As he proved (yet again) in Spielberg’s unsurprisingly sentimental, but still eminently watchable, Cold War drama, Bridge Of Spies, Tom Hanks has long since become the all-purpose quiet hero of American cinema. From its dream-sequence start-up, that re-writes the intro for Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime (1980), A Hologram For The King is an offbeat comedy-drama, very much in the style of Coen brothers picture. The movie tackles a hurry-up-and-wait storyline as demoted salesman Alan (Hanks) visits a kingdom in Saudi Arabia, to present his company’s demo of holographic technology for the monarch’s use as over-ambitious teleconferencing suite.

Alan seems written like a failed middle-class liberal anybody, baffled but not offended by Arab culture’s alien weirdness, with all its crazily patriarchal, obsessively religious, dogmatically repressive paranoia that – in the region’s recent history – has resulted in distinctive detached realms of grossly obscene wealth and hellishly medieval poverty. Writer-director Tom Tykwer (adapting Dave Eggers’ novel) explores disruptive hassle and professional anxiety in Alan’s daily routine with grindingly farcical scenes where our American manager abroad faces the increasingly inconsequential nature of US influence, in new global structures of science and commerce under Chinese industrial dominance.

While the movie is not specifically pro-Muslim or anti-American, its notable lightness of touch is quite different to the scary changes in sociopolitical landscapes as depicted in Tykwer’s crime thriller The International (2009). Its comedy is broad enough to be almost crowd-pleasing, and includes a stereotypical but funny cameo by Tom Skerritt as Alan’s old crusty dad. What weakens the impact of its commentary upon the many troubling issues usually caused by middle-east politics/ culture/ religion all being the same thing, is that – following a romantic encounter with topless snorkeller Dr Hakim (Sarita Choudhury) – the storyline abandons any pretence at political relevance, dramatic resonance, or philosophical confrontation, and it lapses into a fairytale ending that is very disappointing although, of course, we are supposed to feel happy for the re-motivated Alan, who has found a new love and ‘won’ a fresh start in life.

Where the movie works, and does so quite splendidly, is the finale’s clever depiction of hologram tech as a shiny new toy; promoted by an American corporation as if it offers a time-saving and world-changing system enabling international business for the 21st century, even though it’s clearly and merely another gimmicky exercise in special effects. This delivers a savvy punch-line for that common joke that America is now a country with no future beyond trivial concerns.

Johnny Cool DVD

cast: Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Telly Savalas, Sammy Davis Jr, and Elijah Cook

director: William Asher

103 minutes (NR) 1963

MGM DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10

review by J.C. Hartley

Johnny Cool

I first saw this movie on late-night TV, probably sometime in the mid-1970s. Bizarrely, I remember it being in colour, despite not owning a colour set until 1995! I think it must be something to do with the sun-washed Hollywood locations. It stuck in my mind then and if it doesn’t quite live up to that memory it still holds a certain amount of interest.

In wartime Sicily, a young boy rescues his mother from an assault by a German soldier by blowing him up with his own grenade. The boy’s victory is short-lived, however, as German troops shoot his mother before the boy is himself rescued by partisans. Fast-forward, and the child is now Salvatore Giordano (Henry Silva), a Sicilian Robin Hood, guest of honour at a local wedding, interviewed by the American media, before the Carabinieri gatecrash in a couple of helicopters. Wounded and captured by the military police, Giordano’s body is replaced by a disfigured corpse while he is spirited away to Rome.

In Rome, Giordano is given an offer he can’t refuse by exiled gangster Johnny Colini, alias ‘Johnny Cool’ (Marc Lawrence). Colini will groom Giordano in American cool, give him the inside straight on the Mob’s activities in the USA, and make him his heir. In return, Colini wants Giordano to travel to the ‘States and rub out his former associates who betrayed him.

Now in America, Giordano, calling himself Johnny Colini, introduces himself to the mob with some rough stuff in a drinking and dining club, used as a front by the gangland hierarchy. The new Johnny Cool also catches the attention of bored divorcee socialite Darien ‘Dare’ Guiness (Elizabeth Montgomery). Johnny gives the mob his ultimatum: total control of activities in the USA, otherwise his army will proceed with a series of assassinations. Johnny makes some time with Dare but is then invited to meet some of the mob while they check him out. Unfortunately for Dare, a couple of hoods are despatched to her apartment masquerading as cops to see what she knows about Johnny. Realising she knows nothing, the two toughs call in a report and are advised to use some ‘muscle’, and “leave her something to remember them by””; while the scene suggests she receives a beating the inference is obviously that she is raped.

Meanwhile, Johnny has got the drop on the mob during a crap game, holding a gun on ‘Educated’ (a cameo from Sammy Davis Jr, who also sings the theme and an incidental number), while he rolls the dice to clean them out. Leaving the club, Johnny overhears the two thugs who have attacked Dare gloating about their night. After discovering Dare in tears back at her apartment, Johnny returns to the club and stabs the hoods, mutilating the bodies in the Sicilian manner to indicate a revenge killing.

Johnny meets with the new mob boss Vince Santangelo (Telly Savalas) to lay down his ultimatum, total control of mob operations in the USA. Rebuffed, Johnny sets off across the ‘States, carrying out a wave of killings. Murdering Oscar Hinds (John McGiver) and Ben Morrow (Mort Sahl) in their casino, Johnny is taken aback when Morrow reveals that Colini promised him a share in his empire and that Colini is bound to betray Johnny. Morrow says that Johnny is merely Colini’s “delivery boy of death.” Johnny is ready to abandon the mission but an aroused Dare urges him to carry on and be a man, and the pair set off together to bring the plot to fruition.

Johnny kills Lennart Crandall (Brad Dexter) with explosives, then he and Dare split up while Johnny goes to execute Santangelo. Dare panics when her rented car is spotted by police, and accepts an invitation from some friends to spend the weekend partying on their yacht. Discovering that Crandall’s children narrowly avoided being killed in the explosion that killed their father, Dare gives the mob details of her rendezvous with Johnny before giving herself up to the FBI, telling them that she has killed Johnny. Johnny has shot Santangelo and keeps the appointment with Dare only to find the mob waiting for him. He is captured, strait-jacketed, and informed of the torture that awaits him to extract the details of mob activities that he was given by Colini.

A curiosity, the obvious parallel that Johnny Cool evokes is with John Boorman and Lee Marvin’s Point Blank of four years later. But, while Point Blank is cool, immersive, metaphoric, and mythic, with a killer colour palate, and clearly late 1960s, Johnny Cool is black and white, with one foot in the 1950s, hamstrung by the Hays code and trying to make amorality hip while saying that crime doesn’t pay. Having said all that, while Johnny Cool isn’t Kiss Me Deadly, it is slightly shocking with its automaton hero and Stockholm syndrome heroine embarking on a killing spree.

Some stuff, like the FBI briefing on mob activities seems added on, and the ending, with Johnny’s capture and imminent torture – while emphasising that he is to be paid back for his swathe of slaughter – rather puts the gang-bosses in the role of society’s judiciary, emphasised by their presentation of corporate respectability! Henry Silva comes on like Jack Palance junior; the very next year to this release, Elizabeth Montgomery would be Samantha in ABC’s Bewitched. Director William Asher was better known for the ‘beach party’ genre of teenage movies, often featuring Frankie Avalon. In fact, Johnny Cool appeared between Beach Party (1963), and Muscle Beach Party (1964).

Dead Or Alive is one of those films that features an unexpected ending you are so unprepared for that the only sane thing to do is immediately watch it all again from the start. This begins with a frantic montage of grossly violent and perverse imagery before settling down a bit, into a steady build up of familiar crime genre incidents exploring the deep-seated antagonism between corrupt cop Jojima (Sho Aikawa), and ambitious gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi).
Although the slickly edited, in-your-face opening sets the overall amoral tone for what follows, its sheer feverish quickening conflicts with the more stately pace of later dramatic scenes – to such an extent that it seems like an entirely different movie. (Imagine fast-cutting rock promo video footage preceding a tediously slow European art house flick!) Questions of its curiously unbalancing pace aside, this is a remarkably poetic visualisation of scenes from the proverbial urban hellhole.
Sometimes purposely blurry cinematography uses frequent handheld cameras to guide us through smoky nightclubs and claustrophobic alleys, where standard neighbourhood canvassing by detectives leads to the tiger-like fury of machine gun slaughter at a big deal-making feast for Chinese mafia and Yakuza chiefs. A slow motion Reservoir Dogs styled walkabout by armoured-car thieves, punctuated by sudden death, is admittedly clichéd, but you are likely to find the comedy scenes in a flood plain cemetery as compelling and unforgettable as visiting an eerie grey planet. Later on, the deliriously absurd comicbook style mayhem in the truly wild climax is such an abrupt change, from classic hoodlum antihero disorder – to the spectacular imagery of bizarre manga fantasy mania, the finale is magnificently transcendental.
As he proved, conclusively, with the mesmerising ending of Audition, young Japanese director Miike Takashi is no respecter of cinema’s narrative traditions, linear storytelling. To pigeonhole him as just another world cinema auteur is, of course, an unnecessarily restrictive label. This peculiar filmmaker is a genuine artist for the 21st century. Just when you think it’s all over – and you have sussed his latest play – Miike changes all the rules, the teams and playing field, restarts the game with new laws of physics, then reveals these characters are not ordinary men at all…
Already, there are two or three further Dead Or Alive films completed, and yet, avoiding movie world conventions yet again, these productions are ‘sequels’ only in title. They may have one or more of the same cast, but that’s all that links them to this fascinating triumph of aesthetic wit over unadventurous wisdom.
DVD extras: anamorphic widescreen transfer, Dolby digital sound in Japanese with English subtitles, text filmographies, interview with director, film notes by Chris Campion, trailer, Asia Extreme promo reel.

The BAFTAs and the Oscars
have already been and gone.
However, if you need a strong
film fix, don’t despair as the
European Film Academy awards
are still to come. This year it will
feature in Wroclaw, Poland, in
December. The ceremony is
streamed live every year but if
you really are a film fanatic and
plan on heading over to Poland
don’t forget to ensure you get
your E111 card and your
passport sorted before you go.
Every year, the European Film
Academy celebrates a total of 22
categories which include
European film, European
director, European actress and
actor, the biggest award
supports the greatest
achievements in European
cinema. The nominations for the
award will be announced in
November but we have made a
list of the best European
independent movies of 2016, so
far, which could feature on the
nomination list – watch this
space.
Vanitas
Oscar Spierenburg’s drama has
already won the best European
independent dramatic feature at
the ECU Film Festival and it has
a good chance of winning other
awards this year too. It is a
gripping fiction film
commenting on the modern artworld,
and the film addresses
how important it is to know
what is authentic and what is
fake, what is real or unreal. The
film centres on a young woman,
who has followed in her father’s
footsteps as an art-restorer and
is then confronted with the
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forging of masterpieces. With
her discovery she goes about
finding the truth surrounding
the world of art, something she
once adored.
The Session
This short film is directed by
Edouard de La Poeze, and it
portrays Paris in 1988. It
features Fanny Ardant as the
Countess of Castiglione who
requests her favourite
photographer to create her last
portrait. Throughout the session
the two are closely watched by
the aristocrat’s servants, and the
session then proves to be far
more disturbing than ever
expected.
Refugees
This gripping experimental film
is directed by Eduardo
Hernandez Perez and Hans Jaap
Melissen. The film comments on
the largest forced migration
since the Second World War,
and places it in a unique
perspective. Real life drama is
incorporated and portrayed in
revolutionary and astonishing
virtual reality images.
Dennis Rodman’s Big
Bang In Pyong Yang
This film directed by Colin
Offland follows Dennis Rodman
who is on a mission. He has an
unlikely friendship with North
Korean leader Kin Jong-un and
wants to improve the relations
between North Korea and the
US. He does this by creating a
historic basketball game
between the two countries. It
then follows the story of what
happened when Dennis Rodman
took a team of former NBA
players to North Korea. It’s a
strange film but a strong
contender.
The Chicken
Directed by Una Gunjak, this
short fiction drama centres on a
young girl who receives a live
chicken for her sixth birthday.
After realising the creature is
going to be killed to feed her
family, she sets it free. She then
suffers dangerous consequences
for her actions. Although this
film was initially released in
2014, it will be released to a
wider audience this year so still
counts as 2016.

Reportedly the
most expensive
media production
in Norway’s
history,
Occupied (aka:
Okkupert) is a TV
series of ten
episodes, each
one taking place
in a narrative of
consecutive
months. It’s shot
mostly in
Norwegian, but
with some English
dialogue.
At a new thorium
power station,
designed to
replace oil as a
viable alternative
to the near
future’s climatechange
problems
and solve the
global energy
crisis, the Green
Party’s Prime
Minister Jesper
Berg (Henrik
Mestad) is briefly
kidnapped to
warn him of the
European Union’s
backing for a
Russian-led
invasion of his
nation by
countries
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unwilling to shake
off their
dependency on
fossil fuels. Soon,
PM Berg
surrenders his
executive power
to spare the
Norwegian people
the certainty of
death and
bloodshed if their
armed forces
provoke a conflict
over national
security and selfdefence
issues.
Police bodyguard
Djupvik (Eldar
Skar, in his first
starring role)
heroically chases
the hijacked
helicopter to save
Berg, and his
promotion to
investigator
means a rapid rise
so he becomes
involved in highlevel
situations,
like a
Scandinavian
Jack Bauer, that
include
assassination
plots and an
inevitable
Norwegian
resistance
conspiracy. Sadly,
Occupied lacks
the tremendous
pace or energy of
24, trying for
brooding
atmosphere and
slow-burning
tensions instead
of action setpieces
with a
more leisurely
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story-arc that
runs for nine
months.
As has often been
observed,
international law
only exists in law
books. The basic
idea here is a
genre notion, but
Occupied is not
particularly
science fictional
although it’s a
futuristic,
speculative drama
trading upon
Norge fears of
Putin’s
aggression, while
the TV show itself
prompted outrage
in Moscow.
There’s a doomed
reporter who is
desperate for
scandal and
notoriety as he
struggles to
uncover state
secrets of
euphemistic
‘European
disaster relief’
efforts by
Russians, and
Occupied explores
many of the
fourth estate’s
ethical concerns
(“The Russians
have eliminated
journalists
before”)
previously
charted by
investigative
news-hounds in
Scandi-noir
movies like the
successful trilogy
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that started with
The Girl With The
Dragon Tattoo.
Unfortunately,
this is drama that
lapses into
sentimental soap
opera routines of
domestic strife,
family problems,
and health
worries, so it
rarely misses an
opportunity for
hand-wringing
with optional
hankies.
Even when the
plot diversions
are mere sundry
crimes, it affects
the main
characters, with a
grim inevitably, as
if for the sake of
giving them all
something else to
do during the
unfolding
situation’s bigger
picture of
realpolitik – in
which, of course,
they are so often
otherwise
technically or
actually quite
powerless. As the
solemn Berg’s
earnest leadership
falters, a coup
seems likely, and
challenges to his
comprised
authority are
certain when the
social contract is
so obviously
broken, with a
progressive
democracy of
environmentalism
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crushed between
train-wreck
collision and a
collusion of
greedy
international
capitalism and
myopic Euronationalism.
An extradition
order for a
Chechen terrorist,
and other
destablising
actions, continue
and escalate a war
of nerves between
Berg and his far
mightier
opponents, led by
Russian
ambassador
Sidorva
(winningly
portrayed by
Ingeborga
Dapkunaite, who
played Lecter’s
mother in that
prequel movie
Hannibal Rising).
Dim-witted ‘Free
Norway’ terrorists
claim to believe
that car bombs
create hope not
fear.
Noisy street
protests in August
become a violent
riot in September
as, for both major
and minor
characters in this
impending
tragedy, questions
of ultimate loyalty
lead official
gamblers to
further personal
confrontations
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when a diplomatic
solution looks
impossible
without American
participation.
With another
hostage crisis
looming for the
beleaguered Berg,
events lurch
towards the chilly
December climax
in a two-part
finale. So, the
only vital
question
remaining is: “are
you ready to fight
for your country?”

I hate to be
judgemental but I
hated this film.
After about an
hour, I was
thinking ‘this is
the worst film I
have ever seen.’
Not worst as in
Mrs Henderson
Presents (2005),
or that other one
my late Mum
asked me to take
her to, or
Matthew
Vaughan’s
Kingsman: The
Secret Service
(2014), but just
really bad when I
had such high
hopes.
It seems
appropriate to
note here that
many
commentators
consider this to
be some kind of
masterpiece. The
trailer, included
as part of the
extras package,
includes a
selection of
quotations ripe
with fulsome
praise: ‘jawdropping’
comes
to mind. Peter
Bradshaw in The
Guardian gave it
five stars, made it
his film of the
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week, and
awarded epithets
such as ‘aweinspiring’
and
“beautiful,
brilliant and
bizarre.” When I
watched it I
thought, ‘this has
all the shit from
Jabberwocky and
none of the jokes.’
Shit is the least of
it. There’s shit,
piss, snot, blood,
puke, and
entrails. If we
needed
confirmation of
the noisome
nature of the
medieval world of
Hard To Be A
God (aka:
Trudno byt
bogom), the cast
are perpetually
smelling things –
food, mud, faeces,
clothes, each
other, and then
announcing them
to be ‘stinky’.
After about two
hours I was
pleading for the
film to ‘just end’,
beyond that I
passed into the
sort of quiescent
state Daniel
Craig’s James
Bond achieves in
Casino Royale
(2006), after
having his
testicles lashed to
a pulp. I had
finally become
immersed in what
we are told was
director Aleksei
German’s
ambition, to
provide an
immersive
experience. Then
I watched the
extras.
I have a problem
visiting art
galleries. I
consider myself
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to be visually
literate, I can
respond to
pictures and
images on their
own terms, but I
come from a print
culture; I have to
read the label.
Some images I
can enjoy for
their own sake, I
responded
immediately the
first time I saw
works by Dali,
Miro, Magritte,
Max Ernst, and
Kazimir
Malevich; other
times I have had
to read the label.
That always
bothered me;
shouldn’t an
image, as art,
work on its own
terms? If you
have to read the
label, to have that
‘ah, now I see’
moment, hasn’t
the art and the
artist failed? I
didn’t anticipate
an epiphanic
revelation
watching the
extras package to
Hard To Be A
God, and I’m
pleased to say I
didn’t have one,
but I did feel I
had a better
understanding of
what German was
attempting to
achieve, even if I
remained
sceptical about
the merit of the
enterprise or its
realisation.
The kingdom of
Arkaner exists on
a planet not
unlike Earth, but
while Earth
society has
advanced,
Arkaner is stuck
in the middleages,
a
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renaissance has
been stalled, and
an oppressive
regime is
interring and
slaughtering
intellectuals or
‘smartarses’. The
medieval society
depicted is not
contained within
a Hollywood
image of ‘Merrie
England’, bosky
parkland
interrupted by
thriving market
towns and
dominated by
noble castles, it
exists in a rainsoaked
mire
where the
grotesque
inhabitants wade
through shit,
inflicting various
degrees of
violence upon
each other. A
couple of dozen
Earth scientists
are in situ,
observing the lack
of progress and
reporting back to
their home
planet, an early
image viewed
through a circular
lens suggests that
what we see is
being filmed, and
presumably
broadcast back to
Earth. Embedded
within this
society, and
posing as a local
feudal baron, is
Don Rumata
(Leonid
Yarmolnik), an
Earthman who
has gone native.
Unassailable, due
to his fighting
skills and his
adopted status as
the descendent of
a god, he
attempts to
assuage some of
the perse
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and brutality
within Arkaner by
protecting
scholars and
offering them
sanctuary. A brief
narrated
exposition, which
director German
was reluctant to
include, sets the
scene, but, it has
to be stressed,
nothing which
occurs on screen
is clear or
obvious,
relationships are
obscure and
narrative
progression
excursive to say
the least.
Hard To Be A
God is based on
Arkady and Boris
Strugatsky’s 1964
novel, set in their
‘Noon Universe’,
a utopian society
which imagines
the victory of
communism on
Earth and the
elimination of
most social evils
through
technology and
moral evolution.
Less-enlightened
worlds are
‘progressed’
through gentle
intervention,
although such
intervention is
seen as highly
controversial.
Iain M. Banks’
‘Culture’ novels
seem an obvious
successor. The
Strugatskys,
along with the
Polish author
Stanislaw Lem,
are probably the
best known of
Soviet bloc
science fiction
writers, thanks to
their
championing in
the west by the
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likes of Theodore
Sturgeon,
influential film
versions of their
famous works,
and the sheer
quality of their
output.
Soviet science
fiction has always
had a certain
cachet, perhaps
derived from the
reasonable
assumption in the
west that it was a
literature of
resistance,
smuggling
libertarian ideals
and oppositional
politics, under
the guise of
fantasy, within a
society marked by
oppression and
curtailments on
free speech.
Russian literature
has a history of
influence in the
west, the ‘Golden
Age’ in the 19th
century saw the
likes of Turgenev,
Chekhov,
Dostoyevsky, and
others, having a
profound effect
on nascent
literary
modernism in
England and
Europe (although
the exiled Ezra
Pound apparently
admitted to
Hemingway in
Paris that he had
never read the
‘Rooshians’).
Russian literature
seems to fully
embrace the
speculation and
fantasy that
typifies romance
writing, “fiction
that owes no
allegiance to The
God of Things as
They Are” as
Ambrose Bierce
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defined it in his
Devil’s
Dictionary in
1911. The whole
Russian
experience seems
to have entranced
the European
intelligentsia, an
image of Russia
and the Russian
people as
somehow in tune
with a spiritual
mystical world
denied to the
materialistic
west. Of course
one can be overly
romantic, “if you
are going to tell
me that any
aspect of Russia
psychological,
mystical,
practical, or
commercial seen
through an
English medium
is either Russia as
she really is or
Russia as
Russians see her,
I say to you,
without
hesitation, that
you don’t know of
what you are
talking”, as Hugh
Walpole put it in
his novel The
Secret City
(1919).
The Strugatsky
brothers’
Roadside Picnic
is my favourite SF
novel. It appealed
to me because it
seemed to deal
with the concept
of the ‘alien’ in a
new way. An
awful lot of
science fiction
takes the ‘man in
a reptile suit’
approach to
presenting alien
life, that’s
understandable,
how do you
imagine, let alone
describe,
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something which
is unfamiliar or
unknown?
Roadside Picnic
postulated the
impact on our
society of the
casual discovery
of alien artefacts,
explained
throu
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beauty, a
particular scene
in Stalker used to
pop into my head
like an oneiric
flashback
whenever I
jogged up a lane
which regularly
flooded with runoff
water from
surrounding
fields.
Tarkovsky and
German shared a
mutual respect,
although
German’s hyperrealism
seems a
world away from
Tarkovsky’s
romanticism.
German’s early
films, pre-Hard
To Be A God,
were set in the
Stalinist era. An
earlier attempt to
film Hard To Be
A God was
stalled, as it
coincided with
the Soviet
invasion of
Czechoslovakia.
In fact, the
depiction of a
society in which a
hoped for
renaissance has
been replaced by
state terror, and
the internment of
intellectuals,
seems pertinent
to the early
decades of postrevolutionary
Russia.
Tarkovsky’s
Mirror (1975)
also deals with
incidents of
Stalinist terror
but in an elliptical
way. While
Tarkovsky was
clearly an
influence on
German, the
latter’s debt to
Fellini is clear in
his busy mise en
scene.
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In the first film in
the extras
package,
German’s wife
and collaborator
Svetlana
Karmalita
explains
something of his
technique. She
concedes that it is
hard to follow
which characters
are talking in
Hard To Be A
God, a deliberate
policy derived
from an edit on
Trial On The
Road (1971), in
which the camera
focuses on the
non-speaker in
order for the
viewer to gauge
his reaction to
off-screen
dialogue. In fact
this technique, in
which the speaker
is obscured, and
the mise en scene
is fouled by
obstructions,
hands, weapons,
serving-vessels,
and flowers, and
we struggle to
attach the
random names
we hear to
particular
characters, has an
alienating effect
which evokes
Brecht, except
that German’s
avowed intent is
to immerse the
viewer in the
hyperrealism of
the world of
Arkaner, not to
emphasise the
theatrical
unreality of the
staging. Bizarrely,
I was reminded at
times of John
Boorman’s
attempt at a late
British nouvelle
vague, in his film
Leo The Last
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(1970).
German’s filming
of Hard To Be A
God took six
years, from 2000
to 2006, the
lengthy editing
and postproduction
outlasted the
director, and the
film was
completed by his
widow Carmelita,
and their son
Aleksei German
Jr, a noted
director in his
own right. The
extras package
includes an
interview with
German Jr about
his father’s work,
and Hard To Be
A God in
particular.
Michael Brooke
reviews German’s
career in The
Unknown Genius
as part of the
extras package on
the blu-ray.
In The History Of
The Arkaner
Massacre, again
among the extras,
Daniel Bird
provides an
explanation of the
film which, it has
to be said, owes
more to a
familiarity with
the source
material than
anything which
could be derived
from a viewing of
the film itself.
Bird also provides
an introduction
to science fiction
for SF virgins, in
which he
distinguishes
between ‘hard’,
physics-based
science fiction, a
term he doesn’t
actually use, and
sociological or
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psychological
‘soft’ science
fiction. Bizarrely,
he cites Carl
Sagan as an
exemplar of a
hard science
fiction writer.
Bird sees
German’s film as
fulfilling
Bakhtin’s notion
of ‘carnival’
whereby the
established order
is overturned; in
fact I think Bird
misinterprets
Bakhtin in
relation to Hard
To Be A God,
there is little in
the way of satire
or anarchy,
although there is
a Rabelaisian
emphasis on
scatology. The
irony within the
Strugatskys novel
is that the avatars
of the
communistic
state of the Noon
Universe must
become members
of a bourgeois
hierarchy to
function in the
primitive worlds
they investigate.
Driven to
distraction by the
cruelty he
witnesses Don
Rumata
eventually
interferes in the
world of Arkaner.
He quotes Boris
Pasternak’s poem
Hamlet, and
Hamlet is clearly
a reference point.
The Prince of
Denmark,
informed by the
ghost of his dead
father that his
uncle is guilty of
his murder, is set
on a process of
revenge, but he
hesitates. The
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hesitation in
Shakespeare’s
Hamlet provides
the drama. In
Hard To Be A
God, Don Rumata
hesitates,
hamstrung by the
non-interference
policy of his
Earth culture.
Unfortunately
there is little or
no drama, the
only signifier of
tension is in the
verbalisation of
the dilemma; the
quandary of nonintervention
in
the face of
atrocity and
injustice has been
better portrayed
in episodes of
Star Trek dealing
with the
Federation’s
Prime Directive.
In Hard To Be A
God, a force
known as the
Greys commit
atrocities until
they are replaced
by an invading
force known as
the Blacks, who
are equally cruel.
Rumata explains
that any
intervention he
makes will, by
removing one
generation of
tyrants, simply
clear the way for
another set of
despots.
Ultimately,
Rumata does act,
although we are
denied witnessing
the massacre of
Arkaner we see
its aftermath.
Overlong and
ultimately
pretentious; I’m
reluctant to fall
into a trap of
hating what I
don’t understand;
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my late Mother,
confronted by
something on
television that
disturbed her,
would respond by
condemning
these ‘so-called
intellectuals’. I’m
not averse to
witnessing the
messy underbelly
of life, and I’m all
for challenges to
traditional
narrative, but this
film left me cold.
An earlier version
from 1989 is
described as a
poor man’s Dune,
although the
screenplay was by
the great JeanClaude
Carriere;
I’d quite like to
see it. Although I
bridled having to
sit through the
extras, I found
them informative,
and German’s
1998 film
Khrustalyov, My
Car! sounds like
something I’d like
to see; so not a
complete waste of
time.

As Masayuki
Suzuki’s
comedic/
fantastical
adventure Nin
Nin (aka: Nin x
Nin: Ninja
Hattori-kun,
2004) reminded
us, contemporary
heroic-assassin
movies are,
basically,
superhero
cinema – just
imperfectly
adjusted to the
current phases of
Marvel and DC
franchises,
perhaps until the
Iron Fist and/ or
Shang-Chi
movies emerge
somewhere/
whenever from a
comics
continuum.
Featuring Sho
Kosugi, The
Ninja trilogy
begins with
Menahem
Golan’s Enter
The Ninja
(1981). This once
popular VHS
rental stars
Franco Nero and
Susan George,
and the movie
appears to be
inspired partly by
Enter The
Dragon (1973),
and TV series
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Kung Fu (1972-
5).
Veteran gaijin
Cole (Franco
Nero) graduates
from Japanese
combat school,
and leaves to visit
his old friend
Landers, who has
settled down in
the Philippines.
His stranger-intown
presence
evokes western
formulas with
martial arts a
novelty
ingredient. The
flashbacks, to our
heroes’ past as
soldiering
buddies in
Angola and
Congo, are a
clear precedent
of Rambo heroics
in First Blood
(1982). A typical
high-campy
antagonist is
capitalist villain
and Manila
mogul, Venarius
(Christopher
George), the local
kingpin of sleazy
decadence whose
parades of hired
goons don’t
survive very long.
Ultimately, the
real henchman to
watch out for is
Hasegawa (Sho
Kosugi), Cole’s
former rival, who
is recruited by
Venarius for door-die
problemsolving
as a
stealthy assassin.
It eventually
becomes the
violent cliché of a
one-man army
versus army of
one. There’s
vengeance of
merciless zen as
whiplash kicks
sound like
sneezes, punches
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are played on a
cardboard drum
kit, and a local
cockfighting
arena is a wellchosen
venue for
the decisive
showdown.
Sam
Firstenberg’s
sequel Revenge
Of The Ninja
(1983) is not too
dissimilar to be a
jarring follow-up.
Despite getting
his head chopped
off in Enter The
Ninja, Kosugi is
back in action
playing an
entirely different
character – ex-pat
Cho, living in the
USA – whose able
sprog Kane is a
little schoolboy
who takes care of
big bullies,
predating the
Karate Kid
series. Cho
imports Japanese
dolls for a new
art gallery, but
remains quite
unaware at first
that his corrupt
business-partner
is smuggling
heroin.
Whenever plot
continuity or
development
misfires, or
lapses into hokey
dialogue, the
director throws
in another dojo
display of martial
artistry.
Familiar crime
story beats of
robbery, car
chase, and street
fighting –
featuring a
Village People
assortment
undermining the
supposed
individuality of
various stunt
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punks in gang
rumbles. Cho’s
relentless pursuit
of thieves is a
minor classic
sequence of lowbudget
1980s
action cinema.
However, some
unintentional
farce results from
the ninja-granny
murder and most
of the death
scenes have a
melodramatic
flourish. A
rooftop tennis
court’s chickenwire
cage-fight is
only the starting
point for the duel
of good against
evil ninjas.
Notable cult flick
Ninja III: The
Domination
(1984) delves
deep into occult
weirdness and
the supernatural
than previous
movies. Lucinda
Dickey plays
Christie, a
telephone
engineer working
on overhead
lines, and her
hobbies include
cheesy stuff like
pastel leotards
and leggings for
gratuitous
aerobics – so her
character is
obviously
composed of
welder Alex
(Jennifer Beals),
from Flashdance,
and Regan
(Linda Blair),
from The
Exorcist.
Christie’s
romance with a
policeman soon
gives way to the
curse of
possession from
a haunted
samurai sword.
There are smoke
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effects and
strobe-lights that
verge on a
psychedelic laser
show as the
archetypal
American nice
girl turns into a
remorseless
psycho-killer.
James Hong is
good fun as the
Chinese magician
trying to help our
distraught
heroine who only
wants to have fun
dancing in her
bedroom despite
the intrusions of
seemingly
demonic forces
attached to ninja
weaponry. The
eye-patched hero
Yamada (Kosugi,
of course) tackles
the spooky ninja
ghost fiend in a
climactic fest of
mystic fu.
Recently,
bloodthirsty
shocker Ninja
Assassin (2009)
updated this
movie’s horrorshow
antics with
Kosugi in the
supporting cast

In the film
Gigi (1958),
directed by
Vincente
Minnelli, and
based upon
Colette’s
novella, the
title character
played by
Leslie Caron
sees through
her grooming
for society and
confronts the
rich flaneur
Gaston played
by Louis
Jourdan.
“They’ve
pounded into
my head I’m
backward for
my age… but I
know what all
this means. To
‘take care of
me beautifully’
means I shall
go away with
you… and that
I shall sleep in
your bed.” Gigi
is a young girl
pimped out by
her
grandmothers
to Gaston,
although the
film tried to
sidestep the
issue. All ends
happily of
course in the
inevitable
acceptable
marriage,
although much
that was
thought
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charming and
delicately
risqué in a
1958 musical
leaves a bad
taste now, not
least of which
is Maurice
Chevalier’s
signature song
Thank
Heavens For
Little Girls.
Confused and
ultimately
decent as
Gaston, Louis
Jourdan seems
an unlikely
villain,
although he
would become
one as Anton
Arcane in the
Swamp Thing
movies, and as
Kamal Khan in
Octopussy.
Before those
career peaks,
however, he
effectively
transformed
the suave
amorist from
his romantic
leads, into the
sensualist
monster
lurking
beneath, to
play Count
Dracula in this
fairly faithful
BBC
adaptation
from the late1970s.
Adaptor
Gerald Savory
was head of
serials at the
BBC in the
mid-1960s,
and earned his
genre stripes
saving William
Hartnell from
being written
out of Doctor
Who in the
Celestial
Toymaker
serial, and
pushing for
the Dalek
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Master Plan to
be an epic 12
episodes.
For Count
Dracula,
Savory made a
few changes to
Bram Stoker’s
original. Mina
Murray and
her best friend
Lucy Westenra
are now the
Westenra
sisters. The
character of
Arthur
Holmwood is
lost; of Lucy
Westenra’s
three suitors,
Dr Seward, the
aristocrat
Holmwood
whose
proposal in the
novel she
accepts, and
the American
Quincey
Morris, only
Seward and
Quincey (now
Quincy
Holmwood)
remain. Lucy
is engaged to
Quincey.
Whether this
move was to
tempt sales of
the production
in the USA is a
possibility;
Quincey dies
of gunshot
wounds in the
book, here he
survives. The
other more
obvious
change, other
than editing
for pace and
concision, is
that Dracula
does not begin
the narrative
as an old man,
only regaining
youth and
vigour as he
sates his foul
appetites in
England; he
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starts as he
means to go
on, urbane and
in his prime.
The
compression
of the book,
for narrative
pace, means
we are spared
much of Van
Helsing’s
pious
glorification of
the character
of Mina.
Women, for
the Professor,
and the three
younger men,
John, Arthur,
and Quincey,
are there to be
worshipped
and protected.
Dracula views
them in a
different light;
they are his
nourishment
but potentially
his equals in a
companionate
marriage
lasting
centuries. It is
unsurprising
that academic
analysis of the
novel has
highlighted the
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mother and
domestic
paragon. Mina
is clearly
talented and
resourceful,
she teaches
herself
shorthand, she
sets out to be
archivist and
recording
angel for the
fellowship of
vampire
hunters,
despite Van
Helsing’s best
efforts to
sideline her,
both for her
protection and
because once
initiated into
the cult of
blood-letting
she is herself
already of the
vampire’s
party.
The
stereotypical
personification
of women as
either
Madonna or
whore is
exemplified in
Dracula;
contamination
as a vampire
brings out all
the repressed
sensuality in
Lucy as she
comes on to
her fiancé. Van
Helsing
repeatedly
refers to Mina
as ‘Miss’ Mina,
despite the
fact of her
marriage to
Jonathan, she
is Mrs Harker
and one
presumes no
longer a virgin,
but it is in the
Professor’s
interests to
maintain a
conceit of
perceived
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purity as a
bulwark
against the
attractions of
the Count.
While this TV
film spares us
much of Van
Helsing’s
fussing and
fawning, little
of the
psychological
power of the
original is lost.
Jonathan
Harker travels
to Eastern
Europe to the
home of Count
Dracula to
fulfil the
latter’s interest
in a property
in England.
Forewarned by
the
unspecified
concern of
fearful locals
Jonathan finds
himself a
prisoner in the
Count’s castle.
The Count
does not eat or
drink, he casts
no reflection
in Jonathan’s
looking glass
and, strangest
of all, he leaves
the castle at
night by
climbing headfirst
down the
castle walls.
Almost
becoming a
victim of the
Count’s
beautiful evil
‘brides’,
Harker
realises it is
his fate to
become their
victim. Having
been coerced
into writing a
letter to his
employer
claiming he is
returning to
England,
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Harker risks
all in an
escape
attempt. He
manages to
climb down
from his
bedroom
window, and
then makes
the
horrendous
discovery of
the Count and
the brides
sated and
lethargic in
their coffins in
the crypt of the
castle. Harker
attempts to kill
the Count with
a blow from a
shovel but,
instead of
decapitating
him, he only
gashes him
across the
forehead
before
continuing to
make his
escape.
Back in
England, filled
with
foreboding by
the lack of
news from
Jonathan,
Mina attempts
to enjoy her
sister Lucy’s
good fortune
in her
engagement.
Enjoying the
sea-air at
Whitby, the
girls are
witness to the
grounding of a
vessel after a
horrific storm.
Shortly
afterwards,
Mina discovers
her sister out
of bed,
apparently
sleep-walking,
where she sees
her in the
embrace of a
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tall dark
figure. Later,
pinning a
shawl around
Lucy, Mina
believes she
has pricked
her sister’s
neck for there
on the white
flesh are two
puncture
marks. Over
the coming
days, Lucy
sickens and
fails in health
causing Dr
Seward to call
in his old
Professor, Van
Helsing who,
after some
research,
proposes an
unusual cure
decorating the
girl’s bedroom
with garlic
flowers.
Unfortunately,
while this
action seems
to offer the girl
some
protection, her
mother’s
intervention
results in
tragedy when
they are
attacked by a
large dog
causing Mrs
Westenra to
die from a
heart attack.
With news
that Jonathan
has returned
following some
form of
nervous
breakdown,
Mina has
travelled to
join him and
she is absent
when Lucy
finally
succumbs to
the
debilitating
illness that has
left her so
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weak. Mina
returns,
married to
Jonathan, and
Van Helsing
confides in Dr
Seward and
also to
Quincey his
suspicions that
Lucy has been
preyed upon
by one of the
Nosferatu, and
that she
herself has
joined the
ranks of the
undead.
With the death
of Lucy, and
Van Helsing,
Seward and
Quincey’s
intervention to
save the dead
girl’s soul,
Dracula turns
his attention
to Mina,
consummating
their blood
pact while
Jonathan lies
in a hypnotic
sleep beside
them. Van
Helsing
proposes that
they must
destroy the
vampire to
save Mina,
isolating the
coffins he
brought with
him to
England and
sterilising
them with
sacramental
wafers, and
leaving the
Count with no
refuge in the
hours of
daylight.
Having done
so, the four
men and Mina
pursue
Dracula to his
homeland to
attempt to
destroy him
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forever.
A fairly
faithful
adaptation,
then, with
some 1970s
camera
trickery and
effects, the
screen goes to
negative,
blood-red
filters are used
to emphasise
Dracula’s
bloodlust. One
of the most
effective
scenes is
where Van
Helsing
confronts
Dracula with a
crucifix, the
shape of the
cross glowing
on the
vampire’s face.
The rubbery
bats flapping
against the
girls’ bedroom
windows are
pretty ropy but
you can’t have
everything.
The cast is
excellent, the
thoroughly
upright and
dependable
fraternity of
Seward,
Jonathan, and
Quincey are
somewhat
forgettable but
then the
characters
themselves are
merely ciphers
of decency.
Bosco Hogan
is Jonathan,
his first film
role was
George in
John
Boorman’s
terrific
Zardoz. Mark
Burns who
plays Dr
Seward had
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quite an
eclectic TV and
film career
before his
death, making
a final
appearance in
Matthew
Vaughn’s
Stardust.
Susan
Penhaligon
had made her
name the
previous year
playing the
doomed spoilt
daughter of
Frank Finlay,
in ITV’s
controversial
A Bouquet Of
Barbed Wire;
she already
had some
genre
experience
playing
alongside
droll-faced
American
actor Doug
McClure in the
Amicus
production
The Land That
Time Forgot.
The luminous
Judi Bowker
made her
name in kids’
TV playing
opposite a
horse in the
Sunday
afternoon telly
version of
Black Beauty,
but perhaps
she is most
famous for
being rescued
from the
Kraken by
Harry Hamlin
in Clash Of
The Titans
(1981).
Finlay himself
is excellent,
down-playing
Van Helsing’s
foreign
fussiness, and
Louis Jourdan
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is
commanding
as Dracula.
Perhaps the
outstanding
piece of acting
is from Jack
Shepherd as,
the lunatic
would-bedisciple
of
Dracula,
Renfield.
Believing that,
by consuming
the lives of
other
creatures he
can extend his
own life,
Renfield has
started small;
“Flies, spiders,
birds!” When
he is offered
Mina by
Dracula,
Renfield
resists and is
murdered by
the Count. A
tour-de-force
of sulks and
sudden mood
changes
Shepherd
makes
Renfield both
hideous and
pitiful.
Dramatic, and
quite
effectively
scary at times,
and gory in
parts, this
production
still makes
entertaining
viewing some
35 years after
its first
appearance

“Great
scientific
advances are
oftentimes
sudden
accomplished
facts before
most of us are
even dimly
aware of them.
Breathtakingly
unexpected,
for example,
was the
searing flash
that
announced the
atomic age.
Equally
unexpected
was the next
gigantic stride
when Man
moved out of
his very orbit
to a point more
than 20 million
miles to
Earth…” (voiceover
introduction)
Movies are the
art of the
impossible. Since
the very first
faltering
experiments at
projecting images
made of light and
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shadow, it has
been a medium
of miracle. If the
photo doesn’t lie,
then the cinecamera
has
always
specialised in
fooling the eye.
Twenty-first
century
blockbusters take
spectacle to
places it’s never
been before. We
take its sense of
wonder for
granted. But long
before CGI there
were visual feasts
to tease your
credulity. Here, a
monster
dinosaur-lizard
from Venus
grapples with an
elephant from
the Rome zoo.
Which is real,
and which
animation? The
alien reptile – the
‘Ymir’, must
obviously be
special effects,
but the
elephant..?
Where does stopframe
end and
reality take over?
It momentarily
fools even the
experienced eye.
And this is 1957.
But first, there’s a
dramatic
narration over
galactic spirals
and star-clusters,
as the title-words
hurl in from left
and right. Before
the film opens
onto the
picturesque
fishing village of
Commune di
Gerra in
southern Sicily,
where local
women in
headscarves
wash their
laundry in the
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river like 1950s’
third-world and
folksy Neapolitan
strings pluck and
swirl. Swarthy
fishermen with
comic accents
pause as an earsplitting
sound
precedes a
planetary rocketship
nose-diving
into the sea. As
other ships flee,
challenged with
“what are we,
children or men
of the sea?” two
men, and a boy in
a small boat,
cautiously
investigate the
ship projecting
from the
bubbling sea.
They climb in
through a hullbreach
to the
steaming
interior. Two
men in U.S. Air
Force helmets,
strapped into
their seats, are
retrieved before
the ‘ship of the
air’ submerges.
Meanwhile, in
the far-off
Pentagon, Major
General
McIntosh
(Thomas Browne
Henry) has a
moving orrery of
spinning worlds
to demonstrate
what’s going on.
His concern is
the XY21, a
single-stage
astro-propelled
ship, initially
with a 17-man
complement,
which was hit by
meteorites on its
return journey
from the planet
Venus. That ship
is now “20,000
leagues under the
sea,” right down
there with the
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fish. So McIntosh
prepares to go to
Sicily by U.S.
flying boat.
On the beach the
boy, Pepe –
convincingly
played by
American Bart
Braverman,
discovers a U.S.
capsule, and
hides it in the
rocks. When he
screws it open, it
reveals a jellylike
slug. He tries
to sell ‘the animal
specimen’ for
200 pre-Euro
Lira to marine
zoologist Dr
Leonardo (Frank
Puglia) who
happens to be
camping in a
caravan ‘houseon-the-wheels’
with his medical
student
granddaughter
Marisa (Joan
Taylor). He
makes the trade
despite calling
Pepe a ‘Sicilian
bandit’, and the
boy uses the
proceeds to buy a
bang-bang
cowboy outfit
from “the great
country of
Texas.” While
Marisa – ‘almost
a doctor’, helps
nurse the two
surviving
astronauts.
Although blond
uniformed pilot
Bob Calder
(William
Hopper)
recovers, his
companion Dr
Sharman (Arthur
Space) soon dies
from warty facial
growths.
Arriving in Italy,
McIntosh is
taken to meet
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Calder, as police
divers prepare to
descend and
search the wreck.
There’s some
amusing
confusion with
the local
authorities about
where the
submerged ship
had returned
from – “Venus –
not Venice!” But
by now events
are well under
way. In the
zoological
caravan, a
twitching claw
emerges from the
jelly-sample, and
a tiny lizard
hatches, hiding
its eyes from the
light. Placed
overnight in a
specimen cage it
rapidly grows to
three times its
original size.
Their work done,
the pair hitch the
caravan – “the
house that
follows like a
goat,” and head
back for Rome
via Messina.
En route,
inevitably, the
creature
wrenches the
cage-bars apart
and escapes,
scares the horses
and stampedes
the sheep,
although a dog
distracts its
attention from a
cutesy-cute lamb!
Alerted by Pepe,
Calder and
McIntosh speed
to the scene in
time for a
dramatic
showdown.
There’s another
encounter with a
dog when the
now man-sized
beast is
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discovered hiding
out in a barn.
Despite being
warned that it’s
“not ferocious
unless provoked”
the farmer does
some unwise
pitchfork
provocation, and
is severely
injured as a
result. Calder
jousts with the
beast, using a
pole in some
impressive liveaction
and
animation
interaction. But it
escapes into the
Italian
countryside,
taking time out to
bask at a scenic
waterfall close by
some volcanic
lava-beds.
William Hopper –
who had already
featured in the
1955 sci-fi movie
Conquest Of
Space, as well as
playing Natalie
Wood’s father in
James Dean’s
classic Rebel
Without A Cause
(1955), is now
Calder, using a
huge brick-like
walkie-talkie
radio to
coordinate
operations. The
creature eats
sulphur, so they
lure it out with
sacks of its
mineral of
choice. In uneasy
alliance with
suspicious Italian
authorities, he
uses two Marine
helicopters with
an electrified net
to capture the
fugitive beast. As
it’s carried off to
the Rome
‘Giardino
Zoologico’,
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strapped down
and controlled by
a continual
voltage charge,
Calder shoves his
cap back on his
head and slots a
cigarette into his
mouth in a jobwell-done
gesture.
Then he gets on
with his
bantering
flirtation with
Marisa,
reconciled with
the promise of a
tryst for two in a
dark café with
candles on the
table. Joan
Taylor –
American, but
with dark
Italianate
features
inherited from
her conveniently
Sicilian descent,
was familiar to
audiences
through
appearances in
TV westerns
Wagon Train
and Gunsmoke,
but could also be
seen in Ray
Harryhausen’s
box-office hit
Earth vs. The
Flying Saucers
(1956).
She’s now
working in the
Zoo labs,
“cooking over a
hot creature all
day.” She decides
the Venusian
beast is “a
mutation, but of
what species?” It
has no heart, no
lungs, and
gunfire has no
effect on it.
However, Earth’s
atmosphere has
accelerated its
growth to ‘King
Kong’
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proportions. And
like Kong, it’s an
unfortunate
victim of human
exploitation.
Retrieved as a
sample of
Venusian fauna,
it’s an unwilling
exile on Earth.
Until, taking
advantage of a
falling arc-light
accident that
interrupts the
anaesthetising
electrical supply,
it wakes, and
bursts free
through the wall
into the adjoining
elephant
compound.
Here,
Harryhausen
himself can
briefly be
glimpsed feeding
the elephants.
And this is where
his beautifully
choreographed
elephant versus
monster battle
occurs. With the
fight spilling over
into the Roman
streets, “loose
and on the
rampage”
causing
predictable
shrieks and
panic, and Calder
hot on its trail.
Both creaturecombatants,
of
course, are stopmotion
animated
and split-screen
integrated into
action-sequences
that define 1950s
state-of-the-art
visual effects.
In the next
century, as a
knowing tribute,
in 2002’s
Monsters, Inc the
CGI beasties
frequent a
Monstropolis
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sushi bar called
‘Harryhausens’.
Because Ray
himself – born 29
June 1920, is
both a
continuity-link,
and an
accelerator in the
evolution of the
movie special
effects that made
it all possible. As
a member of the
‘Los Angeles
Science Fiction
League’ Forrest J
Ackerman
introduced Ray
Harryhausen to
Ray Bradbury,
the three
‘tweenagers’
becoming firm
fan-friends.
According to
Ackerman,
Harryhausen was
inspired, and
encouraged by
Willis O’Brien’s
innovative work
on King Kong
(1933). After
“seeing ‘Kong’
upwards of 80
times in the
intervening
interval, and
always
experimenting to
find improved
methods of
creating and
animating
monsters,” he
advanced the
cinematic art,
devising what he
termed his own
‘Dynamation’
techniques.
He got to work as
O’Brien’s
assistant on
Mighty Joe
Young (1949),
performing much
of the actual
frame-by-frame
animation, but
emphatically
came into his
own with the
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spectacular
creature-feature
The Beast From
20,000 Fathoms
(1953), based on
a story by his
friend, Ray
Bradbury. Caught
up in Cold War
paranoia, a
hibernating
dinosaur is
revived and
unleashed on
New York by an
experimental
nuclear testing
programme. It
was followed by
the even more
impressive It
Came From
Beneath The Sea
(1955), this time
set on America’s
west-coast, with
a giant octopus
attacking San
Francisco.
By now,
Harryhausen had
the ability to
transform his
films into a
medium of
spectacle,
exerting a degree
of technical
control that
enabled unique
integrations of
live-action with
miniaturised
elements. His
increasingly
bankable
reputation also
meant he was
able to take
advantage of new
opportunities. So
that, despite
producer-credit
going to his longtime
collaborator
Charles H.
Schneer, 20
Million Miles
To Earth is very
much his own
project, selecting
Italian shooting
locations because
they offer the
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chance of travel
to exotic corners
of Europe.
The gift of
O’Brien’s ability
with ‘Kong’…
carried over into
Pixar’s Monsters,
is to establish
emotional
characterisation
in their creations.
And the Ymir is a
fully-realised
cast-member in
its own right,
walking upright T
Rex-style on its
hind legs while
constantly
flicking its
reptilian tail to
convey an
expressive range
from curiosity to
frustration. Its
upper jaw-line
even resembles a
kind of
moustache!
Subsequently
colourised – with
Harryhausen’s
active
participation, the
film still works
best in its
original
atmospherically
crisp black-andwhite
print.
To critics David
Miller and Mark
Gatiss, it
“remains a
fantastic sci-fi
fairy tale and
Harryhausen
deserves more
than a fortnight
in Sicily for his
pains” (They
Came From
Outer Space!,
Visual
Imagination,
1996). Among his
subsequent
movie-magic was
visualising the
mythic
masterwork
Jason And The
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Argonauts
(1963), including
perhaps his most
memorably
admired
sequence, the
sword-wielding
seven-skeleton
army; setting
standards that
would, in turn,
inspire later
generations of
fantastic filmmakers.
Meanwhile, with
an eye to the
tourist dollar,
and with the
Empire State
Building not
available, the
monster first
emerges from the
Tiber, smashing
the iconic Ponte
Sant’ Angelo
bridge to rubble
fragments, then
detours to
Rome’s most
famous location,
the Colosseum,
wrecking Roman
columns with
scant
consideration for
their historic
value. In
Ackerman’s
phrase “ruining
what wasn’t
already ruined in
Rome” (in
Nebula #23,
August 1957).
And Calder is
there. Cameras
take panoramic
pans around the
vast ruined
interior of the
empty arena.
Where is the
monster? Calder
bazooka’s it as it
climbs to the
highest point of
the outer walls
where it hurls
stone blocks
down at the
assembling
marines. It
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stumbles, but
hangs on, until
tank-fire brings
the wall down.
And it plummets
to its death.
As curious people
gather around its
mighty corpse,
and Marisa falls
into Calder’s
embrace, the
Professor
laments “why is it
always, always so
costly for man to
move from the
present to the
future..?” The
film itself
constitutes a step
forward towards
new movie
futures

It is interesting to
revisit this classic
of English
horror. Dead Of
Night is so
influential that
its elements have
become genre
tropes, and at
times the viewer
has to remind
themselves that
they are seeing
them here for the
first time.
The film has a
gentle beginning,
an architect
Walter Craig
(Mervyn Johns)
drives up a
country lane,
halts, and seeing
a cottage shakes
his head in
apparent
bemusement. His
aesthetic sense
has not been
outraged at this
example of
English
vernacular; he
believes he has
been here before.
Welcomed in by
the homeowner
Foley (Roland
Culver), who has
commissioned
him to make
some alterations,
Craig soon
indicates that he
knows his way
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around the
property. And, on
his introduction
to the other
house guests,
reveals that he
believes himself
to have met them
all before in a
recurrent dream,
the details of
which resurface
during his stay,
and lead him to
believe some
tragedy or great
‘evil’ is destined
to engulf him.
A sceptical voice
is raised in the
person of the
psychologist Dr
van Straaten, but
the other guests
believe Craig’s
story, and in his
defence recount
incidents from
their own
experience that
supports the
credo that ‘there
are more things
in heaven and
earth than are
dreamt of in your
philosophy.’ This
then is the
framing narrative
within which a
portmanteau of
stories of
hauntings and
possession are
presented. In the
first story, a
racing driver
recovering from a
crash has an
inexplicable
vision of a hearse
outside of the
room in which he
is convalescent.
The driver of the
hearse, the
character actor
Miles Malleson,
with a jocular
wink indicates
that there is
“Room for one
inside.” On his
release from
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hospital, the
patient is about
to board a bus
when the
conductor,
Malleson again,
tells him there is
“Room for one
inside.”
Shrinking back,
the reluctant
passenger then
watches in horror
as the bus
ploughs through
the parapet of a
bridge and
crashes into the
river.
In the second
story a young
girl, Sally Ann
Howes (Chitty
Chitty Bang
Bang’s ‘Truly
Scrumptious’),
recalls a
Christmas party
in which the
young guests play
the frankly
creepy game of
Sardines. Having
been told that a
ghastly murder
once took place
in the house, and
escaping from an
over-affectionate
young beau, the
girl discovers a
tearful young boy
distraught
because his
bullying elder
sister has
threatened to kill
him. After
comforting the
child and
returning to the
party, the girl
discovers that the
child, Francis
Kent, was the
victim of a
murder that took
place some
decades before.
The child, and his
sister Constance,
were the real
players in a
notorious murder
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case; in fact
Constance Kent
had died in
Australia the year
before Dead Of
Night appeared.
In the third story
Joan (Googie
Withers) buys
her fiancé Peter a
mirror as a
present. Most
men, one would
imagine,
wouldn’t be overenamoured
of
this but the
dandyish Peter is
delighted. Peter
begins to see
another room
reflected in the
mirror, a room
from another era,
in stark contrast
to his modern
minimalist
bedroom. Joan
cannot see the
room, and Peter
cannot see Joan
in the mirror.
The room in the
haunted mirror
begins to terrify
Peter but, with
an effort of will,
and Joan’s help
and support, he
manages to
banish the vision.
While Joan is
away visiting her
mother, Peter
sees the room
again. Returning
to the shop where
she bought the
mirror, Joan is
told that it
belonged to a
man who, when
crippled and
confined to his
bedroom,
became
consumed with
jealousy at his
wife’s imagined
infidelity,
eventually
murdering her.
Returning to
Peter, Joan finds
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him transformed
and accusing of
her of being
unfaithful with
an old admirer.
Almost strangled
by Peter, Joan
only frees him
from his
obsession by
destroying the
mirror.
The next episode,
the ‘golfing
story’, features a
classic double-act
of British cinema,
Naunton Wayne
and Basil
Radford who,
firstly as
Caldicott and
Charters the
cricket-obsessed
duo from
Hitchcock’s The
Lady Vanishes,
featured in a
range of films
throughout the
1940s. Here they
are golfing
buddies who fall
out over a girl.
They decide to
settle the suit by
playing their
favourite game;
the Radford
character cheats,
and his rival
commits suicide
in a particularly
eerie scene by
walking out into
the lake water
hazard.
Subsequently,
Radford finds his
golf plagued by
the ghost of his
rival who, while
invisible to
others, threatens
to haunt him
unless he gives
up the game or
the girl. Having
decided to
sacrifice sex for
the links,
Radford is
dismayed that
Wayne cannot
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remember the
elaborate
contortions
required to
dematerialise,
and the haunting
continues right
up to the night of
the honeymoon.
Attempting to
help his erstwhile
friend and rival
Radford only
succeeds in
vanishing
himself. Left
alone with the
new bride in the
next room,
Wayne ponders
whether “To
pass, or not to
pass,” decides to
play-through and
rushes into the
nuptial chamber.
Not only is this
story a bit more
lightweight, it
features definite
supernatural
activity as
opposed to the
ambiguity of the
other stories, and
ultimately it is
revealed, in the
linking frame
narrative, to be a
bit of ribbing by
its narrator
(Culver). It is a
piece of
humorous ‘timeout’
before the
heavy business of
the most famous
sequence, the
ventriloquist’s
dummy starring
Michael
Redgrave and the
repulsive Hugo.
Dr van Straaten
tells a story
concerning his
own experience
of the uncanny.
He is brought in
to assess the
mental state of a
ventriloquist
accused of the
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attempted
murder of a
showbiz
colleague.
American
ventriloquist
Maurice Olcott
visits the night
club run by
Beulah (famous
singing star
Elisabeth Welch)
to take in the act
of Maxwell Frere.
Using his own
‘vent’ ability,
Olcott interacts
with Frere’s
dummy Hugo,
upsetting Frere
and causing the
act to stutter to a
bit of a shambolic
close. Hugo
invites Olcott to
visit backstage.
Hugo seems to be
the dominant
partner in the act
with Frere often
sidelined;
amused Olcott
addresses his
remarks to the
dummy but is
surprised when
Frere intervenes
as if he is not in
control of Hugo’s
remarks. When
Frere jams his
hand over Hugo’s
mouth to prevent
some outburst,
the dummy
appears to bite
his owner. Frere
turns down work
and Olcott
encounters him
in a bar in a state
of inebriation.
When a young
woman asks to
handle the
dummy Hugo
insults her and
her boyfriend
punches Frere
out. Olcott helps
Frere and Hugo
to their room, but
Frere seems
convinced that
Olcott has plans
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to take Hugo for
himself.
Later, Frere
bursts into
Olcott’s room
accusing him of
stealing the
dummy, when he
finds Hugo in the
room he shoots
Olcott who
miraculously
survives. In an
attempt to break
through to Frere,
van Straaten asks
for Hugo to be
placed in the
former’s cell.
Frere suffers a
trauma and
pounds the
dummy’s head
under his foot.
Frere relapses
into a catatonic
state which van
Straaten
attempts to
relieve by
confronting him
with Olcott who
has made a
partial recovery.
The plan works
but Frere has
suffered an
alarming
transformation.
All through the
telling of the tales
Walter Craig has
predicted events
in the cottage,
the arrival or
departure of
some of the
guests, Dr van
Straaten
breaking his
glasses, a powercut.
He is fearful
of the evil climax
suggested by his
recurrent
nightmare, and
now, left alone
with van
Straaten, he
succumbs,
strangling the
Doctor and then,
attempting to
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escape,
stumbling into a
maelstrom of
scenes revisiting
the tales told by
the other guests.
Finally, finding
himself in Frere’s
cell, with the
guests baying
through the bars
of the prison, he
has a fatal
confrontation
with Hugo the
ventriloquist’s
dummy. The film
ends with Walter
Craig waking
after his
nightmare, only
to receive a call
from Foley,
Culver’s
character, asking
him down to his
country cottage
to discuss a
proposed
renovation. Craig
thinks he has
heard the name
before but cannot
place it; the film
ends with him
driving up in his
car, halting and
gazing at the
cottage in
bemused
recognition. The
horror begins
again.
The
ventriloquist’s
dummy is
justifiably the
most famous
sequence in the
film and has
spawned its
imitators.
Redgrave’s
performance is
astonishing, and
it’s true, the eyes
have it. Matthew
Sweet suggests
that his
performance may
have had
something to do
with his anxiety
over his personal
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life, as he had
three children by
that point and
work was
impinging on
family life. As is
pointed out, the
dummy story has
clear homoerotic
overtones, with a
bizarre love
triangle between
Frere, Hugo, and
the potential
usurper Olcott,
so it seems more
likely that
Redgrave’s
absorption in the
role sprang from
his own
misgivings about
his bisexuality
and the double
life that
engendered.
The portmanteau
film became a
staple of British
horror with
Amicus
Productions,
some good, some
bad. My own
favourite is Dr
Terror’s House
Of Horrors
(1965), in which
DJ-turned-actor
Alan ‘Fluff’
Freeman,
terrorised by a
murderous
sentient shrub,
utters the
immortal line
“I’m no stranger
to garden tools.”
The blu-ray
restoration of
this film is
excellent and a
comparison of
footage is
provided as part
of the extras. A
75-minute
consideration of
the film’s themes,
history, and
influence is
provided by a
team of
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commentators
including the
ubiquitous Kim
Newman, actor
and writer Reece
Shearsmith, and
director John
Landis. The
circular conceit
of Dead Of Night
is revealed to
have inspired
Fred Hoyle’s
theory of a steady
state universe.
The analysts are
so thorough in
their
consideration of
the film I can
hardly dissect it
myself with any
originality; I
would rather
watch informed
and informative
talking heads like
these than have
to wade through
outtakes,
makings-of, and
blooper reels.