Possessor (2020) *****

This Brandon Cronenberg (son of you-know-who) rumination on identity is heavily disguised as a gory and occasionally sexy dystopian thriller. What appears at first glance a homage to giallo – toplining on shock, flesh and blood – soon reveals deeper layers of something more insistently disturbing. Focusing on an identity thief whose victim turns the tables into a who-owns-who, the films asks questions about the nature of identity and the effect of memory loss or memory accrual on individual personality. An early scene, part-debrief/part-interrogation, sees identity mind-robber Andrea Riseborough interviewed by boss Jennifer Jason Leigh to determine her own memory status, picking her way through a box of items carrying emotional connection, but it later becomes clear that Leigh has more sinister concerns: is the Riseborough returned from her latest adventure the same one as was sent out or has she been infiltrated by another?

Riseborough borrows identities in order to perpetrate a series of assassinations for an unseen corporation. Such murders are gorier than her employers would expect, invariably involving sharp implements, and setting the viewer to wonder whether the source for such brutality comes from a deeper part of the woman’s psyche. How much she is who she says she is is also questionable; before turning up on her ex’s doorstep, she rehearses what she wants to say. So there is mental and emotional dislocation at play, though whether that is the result of the experiments she appears to willingly undertake or whether from an existing characteristic is hard to say. So Cronenberg always has us at a disadvantage, and he keeps us that way, one step removed from what is going on, and may have occurred in the past, and only the determined assurance that nothing is going to turn out as it should.

One of the elements that places this picture in the top-notch category is that Cronenberg’s future does not fully work, components appear constantly out of place, as if a gear is always slipping. When Riseborough impersonates a man it is clear she has not quite grasped his full personality. When she possesses the identity of Christopher Abbott, a lowly drone partnering boss’s daughter Tuppence Middleton, he/she appears to be sleepwalking, parts of his personality eluding her, the disconnect so obvious that Middleton continues to ask what’s wrong and Abbott seems to forget that he is having an affair or has a friend at work. Again, it’s not clear whether this is Riseborough’s skillset drifting, or an extreme example of the dangers of identity theft. Instead of this whole concept being a scientific marvel, he/she is always one step behind. (Nothing to do with the plot but the previous butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English actress Middleton has also gone through a screen persona transformation, searching out her inner raunch for hot action with Abbott).

When Abbott begins to imagine inhabiting Riseborough’s face, the ghastly apparition seen on the poster, and in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the story takes a different turn, as if a Terminator is now on her tail.

The world depicted is an invasive one. Riseborough can infect the brain and take over the body, while Abbott’s day-job appears voyeuristic, as if the internet eye had become all-encompassing. To complete the dystopian feel, streets are always deserted and although that may be the result of budget restriction it fits the overall tone, this concrete jungle in sharp contract with murder in marble halls (a cameo by Sean Bean).

Riseborough is at her haunted best, Leigh steely as her boss, Abbott a revelation as the disturbed stolen property. Nod to Jim Williams for a brilliant score. While Cronenberg tags Blade Runner, Brazil, Blue Thunder and Terminator, the movie is an original. With enough drive and mystery to keep the thriller aspects at full tilt and while following in father David Cronenberg’s footsteps in his thirst for gore, the thrust of the picture is quite different, the concept so good it could have gone any number of different ways: the burglar trapped between two identities: the identities at war: or the personalities trying to make up what has been removed. You are left wondering what else could be going on in the world of Cronenberg’s imagination and not so much begging for a sequel but another parallel adventure in this particular universe. When a movie is still preying on your mind several days later, that’s when you know you have uncovered something special.

The Lost Continent (1968) ***

Hammer had struck gold revisiting ancient civilizations in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and with its adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1967). The Lost Continent was another Wheatley number (source novel Uncharted Seas) mixing dangerous voyage, hints of the legendary Atlantis, and monsters. While the first half could have been marketed as The Wages of Fear At Sea the second half would come under the heading  “The Greatest Oddball Film Ever Made.”

It boasts one of the most intriguing setting-the-scene openings not just of a Hammer picture but of any film – a camera pans along a steamship on whose deck are: people dressed in furs, others in modern clothing and – Conquistadors. Attention is focused on a coffin.  How and why they got there is told in flashback. A first half of taut drama, mutiny, sharks, a ferocious octopus, and lost-at-sea a thousand miles from land segues into sci-fi with carnivorous weeds, monsters, and a weird, weird world.

It’s hard to know what’s worse, ship’s captain Eric Porter (straight from television mega-hit The Forsyte Saga) with a cargo of toxic chemicals made combustible when touched by water or the equally combustible passengers all with murky pasts, so determined to escape their previous lives that they refuse to turn back in the face of a hurricane. Heading the Dodgy Half-Dozen is dictator’s mistress Hildegarde Knef  (Catherine of Russia, 1963) with two million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. Nigel Stock (television’s Dr Watson in the 1960s Sherlock Holmes series), a back-street abortionist, is at odds with daughter Suzanna Leigh, who has cornered the market in backless dresses. Tony Beckley (The Penthouse, 1967) plays a conman while Ben Carruthers is trying to recover the pilfered bonds.

But the arrival of cleavage queen Dana Gillespie from the weird world signals a shift to Planet Oddball. The only way to navigate the weeds trapping the ship is with a primitive version of snowshoes with (naturally) balloons attached to the shoulders. Soon they are trapped in the past, not as prehistoric as One Million Years BC, just a few centuries back to the Spanish Conquistador era. The film steals the idea from the Raquel Welch picture of giant creatures locked in battle but without going to the necessity of hiring Ray Harryhausen.

On board ship, director Michael Carreras, fresh from Prehistoric Women (1967), does well, the characters are all solidly presented with decent back stories, the tension mounting as the passengers encounter nautical turbulence, but once he enters weird world budget deficiencies sabotage the picture. Even so, it’s worth a look just to see what you’re missing. If you’re looking for a genuine freak show, this ticks the boxes.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

First Men in the Moon (1964) ***

Christopher Nolan take note – sci-fi works best if the premise (no matter how preposterous) is simple to understand. In this endearing adventure, set in Victorian times, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) has invented a paste that defies gravity. Thus liberated, a spaceship covered in the stuff, for example, would fly to the Moon.

The story begins in present times with a worldwide space mission landing on the moon where the astronauts discover the British have been there first. Investigation on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), the last surviving member of the original endeavour’s three-person crew.

Space pioneers are usually stalwarts, but Bedford is a bit of a con man, an impoverished wannabe playwright, convincing his American fiancé Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) that he owns the cottage he is renting. Continuing with this ploy, he sells the cottage to the madcap inventor before realising the fortune that could be made from investing in Cavorite (the anti-gravity paste) and signing up for the voyage to the Moon.

Jeffries is a delight as the manic inventor, a far cry from the stuffy seriousness of modern movie scientists, and in a very British way sets up some wonderful comedy, obsessed with keeping out the draught, which would affect the temperature of his experiments. He thinks the mission will survive on a diet of sardines. The romance is not quite as old-fashioned as it first appears. Where Hyer is madly in love, Judd is madly in love with making money. Eventually, she goes off in a huff only to return with supplies for the journey – chickens (to provide further comedy), a shotgun and alcohol. Inevitably, accidentally, she joins the mission.

Then we are straight to Ray-Harryhausen-Land. The title offers a clue to proceedings – “in the Moon” rather than “on the Moon” – as the explorers discover intelligent life in the shape of a race of insectoids under the surface of the Moon. The science, based on genuine scientific principles, continues to be simple – the  aliens employ solar power; they live underground because they lacked irises to protect their eyes from the sun; and they hibernate in pods. Maybe the giant centipede has no truth in scientific possibility, but who knows? But the aliens are smart enough to try to replicate the paste and they attempt to communicate. A stand-off naturally ensues though where Jeffries sees the potential for scientific partnership the other pair see danger.

Screenwriter Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass) added Kate Callender to the original  H.G. Wells tale. Director Nathan Juran was an old hand at sci-fi, being responsible for The Deadly Mantis (1957) and Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958). Producer Charles H. Schneer had previously teamed with Harryhausen on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

If you’re desperate for time-travel nonsense and gigantic gunfights and want sci-fi to be a mystery nobody can unravel, give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you fancy a well-crafted story and accept the limitation budgets place on sets and alien creatures, then sit back and watch.

Day of the Triffids (1963)****

Pandemic means pandemonium and these are by far the best scenes in the adaptation of John Wyndham’s famed sci-fi novel. Virtually everyone in the world is struck blind by the fierce  brightness emitted from a bombardment of meteorites.

When passengers on a plane realize their pilot is blind, the panic is breathtaking. Ditto a train crashing into a station. While those with sight intact such as a busload of convicts can terrorize the blind, forcing them to submit to sexual overtures. On top of that are terrific scenes of deserted cities – very familiar to us all during the current pandemic – and of those unable to see trying to walk hands outstretched or attach themselves to anyone still blessed with sight.

One of the standouts is patient Howard Keel, saved from seeing the dazzling light display because his eyes were bandaged, walking through a deserted and trashed hospital. And perhaps Jurassic Park found useful the scene where the plants test an electrified fence.

And on top of that, of course, are the unstoppable monstrous man-eating plants whose growth has been triggered by the comets. Steven Spielberg over a decade later showed how to maintain tension by showing a terrifying predator in small doses and indicating its presence through musical cues and especially, when your monster ain’t quite up to scratch, keeping it hidden for as long as possible.

Interestingly, this film uses sound cues, specific noises attributable to the creatures, though the plants are shown too soon and too often but, in terms of special effects, not at all bad for their time and the low budget. And the sheer normality of the locations works very well – a caretaker having his sandwich, hard-boiled egg and flask of coffee the first victim. Some deft humor undercuts the terror. “Once you’ve tasted this coffee of mine,” remarks a character, ”you’ll know nothing worse can happen.”

Leading the battle against the monsters are sailor Howard Keel, ironically recovering from an eye operation, hotel proprietor Nicole Maurey and in an isolated location alcoholic scientist Kieron Moore and his wife Janette Scott.  Keel and Maurey are initially intent on mere escape, but in the end have to fight.

But once again a film like this shows how much more powerful is imagination. We can imagine being blind and walking in a vacuum with the vulnerability and helplessness that fear  entails. As the present pandemic has shown, the unknown is terrifying and fear of the unknown even worse.