Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Lost World (1960)

The suffering artist is such a cliche that we often forget that it's because there are a lot of suffering artists out there. Unfortunately, Willis O'Brien can be counted among their number. A pioneer of visual effects, O'Brien is usually credited with, if not outright inventing it, then certainly turning stop-motion animation into a viable special effects technique. Without Willis O'Brien we would not associate the Empire State Building with a giant gorilla swatting at bi-planes. Yet the film that arguably put O'Brien on the map was 1925's The Lost World, the first film adaptation of Sir Athur Conan Doyle's novel.

O'Brien's technique was still a bit jerky and not as smooth as it would later become, but there is nothing quite like watching his ferocious Allosaurus confront a sneering Brontosaurus. Said sneer would later be displayed by another Brontosaurus of O'Brien's just eight years later when he completed his masterpiece, King Kong.

And then it all went to shit.

Almost none of O'Brien's other projects that he wanted to complete could get off the ground, but O'Brien found himself attached to a rushed sequel, Son of Kong, that he wanted nothing to do with and left much of the animation to his assistants. At this time O'Brien's ex-wife, who was dying of cancer and tuberculosis, shot and killed their two sons before turning the gun on herself. In a truly cruel bit of irony, the bullet drained her lung and actually prolonged her life by another year. It was shortly after this tragedy that the best-known publicity photo of O'Brien was taken.

It's no wonder he looks so miserable.
O'Brien had some scattered successes afterwards, but only Mighty Joe Young came close to the success of King Kong. So it is not surprising that O'Brien would turn to his earlier successes to attempt to find a return to glory. Fate and the whims of cheap Hollywood producers would conspire deny him that glory.

King Kong vs. Frankenstein, a proposal that would see Kong facing down another giant beast formed of African animals (though its concept art would just suggest a resurrected giant ape, similar to Kong), would instead be sold to Toho studios to become King Kong vs. Godzilla. About the only link to O'Brien in the film is a momentary bit of stop-motion when Godzilla kicks Kong square in the chest. Yet far more insulting is today's entry, Irwin Allen's The Lost World. O'Brien had envisioned overseeing the effects for a lush, Technicolor and Cinemascope remake of his 1925 silent film. Instead he got a tiny technical advisor credit and some jackasses glued stuff on lizards.

(Perhaps it is for the best that O'Brien did not live long enough to see Hammer studios take the inverse route when remaking One Million B.C. The original film was famous for its lizards playing dinosaurs footage being reused in virtually any cheapo sci-fi flick that couldn't afford its own dinosaur effects--and couldn't afford to pilfer footage from good movies. The remake is equally as famous for hiring O'Brien's protege, Ray Harryhausen, to do its effects and putting Raquel Welch in a fur bikini)

Now that you're adequately depressed, onto the film! We begin in a modern setting--which is a huge mistake, as a Victorian adaptation would almost make the lizards in costume approach charming rather than cheap--as Professor Edward Challenger (Claude Rains!) disembarks from a plane to be swarmed by reporters. Challenger is returning from the Amazon and he claims to have a discovery that will shake modern zoology to its core. The media is used to Challenger's penchant for exaggeration, and they're also equally aware of his temper. Yet Edward Malone (David Hedison!) still chooses to antagonize Challenger about his confrontation with another reporter. He gets an umbrella to the skull and a tumble down the mobile stairs for his insolence and is accosted by Frosty the poodle. On the upside, he makes the acquaintance of Frosty's owner, Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John!), who appears to also be on her way to the press conference Challenger is holding.

Presiding over the press conference is a professional rival of Challenger's, Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn), who is already skeptical of whatever Challenger is about to reveal. As Summerlee is setting up Challenger, Jennifer introduces Malone to Lord Roxton (Michael Rennie!), a famous big game hunter and explorer who clearly has a history with Jennifer. Challenger wastes very little time in announcing to the crowd that at the headwaters of the Amazon, atop a mysterious plateau, Challenger spotted live dinosaurs! Of course, he has no proof of this but he expects his word is enough to secure funding for a return expedition for Challenger, Summerlee, and two volunteers.

Roxton volunteers and so does Jennifer, but naturally Challenger does not take Roxton's word that Jennifer is as capable as any man (and this being a film from 1960, she isn't) because he wants no women along. Malone makes a snide comment and Jennifer angrily tells him to volunteer, which he does. Challenger likes the idea of a reporter even less than a woman--until Malone's employer (Jennifer's father) agrees to put forward $100,000 towards the expedition if Malone goes along. And so we are off.

At an outpost in the Amazon, we meet our horrible ethnic stereotype characters: the shifty helicopter pilot, Gomez (Fernando Lamas), and the greedy, cowardly,  brown-noser, Costa (Jay Novello). They alsio discover Jennifer has beat them there and brought along her even more useless kid brother, David (Ray Stricklyn), and Frosty the poodle. Challenger's horrified reaction is supposed to be hilarious, but it's the most sensible one. After some character scenes--Jennifer wants to marry Roxton, Roxton doesn't want to marry anyone, Jennifer suddenly hates Malone, none of this involves dinosaurs--we finally head off to the plateau by helicopter. Somehow, despite the plateau not being all that large and it being daylight, no dinosaurs are spotted from the air.

At night, the explorers make camp but suddenly hear a dinosaur approaching. We get our first glimpses of said "dinosaur" here, although the characters don't. Quick, if you had a camp near a cliff's edge, with a helicopter, lots of equipment, a roaring fire, and guns and you heard a large animal approaching, what would you do? If you said, "Well, I sure as Hell wouldn't flee into the jungle, in the dark, so I could almost be killed by carnivorous vines and allow a monitor lizard with a frill on its head to push my helicopter over the cliff," then you're smarter than our heroes. Also, at this point Challenger identifies the dinosaur--by sound alone, mind you--as a Brontosaurus.

A Brontosaurus. Clearly.
Well and truly, boned, our heroes head further into the interior of the plateau, where they finally encounter a dinosaur. It's a Rhinoceros iguana with extra horns glued to its head, so it could be an Iguanodon or a Triceratops for all I know. They also encounter a clearly human woman (Vitina Marcus) and Malone gives chase, whereupon he encounters a Big Damn Spider and promptly shoots it dead. (No doubt in revenge for the ending of The Fly) The girl is eventually captured and David begins making goo-goo eyes at her.

Of course, if there's one native girl, there are probably other natives--and they aren't likely to be very friendly. Add to that the fact that they have no means of escape, they find a notebook from another doomed expedition (sent by Roxton, it turns out), Gomez definitely has a secret agenda, and, oh yeah, the dinosaurs all around; things don't look very good for our heroes. Or the audience, really.

The remaining running time only barely delivers on its promise of dinosaurs and when it does, you wish it hadn't. Malone and Jennifer are almost attacked by the "Brontosaurus" when what I can only assume to be an Allosaurus--an alligator or caiman (it varies from shot-to-shot) with horns and fins glued to it--appears and the two creatures engage in combat. And they actually do engage in combat. The caiman latches onto the foreleg of the monitor lizard and death rolls it, the monitor clamps its jaws over the caiman's eyes. The blood in a few shots is not stage blood. None of the wounds shown appear to be fatal, so maybe both animals lived long lives after this, but there is still a special place in Hell for the bastards who sprung for a full-size prop tail for the actors to interact with but felt that it was necessary to make two reptiles fight for our entertainment.

Humans suck.
The only other dinosaurs in the movie are: a monitor lizard with horns and a fin, that lurks in a pool of water inside a volcano and gets the honor of being the only dinosaur to eat anybody; and a Tokay gecko with the same horns and fin. The Tokay is supposed to be a hatchling, and given the fin and horn pattern and where the egg was found it must be the same species as the water monster. Since Challenger identifies it as a baby Tyrannosaurus (and Claude Rains deserves an Oscar for delivering that line as if he believes it), that must mean the monitor lizard was a T-Rex as well. "Sea monster" is certainly an interpretation of the monster that I don't think any other movie has ever done!

So, The Lost World is a giant finger to Willis O'Brien and to people who care about the welfare of reptiles. It's also just not a very good movie. Oh, Claude Rains makes a way better Challenger than the movie deserves and there's unintentional comedy to be had from watching the "dinosaurs" aside from when they're made to fight--but there's so little of that to go around. You'd think with the money saved on effects they'd have done more with them. Hell, where's the recreation of the 1925 film's rampaging Brontosaurus done with a lizard on miniature London set?!

On the other hand, there is a monitor lizard with a doll in its mouth to indicate it is chowing down on a hapless victim, and that almost excuses all the film's prior sins. Almost.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Visitor (1979)

As a B-Movie Fanatic, few things are as delightful as discovering there is a "lost" B-Movie out there to be experienced. Even moreso when the film is positively insane. Sometimes "lost" is a stretch, of course. Miami Connection was a lost film before Drafthouse Films gave it a well-deserved second life, but The Visitor has actually had a Region 1 DVD release (albeit out of print as of this writing) so it's hard to say it was honestly lost before Drafthouse Films gave it the same second chance and allowed me to experience the film in the best possible way to see a bizarre Italian/American sci-fi horror film--a midnight showing.

The film begins right off the bat with a dose of weirdness of the sort that we will be seeing a lot of over the course of its running time. A mysterious old man we will come to know as Jerzy (John Huston!) is alone on an alien landscape when he is joined by an imposing stranger in a black cloak. A storm whips up as the two stare each other down and as a blizzard overtakes the two, the black robe comes off to reveal a little girl, whom we will come to know as Katy Collins (Paige Connor), with those distinctive John Agar eyes from The Brain From Planet Arous. The child backs away from Jerzy and vanishes and he strides calmly in the direction she appeared from.

Cut to what the IMDB insists is Jesus Christ (an apparently uncredited Franco Nero!), though "Blond Space Jesus" is more accurate, telling a white room full of bald children the story of how the galactic criminal Sateen escaped custody and fled to Earth, pursued by an intergalactic peacekeeper. (I think the peacekeeper was Jerzy but I'm going on memories from 12AM here) The peacekeeper summoned an army of birds to take down his fugitive, but Sateen simply transformed himself into an eagle and killed all but three--until he was "fatally wounded. In the brain." (Insert the first of many, many instances of uproarious audience laughter here) However, before he died Sateen mated with human women--and Space Jesus's storytelling makes it sound as if Sateen did this whilst dying off a brain injury instead of before the fight--so that his evil could survive. Jerzy enters the room to be greeted warmly by the children and to tell Space Jesus that he knows that the current spawn of Sateen's evil that they are looking for is an eight year-old girl named Katy Collins.

Now we meet our main protagonists for the remainder of the show at the final minutes of a basketball game in Atlanta, Georgia. On the sidelines are the team's owner, Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen!), and Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail). Barbara is the mother of none other than Katy Collins, who has a seat on the sidelines in a completely different section of the arena. Katy removes her sunglasses just as the opposing team is about to make a basket that could tip the score in their favor--and the ball explodes before it can enter the basket. The reaction of everyone involved suggests that a basketball exploding in the middle of a game is a routine occurrence, so I'm now rethinking my complete lack of interest in watching the sport.

In bed afterward, Raymond attempts to convince Barbara to marry him. This is apparently not the first time he has tried but she refuses him again, explaining that even though it has been 7 years since she divorced her husband (who will later turn out to be played by Sam Peckinpah--yes, that Sam Peckinpah), she is just not ready. Part of this is that she is scared of her own daughter and thus does not want to have any more children.

It's not hard to see why Barbara is scared. She comes home to find Katy waiting for her, and in a foul mood for being left alone with yet another babysitter who fell asleep on her. (I don't know if we're meant to infer the babysitter's unconscious state is Katy's doing, but it sure looks that way) Here we are also introduced to Katy's pet kestrel, which seems like a really awful pet for an eight-year-old to have--but hey, rich people. Katy's foul mood lightens somewhat when she begins to beg her mother to give her a baby brother.

Unbeknownst to Barabara, Katy and Richard have identical goals, which we find out when he goes to meet with a strange group of men seated at a conference table in a mansion. The leader, Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer!), explains to Richard that they made him successful and got him close to Barbara with a very specific purpose. Babara's womb* is very, very special--it is capable of producing children like Katy, with very special abilities. This sinister group--who are either aliens like Sateen or in league with them--wants Katy to have a brother because they want to continue producing more people with these terrifying abilities. If Richard can't deliver, he is expendable.

[* "But wait," you say. "If Barbara's womb is the source of Katy's power, doesn't that mean that Barbara must be Sateen's child instead of the mother of one?" To which I say, don't think about it. You don't need the aneurysm]

At Katy's birthday party, a friend of Barabara's gives the young girl a bejeweled toy peacock that, for some reason, constantly says, "I'm a pretty bird," in a voice suggesting it was recorded on a dying tape recorder. However, somewhere between the peacock being wrapped and it being given to Katy, it becomes a handgun. Katy is delighted--her irises and pupils going all John Agar--and goes to show her mother by tossing the gun onto a table where it promptly goes off and paralyzes Barbara from the waist down.

Detective Jake Durham (Glenn Ford) is assigned to investigate the mysterious shooting. He quickly finds it a troubling case, as nobody can figure out how or when the gun got into the gift box, the peacock is unaccounted for, and most troubling of all: the gun has no serial number. The serial number hasn't been filed off in an attempt to hide the gun's true owner from prosecution, either, it was simply never there. Durham follows Katy when she takes her bus to school--in a sequence that made the audience gasp for real, because Paige Conner is almost hit by the school bus in question as she walks out to board it! Katy is on to him, however, and confronts him after the bus disgorges its passengers. She is less than helpful, merely responding to his questions by growling obscenities at the detective before running off to class.

Durham eventually decides to do some investigating of the Collins abode on his own time. This accomplishes two things; the first is that he runs afoul of Katy's kestrel (which, hilariously, tends to be intercut with close-ups of an eagle whenever it is attacking someone), and the second is that he finds the talking peacock hidden in a house plant. He'll never get to make anything of his discovery, however--and not just because the justice system tends to frown on evidence obtained through entering a residence without a warrant. Katy's kestrel has followed the detective and proceeds to enter his car and peck repeatedly at his eyes (Italians love eye violence), causing him to drive off a hill. In a hilariously cruel turn of events, his car rolls over into a chain link fence in such a way that the car becomes wrapped in the chain link. A group of onlookers are helpless to do anything but watch the hapless detective struggle against his confinement before the leaking gasoline ignites and he is killed in the subsequent explosion. The kestrel watches all this with silent, malevolent satisfaction.

It is here that two characters actually join the story proper. The first is a new housekeeper for the Collins, Jane Phillips (ShelleyWinters). She adds very little to the story, other than being suspicious of Katy and having the extraordinary ability to slap the demon child and not die. The second is Jerzy, showing up claiming to the new babysitter the agency sent over. He reveals quite quickly to Katy that he knows about her powers, but Katy is unimpressed. As well she should be, as for an intergalactic peacekeeper Jerzy is fantastically shite at keeping the peace. (Another link to The Brain From Planet Arous!) While he was communing with Space Jesus, setting up interpretive dance recitals on rooftops, and occasionally watching Katy from afar--Detective Durham was getting flambeed, after all. Durham won't be the last to suffer under Jerzy's watch, either.

In a sequence that has to be seen to fully appreciated, Katy goes ice skating at a mall. Jerzy watches her from a level above and then decides to get a closer look by walking down a narrow staircase that appears to be at least a mile long. While he is doing this, Katy somehow gets all the boys at the rink to chase her and all of them end up slamming violently into the walls of the rink--all juxtaposed with shots of poor John Huston stepping carefully down the stairway and at times seeming to be farther away than he was in the previous shot. This climaxes with the last boy vaulting over the ice rink wall and smashing through the window of a restaurant. (This was greeted by uproarious laughter and applause by the audience)

The thing about a movie like this is that you'd think it would build toward its inevitable climax in some manner so that Jerzy has to intervene in order to save the world from Katy's wrath and the machinations of the secret society Raymond works for. It really doesn't, however. Katy's cruelty escalates in that she begins to turn it on Barabara, but ultimately it feels as if Jerzy just eventually decides to actually do something instead of just talking about it. And it seems like Jerzy only knows the one way to handle this situation, because he calls in another avian cavalry. Pigeons and doves, to be precise, so that the climax of the film resembles nothing so strongly as that of The Exorcist II: The Heretic if it was directed by John Woo.

I've obviously left a lot out of my description of this film. After all, I didn't take notes and I was exhausted during my actual viewing of the film. However, this film is a delightful experience. Its plot is so nonsensical that I am certain I briefly drifted off and came to at a couple points and was no less lost than when I was fully conscious. The director, "Michael J. Paradise" (actually Giulio Paradisi), has no awareness of how comedic most of his inserted reaction shots are, and while the score is nowhere near the level of sublimely inappropriate as The Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds, it has a particular funkadelic refrain that sounds like it belongs to a 70s cop show. This refrain first blared itself at us during a close-up of the stern expression on Space Jesus's face after Jerzy announces that they're looking for Katy Collins and the audience positively howled.

The film was produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis, so this makes the second film of his I've seen (the other being Piranha II: The Spawning). I know Tentacles by reputation, but have not seen it, but like that film Assonitis somehow conned John Huston and Shelley Winters into starring in minor roles in such a manner as to be able to sell them as being major players in the film. This film does not feature a live octopus being torn apart on camera so it has a distinct advantage over Tentacles.

I am not certain why this one is not spoken of more often. It does not quite reach the deliriously wonderful heights of something like The Manitou, but I would still put it firmly in the same company. It is, nominally, a rip-off of The Exorcist that comes at it from an entirely different direction--but it also throws in The Omen, The Birds, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Rosemary's Baby, and possibly even Star Wars--John Huston is, essentially, introduced to us as Obi Wan Kenobi. It is true, the film is largely plotless and meandering: but I cannot bring myself to hate something that aims to take on so many diverse elements from so many bigger films way beyond its means.

I cannot see this one quite earning the cult that Miami Connection did, but I for one am firmly in what little cult there is for it.

I also have to laugh at the fact that Wikipedia claims a lot of audiences took issue with the dishonesty of the film's poster. I disagree. Sure, there is no giant floating eyeball with lighting coming from it--but the talons clearly belong to the kestrel and there is an attempted garroting. For this sort of film, that's truth in advertising!