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more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro.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
There are those in the world who write about the career of Rutger Hauer in much the same way that other people write about the film career of Elvis Presley, the general approach being one of “ain’t that a damn shame?” Hauer made a name for himself in America when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s seminal dystopian sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner as Roy Batty, the leader of a gang of renegade androids being hunted down by Harrison Ford, presumably because they kidnapped his family or were on his plane without first obtaining the proper permissions. Hauer was already a familiar face to the ten non-Dutch people who watch Dutch films, and among that small population, the five fans of Dutch cinema who would actually watch Paul Verhoven films. When he appeared as a ruthless terrorist in Night Hawks, people started to take notice. Here was something interesting about the guy. And something scary. When a screenwriter told you Rutger Hauer was a murderous madman, you believed them.
A year later, Blade Runner catapulted Hauer into even wider American consciousness, and it seemed like he was destined for great things. But Blade Runner wasn’t quite the hit then that it has become today. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in the fantasy film Ladyhawke, which while not a blockbuster, certainly earned its fair share of fans and let Americans see Hauer as something more than a scary cyborg who howls, drives nails through his own palm, and spends his spare time catching pigeons and jumping around on rooftops. Hauer went on to appear in a string of modest genre hits throughout the 1980s, including The Hitcher, where he fed Pony Boy severed fingers, Flesh + Blood, where he competed for screen time with the frequently nude Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Blood of Heroes, where he and Joan Chen got to slam dog skulls onto a stick in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, while each of these films found an audience, none of them became much more than cult hits. Hauer’s intensity, his on-screen charisma, and his scary-yet-hot look seemed to imply that he was going to be big, just as soon as he found the right movie. And then something weird happened.
Exactly when and where, I can’t say for certain, though I’m willing to say things started to derail round about Blind Fury, which casts Hauer as a blind swordsman fighting the Mob. The modern-day mob, that is, the one with guns and hand grenades and black Crown Victorias; the one that would probably be able to kill just about any swordsman, let alone a blind one. Couple that with the movie where Hauer played a rogue cop who doesn’t play by the rules, battling evil terrorist Gene Simmons, and things really start to wobble. His long-anticipated portrayal of the vampire Lestat (Apparently he was Anne Rice’s personal choice) never happened, and by the time the movie was made, Hauer was too old, and the role went to Tom Cruise.
Throughout the 1990s, Hauer appeared in a series of misfires coupled with small roles (usually as the villain) in films with cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which wasn’t a hit at the time) and a role in the Most Dangerous Game inspired Surviving the Game, where he got to hunt Ice T. After initial excitement Hauer generated when he made the leap to America, it seems like studios lost any faith in him as a draw. Before too long, he found himself in direct to video film hell, and there he has remained alongside Seagal, Van Damme, and Mark Dacascos (actually, frequently alongside Mark Dacascos), emerging from time to time to appear in a supporting role in higher profile projects like Batman Begins and Smallville.
You could bemoan the state of his career and look at his appearance in things like Dracula III and Scorcher as something to be sad about as you think about what could have been. On the other hand, Hauer is one of that breed of actor who works consistently, averaging four or five movies a year, getting free vacations to whatever location is being used that week, and showing up for small roles in big films at least once a year. Most actors would be more than happy to fail in the way Hauer has failed.
Redline, which was originally titled Deathline, has nothing to do with the underground street racing circuit. For a movie about that, you will have to go see Redline — the one that features a car on the front cover, instead of Rutger Hauer. Both movies feature lots of hot ladies in really tiny mini-skirts. But the Redline we want is a movie that sees Hauer and his partners Merrick (Dacascos, who is Russian this week) and Marina (Yvonne Scio) as a trio of smugglers in the Russia of the near future, running some sort of biotech you would assume becomes central to the plot at some point. It never does, but it does give us an early opportunity for Merrick and Marina to betray Hauer’s Wade and shoot him dead, presumably over the lack of judgment he demonstrates in choosing his outfit from the Glenn Fry “Smuggler’s Blues” collection at Sears. Merrick then gets to be doubly evil, thus justifying his growing of a goatee, by betraying Marina as well. The corpses are picked up by Russian police, and for some reason Special Prosecutor Vanya (Randall William Cook) decides to use top secret military technology to bring Wade back from the dead. Thus revived, Wade promptly sets out to do two things: see some boobs, and kill Merrick.
Wade seems to have very little problem with the first task, as the Russia of the near future is much like the Russia of the present: full of hot chicks in skimpy outfits, dancing to bad techno music. Somehow, among all the aspiring models, porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes that Eastern Europe has to throw at him, Wade ends up meeting Katya (also Scio), who happens to look just like Marina. One would expect that this, a story about a resurrected man on a mission of vengeance encountering the a woman who is the spitting image of his deceased true love, would then go right into Rutger Hauer getting wrapped up like a mummy and doing that stiff-armed swat to the shoulder that has killed so many old British guys who dared disturb the tomb of Amon-Ra. Instead, it just continues with the second of Wade’s goals, which is to kill Merrick, who has become a player in the Russian mob, though one whose position seems tenuous. I reckon the Russian mob has a thirty-day trial period like any business thinking of hiring a contractor to a full time position.
Of course, if that was the plot, this movie would be far too simple. So we get layer upon layer of ulterior motives. Why did Vanya bring Wade back from the dead? Why do they keep cutting to random scenes of the Russian president (Agnes Banfalvi) giving speeches? Why is Katya helping Wade? Does Mark Dacascos own any shirts, and if he does, is he capable of buttoning the top few buttons? Is there going to be an ill-advised fight scene between Dacascos and Hauer? On the way to answering these and other questions the movie won’t make you care about very much, we get to see Rutger Hauer shoot a lot of people. He also gets beat up by a naked female body builder and a topless female boxer who seem to be hanging out in a mansion-turned-nightclub for no real reason other than all Russian mob meetings include a techno dance party and naked female boxers and bodybuilders, gets to have sex with a couple women in a shower (oh yes — there will be naked Rutger Hauer), gets to have sex with Yvonne Scio, and probably does it a few more times, but I lost track. So if you’ve been looking for a movie where most of the running time is devoted to Rutger Hauer shooting and screwing, this is your lucky day.
There not much in the way of redeeming factors for this film, but that’s never stopped me before. I seem to have a limitless capacity to appreciate dumb direct to DVD movies starring Rutger Hauer and/or Mark Dacascos. Couple that with my previously established weakness for what most of the world considers two-star sci-fi films, and I really had no hope of coming out of Redline as a member of the minority of people who actually enjoyed the film. It’s science fiction only in the most bare-boned sense. Hauer and his pals run illegal biotech, but that never matters. There are devices that let you have VR-style dreams, mostly about banging a couple hot Russian chicks in the shower, but we already have the internet, which is full of places where you can go to pretend you are banging two hot Russian chicks in the shower. The future looks pretty much like the present — which probably isn’t that far off from the truth — and the remnants of Soviet Russia that are littered around lend the film an interesting look. The sprawling mansions, underground dance clubs, and crumbling Soviet-era tenements afford the film a cheap but convincing setting that is a far cry from Blade Runner but better than, say, Flash Future Kungfu.
Hauer’s performances can be hit or miss, depending on his mood. He’s actually fairly engaging in this movie, even if he spends half of it on autopilot. There are moments when he actually acts, and you get to see a little flash of the magic that Hauer once possessed. He’s a little heavier these days than when he played the ultimate combat cyborg and ran around in little black leather biker shorts (obviously purchased from the same store Sting shopped at for Dune), but for a cat in his 50s, he’s still doing OK, and he certainly looks to be in better shape for this film that he was in a lot of his previous direct to video outings — possibly because he knew he was going to be in the nude, as they say, though not as frequently as his female co-star, Yvonne Scio.
Scio’s a beauty (I’d go with Kylie Minogue beets Anna Falchi), and she’s a far better actress than one usually expects from these sorts of films. Redline seems to be her first English language film after a career in her native Italy. Since then, she’s appeared in some bit parts, some television shows, and probably most notable to the sort of people who frequent Teleport City, the Sci-Fi Channel original movie A.I. Assault. I quite like her. She has natural charisma and energy, and even though she’s from the “skinny ass-kicker” mold I so rarely buy into, she handles the action scenes believably. The final revelation regarding her character is somewhat ridiculous, but then, pretty much everything about this movie is somewhat ridiculous. Plus, she’s an actual woman, born in 1969, not a teenager, and she’s kept her freckles. Yeah, I dig Yvonne Scio.
Completing the main cast is our man Mark Dacascos, the Don “The Dragon” Wilson of the 21st century. Dacascos got his start back in the 80s, with a series of bit parts and minor television roles. In 1993, he starred in a movie called Only the Strong, which tried unsuccessfully to convince people that a martial arts based danced practiced mostly by dumpy hippy chicks in dirty linen pants and white dudes with dreadlocks and devil sticks was somehow awesome and the preferred style of combat for all vicious street thugs in Rio, who apparently are more than willing to put their bloodlust on hold long enough for the resident dude with a boom box to find a song with the right rhythm for the fight. While that movie may not have been any more successful than Rooftops at convincing us that capoeira would ever defeat gymkata or Tony Jaa with big-ass elephant tusks strapped to his arms, it did convince a lot of people that Dacascos was someone on which they should keep an eye. In the early 1990s, a lot of Americans were discovering Hong Kong cinema and getting caught up in the films of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao (among others). So the folks prone to paying attention to such things wondered if there wasn’t an American star who could even come close. Exposure to Chan’s hyper-kinetic, stunt-driven action style meant that audiences were no longer going to buy into guys like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The answer from the U.S. seemed to come in the form of one of two people: Brandon Lee or Mark Dacascos. But then Brandon died, and Dacascos just never clicked with audiences. He went on to star in Double Dragon, a movie that asked audiences to believe that Mark Dacascos would play second kungfu fiddle to a guy from Party of Five — the most unbalanced kungfu match-up since Bruce Lee fought Gig Young. Dacascos then became the go-to guy for direct to video action films now that Don Wilson was slowing down, and they were unable to fit anymore numerals after the Bloodfist title. Even in DTV hell, Dacascos managed to shine from time to time. He starred in both Crying Freeman and Sanctuary, two adaptations of manga drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami. When they adapted The Crow for a television, Dacascos played the role formerly inhabited by Brandon Lee (more or less — I know they are all supposed to be different Crows, but really — a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up is a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up). He appeared in the rotten Hong Kong action film China Strike Force, a movie that decided the final fight shouldn’t be between Dacascos and Aaron Kwok (two actors who know how to fight on screen), but should instead be between Kwok and Coolio…on top of a precariously balanced sheet of glass, meaning that 1) the fight consists mostly of the guys trying to keep their balance and 2) the fight would have stunk anyway, because it was Coolio versus Aaron Kwok. Shortly thereafter, he reminded people how awesome he could be when he showed up in Chris Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf as a silent native American bad-ass.
Since then, he settled into a comfortable and prolific career in movies only people like us would ever watch, including Solar Strike, The Hunt for Eagle One, Alien Agent, and of more recent infamy, I Am Omega, The Asylum film studio’s quickie rip-off of both The Omega Man and I Am Legend (Asylum being the people who gave us such films as Snakes on a Train, The Da Vinci Treasure, and Pirates of Treasure Island, among countless others). Although he usually ends up throwing a punch or a kick here and there, these days he relies very little on his athleticism and martial arts prowess, concentrating instead on his ability to sit in hot tubs, shoot people, and pass for pretty much ethnicity the screenplay calls for.
He also seems to appear with shocking frequency alongside Rutger Hauer, making them sort of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of crappy direct to video action and sci-fi films. The partnership that began here with Redline continued with Scorcher and not one but two Hunt for Eagle One movies. Here’s to wishing them a long and fruitful joint career as the lords of direct to video action films.
Speaking of the lords of direct to video, you can’t escape any discussion of Redline — and lord knows the world is crawling with people who want to discuss a sci-fi action film in which Rutger Hauer gets beat up by a naked female bodybuilder — without mentioning the director, Tibor Takacs. The man is responsible for at least one film a week that plays on the Sci-Fi Channel. He’s perhaps best known for directing the 1987 cult classic The Gate, but since then he’s blessed the world with a whole slew of horrible crap that I seem to watch with alarming regularity and joy: Viper, Tornado Warning, Rats, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Ice Spiders, Mega Snake…Mansquito! He gave the world Mansquito, for crying out loud! And somewhere in there, he managed to direct a Sabrina the Teenage Witch film. His relationship with Dacascos goes as far back as Sanctuary and Redline, both in 1997, and they worked together again on The Crow television series. You know, if you told me that as of tomorrow, all films were going to be directed by Tibor Takacs, star Mark Dacascos and Rutger Hauer (and hot chicks in short skirts), and involve fighting giant snakes and/or spiders, my only real regret would be that there would then be no more Uwe Boll films.
Come to think of it, why hasn’t Mark Dacascos been in an Uwe Boll film yet?
Takacs also wrote the screenplay for Redline, along with a guy named Brian Irving who seems to be Takacs’ frequent partner in crime. They collaborated together on Rats, Sanctuary, and Nostradamus. Like I said, turn on the Sci-Fi Channel any Saturday, and you are pretty likely to see a film these guys made.
I suppose that this being a work of speculative fiction, one could search for meaning amid all the chaos and scenes of Rutger Hauer killing people. Beneath the sci-fi and action film veneer, this ends up being a political thriller as well, possibly even a spy film. But to read too much meaning into anything is to ignore the greater body of work this writer-director has created. His vision of the future plays like a version of modern-day Russia with a a bunch of Strange Days grafted on to get the film put in the science fiction section. There’s absolutely no reason the mysterious Special Prosecutor needs to resurrect a dead Rutger Hauer in order to sick him on the members of a Russian gang as part of some convoluted plot to assassinate the too-friendly and reform-minded president. It seems like his method of planning is to never let anything be done in one step if it can be done in ten. The guy might have even succeeded with his coup had he spent more time figuring out how to just shoot the president, and less time bringing Rutger Hauer back from the dead and hatching assorted schemes with Mark Dacascos, in an attempt to manipulate Dacascos into crossing his mob bosses, so that…oh, really. You know what? Very little of it makes a lick of sense, and if you try and dissect it any further than “Rutger Hauer looks at boobs and tries to kill Mark Dacascos,” you are probably going to give up. At least Takacs didn’t make the future some totally dystopian Blade Runner meets 1984 (this being before The Matrix) cliche.
In fact, I like the whole idea of scifi films set in Russia and Eastern Europe. The 80s and 90s were dominated by the William Gibson-esque assumption that the future would be dominated by Japan, and everything would be controlled by steely-eyed yakuza in black suits, with a tendency to still use samurai swords even though the rest of the world moved on to guns a couple centuries ago. While Japan still enjoys the reputation of happening fifty years in the future thanks in no small part to their love of flashing cell phones and disturbingly realistic robotic love dolls, it turns out that the future is probably going to play out in places like Russia, China, and oh, let’s say India even though they don’t like science fiction. Russia certainly lends itself to easy sci-fi. You hardly even have to dress the set. Now all we need is a movie where the dejected future samurai corporate hitmen of Japan have to fight for their livelihood against a bunch of future Russian mob corporate hitmen.
So, what have we said? None of it makes any sense, right? The pace is awkward. Not exactly slow, because Rutger Hauer is always killing people or getting it on, or Mark Dacascos is always getting in or out of the hot tub, but there’s no real energy to most of the action. It’s a Canadian co-production, and Canadian films often have a weird feel tot he pace. But then, Canadian films are rarely this mean and scummy, so that compensates somewhat for the meandering clip. Much of the film feels like running in place, albeit fairly amusing running in place, because Rutger Hauer is walking around blowing the hell out of anything and everyone with almost no consequences at all (eventually, they put a bounty out on him, which delights the bloodthirsty hobo vigilantes to no end) and not the slightest concern. As far as we can tell, he was a smuggler, but not a killer, so for him to suddenly become a nonchalant killing machine who will just haul off and blow away anyone with even the most tenuous appearance of guilt or malice is…well, I guess if you were a dead guy walking around Russia looking to avenge your own murder, maybe that’s the sort of thing that makes you put less value on life. Or maybe Tibor Tikacs just didn’t give a shit and figured that watching Rutger Hauer shoot like a thousand guys is more fun than watching Rutger Hauer shoot one guy then agonize about the moral implications of his actions afterward.
All that negative stuff aired, it’s probably no surprise that I actually kind of like Redline. It’s a modestly entertaining, largely tasteless exercise in gratuitous sex, sleaze, and violence, and that’s usually all it takes to make me happy. Throw in some engaging actors, lots of skimpy outfits, big guns, a ludicrous plot, insane amounts of murder that never seem to attract the attention of the police, and Rutger Hauer getting the sleeper hold put on him by a naked bodybuilder chick, and you have the recipe for a decent if idiotic trip to the near future.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: Canada and The Netherlands | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Mark Dacascos, Yvonne Scio, Patrick Dreikauss, Randall William Cook, Michael Mehlmann, Ildiko Szucs, Istvan Kanizsay, John Thompson, Gabor Peter Vincze, Scott Athea, Attila Arpa | Writer: Tibor Takacs and Brian Irving | Director: Tibor Takacs | Cinematographer: Zoltan David | Music: Guy Zerafa | Producer: Brian Irving | Alternate Titles: Deathline, Armageddon, The Syndicate
The fact is that, when I’m writing about a movie, I’m much less interested in telling you how good or bad it is than I am in justifying the time I spent watching it. As such, I’m looking for those points of interest — either contained in the film itself or in the circumstances of its production — that will make the whole endeavor seem worthwhile, and prevent me going to my grave fretting over how I could have better spent that six hours I invested in repeat viewings of Tahalka.
Providing a break from the rigors of that approach are those occasions on which I encounter films whose WTF quotient is so high that they exist on a plane beyond simple judgments of good or bad–the mystery of whose very existence overshadows any questions of quality. Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen is such a film. And like another fine example of the species, the Turkish superhero mash-up 3 Dev Adam, Hanuman achieves that rarified WTF air by means of positioning some very familiar elements within a very foreign context. It’s just hard to dismiss a shockingly gory movie that teams the world’s most beloved giant Japanese superhero with the Hindu monkey god for not measuring up to some notional standard of “coherence” or “watchability”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that there aren’t those who consider Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen bad — or who, in fact, revile it. None of them, however, are going to argue that it’s not one weird little foo dog of a movie.
The thing about Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, though, is that once you start looking into the circumstances that surrounded its making — and the events that occurred in its aftermath — the actual content of the movie itself begins to seem less and less strange. In fact, the story that Hanuman sits at the center of is so insane that, now that I’ve become more familiar with its details, I’m worried that my summary of the movie, if I ever get to it, will be a little on the blase side, like “Oh, and then Hanuman and Ultraman gleefully tear the flesh from one of the monsters until there’s nothing left but a giant skeleton puppet which dances around a bit before collapsing in a heap. YAWN!” Still, I promise to bring all of my not-very-considerable professionalism to bear on the task of telling it, without losing site of my greater goal of bringing the movie itself to life for you with the magic of language.
That story begins in 1962, when a young man by the name of Sompote Saengduenchai left his native Thailand for Japan, having been granted a Thai government scholarship to study cinematography in that country. His studies would include an apprenticeship at Japan’s legendary Toho studios, during which Saengduenchai would come into contact with Eiji Tsubaraya, the master of Japanese special effects. Tsubaraya was in the middle of his career peak at the time, having over the past several years been a primary engine in the creation of such classic Japanese movie monsters as Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. He was also on the verge of starting his own company, Tsubaraya Productions, which would go on to achieve great success in the world of television, in addition to continued success in motion pictures. Saengduenchai would eventually characterize his youthful encounter with Tsubaraya as the beginning of a long and close friendship, though, in truth, its exact nature and details would later become the subject of dispute. Whatever the case, however, there is no doubt that it had a profound effect on the path that Saengduenchai’s career would take — and grave repercussions for Tsubaraya and the company he was to found.
Upon returning to Thailand, Saengduenchai formed his own company, Chaiyo Productions, and went about fashioning himself as a sort-of Thai version of Eiji Tsubaraya. He began to produce and direct a string of special effects-driven and giant monster movies the likes of which had not previously been seen in the Thai film industry, and would continue to produce such films well into his career. (Of all of these, the only one to receive an English language release was his 1981 contribution — under the name Sompote Sands — to the Jaws-but-with-a-crocodile micro-genre, Crocodile, which featured a giant crocodile whose proportions changed radically from one shot to the next.) One of the first of these was 1973’s Ta Tien, which featured a kaiju-style battle between reanimated giant statues of Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, two demon-like guardian spirits from Thai folklore. Of course, on the way to presenting that climactic battle royal, Saengduenchai also provided his audience with scenes of a giant suitmation frog smoking a giant cigarette, a discomfitingly ponderous dinosaur fight, and one of the most extensive and gratuitous skinny dipping sequences in cinema history.
The above serves to underscore a major difference between Tsubaraya and Saengduenchai, which is that, while Tsubaraya’s work was generally infused with a sense of fun and wonder that made it for the most part family friendly, watching Saengduenchai’s films, it’s easy to find yourself wondering who they were intended for at all. A good example of this is Hanuman and the Five Riders, a direct sequel to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which, along with its very kiddie-cozy depiction of masked superheroes from the Japanese Kamen Rider series and its offshoots fighting with men in rubber monster suits, also features tons of cheap-but-nonetheless-extreme gore and a Coffin Joe-like vision of Hell that includes copious amounts of female nudity. Suffice it to say that, cultural differences aside, when you watch these movies, you definitely get the idea that Sompote Saengduenchai is one weird dude.
As for Tsubaraya, in the years immediately following his first meeting with Saengduenchai he would produce what would become one of his most loved — not to mention lucrative — creations: the skyscraper-sized kaiju-fighting superhero Ultraman. Ultraman would make his way to the States just a couple of years after his 1966 Japanese debut and begin a long life in syndication on American television. As such, he would become a favorite of successive generations of our great nation’s hyperactive ten year old boys, not to mention the cause of untold playground injuries, and the inspiration for some of those ten year old boys, once grown, to inflict Power Rangers on generations to come.
But while America had only the very manageable one Ultraman to account for, the Japanese had a whole army of them to keep track of. This is because, whenever one Ultra series would end, Tsubaraya Productions, rather than simply producing a second season, would instead create a sequel series featuring a whole new Ultra hero. The initial wave of Ultra hero series, between 1966 and 1975, resulted in seven separate, successive shows, including Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Ace, Return of Ultraman (which, despite the name, featured a completely different Ultraman), Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Leo, all of which included, in addition to their main Ultramen, ancillary Ultra characters as well. This proliferation has continued, with some interruptions, to the present day, with the depressing result that a concept as simple as a giant superhero beating up men in monster suits has grown to become as needlessly complex as the Lord of the Rings cycle.
One of the many places where Ultraman was very popular was Thailand, and in 1973 Sompote Saengduenchai approached Tsubaraya Productions with the idea of coproducing a series of films that would team their heroes with figures from Thai folklore and mythology. Sadly, Tsubaraya senior had passed away by this time, and his son Noboru was now in charge of the company. For whatever reasons, Noboru saw fit to give this idea the go-ahead, and the first of these features, Giant and Jumbo A — a teaming of the aforementioned Thai giant Yuk Wud Jaeng with one of Tsubaraya Production’s lesser heroes, Jamborg Ace — went into production. Following immediately on the heels of Giant and Jumbo A came Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which featured Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Jack (from Return of Ultraman), Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Zoffy (a supporting Ultraman introduced in the original Ultraman series) joining with Hanuman to defeat an assortment of monsters salvaged from past Ultra episodes. (That, if you’re counting, only adds up to six Ultramen, which suggests that the “7” in the title includes Mother of Ultra, the matriarch of the whole Ultra clan, who’s seen only in the sequences on the Ultra brothers’ home planet, M-78.)
To me, a mystery equal to that of the circumstances surrounding Ultraman and Hanuman becoming partners on screen is how figures of Hindu mythology such as Hanuman came to be part of the culture of Thailand, a predominately Buddhist country. Of course, Hanuman was an important character in the Ramayana, a central epic of the Hindu religion. The flow of trade between India and Thailand insured that the Ramayana would eventually make its way to Thailand and, when it did, it apparently became quite the hot read. As a result the Thais adapted their own, more culturally and geographically specific version of the Ramayana in the form of the Ramakien. Though practitioners of pure Hinduism never became more than a minority in Thailand, the symbols and characters from the epic became so entrenched in the culture of the country that today most Buddhists there see no incongruity in paying tribute to Hindu deities alongside their observance of traditional Buddhist practices. Shrines to Hindu gods such as Ganesh, Vishnu and Hanuman can be found throughout Thailand, and they are visited by Hindus and Buddhists alike.
Figures from the Ramayana play a part in the prologue to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, as do the members of the Ultra family. In fact, the whole film strikes an interesting balance between being a Bollywood style “Mythological” and a kiddie sci fi movie. Scenes of scientists in space-age control rooms launching rockets are interspersed with those of Hanuman traversing the heavens to make appeals to Rama as he circles the Earth in his flaming chariot. Representing a sort of meeting-in-the-middle is the fact that Ultraman and company are presented in a seemingly more God-like manner than in their usual incarnations, constantly watching over the Earth from their perch in the heavens and descending from the clouds to intervene in times of trouble.
At the opening of the film, Thailand is suffering a severe drought, and we see a group of children doing a ritual dance in the ruins of an old temple in the hopes of bringing rain. The obvious leader of the group is a boy named Piko, who is wearing a Hanuman mask and doing a dance involving lots of scratching and monkey-like capering that we will have become well familiar with by the movie’s end. While the kids dance, a gang of bandits comes into the temple and steals the head from a statue of the Buddha (something that Ong-bak has already taught us is a very bad idea). Piko sees this and takes off after the bandits, grabbing onto the back of their jeep as they make their getaway. It is at this early point in the movie that we get our first notice that, despite the advertised presence of Ultraman, someone very different from who you’d normally expect is calling the shots, as one of the bandit’s response to this is to draw a gun and shoot Piko point blank in the head, after which we get a nice shot of the kid screaming with blood pouring down his face.
Fortunately, the Ultra family has been watching all of this transpire from their Olympian perch up on M-78, and the Mother of Ultra reaches down from the clouds with an enormous hand to pluck Piko’s lifeless body up and whisk it back to their home in the Land of Light. Just as each of the Ultra heroes was created by being merged with a human who could transform into him at will, the Ultras restore life to Piko by merging him with Hanuman, which, again, makes them seem pretty God-like. (It also makes me wonder if the Ultra’s life-restoring procedures are faith-tailored; for instance, if Piko had been a Christian, would they have merged him with Jesus?) The Ultras then return Piko to Earth where, now granted the ability to transform into Hanuman at will, he sets about getting some big time monkey payback on the trio of thugs who killed him.
And Hanuman, when he appears — a gigantic, pure white monkey in elaborately ornamented traditional raiments, with hollow eyes and a creepy fixed grin — is pretty terrifying, and made nonetheless so by all of his constant jabbering, scratching and capering. This initial impression of him is backed-up by the treatment he gives the bandits once he’s caught up with them; one he simply steps on like a bug, another he crushes under a tree, and a third he grabs in one fist and smashes with an outstretched palm, jabbering and laughing nightmarishly the whole time. Then, with vengeance swiftly dealt, he levitates the Buddha’s head back into its proper place, then takes a surreal victory lap in the skies over Bangkok before taking off into the heavens to chat up some of his fellow deities. Meanwhile, a dashing young scientist at a high tech meteorological research facility is launching the first of what looks like a huge arsenal of cloud-seeding rockets into the atmosphere. This appears to work, but since we’ve also been watching Hanuman’s efforts up in the heavens to strike a deal with Rama on the Earth’s behalf, we’re not sure whether to credit this win to science or faith.
I was initially convinced that the aforementioned dashing young scientist, Professor Virut, was played by the actor Sombat Methanee. That is not just because he looks like Methanee, or because Methanee starred in both of Saengduenchai’s preceding films, Ta Tien and Giant and Jumbo A; but also because it’s very difficult to find any Thai film from the seventies that Methanee didn’t star in. Methanee was Thailand’s biggest action star of that decade, a position he stepped into on the occasion of Thai cinema king Mitr Chaibancha’s accidental death in 1970. (Chaibancha died while performing a stunt for Insee Thong, one of several films in which he portrayed the masked hero Red Eagle.) Similarly to other Asian film industries, the work ethic of Thai movie stars at the time was truly a world away from that found in Hollywood, where being a star meant having the luxury to appear only in the one or two hand-picked prestige projects you’d deigned to appear in that year. For a Thai actor, being a star meant maintaining a constant presence on the country’s movie screens, week in and week out — a practice which, in Methanee’s case, meant appearing in as many as a dozen films a year, and which now accounts for him having over 600 film roles under his belt.
However, as more scrupulous research on my part later revealed, Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen was in fact not one of those over 600 films burdening Sombat Methanee’s belt loops. That is because Professor Virut is instead played by Yodchay Meksuwan, another dashing young Thai actor who — if I may be so churlishly reductive — seems to have starred in all of those Thai movies from the seventies that Methanee couldn’t fit into his schedule — and even starred opposite Methanee in Killer Elephants. Meksuan, like Methanee, would become a familiar face in Saengduenchai’s films, not only starring in the aforementioned Hanuman and the Five Riders, but also 1977’s Yod Manut Computer, a bizarre hybrid combining Thai folklore with a sweded version of the Six Million Dollar Man. All of which is to say that I owe Mr. Meksuwan a profound apology for my previous oversight.
Anyway, bolstered by the success of his first rocket, Meksuwan’s Professor Virut launches a second with far less satisfying results. The rocket explodes on the launching pad, leading to an impressive sequence of Thunderbirds-style miniature mayhem as a chain reaction causes all of the many rockets on the pad to explode. In turn, the Earth underneath the launch base is rent apart, and the five bad guy monsters come marching single file out of the bowels of the Earth to wreak havoc. These monsters include Gomora, one of the most iconic beasts from the original Ultraman series — and here equipped with Godzilla’s roar — plus a trio of Monsters recycled from Ultraman Taro. Also in tow is a fifth monster from another Tsubaraya hero series, Mirrorman, who I guess must really be called “Dustpan” because — as hard as I find that to believe — I can’t find any source that refers to him otherwise. At first, most of the monsters’ havoc-wreaking consists of them just bouncing from foot to foot while waving their arms around and rearing their heads back as if they were laughing as everything blows up around them. There is also a lot of garbled Thai dialog on the soundtrack that seems to suggest that the monsters are supposed to be talking — and from the tone of it, they’re heckling, maybe even calling the assembled human race “bitches” or something. Mutual back slapping can also be observed among the monsters, and at times they appear to be on the verge of giving each other high-fives.
Because nobody wants to see a bunch on giant monsters high-fiving one another like drunken frat boys, the Air Force is called in, and soon toy jets are being swatted out of the sky left and right. Finally, Piko transforms into Hanuman and, between dancing, scratching and jabbering, manages to put up a pretty good fight against the chatty creatures. Just when it looks like they’re about to get the drop on him, the six Ultra brothers sweep down from the sky, signaling the beginning of the real mayhem. At this point, the monsters are so outmatched that the simple substitution of tragic music would have revealed the fight for the brutal slaughter that it is. Monster heads are sheared off, torsos bisected, bodies incinerated, and finally, as alluded to earlier, one ogre-like beast has the skin unceremoniously stripped from his bones. When it’s all over, standing amidst the steaming offal that was once their adversaries, the Ultras watch, perhaps in bewilderment, as Hanuman does one final dance for them. The monkey god then gives each of the brothers a hug, bidding them farewell before they take off back to their home planet. The end.
The fact that Tsubaraya’s effects team participated in the production of Hanuman is obvious from the final thirty minute sequence described above. The special effects and model work are quite impressive, and actually better than a lot of the work done on the various Ultra TV series. One of the reasons for this is that the producers wisely narrowed the scope of the action, limiting all of it to the area around the rocket base. Because of this, only a small number of models needed to be built, and what budget there was could be devoted to making them look as good as possible. On top of that, the physical action is very nicely choreographed, with both Hanuman and the Ultras doing all kinds of crazy flips and cartwheels in the course of the battle, all while constant, large explosions are going off on all sides of them. This frenetic activity helps a great deal to distract from the somewhat restricted scale of what’s going on, and contributes to making Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen a pretty wild ride overall. Some people who hate the film for other, largely understandable, reasons name as one of its many sins that it’s shoddy looking, but they’re clearly looking at it through jaundiced eyes. You can certainly complain that this film makes no sense (it doesn’t), but there’s no getting around the fact that the kaiju battle action it delivers is wholly first rate.
As mentioned earlier, Sompote Saengduenchai quickly followed Hanuman and the 7 Ultras‘ 1974 release with a sequel, the noticeably seedier Hanuman and the Five Riders (which was, in contrast to the two Tsubaraya co-productions, completely unauthorized by Kamen Rider‘s copyright holders). His appetite for co-opting Japanese Tokusatsu characters seemingly quenched, he then continued in his pattern of making movies about giant lizards, snakes and statues well into the nineties, leaving everyone outside of Thailand, excepting those unfortunates heedless enough to rent the VHS of Crocodile, largely unbothered for the next twenty years. Tsubaraya productions, for their part, would continue on in the lucrative Ultraman business, creating their sixth Ultra hero series with Ultraman Leo in 1975, and then a seventh with Ultraman 80 five years later. Though production of new Ultramen would slow down a bit for a while after that, the fact that Tsubaraya’s original creation was one of the most recognized characters in the world insured that fees from licensing and merchandise would continue to stream uninterrupted into the coffers of the company he founded. Life in the Land of Light was indeed ultra good.
Then, in 1995, Noboru Tsubaraya died, and very soon thereafter Sompote Saengduenchai made a dramatic re-entrance into the lives of Ultraman and his corporate guardians. On this occasion, Saengduenchai produced a contract that he alleged had been made between Noboru and himself in 1976, granting Chaiyo Productions exclusive international rights to all of the Ultra series made up to the time of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen‘s production, as well as to the series Jamborg Ace and the two co-produced movies. While it’s true that a previous contract had been made between the two companies granting Chaiyo television broadcast rights to those same properties, this was something of an entirely different magnitude altogether. Saengduenchai would claim that Noboru had granted him these rights in order to settle a debt — a debt that arose in part as a result of Noboru entering into a licensing agreement with Shaw Brothers Studio for the Hong Kong rights to Hanuman without Chaiyo’s approval. It would later be shown, however, that it was in fact Saengduenchai who had entered into that contract with the Shaws.
Still, Saengduenchai’s dubious assertion of Noboru’s debt was only one of many compelling reasons for Tsubaraya to consider his contract a joke. For one thing, there was the matter of the wording in the contract itself, which misspelled or misnamed not just the titles of most of the subject TV series, but also that of Tsubaraya Productions. But most damning of all was the simple fact that Saengduenchai had stayed quiet about the contract for twenty years — never stepping forward to assert the rights it allegedly granted him, while that whole time Tsubaraya was happily exploiting its licenses across the globe — and only came forward with it once the only person who could dispute its contents with firsthand knowledge had been silenced forever. Still, astonishingly, the Thai Intellectual Property and International Trade Court largely affirmed the legitimacy of the contract in a 2000 decision, which was in turn upheld by the Japanese district court in 2003, saying that, while Tsubaraya retained the copyrights to all of the characters and series covered, the contract did grant Chaiyo license to exploit those series outside of Japan.
This legal victory seems to have emboldened Saengduenchai, for not only did he quickly begin to robustly exercise his newly legitimized rights by licensing as much Ultra product as he possibly could within the shortest time possible, but also to expand exponentially upon the grandiosity of his claims. Soon Saengduenchai was saying that he had, in fact, contributed to the creation of Ultraman, suggesting to Eiji Tsubaraya back in 1963 that he create a character whose appearance was based on Thai statues of the Buddha. Even Ultraman’s name, it turned out, had been Saengduenchai’s idea; he would later claim that, with the idea of evincing the mien of an armored Turkish warrior, he had suggested the name “Ottoman” to Tsubaraya, and that that had been the inspiration for the character’s final appellation. In a further suggestion of a sort of creepy assimilation, Saengduenchai and his associates began referring to an entity called Tsubaraya Chaiyo Co., which would be the home of all of their future Ultraman related projects.
More damaging was the fact that Saengduenchai’s tendency to confabulate extended beyond just the nature of his relationship with Eiji Tsubaraya and his involvement in the origin of Ultraman, but also to the scope of the contract itself. Though subsequent court decisions would actually limit Chaiyo’s rights, it seems that Saengduenchai continually chose to view them as expansions of them. As a result he began talking up all kinds of grand schemes, from the creation of an Ultraman theme park in Thailand to the production of new series featuring Thai-specific Ultraman characters that would be the exclusive property of Chaiyo, one of whom was to be called Ultraman Millennium. Providing a further suggestion of what were beginning to seem like some fairly complex motivations on Saengduenchai’s part, to say the least, his lawyers announced plans to initiate a lawsuit again Tsubaraya, projecting that the outcome of such a suit might be Saengduenchai actually taking over the company!
It took until February of 2008 for Tsubaraya and the courts to deliver a final legal smackdown to Saengduenchai, though not before Chaiyo had invested a lot of money in a new Ultraman series starring Ekin Cheng that probably no one will ever see. Looking over the cold facts of the case now, its hard to find any overt clues to the personalities involved. But in the case of Saengduenchai, it’s very easy to see the whole affair as an extreme case of over-identification. There are reports that Saengduenchai had a framed portrait of his good friend Eiji Tsubaraya prominently displayed in his home, and I can’t help imagining based on that that he also had a secret room off of his bedroom plastered with disturbingly lipstick-smeared snapshots of Tsubaraya, and perhaps newspaper clippings in which Tsubaraya’s name was scratched out and Saengduenchai’s crudely written in with pencil.
Though it’s easy to hate — or at least be mildly creeped out by — Sompote Saengduenchai, perhaps our judgment of him can be tempered somewhat by the fact that, somewhere within the confused tangle of his motivations, was a certain misguided affection. For myself, the fact that Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen — a film that’s very enjoyable to watch while drunk — was a product of that affection goes a long way toward seeding forgiveness within my heart. I’m easy that way. However, had Saengduenchai succeeded in his scheme to introduce yet more Ultramen into the world — and perhaps, in the process, inspired other countries to pitch in with their own versions, prompting a sort of Tokusatu equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest — forgiveness would not have come so easily. There are just too damn many of those guys.
If you wanted to, it seems like you could draw up a sort of family tree of the films Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan made during his late seventies to mid eighties prime, tracing each of those movies’ origins along three very distinct lines, each leading back to a particular career-defining blockbuster that provided the template for much of what was to come. Of course, while Bachchan would star in films that were virtual remakes of Deewaar, Sholay and Don over the course of his career, the lines leading back to those three classics would not always be perfectly straight. For one would also have to consider films like 1978’s Be-Sharam, which draw upon elements of all three.
It’s hard to write about these old Turkish superhero movies–especially those directed by Yilmaz Atadeniz–without making reference to the Republic serials of the 1940s. The problem with doing so, however, is that many of you young people out there, with your newfangled transistor radios and souped-up hotrods, will have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose the appropriately curmudgeonly response to that would be to refuse to continue this review until you’ve educated yourselves on the topic, instead filling space with horrific, Andy Rooney-like ruminations on how butter doesn’t taste the way it used to and why on earth is the print in Reader’s Digest so small until you return with at least one complete viewing of The Perils of Nyoka or some-such under your belts. But, as much as the thought of such an exercise appeals to me, I’m afraid I can’t do so in good conscience. The fact is that those serials were meant to be seen in a very specific context, a context which simply doesn’t exist anymore. Despite what I said previously, I’m actually not old enough myself to have seen them as they were originally presented–i.e in weekly installments as part of a Saturday matinee at the local movie house presented to an audience that I imagine as being made up entirely of young boys in immaculate baseball caps and striped shirts with names like Skip, Biff and Scooter.
It’s not that Event Horizon isn’t the kind of movie I would write about. Haunted spaceships and Sam Neill ripping out his own eyeballs is right up my alley. No, the reason isn’t the content, but rather, that fact that this is one of those movies that already has a lot of words spent on it from a variety of sources both in the mainstream and in the realm of cult film fandom. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what i might have to add that is new. In some cases, I can come up with something — some tiny, meaningless tidbit that is a throwaway line in a movie that then allows me to write endlessly on some idiotic and obscure point. But upon watching Event Horizon, I was left with a distinct lack of ideas when it came to thinking about how I might approach writing about this film with some degree of originality. And now that I’ve finished the first paragraph, I still have no idea, so with any luck, something will pop up as I stumble along.
I didn’t see Event Horizon when it was released. I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s a gory film about a spooky spaceship. I think, however, in 1997, I saw maybe three film the entire year, and that was when I went out on dates with a lovely Southern belle. Somehow we ended up at a screening of Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation. So shamed was I that I just packed up and left North Carolina for New York, hoping to lose myself in the throng and hide my shameful secret. But Teleport City has, in a way, become a curious place for dragging my own horrible secrets into the light for all to see, and on the scale of shameful secrets, “took a date to see Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation” is much worse than “burning passion for Catalina Larranaga” or even “took a date to see Wicked City.” It’s probably not worse than, “invited a girl over, cooked her a crappy dinner, then made her watch Black Devil Doll from Hell,” but it’s pretty close.
I was also pretty much broke in 1997. Hell, I was pretty much broke in 2007, but I’d learned to stretch a dollar in those ten years. Whatever the reason, I didn’t see many movies that year, and Event Horizon was among the ones I didn’t see. Heck, I don’t think I knew a thing about it back then, because I didn’t even have a TV at the time where I could see important commercials informing of the virtues of films like Event Horizon, B*A*P*S, Kull the Conqueror, or any of the other fine films released that year. In the many years that followed, Event Horizon was off my radar and forgotten about, even though from time to time someone would tell me I should see it. That almost always encourages me not to see a film, as very few people seem to understand the complexities of my taste, and so they assume that I will want to be watching Troma films or other intentionally and ironically crappy movies. People just can’t grasp my earnestness. But lately, I’ve been going back and catching up on a lot of the science fiction I missed in the past ten years or so, and after Screamers, Event Horizon was the next film on the list — though calling it science fiction is sort of like calling Halloween a “coming of age drama.”
Despite the starships, hibernation chambers, spacesuits, and other superficial trappings of science fiction, Event Horizon is most definitely a horror film through and through, hewing closely to the classic set-up of a group of people in an isolated location, being preyed upon by a mysterious and murderous force. It just so happens that outer space is a slightly more isolated location than usual. In this regard, Event Horizon draws upon a history of science fiction horror that includes films like Alien and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and can be traced back even further to the era of pulp fiction and writers like H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, it’s Lovecraft’s name that is most often invoked when people attempt to describe this film, even though at no point does Sam Neill yell “Yog Sothoth!” Unfortunately for a lot of people, Lovecraft and horror films were not invoked by the advertising for the film when it was released, which marketed it for the most part as a space adventure with some minor overtones of spookiness. People who went in expecting sci-fi space adventure found themselves confronted by hallucinatory images of demon rape, maggots, people being flayed alive, other people vomiting up their own innards or possibly someone else’s arm — at times, the atrocity exhibition is hard to decipher, but the fact remains that it was not what the average sci-fi fan was expecting. I’ve never quite understood this type of bait and switch marketing, as it only makes people mad. But I suspect that it has less to do with some sinister attempt to trick sci-fi fans into seeing a horror film and more to do with an ad agency that never bothered to watch the movie they were marketing and just assumed that, since it featured a spaceship, it was a science fiction film.
By the time I saw this movie, of course, the cat was out of the bag, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Even if I hadn’t, it would not have mattered much, since I can roll with horror just as easily as I can science fiction. So that’s not what bugs me about this movie. What bugs me is that Event Horizon is this close to being a great movie, and that it comes so close but ultimately fails is, fair or not, much worse than if it had just been a crummy movie from beginning to end. At least then, I could have abandoned any care and gone along with things. That’s what gets me through The Chronicles of Riddick, Aeon Flux, and the many other two-star science fiction films for which I seem to have an incredible weakness. But Event Horizon was almost so much more, and while I ultimately like the movie quite a lot, I do so well aware of the bitter taste left by great ideas left poorly explored and a resolution that sees the movie collapse in on itself — which I guess is fitting in a way for a movie that features the a black hole propulsion system.
The set-up is not unlike that of a couple other “investigating the mysterious ship” movies. I’m thinking specifically of The Black Hole and 2010. In the year 2047, a group of search and rescue astronauts lead by Lawrence Fishburne when he was allowed to show emotion instead of being an emotionless monotonal Matrix guy, are en route to a secret location known only to aerospace scientist Sam Neill. It is soon revealed that they are on their way to rendezvous with the space ship Event Horizon, an experimental craft with the ability to use a black hole generator to warp space and travel massive distances in the blink of an eye. But the ship went missing seven years ago, and there’s been no successful contact with the crew since it suddenly re-appeared near the planet Neptune. Captain Miller (Fishburne), Dr. Weir (Neill), and the crew of the rescue ship Lewis and Clark are to make contact with the crew of the Event Horizon and see what the heck is going on. A rough approach through the stormy space surrounding Neptune results in damage to the Lewis and Clark, meaning that whatever happens on board the Event Horizon, they’re going to have to stick around a spell to fix their own ship.
Things are hardly soothing on the nerves once the team boards the massive experimental space ship. The crew is gone, and the only trace of them is a garbled transmission full of screaming — though eventually Miller and company also discover some hideously mutilated remains splayed across the walls. Although the ship’s black hole drive is presumably shut down, it still finds time to activate itself and suck a member of Miller’s crew into its vortex, returning him in a coma that is only broken long enough for him to babble hysterically about “the darkness inside him” and the nightmarish things he saw on the other side. On top of that, the rest of Miller’s crew starts seeing things — specifically, hallucinations of their dead loved ones. And because horror on top of horror isn’t enough, scans of the Event Horizon begin returning reports of widespread bio signals, inferring that something else is on the ship with them. When one of Miller’s officers decodes the Event Horizon log, they are met with perverse images of the crew being ripped apart, raped by hideous beasts (or possibly by other members of the crew), and suffering untold and unspeakable horrors. Miller decides that the ship can go to hell, and they’re leaving it behind. But Weir seems to feel that the ship has already been to hell, and that somewhere along it’s universe-warping journey, the Event Horizon passed into another dimension, one of absolute chaos and evil, and in doing so became a sentient and highly malevolent living organism. The scans are picking up life forms; they’re picking up the ship itself, and the hallucinations and other problems are a result of the ship’s immune system defending itself from invading organisms.
Or the ship could just be a big ol’ hunk of Hell-infused evil. Whatever the case, Miller is as keen on leaving as Weir is on keeping everybody there.
As a concept, I think Event Horizon is tremendous. The idea of a ship’s experimental drive warping space tot he point where it rips the fabric of the universe and winds up in another dimension humans could best comprehend as Hell is wonderful, and that sort of “horror among the stars” is right out of the old pulp writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who often tinged his horror with elements of science fiction. The universe into which the Event Horizon passed is glimpsed, but only in tiny, tiny portions, and the film relies again on the old Lovecraft trope of a place so completely evil, so thoroughly perverse and malign, that to merely gaze upon it would drive a man insane. Further, the idea that the ship, once returning in some way or another from that universe, would have become a sentient creature as evil as the universe through which it passed is a concept rife with potential. It’s also a set of ideas so vast, so complex, that attempting to tackle them in two hours in a sci-fi horror film is almost certainly doomed to failure.
And that’s what happens to poor Event Horizon; it is filled with too many good ideas that are too complex, and there’s no hope of the film ever being able to satisfactorily unravel it’s science, meta-science, philosophy, and religion. In a way, this isn’t a bad thing. To present human characters with a situation far beyond their comprehension and thus leave many questions necessarily half-answered or completely unresolved is fine. There is a way to do that. I just don’t think Event Horizon hits the mark. It aims. It makes a valiant effort. But int he end, it just can’t get it’s head around its own central concepts, and the whole thing devolves into an ending that lets the film down.
But make no mistake about it — I like this movie. I like it a lot. I think the things it does right make it more than worth the time it takes to watch. My frustration stems purely from the fact that it was well within the grasp of this film to be even better, and it didn’t quite make it. It’s like one of those break-aways in basketball where one guy has the ball,sprints the length of the court alone, has everyone cheering and going nuts, but then when he goes up for the slam dunk, he somehow screws it up and misses. You know, if he’d just dribbled down and missed a jumper, no worries. But because there was tremendous emotion and pageantry around the idea of a breakaway and dunk, when the guy blows the dunk, it makes the missed basket way more painful — especially if it comes near the very end and costs them the game. Event Horizon spends most of its running time building up the freak-out and scares (sometimes with cheap jump scares, but usually through the use of genuine atmosphere), but as Roger Ebert said of the movie, “it’s all foreboding and never gets to the actual boding.”
But let’s detach ourselves from disappointment and spend some time talking about what this movie does right. First and foremost is the atmosphere. Although the science fiction setting misled a lot of viewers, it works wonderfully for this type of film. It’s basically a slightly more fantastic version of the “old dark house,” the remote cabin, or any of the many other locations horror films use to isolate their cast from the outside world — only more so. Millions of miles from home, on a tiny man-made island, surrounded by an environment that will kill you almost instantly if you set foot outside. That’s even more claustrophobic and nerve-wracking than being at some rich weirdo’s country manor. And Event Horizon never lets you forget how vulnerable these people are. Their air is running out. One guy ends up outside the ship without a spacesuit. You never lose sight of how fragile humans are in this setting — something I think could only be replicated by setting your movie in the middle of the ocean. Much of Event Horizon has to do with the concept of tampering in domains man was not meant to see, but while the specific domain may be the Hell Universe, in general it’s obvious that even save travel through space in incredibly dangerous, and a tiny mistake or bit of damage can have colossally negative repercussions.
Adding to the ominous air is the Event Horizon itself, which was apparently designed by someone who thought H.R. Giger’s stuff was just too cuddly. I’m not sure how practical it is to have a spaceship with such features as a rotating tunnel of spikes and a room full of crawlspaces that are accessed through thorn-covered black panels, but I suspect that few aerospace engineers, even in Russia, are looking to design anything quite this terrifying. Remember when the interiors of spaceships were all white and well-lit? I wonder when the point will come that we decide to move away from that color scheme, and away from various pads and cushions covering stuff, and finally embrace the style that calls for dim, flickering lighting, exposed ductwork and wires, and lots and lots of razor blades and thorns. Practicality issues aside, though, and taken purely as art design, the Event Horizon is magnificent. Production designer Joseph Bennett and visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich bring an immense amount of experience to the game. Yurichich cut his teeth on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey before moving on to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and of course, Ghost Dad. Bennett did design for the cyberpunk cult hit Hardware, and one can see the evidence of all their past work (as well as the ever-present influence of old German expressionism and Giger’s work on Alien) in the design of Event Horizon. This isn’t a terribly big-budget film, but they do a lot with what they have, giving the entire movie the feel of some twisted, horrific opera.
Another feather in the cap of this film is the cast. None of them inhabit especially well-developed characters. They operate on the level of recognizable stock — Fishburne is the tough but fair captain; Neill is the scientist consumed by his obsessions; Richard Jones is the wise-cracking black guy. But even when the characters are thin, the performers still give it their all. You feel like they believe what’s happening around them, and while they sometimes make dumb decisions, they rarely make decisions that aren’t understandable given the circumstances. The exception, perhaps, would be that after Miller spends a long time explaining that the ship will pick you brain and create hallucinations of suffering loved ones, and after everyone in the crew understands this is what the ship is doing, Kathleen Quinlan’s Peters still falls for the trick. I’ve mentioned it in other reviews, but it always annoys me enough that I feel like mentioning it again anytime it happens (and it happens a lot). The hoary old “evil entity transforms into a loved one” shtick grates on my nerves. I mean, you’re in outer space, for crying out loud. Obviously, when you’ve been told that the evil spaceship ghoul thing will make you see visions of your loved ones and use them to lure you to your doom, and then all of a sudden your son appears out of nowhere in a location he absolutely could not be in, well why the hell would you fall for that? Why would your son be running around on a haunted space ship that just returned from Dante’s Inferno? I guess you could dismiss it as some sort of hypnotic effect, or the result of mental breakdown making a character unable to reason, but mostly it just always strikes me as lazy writing.
Still, no one turns in a bad performance, even though they’re sometimes given very little to do. The bulk of the good stuff goes to Sam Neill, since he gets to play the characters who goes completely bonkers. If anyone had seen Neill in In the Mouth of Madness, they wouldn’t have followed him into space, because they would know that spooky H.P. Lovecraft entities tend to follow him around and drive people mad. If Event Horizon succeeds with any one character, it’s Neill’s Dr. Weir, who starts off sympathetic enough before he is consumed by the horrible mysteries contained within the walls of the Event Horizon. However, one gets the feeling that his character never becomes omniscient, never actually knows what these mysteries are despite his enthusiasm about them. No matter the speeches he may give about boundless evil, other dimensions, and forbidden knowledge, his Faust of a doctor is ultimately as clueless about what’s going on and what’s going to happen as everyone else’s. Although this is likely the product of the screenwriter not knowing himself exactly what was going to happen, the end result is effective. Neill becomes the acolyte of an unseen “holy man,” one who speaks only in riddles and fools his followers into thinking they possess some profound understanding or insight when, in fact, they have been fed nothing but meaningless phrases and garbled imagery. There’s a tragedy surrounding Dr. Weir, who far from becoming one with the ship and grasping the universe from which it has returned, instead becomes nothing more than a pitiable dupe.
Whether or not screenwriter Phil Eisner meant that to be the case, he should take it. Because the rest of his script is where the concept of Event Horizon starts to unravel. Poking fun at the science is ultimately meaningless — this is hardly the sort of film you go to for hard facts, and such an exercise would be as futile as poking holes in the space science of Star Wars. Still, it’s kind of fun, so why not, provided we remember that stressing fiction over science never kills a movie for me. Heck, one of my favorite science fiction films is Adieu, Galaxy Express 999, and that’s about a steam locomotive traveling through the galaxy while a little kid hangs his head out the window. The science of Event Horizon plays out as if it was conceived by someone who was told about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time by someone else who hadn’t actually read the book, but had been around other people discussing it. A Brief History of Time was, of course, one of those great books that everyone bought and no one read, putting it in the rarefied air occupied by other such books: that gigantic Bill Clinton memoir, the 9/11 Commission Report, Ulysses by James Joyce, and The Bible.
Part of what Hawking’s book dealt with in its attempt to bring high physics down to a populist level was the topic of black holes. Now I actually read the book, because I’m a nerd like that, and because I had to as part of one of the classes I was taking. It was one of those science classes set up specifically for people who aren’t very good with equations, which meant it was mostly full of journalism students and members of the University of Florida football team who would groan anytime the professor tried to relate a fundamental understanding of physics to the act of making a solid pass. Yeah, sure, physics is involved, but it was highly suspect to suggest that Danny Wuerffel spent his time in the huddle scrawling geometry and physics equations into the dirt to figure out how best to get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Reidel Anthony.
Anyway, I think that class gave me about as sound an understanding as would be needed to be the guy that Eisner’s friend talked to about black holes. Meaning that I could remember that Hawking made allusions to Dante’s Inferno when speaking of the event horizon of a black hole — that gravitational point of no return from which light itself cannot escape. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Hawking said, paraphrasing Dante and the sign that hung outside the gates of Hell. He meant, of course, that the pull of a black hole is so great, that if you cross the event horizon, you’re not coming back, so you best make peace with the fact that you’re dead meat. Now pass that sentiment through me passing it on to someone else, who then tells Phil Eisner that he was drunk at a party the other night, talking about some deep shit like black holes. All of a sudden, that simple quote applied to explain how hopeless it is to escape the pull of a black hole is twisted to mean that a black hole actually could be the gateway to Hell. And poof! Event Horizon‘s concept is born. It’s really not a bad concept, regardless of how misconstrued it may be. Black holes are weird, after all, and the idea that they lead somewhere other than to a horrible death in which you are crushed down to microscopic size by the unbelievable gravitational pressure is hardly new to Event Horizon. And even the best minds are still feeble when up against cosmic phenomena of this scale. So why not? And anyway, the use of the term “event horizon” works in a couple different ways, and it refers as much to a black hole as it does to the Event Horizon itself, which proves to be a flashpoint which, once entered, will not allow the humans to escape.
What’s more important to the quality of the screenplay is what Eisner does with the concept, and while he starts off strong, he seems to get lost, allowing the movie at times to devolve into a blood and guts horror film (not bad) and a pastiche of other other movies (slightly less forgivable). I’ve already mentioned some of the films from which Event Horizon draws, but there are plenty of others. In fact, it lifts wholesale the scene of a river of blood gushing forth from an elevator from The Shining. In fact, you could really view this movie as little more than The Shining meets The Black Hole. Sam Neill’s character bears a close resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining, and the concept of a haunted house (or spaceship) that causes hallucinations and may itself be alive is an idea shared by both films. Many other elements are lifted from the Russian sci-fi film Solaris, yet another “man battles hallucinations” sci-fi tale.
One could also invoke the specter of the old Roger Corman Poe films, especially The Fall of the House of Usher, as it too is about a house infused with evil to the point of becoming a malignant being itself, ending in a fiery collapse much the same as we see at the end of Event Horizon. And the idea of the black hole as a portal to Hell was explored — with equal awkwardness — by The Black Hole, a film which sends one of its robotic villains through a black hole and lands him standing on a pillar surrounded by a lake of fire and the souls of the damned. n fact, Event Horizon reflects The Black Hole in many ways — an exploratory crew finds a long lost ship; that ship’ screw has vanished or mostly vanished; things are spooky; and then it all falls apart at the end when the movies both realize that they have ten minutes to explain things that the top scientific minds of the word have been grappling with for decades.
In the case of Event Horizon, all the talk of physics versus metaphysics, of a ship powered by pure evil, of a rip in the fabric of space that leads to a Hellraiser universe, lead to an anti-climatic and predictable fist fight between Miller and Weir. Though it is similar to The Fall of the House of Usher, and though it’s a suitably horrific and downbeat ending for the decent guy Miller, it seems ultimately to be a resolution that fails the film’s attempts at something more complex. I don’t need the questions to be answered. In fact, I prefer that they try and fail, discovering that comprehension of what awaits them is simply beyond the boundaries of the human brain. But a fist fight and an explosion seemed somehow to be less than what should have been delivered. It may not be entirely Eisner’s fault, though. Apparently some forty minutes was cut from the movie in order to achieve a manageable running time (1997 was a few years too early for genre films to run three hours or more and still get a wide release) and an R-rating (the 90s represented MPAA judges in a reactionary phase as an answer to the gore and nudity soaked anarchy of the 70s and 80s). Fans hoped that the footage would be restored at some point, and that such restoration would smooth out many of the wrinkles that prevent Event Horizon from achieving its ambitions, but so far such wishes have gone unsatisfied. Even when released to DVD, the film was still the theatrical cut. Whether or not it will ever be fully restored is up in the air, but given that we live in an era when almost everything, no matter how obscure or trashy, is getting lovingly reconstructed by some madman, there’s still the possibility that a more complete version will emerge and we can re-assess the film based on that.
Until then, though, we have to work with what we get to watch, and as presented, Event Horizon is an almost great movie that loses its way and relies on too many scenes from other movies and too many cheap jolts. I do wish horror films would retire that bit where someone is scared, and then someone comes up behind them and grabs them on the shoulder, refusing to speak until the other person and the audience have gotten a cheap scare. Really — have you ever approached a person in complete silence, from behind, and grabbed them by the shoulder? Yes, you have, but that’s because you were intentionally trying to scare that person. In all other instances, no one does this, and yet horror films feature it like every other scene. What makes it frustrating here is that Event Horizon doesn’t need to rely on these weak scares. It has plenty of legitimate scares and an over-arching feeling of doom and eeriness. Falling back on juvenile tactics like the shoulder grab is just gratuitous and sloppy. At least they didn’t have a scene where a cat jumped out of a box or something.
And really, perhaps I am being like this movie: searching for something that isn’t attained, being more serious than I should. Taken as nothing more than a horror film with sci-fi dressing, I really think Event Horizon is a success. It definitely has the feel of an old pulp — right down to losing track of itself over the course of its running time. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to fans of pulpy movies, having directed Mortal Kombat before this (but not Mortal Kombat II), and Resident Evil after, among other things. I have a curious love-hate relationship with Anderson’s films in that I love some, hate others, but rarely find myself somewhere in between. Flaws aside, I love Event Horizon. And even more flaws aside, I love the Resident Evil movies, and Mortal Kombat, even (though not Mortal Kombat II). I guess I’m lukewarm on Soldier, so there’s one middle ground movie.
But I hate with a passion the Alien vs. Predator films, even more than I hate Mortal Kombat II. Still that’s a lot of hits any only one real miss for me (granted, I’m not a discriminating viewer), so I guess I like Anderson as a director, and I think Event Horizon is probably the best film he’s made and will likely make. At its worst, it is grade-A horror hokum, full of mumbo jumbo and ideas that don’t really pan out. And I can deal with that just fine. Heck, like I said, I probably would have preferred if the film was that way from beginning to end instead of flirting with brilliance in spots, only to fold at the last second. But regardless, this is good, gruesome pulp fiction, full of the creeping unknown and vague talk about dimensions of madness and torture that only Cthulhu, Pinhead, and the makers of the Ilsa films can imagine. Anderson’s direction is sure-handed, and he and cinematographer Adrian Biddle make wonderful use of the warped madhouse the production team has created for them.
So, huh. I guess I did have a lot to say about Event Horizon. Funny the things you learn about yourself when faced with writing about a movie where Sam Neill digs out his own eyeballs. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, and even though it’s a shame it wasn’t as good as it could have been, at the end of the day, I’m happy enough. I’m also happy I didn’t see it in 1997, because even though I would have liked it then, perhaps even more than I do now, the fact of the matter is that Southern belle was actually willing to still enter into a relationship with me even after I made her see things like Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation, City of Darkness, and Alien 4. I don’t know if that tenuous, early romance could have survived Event Horizon as well, especially considering the fact that she never made me go see Titanic, like every other girlfriend did in 1997. I guess I could have sold Event Horizon with no more or less deception than the original marketing team if I positioned it as “kind of like Titanic, in that it is about people on a doomed ship.”
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee | Writer: Phil Eisner | Director: Paul W.S. Anderson | Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle | Music: Michael Kamen | Producer: Jeremy Bolt, Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern