Tag Archives: classic

RetView #58 – Doomwatch (1972)

Title: Doomwatch

Year of Release: 1972

Director: Peter Sasdy

Length: 92 mins

Starring: Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, Jean Trend

Given what we’ve done to our world, you could argue that we’re already living in an age of ecological terror. Movies like Doomwatch may exaggerate certain elements for dramatic effect, but in essence they serve to ram home the point. This is what happens when man interferes with the delicate balance of nature. The movie was based on the BBC TV series of the same name which ran from 1970-72 and focused on a government department charged with combatting technological and environmental dangers, making it a kind of eco-friendly X Files. Ironically, as was standard practice back in the day, after airing the master tapes were wiped by the BBC and recorded over as a cost-cutting measure, meaning that many of the episodes have been lost forever. Luckily, we still have the movie spin-off produced by Tigon British Film Productions, who had previously made Witchfinder General (1968) which was released in March 1972. In the the United States, it was released by Embassy Pictures with the alternative title Island of the Ghouls.

So… what’s this all about? Well, we have Doctor Del Shaw (Bannen), an investigator from the British ecological watchdog group nicknamed Doomwatch, who is dispatched to an insular fishing village on the island of Balfe off the Cornish coast to file a report on the effects of a recent oil tanker spill. There, he finds a child’s body hidden in the woods and becomes fascinated with the mysterious behavioural disorders of the locals who display rudeness and random aggression and generally act like a bunch of arses as they rebuff his attempts to solve the mystery. One woman loses her shit when Shaw tries to take her picture, yelling, “We don’t like that! Taking people’s likeness! We don’t like that kind of carry on at all, in fact!”

Shaw teams up with another outsider, a schoolteacher called Victoria (Gleeson), and notes certain physical abnormalities, such as a strange genetic prevalence of thick lips and sloping brows, in many of the local populace. His investigation reveals that the villagers have been suffering over a prolonged period from hormonal disorders, which are likely being caused by leeking drums of growth stimulants that have been dumped offshore by callous business types. The islanders have been infected by eating fish and as a result are developing acromegaly, (usually the result of interbreeding, wink-wink) which produces aggression and eventually madness.

Though the movie was well-received by the public, writing for Radio Times, Tom Hutchinson only awarded the film two stars out of five, stating, “This mystery thriller crash-landed unhappily in the swamp of horror instead of on the firmer ground of science fact or fiction. It’s risibly alarmist, certainly, but the environmental dangers it pinpoints are only too topical.”

True, the movie comes with a great premise and both starts and finishes well, but it sags slightly in the middle and is weighed down with far too much long-winded, redundant dialogue which seems to exist purely for clever people to show everyone just how clever they are. Sometimes, less is more. There is also some confusion as to how the locals are portrayed. You get the feeling director Peter Sasdy would like you to sympathise with them, which is hard, because frankly, most of them have been dicks throughout and have very few redeeming qualities. I like to think that this conflict is intentional, though it that doesn’t make it any less jarring. A contemporary review for cultmovieforums.com notes, “It has to be said that while Doomwatch ultimately remains something of a missed opportunity by any standard of judgment, Peter Sasdy’s film is still in all fairness, probably a slightly better film than what its poor reputation might suggest.”

Generally, the all-too believable storyline of corporate greed combined with the overriding sense of isolation make good use of Sasdy’s talents, a man who made his name directing Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1971) for Hammer before turning his attention to the TV production of Sue Townsend’s classic The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4. Curiously, references to a certain Castle Rock will no doubt strike a chord with some of Stephen King’s constant readers and could offer clues as to where the Master acquired the name. In 1999, Channel 5 in the UK bought the rights to Doomwatch from the BBC and in December that year screened a 100-minute TV movie, which was a continuation of the story rather than a remake. Though the movie was well-received it didn’t lead to the anticipated series, perhaps due to the amount of money it would require. Still, it’s a great concept, and could be a huge success in the right hands.

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Trivia Corner:

Both the film and the original series was created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, who had previously collaborated on scripts for Doctor Who. Their interest in the problems of science changing and endangering human life apparently led them to create the popular cyborg villains the Cybermen.


RetView #53 – Flatliners (1990)

Title: Flatliners

Year of Release: 1990

Director: Joel Schumacher

Length: 114 mins

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt

If Lost Boys was director Joe Schumacher’s Highway to Hell moment, Flatliners was his Back in Black. The 1990 blockbuster produced by Michael Douglas (yes, that one) and Rick Bieber, and distributed by Columbia Pictures, took its inspiration from a Jack London short story originally published in 1899 called A Thousand Deaths, which was about a patient being deliberately killed and resuscitated by a mad scientist. Propelled by an uber cool Brat Pack cast, on its theatrical release Flatliners was a smash hit, instantly claiming the No 1 slot at the Box Office and raking in a cool $10 million-plus on its opening weekend.

When medical student Nelson Wright (Sutherland) convinces a bunch of his classmates to help him discover what lies behind the veil of death, you know it’s all going to go wrong. They help him flatline (hence the title) and he ‘returns’ to verify that there is indeed something there. The classmates Joe (Baldwin), David (Bacon), Randy (Platt) and Rachel (Roberts) all decide to follow suit, and each have very different, but invariably harrowing experiences. After the experiments, they begin to suffer what they think are hallucinations, all related to some unresolved issue in their past. One-by-one the students confront the demons of their past, with some coming out of it better than others, eventually allowing them to move on with their lives. The overriding message here seems to concern coming to terms with the more tragic side of life, and learning how to learn and move on from it. Joel Schumacher was intrigued by the spiritual and horrific aspects of Flatliners, and enthused about the possibilities of creating a visually exciting film. He said: “[This] is a story about atonement and forgiveness involving these students who, in a sense, violate the gods and pay a price. I think we would all like to know what’s in store for us after we die. There have been thousands of reports from all over the world from those who have encountered ‘near death’, and most of them have reported pleasant experiences. Our movie, however, is saying that you’re not to tamper with death.”

Despite boasting a stellar cast, the movie has always proved divisive. As with many films of the era, in occasion it falls victim to being more about style than substance and for some reason never quite tapped into that all-forgiving nostalgic vibe. On Metacritic it’s score currently stands at a modest 55% from ten ‘mixed or average’ critical reviews, while on the same site its user rating is a much more healthy 9.2/10. The New York Times said, “Flatliners is a stylish, eerie psychological horror film laced with wit, a movie that thrives on its characters’ guilty secrets and succeeds on the strength of the director Joel Schumacher’s flair for just this sort of smart, unpretentious entertainment While at the other end of the spectrum, The Orlando Sentinel said, “Far-fetched as the premise is, I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the impressive cast. But as Flatliners rolled along, its pretentiousness became increasingly toxic.”

A perfect example, if ever there was one, of not being able to please all the people all the time.

In 2017, a new version was released, confusingly with the same name, which functions as both a remake and a stand-alone sequel. Repeating the pattern of the first film, reviews were generally negative, the general idea being that the movie once again failed to live up to an interesting premise. Despite this, again it proved to be a moderate Box Office success. Interestingly, a deleted scene from the movie establishes Kieffer Sutherland’s character Dr. Barry Wilson to be an older version of Nelson Wright having changed his name and begun living under a different identity.

Trivia Corner:

Though they are all supposed to be approximately the same age, in actual fact Kevin Bacon was many years older than the rest of the main cast having made his film debut 12 years earlier in National Lampoon’s Animal House which, ironically, also starred Kiefer Sutherland’s father, Donald.


RetView #51 – The Gorgon (1964)

Title: The Gorgon

Year of Release: 1964

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Jeremy Longhurst, Prudence Hyman

Methinks it’s high time we paid another visit to the Hammer Horror vault. The plot of this camp classic, which has more cheese than a stuffed crust Domino’s pizza (just look at that poster!) was based on an idea submitted by Canadian fan J. Llewellyn Divine after Hammer placed an advert in The Daily Cinema magazine reading (in part), “Got an idea you think would make a good film? One with an exciting title to match? Good, compulsive selling ideas with the right titles are what hammer are looking for right now.” The original story concept, which was based on ancient Greek mythology, was expanded into a screenplay, and the film eventually succeeded in reuniting the stellar partnership of Cushing and Lee after a four-year absence. It also marked the return to Hammer of director Terence Fisher, who hadn’t worked for the company since the failure of Phantom of the Opera (1962) several years earlier. This film is often listed as one of Fisher’s personal favourites, and is fairly typical of his work which is characterised as being a, “Blend of fairytale myth and the supernatural alongside themes of sexuality, morality, and ‘the charm of evil.’”

It’s the year 1910, and the setting is a picturesque German village called Vandorf, where a mysterious creature is attacking people and turning them into stone, which nobody thinks is weird at all. When his girlfriend falls victim, Bruno (Longhurst) becomes prime suspect and commits suicide. However, professor Maister (Lee) isn’t convinced of Bruno’s guilt and harbours suspicions that Magaera, a sister of snake-haired Medusa, is responsible, a creature so ugly that she turns everyone who lays eyes on her into stone (which might explain Cardiff City’s defensive frailties this season). He then sets out to help Bruno’s brother, Paul (Pasco) find her and wreak vengeance. Unfortunately, Magaera has the ability to disguise herself and could be any one of a cast of characters including the creepy Dr Namarov (Cushing) and his assistant Carla (Shelley) who, conveniently, work at the local mental hospital. What unfolds is an intriguing build on a simple, millennia-old premise, complete with hammy acting, lush scenery and period stage sets.

Though the name of The Gorgon character is “Megaera (Jealous),” in ancient mythology, Megaera is one of the three Erinyes (or Furies), the goddesses of revenge, not a proper Gorgon. According to Hesiod, the three Gorgons were, in fact, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. Film lore maintains that leading lady Barbara Shelley wanted to play The Gorgon using a special wig fitted with live green garden snakes woven into it for a more realistic effect, but her idea was vetoed due to budget restrictions. Which was a crying shame because I think that’s something many cinema-goers would love to see. In fact, a different actress altogether (Hyman) was brought in for the climactic Gorgon scenes with the producers blaming a tight filming schedule, though the real reason was probably an attempt to maintain an air of secrecy about who was playing which character amidst all the media speculation the film was generating. Strangely, Hyman is given the credit Chateline, a character not mentioned in either the script nor the film.

When producer Anthony Nelson Keys saw the abysmal Gorgon effects in the finished movie, he told Shelley that he should have listened to her and got her the snake wig. As it happened, the only snakes on show were mechanical prompting Sir Christopher Lee to later quip, “The only thing wrong with the Gorgon is the Gorgon.” True, after a big set-up, the final appearance of the monster is slightly deflating, something the Monthly Film Bulletin picked up on dubbing it, “Vague and insufficiently spectacular.”

By contrast, Peter Cushing loved working on the film, commenting during production, “Hammer have got to the heart of the matter. When so-called ‘horror’ films first came in, everyone got on the bandwagon and some awful stuff was churned out, but over the years Hammer have made better and better films.”

Trivia Corner:

During filming, Prudence Hyman was almost decapitated for real. She was supposed to duck when Sir Christopher Lee swung the sword, but forgot to do so at the critical moment. The Assistant Director pushed her aside just in time. The scene was then redone with a dummy, just to be on the safe side. The scene took over a month to shoot. Hyman and Lee had met years earlier when Hyman had been a travelling ENSA artist, and a young RAF lieutenant called Christopher Lee piloted the plane she was on through a terrible storm.

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RetView #50 – Jaws (1975)

Title: Jaws

Year of Release: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Length: 124 mins

Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

I wanted to do something a bit special for this landmark 50th RetView, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of movies, of any genre, that have had more of a cultural impact than Jaws. In fact, these days it is widely considered one of the best films ever made. It was based on the novel of the same name Peter Benchley was commissioned to write by Doubleday in the early seventies, though rumour has it that he was ejected from the film set for making a nuisance of himself. To date, the movie has spawned three sequels despite declining popularity and commercial performance, the franchise reaching its nadir in 1987 with Jaws: The Revenge which, conversely, is generally acknowledged as one of the WORST movies of all time. The Jaws franchise is a prime example of how to go from hero to zero in four easy steps. It’s probably fair to say that by 1987, the killer shark premise was beginning to wear a little thin. They probably did well to take it as far as they did. But while the series ended badly, upon its release in the summer of 1975 the original movie was nothing short of a revelation, terrifying beach-goers everywhere, raking in an astonishing $470 million at the Box Office from a $9 million budget, and going on to win no fewer than three Academy Awards, making it one of Universal’s biggest ever triumphs. All things considered, it’s well worth a closer look.

If, by some miracle, you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s pretty easy to swallow (sorry). When a giant man-eating Great White shark starts terrorizing a nondescript New England town called Amity, threatening not only swimmers but local businesses much to the chagrin of the local mayor (Hamilton), police chief Martin Brody (Scheider) is called into action. After getting slapped in the face and shouted at several times by affected locals, he eventually enrols a grizzled professional shark hunter called Quint (brilliantly portrayed by Shaw) and a witty marine biologist (a pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind Dreyfuss) and together the trio head off into the open sea on Quint’s too-small boat called the Orca (named after the only natural enemy of the Great White) to hunt down the pesky fish. Incidentally, if you didn’t get the reference, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” is a classic line from the movie delivered by Brody upon seeing the size of the shark they were dealing with and has been ‘meme famous’ ever since. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb later revealed that the line wasn’t scripted, but ad-libbed by Scheider.

The musical score, which went on to become a classic piece of music synonymous with impending doom, was composed by John Williams. Widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time, Williams also wrote the music for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films and, er, Home Alone. During his distinguished career he has won 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards (including one for the Jaws theme) and four Golden Globes. Discussing the piece that kick-started his career, he described the Jaws theme as, “Grinding away at you, just as a shark would do. Instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Jaws was the first major motion picture to be shot on the ocean, resulting in a troubled, prolonged shoot that far exceeded its budget. Among the issues the crew had to contend with were unpredictable weather, vessels drifting into shot, the effects of salt water corrosion on equipment, everyone getting seasick and problems with the life-sized mechanical sharks. There were so many problems the story goes that disgruntled crew members dubbed the film, “Flaws.”

So what made Jaws so popular? And why does it remain so?

In a nutshell, not only does it feature a great director, a solid plot, a memorable script, a brilliant cast, impressive special effects and an awesome soundtrack, but it appeals to our primal fears. People don’t belong in large bodies of water. We know this. The stuff living in there don’t like us and that particular environment is not conducive to having a good time. On re-watching the movie with a critical eye, it is noticeable how little screen time Spielberg actually gives the shark. This is testament to his unparalleled film-making skills and ability to ramp up the tension using only dialogue and, in one memorable scene, a drunken sing-a-long. Gottlieb would later reference the original 1951 version of The Thing, amongst other classics, where, “the suspense was built up because the creature was always off-camera.” This enabled the crew to concentrate on showing the ‘effects’ of the monster (or in this case, the shark) rather than the monster itself. Given the post-Watergate political landscape the movie was released into, it’s inevitable that critics drew certain conclusions. Perhaps overthinking things a bit, film critic Andrew Britton has suggested that narrative alterations from the book (Hooper’s survival, the shark’s explosive death) help make it “a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence,” and suggested that the experience of the film is “inconceivable” without the audience’s jubilation when the shark is annihilated, signifying the obliteration of evil itself. In his view, Brody serves to demonstrate that “Individual action by the one just man is still a viable source for social change.”

In perhaps the most serious bout of overthinking ever, Fredric Jameson went even further, highlighting the polysemy of the shark and the multiple ways in which it could be taken, from representing alien menaces such as communism or the Third World to more intimate concerns like the unreality of contemporary American life and the vain efforts to sanitize the concept of death. He asserts that its symbolic function is to be found in this very “polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently ‘natural’ ones … to be recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence.”

‘Kay then.

Trivia Corner:

According to Spielberg, the prop arm used in the scene where Chrissie’s remains are found looked too fake. So instead, they buried a female crew member in the sand with only her arm exposed. Simple, yet effective.


RetView #49 – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Title: The Curse of Frankenstein

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urqhuart, Valerie Gaunt

Like Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Curse of Frankenstein was another Hammer Films production and, along with Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), is now seen as a cornerstone of the British institution’s considerable repertoire. The premise is obviously based on Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 tale Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. It was the first of the Frankenstein series, the very first Hammer movie to be made in colour, and has retrospectively been dubbed the first “Really gory horror film” by Professor Patricia MacCormac. It has also been credited with revitalizing a stagnating genre. All things considered, it makes perfect RetView fodder.

The story is told in flashback form when, in 19th Century Switzerland, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is on trial for murder and confesses his story to a visiting priest. The film then cuts to a newly-orphend 15-year old Victor who hires a private tutor, Dr. Paul Krempe (Urqhuart), to teach him science. Together, the pair start a sequence of experiments geared toward bringing dead animals back to life. The experiments are successful, but when his cousin Elizabeth (Court) moves in and Frankenstein suggests making a ‘perfect’ human being from scavenged body parts, Krempe opts out. However, he is brought back into the fold when the monster (Lee, who was awarded the role primarily due to his 6’5” frame and his modest £8-a day fee), now equipped with a damaged (ie defective) brain, escapes into the nearby woods and kills a blind man. What a blind man is doing in the woods by himself is anyone’s guess, but anyway…

Realizing it is out of control, Krempke shoots the monster and the men bury it in the woods. However, as soon as Krempke departs, Frankenstein digs it up again and reanimates it. The rotten bastard. Back at the house, his maid Justine, with whom he has been having an affair, reveals she is pregnant and threatens to expose his grisly experiments unless he marries her. This doesn’t sit too well with the rampaging Victor, and he quickly has the monster dispatch her which is what lands him in jail. The visiting priest doesn’t believe his story. Krempke and Elizabeth, who are now happily shacked up together, refuse to corroborate it, presumably in an attempt to stop the same thing happening again, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** Victor is led away to the guillotine.

The film was an immediate smash hit for Hammer, it’s comparatively low budget contributing heavily to its financial success as there were comparatively fewer costs to offset. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who adapted Mary Shelley’s book for the screen, was so anxious to keep costs down he didn’t write in scenes of villagers storming the castle as seen in other Frankenstein films, “Because we couldn’t afford it.” The ploy worked. The movie was produced on a budget of just £65,000, and some sources estimate the film recouped at least 70 times that figure. For many years, it held the distinction of being the most profitable movie to be produced in England by a British studio and has always been much-loved by the public, which is reflected in various contemporary reviews and its Rotten Tomatoes rating which currently sits at a respectable 77% from 3,815 ratings. However, it was given a luke-warm reception upon it’s original release, a review in the New York Times dismissing it as a “Routine horror film,” and the Tribune of London calling it, “Depressing and degrading.”

Okay, then.

A quick word on the fate of Hammer Productions; the company effectively ceased production in the mid-1980’s. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In May 2007 the company name, along with its entire library of some 295 movies, was bought by a consortium headed by Dutch media tycoon John de Mol which vowed to, “Take it back into production and develop its global potential.” True to it’s manifesto, the company financed a return to the fold in the form of contemporary horror Beyond the Rave (2008). That isn’t a typo, by the way. It really is a horror movie about a rave. That was followed by a steady stream of offerings including Wake Wood (2011) and, more recently, The Lodge (2019), which proved a surprise hit. In September 2019, hammer signed a worldwide distribution deal with StudioCanal for its catalogue, so after some uncertain times, the future is looking bright.

Trivia Corner:

Although Hammer’s two great stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in several pictures before, including Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952), their long-lasting friendship was cemented on the set of Curse of Frankenstein when Lee stormed into Cushing’s dressing room saying, “I’ve got no lines!” To which Cushing allegedly responded, “You’re lucky, have you read the script?”


Retview #45 – The Beast Must Die! (1974)

RetView #45

Title: The Beast Must Die

Year of Release: 1974

Director: Paul Annett

Length: 89 mins

Starring: Anton Diffring, Calvin Lockhart, Marlene Clark, Charles Gray, Peter Cushing

As regular readers of the world-renowned Retview series will know, I’m a sucker for a good werewolf movie. Or even a bad one. You could say werewolves are my favourite mythical supernatural beastie, as evidenced by previous instalments covering An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Dog Soldiers, and Hound of the Baskervilles. Okay, spoiler alert, that last one turned out to be more of a massive painted dog than a werewolf, but the viewer doesn’t know that until right at the very end when Sherlock Holmes helpfully breaks it all down. Ironically, Peter Cushing, the actor who played Holmes in that classic pops up again here in a role so fitting that it could have been (and perhaps was) written especially for him. Even before the opening credits kick in, the brief is laid bare with a bold voiceover proclaiming, “This film is a detective story in which you are the detective. The question is not, ‘Who is the murderer?’ but, ‘Who is the werewolf?’

Dum, dum, DUM!

And we’re off. Millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has invited an eclectic bunch of acquaintances including an artist, a famous pianist, an archaeologist and a diplomat to his mansion in rural England, every inch of which has been placed under surveillance by a high-tech security system featuring CCTV, motion-detectors and all manner of other (then) advanced technological wizardry. In time, Newcliffe and his wife (Clark) reveal to the group that one of their collected number is a werewolf, and the reason for the soiree is to find out who it is and then kill it, hence the title.

And so the fun begins.

All manner of lycanthropic lore is then called upon in a concerted attempt to uncover the beast in question, from using the wolfsbane flower to silver bullets. Needless to say a few suspects get eaten along the way, along with someone’s dog, when the werewolf goes on the rampage and starts steadily reducing the list of suspects. In fact, it probably can’t believe it’s luck. As intimated earlier, it is then up to the viewer to solve the mystery and unmask the beast.

Like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors almost a decade before, the Beast Must Die was made by Amicus Studios, a production company based at Shepperton Studios which flourished between 1962 and 1977, and came near the end of their reign. This was an era when horror movies were just beginning to come into their own, and many studios tried to be innovative and push the boundaries in a variety of ways. This particular effort was marketed as a horror mystery, and challenged the viewer to uncover the identity of the werewolf by picking up clues along the way and distinguishing them from the multitude of red herrings typical of 1970s cinema.

Conversely, near the climax there is a 30-second semi-interactive ‘werewolf break’ where viewers are encouraged to put their momney where their mouths are and name their suspect, which you can see would provoke some discourse between viewers. Though it also heavily features elements drawn from elsewhere, The Beast Must Die is based on the short story ‘There shall be No Darkness’ by American sci-fi writer James Blish, which was published in the pulp magazine thrilling Wonder Stories.

Despite a campy, seventies feel exasperated by a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in Shaft and some gloriously hammed-up acting, since it’s release, The Beast Must Die has enjoyed several re-issues, most notably in 2006, and garnered some generally favourable contemporary reviews mostly along the lines of, “Absolute Cushing classic,” and “Cracking little horror film that deserves a wider audience,” all of which which make it the very epitomization of a cult classic. An alternate version of the film omitting the ‘werewolf break,’ of which Annett was reportedly never a fan (he blamed the whole thing on producer Milton Subotsky), was later released under the title Black Werewolf (which rather gives a lot away) and you can watch the full movie, including the controversial ‘werewolf break,’ RIGHT HERE.

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Trivia Corner:

Due to the miniscule production budget, the ‘werewolf’ was played by a German Shepherd kitted out in shaggy dark fur to give it a larger, more ‘otherworldly’ look.


RetView #42 – The Blob (1958)

Title: The Blob

Year of Release: 1958

Director: Irvin Yeaworth

Length: 86 minutes

Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase

the blob

This gets off to a thoroughly bizarre start with some bouncy, sax-led dance hall number called, imaginatively enough, Beware of the Blob by a group called the Five Blobs. All five blobs in this case were actually the same person, actor and singer Bernie Knee, who had his vocals overdubbed five times. The song was written by Mack Davis and a young Burt Bacharach, who would go on to win six Grammy Awards and three Academy Awards for his music, and became a surprise Top 40 hit in America. The nature of the theme tune was an indicator that the Blob never did take itself too seriously, and it can still be found on numerous horror and Halloween-themed compilation albums.

The premise is eerily reminiscent of War of the Worlds (the 1953 original, not the later Tom Cruise vehicle) and several other period classics. A courting couple, Steve Andrews (a 28-year old Steve McQueen in his first leading role) and Jane Martin (Corsaut) are out one evening when they see a shooting star and decide to go looking for it. Instead of finding it, they stumble across an old man (Howland) who has some weird jelly-like substance attached to his hand. Good citizens as they are, the young couple take him to the local doctor (Chase). As you can probably imagine, things escalate quite quickly after that. The Blob makes short work of the poor old man, increasing in size exponentially as it does so, then moves on to the nurse, and finally the doctor himself. Steve and Jane turn up just in time to see his grisly demise. In a panic, they go to the police, who dismiss them as pranksters.

Police Officer: They’re just kids.

Police Sergeant: Just kids? That’s the craziest argument I ever heard. Every criminal in the world was a kid once!

Both logical, and totally brilliant.

For me, this piece of dialogue, marks an interesting shift in cultural attitudes. This was the 1958, just three years after Rebel Without a Cause came out, when the battle between teenagers and various authority figures was still raging. In this not-untypical case, the film paints the teenagers as misunderstood victims who are basically good kids who just want to help, but are not given the opportunity to do so. Instead, they are unfairly judged and demonized, an attitude which tapped into the zeitgeist of the day.

Realizing that it is down to them to save the town, Steve and Jane recruit some of their friends and go about warning everyone about the (now) massive, shapeless blobby-thing going around consuming people. When the Blob appears and ransacks a movie theatre, they are vindicated and eventually work out that the best weapon against this slimy enemy is the cold. To cut a long story short, the air force then shows up and airlifts the Blob to the frozen wastes of the arctic. As the end credits begin to roll, it is acknowledged that the creature isn’t dead but has at least been stopped, to which Steve replies, in what is obviously an early comment on global warming, “Yeah, as long as the arctic stays cold.”

In keeping with its overriding theme of teen angst (for which, you can argue, the blob itself is a handy metaphor) the movie was aimed directly at the then-lucrative drive-in market, and released as a double feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space. It was originally the B-movie, but soon proved so popular that the slots on the bill were reversed. Since then, it has gone on to achieve cult status. A sequel, Beware the Blob (aka Son of Blob, which indicates that the original blob was somehow able to procreate) was eventually released in 1972. Directed by Larry Hagman from Dallas, it used the tagline ‘The movie JR shot.” The original was remade in 1988, and yet another remake (at one time mooted to be directed by Rob Zombie) is in the works. Most impressively of all, since the year 2000, the town of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where most of the movie was filmed, has hosted an annual Blobfest in homage.

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Trivia Corner

Steve (for the first and only time listed in the credits as ‘Steven.’) McQueen received a flat $3,000 fee for his role, turning down an offer for a smaller up-front fee in return for a 10% percent share of profits. He thought the film would never make money, and needed money quickly to pay for food and rent. However, The Blob ended up being a huge a hit, costing only $110,000 and grossing $4 million.


RetView #40 – Mysterious Island (1961)

Title: Mysterious Island

Year of Release: 1961

Director: Cy Endfield

Length: 101 mins

Starring: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Dan Jackson, Herbert Lom

mi

I remember seeing this film one wet afternoon as a kid, and being absolutely captivated by it. It’s the kind of boy’s adventure that just appeals to your sense of boldness and wonder. The original story was written by Jules Verne in 1874, and became an integral part of the so-called Voyages Extraordinaires, a sprawling series of no less than 54 novels published between 1863 and 1905 which included such classics as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The book has been adapted at least eight other times over the years, most recently in 2012, but this 1961 version from Columbia Pictures is perhaps the most popular and enduring. It was directed by Cy Endfield, whose career highpoints came when he directed the seminal war film Zulu (1964) and wrote the sequel, Zulu Dawn (1979).

The year is 1865. It’s the height of the American Civil War, and a huge storm sweeps through a Confederate POW camp where a ragtag crew of Union soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Craig) are planning an escape. Using the storm as cover, they grab a couple of Confederates who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, pile into an observation balloon (the 19th Century equivalent of a stealth bomber) and make their getaway. The balloon carries them clean across America and over the Pacific Ocean, until another storm strikes and the balloon starts losing gas forcing them to land on, you guessed it, a mysterious island. The escapees quickly regroup and assign roles, with one poor bloke becoming designated ‘vegetable finder’ which must have looked great on his CV. It doesn’t take long before the intrepid group run into a giant crab. As you do. Now if you’ve ever wanted to see a bunch of men fight off a giant crab with sticks, this is the film for you. They eventually succeed in tipping it over into a conveniently boiling geyser and eating it. Brilliant. At various points they also encounter a giant flightless bird and some massive bees, along with a couple of very prim, unconscious English ladies who have been shipwrecked. Apart from the volcanoes and all the crazy big animals running around, the island begins to resemble utopia, but the group are still determined to leave and make their intentions clear by building a big boat from scratch. Personally, I’d rather chill on the island with it’s plentiful supply of food and wait to be rescued than take my chances at sea with no supplies in a boat I made myself, but that’s just me.

Then things start turning weird. More weird, I mean. The group stumbles across a lovely cave and a treasure chest containing guns, maps, and other useful shit, and then they find the mother of all payloads, the Nautilus (Captain Nemo’s legendary submarine) hidden in a subterranean passage. But before they can investigate fully, they are attacked by a rogue pirate ship, which is promptly sunk in a mysterious explosion, and most bizarrely of all, Captain Nemo himself (Lom) walks out of the sea dressed up as a giant shellfish and delivers the best line of the whole film: “Contact with my own species has always disappointed me.”

Burn!

Over a nice meal aboard the Nautilus, Captain Nemo reveals to the castaways that the giant creatures are the result of a series of genetic experiments designed to solve the world’s food shortages. He also claims responsibility for sinking the pirate ship, and reveals the entire island is about to be destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Bummer. But not to worry, Captain Nemo uses his ingenuity to refloat the knackered pirate ship and help the group make their getaway.

Mysterious Island is now widely known for the (then) groundbreaking stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, which became known as dynamation. In many ways it paved the way for other Harryhausen vehicles like Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981). His first feature film, Mighty Joe Young (1949) won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The scene where the Union soldiers bust out of prison and escape in a hot air balloon were filmed in Church Square, Shepperton, Surrey, while most of the indoor scenes were filmed in nearby Shepperton Studios, and the beach scenes were filmed in Castell-Platja d’Aro in Catalonia, Spain. It would perhaps be too much of a leap to say this film still stands up today, especially in the special effects department. The truth is, it’s horribly dated. But the acting is superb and as slices of nostalgia go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Trivia Corner:

Fifty minutes into the movie, Sgt Pencroft (Herbert) sings a song from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, Treasure Island wasn’t written until 1883, while the movie is set in 1865. Oops.


Retview #39 – They Live (1988)

Title: They Live

Year of Release: 1988

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 94 mins

Starring: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason

they live

And now we arrive at yet another worthy entry in this series for horror maestro John Carpenter following The Fog, The Thing and Christine, and we haven’t even come to Halloween yet. Despite making back its entire budget of $3 million in its first weekend in theatres, upon release They Live offering was largely met with lukewarm reviews and indifference. Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, “It’s just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate.”

Ouch.

However, like so many other Carpenter films, They Live soon gathered traction and built a dedicated cult following further down the line. Since then, it has become known in underground circles as a bona fide sci-fi horror classic in the vein of Terminator and Robocop, containing all the elements essential for such an illustrious title such as satire, social commentary, a healthy dose of humour and, of course, some explosions. Its cultural impact is so profound that more than three decades after it came out, those perma-woke hipsters over at Rolling Stone are still writing articles about it.

The plot is pretty basic. Renowned wrestling star Roddy Piper, now sadly departed, plays Nada, a good-natured drifter who befriends construction worker Frank Armitage (David, who also played Kurt Russell’s sidekick in The Thing). Near a soup kitchen in a local shanty town he discovers a church full of scientific equipment, shortly thereafter the entire place is razed to the ground by police and Nada salvages a box of sunglasses. He steals one pair, and hides the rest in a dumpster.  Upon trying out the glasses the first thing he notices is that all the ads that surround us in our daily lives are really vehicles for hidden subversive messages or commands like ‘obey’ and ‘marry and reproduce.’ And that’s just the beginning. The glasses also allow him to see for the first time that the legions of yuppies populating Los Angeles, and presumably the rest of the world are, in fact, aliens. When the nasty aliens learn that Nada is well on the way to uncovering the truth, he essentially takes TV worker Holly Thompson (Foster) hostage, until she throws him through a window. Now a fugitive, Nada meets Armitage and, after a marathon six-minute street fight, finally succeeds in forcing a pair of sunglasses on his disbelieving buddy. Now alert to the truth, the two pair up to try to stop the alien invasion.

The idea for the movie came from a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight o’clock in the Morning,” which was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963. It was later developed into a comic with the much snappier title Nada which was published in the Alien Encounters anthology in 1986. Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the original short story and the comic book, and used them as the basis for the screenplay which he wrote under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, which was also the name of David’s character. The name is actually an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft, one of carpenter’s favourite writers, who named a character in his classic The Dunwich Horror Henry Armitage. Ironically, most Lovecraftian horror involves a hidden or unseen world, a core element of They Live.

In the years since it came out, the movie has been taken as a metaphor for Reagan’s America, with Carpenter himself throwing fuel on the fire in various interviews. In a nutshell, the more political elements of the movie are derived from the director’s growing distaste with 1980’s commercialisation and consumerism, especially the economic policies promoted by the president which were dubbed Reaganomics. Carpenter once said, “I began watching TV again [and] quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something.”

In keeping with the OTT eighties trend of cramming as many naff one-liners in each film as was humanly possible, Piper’s peak comes with the sublime, “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” second only to, “Life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

A remake has been mooted since around 2010 but details remain elusive. One thing is certain, if any cult movie would benefit from a big-budget, modern-day makeover, it’s this one.

Trivia Corner

Even politically-conscious pop punk stalwarts Green Day paid homage to They Live in the video for their single Back in the USA from the 2017 compilation Greatest Hits: God’s Favourite Band.


RetView #38 – Rabid (1977)

Title: Rabid

Year of Release: 1977

Director: David Cronenberg

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan

rabid 2

Before Scanners, Videodrome, and the 1986 remake of The Fly made Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg a household name, came this comparatively little-known cult classic. Despite the implications of the title, Rabid has nothing to do with sick animals, and everything to do with a woman who undergoes experimental surgery and spontaneously develops a strange penis-shaped appendage under her armpit. This instrument, though, isn’t for fun, it’s for sucking blood and spreading disease. Hence the ‘rabid’ of the title. Okay, I guess some more information is required.

Rose, played by porn star Marilyn Chambers in her first attempt at a ‘serious’ role, is riding pillion on a motorcycle driven, not very well, by her boyfriend Hart (Moore), when they take a nasty tumble. They both survive, but find themselves in a clandestine plastic surgery clinic overseen by the slightly creepy Dr Dan Keloid (Ryshpan) who decides to perform radical new surgery on the comatose Rose, who is the more badly injured. When Rose finally awakens from her coma, she inadvertently injures a fellow patient. It is then revealed that Dr Keloid’s experimental procedures have caused a mutation in Rose’s body, leaving her able to subsist only on human blood. Furthermore, anyone she takes blood from soon morphs into deranged, murderous zombie-like creatures, which isn’t really ideal for anyone. Understandably freaking out, Rose discharges herself from the hospital (but not before causing some more mayhem) and sets off on a cross-country hitchhiking trip whilst the police and medical fraternity try desperately to apprehend her in the face of a swelling epidemic. With the situation now out of control, a state of martial law is declared in Montreal whilst an array of scientists and doctors work feverishly to develop a cure.

Sure, as many films of this era were, Rabid is camp as hell in places and it takes a while to get going, but there is a lot to admire here. Not least the performance of Chambers, who plays the role of Rose with clarity and impressive depth. Her transition to mainstream movies, however, ultimately failed and she was back in the porn industry several years later amid claims she’d been ‘blackballed’ by Hollywood. Tragically, on 12th April 2009 she was found dead by her 17-year old daughter the cause of death determined to be a cerebral haemorrhage and aneurysm linked to heart disease. She was 56. In hindsight, it’s highly likely that Cronenberg cast her largely because of her porn background, rather than in spite of it. There is a raw sexuality bubbling beneath the surface throughout, from the penis thing growing out of Rose’s armpit to the almost orgasmic reaction she has when she feeds. Some of the special effects aren’t so special, but Rabid benefits from a cohesive narrative and a solid plot, something missing from a few more lauded Cronenberg movies. The bleak ending also sticks in the mind, which I won’t spoil for you here. When it was released, most of the Western world was being swept away on a tide of spit, vehemence and punk music, and some of that attitude bleeds through into the movie which when viewed in retrospect seems to portray Rose as a vulnerable, even unwilling, catalyst for change.

Rabid is seen by many Cronenberg aficionados to be inexorably linked with his 1975 offering Shivers and true, the two films do share many similarities. The Den of Geek website points out that if Shivers represented Cronenberg’s brief foray into zombie territory, Rabid can be seen as a tentative exploration of the vampire genre, if only for the blood sucking. There has been no shortage of discussion about Rabid in the forty-something years since its release, with the overriding opinion being that whilst it fades into mediocrity when compared to some of his later work, it marks an important junction in the then-fledgling writer/director’s career. A largely-faithful remake directed and co-written by Jen and Silvia Soska and starring Laura Vandervoort premiered at the London Frightfest Festival on August 26th 2019.

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Trivia Corner:

Cronenberg has stated that he originally wanted the sassy Sissy Spacek to play the lead, but the studio vetoed his choice because of her accent. Okay, then. Interestingly, Carrie, Spacek’s tour de force, was released during the production of Rabid, and a poster can be seen when Marilyn Chambers, Spacek’s eventual replacement for this role, walks past a movie theatre.


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