Tag Archives: movies

RetView #62 – Little Devils: The Birth (1993)

Title: Little Devils: The Birth

Year of Release: 1993

Director: George Pavlou

Length: 100 mins

Starring: Russ Tamblyn, Marc Price, Nancy Valen, Wayne McNamara, Stella Stevens

Little Devils: The Birth is one of those films that got lost in the shuffle. Marketed as a comedy horror in the Gremlins or Ghoulies vein, it’s not really funny enough to be a comedy and not horrific enough to be a horror. It didn’t even have a hard rock soundtrack for Christ’s sake, and lacking big industry backing and a massive distribution deal, when it was released it fell between the cracks of the two genres and quickly became forgotten. In horror circles, just being aware of it granted you entry into some kind of exclusive club governed by knowing winks and secret handshakes. It doesn’t get more ‘cult movie’ than that.

It was reportedly conceived as a TV pilot for a new anthology series along the lines of The Hitchhiker and Tales from the Crypt, but when that plan fell through the makers decided to press on and turn it into a feature film instead. It received a timely boost when released by Shivers Entertainment on limited edition remastered DVD for the first time in 2017, but even then flew under the radar, the only media coverage being canned copy recycled from the press release churned out by bored journos with pages to fill. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy afoot to ensure the movie stays underground where it can build upon its growing reputation year on year until it eventually grows horns and takes over the world. I for one think it deserves a wider audience, so here we are.

Like all the best films, it begins when an unpopular, debt-ridden mad scientist. This one, Dr. Lionel (McNamara), literally goes to hell and back, and returns with a souvenir in the form of some runny mud that looks a lot like melted chocolate. Possessed and compelled to work, he sets about creating an army of tiny, impish figures who come to life, break out, and start terrorizing the apartment block in which he lives. First stop is the apartment downstairs which is home to Ed (Marc Price, of Trick or Treat fame – in which his character name was also Ed, weirdly enough) a frustrated writer reduced to producing smutty stories for a sleazy magazine to make ends meet whilst being pursued by strange, lust-filled landlord, Clara Madison (Stevens). Clara treats Dr. Lionel with complete disdain, yet has the hots for Ed. Ed isn’t interested, though. Especially after he meets exotic dancer Lynn (Valen) while researching a book at the local homeless shelter and the two begin a tumultuous relationship. Ed and his motley crew of friends, lovers and acquaintances then have to battle the rampaging horde of ‘little devils’ before things get (any more) out of hand.

Though very much a product of its time, given the pedigree of some of the people involved, it was something of a surprise that Little Devils: The Birth didn’t make a bigger splash. It was the brainchild of British director George Pavlou, who’d made his name on the Clive Barker vehicles Underworld (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986), and writer Elliot Stein, fresh from the similarly-themed TV movie Gray Clay Dolls (1991). The biggest coup in front of the camera came in the form of the legendary Stella Stevens who had successfully made the transition from Playboy to the big (and small) screen, appearing in scores of movies and TV shows in a career spanning half a century including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Manitou (1978) and Monster in the Closet (1986). Despite the lowbrow, tongue-in-cheek subject material, her star quality shines through in every scene she’s in and its a bitter disappointment when *spoiler alert* the little devils get her half way through. In fact, all the actors do a decent job and the script, though played mostly for laughs, is also surprisingly good (sample dialogue: “You write porno. That doesn’t necessarily make you a pervert, even though you are one”).

Yes, the plot is silly, the effects are cheesy, and at times the whole thing feels a bit like one of those early Ratt videos MTV would play after midnight back when they still played music, but all things considered this forgotten gem is well worthy of its cult status. The title suggests that at least one sequel was planned, but that never transpired. Not yet, anyway. We can but hope.

Trivia Corner

Before becoming an actress, Stella Stevens was a member of the five-voice vocal ensemble The skip-Jacks who performed the theme song from The Flintstones, among other things. She went on to forge a long-term relationship with famed producer and one-time Kiss guitarist Bob Kulick, which lasted until his death in 2020.


RetView #61 – Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Title: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Year of Release: 1954

Director: Jack Arnold

Length: 79 mins

Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning

There aren’t many movies that start with the big bang. Where can you go after that? In the first two minutes or so of Creature from the Black Lagoon we are treated not only to a massive explosion, but also a potted history of 15 million years of life on earth. And if that wasn’t enough, we end up tracking a team of explorers somewhere in the Amazon when they find a gigantic petrified claw which apparently belonged to some kind of amphibious creature they dub ‘Gill man’. In the wake of this discovery, the expedition shifts its focus to seeking out a live specimen, and then trying to escape when they realize the live specimen doesn’t much fancy a life in captivity and strikes back, a pivotal moment coming when the hunted becomes the hunter. It’s enough to make you dizzy. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that when this movie first hit cinemas, it did so in 3D. 1950’s technology was a far cry to what we have going on at the Cineplex these days, but let’s give them credit for trying. Upon release, the movie also broke several records for the amount of underwater filming it features, all of which is stunningly shot using a variety of (then) innovative techniques.

The story goes that producer William Alland was attending a dinner party during the filming of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane (in which he played a reporter) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about the myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures living in the Amazon River. Alland wrote some story notes using the imaginative working title The Sea Monster, which eventually morphed into Creature from the Black Lagoon years later. Just as he did on the Incredible Shrinking Man, director Jack Arnold does a masterful job. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface (sorry). First we have the simmering sexual tension between Kay (Adams) and her two male leads, who are both competing for her affections in vastly different ways. There’s David (Carlson) who dotes on her, in an old-fashioned, wrap-you-up-in-cotton-wool, slightly controlling way, while love rival and pantomime villain Mark (Denning), seems to take a more preening, misogynistic approach, parading around in his tight shorts whenever possible and being vocally resentful of Kay’s mere presence, which seems a bit counterproductive. Let’s not forget that this was an era when it wasn’t unusual to see leading men in movies wallop their woman about the chops if she dared step out of line. To be brutally honest, this pair of numb nuts make Gill-man seem like a real catch (sorry again). He’s also a bit creepy, by the way. Not only does he have scales, big bulbous eyes and massive clawed hands, but he likes to swim underneath Kay mirroring her movements whilst she unwittingly frolics about in the water. Tellingly, though, at the end when he finally kidnaps her, the creature doesn’t literally puts Kay on a pedestal.

In some quarters, the creature has become a metaphor for repressed sexual tension, which must have been rife in 1950’s America, what with the twin threats of communism and nuclear armageddon hanging over everyone. He is forever lurking insidiously behind the scenes, always threatening to break through to the surface and create havoc but never quite managing. The cultural impact of Creature from the Black lagoon has long been debated, the discourse summarized here.

The subtext is clear, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. It’s those pesky humans messing about with nature again. The poor amphibious creature and his relatives and cohorts had been quietly pottering about minding their own business in remote parts of the world for millennia. And quite possibly would’ve stayed there, too, had a bunch of selfish assholes not turned up and ruined everything. Shades of King Kong here, and even The Thing. The plot could even be a thinly-veiled attack on colonialism, or marauding white people in general. Watching it now, you can’t help rooting for the monster. In a contemporary article on Tor.com, Ryan Britt writes, “You never wanted them to kill that poor sea monster. In fact, you kind of wanted to see him take every single person on that boat out.” Adams herself later said, “There always is that feeling of compassion. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved.”

Despite it’s modest beginnings, Creature from the Black Lagoon was a monster smash (That’s the last one, I promise) leading to two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and making an indelible mark on the movie-going public. Stephen King has said it was the first film he remembers watching. There has long been talk of a remake, mentioned in connection with such luminaries as John Landis, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro, who credited the original for influencing his 2017 masterpiece The Shape of the Water, but it hasn’t surfaced yet (Okay, I lied).

Trivia Corner

After Universal had finished making the third and final film, a studio worker threw the creature’s costume in a dumpster, from where it was retrieved by a young man who repurposed it as a Halloween costume before selling it to Forrest J. Ackerman, a writer for Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine.


RetView #60 – Death Ship (1980)

Title: Death Ship

Year of Release: 1980

Director: Alvin Rakoff

Length: 85 mins

Starring: Richard Crenna, George Kennedy, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Saul Rubinek

I’d never even heard of this Bloodstar Films production until I read about it in an issue of the venerated Fortean Times magazine (FT396, if you’re interested). I’ve always had a thing for Nazi zombies, as referenced before in previous RetViews Shock Waves and Outpost. I also recently discovered that I have a thing for horror set on ships. I have no idea why that is. It could be something about the bleak, all-encompassing emptiness of being at sea, but it’s probably more to do with the fact that if some supernatural shit befalls you in a house, or even a cabin buried in the woods, you can always just count your losses and run. You can’t do that on a ship. You have to stay and face whatever evil shit is about to befall you. Anyway, the potential for Nazi zombies and an evil sea-faring vessel combo suckered me right into Death Ship. Throw in Richard Crenna from the Rambo films, Saul Rubinek from True Romance (and Frasier) and George Kennedy from, er, Cool Hand Luke and Earthquake, I was already sold. And if all that wasn’t enough, just look at this poster!

So what’s it all about?

Well, stuffy Captain Ashland (Kennedy) is on his final cruise before handing over the reigns to Trevor Marshall (Crenna) who has brought his wife (Howes, in her final film appearance) and kids along on the trip. At a glitzy on-ship party there’s a band playing, some drunk people, and lots of terrible dad dancing. Everyone is having a great time. Except Captain Ashland, who you doubt could have a great time anywhere. But all the decadence and debauchery comes to a sudden halt when the cruise liner smashes into something and sinks, leaving just a handful of survivors unfortunately including Marshall’s annoying kids, a lecherous young officer, and a near-hysterical passenger, floating around on a makeshift raft. The next morning they find the grumpy captain in the water, which is a stroke of luck, or maybe not, then they come across a massive, ominous-looking black ship anchored in the middle of the ocean with a ladder down ready to receive them, which seems like another mad stroke of luck but turns out to be quite the opposite. Thinking they’ve found salvation, the survivors board the strange ship to find it deserted. Still, it’s better than being on the raft, or so they think. The first sign that something isn’t right comes when ship’s entertainer Jackie (Rubinek) is suddenly scooped up by a possessed winch and dumped screaming head first into the sea. Bye, Jackie. It was fun while it lasted. Things degenerate from there. The remaining survivors, whilst trying to navigate this mysterious vessel full of disembodied voices, creepy shadows and inanimate objects that take on lives of their own, get picked off one-by-one, until only the good-natured Trevor Marshall, his wife, and those annoying kids are left and ultimately find themselves back where they started on another flimsy-looking rafty-thing in the water. There’s probably a message there.

Life and soul of the party Captain Ashland and the underlying friction between him and his would-be replacement Marshall is instrumental in all this.

“You don’t know how to handle a crew or passengers!”
“Maybe so, Marshall. But I know how to handle ships.”

At one point, Ashland even dons a discarded German navy uniform and appears to channel the ship’s long-dead and rather sadistic head honcho whilst embarking on a murderous rampage. It all leads up to the highly anticipated revelation, which ties things up nicely and makes for a nice, satisfying conclusion. Especially after the evil Captain Ashland comes to a suitably sticky end and, of course, good triumphs over evil.

It’s easy to see why Death Ship got lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have the immediacy of other popular horror flicks of the day like Cannibal Holocaust, Friday the 13th or Prom Night. It could, however, be a distant cousin of The Fog. It has a much more brooding atmosphere and, dare I say, slightly more substance reinforced by some remarkable cinematography, an impressive plot, and a killer (sorry) cast. It’s picked up a few retrospective reviews like this one on Warped Perspective, which is a real indicator as to whether a movie is truly attaining cult status, and review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes gives it an overall score of 4.2 out of 10 based on 5 reviews, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. One review states, “Death Ship is a terrific, low-budget cheesy supernatural tale that should definitely appeal to midnight movie horror fans. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I feel that this is one of the most underrated films in the genre.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and those sentiments are echoed by Jeremy Blitz of DVD Talk, who said, “It isn’t a perfect film, but it is an enjoyable one, especially for fans of the somewhat lower tier horror efforts of the late seventies and early eighties.” Its flaws, however, are plain to see. Many called it unimaginative or derivative, with a shower scene in particular said to mirror the famous one in Psycho a little too closely. Incidentally, the shower scene in Death Ship was shot in one take, as it was deemed too expensive and troublesome to clean up the blood and shoot it again. It wasn’t all plain sailing (boom!). Damningly, TV Guide called the movie “ludicrous” and gave it a one-star rating. It’s probably safe to say that despite its considerable merits, this won’t be something that many of it’s stellar cast will look back on with much pride. For one delightful moment whilst researching this piece, I thought I’d stumbled across a modern(ish) remake. But that turned out to be nothing more than the result of some artwork someone mocked up in Deviant Art. Good effort, though.

Trivia Corner

As the ghost ship collided with the cruise liner, brief scenes of an explosion, a grand piano falling between decks, and the engine room flooding were cut in from another movie entirely. The movie in question was The Last Voyage (1960).


RetView #56 – Fright Night (1985)

Title: Fright Night

Year of Release: 1985

Director: Tom Holland

Length: 106 mins

Starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys

Something occurred to me recently. So far, I haven’t covered many vampire movies in the RetView series. In fact, the only ones I’ve featured have been Lost Boys and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Personally, I just find the whole vampire thing a bit naff and predictable. If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s been done to death. Hurrah! That’s why, to my mind, the vampire legend is best done with a splash of humour, like both the aforementioned did with great success. Another vampire comedy horror classic is Fright Night from 1985, the year of Brothers in Arms, Live Aid and Miami Vice. It became the second highest grossing horror movie of the year behind A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and is notable for being the directorial debut of Tim Holland, who went on to direct Child’s Play (1988) and Thinner (1996) as well as episodes of Amazing Stories and Tales from the Crypt. The movie also benefited from a Big Eighties Soundtrack featuring the likes of the J Geils Band, who performed the title track, Autograph, April Wine and Ian Hunter, the irony being that most of these artists were already streaking into irrelevance having peaked long before. Much like the vampire itself. If the producers had been a bit more adventurous and signed someone a bit more contemporary (like the Elm Street franchise did a couple of years later when they hired Dokken to record the seminal Dream Warriors, or when the makers of Shocker persuaded Megadeth to get involved) it could’ve made all the difference. Still, Fright Night didn’t really need the Big Eighties Soundtrack, it was a massive hit anyway, winning three Saturn awards and grossing over $24 million, despite Columbia having very low expectations of it.

17-year-old Charley Brewster (Ragsdale) is a fan of horror films and a late-night TV series entitled Fright Night hosted by former ‘vampire hunter’ Peter Vincent (McDowall). One evening, Charley discovers that his new next door neighbour, Jerry Dandrige (Sarandon) is the blood-thirsty sucker responsible for several mysterious disappearances. In desperation, he alerts the authorities but, unable to find any evidence, they brush off Brewster’s claims and leave him at the mercy of an angry and vengeful Dandridge. Fearful for the safety of himself and his girlfriend Amy (Bearse) and with no other choice, Brewster goes to best friend Evil Ed (Geoffreys) and his idol, Vincent, for help. Together the motley crew battle the forces of evil. Or try to. But far from being a fearless vampire hunter, Vincent turns out to be a bit of a scaredy cat, as well as a fraud, Brewster’s best friend is a bit of a dick, and his girlfriend appears to have the horn for his nemesis.

The writing in Fright Night is top-notch, as are some of the performances. Stephen Geoffreys (who, ironically, went on to star in 976-EVIL a couple of years later) is brilliant as Evil Ed, but it’s Roddy McDowall who steals the show. One of those saturn awards went to him for ‘Best Supporting Actor.’ His character was named after horror icons Peter Cushing and Vincent price, for whom Holland had specifically written the part. However, at this point in his career, Price had been so badly typecast that he had stopped accepting roles in horror movies. Hollywood badboy Charlie sheen auditioned for the part of Brewster, and I can’t help feeling he would have been amazing as the bumbling teen, but Holland thought Sheen was a ‘hero’ while Ragsdale was, quite literally, “the guy next door.” For her final transformation as a busty vampire, Amanda Bearse wore a prosthetic breast plate to enhance her cleavage. Legend has it that in 2012 she took it to a horror convention and encouraged fans to ‘feel her boobs’ while she signed autographs. Brilliant.

Fright Night as a franchise has grown to include a sequel, imaginatively entitled Fright Night Part 2 (1988) and a remake in 2011. When later asked his thoughts about it, Tom Holland said, “Kudos to them on every level for their professionalism, but they forgot the humor and the heart. They should have called it something other than Fright Night, because it had no more than a passing resemblance to the original.”

Ouch.

The remake was itself followed by a sequel Fright Night 2: New Blood (2013), as well as numerous comics, graphic novels and a video game. Interestingly, the movie even made the crossover to Bollywood in 1989 with a version called Kalpana House (1989), and was adapted for the stage in 2018. Proof positive that, just like the vampires of myth and legend, Fright Night lives on. And on.

Trivia Corner

The makeup for Evil Ed’s wolf transformation took 18 hours to complete. While he had the wolf head on, the crew began pouring what they thought was Methylcellulose into his mouth to create the illusion of saliva, but when Geoffreys began to complain about the taste, the crew realized they’d been using prosthetic adhesive, which was gluing his mouth shut. Doh.


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 #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.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

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 #44 – Predator (1987)

Title: Predator

Year of Release: 1987

Director: John McTiernan

Length: 107 mins

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, Richard Chaves

The story goes that after Rocky IV came out, a joke circulated around Hollywood that since Sly Stallone had levelled all earthly opponents, he would have to fight an alien if a fifth film were to be made. In the event, he fought Tommy Morrison instead, but screenwriters Jim and John Thomas took some inspiration from the joke and wrote a screenplay around it. When the latest instalment in the franchise, unimaginatively called THE Predator, dropped in 2018, it did so to a chorus of disapproval and a slew of negative reviews. Much like the first instalment, which was labelled “Grisly and dull” by the New York Times. Ouch. Not to be outdone, the LA Times wrote that it was, “Arguably one of the emptiest, most derivative scripts ever made as a major studio movie.” Double ouch. Also like the first instalment THE Predator was still a… wait for it… monster hit. The main criticism of the franchise as a whole are the thin plots, papered over with explosions and witty one-liners. Therefore, you might be wondering why Predator merits inclusion in this series. Well, because it’s fucking brilliant. That’s why.

Admittedly the plot, what there is of one, is as weak as wet tissue paper. Dutch, a US Army Special Forces Major Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and his team, which includes Dillon (Weathers who, ironically, had just played Apollo Creed in Rocky IV), a former CIA agent who has a lot to hide, are charged with the task of rescuing an official being held hostage by some insurgents in some generic Central American setting. However, when they arrive they find a crashed helicopter and a bunch of skinned corpses, which kinda sets alarm bells rining. After a textbook firefight with some bad guys, the mission is revealed to be a set-up and Dillon’s deception is laid bare. But that’s just the start of their problems. Before they can make it to their extraction point, they realize that something in the jungle is stalking them. Yep, it’s the predator, a vicious, war-mongering alien entity with dreads that hunts people (and, apparently, other species of alien) for sport.

The first Predator movie not only laid the foundations for three sequels, but also a spin-off franchise (Alien v Predator) and a torrent of comics, novels, videogames, action figures and even theme park attractions creating a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. That’s something most movie franchises can only aspire to. Though they flatter to deceive at times and benefit from bigger budgets and better tech, the truth is none of the other entries in the Predator franchise ever reached the dizzy heights of the 1987 original. Arriving just as Schwarzenegger was riding high on show-stealing performances in the likes of Terminator, Commando and Raw Deal, Predator was very much a feather in his cap. He got to run around in the jungle with some mates covered in mud sporting unfeasibly large weapons and even larger biceps. What was not to like?

One thing I found interesting about Predator is the way it gives the alien interlopers some depth of character, whereas most movies of this type are content to just paint them as bad guys and be done with it. We even get a glimpse of their motivations. Granted, these motivations don’t amount to much, they hunt for ‘sport,’ but it’s a start. No doubt all the eighties bombast was a recipe for success, as Predator raked in almost $100 million at the Box Office against a modest $15 million budget. It also made a lasting impression, earning an 87% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes compared to a score of just 34% for the 2018 instalment, and as recently as 2015 it was named fourth in a Rolling Stone reader’s poll to ascertain the best action movies of all time. All of which is worthy acclaim.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner:

Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the Predator, the idea being to match his martial arts skills with Schwarzenegger’s muscle, but he wasn’t happy being crammed into the suit all the time and constantly complained about it. The part eventually went to Kevin Peter Hall who stood over seven feet tall. He died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of just 35.


RetView #43 – Outpost (2008)

Title: Outpost

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Steve Barker

Length: 90 mins

outpost

Starring: Ray Stevenson, Julian Wadham, Richard Brake, Michael Smiley

I talked about my fondness for undead Nazi films in my post about the 1977 Peter Cushing vehicle Shock Waves. There’s something fundamentally terrifying about the juxtaposition of two evils, and the unholy malevolence that just won’t die. Outpost is a great example of this creepy sub-genre, and has all the elements you would look for in such a movie; symbolism, violence, action, gun fights, violence, survivalism, machismo, and violence. And did I mention the violence? Shortly after its release, debutant director Steve Barker described it simply as, “A boy’s film. It’s a good old fashioned siege horror.” That pretty much sums it up.

The film opens in a bar (always a great place to start a film) in some unnamed, war-torn location where corporate engineer and scientist Hunt (Wadham) is recruiting a career-mercenary going by the name DC (Stevenson) and a crack team of ex-soldiers. The proposed mission is to protect Hunt as he ventures into an Eastern Europe war zone in search of Nazi gold. Sounds simple enough. But along the way, they stumble across a forgotten World War II bunker (the outpost) and decide to investigate. When they do, they discover that the outpost was apparently used by the SS to carry out experiments fusing science with the occult. The result of these shadowy experiments was the creation of a battalion of bloodthirsty, unkillable, vengeance-crazed Nazi zombies who begin hunting down the intrepid team of mercenaries and picking them off one-by-one. Heads are crushed, eye balls are plucked out, nails are hammered into flesh, and people are stabbed in the mouth with swords. That’s just for starters.

Of course, the discovery of the outpost is all-too convenient, and it soon becomes apparent that the entire purpose of Hunt’s mission was to recover the machinery developed by the SS at the behest of the company he worked for which ‘could be worth billions.’ Some of them discuss leaving. Which would have been a good idea. Except by then, of course, it’s too late and shit is going off.

Sample dialogue:

Q: Did you kill him?

A: Well, his brains are all over the wall. That’s good enough for me.

The clever thing about this movie is that fact that much like the SS experimenters it describes, it attempts to blend fact and fiction (or, in another sense, science and the occult). The Nazis were renowned proponents of the supernatural and allegedly did indeed conduct experiments to produce regenerating ‘super soldiers’ as well as lots of other gruesome stuff. Try a Google search using the term ‘Nazi human experiments’ and you’ll see what I mean. The film even references the Philadelphia Experiment, an alleged disastrous attempt by the US military to ‘cloak’ the SS Eldridge. However, logic seems to be the enemy here. At one point, we see the nasty unkillable Germans demonstrating the unnerving ability to spontaneously appear and disappear wherever they want. But later, they are held back by a door. Still, who needs logic, eh?

Despite the occasional plot hole, Outpost is widely acknowledged as a classic budget Brit horror in the vein of Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later. It’s a deliciously taught and atmospheric offering which ticks most horror fan boxes and gathered a sizeable cult following. The acting is decent, the writing (by Rae Brunton) tight, and though the dialogue is a little cheesy at times, the kills come thick and fast and all involved from the actors to the lighting engineers make the most of their limited budget. Most of the action takes place inside the bunker, giving an oppressive, claustrophobic feel to proceedings. The cinematography and is top notch, combining with the funky lighting and other special effects to make your skin crawl as if you were really in that grimy concrete-lined underground hole, waiting for death to find you. At times, it’s almost like you are playing a live action RPG rather than watching a movie.

Outpost spawned two sequels, Outpost II: Black Sun (2012), which was released direct-to-DVD, a medium where the first film did especially well, prompting a modest UK cinema run, and a prequel entitled Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz (2013). The first film was largely well-received, with www.manlymovie.net saying, “Outpost is a minimalistic Brit horror film in all aspects, with a narrow scope and little in the way of flashy special effects. It’s also really, really damn good, and just as satisfyingly violent and gory as any contemporary horror picture.” However, both sequels were widely panned. Personally, I found both of them more than watchable. But then again, I’m easily pleased.

Trivia Corner

Scottish couple Arabella Croft and Kieran Parker re-mortgaged their Glasgow home in order to raise £200,000 to finance production, which they did via their company Black Camel Pictures.


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