Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

Triple Bill Blues: Fall (2022) ***; The Forgiven (2021) **; Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

You may be aware that I am partial to a triple bill on my weekly Monday trip to the cinema. I’m rather an indiscriminate cinemagoer and generally just see what’s available, though it’s true return trips to view Top Gun: Maverick have helped paper over cracks in the current distribution malaise. Sometimes a triple bill can reveal unsung gems, sometimes I am rowing against the critical tide in my opinions and sometimes, not too often thank goodness, I end up seeing movies with few redeeming qualities. That was the circumstance this week.

FALL

So now I know. If I need to get a mobile phone dropped 2,000 feet without it breaking into pieces, the thing to do is stuff it inside a cadaver. That’s one of the more outlandish suggestions in this climbing picture two-hander that for most of the time is quite gripping.

So as not to have to spend the first anniversary of her husband’s death sozzled in booze and despair, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) agrees to partner YouTube click-hound Hunter (Virginia Gardner) in scaling an extremely high disused radio mast. Becky, a mountaineer, had watched her husband fall to his death, so is pretty iffy about the expedition. When they reach the top they can’t get down again since the ladder they climbed has disintegrated. Although there was mobile phone reception at ground level, there’s none this high up. Hunter has 60,000 followers and reckons if only her phone reached the ground it would automatically activate so they toss it down in a shoe stuffed with a bra.

That doesn’t work nor does firing a flare pistol to alert two guys in a nearby RV – all they are alerted to is the girl’s vehicle which they promptly steal. The girls are trapped without water or drone, both stuck 50ft below on radio dishes. At one point you think this is going to go in an entirely different – murderous – direction after Becky discovers Hunter had an affair with her husband. But they manage to get over that hiccup. Recuing their water and drone results in Hunter being out of action as far as further climbing goes and it’s up to Becky to reach the top of the mast and recharge the drone from the power there, fending off a passing vulture.

There’s definitely one weird bit where it turns out that Hunter, who you imagined was up there all the time supporting a defeatist Becky, is already dead. But, luckily, the corpse provides the cavity in which to bury the mobile phone. I’m not sure much of a human body survives a drop of 2,000 ft, certainly not enough to safeguard a phone, but that’s the way this plays out.

A great mountaineering film is always a welcome find in my book. This isn’t great but it’s certainly passable. And while Becky is more interesting than the gung-ho Hunter, the pair, emotions almost spinning out of control, make a very watchable pair.

Grace Caroline Curry aka Grace Fulton (Shazam!, 2019) does well in her first starring role and Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, 2018) is as convincing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Rampage, 2018) has a small role. A novel take on the mountaineering sub-genre, it’s kudos to director Scott Mann (Heist, 2015) – who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Frank (Final Score, 2018)  that I spent a lot of time wondering just how the hell they managed to make it look so realistic.

THE FORGIVEN

Note to studios, no matter how much you plan to tart up a modern version of Appointment in Samarra – aka a tale of unavoidable fate – you ain’t going to get anywhere if it’s filled with entitled obnoxious characters. The worst of it is this is well-made.

Functioning alcoholic doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) knocks down and kills young Muslim boy Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) while on the way with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to a hedonistic weekend party in Morocco hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). There are hints that Driss was planning to hijack the tourists, but while his death is deemed an accident by the local cops, David agrees to go back with the boy’s father Ismael (Abdellah Taheri) and observe the local funeral rites and possibly pay the father off.

While her husband is away Jo has a one-night stand with serial seducer Tom (Christopher Abbott) while the rest of the party – including Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings) and assorted beautiful men and woman – trade bon mots and make racist and sexist remarks. While the arrogant David changes his perspective and accepts his fate, there is not, himself included, a single likeable person in the whole of the tourist contingent which makes it impossible to care what happens to anybody. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, 2014) it spends all its time trying to make clever points, not realizing the audience has long lost interest.

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

Note to studios, if you’re going to indulge an action director in a vanity project, make sure he hires actors who don’t just drone on. It might also help if the director could decide what story he wants to tell, and not essentially present a voice-over narrative of stuff that happened in the past, no matter how exotic the timescale.

I was astonished to discover there actually is a job called narratologist. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a dried-up old stick of a narratologist who summons up the dullest genie/djinn in movie history known – no names, no pack drill – just as The Djinn  (Idris Elba) who proceeds to bore the audience to death with his stories of how he came to end up in a bottle.  

There’s a bundle of academic nonsense about storytelling, a swathe of tales that sound like rejects from The Arabian Nights, and a lot of unconnected characters. The invention of director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) just isn’t inventive enough and the visuals just aren’t arresting enough. I’m assuming this got greenlit on the basis Miller would turn in a couple more in the Mad Max franchise.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) ****

If this had appeared a couple of years later after Stanley Kubrick had popularised the psychedelic in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and with his budget, it might have been a bigger hit. As it is, the ground-breaking sci-fi adventure, going in the opposite direction from Kubrick, exploring the mysteries of the body rather than the universe, is a riveting watch.  

Before we even get to the science fiction, there’s a stunning opening 15 minutes or so, a thriller tour de force, the attempted assassination of scientist Dr Jan Bedes (Jean Del Val), vital to the development of embryonic new miniaturization technology, baffled C.I.A. agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd) transported to a futuristic building (electronic buggies, photo ID) where he is seconded to a team planning invasive surgery, entering the scientist’s bloodstream and removing a blood clot from his brain. They only have 60 minutes and there’s a saboteur on board.

Heading the mission are claustrophobic circulation specialist Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), brain surgeon Dr Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and lovelorn assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). Backing them are up Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield) who designed the Proteus submarine.  

The high concept is brilliantly delivered with ingenious improvisations, of the kind we have come to expect from the likes of Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian (2015) that save the day. I’ve no idea how accurate the anatomical science was but it sounded very convincing to me. There’s a brilliant sequence when the scientist’s heart is slowed down and the heartbeat is reduced to a low thump but when the heart is reactivated the sub literally jumps.

The bloodstream current proves far stronger than imagined, taking them away from their planned route. After unexpectedly losing air, they need to literally suck air in from the scientist’s body. Swarms of antibodies attack. Claustrophobia and sabotage up the ante, not to mention the anxious team overseeing the operation in the control room, the minutes ticking by.

It’s not a fantastic voyage but a fantastic planet, the visualisation of the human interior – at a time when nobody could call on CGI – is as fascinating as Kubrick’s meditations on outer space. They could have landed on a distant planet judging by what look like rock formations. It’s wondrous. Sometimes the world takes on a psychedelic tone. The special effects rarely fail, the worse that occurs is an occasional flaw in a process shot, and a couple of times the actors have to fall back on the old device of throwing themselves around to make it look like the vessel was rocking.  The craft itself is impressive and all the gloop and jelly seems realistic. There’s a gripping climax, another dash of improvisation.

The only problem is the characters who seem stuck in a cliché, Grant the action man, Duval blending science with God, Michaels the claustrophobic, an occasional clash of personality. But given so much scientific exposition, there’s little time for meaningful dialogue and most of the time the actors do little more than express feelings with reaction shots. Interestingly enough, Raquel Welch (Lady in Cement, 1968) holds her own. In fact, she is often the only one to show depth. When the process begins, she is nervous, and the glances she gives at Duval reveal her feelings for him. It’s one of the few films in which she remains covered up, although possibly it was contractual that she be seen in something tight-fitting, in this case a white jump suit.

If you are going to cast a film with strong screen personalities you couldn’t do worse than the group assembled. Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968), five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy (Nevada Smith, 1966) ), Donald Pleasance (The Great Escape, 1963), Edmond O’Brien (Rio Conchos, 1964) and William Redfield (Duel at Diablo, 1966) aren’t going to let you down.

But the biggest credit goes to Richard Fleischer (The Big Gamble, 1961, which starred Boyd) and his Oscar-winning special effects and art direction teams. While not indulging in wonder in the way of Kubrick, Fleischer allows audiences time to navigate through the previously unseen human body simply by sticking to the story. There are plenty of set pieces and brilliant use of sound. Harry Kleiner (Bullitt, 1968) created the screenplay based on a story by Otto Klement and contrary to myth the only part Isaac Asimov played in the picture was to write the novelization.

A joy from start to finish with none of the artistic pretension of Kubrick. This made a profit on initial release, knocking up $5.5 million in domestic U.S. rentals against a budget of $5.1 million according to Twentieth century Fox expert Aubrey Solomon and would have made probably the same again overseas plus television sale.

The Lost World (1960) ***

A pair of pink knee-length boots, courtesy of adventuress Jennifer (Jill St John), are among the wondrous sights awaiting our band of intrepid explorers. She’s not the only curiosity, Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) is certainly the most obstreperous of archaeologists, aristocrat Hoxton (Michael Rennie) must have a screw loose to keep on resisting the charms of Jennifer, while Gomez (Fernando Lamas) brings along his guitar to (literally) strike a chord at appropriate moments. But it’s a fun ride – cannibals, volcano, giant phosphorescent spiders, carnivorous plants, and dinosaurs.

There are secrets, too. Hoxton has been here – a lost plateau in the middle of the Amazon – before and abandoned an earlier exploration in favour of hunting for the mythical diamonds of El Dorado, Gomez wants to kill Hoxton, Jennifer plans to hook a duke, and Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn) wants more than anything else to prove Challenger wrong.

A bit of poetic licence here by the illustrator, Jill St John’s pants staying intact throughout.

And of course, in the way of dinosaur pictures, having battled to find the damned creatures, intrepidity goes out the window and the explorers spend all their time running away from the dinosaurs, seeking a hidden way down from the plateau, while being hunted by cannibals. Any time you see a ledge you know there’s something terrible above – battling monsters with long tails capable of swishing you downwards – or below, not just a sea of lava but a giant sea beast. The only element that’s missing is the booby-traps. Unfortunately, all the spunk goes out of the otherwise spunky Jennifer when faced with monsters and she turns into the quivering screaming cliché.

But the script is on point, feelings indicated by action rather than dialogue. Having learned of Hoxton’s past, Jennifer spurns him by refusing a cigarette and a moment later taking one of her own, Gomez sneaks glances at a mysterious locket. With so much action there’s little time for romance so mainly by looks and the occasional rescue sparks fly between Jennifer and newspaperman Ed (David Hedison) and between Jennifer’s brother David (Ray Stricklyn) and the native girl (Vitina Marcus). And to alleviate the drab scenery there’s always Jennifer in a new bright outfit and, for comic effect, her poodle.

Given that writer-producer-director Irwin Allen (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 1961) was unable to hire the likes of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) for the special effects or even find the budget to utilize the drawings of Willis O’Brien (King Kong, 1933) who had been responsible for the stop-motion techniques in the original silent version of The Lost World (1925), the monsters come across on the small screen as acceptable enough. The infusion of sub-plots keeps the project ticking along.

Allen made significant changes to the original – introducing the diamonds, making Challenger rather than following in the footsteps of a previous explorer having previously visited the plateau but lost his proof, swapping the heroine’s pet monkey for a pet poodle, turning the heroine into a gold-digger, substituting as plateau inhabitants natives for ape men, and adding the heroine’s wardrobe. The spicing up of the story helps divert the tale in certain places from the dinosaurs, so the tension is not just waiting for the next attack.

Oddly enough, the film strikes a very contemporary note with regards to the current contentious issue of invasion of privacy. Challenger hits out at pestering journalists for what he views as the invasion of his privacy. Later on he says, “invasion of privacy gives man the right to kill,” but that bold statement relates to the explorers breaching the lost sanctuary, “we are the invaders.”  

It’s still pretty enjoyable stuff especially allowing for the budget limitations. None of the actors is called upon to do much, which is what you would expect, although Claude Rains is a surprise and Jill St John a delight. Michael Rennie  (Hotel, 1967), primarily there for his stiff-upper-lip, is provided with a neat reversal, the supposed hero with feet of clay. Claude Rains (Casablanca, 1942) is the standout as the feisty bombastic professor not above battering annoying newspapermen with his umbrella.

In an early role, Jill St John (The Liquidator, 1965) provides not just sultry evidence of her physical charms, but carries a terrific almost playful screen presence, though she’s better as the tough gal in a man’s world of the earlier section of the movie than the damsel in distress of the last part. Former Latin movie heartthrob Fernando Lamas (100 Rifles, 1969) is the only other one with a decent part, participating in the expedition to find his lost brother. Vitina Marcus (Taras Bulba, 1963) has a small but pivotal role. David Hedison (Live and Let Die, 1973) and Ray Stricklyn (Track of Thunder, 1967) are outshone by their respective amours. Jay Costa (Escape from Zahrain, 1962) is a pantomime villain.

Charles Bennett (City in the Sea, 1965) helped Irwin Allen flesh out the screenplay.

Sumuru, Queen of Femina / The Girl from Rio / Mothers of America (1969) ***

Cult fans assemble. Sci fi crime thriller with for the time a fair sprinkling of nudity, and channelling psychedelic turns like Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1968) and one step up from the ultra-confident gals of Deadlier than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do  (1969). It would have helped if there was a decent plot, and not just a barrage of double-crossing halfway in, but you can’t have everything and director Jess Franco seems to believe that the presence of a tribe of women decked out in red capes, white knee-length boots and not necessarily much in between, goes some way to compensate.

Crook Jeff Sutton (Richard Stapley) holes up in Rio with $10 million in stolen cash, unaware that his presence has already been noted by gang boss Masius (George Sanders) and local ultra-feminist Sununda (Shirley Eaton). After hooking up with manicurist Lesley (Maria Rohm), Sutton is set upon by Masius’ henchmen but escapes in a plane to Femina, “the capital city of the world of women,” a female fortress along the lines of the Bulldog Drummond pictures.

Turns out Sununda is partial to men with piles of cash, kidnapping and torturing them until they hand it over. So she can’t believe her luck when millionaire Jeff walks into her lair. Except Jeff is a bit of a fibber, having made up the story about the ten million, and instead landing at Femina in order to rescue Ulla (Marta Reves).

The plot only really kicks in when he escapes. Masius agrees to help Jeff in return for the pretend-thief helping him hijack Sununda’s vault of gold. In reality, Masius is using Jeff as bait, to tempt Sununda down from the clouds, and then turn him over in exchange for just half her gold. And so it’s back to Femina for all concerned.

There’s no real pretence at the kind of sci-fi that enthralled Barbarella audiences and none of the slick campness of Danger:Diabolik, and most of the ideas seem still-born and occasionally contradictory – in order to enslave men women must first be taught how to be irresistible to them – torture is accomplished either by whispering or kissing, and the ray-guns employed looked like cast-offs from the 1950s, but the regiment of women, with spies infiltrating everywhere, led by the ruthless Sununda, have the makings of a warrior nation.

The movie has far better luck with Masius, a splendidly-drawn character who doodles on restaurant tablecloths, enjoys reading Popeye comic books, and – a bit of drawback for a man in his profession – can’t stand the sight of blood. While his sidekicks are mostly incompetent, they do drive around in hearses that resemble pagodas or dress in unnecessary masks and while his girlfriends appear docile they are in fact spies. And there’s a spot of waterboarding in case you ever wondered where the American secret services got the idea.

The source material was from Sax Rohmer but Sununda lacks the inherent obvious evil of the author’s more successful Fu Manchu series, Shirley Eaton no match for Christopher Lee, the most recent Fu Manchu, nor Richard Shapley on a par with Fu Manchu nemesis Nayland Smith, regardless of whether played by Nigel Green (The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965),  Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) or Richard Greene (The Blood of Fu Manchu, 1968, and The Castle of Fu Manchu, 1969).

And anyone attracted to the picture by director Jess (Jesus) Franco is going to be disappointed by the lack of sleaziness he exhibited in pictures like Succubus (1968), 99 Women (1969) and  Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) and there’s not enough style, though abundant campness, to make up.  It’s hard to say quite why it did not have a harder edge, perhaps producer Harry Alan Towers, responsible for 99 Women, felt it should err in the softer direction of Fu Manchu than the overt sex-and-violence of the nascent women-in-prison genre.  

Franco and Towers (24 Hours to Kill, 1965, and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) had collaborated on The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu as well as Venus in Furs (1969) and Marquis De Sade’s Justine so presumably knew how far they could go and decided that here it was better to rein in Franco’s tendencies. Whether a tougher-edged approach would have made much of a difference given the indifferent playing – neither Shirley Eaton (The Scorpio Letters, 1967)  nor Richard Stapley (Two Guns and a Coward, 1968) bring much to the leading roles and George Sanders (Warning Shot, 1967) is not in it enough to save it. Maria Rohm, Franco’s wife, appeared in many of his films.  

Towers appeared on surer ground in the likes of 24 Hours to Kill (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) and Five Golden Dragons (1967) when he could draw on a more interesting cast, better stories and more colourful locations. This was a sequel to The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) again with Shirley Eaton and plum role for Klaus kinski.

Despite the film’s potential, the director and George Sanders it does not fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category nor has enough going for it to be labelled a true cult film. But I could be wrong in both those assumptions.

A Tale of Two Duds – The Northman (2022) ** / Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hamlet goes Viking is basically as much of a story as “visionary director” Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015) can be bothered with. Yes, there some Viking lore and for all I know this has been exceptionally well-researched but what it amounts to is the same kind of gobbledy-gook that makes no more sense than your average horror picture, with a ton of underdeveloped occult elements. Once our hero is freed from being hung from the rafters by crows beckoned, I presume, by some unexplained mystical power, pecking at the rope – and with a sword handily discarded in the vicinity – I was even more convinced this was a load of old cobblers.

So, basically a revenge saga. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) – pronounced Amlet for punters too stupid to get it – manages to escape when his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders his brother King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Vowing revenge, he is next seen “years later” as part of a raiding party slaughtering a village. He discovers that his uncle has been dethroned by a bigger king and sent into exile in Iceland. So he hauls himself off there, pretending to be part of a chain gang. He has every opportunity in the world to kill his uncle – and save his mother (Nicole Kidman) who has been carried off – but there is always a really dumb reason why he can’t.

Revenge delay seems a pretty odd way of stringing out a movie. Of course, when he gets round to saving his mother it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved and – a la Hamlet – was in on the plan to kill her husband. He falls in love with fellow prisoner Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who spouts a lot of witch-type stuff that is no less convincing than any of the other spiritual malarkey.

There’s a lot of bloody violence, but the sexual violence is kept to a minimum on screen though Olga has clearly been abused by Fjolnir. And there’s a game that seems close to the Irish game of hurling and whole bunch of oddities thrown in there wholesale as if such a joblot will add depth to the movie. A misconceived art picture that looks more like a top-of-the-range direct-to-DVD movie that might have cost around $40 million rather than the $90 million quoted.  

There’s a smorgasbord of dodgy accents and everybody speaks in stilted English, not far short of the “thee” and “thou” dialogue that critics used to make fun of. Alexander Skarsgard (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) and Claes Bang (Locked Down, 2021) look rugged enough but neither has the screen presence of Schwarzenegger or even Stallone and it ends up Conan-lite. Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho, 2021) looks as if she wondered how she managed to get talked into this. Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos, 2021) who has a plum scene towards the end offers the only acting of any distinction.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore

I kid you not, this is about an election. Yep, someone’s greenlit a $200 million fantasy picture about an election. Whatever delightful element the original entry to this series possessed has been destroyed not just by a preposterous storyline – this is for kids, remember – but a very somber tone. Everyone talks in a low voice, it is very darkly lit and there are those awful meaningful pauses.

The story they pretend is about to occur never happens. Something about “counter-sight” if I got that bit correct and how our heroes had to act together to “confuse” the bad guy because he could see into the future. There’s never any sign of him seeing in the future and most of the confusion arises because there are just way many characters.  With a piece of Hollywood wizardry Grindelwald has completely changed his appearance, no longer Johnny Depp but Mads Mikkelson. You will be aware of the reason for this but Mads has taken on an impossible task. There already was an over-large contingent of players – Newt Scamanger (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his brother Abeforth (Richard Coyle), Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and assorted characters who have a romantic interest in the principals.

But basically – hold your breath – Grindelwald is trying to crash an election party. Two candidates are already in contention to be, I presume, Chief Wizard. He kidnaps something that might be called a “chillin” – a mythical creature that looks like a gryphon – which like the wands in Harry Potter has a way of choosing the best person for the job. There’s very little CGI for a fantasy picture. One monster, a bunch of dancing lobsters (maybe scorpions, I couldn’t work it out) and the usual contents of Newt’s suitcase is just about it. The wands are now used more like light sabers or pistols. You won’t be surprised to learn there’s not much in the secrets department either.

There’s not enough Newt and he’s not as delightful as he once was and there’s far too much of boring electioneering, huge crowds gathered for rallies in favor of their candidates. This one cost $200 million and I have no idea what that was spent on. Certainly not the script. A franchise-killer if ever I saw one.

The Power (1968) ***

Low budget sci-fi effort that had little chance in the box office stakes that year up against the big budget psychedelic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the visceral Planet of the Apes. Producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin, the key figures behind War of the Worlds (1953), would later become among the most exalted in the sci-fi genre, but the cult of the 1950s sci-fi movies did not exist yet. Yet if made today, we would be treating this as an origin story with a sequel already in the works and creation of its own universe on the cards.

As the budget can only accommodate a few explosions and a derisory number of tiny special effects, emphasis is placed on imagination as the source of tension. The uncanny remaining unexplained helps ensure mystery remains character-driven. Wisely, the film makers steer clear of providing any detail on the strange force.

It begins with the neat title “Tomorrow.” As part of a planned space program, a team of scientists  experimenting on the limits of human endurance discover that one of them has unusual powers. As a group they are able to make revolve a piece of paper attached to a vertical pencil without establishing who is the driving force. When Professor Hallson (Arthur O’Connell) is found dead in a centrifuge, the only clue being a scrap of paper with the name Adam Hart, suspicion falls on the other members. Professor Tanner (George Hamilton) is dismissed when the investigation discovers his credentials are fraudulent.   

Seeking to prove his innocence, Tanner goes on the run before establishing that the main suspects are the mysterious Adam Hart and three of the original team – military chief Nordlund (Michael Rennie), Professor Scott (Earl Holliman) and Tanner’s girlfriend Professor Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette). But he is mostly baffled by the goings-on which include being dumped in an air force target range. He could be the culprit but again so many odd occurrences take place when others are present that it would be hard to pin the blame on Tanner. As the corpses begin to pile up, the list of potential suspects naturally decreases.

A toy winks at Tanner, walls appear were there were none before, a man is convinced Tanner is someone else (not Hart), a high-flying professor’s wife lives in a trailer, characters collapse under psychic assault, a young woman trying to seduce an old man discovers she is kissing a corpse, the imagery appears inspired by Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch,  and you could easily argue that Tanner’s academic records have been deliberately erased. On the more prosaic side, the cops are next to useless, there’s a car chase and a sequence in a lift shaft, but the bulging eyeballs suggested in the posters are a marketeer’s invention. There’s even a clever joke, Tanner  misreading a newspaper headline “Don’t Run” as being a message to him.

The oddities are sufficiently off-beam to appear as figments of the imagination and it certainly seems Tanner suffers from hallucinations.  And there are some deliciously off-key characters, an old woman obsessed with fly-swatting, a sultry waitress. If Hart is the superhuman then experiments may have taken place long before now. In his hometown, people still act on instructions Hart handed out a decade before and accomplices are in place such as Professor Van Zandt (Richard Carlson).

Adding to the mood are philosophic discussions about the existence (as already a fait accompli) of a superhuman: some want to clone him, others would happily submit to him.

Byron Haskin (also Conquest of Space, 1955) and George Pal (also The Time Machine, 1960) have marshalled their puny resources with exceptional skill, down to hiring as leading man George Hamilton (Your Cheatin’ Heart, 1964), so far from being a big star at the time that audiences would not automatically assume he had to be the good guy, and peopling the production with names from 1950s sci-fi like Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) and Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954).

George Hamilton, in the days before the perma-tan became his calling card, is surprisingly good and the supporting cast does what a good supporting cast should do. Susanne Pleshette (Nevada Smith, 1966) convinces as the lover who could be the cool killer. Also look out for 1940s glamour puss Yvonne De Carlo and a staple of The Munsters television series (1964-1966), Aldo Ray (Johnny Nobody, 1960) and Miko Taka (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966).

Perhaps the biggest coup was the recruitment of triple Oscar-winner Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur, 1959) who provided a memorable score.

In most sci-fi films, the danger is readily identified. Here, you might hazard a guess but whenever you come close some clever sleight-of-hand misdirects. For most of the time I was happily intrigued, enough coming out of left field to provide distraction. This is a masterclass is how extract the most from very little.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) ****

The special effects are in the five-star range while the movie into which they fit is really worth no more than three stars so I’ve compromised, hence the four-star rating. Actually, the story and characters are interesting enough, and there are some stunning cowboy stunts,  though where is a fur-lined bikini when you need one. Although we are treated to prehistoric monsters, humans fail to have managed the transition to the hidden valley where the creatures have kept out of sight for millions of years. Instead, we are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico.

However, one specimen, a miniature horse, known as El Diablo, has been found and now resides in a rodeo, property of T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) whose showstopping turn involves leaping on horseback from a high platform through a ring of fire into a pool of water.  Ex-flame and sleek salesman Tuck (James Franciscus) and archaeologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) follow gypsies who aim to return the horse to the Forbidden Valley. T.J. and a band of cowboys are in pursuit.

I saw this double bill in 1969 when it was shown on the ABC circuit in Britain.

Widening a tiny gap into the unknown world also of course means it’s not big enough for the monsters to escape. The valley is ruled by Gwangi, an Allosaurus, which to most of the audience looks remarkably like a T. Rex. Various battles ensure. A Pteranadon swoops down from the sky and captures one of the cowboys but is killed by Carlos (Gustavo Rojo). Gwangi fights an Ornithomimus and a Styracosaurus. Even if your knowledge of prehistoric monsters  isn’t up to identifying each creature, no matter, the fights are very well done, and a step up in terms of special effects from similar tussles in Harryhausen’s previous venture in One Million Years B.C. (1966) especially as we are less distracted by females attired in fur bikinis.

Naturally, the intent is to capture Gwangi and put him on show a la King Kong (1933) and it’s equally obvious how this particular maneuver is going to work out. That the story follows this particular angle is down to the fact that the movie was the original idea of Willis O’Brien, the special effects genius to created King Kong. After considerable development, RKO shelved the project on the assumption the public was not interested in dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, back in the human tale, the previously principled T.J. lets greed get the better of her and begins resisting Tuck’s overtures. Even if you can guess the finale, it is pretty well done.

Ray Harryhausen only had a limited fanbase in the 1960s, otherwise this picture would not have done the rounds as the supporting feature to Robert Mitchum western The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969). You can tell it lacked the budget of One Million Years B.C. because the creatures fail to remain a consistent color. Even so, this ranks as one of the top special effects achievements and these days Harryhausen’s work is much more appreciated.

Unless you are Raquel Welch, it’s difficult for an actor to compete with prehistoric monsters. At least here, the stars had decent dialogue and the tangled romance provides entertainment as do the host of stunning stunts in the rodeo and a bull running amok. Charlton Heston look-alike James Franciscus (Youngblood Hawke, 1964) is a plausible love interest who doesn’t let romance get in the way of a fast buck. The role of Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, 1966) extends to more than eye candy and there’s not a bikini in sight or disrobing of any sort. Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954) was a sci-fi veteran and Laurence Naismith had appeared in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). British actress Freda Jackson (The Third Secret, 1964) plays a witch.

Director Jim O’Connolly (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) keeps the human elements rolling along and once monsters join in the fun there’s scarcely time to draw breath. William Bast (Hammerhead, 1968) pulled together the human and monster elements for the screenplay.

Harryhausen fans will have a ball.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) *****

An absolute delight, great storytelling married to groundbreaking special effects produces an adventure picture of the highest order. Though mostly known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, its success also relied heavily on the direction of Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) and a great script. It’s one of the few films to benefit from not being viewed in its original size, the small screen minimizing the flaws of the special effects. In essence it’s a combination of three genres – the Italian peplum, the men-on-a-mission picture and the classic detective story. it was originally entitled Jason and the Golden Fleece (see below).

Plus there are interesting stabs at philosophy – if man refuses to believe in the gods do they cease to exist? And if the golden fleece brings peace and prosperity to a nation what will happen to that country when it is stolen?  And if various people can call on their own gods for help will that not create conflict in heaven as much as on earth? And the ultimately question – what can man achieve without celestial interference?

While the episodic structure derives from the clues meted out piecemeal to hero Jason (Todd Armstrong) during his long voyage to find the golden fleece these often come minus vital pieces of information ensuring that surprise remains a key element.

Without doubt the special effects are the triumph, although some work better than others. The highlights for me were the towering bronze statue of Talos and the skeleton warriors. I can’t be the only one who thinks that some of the visuals in Game of Thrones were inspired by the sight of Talos astride two land masses separated by the sea. Talos is not so much a man-mountain as an actual mountain, first viewed coming round the corner of a cliff top, his head topping it. But where, except for cunning Jason, the crewmen are viewed primarily in miniature in relation to the giant Talos, the skeletons are the same size as the adventurers and that fight scene all the more impressive as the ensuing battle appears completely real.

Scale allows Harryhausen to wriggle out of the problems of contact. If the creatures are out of reach anyway, there’s little need to attempt to bring them into close proximity. The way the Harpies are utilised, close enough to strip clothes from a blind man but otherwise hovering just out of reach, is a classic example of clever direction. The multi-headed Hydra, on the other hand, is the least convincing monster simply because it is impossible for Jason to get close to the beast. Scale is also one of the film’s best weapons. The scenes where a miniaturized Jason is transported to Mount Olympus to face the gods are well done as are the occasions when the gods peer down on tiny man.

Outside of the special effects and the varying degrees of excitement aroused, in the background is constant intrigue. Jason is the son of the King of Thessaly slain by the usurper Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) and his crew includes Acastus (Gary Raymond), son of Pelias, whose task is to cause trouble and if Jason succeeds in his endeavor to kill him. On top of that, there is a heavenly battle over Jason’s fate. Jason, having defied Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) by first of all refusing to believe he exists and that his life is determined by fate, becomes enmeshed in a battle between the king of the gods and his wife Hera (Honor Blackman) who grants Jason a get-out-jail-free card, the ability to call on her help, but only five times.

Jason determines to recruit his own team and in the manner of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Professionals (1966) they are all experts in their fields but unlike that film and The Dirty Dozen (1967) are willing conscripts. The team also includes Hercules (Nigel Green) and Hylas (John Cairney) and in the first of the film’s many surprises and reversals, the weedy latter is able to beat the muscular former in a contest of strength.

There is enough incident to keep the story ticking along but Don Chaffey fills in the blanks with montage, the various essentials of a ship – sails, oarsmen, sides, stern, figurehead, pace set by drumbeat  – and a full color palette from the bright blue sky, from dawn and dusk to sunset and night, a wonderful image of rowers at sunset on the sea the pick. He also makes great use of the sea – pounding surf, storms, the sea turned tempest by the clashing rocks, a shipwreck. And we have dancing girls, colorful costumes, ancient backdrops and the sense that the budget has been well spent

Some scenes call for immense skills in coupling special effects with real characters. For the clashing rocks sequence five elements are simultaneously in play: the crew in danger, a tempest, rocks crashing into the water, the ship itself and Neptune.

And the romance is well handled dramatically: if Jason rescues Medea (Nancy Kovack) then she too rescues him. Love produces conflict. To love Jason, Medea must betray her country. There is hardly a moment when Jason, confronted either by monsters or kings, does not face death.  

In addition, there is a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, 1960).

Any top-notch acting would have been overshadowed in any case by the special effects. Which is just as well because the entire cast is drawn from the lower strata of the stardom ladder. Todd Armstrong, from the Manhunt tv series (1961), needs only not to mess up, which he manages adequately. Nancy Kovack (Diary of a Madman, 1963) does well to make an impact given she does not appear until the final third. This did not turn out to be much of a star-making vehicle for either. Honor Blackman drops the slinky persona with which she had made her name in The Avengers tv series (1962-1964) and instead plays a confident goddess willing to out-maneuver husband Zeus.

The rest of the cast comprises a regiment of future movie supporting actors – Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), Niall MacGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966). Future television stars ranged from Patrick Troughton (the second Dr Who) and Scottish actor John Cairney (This Man Craig, 1966-1967) to Laurence Naismith (The Persuaders, 1971), Gary Raymond (The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968), Mike Gwynn (Poison Island, 1965) and Andrew Faulds (The Protectors, 1964).

The screenplay was written by Jan Read (First Men on the Moon, 1964) and Beverley Cross (The Long Ships, 1964), husband of Maggie Smith. Cross returned to ancient worlds again for producer Charles H. Schneer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981)

Although the ending appeared to leave the door open for a sequel, none was made. A huge box office hit in Britain, it did not repeat its success elsewhere.

I first saw this film as a boy and was so enthralled I wouldn’t have noticed if there was anything awry with the special effects. I have not seen it since. Coming at it with some degree of scepticism I found that attitude misplaced for I was equally enthralled.

Catch-Up: Nigel Green’s portrayal of Hercules was a far cry from his normal screen persona of martinet. His movies previously reviewed in the Blog are The Skull (1965), Khartoum (1966), Tobruk (1967) and Africa Texas Style (1967).

Hercules and the Captive Women / Hercules Conquers Atlantis (1961) ***

Something of a cult in the peplum vein in which Hercules (Reg Park), wanting to enjoy domestic life with his wife and son, is instead drugged by Androcles, King of Thebes (Ettore Manni), and spirited away by ship to Atlantis whose Queen Antinea (Fay Spain) is intent on global domination and the resurrection of the dethroned god Uranus to his rightful place in the heavens.

This isn’t your normal Hercules, not that keen on demonstrating his physical prowess, preferring to sleep or lie around. It’s not your normal ship either. Androcles, unable to persuade his Senate to properly fund the expedition, has crewed his vessel with renegades who are inclined to abandon Hercules on the nearest island  And unbeknownst to Hercules, his son has come along for the ride.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan and Hercules is soon shipwrecked on an island where he finds Ismene (Laura Efrikian) imprisoned in rock as a sacrifice to the gods. Rescue never being simple, Hercules has to first withstand fire then tackle in quick succession snake, lion, eagle and a giant lizard. Ismene turns out to be Antinea’s daughter and the Queen, rather than being delighted at her return, is appalled, for, according to the way the ancient world works with all its prophecies and religious ritual, the girl must be sacrificed to prevent the destruction of Atlantis.

Nor is Atlantis your usual kingdom. Even setting aside the peculiarities that mark the Greek world, this is a place where abnormality rules. Hercules finds Androcles, whom he believed died in the shipwreck, but it turns out to be a vision, or some kind of shape-shifting being. The Queen believes she can subjugate nature and has a tendency to throw those who disappoint her into an acid bath. There is a fiery rock that controls life and death.

Like most of the peplum output, you have to accept a standard of production lower than the Hollywood norm, and the terrifying beasts sent to test the hero are not at all convincing, but on the plus side are feats of imagination that mainstream American studios would never conjure up, unless it was something that fitted into the swashbuckling genre. You pretty much have to go with the flow and accept what is offered in terms of narrative oddity. Bear in mind, too, that there is no one dressed in as skimpy or revealing a costume as suggested by the poster.

You also need to be get hold of a good copy. Several versions are available, some for free, where the colors are so washed out you can hardly determine what is going on never mind enjoy the costumes, creatures and sets as intended. This was filmed in Technirama 70, shot in 35mm but blown up to70mm widescreen for exhibition, so should generally be of a high technical standard – this was the process used by Spartacus (1960).

It’s not a film to fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category, but of course imagination too often exceeds budget which renders the filmmaking somewhat random at times and like the bulk of the peplums acting skill is not at a premium. As you might expect, the British-born Reg Park was a bodybuilder first – three times winner of the Mr Universe title – and an actor second. He played Hercules another three times and Maciste once but outside this narrow comfort zone made no other films. But he was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inspiration, so that was probably enough.

American Fay Spain (The Private Life of Adam and Eve, 1960) never got  beyond bit parts as a B-movie bad girl and television, although she was seen in The Godfather: Part II (1974). Italian Laura Efrikina made her debut here and you would later spot her as Dora in the Italian television mini-series David Copperfield (1966).

Director Vittorio Cottafavi was steeped in peplum, from The Warrior and the Slave Girl (1958) to Amazons of Rome (1961) but although he worked consistently in television made only one other piocture, 100 Horsemen (1964).

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