Tag Archives: sixties

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 #34 – Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Title: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors

Year of Release: 1965

Director: Freddie Francis

Length: 98 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman, Max Adrian, Ann Bell, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle.

dr terrors house of horrors

I love a good anthology film. It’s like getting four stories (or in this case, five) for the price of one. This little gem, not to be confused with the unrelated Dr. Terror and his Gallery of Horrors (1967), was the first in a series of horror omnibuses made by the Shepperton Studios-based Amicus Productions between 1965 and 1974.  Later, more accomplished efforts included The House that Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the outstanding Vault of Horror (1973). One of the company’s founders, American Milton Subotsky, also wrote the screenplay for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, among other things, and later in his career went on to work on several Stephen King adaptations, notably Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Sometimes They Come Back (1991).

Five men board a train at a London station and are joined by a mysterious sixth, the enigmatic and, quite frankly, scary as fuck Dr. Schreck (Cushing). The name, he helpfully explains, is German for ‘terror,’ like that’s going to make anyone feel better. Dr. Schreck then whips out a deck of tarot cards, which he calls his ‘house of horrors,’ and proceeds to reveal the destiny of each of the travellers in turn. Again, not creepy at all. By this time, you are beginning to think that this dude is an absolute riot at parties. The preamble provides the backdrop and framework in which to tell five separate stories, all connected by the aforementioned scenario.

Werewolf: The title kinda gives this one away, except it doesn’t really, if you know what I mean. The narrative follows Jim Dawson (McCallum) who returns to his ancestral home on a remote Scottish island where he finds himself embroiled in the culmination of a family curse and a centuries-old feud. This isn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, and the twisty ending is really quite clever.

Creeping Vine: Bill Rogers (Freeman) and his wife (Bell) return from holiday to find a creepy (boom!) vine growing in the garden. Soon, the vine develops a life of its own, along with a killer instinct. This one could almost be lifted straight from a vintage edition of Tales from the Crypt.

Voodoo: Biff Bailey (Castle) is a jobbing musician who accepts a gig in the West Indies where he stumbles across a voodoo ceremony. He memorizes the tune they are playing, and despite being warned, goes back to London and plays it, thereby unwittingly unleashing all manner of fuckery. Plagiarism is not cool, kids. ‘Probably’ based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich who, ironically enough given the subject matter, is uncredited.

Disembodied Hand: This one is, ahem, hands down the grisliest, and probably the best, story of the lot. It follows the misadventures of pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh (Lee) who falls victim to karma after causing a tortured artist to lose his hand.

Vampire: Dr. Bob Carroll (Sutherland) returns to the states with his new French bride. Back home, a spate of killings occurs, which seem to have been carried out by a vampire. Bob’s friend (Adrian), convinces him that his pretty new wife is responsible for the murders and Bob kills her. However, as he is being led away by the police, the friend says to himself that the city isn’t big enough for two doctors, or two vampires, and turns into a bat. The bastard.

As you can see, all the stories have twists, and this tradition is continued within the wraparound story, as in the end it is revealed that all five men were already dead, having copped it when the train they boarded crashed, and Dr. Schreck was actually death himself. Wow, right?

As they did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and just about every other film they ever appeared in together, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the horror film equivalent of Starsky and Hutch, put in a couple of truly memorable performances. In fact, the entire cast excels. A special mention should also go to the director Freddie Francis, who achieved most of his success as a cinematographer, winning two Academy Awards and working on classics such as The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Cape Fear (1991). All this natural talent, combined with the overall tongue-in-cheek approach and clever, quirky writing, makes Dr. Terror’s House of Horror a worthy addition to any horror collection.

Trivia Corner:

Jazz musician Acker Bilk was originally cast to play the part of Biff Bailey, but he suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Roy Castle, later of Record Breakers fame, in his theatrical movie debut.


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