Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Inside Irwin Allen's The Time Tunnel

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Riders to the Stars

Riders to the Stars (1954)

Mankind is reaching out into space, but the path isn't as simple as once thought.  Deadly cosmic rays are turn the first test rockets into dust and the US government recruits three pilots to fly into orbit to recover meteorites, which scientists believe hold the solution to the problem.  Can they overcome their personal fears and withstand the stresses of training long enough to complete their mission.

Riders to the Stars is another of Ivan Tors's close-but-no-cigar sci fi efforts.  While he strives mightily to produce an adult drama filled with real passion and white knuckle suspense, he ends up with an overwrought melodrama that is sometimes unintentionally funny due to its sheer earnestness.  We also see here Tors's on-going love of technology and desire to put up on the screen every bit of lab equipment he can get his hands on and to hell with wither the final set looks less like a space centre than a jumble sale at a high school physics class.  Riders has such lofty ambitions that it seems almost cruel to point out how badly it fails (the spacesuits are painful to look at and Dawn Adams fights like mad to screw some sort of performance out of her dreadful lines), but in the end, it ends up as little more than a footnote in the history of cinematic science fiction at the dawn of the Space Age.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Little Sally is unhappy.  She's been packed off to live with her estranged father and his new girlfriend in a huge, exquisitely appointed Victorian mansion that he's renovating for a major magazine shoot before flipping it for a profit.  Lonely and neglected, Sally explores the grounds and discovers a sealed basement room with a bolted ash grate from which come voices–creepy, whispering voices that want to be her friends.  When the grate opens, at first Sally thinks that strange playmates have been liberated, but they soon turn out to be anything but.

A remake of the cult classic 1973 television play, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is not a dreadful film.  In many ways, it's quite good, but it is an example of why remakes are not always, or even generally, a good idea even if the filmmaker is a talented professional who loves the original.  Though this version strives to be as scary as the original and works hard to recreate much of its vocabulary, it is, in the end unsuccessful.  Part of the problem is the attempt to break new ground with the child-in-jeopardy plot, which is disturbing rather than frightening as is the dysfunctional family subplot, which is merely distracting.

But the main problem is very simple: The budget is too large.  The mansion setting is too grand to be claustrophobic and all location shooting at airports and in New York only destroy what little atmosphere is created.  Where the original budget only allowed for three evil creatures who were never clearly seen and always wrapped in mystery, here we have an army of rat monsters with a detailed back story that dispels any hope of engaging the audience's imagination.  Worse, it drops major holes in the plot, not the least of which is why the creatures don't just grab Sally and carry her off the second they're alone with her.  In the original, the creatures were few and had to engineer events to "get" the adult Sally.  Here, they're a horde who have no such limitations.  They're also established as mortal as more than one is squashed in one of the set piece battles.  This got so bad that by the end, I was waiting for someone to hit one of the creatures in the mouth with a piece of apple pie, which would lead to a look of delighted revelation and the film ending with the family and their new friends all sitting around the kitchen table laughing over plates of pie and big glasses of milk.

It wouldn't have been any more disappointing.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark(1973)

Moving into a new house can sometimes be a little unnerving, even a little scary, but it generally isn't an exercise in flat-out terror.  Alex and Sally Farnham are settling into their new home; a Victorian pile that belonged to Sally's recently deceased grandmother.  While remodelling, Sally comes across a sealed up fireplace door in the basement den.  Against the advice of their handyman, Sally forces open the grating and now she's seeing things moving in the shadows and she's hearing voices–voices that are whispering her name.

In the 1970s, The American ABC network had considerable success with their series of teleplays marketed as the "Movie of the Week".  Most of these were fairly pedestrian affairs, but one result was a minor renaissance in science fiction and horror plays that showed remarkable imagination and innovation.  The reason for this is that the producers were forced to work on tiny budgets and, having at their disposal professionals who'd worked in film since the '40s, rather than fighting against these limitations, they exploited them to produce plays that relied on sparking the audience's imagination rather than saturating it with special effects.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a classic example.  It's an intimate, claustrophobic tale of terror about a young wife who moves away from New York to a place of relative isolation while her husband concentrates obsessively on his job back in the city.  As the strange happenings become more and more obvious, Sally goes from doubting her sanity to trying to convince her spouse and neighbours that there is something seriously wrong.  It doesn't help that the "something" is working overtime to prove to everyone that Sally is bonkers.

There's also a lot of credibility given to the sense of mounting dread.  It's established that the somethings that are after Sally aren't numerous, nor are they all-powerful, so they can't just "get" her; they must manipulate the situation in order to get Sally isolated and helpless.  Meanwhile, Sally can't just bolt out the front door because it's never as simple as all that.  Writer Nigel McKeand is especially clever in that he never reveals too much about the menace.  We never get a good look at them and we're only told enough about them to make them credible without making them understandable.  They remain that most frightening of childhood horrors; the monster under the bed that wants to "get" you.

Kim Darby gives a stong performance here from introduction to the final, chilling voiceover while William Demarest as the handyman's very ordinariness gives real force as he relates a tale that is in frightening contrast to his world of planks and paint.

But the real mystery of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is why anyone thought this needed remaking rather than just re-releasing.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)

In 1928, rural Vermont is struck by torrential rains and the consequent flooding washes down "things" found by the locals that spark off a minor sensation in the newspapers that draws Miskatonic University folklorist Albert Wilmarth.  Convinced that these sightings are just the result of superstition and yellow journalism, Wilmarth ends up in an embarrassing debate with real-life compiler of the weird Charles Fort.  Smarting from his defeat, he isn't too happy to be approached afterwards by the son of a man who lives in the mountain country of Vermont who claims to have not only proof of the existence of these "things", but that he's being watched by them and their human allies.  Soon, Wilmarth finds himself on a train to Vermont that will answer questions that he wished he'd never asked.

The Whisperer in Darkness is produced by the H P Lovecraft Historical Society, the same group that made The Call of Cthulhu in 2007.  Like Chtulhu, this is a amateur labour of love production by people dedicated to bringing the works of Lovecraft to the screen that are set in the period of his stories and reflect the cinema of the time.  In this case, they've gone forward from their previous silent pastiche for one more like the monochrome thrillers of the 1930s.  With obvious enthusiasm on the part of the cast and crew and a strong eye for detail, director Sean Branney comes up with a final product that has the production values and acting talent that shows that entertaining cinema is no longer reserved for the big studios with blockbuster budgets.

But what really puts Whisperer over is the strength of its script.  Though it remains much more faithful to Lovecraft than most adaptations, the screenplay acknowledges that adaption to the screen does not mean filming the book.  The character of our narrator Wilmarth is fleshed out with a back story and motives that turn him into a protagonist who is a proper character and the twist ending, which is jolting in print, but an anti-climax on video, is made the springboard for a more intense denouement.  And since it's impossible to make Lovecraft's hinted at horrors and atmospheric word pictures work here, the writers wisely decide to concentrate more on the effects of this knowledge on those it affects.

In all, a good example of a labour of loved backed by competent craftsmanship. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


Is the three-point landing a cinematic cliche?


Monday, 7 May 2012

Review: The Avengers

The Avengers (2012)

Thor's evil brother Loki comes to Earth to prepare the way for his invading alien army and Nick Fury of SHIELD recruits the planet's most powerful superheroes to battle the menace, but when you have a load of super beings who shouldn't even be in the same room, turning them into a team isn't easy.

That sound you hear is all the money being sucked toward The Avengers at box offices all over the world.  after years of build up via individual franchise films for Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor plus a steady publicity campaign that hyped the film into the biggest of the year, the payoff could only be delight or utter disappointment on a Phantom Menace scale.

It was not disappointment.  The Avengers is the end product of a very clever campaign on the part of Marvel. By introducing the members of the superhero team in previous films it didn't just build an audience to channel into the Avengers, it also brought that audience up to speed on who these characters are, so we didn't need masses of exposition to explain who Thor is or why Iron Man is a snarky billionaire or the villain's back story.  Instead, director Joss Whedon merely takes all that as a given and hits the ground running.  Even before the title credits we have an alien artefact going into overload, Loki showing up, shooting a load of agent, placing more under mind control, stealing the artefact, destroying a top secret installation and escaping in a car chase in a mine collapse.

It would be easy to call this a roller coaster or something like that, but the best way to describe is that The Avengers is what every geeky kid ever wanted a superhero film to be.  It's how a six-year old remembers Christopher Reeves's Superman: The Movie when it first came out.  It's how you always hope a comic book film will be and never is.  Best of all, it isn't a slavish and fanboy translation from comic book to screen.  Instead, Whedon has the sense to pick and choose from the Marvel universe.  He takes this bit, ignores that bit, changes others and comes up with a screenplay that is consistent with the earlier films, is respectful of the source material, satisfies all but the most hardcore fans, and (most important) makes it all accessible to audiences who don't particularly like comic books or superheroes but like blockbuster movies with characters with some life to them.

The action sequences are remarkable, not only for their scale, but also because, unlike many action films, they are properly choreographed so you have some idea of what is going on and the fights reflect and grow our of who the characters are, which many directors forget.

But it's the characters who make The Avengers work.  Without bringing the plot to a halt, but using it to push it along, we see the Avengers and the members of SHIELD brought unwillingly together. Tony Stark is no team player, Steve Rogers awakens 70 years after WWII and isn't impressed with modern society, Bruce Banner just wants to stay in control of himself, Thor is sick of human bickering and Nick Fury would like everyone to kindly remember the alien invasion and do something about it.  And, this being the Marvel universe, the heroes end up fighting each other at every misunderstanding.  It could have been a real mess, but Whedon keeps it in focus and things ticking along.

Whedon has never been my favourite director.  In fact, I rather dislike almost everything he does, but with The Avengers he scores a bullseye.  I rather suspect that it's because he brings a love of comics and a knowledge of them to the project combined with a real understanding of what is needed to appeal to a general audience.  He is a natural comic book film director.

The verdict on The Avengers?  This is no Lawrence of Arabia, but it is very probably the best superhero film ever made.  It delivers what was promised, and that's good enough.