Archive for November, 2007

Beowulf

2007, US, Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Colour, Running Time: 113 minutes

Review Source: Cinema Screening; Image: 2.20:1 Digital 3D

Just had a pretty cool experience at the cinema. No, the usherette didn’t invite me to the back room for a bit of sword and sorcery role play (they’re not that attractive where I come from) - it was in fact a digital 3D projection of Beowulf, the new ‘animated’ film from Robert Zemeckis, ImageMovers and Warner Bros. (the latter taking primary care of distribution). Adopting the mythical Beowulf story/poem as a template modern technicians and artists have attempted to recreate the Viking world of Scandinavia (Denmark specifically), giving it unprecedented visual detail and texture and bringing the viewer right into it by utilising recent three dimensional projection techniques. Story is a fairly simple one: a small establishment of townspeople and their king are threatened periodically by a truly monstrous creature they call Grendel, something that emerges from nearby caves whenever he/it is disturbed by the louder sounds emanating from the king’s domain. He destroys anything in his path and appears to be unstoppable so the king calls upon a warrior hero who can rid the town of its curse. Enter Beowulf, a mighty Viking who is adept at combat as well as in possession of near superhuman strength and athletic ability. He soon kills Grendel but also finds that the creature’s mother dwells in the caves also. In exchange for untold riches and power Beowulf gives in to temptation and mates with the seductive but demonic woman. Thereafter Beowulf takes the throne when the old king dies but years later it seems the curse has returned when an overwhelmingly destructive dragon emerges from the very same caves from which Grendel first set foot.

The man himself

The story itself is relatively straightforward material, at least on the surface. In Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings mould it’s a fantasy adventure where warriors make combat with inhuman monsters. What I believe may be beneath the surface is a socio-political subtext on the responsibilities of fatherhood along with the dangers of yielding to temptation. In these respects it’s quite a significant piece given the wayward nature of today’s youth when it comes to impregnating one another before departing to leave others to pick up the tabs. In fact, in this light it’s poignant and possibly controversial - leave a bastard child born purely out of lust and you risk creating a monster. Where the film can fall a little is in the characterisations, which are lacking leaving onscreen people who are mostly incapable of eliciting sympathy (though this seems to be rectified to an extent by the film‘s final third), and also the ‘acting’ seems a little wooden, if the term can be applied here. I don’t think Ray Winstone (as Beowulf) is the best choice to portray an animated character but I suppose his tough guy image seems to fit the character’s omnipotent nature, being as he is the stereotype ideal male. The hero is flawed, both morally and in his ability to stand up to temptation - it’s initially easy to dislike him, but by the film’s conclusion I think perception of this fallible man is suitably turned around. It was of some concern when Beowulf goes to visit the mother of Grendel, a supreme sexual beauty who no male can deny, and rising from the water with her rubber dinghy lips is… Angelina Jolie??? Perhaps the casting department should have consulted some real people for their opinions instead of FHM before bringing in one of the supposed sexiest women in the world. Saying that, her 3D doppelganger is not something one would say no to (after half a pint of shandy), so I suppose the point was made. Many of the characters resemble the actors who are voicing them so it’s often a little uncanny to watch these virtually photo-realistic renditions of people we’ve seen before (John Malkovich is lovely to watch and listen to as his character Unferth). Obviously motion captured for the most part this kind of work I’m not really in favour of and I think more interesting results could have been obtained with proper animation. It’s much more time consuming, as I can personally testify, but if an unreal world is going to be painstakingly created with 3D graphics it always seems like an odd choice to implement ‘real’ movements instead of embellishing what’s been created with artist-propelled movements. Hints at Viking mythology are welcome though generally in the background; for example I was particularly pleased to see one of the characters receive a traditional Viking funeral by having his body set to sail in a burning ship.

Don't get on the wrong side of something that has methane for breath

Technically the film is supreme without much doubt: the modelling on display is exemplary of what’s capable in 3D graphics, lighting should attract an Oscar nomination, texturing is simply astounding with detail levels amazingly sharp; minute hairs on faces are visible in closer shots and millions of them too - this must have been a rendering nightmare! The 3D effect itself is of course obtained using glasses, as in the old days and with current IMAX presentations. In fact, this film was designed with IMAX cinemas in mind and 70mm versions have been struck for such screenings. I saw it at CineWorld but even here the effect was excellent and very often an immersing experience. Close-ups look slightly artificial but group shots and landscape work is quite incredible. The dragon battle is one of the most awe-inspiring audio-visual sequences I think a person can absorb. Many camera movements take full advantage of this, swooping you through the world. It’s important not to confuse all this marvellous technical work with great film-making but I think the movie just about holds up as something worth checking out in its own right - the real test will materialise when it ends up on good old 2D DVD. As it is at the cinema, for the spectacle of the 3D effect alone (especially the jaw-dropping dragon battle) this film is worth paying a few quid to witness.

Posted on 25th November 2007
Under: Horror, Other | 6 Comments »

From Beyond

1986, US, Directed by Stuart Gordon

Colour, Running Time: 86 minutes

DVD, Region 1, MGM, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0

Hot on the success of the gruesomely manic Re-Animator many of the same crew gathered for another shot at Lovecraftian terror a year later… Dr Pretorius and his assistant, Crawford Tillinghast (great name!), are conducting experiments in a mansion whereby they’ve discovered that stimulation of the brain’s pineal gland allows them to perceive the inhabitants of a parallel dimension, while the creation of certain atmospheric vibrations likewise permits those alien inhabitants to see and interact with humans. One such creature devours Pretorius leaving Tillinghast babbling like a madman and quickly locked up in an asylum. A female psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels, is sent to assess his mental state but soon finds herself believing his story, intrigued by his tales of tapping into what they empirically assume to be a dormant sixth sense. She decides to take the patient into her care and McMichaels, Tillinghast, and security man Bubba head back to the mansion in order to resume experimentation with the equipment that Tillinghast attempted to be shut down before being taken away. Switching on they witness the strange fishlike creatures that drift through the air, soon realising the danger of physical harm thanks to the machine’s vibrations, but not only that: Pretoruis has survived death to exist in the astral dimension, now monstrously mutated and quite insane. They also find that the stimulation of the pineal gland is having other side effects, such as enhanced libido and sexual behaviour that they wouldn’t normally accommodate. As Tillinghast and McMichaels become more and more enslaved by their addiction to the combined effects of enhanced dimensional awareness and primordial awakening, Bubba tries to pull the plug. But Tillinghast has become mutated himself by one of the creature attacks, developing a third eye that sticks out of his forehead and going on the rampage at the nearby hospital.

Go eat some fishfood!

Utilising some of the same actors as in Re-Animator director/producer team (Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna respectively) create a nice feeling of continuity, but the results are not quite as successful. The script is not as exciting, though there are plenty of thought-provoking ideas in there, the black humour of the former film barely present, the action less well paced, and the music by Charles Band’s brother Richard illustrates the man’s lack of innate talent - the excellent work on the music for Re-Animator was, after all, derivative of the superb Psycho soundtrack (though at least he admitted paying homage there). The cinematography is daring in places, with the screen adopting a rich array of primary colours to reflect the switch in perception of the characters. It’s nice to see some familiar faces from the previous film too - Jeffrey Combs is another slightly nutty scientist here (Tillinghast) and he’s always a joy to witness in thespian action, his character moving into almost Brain Damage territory as he develops the prehensile eye protruding from his forehead, a tool to survey the parallel realm in all its video graphic glory. Ken Foree, needing no introduction, plays the security guy who doesn’t have too much to do except keep rein over things as control is gradually lost. Gorgeous Barbara Crampton also appears as the nifty psychiatrist who believes Tillinghast’s tale of madness, later allowing her repressed sexually adventurous nature to express itself in the form of adopting a mild but fetching S&M routine as her pineal gland is stimulated into dominant activity by the resonator device. It’s the ideas behind the project that are most intriguing, the stimulation of a relatively dormant gland to permit access to a latent sixth sense being the primary concept that underpins everything that happens. I suppose it has to be admitted that the components of this film add up to more than the final outcome but it’s an enticing ride nonetheless.

Look, I aint got anything decent to wear so we'll just have to do it like this, any objections?

MGM pulled out the stops with their recent special edition, including a director commentary along with several featurettes as well as producing a transfer that must be classed as definitive for this film - one of the best looking eighties horrors I’ve yet seen on DVD. Detail helps immerse the viewer in the oddball world and colours seem to be as accurate as one can imagine. Previously I’d only seen this on videotape so visually (and aurally thanks to a decent four channel surround track) it was quite a revelation, certainly helping the viewer appreciate this piece more than was previously really possible. Not only that but this is the unrated version containing some excerpts of bloodiness that you may not have seen before. An adequate reminder to look forward to Gordon’s upcoming nasty flick, Stuck, which sounds pretty exciting - it‘s about some woman who ploughs her car into a vagrant, sending his body through the windscreen. Instead of doing the obvious and calling for an ambulance she ends up driving home and leaving the car in her garage with the bloody body embedded in the glass, left for dead but not quite. Partly based on a true story apparently - hey, this could only happen in America!

Posted on 21st November 2007
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Forbidden Planet

1956, US, Directed by Fred M Wilcox

Colour, Running Time: 94 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Warner, Video: Anamorphic 2.40:1, Audio: DD5.1

Drifting through space in a saucer-style starship a team of astronauts land on what was once a colonized planet, the purpose being, they believe, to rescue survivors. They discover the small population has been devastated by a plague and all that remains are Dr Morbius and his fetching daughter, Altaira, who seem to be living peacefully and self-sufficiently with their multifunctional robot, Robby. Not completely accommodating and without any desire to be ‘rescued’, Dr Morbius is eager to have them on their way but Commander Adams stubbornly decides to stay for a while so they can get down to investigating what happened to the plague victims and whether there was any malpractice involved on the part of Morbius. The scientist is enthusiastic about putting the commander’s mind at rest by showing him and some colleagues around the complex, something that was actually constructed by intellectually superior aliens millennia before. What really concerns the Adams is a device that Morbius demonstrates to them, something that taps into the potential of organic intelligence revealing a power that may be difficult or impossible for mere humans to control. These concerns that all is not right are proven true when their ship is attacked during the night by an unseen presence and they quickly realise that there is a malevolent force at work that none of them fully understand.

Let me show you a thing or two about Earthly lovemaking, dollface...

Possibly not quite as wonderful as its cult reputation might suggest, Forbidden Planet is nevertheless ahead of its time in some respects. The special effects are particularly noteworthy, holding up quite nicely even in today’s era of computer generated images. Landscapes and scenery are striking as well as epic and some of the compositing can be convincing even nowadays; for example, the shots of the monolithic alien structural interiors where several people are walking along a platform are brilliantly executed. The cinemascope visuals are something that fix themselves in the mind with attractive colour schemes and a lovely 2.40:1 aspect ratio, something that almost always suits future-bound science fiction. Another area where the film excels is in its innovative soundtrack. Not really music as such, this is a very surreal electronic score that roots the film firmly in its own unique universe, thereby successfully creating an otherworldly feel that’s still distinctive today. Hardly contemporary in their beliefs the musician’s union of the time complained about the style of the soundtrack and prevented the creators being referred to as composers, hence their credits are listed under ‘electronic tonalities’ - talk about political… Most of the starship crew are cardboard cut-outs really, consisting of far too many background people with non-existent personalities, though even the principle crew members (including pre-spoof Leslie Nielson as Adams) are stereotypes and hard to take seriously nowadays. A particularly funny characteristic is exhibited every time something remotely inexplicable happens when they all suddenly reach for their laser guns - they’re a very jumpy bunch. There’s also some strange morals at work here: Adams gives one of his crew a good ticking off for getting a bit too romantically entangled with Morbius’s youthful and naïve daughter and then proceeds to cop off with her himself! Perhaps the right to mate here is asserted by the acquisition of a position in authority. Probably a contributory factor to the film’s status of commendation is the origin of the ‘creature’ that threatens them, this being highly unusual and a concept that’s not been over-used throughout the years, exploring as it does the tangible manifestation of the id (derived from Freud’s theories). Forbidden Planet tends to err towards emphasis on script and dialogue through much of its running time but this illustrates to me the fact that the technical accomplishments were merely there to embellish a good story rather than taking centre stage as they so often do nowadays. While not as exciting as its reputation suggests it might be (this not being helped by the rather leisurely direction of Wilcox), it’s certainly something with plentiful strengths and a standout fifties science fiction movie.

 

Properly remastered for its anniversary re-release this looks slick on DVD, though it’s softer than modern day flicks this is understandable considering the age. Paying respect to the only way it should be seen, Warner have replicated the correct ratio giving us great CinemaScope images to gaze upon - a must for such a piece. A 5.1 track has been mixed but most of the sound is rooted to the front speakers, the mix simply acting to expand the mono soundstage without betraying the source too much. Extras are very generous with one complete movie - The Invisible Boy, connection here being drawn to the fact that it also featured Robby The Robot. Another Robby fiction piece is included in an episode of The Thin Man. As well as some deleted footage, there are several documentaries looking at science fiction from the fifties, Robby, and the main film itself rounding out a great 2-disc package. The movie was actually mastered in High Definition and stateside we saw a HD-DVD taken from the same source but giving us a jump in picture quality. While I like the film I don’t love it enough to shell out for a high definition version (at least not at the moment) so I opted for good old standard definition, which looks pretty nice even projected onto a large screen. Whether you get the HD-DVD, the super duper HD collector’s set, or just the 2 disc DVD, treatment like this can’t be complained about.

Posted on 15th November 2007
Under: Science Fiction | 1 Comment »

Forbidden World

1982, US, Directed by Allan Holzman

Colour, Running Time: 75 minutes

VHS, PAL, Embassy, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Stereo

Awakened from hyper-sleep by his artificially intelligent robot pilot, interstellar astronaut Mike Colby is diverted (following a brief Star Wars-inspired space battle with some token alien fodder and around 1% of George’s lunch budget) to a barren planet where a group of human scientists have set up bunkers to freely and ‘safely’ conduct experiments in genetic modification. They’ve requested his help to quarantine one of these experiments, where a fused life form is mutating out of control. What they actually fused it with they’re reluctant to say and Colby is hardly willing to comply with their wishes to contain the problem rather than simply destroy it, because in his eyes it is inexplicable and evidently dangerous. His first sight of the creature is in the laboratory where it has placed itself in an incubation unit while it gestates inside a cocoon. It’s not long before one of the overly curious assistants is placing his head right underneath it when he notices that it’s moving and, as sure as pigeons crap on your head, it’s breaking out of its shell and causing a permanent indentation on his face. Next thing the inhabitants know, the blob-like monster is on the loose in the complex and in between bouts of making love to the only two female occupants Colby has a bloody battle on his hands.

Dinner's served!

Crossing Alien with The Thing From Another World (we can’t really accuse it of ripping off John Carpenter’s remake as they were made pretty much simultaneously), this Roger Corman orchestrated sci-fi monster movie is not far from the bottom of the scale when it comes to production values, evident from the dated optical laser effects that are abundantly adorning the screen. Conversely prosthetics are extremely good and gruesome enough to make the squeamish cringe on the odd occasion. The creature in its fully grown form is a little too inanimate to cause much tension and things kind of fall flat at these points, on the other hand acting is competent and dialogue is surprisingly scientifically adequate, almost as if it’s been written by someone who was studying for a Biology A Level and quite convincing in its explanatory passages (delivered courtesy of the obligatory crazy scientist). There’s a bit of sex and nudity to keep the pace going (Colby is one lucky space traveller, let me tell you) and, later on in the movie, one of the primary characters is killed off to surprisingly emotive effect. There are a couple of humorous moments, such as when the two lady scientists are conducting an important strategic alien-capture discussion… while showering butt-naked and kindly washing each other down. Mention must be made of the music too: while it has obviously been produced on a shoestring there are occasions when it contributes to the onscreen action, the love making theme (used a couple of times throughout) being a particularly groovy highlight. This was editor Holzman’s directorial debut and there weren’t many to follow, but it’s not a complete waste of time and offers some enjoyment amidst its inherent limitations.

 

The Embassy video cassette was released in the early days following the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, something which was to spell both doom and delight for film collectors in varying measures - the former obviously because it forced films to have to be re-censored (sorry, ‘classified’) for video, for years causing things to be heavily cut even if they had already been chopped for cinema release, the latter because it later helped create a subculture of people who crept around film fairs looking for odd pre-VRA tapes that had missed the renewed wrath of the BBFC, for example the (genuine) ‘extreme’ version of Zombie Flesh Eaters. The VRA wasn’t good news but most people didn’t notice at the time (apart from the few ridiculously prosecuted under the new rules - muggers get lighter sentences these days), or didn’t care, and of course film censorship is of little concern in this day and age, though I notice New York Ripper has been one of the few flicks in recent times to be snipped by our beloved censors but did anyone really expect otherwise for Lucio’s Giallo/gore semi-classic? Looking at one or two shots in Forbidden World it seems to me like this tape might have been cut but I can find little evidence to support that idea - certainly the visceral stomach operation scene seems like it could be intact and that’s probably the strongest bit of the movie. It was released on good old Laserdisc many aeons ago but on DVD it has arrived only in Germany (as Mutant) to my knowledge, courtesy of Anolis Entertainment. That disc is, like this cassette, fullscreen but there is the rather cool extra of the entire music track accessible separately, a nice bonus considering the music adds quite a lot to the enjoyment of the film.

Posted on 8th November 2007
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Cemetery of the Living Dead

1965, Italy, Directed by Massimo Pupillo

Black & White, Running Time: 86 minutes

Review Source: VHS, PAL, Stablecane; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

After receiving a letter requesting his presence at a country mansion for the validation of a dying man’s will, eminent lawyer Albert Kovac finds himself on a journey to oblige. Nearing his destination he finds local villagers seem to have some sort of superstitious problem with the place but undeterred he continues, unaware that the man he thinks he is going to see - Dr Hauff - is renowned for occult dabbling. The family seems somewhat surprised at his arrival, seemingly having no knowledge that such a letter was written. They identify that all evidence suggests that Hauff himself wrote the letter, but then reveal that the spiritualist actually died in an alleged falling accident almost a year previously. Finding himself in the middle of a macabre mystery Albert is forced to stay the night due to the storm raging outside. Over the following days his investigation reveals that statements were made by five people on the night Hauff died and now one of the residents of the old mansion is predicting that the dead man will return reap havoc in two days time, at which point it will be exactly one year since his demise. Soon the five original witnesses to the death are being murdered one by one - coincidence? Or has Hauff truly returned from his grave for bloody revenge and if so, why?

Darn it! Another dead body.

Made right in the middle of Italy’s classic Gothic period this one is jammed to the brim with genre clichés, whether it be lightning striking every time something scary is about to happen, a hero forced to stay in an old house due to bad weather, the dead returning for revenge, or villagers who refuse to speak of the hero’s destination. The familiarity makes it a little endearing but it does move at a fairly slow pace and can numb the mind into slumber if you’re not careful. The score is overly melodramatic even for the most minor of occurrences, almost as if previously recorded stock music was inappropriately selected. There are a couple of nice ideas to be found in the story, among them the fact that thousands of people were brought to the mansion premises to die some time prior during a plague while the perpetrators of spreading the disease were apparently subjected to hand amputation before being hanged - their hands creepily returning to life along with the rotting contents of the nearby graveyard towards the film’s end. The movie also contains one particularly gruesome death for the period when a wheelchair-bound man commits suicide by rolling himself on to a sword; when his body is later pulled back his guts dribble from the open stomach. What we don’t really get to see is any putrescent walking corpses, these being merely suggested by the occasional visible hand, creaking carts, shadows, sliding tomb doors, etc. I’m undecided as to whether this works in the film’s favour: it could be short-changing the audience due to budgetary constraints or it might be contributing to the ethereal strangeness of it all. Admittedly it does make you want to see more and that may be the point. There are a couple of effectively spooky passages, generally those depicting the return of unseen spiritual forces, accompanied as they are by creaking noises and the like. Acting throughout is typically wooden but there is the appearance of the chiselled beauty of Barbara Steele to consider, here in another role revolving around jealous love, adultery and supernatural murder. The hero, played by Walter Brandi, is unfortunately quite bland leaving the viewer unable to care about any possible threat to him. Very much a conventional (and largely derivative) product of its era, Cinque Tombe Per Un Medium (to quote the Italian title) does not stand out from the crowd especially well but it makes for fairly comfortable viewing for those already at home with this kind of work.

 

An 80s videotape - what I believe to be the only UK release - was used for this review, probably uncut but presenting the movie cropped from what I suspect should be a 1.66:1 ratio - it does the compositions no favours with people regularly clipped off the sides. Sound is here in the form of the English dub and again this does no favours, coming across as very cheesy and awkward. I’d be interested to watch this in its correct ratio with an Italian soundtrack as I suspect there is a slightly better movie under all that ridiculous dubbing, this often deterring from any potency that the material itself might boast. Alas, even in the US it has only made it to budget DVD so it would seem anything reasonable is not immediately forthcoming. Note that the film was also known as Terror Creatures From The Grave in some territories, notably the US.

Posted on 4th November 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

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