Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
By 1965, the year this film was released, American International Pictures had enjoyed considerable success mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a series of films starring Vincent Price (and Ray Milland, once) and directed by Roger Corman. The streak began with Corman’s low-budget but lavish looking adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher and continued with The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. These films represented something new and relatively risky for AIP, then a studio that specialized in making cheap, fast black and white double features. Corman, inspired by the work that was happening at England’s Hammer Studio, convinced AIP to let him shoot in color, a single film, with a bigger budget (though still tiny) and longer shooting schedule (though still incredibly fast). The resulting film, The Fall of the House of Usher, did big time box office for AIP, is considered one of the all-time great horror films, and convinced AIP of a couple things. First, that color films with more money put into them were a worthwhile investment, especially when someone as good as Corman at turning out expensive looking results for pennies was on board. Second, that they should tack Edgar Allan Poe’s name onto everything and plumb his works mercilessly.
Although all the films in the first AIP Poe cycle were good, and most of them were great, several of them had very little to do with the Poe poem or short story from which they took their name. The Raven, for example, uses the Poe poem for its opening scene, with Price being plagued by a mysterious raven. But as soon as the raven starts wisecracking in Peter Lorre’s voice, you can guess that the Poe material is out the window. The Pit and the Pendulum takes the Poe source material and extends it with a number of subplots original to the screenplay or snatched piecemeal from other sources. And in the case of The Haunted Palace — one of the very best films in the Poe cycle — it wasn’t based on Poe at all. It was actually based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. But AIP felt that audiences wouldn’t know who the hell Lovecraft was. Distributors agreed. And so, despite Corman’s protests, it became an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
Dubious connections to the source material not withstanding, all of the films were very good (well, I’m not that fond of Tales of Terror, but that’s because I don’t care for anthology films), thanks to the line-up they enjoyed: Corman as director, Price (and Milland once) as star, and Richard Matheson as the screenwriter (most of the time). Matheson was to AIP horror what Jimmy Sangster was to Hammer horror: consistently wonderful. In 1965, AIP decided to stretch Poe’s connection even further, tapping one of his short tales called The City in the Sea as a source for War Gods of the Deep. But other than having Price read some of the story for the opening credits, War Gods of the Deep has very little to do with Poe. AIP would take a similar approach during it’s second round of Poe horror films, with The Witchfinder General being retitled Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm — a title justified by having Price read some of the original poem before the film launched off into a plot that has pretty much nothing to do with the poem or Poe. In that case, however, the movie was good.
In the case of War Gods of the Deep, the results were…not as impressive. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Although Roger Corman wasn’t directing, AIp assigned Jacques Tourneur to the film. Tourneur is perhaps best known as the director of such films as Night of the Demon and the Val Lewton produced films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. All of them are considered classics, and deservedly so. On top of that, he directed one of the all time great noir films, 1947′s Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum. And then there was the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler epic The Flame and the Arrow. By the 1960s, however, Tourneur’s best years were perhaps behind him, and he found himself working in television and at AIP, first as director of the Poe-esque Comedy of Terrors which features one of my all-time favorite idiotically hilarious scenes (when awful opera singing causes Vincent Price’s undertaker top hat to pop off wit a “boop!” sound effect), and then as director on War Gods of the Deep.
And while the film isn’t written by Richard Matheson (most famous for being the author who penned I Am Legend, the book that inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to Last Man on Earth to The Asylum’s I Am Omega), AIP did get Charles Bennett, who was no slouch in the screenwriting department. Among his sundry credits are the very first filmed version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the black and white version made as part of the Climax! television series, where James Bond goes by Jimmy and was played by Barry Nelson. Bennett also wrote plenty of classic scripts, including work for Hitchcock (Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent), the adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines, and Tourneur’s own Night of the Demon.
He was also frequently tapped by producer Irwin Allen both for movie (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and television (Land of the Giants, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series) scripts. Of course, there are a few turkeys in his resume, including the epic misfires The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen’s attempt to tell in sweeping epic fashion the complete history of mankind, from caveman times to the present and starring pretty much every B lister and has-been ever, from the past their prime Marx Brothers to Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Heddy Lamar, and of course, Vincent Price as Ol’ Mr. Scratch) and Cecil B. DeMille’s sweeping and often dull tale of piracy and romance on the 19th Century Georgia coast, Reap the Wild Wind. On the other hand, that’s the movie where Bennett was smart enough to write a scene where John Wayne battles a giant squid, so that counts for something. Still, that’s a basically solid resume, especially for this type of film.
Despite the presence of Vincent Price and the shaky Poe tie-in, War Gods of the Deep isn’t considered part of the Poe cycle, not so much because it wasn’t directed by Corman, but more because it plays out less like a gothic horror film and more like the Clif Notes version of a Jules Verne fantasy adventure film. Of course, Disney had already made pretty much the be-all and end-all Jules Verne fantasy adventure film in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Anything else was going to pale in comparison to a film that had the benefit of Disney’s vast financial resources and Kirk Douglas shaking his bon-bon while singing sea chanties and wearing a jaunty little cap. But that never stopped AIP, or anyone else for that matter. And so, in 1965, Tourneur, Bennett, Price, and AIP took us under the ocean for what we all hoped would be a really cool adventure film.
And things start off well enough. Beautiful Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Pajama Party) is minding her own business in her castle by the coast bedroom when, all of a sudden, she is attacked and kidnapped by a hideous gillman who looks like that dude who helped Lando fly the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Perturbed by the kidnapping of his beloved by this uppity haddock, square-jawed hero Ben Harris (reliable Tab Hunter) and his nebbish, ferret-faced sidekick Harold Tufnell-Jones (Disney live-action film regular David Tomilson) follow in leisurely pursuit. And for some reason, Tufnell-Jones (presumably an ancestor of legendary heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnell) insists on bring along his trusty pet: a chicken in a basket. Why exactly, this guy goes everywhere with a chicken is a mystery. Why he is a bachelor, of course, is not. Tufnell-Jones and his chicken are there to provide frequent comic relief. Guess how many times you will laugh at their shenanigans!
Ben and the chicken lover soon find themselves in a maze of sub-aquatic (but never the less dry) caves inhabited by a population of long-lived men ruled over by the mad Captain Hugh (Vincent Price). It seems that Price and his men were once smugglers and, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon this network of sub-aquatic caves leading to the remnants of a city constructed by a highly advanced civilization. By the time Price arrived, however, the society was centuries into decline, the secrets of their technology being lost and the former inhabitants being reduced to nothing more than animalistic gillmen. Price and company made themselves at home amid the decaying remains of the city under the sea, and something about the air down there and the lack of exposure to UV light has resulted in them living for hundreds of years.
Price commands the gillmen, for they consider him their god for one reason or another (no problem — I sort of consider him a god as well) and he had them kidnap Jill for the usual reason: she is the exact spitting image of the captain’s long dead true love. When our heroes arrive to rescue her, they promptly get captured but stave off execution by pretending to be geologists who can help Price out with the big problem: the volcano. Everyone spends some time stalking around the cave-palace, which like pretty much every undersea kingdom in the history of movies about undersea kingdoms, is threatened by a nearby underwater volcano that is going to erupt any moment now. Eventually, Ben, Jill, and their comic relief load are forced to don unwieldy Victorian-style scuba gear (which, for some reason, demands gigantic helmets into which you can fit a man’s head and his accompanying chicken) and flee for their lives with Hugh and his murderous followers in hot pursuit.
And by hot pursuit, I mean…well, let me explain this in detail. You see, everyone is underwater. When you are in water, you swim. It’s really the best way to get around. That’s why all fish do it. That’s why pretty much everyone does it except for those sprinters who practice by trying to run underwater. That established, we then move on to the fact that watching people swim in movies is usually boring. The pitfalls of scuba scenes in cinema are well documented. So how could you take a scene — scuba diving underwater — that could be really boring even if properly done, and ensure that it’s even more boring than you could possibly imagine? Well, instead of swimming, the people could be walking underwater. Yes, indeed. War Gods of the Deep is one of the only movies that thought what people really wanted to see was a foot chase on the floor of the ocean, with people flopping about awkwardly and moving incredibly slowly. But that’s not really enough, you also have to make the scene go on for like ten minutes, and pad it out with dialog-free close-ups of Tufnell-Jones and his chicken looking around.
Now keep in mind that I have a pretty big tolerance for underwater scenes, owing largely to my fascination with what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world” and my love of diving. So trust me when I tell you that this underwater foot chase scene is one of the most horribly boring scenes I’ve ever seen. They try to spice things up by having guys shoot crossbows from time to time, but since no one ever actually gets hit, that never pays off. And every now and then, some of the gillmen swim up and mess around with Ben and the crew, presumably confused by the fact that these humans are walking underwater instead of swimming (thus the ability of the gillmen to swim circles around them). Despite the fact tat the gillmen can swim, breathe underwater, and aren’t weighed down by cumbersome iron helmets, they aren’t very effective at attacking our slowly fleeing heroes. You can pretty much defeat them by swatting at them in that slow-motion way that occurs when you are underwater. It’s a tremendous relief when everyone resurfaces inside some weird temple. The volcano explodes, a giant hand falls on Vincent Price, and a singularly terrifying moment occurs when the heroes put their scuba gear back on. Dear God, no! Please! No more scenes of people awkwardly walking around underwater! This time, however, we’re in luck, because the good guys crawl out of the water and the movie ends.
I’m not sure what went wrong. Good director, good screenwriter, a good cast. I mean, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure, but he’s fine in this role, even though a lot of people pick on his performance. He’s a one-note character, but so is everyone else. And Hunter proves adept at singing the note “stiff straight man.” Susan Hart is vapid and has nothing to do, but she does that nothing well. There’s no chemistry at all between her and Hunter, and once again, as I did with Arabian Adventure, I can’t help but think that this movie would have been greatly improved if our lovers were played by Doug McClure and Caroline Munro. But Hunter and hart are acceptable. Heck, even comic relief guy is unfunny but relatively inoffensive and easy to ignore. To some degree, the blame for this misfire falls on the producer, Louis Heyward, who insisted on monkeying with the script endlessly and much to Tourneur’s annoyance. But AIP sided with Heyward in the conflict, and his changes remained despite the protests of Tourneur, Vincent Price (who had great respect for Tourneur and very little respect for Heyward), and original screenwriter Bennett. But that can only go so far in explaining things — the nail in the coffin of an already flawed work, as it were.
And you know, if I’m replacing cast members, we might as well get rid of David Tomlinson and replace him with Terry-Thomas.
Maybe the whole thing played out better on paper, and no realized how boring it was going to be when actually committed to film. Actually, let me alter that. This movie really isn’t terrible up until the underwater foot chase. It’s no classic of fantasy adventure cinema, but it’s harmless enough. But the underwater footage deep sixes the rest of the movie, which just isn’t buoyant enough to stay afloat with the dead albatross of the underwater foot chase around it’s neck. Is that enough seafarin’ allusions for ya? Then let’s stop beating that dead seahorse and move on to some of the film’s other problems. First and foremost is, and I never thought I’d say this, Vincent Price’s performance. We’ve seen Price play it cool and reserved before to great effect, but the decision for him to play mad Cap’n Hugh with Fall of the Hous eof Usher style reserve was, in my opinion, a tremendous mistake. This movie could have survived its dreadful underwater chase scene if Price had been hamming it up and playing Hugh as crazy and nutty as the script alludes to him being.
Instead, Price’s Hugh comes off as dull. The script is too thin to lend the character a sense of gravity, so there’s no real emotional reaction to him. He’s a villain you hate, or love to hate, or relish, or grow to sympathize with. He merely exists on film for a duration of time, and then a big stone hand falls on him. I mean, this is a mad sea captain living in an undersea city that looks like a crumbling Victorian castle and commanding an army of mutant gillmen while giving speeches about the end of the world. Why on earth would anyone think to play that character with quiet reserve? Vincent Price is, as I think I’ve written before, one of my favorite actors. Quite possibly, he’s my most favorite actor. He never gives less than 100%, and he doesn’t give less than 100% here. But the character is so boring, and Price plays it so straight, that War Gods of the Deep becomes perhaps the only film in which Price is upstaged by a irritating guy with a chicken in a basket.
Speaking of the chicken — what the hell was that about? It’s not like the chicken ever does anything wacky, or like it jumps out and pecks Price on the foot or something. It is simply carried around for the entire movie, having no point at all. Even within the realm of unfunny comic relief, surely no one thinks the mere presence of a chicken is hilarious. A monkey, sure. But a chicken? I don’t get it. This was apparently one of Louis Heyward’s most important contributions t the script, and it’s obvious why everyone else involved with the film thought the guy was a jack-ass. It’s just another way to pad out a really threadbare script. It seems like Bennett got a great concept but quickly wrote himself into a corner, possibly because of budgetary constraints — but I’m not going to buy that considering how many exciting and imaginative films were done with as little or even less money.
Not being able to come up with anything for anyone to do, the movie falls back on repetitive dialog scenes in which Vincent Price explains to us that the glowing,pulsating volcano is a threat (because we wouldn’t have figured it out after the first warning) or in which Tab Hunter and the guy with the chicken ask other people if they remember how to get to the surface. The sudden presence of a beautiful woman who is to be the sole property of the captain amid an undersea kingdom populated entirely by men lends itself to potential conflict, but that’s never bothered with. Or the use of the dim-witted gillmen as thugs and sacrificial lambs who perhaps begin to resent the captain’s manipulation of them? But no, it never goes in that direction either. Like the characters in the movie, it just sort of half-heartedly wanders around the same caverns over and over, until the volcano finally erupts.
Still, as dull as this film turns out to be, there are some redeeming qualities. Well, there’s one. The sets are really nice. And the gillmen are kind of cool looking, even if they end up having very little to do. Tourneur — accustomed to working in black and white and employing shadows to great effect — turns out to be equally adept at manipulating th candy colored Technicolor hues. Although War Gods of the Deep isn’t a good film to watch, it’s a great film to look at. Tourneur’s direction coupled with cinematography by Stephen Dade is gorgeous to behold. And as with the sets, War Gods of the Deep has excellent costumes and the look of a much more expensive production than it actually was.
But that’s precious little to go on, especially when you could be spending your time with far superior aquatic adventures, like the aforementioned Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Japanese film Atragon (from which this film steals some scenes, incidentally). This is also a sad film to end up being the last in Tourneur’s career. If only a giant squid had attacked the city or something, but no. That would have been something interesting, and this film is committed to making sure nothing interesting happens. It’s all, as I said, a tremendous disappointment given the talented cast and crew assembled. But it’s one misstep after another, making War Gods of the Deep the extremely rare crappy fantasy film I actually can’t recommend. Well, maybe watch it once…but just once.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States and England | Starring: Vincent Price, David Tomlinson, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, John Le Mesurier, Harry Oscar, Derek Newark, Roy Patrick | Writer: Charles Bennett, Louis Heyward | Director: Jacques Tourneur | Cinematographer: Stephen Dade | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: George Willoughby | Alternate Titles: City Under the Sea
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”
A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.
By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.
In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.
American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.
In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.
It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.
Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?
None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.
Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.
For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.
Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.
Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.
I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.
That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.
But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.
Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.
So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.
So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines’ Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino’s have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!
Filipino cinema had not always been that way, however. In fact, the previous decade had been what is now considered a golden age for the country’s film industry, dominated by a quartet of major studios known as “The Big Four”, who turned out relatively lavish prestige productions built around their respective stables of glamorous stars. Financial troubles and the resulting defection of contracted talent started to take their toll on those studios toward the end of the fifties, and by the mid sixties Sampaguita Productions was the last of the Big Four left standing.
And the landscape that Sampaguita found itself a part of was a markedly changed one, made up of dozens of scrappy independent production companies seeking to turn a quick profit by grinding out hastily produced imitations of whatever international product Filipino audiences were paying to see at the moment. This translated primarily into countless indigenous interpretations of the James Bond and Eurospy films (resulting, among others things, in the phenomenally successful and long running Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 series), Spaghetti Westerns. and, of course, the ubiquitous Batman television series and the numerous European costumed capers inspired by it. In this sense, Sampaguita’s 1966 production James Batman can be seen as one of the studio’s efforts to go with the dollar-chasing flow of this new industry environment.
Another tendency in Filipino cinema that is at play in James Batman — one that, in fact, can still be seen in the industry’s current cinematic output — is a fondness for broad, Mad Magazine-style lampoons of Western pop culture products. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to see this as reflecting some ambivalence on the part of the Filipino people regarding the inescapable cultural influence of their former occupiers, but, whatever the case, the result was that, alongside more earnest efforts such as the Agent X-44 films, Pinoy filmmakers were producing an equal number of spoofs along the lines of James Bone, which starred the emaciated comedian Palito as a skeletal superspy.
This particular trend was a boon to one performer born Rodolfo Vera Quizon, who, under the name Dolphy, would go on to become the most beloved screen comedian in the history of Pinoy cinema (such was his popularity at the time of making James Batman that he had recently had the gig of warming up the crowd for The Beatles during the mop-topped ones’ ultimately disastrous visit to the islands). After initially rising to fame in the fifties in a series of cross-dressing roles (sure-fire comedic gold in the macho culture of the Philippines), Dolphy had, by the mid-sixties, reinvented himself somewhat in a series of secret agent spoofs such as Dr. Yes, Dolpinger, Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (all 1965) and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (1966). Dolphy didn’t limit himself to parodying the spy genre, and also lampooned comic characters such as Tarzan and Captain Barbell during this period — and for James Batman combined the two with a dual performance as comedic versions of both James Bond and Batman.
What makes James Batman such a strange animal — aside from the obvious — is that, in parodying the James Bond films of the mid sixties and the Adam West Batman television series, it’s spoofing two things that are already spoofs themselves. On top of that, the film, in addition to delivering lots of very broad slapstick comedy, also strives to function as a proper action film, and as such features quite a lot of fairly soberly staged fight sequences and action set pieces. In fact, by the time we reach the final act, most of the comic antics have been dispensed with, and James Batman plays out its remaining length as a fairly straightforward action melodrama. The result is that the movie gets to have it both ways by presenting Batman and James Bond, as the objects of parody, as cowardly and preening, while still having them go on to perform the daring heroic feats that the audience expected of them.
James Batman‘s action starts at what is apparently some kind of congress of Asian nations, at which a Fu Manchu-like emissary of the criminal organization CLAW shows up to make extortion demands and threaten nuclear annihilation upon those who would not comply. What was most striking to me about this scene was the CLAW emissary’s sidekick, who was played by a very elderly man who looked both disoriented and confused throughout, leading me to speculate that someone’s grandfather had been put to work during furlough from the rest home. Anyway, the combined nations decide that the threat from CLAW is so great that the services of both Batman and James Bond are required. An actually kind of funny scene follows in which the movie’s distinctly childish and self-regarding versions of both Batman and Bond, who are obviously none too fond of one another, sit before the committee and argue why each of them should be given the job exclusively — an argument that quickly devolves into each of them shouting “pick me!” at the delegates.
One of the perks of the job for Batman is that it will increase his proximity to the chairman’s beautiful young daughter, Shirley. Unfortunately, while Shirley is crazy about Batman (exemplified by a shot of her gazing dreamy-eyed at a magazine that confusingly features a photo of Batman and Robin as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward), she has no time for Batman’s alter ego, Dolpho, despite the insistence of her controlling older sister Delia that Dolpho, with his many millions, is a prime catch. Meanwhile, the members of CLAW — which include a cloaked figure called Drago, an especially tall and roided-up interpretation of The Penguin, a guy with a spiked ball for a hand, and a masked female called The Black Rose who is clearly derived from the character in Chor Yuen’s Cantonese film of the same name — have learned that Bond, Batman and “Rubin” are on the case, and determine to eliminate them before they interfere with their plans.
In addition to former Sampaguita contract player Dolphy, the cast of James Batman serves as something of a showcase for Sampaguita’s house talent at the time. Boy Alano, who plays Rubin, began his acting career at the age of ten, when he co-starred in the 1951 film Roberta, a smash hit that helped rescue the studio from bankruptcy following a fire that consumed a large part of its property. Bella Flores, who plays Delia, had portrayed the female heavy in that same film, and her performance was so iconic that it pretty much doomed her to the type of bad girl roles we see her essaying here. Finally, Shirley Moreno, who plays “Shirley”, was a recent discovery whom Sampaguita head Dr. Jose Perez had that year included in a promotional launch of the studio’s new faces dubbed “Stars 66″. Despite the Spanish surname, the fair-skinned, conspicuously Anglo-looking Moreno serves as a perfect example of the Caucasian standard of feminine beauty that dominated in the Pinoy film industry at the time — and still does to some extent today.
With its simple set-up out of the way, James Batman proceeds along a trajectory not unsimilar to that of most spy films of its era, trotting out a succession of action set pieces based around the villain’s serial attempts to pick off our heroes. Only, in this case, those set pieces are punctuated by gag scenes in which, to give a few examples, Batman gets pantsed and produces condiments from his utility belt, and James Bond gets bitten on his bare ass by a rubber centipede. Alano’s portrayal of Rubin as somewhat of a cretin also provides the opportunity for some Three Stooges-style rough stuff, since Dolphy/Batman is frequently driven to violence by his idiocy. Elsewhere, the level of the movie’s humor can best be summed up by the phrase “boobies… hee hee”.
For the most part, Dolphy’s scripted dialog is painfully unfunny, but what struck me as I watched James Batman is how he comes across as being a genuinely funny guy despite that. This is conveyed mostly through what appear to be throwaway bits of physical improv — such as when, as Batman, he follows a pre-crime-fighting snack by casually wiping his hands on Rubin’s cape — and by a genuinely quirky repertoire of mannerisms and physical gestures that make the most of his spindly frame and boney, thin-lipped countenance. I think that what really works for Dolphy is his somewhat sadsack, sour-faced demeanor, an aspect that not only serves to distance him from the goofy obviousness of the humor he’s perpetrating, but also provides a contrast to the type of desperate, googly-eyed antics so often seen in cinematic comic relief characters from this period.
As mentioned before, Dolphy’s portrayals of Bond and Batman veer toward the comically vain and juvenile — an exercise in broad-stroke subversion that’s aided by some equally unsubtle costuming choices. These include Batman/Dolphy’s baggy long johns-based costume that continually slips to his knees, and which is adorned with a chest emblem that looks like a female silhouette better suited for a semi’s mud flaps. Bond/Dolphy, for his part, is decked out in a stunning plaid three-piece suit with matching Trilby, an ensemble that is really shown to best advantage during a makeout scene that takes place on an identically patterned couch. (Though, to be honest, whether this outfit was actually intended to look ridiculous, or was instead someone’s actual idea of high style was unclear to me.) Interestingly, despite being the only character to receive a satirical rechristening, “Rubin” gets to wear a costume that is entirely faithful to that of his inspiration.
Predictably, James Batman looks like it was made for about a dollar, but that doesn’t mean that efforts weren’t made to make it look as good as possible under the circumstances. Director Artemio Marquez and cinematographer Amaury Agra imbue the film throughout with fluid camera work and imaginative, comic book-influenced compositions, and the many action sequences are generally well staged and shot. Furthermore, the black and white photography serves to some extent to mask the heavy cardboard and construction paper content of the sets, and elements such as the modified Cadillac that serves as the Batmobile actually don’t look too bad as long as the camera doesn’t dwell on them for too long. Spicing things up further are some interesting location choices, including the operational processing plant in which the climactic battle scene is staged, which looks like it must have presented some very real hazards for the actors involved.
James Batman comes to a dramatic head when the CLAW gang, in accordance with their supervillain mandate, kidnap Shirley and abscond with her to their secret headquarters. Bond, Batman and Rubin are close behind, of course, and, with the aid of two undercover agents working within the organization, lay siege to the compound, all the while dodging the deadly cartoon rays shooting from the giant lady fingers that ornament Drago’s throne room. All leads to a dramatic reveal of the real brains behind the organization and, ultimately, some stock footage explosions. It’s a climax that offers the type of crossover thrills that only a flagrant disregard for international copyrights can guaranty — and if you’re the type of fanboy for whom a fight between James Bond (or, at least, a malnourished-looking, Pacific Islander version of same) and The Penguin represents sheer nirvana, it should seal the deal on whether or not you are going to begin the long grey market search for a murky dub of the film.
Personally — and much to my surprise, given my expectations going in — I’m going to come down reservedly on the pro side of the James Batman argument. This is due in part to the fact that, given that the majority of Filipino films from its era have been lost, it is one of the few remaining examples of films of its type. But I also have to say that, despite it being every bit as stupid as I expected it to be, it was still entertaining, and proceeded at a fast enough clip that none of its potential irritants were with me long enough to do much damage. Points are also in order, I feel, for the fact that its humor, no matter how juvenile, really does have a subversive component to it; the underdog lover in me just has to feel a little warm and fuzzy about inhabitants of a downtrodden island nation like the Philippines so gleefully thumbing their noses at institutionalized symbols of Western might like James Bond and Batman. That in doing so they manage to make the voraciously plundering pulp cinema of Turkey seem reverent by comparison is even more impressive. Plus, you know, boobies… hee hee.
What with my recent cinematic diet consisting mostly of overheated Bollywood masala movies and plagiarism-filled Thai man-in-suit monster sagas, I’ve gotten well past the point where it’s time to mix things up a bit. And what better respite than to watch some attractive French people screwing and languorously declaiming about the futility of it all? Granted, that isn’t an entirely accurate description of Slogan; For one, the attractive person in that scenario is Jane Birkin, who is British, while the French one is Serge Gainsbourg, who once famously summed up his position on ugliness by saying that he preferred it to beauty because it endured. Still, there’s no hint of either Amitabh Bachchan, Turkish people in ill-fitting superhero costumes, or latex creatures of any kind within miles of this picture, which is all that I’m really asking for.
Much has been said about Serge Gainsbourg in his roles as songwriting genius, pop music provocateur, archetypal seedy Frenchman, and guy who told Whitney Houston he wanted to do her on national television, but very little has been said about his career as a support player in European B movies. How could this be? After all, long before he made his mark on the French pop scene in the mid-sixties, Gainsbourg had paid the bills by both scoring and appearing in a string of films, a number of which were well within the purview of a site like Teleport City. These included a pair of Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Brad Harris Samson films, which were made before both Parolini and Harris moved on to the Kommissar X series. Both these and the earlier peplum Revolt of the Slaves put Gainsbourg’s somewhat ferret-y looks to good use, playing up the more sinister aspects of his physical demeanor in a series of juicy villain roles. Gainsbourg would also contribute to the Eurospy genre with his appearance in one of the Roger Hanin “Tiger” films (which he also scored), Carre de Dames pour Un As.
Of course, by the time of starring in Slogan in 1969, Gainsbourg had become an established figure in the French pop music scene, having written hit songs for such stars as France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Petula Clark and Brigitte Bardot, as well as making a dent in the charts on his own with solo recordings of classics like “Qui est In Qui est Out”. As such, Slogan, unlike those earlier meal-tickets, shows all the signs of having been built around Gainsbourg’s by this time well established persona. As a result we get the extravagantly dissolute 40 year old pop maverick Serge Gainsbourg starring as extravagantly dissolute 40 year old advertising maverick Serge Faberge, who embarks upon an ill-fated affair with Evelyne, an 18 year old British model played by then 22 year old British actress Jane Birkin. Slogan, in fact, plays out very much like one of Gainsbourg’s songs from the period: Sexy and stylish on the surface and loaded with sly pop culture references, but at its heart a melancholy rumination on mortality and loss.
However, whatever the intentions behind Slogan might have been at the time, when watching the film today, they tend to get overshadowed by events that we now know were taking place behind the scenes: namely that Birkin and Gainsbourg were making a love connection that would result in one of pop’s most iconic romances. Birkin was still a relative newcomer at the time, having made her initial splash in 1966 with Antonioni’s Blow-up, a film in which she appeared only briefly but also very nakedly. Long-limbed, lank-haired and coltish, with an ethereal blue-eyed gaze, Birkin so embodied a certain aspect of the late 60s aesthetic that some of her early films seemed to use her as more of a design element than an actress. As legend has it, Birkin, curious about her aloof costar, finagled a dinner invitation which lead to a long night of clubbing in Paris — including stops at a transvestite bar and a club where American bluesman Joe Turner was playing — that ended with the hard drinking Gainsbourg passing out in his hotel room.
As inauspicious as it may sound, that night would mark the beginning of a passionate love affair that, over the course of its twelve year duration, would not only produce two children (the actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg being one of them) but also provide the spark for a number of dazzling pop artifacts. As an initial volley, the newly formed Birkin/Gainsbourg union announced their love to the world with what would become one of Gainsbourg’s biggest and most notorious international hits, the duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot had begged him not to release it for fear that the track might jeopardize her marriage. The final version, which featured Birkin very convincingly feigning orgasm while Gainsbourg mutter/crooned phrases such as “Physical love is a dead end”, would go on to directly influence Donna Summer’s disco breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” and cement Gainsbourg’s undying reputation as the dirty old man of French pop.
Obviously one of the more fruitful muse/mentor relationships of its type, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s affair would also serve as the impetus for, among other things, Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson and his directing debut, a 1976 feature also titled Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus that starred Birkin in the lead role. The pair would also continue to star together on screen, even returning to Serge’s Eurotrash cinema roots for Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye — a film that, despite having a title that’s as giallo as all get-out, was in reality just an underwhelming gothic thriller.
So knowing all of this today, it’s difficult to watch Slogan without losing sight of its tale of an ill-advised affair between two shallow and self-absorbed characters for all of the romantic sparks, both actual and perceived, that we see flying between its stars. And, while Slogan is far from a terrible film on its own merits, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it distracts us from just how insufferably annoying those characters are. Gainsbourg’s Serge Faberge is a work-obsessed, habitual womanizer in the throes of a midlife crisis gone nuclear who, being also a married man with a baby on the way, employs all of the deceptions, both of himself and others, that such a combination of traits requires. Birkin’s Evelyne, on the other hand, is insecure, needy and destructively impulsive, and, when she’s not simply seducing the camera with her very Birkin-ness, prone to sulking and shrill tantrums made even less tolerable by a French accent that’s clangy even to a non-speaker.
Despite whatever flaws can be found in Gainsbourg and Birkin’s performances, it cannot be said that they aren’t courageous or lacking in vanity. This is especially true in Gainsbourg’s case, as the age difference between Faberge and Evelyne (and by extension between he and Birkin) and its implications are far from glossed over, and in fact are repeatedly highlighted as a symptom of Faberge’s benighted struggle with his impending mortality. Gainsbourg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his character, which is remarkable, given that the chain-smoking, coolly detached exterior that this frightened and confused man hides behind is so nearly indistinguishable from his own public persona. As a result, those scenes in which Gainsbourg/Faberge morosely obsesses over his growing paunch, or sheepishly tells his pregnant wife lies that you can tell he’s desperately trying to believe himself, are more than a little uncomfortable to watch, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to Gainsbourg’s integrity as a performer.
At Slogan‘s outset, Faberge meets the young Evelyne by chance while in Venice to accept an advertising award — an occasion which he has already used as an opportunity for a pre-arranged extramarital tryst with another young model. At first, all is laughing strolls and romantic montages set to a fantastically lush and swirling Gainsbourg score, but soon Evelyne, either too naive or too self involved to truly take Faberge’s measure, wants more. Not surprisingly, Faberge is put off by her sudden demands for commitment. You’d expect that he’d be happy to be rid of her at this point, but when Evelyne runs back to England and announces plans to marry the fiancé she previously ditched for Faberge, Faberge follows and brings her back to Paris. At this time, as at others, it seems that Faberge is continuing the relationship more out of obstinacy than anything else, wanting to prove to his wife, his friends and, most importantly, himself that it’s one based on authentic, deep feelings rather than merely his own desperate clinging to youth.
Faberge eventually separates from his wife and moves into an apartment with Evelyne, where, after a brief honeymoon period, the lovers’ bickering begins to escalate. Meanwhile, Faberge has won a lucrative advertising contract with Shell Oil (about as naked a symbol of brute American capital as you could place within this context) and, despite his announced intention to begin work on a “real movie”, his subsequent preoccupation with the campaign drives a further wedge between them. Finally, with a year come and gone, Serge and Evelyne return to Venice for another award ceremony, only to encounter that natural enemy of cradle-robbing old men everywhere: studly young Italian boys.
Throughout Slogan there are scenes of Faberge meeting with his colleagues and clients in which the advertising industry’s — and, by extension, the culture at large’s — obsession with youth is given ample play (“The youngsters will buy it” is a constantly heard refrain). And this wouldn’t be a sixties film if there weren’t some none-too-subtle ironic juxtapositions of televised war and disaster footage for all of that to play out against. In this context, the adman serves as an especially insidious representation of the establishment, as his goal is to decode the language of youth in order to exploit if for his own commercial gain. Given that, it’s possible that Serge’s humiliation at the hands of youth is meant as some type of poetic justice. But positioning Serge Gainsbourg as “The Man” simply doesn’t work here because, well… he’s Serge Gainsbourg. Regardless of how old — or ugly — he is, the man is just too cool to stand in for the calcified values of his generation.
This is another aspect of Slogan that may be undermined by the obvious romantic chemistry between its stars. The age difference, because it is explicitly acknowledged up front, actually becomes less of a problem, especially since Gainsbourg, gnomic, jug-eared and clean shaven as he is (it was reportedly Birkin who encouraged the perpetual three-day stubble), has enough of the mischievous boy about him to make the connection between the two seem credible. Finally, the film (which, by the way, includes among its three writers Melvin Van Peebles!) can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to punish the character Faberge or celebrate the icon Gainsbourg. All of those combined self-inflicted losses that we might expect to leave Faberge reeling at the film’s conclusion instead appear to have left him unchanged, and as the credits roll, he’s slyly chatting up a new sweet young thing, much as we might expect Gainsbourg’s more id-driven alter ego, Gainsbarre, to do. Then again, this might be another one of those disservices done to Slogan by hindsight, as, at this point, its impossible to look at Birkin and Gainsbourg and see anything but Birkin and Gainsbourg, and hence impossible to see Slogan at all clearly as the film that it was initially intended to be.
To the extent that it concerns people who are obsessed with surfaces, Slogan is also a movie about things, and, as such, it contains enough dome-topped, modular and polychromatic plastic appliances and fixtures to fuel a retro-fetishist’s fever dreams for years to come. Faberge’s office and the apartment he shares with Evelyne in particular look like they could have been inhabited by characters from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. Both director Pierre Grimblat and cinematographer Claude Beusoleil do a nice job of contrasting these sterile modern surfaces with the timeworn beauty of Venice featured in those scenes at the films opening and close, accentuating on one hand the sense of tragic romance at the film’s core and, on the other, its depiction of the manufactured distances that people place between one another.
While many of Slogan‘s no doubt modest intentions may have become obscured by the imposing backward reaching shadows cast by its stars and their legacies, it still provides an illuminating snapshot of one particular aspect of its cultural moment. By that I refer to the collective mid-life crisis that, as the sixties crept into the seventies, seemed to effect an entire generation of middle-aged and middle-class adults who, finding themselves abandoned outright by the youth obsessed commercial culture of their time, began to embrace a sort of neutered version of the hippy counterculture, free of all the utopian idealism and leftist political rhetoric, but with all of its hedonism and obsession with self-actualization intact, leading to some of the most stomach turning excesses of 1970s “adult” culture. This way lay wife-swapping fondue parties, porno chic, EST and Mike Brady’s perm, and I believe that, after Serge Gainsbourg, we wouldn’t see a man in his forties adopt a remotely swinging persona without looking like a complete dork until the arrival on the scene of George Clooney many years later. So savor the moment, people.
If you are interested in good music, sixties European style, attractive people, sexy romance, or just really enjoy watching people smoking cigarettes, there are so many reasons to see Slogan that for me to evaluate it as a film using the conventional standards seems completely beside the point. While it’s certainly an engaging and stylish little movie, there’s little doubt that it would even be available for our consideration today if not for its two stars and the particular place that it holds in their legend. As such, it comes to us more as an artifact of a specific time and place than as something to be experienced on its own terms. Fortunately, that time and place is — to me, at least — a particularly magical one, making Slogan a worthy object of fascination regardless of how successful it might have been in achieving its goals.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: France | Starring: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Andrea Parisy, Daniel Gelin, Henri-Jacques Huet, Juliet Berto, Pierre Doris, Marie-Christine Boulard, Gilles Millinaire, James Mitchell, Kate Barry | Writers: Francis Girod, Pierre Grimblat, Melvin Van Peebles | Director: Pierre Grimblat | Cinematographer: Claude Beausoleil | Music: Serge Gainsbourg | Producer: Francis Girod
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.
There are a couple key themes that define Teleport City and to which I frequently refer. First among these is that Teleport City was always envisioned as a response to the taunt, “Get a life!” or, alternately, “Get a girlfriend!” Part of the reason the reviews I write so often diverge into tangential stories about silly adventures, history (both accurate and suspect), and the circumstances under which I’ve viewed these movies and how said circumstances have influenced my reactions is because I like to illustrate what I’ve learned and experienced first-hand from my many strange years in cult film fandom: that we do have lives, often exceptionally fun lives at that. The second of the over-arching themes that inform Teleport City is that you should be happy this is your hobby, because you will never want for new material. No matter how much you’ve seen, you’ve never seen it all, and you will discover new and amazing films from all over the world with pleasing regularity. Exploring these films leads, often, to exploring other cultures, other countries, other customs and histories, and learning about far more than simply the film you happen to be watching.
Case in point would be the little sub-genre — “family” might be more appropriate — known as “krimi,” a series of fantastical German murder mystery movies based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace and drawing influence from a sprawling landscape of source material that includes pulp adventures, noir crime dramas, James Bond, and old horror films. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of “krimi” films. Back in the day, I had a German film class in what we then referred t as “college,” or sometimes “university.” Back in this time period, I would ride to class on my pennyfarthing bicycle beneath trees dripping with the vibrantly colored leaves of fall, my letterman sweater rakishly unbuttoned and my books slung around my shoulder in a satchel, whistling the latest hit by The Ink Spots and thinking of my sweetheart Annabeth and the grand we time we’d have that weekend when I would borrow my chum’s horseless motor carriage to drive her up to the country for a picnic, where I would serenade her with some ukulele playing. Oh, that was truly the golden fall of ’92!
The film class covered the basics of German film — meaning we watched some Metropolis, Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Triumph of the Will, Jew Suss, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum, American Friend, The Seventh Cross, and the dreaded The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Although the professor was a grand man and once scheduled a make-up class at his own home, where he had an early, pre-flatscreen television version of a home theater, an indoor pool, and a feast of spaetzel and bratwurst (apparently being the head of the Germanic and Slavic Languages department married to the head of the Russian Language department has its perks beyond just being able to stage the siege of Stalingrad in your back yard every night), and even though he taught me the word vergangenheits-bewaltigung, there was no mention of krimi. For that matter, there was no mention of the Jerry Cotton FBI-adventure films starring George Nader, or of Superargo, so in the end, I have to question the quality of education I received. Still, and despite The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, one of the better film classes I took, even though (and possibly because) the professor wasn’t trained in film studies. Plus, Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler was a fine book, and the class itself benefited from sharing a semester with a “Women and Film” class which was excruciating (this is what you get when you do schedule drop-add at the last minute — please, o Lord! No more Jane Campion!).
I also learned that I wanted a Wiemar Republic era nightclub in my house. Later, of course, I became more of a grown up and dispensed with such childish fantasies. Nowadays, I want a Jess Franco nightclub in my house.
With this basic foundation in German cinema, it was many years before I visited that nation’s movies again, and when I did, it was a decidedly different type of film than those I’d been watching in school. Fewer pensive stares and excessively long takes, and more George Nader and his perfectly sculpted hair jumping out of Jaguar cars and shooting gangsters. When the book Fear Without Frontiers came out, I got my first glimpse at the weird world of krimi and knew, immediately, that this was a type of film I was going to want to see. As is often the case, however, recent knowledge and enthusiasm abut a certain film or type of films has no direct correlation to the ability to actually obtain and watch the movies. So while I could sit in my study, contentedly puffing on my pipe and sipping a glass of fine Glenrothes as I marveled at photos of skull-faced killers and arch-villains in pointy crimson hoods or frog outfits, I could not carry my enthusiasm out to my own home theater for viewing. My only option at the time was to shell out stacks of lettuce in exchange for bootleg copies of dubious quality.
But the era of DVD often rewards the cheap and patient, and too long ago, Alpha Video — DVD-era heir to the throne of Goodtimes Video — was kind enough to make bootleg copies of dubious quality unnecessary, as one could now freely purchse semi-bootleg copies of dubious quality, but for four dollars instead of fourteen. Alpha Video dumped a number of krimi onto cheap DVDs, followed shortly by an “Edgar Wallace Collection” released by Retrocinema. I also discovered that some of the films I already owned were, in fact, based in some degree on the works of Edgar Wallace, though in at least some of these cases, the connection is dubious. In others, the whims and obsessions of the director override any other identity the film may possess. That is to say, The Devil Came from Akasava is not a krimi; it is a Jess Franco film. Slowly, and far more lazily than someone who possesses actual drive and motivation, I was able to piece together a half-ass knowledge of the history of Edgar Wallace and how the Germans came to love him so much that they based a bunch of cheap movies on his stories.
Wallace was born in the London slums in the latter half of the 1800s, his father an actor, his mother a dancer — two professions and a life that we can see reflected as major influences in Wallace’s work. In 1896, he found himself stationed in South Africa, serving in the Boer War and developing a nascent writing career as a reporter. His work attracted the attention of none other than Rudyard Kipling, who encouraged Wallace to continue his writing career. Wallace, himself a great admirer of Kipling, wisely took the advice, and before too long, he was making enough money as a foreign correspondent in South Africa to afford a wife and a comfortable existence for the both of them. Then, just as quickly, he lost all his money, because that’s the way us writers are. After returning to England in 1902, he published his first serialized novel in 1905, but once again he proved a better writer than financial adviser, as a crackpot promotional scheme that offered readers a reward if they could figure out the solution to the book resulted in lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the loss of his copyright for the story.
But at least he had a new career, even if he had to maintain it to stay one step ahead of poverty — something I’m sure no other writer has ever experienced. It was a relatively unspectacular career for some time, but in 1921, something suddenly caught fire. It was in this year that Wallace’s name became synonymous with mystery writing. By 1928, it is reported that nearly a quarter of the books being printed in England were Edgar Wallace mysteries. He managed to get himself a plum job as the figurehead president at British Lion Films, which meant that he would be getting cuts of all future and past films based on his work. In 1931, after an unsuccessful bid for Parliament (the gambling habit came back to haunt him), he went to the United States and attempted to scare up a screenwriting job for himself. He had a hard time finding takers for any but one of his scripts, and that one he managed to sell to RKO Pictures, though they insisted on a different title, something more exotic than The Beast. And so was born King Kong. Wallace died shortly afterward, in 1932. By that time, he had written some 250 books and plays, countless short stories, and left his family $68,000 — not a bad sum in 1932, so long as you ignore that it was countered by the $400,000 in debt he amassed as a result of gambling on the ponies and a love of throwing big parties.
One of his sons, Bryan Edgar, himself a budding writer, took on the task of selling his late father’s work for the screen and of writing new books in the style of and “inspired by the work of Edgar Wallace.” So I guess he was like a proto-Christopher Tolkien. When Bryan Edgar moved to West Germany after the war, he brought with him the infectious enthusiasm for his father’s work that had resulted in so many books and so many films based on those books. Wallace’s stories were very popular in Germany throughout the 1920s, thought exactly how this came to be I’m not sure. I guess it was part of the treaty the Allies made Germany sign at the end of World War I. “Cede all territories, disarm and disband your military, make Kaiser Wilhelm shave his mustache, and oh yes, you must read Edgar Wallace novels” — that’s the actual text of the Treaty of Versailles, though I would by irresponsible if I didn’t mention that there is a hand-written addition, in pencil, from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, ever anxious to be fair and forgiving, that says, “You can sell the books after you are done reading them, or trade them for a slice of bread.” Needless to say, this conciliatory amendment enraged David Lloyd George, who proceeded to doodle a picture on the back of the treaty of Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Lloyd George, he was caught doing this by Georges Clemenceau, who used this knowledge to force England to cede its claim to Wilhelm’s mustache, which would now become the property of France and be placed prominently on the face of Clemenceau himself so as to teach Lloyd George a lesson about being naughty.
See the important things you learn when you read a review at Teleport City?
Anyway, much like the British, the Germans were keen on making cinematic adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels. However, all production of these films was halted, and indeed the books themselves were banned, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. When Bryan Edgar Wallace arrived in West Germany after the war, his appearance coincided with a general revival of interest in crime films, thanks in no small part to the films of the French New Wave, who were keen on drawing influences from old American noir and crime films and championing genres of cinema previously dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration. The atmosphere was right, and before too long, interest in Wallace’s works was revived, and so too was the production of films based on those novels. In 1959, with the release of The Fellowship of the Frog, the krimi was born.
There were two competing studios cranking out Edgar Wallace movies at the time, though most fans consider the string of films released by Rialto to be the definitive krimi series. Most of the films were dubbed into English for American audiences, and some were retitled for distribution elsewhere. Over time, the films based of works by Edgar Wallace became mixed in with the films based on the works of Bryan Edgar Wallace, writing in his father’s style. The result is a bit confusing, especially so far removed from the original years of release and with so little information previously available. The end result is a wonderful krimi maze as convoluted and confusing, yet fun to wander through, as the plots of the films themselves.
Phantom of Soho is among the films attributed to Edgar Wallace but actually the work of his son, and rather than being one of the Rialo productions, was made by the studio CCC. As far as krimi go, it is not considered to be the best, but that’s no indication that it isn’t very good, and it still serves as a textbook example of the shared elements of Edgar Wallace krimi. As with all exceptionally convoluted and twisted stories, it can be distilled into one very simple idea: someone is killing people in and around a cabaret in London’s seamy Soho district, and Scotland Yard needs to catch the killer. As with most “whodunits,” we encounter a number of possible suspects, including a massage therapist employed by the owner of the club, a knife-throwing fake Arab, a beautiful dancer and photographer, a salty old fisherman, a writer, and even the chief of Scotland Yard himself. Attempting to crack the case is stolid British inspector Patten (Dieter Borsche) and his rather bizarre assistant, Hallam (Peter Vogel). Cracking the case consists of the two inspectors spending a lot of time hanging out in the nightclub that seems somehow inextricably linked to the strange murders. Soon, we are neck deep in a plot that involves insurance fraud, blackmail, lots of women in black lingerie, and lost of people skulking about dark, twisting, and excessively foggy Soho streets.
Although Phantom of Soho is not a Rialto production, and although it is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his father, it’s still quite a fun, old fashioned mystery with a few modern twists (primarily in the form of half-naked women parading about the place, and even a couple very brief glimpses of nudity — which must have been novel at the time for a mainstream film, and it contains pretty much everything that defines the krimi. First and foremost, there is the outrageous villain. The titular phantom of Soho is perhaps less outlandish than some of its krimi compatriots, largely because the phantom remains unseen for the majority of the film, represented only by a point of view shot in which we see only the killer’s hands, wearing sparkly silver gloves and brandishing a knife. But when the appearance of the phantom is finally revealed, it is suitably creepy and fulfills the krimi tendency to feature criminal masterminds in outfits that are at once very cool and utterly absurd. I don’t see how, even in a seedy neighborhood, you could parade around in sparkly gloves, a funerary shroud, and a decaying skull mask without attracting at least some attention, but then, this is only a loose interpretation of reality, so I guess such things are permissible. Edgar Walllace was a pulp writer, after all, and the pulps thrived on such villains. And besides, around this same time, Kriminal would have been running around in a full-on skeleton-themed body stocking, so maybe it was just one of the many trends of London in the swingin’ 60s.
We also have the requisite cast of potential suspects, suspicion being removed from them one by one and each succumbs to the blade o the mysterious phantom, until finally we are left with the core possibilities: the writer, the dancer/photographer, the doctor/physical therapist, the club owner, and the chief of Scotland Yard. All are connected in some way to a plot involving the sinking of an ocean liner in order to collect on the insurance money (this is not a central mystery to the plot, and is revealed fairly early in the story). The eventual reveal isn’t entirely a surprise, but then, it rarely is these days, given how many movies have been made in this style. And besides, the fun of the krimi is rarely in being fooled by the unmasking of the killer. It’s in the ride, and Phantom of Soho is an interesting ride indeed, steeped in eerie atmosphere cribbed from film noir and old horror films. The Soho of this movie is a fantastic, almost mythical creation, the result of someone who might never have been to Soho trying to make it up based on the things they’ve heard about it — not at all unlike American and Italian Westerns serving up a mythical version of the Old West based on legend and romance rather than hard facts.
This Soho is, as I said, covered in fog at all hours of the day and night. Clandestine couplings and seedy goings-on take place in every club, in the shadows of every alley, the rooms of every hotel, every movement softened to impressionism by the ever-present mist that clings to the neighborhood like the shroud of death itself. The Phantom of Soho exists in a fantasy world composed of such images — similar in a way to the city occupied by the heroes and villains of Streets of Fire so many years later — and seemingly equal parts 1920s romanticism and 1960s modernism, resulting in a film that exists in a time and place that is familiar but not quite real. This is realized through the use of studio sets and location shooting on the streets of Hamburg. The final product is a recreation of London that is completely unreal yet totally believable, obviously recognizable but with a hint of the alien, as if something lurking in that fog just isn’t quite right. It is the conjuring of this mood that serves to be the greatest attribute of The Phantom of Soho, for the plot itself is somewhat slow and prone to lots of talking.
Just as the movie strives to create a mythical London, so too does it strive to create fiction-perfect ideals of Scotland Yard inspectors in the persons of Patten and Hallam. Patten is the stock stoic cop in a trenchcoat, navigating the seedy underbelly of London without ever seeming to be uncomfortable or distracted by the women in their underwear that thankfully populate the focal point of the crimes. His opposite number is Hallam, who represents one of the genuinely funny comic relief character, primarily because the comedy of his character comes not from broad attempts at slapstick, but rather from the fact that the presentation of the character is just so weird. It’s a Germanic interpretation of the famous dry wit of the Brits (“At last, I can realize the dream of arresting my own boss.”). In a modern production of this film, Hallam would be played by Cripsen Glover. As it is, Peter Vogel looks like a Peter Sellers character and really makes the whole film worth watching — well, him and Helga Sommerfeld as Corrine, the dancer/photographer who spends most of the movie in fetching black lingerie and little else. Actor Peter Vogel was a tragic case, obviously talented but prone to depression. He attempted to kill himself on one occasion, by jumping out of a window during a film premier, and succeeded in another attempt at suicide, this time by poisoning himself. I really don’t know the details of his life and career, but his turn as Hallam is really inspired.
But if there is a real star of the film it’s the art design and direction. Director Franz Josef Gottlieb spent the 60s directing similar murder mysteries and pulp-inspired adventures, bringing an avant garde touch to his films that was most likely informed by French interpretations of American noir and the old German horror film’s fascination with expressionism and strange shot set-ups. The Phantom of Soho is full of arty composition and awkward angles, but far from feeling gratuitous, these decisions seem perfectly in line with the bizarre feel of the film and the desire to create a sense of familiar reality that is, at the same time, disturbingly unreal. This is probably thanks largely to Swiss cinematographer Richard Angst, whose career stretched as far back as the pre-Hitler Weimar era of the 1920s. Very early in his career, Angst found himself working alongside Leni Riefenstahl, one of Germany’s most talented and most notorious film personalities, on Arnold Frank’s demanding cycle of mountaineering adventure films: The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mount Blanc, White Frenzy, and S.O.S. Iceberg. Cutting his teeth in the silent era of German film undoubtedly informed the cinematographer’s sense of the surreal, and his experience on those challenging films helped him become one of the great cinematographers of early adventure cinema. In 1959, when legendary German director Fritz Lang returned to Germany for the first time since World War II (Lang not being especially friendly with the Nazis, nor they with him), he hired Angst for the color remake of his earlier India-themed epics, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. Angst’s approach to Phantom of Soho works wonderfully, infusing the film with a unique feel and tying it through imagery to the horror films of the silent era, just as the plot of the film would later tie into a new type of thriller: the Italian giallo.
There is much that is similar between the krimi and the giallo, and especially The Phantom of Soho, which is one of the more lurid krimis, and the work of Dario Argento. The krimi films grew from the pulp stories, with a dash of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes thrown in, and integrated the whodunit mystery with elements of horror and the fantastic. Giallo would take the same hybrid approach, one foot in horror and the other in the murder mystery, though the Italians did not carry over the reliance on a pulpy, outrageous villain in a crazy costume. But much of what we can see in the giallo cycle of the 1970s is present already in The Phantom of Soho: the mysterious killer, the list of suspects, the preoccupation with seedy locations, the inclusion of art and artists (specifically, writers, models/dancers, and photographers), and the protagonists working his way doggedly through a progressively more tangled web are all elements that became de rigueur for gialli — themselves outgrowths of the Italian pulp novels from which they take their name (“giallo” or yellow — because the books were easily identified by their signifying yellow covers).
Central to the plot of The Phantom of Soho is both photography and, even more so, writing. Among the many potential suspects in the film is a woman with a successful career as a writer and an intimate relationship with the head of Scotland Yard. She challenges the inspectors to solve the case before she does, confident that as a writer with a fresh and sometimes outlandish imagination, she is better suited for working such an unusual case as that of the phantom of Soho. In this sense, the movie becomes a story that is writing itself as it goes. Argento would use this same concept in his 1982 thriller, Tenebrae, which while not being a remake of The Phantom of Soho, certainly uses the Bryan Edgar Wallace story and the related movie as its inspiration and basis.
Although the pace of the film is slow — too slow for some people, with too meager a pay-off at the end — I think it’s a great little movie. The atmosphere is incredible, the cinematography inventive, and the story both strange and entertaining. It plays an important role in the long history of thrillers, and especially n thrillers infused with elements of the horrific. As an introduction to the world of Edgar Wallace and German krimi, one should probably start with The Fellowship of the Frog or any of the Rialto productions available on DVD. Being written by Wallace’s son and produced by CCC, The Phantom of Soho is more of a “related tangent,” and shouldn’t be used as a basis for building a working knowledge of krimi — though it absolutely should be included in any expansion of one’s knowledge.
Release Year: 1964 | Country: Germany | Starring: Dieter Borsche, Barbara Rutting, Hans Sohnker, Peter Vogel, Helga Sommerfeld, Werner Peters, Hans Nielsen, Stanislav Ledinek, Otto Waldis, Hans Hamacher, Elisabeth Flickenschildt | Writer: Ladislas Fodor | Director: Franz Josef Gottlieb | Cinematographer: Richard Angst | Music: Martin Bottcher | Producer: Artur Brauner | Original Title: Das Phantom von Soho
Although England’s Hammer Studio made a variety of films, the trio of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy solidified the direction of the studio and its identity with the public for the remainder of its life. And not without good reason. In their heyday, and even long after the studio had fallen into disrepair, Hammer showed a panache for producing lavish looking Gothic horror that was simply unmatchable. America’s AIP came close with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired cycle of films starring Vincent Price, but no one could approach Hammer’s consistency and longevity in producing world-class horror. Starting in 1958 and continuing throughout the 60s, and into the studio’s final days in the first half of the 1970s, Hammer produced an unbelievable string of incredible horror films — almost every one of them a hit — buoyed by the one-two punch of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s Dracula films and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein series.
It’s understandable that Hammer would focus on the genre that helped define them as a major player on the global film production scene, but even as the monsters and madmen were overrunning the studio, Hammer was still doing its best to make non-horror fare, including some noir-style thrillers, war films, and a series of swashbucklers. Over the years, these films have been largely overshadowed by the horror product, and in fact most have been extremely difficult to get a hold of them, with very few being released on home video, at least here in the United States. Thus, they became all but forgotten, even though they often used the same directors, writers, and stars (specifically Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee) as the horror films and were often films worth remembering.
With the bulk of Hammer horror films now released on DVD (with the exception of Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, both of which remain curiously MIA in the United States), and with these releases bringing in some new fans and revitalizing interest among the older fans, distributors have begun dipping into the vast body of Hammer’s non-horror work. Over the past year or two, two volumes of Hammer noir and crime films were released, along with some of the more obscure psychological thrillers. And in early 2008, it was announced that Hammer’s collection of swashbuckling pirate movies was finally going to be released. With any luck, the near future will also see the release of Hammer’s war films and the remaining caveman adventures.
The first of Hammer’s pirate films to make it to DVD in the US was Captain Clegg, a curious beast of a film that got released first primarily because it was marketed in the US, at the time of its original release, as a horror film. Appearing under the title Night Creatures, the movie found its way onto a recent double feature release with The Evil of Frankenstein. And while Night Creatures does contain an element of horror, anyone who goes into it looking for scares is going to be confused.
Hammer’s dalliance with pirate films began in 1961 with the release of The Pirates of Blood River, starring venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s Kerwin Mathews, and Hammer bit player Michael Ripper in a rare feature role. Hammer’s production values were never higher than they were in the first half of the 1960s, where seemingly everything they touched came out looking astounding, and The Pirates of Blood River benefits from Hammer’s attention to detail — not to mention from venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee in one of his best Hammer performances and a chance to see Michael Ripper doing more than playing “the suspicious barkeep.”
It also starred young Oliver Reed, for whom 1960-1961 was an exceptionally good year. His first film as the lead — Curse of the Werewolf — came out in 1960, and he was charged with the task of supporting the film entirely on his own, in the middle of a Hammer horror frenzy that was defined almost entirely by Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. For Oliver Reed, a totally untested leading man, to be trusted with the lead in Hammer’s first color horror film that didn’t star Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was both a tremendous opportunity and a huge gamble. It paid off, though, and although Curse of the Werewolf never attained the iconic status of the Dracula and Frankenstein films, it became one of the most respected. From there, Reed was paired with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee for The Pirates of Blood River, and then, that same year appeared alongside Peter Cushing in Captain Clegg, the second of Hammer’s pirate outings. But while The Pirates of Blood River was a somewhat more traditional swashbuckler, Captain Clegg is a crazy mix of pirate, horror, and detective films.
Things start off piratey enough, with the mutilation and stranding of a crew member (big Milton Reid — one of those actors you know by sight if not by name) for attacking the wife of the captain, a mysterious and ruthless pirate by the name of Clegg. Leaving the dastardly crewman to his fate sans food, water, ears, or tongue, the film then skips ahead a number of years to the remote British town of Dymchurch, which is being visited by no-nonsense British Navy captain Collier (Patrick Allen and his magnificently manly chin — only Chuck Conners stands a chance against him) who suspects the small hamlet of being an offloading center for liquor smugglers. But Dymchurch hardly seems to be a den of smugglers and rapscallions, populated as it is by jolly coffin makers (Michael Ripper), upstanding squires (Derek Francis), upstanding squire’s sons (Oliver Reed), and the benign local parson, Blyss (Peter Cushing). Collier, however, is an experienced hand at flushing out smugglers, so he’s hardly taken in by innocent looks alone. However, a number of surprise inspections and raids lead to nothing but property damage and the ruffling of the town Squire’s feathers as Collier and his men accuse various townsfolk of ill doings only to come up empty handed every time. At this point, the film resembles a thriller or mystery far more than it does a pirate adventure.
Parson Blyss himself remains cordial with the captain, reminding the townsfolk that the man is just doing his job, but even the kindly parson is offput when he is attacked by one of Collier’s crew — the very man stranded and mutilated by Clegg, it turns out. Collier apparently discovered the man shortly after Clegg abandoned him, as Collier was hot on the trail of the pirate at the time. Since then, they’d kept him on as a crewman for heavy lifting, menial tasks, and amusement, even though the former pirate is prone to getting drunk and attacking people. Collier’s pursuit of Clegg, ironically enough, ended in Dymchurch, where the wily pirate was finally captured and hanged, Blyss himself delivering the final rites and convincing the local church to allow Clegg a proper burial in exchange for an apparent change of heart the pirate had while incarcerated. Plus, Blyss just likes to believe int he good of everyone.
Clegg isn’t the only dead man causing Collier. Legend has it that the marshes around Dymchurch are haunted by phantoms. In fact, a man was recently killed by them. Collier, ever the enlightened man of reason, sees little reason to believe in the phantoms, and in fact he is highly suspicious of them since the man most recently killed by them happened to be Collier’s own man, who had previously tipped the captain off to the smuggling going on in Dymchurch. And it isn’t very long before the viewer is clued in to the fact that smuggling is going on, and pretty much the entire town is in on it. Blyss is the brains behind the operation, coffin maker Mipps the operations man, and any daring-do that needs to be performed is handled by the Squire’s son and lookout, Harry Cobtree. Using a series of secret compartments and tunnels centering around the church and Mipps’ coffin shop, the town regularly runs illegal French wine, even under the very nose of Collier. The phantoms — glowing skeletal horsemen — are, naturally, just members of the local smuggling ring, who find the threat of ghostly marsh phantoms to be advantageous to the smuggling profession.
Things start to get complicated for our merry smugglers not just because Collier is so persistent in his investigations, but also because one of their member is lusting after a barmaid, Imogene (Yvonne Romaine), who is in love with Harry Cobtree. In a drunken rage, he attacks the young woman and, when rebuffed, reveals to her than she is actually the daughter of the notorious Captain Clegg, and that furthermore, he is willing to expose the smuggling operation to Collier. Imogene is terrified by the revelation that she is Clegg’s daughter, for fear that this knowledge will spoil her in the eyes of young Harry, who should already be forbidden from her on account of their different classes. But Harry is hardly phased by such outdated constraints, and Imogene discovers that he and Blyss already knew she was Clegg’s daughter. Blyss, sensing that Collier is close to unraveling their smuggling plot, begins arranging for Harry and Imogene to be wed then escape the town before the net is drawn closed around them. When Harry is wounded while serving as lookout for one of the operations, Collier launches an all-out attack on the smugglers, but Blyss and Mipps are his equal, and a game of cat and mouse ensues that comes to a dramatic end inside Blyss’ chapel.
Despite the fact that the revelation at the end of the movie is hardly a surprise, Night Creatures succeeds in being a cracking good yarn that draws its suspense not from the solving of the mystery — the smugglers are all named very early in the film — but by developing those people as characters then allowing you to revel in the race and maneuvering against Collier. Captain Clegg was originally meant to be called Dr. Syn, a remake of an earlier film which itself was based on Russell Thorndike’s novel, Dr. Syn. But by a strange coincidence, Disney happened to develop an interest in this otherwise forgotten novel and film from the 1930s at the same time as Hammer. Needless to say, Hammer wasn’t in a position to challenge Disney, who had already obtained the rights to the Syn title and character. However, Disney was willing to play ball with Hammer, and aside from requiring that they change the name of the title character, Disney was more than happy to allow Hammer to proceed with production.
Disney’s version, called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh but also known as Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow, was released in 1963 and featured Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame, among other things) in the lead role. Being a made of television movie, it was decidedly more family-friendly than Hammer’s version, with its horse-mounted ghouls, exhumed bodies, mutilated pirates, and other such trappings. Still, there’s very little in Captain Clegg to prevent being a rip-roaring good time for young and old alike, and any foolhardy young lad such as I was would have been delighted by it (remembering, of course, that there was a time when children’s films could contain murder, shrieking ghosts, drunks, and Sean Connery punching people in the face).
I’ve not seen the Disney version, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand because Disney has been known to produce some damn fine pirate and adventure entertainment (such as the three Treasure Island films). Although Disney’s competing version kept Captain Clegg off the American radar, these days Hammer’s version is the one you can find on DVD, while Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow has become wickedly hard to track down. It was released on VHS a long time ago and played at some point on the Disney Channel (as bootlegs bearing the channel’s logo attest to). I know there has been some word of the old Wonderful World of Disney series — of which Dr. Syn was a part — finally finding their way on to DVD, so one can only hope that this little pirate adventure sees the light of day once again.
Night Creature‘s script by Anthony Hinds (one of Hammer’s most reliable producers-turned-screenwriters, having penned Curse of the Werewolf, Kiss of the Vampire, and a number of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies) is expertly paced and hues closely to the original film. Even though it never really becomes a swashbuckling adventure (although Peter Cushing does get to swing from a chandelier) or a horror film, Hinds exploits the trappings of both genres to create a thrilling hybrid driven by strong characters and solid British acting. Although Cushing is the star attraction (and rightfully so), most Hammer fans are overly delighted that Michael Ripper gets such a meaty role. Ripper’s career is defined by tiny roles, almost always as a cranky innkeeper or barman who refuses to give our hero a room for the night, then makes a horrified face when someone says the name Frankenstein or Dracula. Despite the brevity of each of these roles, Ripper never gave anything that his absolute all. With Night Creatures, he gets a meaty role, and he makes the most of it. In fact, despite Cushing being the headliner, the bulk of the on-screen action is in the hands of Ripper and young Oliver Reed. Neither lets the film down, just as the script doesn’t let them down.
It’s hard to believe that Reed was so inexperienced an actor. He exhibits an easy charisma and likability that pulls you in and really makes you care about the character. Reed’s career was a rocky and uneven one, owing primarily to a fondness for the drink. In the 1960s, Hammer was hungry for someone young to augment the team of Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Reed seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and indeed after turns in Curse of the Werewolf, The Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, and some of Hammer’s psychological thrillers, it seemed like Hammer had a winner on their hands. Good looking, athletic, and possessed of abundant charisma that could be channeled with equal skill into warmth, intensity, and pathos, Reed was a star on the rise. He was even on the short list (which actually seems to have been very long, given the number of people that are always mentioned as having been on it) to replace Sean Connery as James Bond, and the thought of Oliver Reed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — well, I liked Lazenby, and I love that movie, but had Reed been allowed to bring that deadly combination of charm and smoldering intensity to the role, I think he would have done then what wasn’t really accomplished until Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale.
Unfortunately for Reed, his professional successes were balanced with personal trials. Stormy marriages were one thing, but when Reed was forced to endure endless barrages of questions about his drinking. Such interrogation by TV hosts and reporters often lead to the actor losing his temper, and his reputation for a drunk and a hothead plagued him for years, even when he was still making quality films. Unfortunately for Hammer, Reed never became the pair of shoulders that could carry the studio through tough times, as he was by then on to different opportunities. The task of being Hammer’s “next big thing” then fell on the shoulders of Ralph Bates, who certainly had the chops. But by the time Bates was on the Hammer scene, it was too late, and nothing was going to stop Hammer’s collapse.
Reed enjoyed success throughout the 60s and into the 70s, but by the 1980s, his star had faded considerably. Reed seemed to take it in stride. Although he continued drinking, he seemed happy to settle down to a relatively quiet life with his wife, at least until 1999 when Ridley Scott came knocking and offered Reed a part in Gladiator. It ended up being one of those rare parts perfectly suited for reviving the career of an old hand who had gone through stormy times and emerged older and wiser, ready to take on the role of elder statesman. Sadly, it was not to be for Reed, and he died of heart failure during the making of the film. Still, it must have felt good to be in the saddle again, and although it is done so posthumously, his role in Gladiator ended up being one of his best.
Of course, none of this praise for Ripper or Reed is meant to sell the rest of the cast short. It’s just that, in the case of Peter Cushing, do you really need me to tell you how good he was? It’s Peter Cushing, for crying out loud! He was always good. As the resident piece of Hammer glamour (I spell it with a “u” for England), Yvonne Romain doesn’t have terribly much to do other than look pretty (which she does with ease — if not for Caroline Munroe, she might be the prettiest of all Hammer’s starlets), but I always found the Hammer beauties to be as able at acting as they were at being eye candy, and when she’s given something to do, Romain is as solid as the rest of the cast. She was already experienced with both period adventure films and horror, having appeared in such cult favorites as Circus of Horrors, Curse of the Werewolf (where she co-starred alongside Oliver Reed), episodes of The Saint (which, granted, pretty much every actor in England appeared in at some point), and Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man.
And let’s not leave off poor ol’ square-jawed Patrick Allen as Captain Collier. It would have been easy for this film to make us root for the smugglers by making Collier a grade A jerk, but instead, Collier is ever noble, if a bit stiff, and the smugglers are forced to make us like them by force of their own character rather than depending on him as a foil. Collier is nothing other than completely honest and straight-forward, a model officer of the British Navy. And Allen is perfectly cast, not just because he has that incredible jaw and an air of authority. His accomplishments as an actor are too numerous to list, and long with Cushing, he’s probably the most experienced of the cast members. He even showed up in the Japanese sci-fi film Gorath!
Director Peter Graham Scott wasn’t a Hammer films regular, working primarily in television, but he does an excellent job here with a script that allows him to wander between creepiness (the marsh phantoms, the old windmill and the scarecrow) and adventure. This is really an actor’s movie, though, as many Hammer films were, and the chief function of the director in these cases was to know what he was doing and do it without getting in the way — which is exactly what Scott does. As such, he’s not a name a lot of people know, but sometimes the best director for a movie is the one who can make you completely unaware of the director. He does lend the film rather a unique look for Hammer films of the time by shooting on location and outdoors, rather than relying entirely on the Bray Studio sound stages.
I’m looking forward to the release of Hammer’s other pirate films, because while this one may be tangential at best to the swashbuckling genre, it still manages to be a superb adventure film with a real “boy’s own adventure” feel to it. What with long dead pirates, ghosts in the swamp, scarecrows, secret passages, and smugglers, it could have easily been a Hardy Boys adventure. I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t said more about Peter Cushing, but like I said, what more can you say? The man went into everything with total commitment, and Captain Clegg is one of his finest roles. The script plays wonderfully off Cushing’s slight appearance. When first we meet him in this film, he looks dainty and frail, and hardly the sort of man who could command a band of smugglers prone to dressing up like skeletons and galloping through the swamps. But when it comes time for him to take charge, the transformation is remarkable, and you absolutely believe him as the leader of men. “Absolutely believing him” is pretty much the very definition of Cushing’s film career, as he was remarkably gifted at making whatever was happening, no matter how outlandish, seem absolutely real.
Here, he benefits greatly from Hinds’ script, which affords him a degree of complexity and depth very similar to what he enjoyed and challenged audiences with in the Frankenstein movies. He is ostensibly the bad guy, heading up a smuggling ring, killing off informers, and foiling Collier’s attempts to do an honest man’s work. But if he’s a bad guy, Cushing’s Blyss is hardly evil, and his scenes with Oliver Reed and Yvonne Rainer allow him to radiate warmth and care. As with the movie itself, Cushing’s role here is not among his iconic performances, but it probably should be.
We’ll have plenty of chances to talk further about Peter Cushing. It’s not every day that you get to say more about Michael Ripper than, “he was excellent as the grumpy bartender.” Whether you call it Captain Clegg or Night Creatures is unimportant. By any name, it’s top notch adventure all the way around.
Ogon Batto (Golden Bat) is in many ways typical of the type of films Sonny Chiba appeared in before he became an international action star with the Street Fighter movies. Under a long term contract with Toei Studios, he racked up an impressive slate of low budget B movies during the sixties, a good number of kiddie-themed science fiction films among them. His turn as Iron Sharp in Uchu Kaisokusen (aka Invasion of the Neptune Men), as well as his starring roles in the Toei TV series Nanairo Kamen and Ala-no Shishai, also made him a veteran of the costumed hero Tokusatsu genre of which Ogon Batto is squarely a part–though in Ogon he was, for once, spared having to be the guy in the silly super hero costume (an honor that went to actor Hirohisa Nakata). This might have provided a nice break for Chiba–as well as an opportunity to enjoy a bit of shadenfreude at Nakata’s expense–but it also results in a rare instance in which the charismatic and energetic Chiba is rendered relatively low-key by all that is going on around him. For, while Ogon Batto may have little in terms of art that distinguishes it from other such films in Chiba’s early filmography, it does have a certain energy to its presentation that clearly sets it apart.
Ogon Batto begins with Akira (Wataru Yamakawa), a young amateur astronomer, making the shocking discovery that the planet Icarus has gone off course and is heading rapidly toward Earth. No sooner has Akira made his case to the disbelieving staff at a nearby observatory than he is whisked away by a cadre of Men In Black and taken to the headquarters, hidden in the Japanese Alps, of The Pearl Research Institute, a secret, UN-backed organization dedicated to studying strange space phenomena. Here he meets Capt. Yamatone (Chiba), who promptly asks Akira to join the institute–because, despite being a kid, he obviously knows a lot about science and stuff. Akira accepts, and is immediately introduced to Doctor Pearl (Andrew Hughes) and his granddaughter Emily (Emily Paird), a twelve-year-old child who, in classic Japanese sci fi movie fashion, obviously holds a position of some authority at the institute. Doctor Pearl shows Akira the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, a ray gun with the power of “1000 hydrogen bombs” designed to blast Icarus out of the sky before it can hit Earth. Unfortunately, Pearl tells him, the cannon is not yet operational, because a special mineral is needed to create its lens. No sooner has Pearl said this than the team receives word that an expedition searching for that very mineral has run into trouble and is not responding to contact. At this, the entire staff–man, woman and child–pours into the institute’s flying Super Car and takes off over the ocean. Soon the location of the expedition is spotted: It’s the lost continent of Atlantis! The team touches down on Atlantis and finds the entire expedition team dead, at which point a giant tower–looking like a mile high drill bit with a squid’s head on it–rises up from the ocean and starts shooting cartoon laser beams at them.
This tower is the base of Nazo (Koji Sekiyama), the self-proclaimed Ruler of the Universe, who wants to destroy humanity because “No one else should exist except for me, Nazo!” With Nazo’s foot soldiers hot on their heels, the team retreats into a temple, where they find an ornate sarcophagus. On the sarcophagus is an inscription stating that, 10,000 years from the date of that inscription, a crisis would erupt that would necessitate the aid of the Golden Bat, the occupant of the sarcophagus, who could conveniently be resuscitated by just adding water. As the foot soldiers close in, Emily follows those instructions and revives the Golden Bat, a hulking figure in Gold lycra and skull mask, who proceeds to beat the enemy into retreat with his Baton of Justice. With Nazo and his minions gone for the moment, Golden Bat informs Emily that, because it was she who revived him, only she can summon his aid–and with that makes his magic bat mascot affix itself to her uniform in the form of a bat-shaped broach. He also informs the team that, now that he has been revived, Atlantis will once again sink below the ocean. The team makes for the Super Car and manages to take off in the nick of time as Atlantis crashes back beneath the waves.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: The first fifteen minutes of Ogon Batto. And things don’t really slow down much from there. The film may be a pure, hastily made, low budget construction (just how many commercial Japanese features were still being made in black and white in 1966?), but there is one thing of which you can be guaranteed: By the time you reach the end of its seventy-minute running time, you will have seen an awful lot of stuff happen within a very short period of time.
While the Golden Bat is a lesser known Japanese super hero compared to the likes of Ultraman or Kamen Rider, he is no less a venerable one. The creation of one Takeo Nagamatsu, his origin dates back to the early thirties, and is attributed, depending on who you ask, to either pulp magazines or to kami-shibai, a practice of live storytelling with printed illustration cards that was popular with children in that era. Whichever is the case, he would later make the transition to manga, where he would, at one time, be rendered by the capable hands of the master himself, Osamu Tezuka (Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astroboy, and Jungle Emperor Leo, aka Kimba). A year after his feature incarnation in Ogon Batto, he would go on to make his debut in a popular animated television series, making this movie just one stop in his journey toward total Japanese media domination. A live action television series would follow in the early seventies.
It is clear that the Bat’s manga incarnation is the inspiration for Ogon Batto, and it’s one of the film’s most admirable qualities that it tries to stay true to the look of that source, even if with mixed results. The Nazo that appears in the comics, for instance, is a distinctly weird creation, sort of an amorphous black shape with bat ears and four-laser firing eyes who has a hovering flying saucer in place of a lower body. There is definitely an attempt to duplicate that look on the part of Ogon‘s art department, but with the resources they had to work with, Nazo just ends up looking like a man in a big floppy flannel sack–and because the effect of him hovering above the ground with no lower body was hopelessly beyond their means, the actor simply keeps his bottom half hidden within a stationary saucer-shaped control console.
Nazo’s tower, on the other hand, really looks like a manga creation given real world dimensions, and it’s one of the movie’s visual treats. The model is put to its best use during the film’s climax, in which the tower suddenly erupts from the bowels of the Earth directly below Tokyo and rises up to loom threateningly over the city’s skyline (a scene closely parodied in the 2004 live-action film version of the 70s anime Cutey Honey). In fact, all of the film’s models–from the tower to the shark-shaped flying submarine that Nazo’s toadies use to travel between it and their various villainous assignations–are imaginative and fun, and none the less so for all the visible wires used to put them in motion.
As for the Golden Bat himself, he seems here to be the kind of super hero whose super powers rely mostly on you being repeatedly told by the other characters in the movie just how super powerful he is. His preferred method of combat is running around and clubbing people one-by-one with his baton while stopping to strike highly stylized dramatic poses, which doesn’t give the appearance of being that much more effective than the ray guns the members of the Pearl Institute are equipped with. Furthermore, he always announces himself with a laugh that is obviously meant to be ghostly and fear-inspiring, but which sounds more like the kind of chattering, forced laughter that just makes people uncomfortable. Whenever he does this, you kind of expect Sonny and company to start uneasily and halfheartedly laughing along while slipping each other nervous sideways glances. And when he flies it just looks ridiculous. All of this, of course, somehow combines to make the guy actually seem kind of lovable, though I don’t think that was the intention.
The practice of striking highly stylized dramatic poses is a popular one in Ogon Batto, and it’s not just limited to our titular hero. In fact, the whole cast gets in on that action at one point or other, most memorably when a whole group of them, reacting en masse to some shocking revelation or bit of off-screen business, will do it all at the same time. It comes across kind of like a cross between silent movie acting and Vogueing. I realize that this film was produced in an era when camp was a dominant aesthetic in popular culture. But, as campy as all of that comes across, I don’t think that the intention of the makers of Ogon Batto was to poke fun at their subject matter, but rather to use that prevailing aesthetic as carte blanche for them to be absolutely as corny as they wanted to be. The result is a film that’s the cinematic distillation of the spirit embodied in the phrase “Gee whiz!”
As I indicated earlier, the remainder of Ogon Batto‘s plot unfolds with much the same breathless pacing as it’s prologue, each frantic set piece practically stumbling over the next in the overall rush to cram everything in before the credits roll. Nazo, rallying after the whole Atlantis debacle, sends three of his evil emissaries to infiltrate the Pearl Institute headquarters. This trio includes Jackal, a wolf-man, Piranha, a woman in a scaly fish outfit, and Keloid (Yoichi Numata), a Grandpa Munster look-alike with oatmeal on his face. After a series of frantic ray gun battles and the Golden Bat showing up to run around and club people with his baton, the villains succeed in making off with the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, only to find that it is missing the crucial lens (which, by the way, has now been successfully fabricated by Doctor Pearl and company, thanks to a gem comprised of the necessary mineral being in the Golden Bat’s hand when he was found in his sarcophagus at the beginning of the movie).
Taking on the appearance of Naomi (Hisako Tsukuba), another member of the institute, Piranha kidnaps Emily, and soon both Emily and Doctor Pearl are being held hostage by Nazo, with the lens stated as the price of their safe release. This leads to the final showdown between the Golden Bat and Nazo, held high above the streets of Tokyo (and involving, among other things, a dog fight with that cool shark-shaped flying submarine), as the rogue planet Icarus hurtles perilously ever closer to our seemingly doomed Earth.
And just where is Sonny Chiba in all this, you may ask? Well, he does have his heroic moments, but the top-billed star seems mostly content to blend into the background and let all of the insanity just happen around him. Which is a very sensible attitude to take with Ogon Batto. It’s an easy film to mock, but if you take the time to step back and appreciate just how furiously it’s working to entertain you, you’ll find that it’s equally easy to love. Just don’t expect it to be a showcase for the Street Fighter himself.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Sonny Chiba, Hirohisa Nakata, Andrew Hughes, Wataru Yamagawa, Emily Paird, Hisako Tsukuba, Yoichi Numata, Koji Sekiyama, Kousaku Okano | Writer: Susumu Takahisa, Takeo Nagamatsu | Director: Hajime Sato | Cinematographer: Yoshikazu Yamasawa | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Producer: Kaname Ougisawa | Original Title: Ogon Batto