she can get a proper look at it. This tears it for Gerald, who insists that they get lost. Kitty counters by arranging to have a group of their friends show up, hoping that familiar faces and friendship will snap Gerald out of his funk and force him to come clean about the mysterious shenanigans. Her scheme almost works. Gerald even smiles at some point. But then it all goes horribly wrong. Everything comes to a head that night, and the horrible truth is revealed.
The Maze depends heavily on atmosphere. For the bulk of the movie, very little actually happens. Small tidbits are thrown the viewer’s way to keep them interested — a fleeting glimpse of a glistening creature, a weird webbed footprint, the frequent foreboding stares of the butlers — but if this sort of movie isn’t your thing, it’s going to bore you pretty quickly. Lucky for me, this sort of movie is my thing, and I found the whole thing engrossing. Richard Carlson, who already had a long list of credits, including at least one other Scotland-based horror tale (an episode of Lights Out entitled “The Devil in Glencairn”), does a wonderful job of transforming Gerald from happy-go-lucky regular guy to world-weary crank, and he does so in a manner that makes you both sympathetic (you know he bears some horrible family secret) and irritated (why won’t he just trust someone?). But then, I guess I’ve never had a giant frog for a great great great great uncle, so who am I to judge? I do, however, have an uncle who refuses to put his teeth in, and I don’t think it’s an entirely dissimilar circumstance.
Veronica Hurst, aside from being gorgeous, also does fairly well with a character who stays within the realistic bounds of femininity at the time (oh for the days women investigated unspeakable horrors whilst dressed in a shimmering cocktail dress and heels) but also emerges as strong-willed and determined in her unwillingness to simply let Gerald be a spooky jerk. That said, she may be one of the worst amateur sleuths in the history of amateur sleuthing. Although she constantly foils Gerald’s plans to send her and Edith away, nothing ever really comes of the time she buys herself. Edith, for that matter, is set up as sort of the stolid voice of reason, but her sneaking about never bears much fruit, either. It gets to be frustrating at points, and even though both women are fairly well portrayed for the time, one can’t help but with there was a bit more of the modern in them, thus allowing Kitty to grab Gerald by his tweed lapels and knock some sense into him. I mean, he has a dark spooky family secret, but it’s not that dark or spooky. Kitty sort of stand sup to him by defying his orders to skedaddle, but it would have been nice to see her actually confront the guy and not let him glower and frown his way out of it.
The supporting cast,lead by Katherine Emery as Edith and Michael Pate as William the butler, is also excellent. With the exception of Veronica Hurst, who was only in her very early twenties at the time, The Maze is yet another in a long line of classic examples of how a film can be lent an added air of gravity and importance by filling the cast with actual adults rather than teenagers. These are all experienced players, and they handle the film with dedication, so much so that when the final reveal of the creature proves to be somewhat comical both by today’s standards as well as, I would assume, the standards of the time, it hardly matters. They sell it regardless, and after the initial guffaw at the sight of this man-frog, The Maze makes it really easy to get over creature design short-comings. It helps that the creature is only on screen for a brief moment, but what helps more is that the entire cast sells the tragedy of the situation.
There is also some attempt to justify scientifically the appearance of the creature, who it turns out, is a horribly deformed member of the MacTeam family. Kitty discovers Gerald reading a book about human deformation, and Gerald explains that the human fetus goes through many stages of evolution before obtaining its final form, including one that is amphibian in nature. As with most horror film science, the end result is somewhat dubious but wholly believable within the confines of the film’s reality. Once again, this is the product of a cast that is committed to selling the plot of the film, even at its most outlandish moments.
Complimenting and, usually, overpowering the cast is the cinematography, production design, and director. William Cameron Menzies isn’t exactly a well-known name among modern horror fans, but he directed a number of early horror efforts, including 1931’s The Spider and 1932’s Chandu the Magician, both films that drew heavily upon the world of magic and illusionists, as well as 1936’s Things to Come (based on the predictions of H.G. Wells) and 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad. However, what’s probably more important to the success of The Maze is his long career and vast experience as a production designer and art director. In this role, Menzies is perhaps better known. His experience in this field reaches as far back as 1918 and includes a whole slew of famous films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdhad, Pride of the Yankees, and in 1939, a little something called Gone with the Wind. A couple Oscars and a few other assorted awards later, he found himself directing The Maze, as well as serving as the film’s art and production designer. These multiple roles make it possible to say that the movie is, every step of the way, the director’s vision. It also means that the guy responsible for the burning of Atlanta sequence is also the guy responsible for the man-frog in this film. Menzies was no stranger to horror of science fiction, having previously directed the sci-fi cult classic Invaders from Mars. Although the direction itself in The Maze is best characterized as “blandly competent,” the unassuming nature of the direction allows the mood to take center stage.
And that’s a wise decision, since it’s the film’s strongest character and was obviously the aspect in which Menzies was more interested. We barely get a glimpse of Craven Castle (obviously because of budgetary concerns — this is a low budget film, after all), but when we do, it is all twisted brambles and gnarled trees. When Kitty and Edith first arrive, the moors are awash in fog. Everything inside the castle is shadows and gloom. Even when sets aren’t draped in moroseness and cobwebs, it feels like they are. When the atmosphere takes front stage, the film is very effective. When it relies on the script, it is decidedly less so. And even within Menzies’ otherwise acceptable if pedestrian directing style, there are a number of curious decisions. Most noticeable is the bizarre set-up during narration sequences featuring Katherine Emery, which are framed so that she is visible from the chin up at the very bottom of the screen, with the rest of the frame filled with nondescript ceiling and room. If I had to guess, I would say this was not an artistic decision, but was rather the product of a camera being improperly positioned and there not being enough time, money, or interest in reshooting these sequences. Still, these are minor gaffes in comparison to the film’s biggest misstep, which is promising a horrible monster terrifying beyond all belief and then delivering…well, you know by now.
Augie Lohman was the special effects supervisor, so one has to assume that blame for the appearance of The Maze‘s signature monster should be pinned on him — though Menzies ultimately made the decision to go with the creation. Judging by his long list of credits, which includes special effects for everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick to Barbarella, one has to assume that Lohman was good at what he did. But The Maze represents his first real foray into the realm of the fantastic, having previously worked on adventure and crime films. I don’t know if it was his relative inexperience (hard to believe since three years later he was working magic in Moby Dick), or a function of time and money that resulted in the final product. To some degree, he was hamstrung by the story. The Maze was based on a novel by Maurice Sandoz, so the nature of the beast as already set. I would imagine that even the most adept effects man in the early 1950s would have a hard time when saddled with the assignment “make me a man-frog!” Modern effects technology could probably dream up something more effective, but then, modern scripting would probably ditch the idea of a frog entirely and go with something more legitimately terrifying, like a boll weevil or a marmoset. So maybe Lohman was just faced with an impossible task and did the best he could.
Which, in all honesty, was pretty bad. If you didn’t know ahead of time that the monster was going to be a colossal let-down, then that first reveal, when Kitty stumbled upon the creature while wandering desperately through the maze, would pretty much undo all the hard work the atmosphere of dread put into the rest of the film. To make matters worse, rather than walking upright like a man, the frog creature is down on all fours — which might have worked it the suit was designed to better mimic a four-legged creature. Instead, it’s designed in the same way that the Anguilas costume from the Godzilla movies was designed, meaning that the hind legs are bent because the guy in the suit is just crawling around. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems like even the makers of The Maze couldn’t justify trying to pass off a frog’s “ribbit” as a terrifying noise and so instead rely on…elephant noises? Huh. How about that? The end effect is singularly laughable.
On the scale of scary animals, frogs have to be at the bottom of the list. I mean, maybe even lower than giant killer bunnies. Sure, some people think frogs are “icky,” and like me, many of you know from first-hand knowledge that if you catch one, they are going to defend themselves by peeing on your hand, but other than that, the number of people genuinely terrified by frogs must be very small and limited to a few women who had bad experiences as girls with naughty little country boys dropping frogs down the back of their dress (not that I ever did that to anyone), and members of various Amazonian tribes who have to deal with those frogs that are the size of a fingernail but will cause you to die an agonizing and certain death by poison if you touch them. Oh, and maybe Spider-Man, who I think once tackled a dastardly frog guy. Even the Australians, who have come as close to anyone to doing actual real world combat against giant frogs, consider them a nuisance more than a nightmare of hell that will cause a woman to hold her left hand up in front of her face while biting the knuckles on her right. I mean, sure. If I was out at night, wandering through the hedge maze of a spooky Scottish castle, and I stumbled upon a gigantic frog, I’m sure I’d be taken aback, perhaps even a little startled. But once the initial shock wears off, and provided he doesn’t shoot a gigantic sticky tongue out at me, I think I’d recover fairly quickly and go into “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” mode — which is a mode I go into with disturbing frequency.
It should be noted, however, that the above statement is only suitable for instances in which you encounter an actual giant frog in a hedge maze or a haunted cove. Saying “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” whilst in a gym locker room or standing at the urinals lends the phrase an entirely different and perhaps controversial air.
In the end, though, the monster is played more for tragedy than terror, so if you know in advance that the build-up is let down by what’s being built up to, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the movie, have you chuckle at the sight of the monster when it finally shows up, then move on with very little harm done. There have certainly been sillier looking monsters (Giant Claw, I’m looking in your direction), but few that are surrounded by as much somber atmosphere and seriousness.
I have a tremendous affinity for this film, even though I think when my mom told it to me as a bedtime story, she changed things up a bit. Because I’m pretty sure in my version of the movie, the man-frog lived in the center of the maze (in actuality, he lives in the locked guard tower and is carried tot he maze at night so he can swim in the pond in its center) and the dragging and scraping sounds were made by the servants dragging some poor chump out to the maze to be eaten alive (the reality in the movie being that the monster never actually kills anyone, though one maid dies of fright upon seeing it). But still, after setting the record straight in my own mind, I still think The Maze is an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, film that boasts some tremendous mood and a hearty chuckle. The script does tend to run in place for too long — Kitty diligently investigates the situation but never makes any real progress — but I have a pretty high tolerance for films comprised mostly of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping scotch and pondering things. I didn’t find The Maze to be boring even when it was biding its time, and I think the build-up is quite nice even if the pay-off is more side-splitting than horrifying. Screenwriter Daniel Ullman, who worked mostly in television but also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island (where his script is once again upstaged by production design and special effects), redeems himself int he film’s final moments, which actually succeed in making you feel sorry for our doomed man-frog beastie, but the bulk of The Maze, be warned, is people sitting in chairs discussing things that should be resolved much quicker than they are.
So I reckon if you are looking for a great monster and cracking good dialog, you’re probably better off elsewhere. But I found a lot to like in The Maze, even if my mom’s version of the movie was better, and I would gladly wander through it again…even knowing what’s waiting in the center for me.
Release Year: 1953 | Country: United States | Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lillian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes | Writer: Daniel Ullman | Director: William Cameron Menzies | Cinematographer: Harry Neumann and William Menzies | Music: Marlin Skiles