Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Island of Terror (1966)
Island of Terror is a fast paced, imaginative and at times, wonderfully cheesy slice of British sci-fi horror, straddling the twin sub genres of "science run amok" and "trapped on a remote British island". Despite the presence of director Terence Fisher and star Peter Cushing, it is not a Hammer film, and feels if anything like a precursor 1970s era Dr Who.
On a remote island the police constable makes a grisly find - the corpse of a local farmer, but without a single bone in his body. The local doctor is stumped, so travels to the mainland to seek help from top London pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and bone disease expert Dr. David West. Back on the island they find more boneless bodies - and a mysterious lab where a scientist was working on a cure for cancer. Has this got some link to the strange creatures responsible for the horrifying deaths? But with all transport and communication to the island cut off, will any of them make it off alive?
Island of Terror was very obviously knocked out cheaply and quickly, but the film-makers respond to it with typical British Gusto. Firstly, by cheerfully ignoring the ridiculous rubber monsters causing the terror, and secondly by focussing more on the script. Being trapped in a place is a classic horror trope, and the script does set up, albeit through portentous dialogue, plenty of reasons why they can not get away. The writers are also not afraid to throw in twists and shocks, and bump off important and likeable characters. Granted some of the attitudes have not dated well. Toni Merrill, Dr West's girlfriend exists purely, as the daughter of a wealthy man with a helicopter, to give the men quick transport back to the island. After that she spends most of her time screaming and needing to be rescued. The slightly patronising attitudes of the London lot to the island folk looks a little cringeworthy too, especially when it was big city slicker scientists that started the whole crisis in the first place.
Some of the special effects, such as the boneless corpses or an dismembering a hand are surprisingly gruesome and shocking for a 1960s film. Others, particularly the creatures themselves, are just awful. They look like rubber shells stuffed with noodles, and coupled with the weird squeaky electronic noises they make, could come straight out of 1970s Dr Who. Cushing, as usual, plays it admirably straight, and brings some dignity to these scenes.
In fact, with some minor tweaks, the whole thing could play as a 70s Dr Who story, with Jon Pertwee in the Cushing role, and similar ideas of science gone bad and threatening the world were explored in stories of that era, such as The Green Death and The Seeds of Doom. Plus, there is a perpetually screaming woman who always needs to be rescued.
The film finishes on a speech defending the scientist whose work caused all the problems, a sort of, "okay, it went bad, but at least he meant well". This is quickly followed by a twist ending along the lines of "at least it's not happening anywhere else", followed by a cut to a lab in Japan, where.... well, I'm sure you can guess.
Sunday, 17 April 2016
The Raid is one of the most compellingly relentless action films of recent times.
Rama (martial arts star Iko Uwais) is a rookie officer in an elite Indonesian police paramilitary unit. His team's first mission is to infiltrate the high-rise slum fortress of ruthless gang boss Tama, previously considered untouchable by the police. However, things very quickly go wrong The problem? The apartment complex the cops are invading is occupied by tenants who range from assassins to thugs to certifiable psychopaths – and all the other scum the slums have to offer. The cops barely make it through the door before they’re spotted by the crooks, and from there it is an all-out war, floor by floor, as Rama and his teammates try to brave a nightmare of violence and destruction in order to make their arrest.
Writer and director Gareth Evans takes a simple concept and wisely avoids overcomplicating it, keeping the story moving forward at all times and also steers clear of modern cliches such as smirking one-liners, and “bromance”. The characters are far from invulnerable, giving a real sense of uncertainty to the outcome at times.
The action is shot and edited for maximum impact, with hardly a wasted shot or scene, leaving the viewer breathless. Granted, this does not leave much time to introduce the characters, many of whom, good and bad, get bumped off before we've barely had time to learn their names. This does have two justifiable outcomes however, as the scale of the carnage sets the tone of the threat, and the diminished cast keeps the story focussed.
While The Raid is ostensibly an action film, the gore, confined spaces and overwhelming tension at times make it feel like a horror film. There is also one other disconcerting element that links it to that genre - the building itself. The exterior has a slightly unreal feel, the overwhelming height giving the feel of a fairy tale castle. The interiors are nightmarish, dark, dingy, more like an insane asylum than a residential tower block.
Thursday, 7 April 2016
1950s sci-fi films often feature campy special effects and hostile outsiders from another planet trying to invade this one but Forbidden Planet stands out from the crowd in that it features neither of these things. MGM poured a lot of money into the excellent model work and borrowed a Disney man to work on the animated laser blasts and the famed "Monsters from the ID" and the threat comes not from "out there" but from deep within the mind of man.
In the 23rd Century, a star ship led by Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) is sent to the distant planet of Altair 4 in order to find out what happened to an expedition who landed there 20 years earlier. On arrival the crew are met by the only survivors, Dr Morbius and his daughter Altaira, and their robot servant, Robby. Morbius tells them that his shipmates and their craft were destroyed by a planetary force when they tried to leave. The same force starts to attack Adams and his crew and ship but is it a force which may have a source closer to home than someone would like to admit?
The script for Forbidden Planet is both one of the best and weakest things about the film. The themes explored are serious and intelligent, aimed at adults, not the teenage drive-in crowd of The Blob, and are engaging and thought provoking. But it is also relentlessly talky at times, giving the film an often sluggish paced, something not helped by the slightly flat and stilted performances of the leads.
However, these occasional lapses are more than made up for by the sumptuous visuals, whether it is the spacecraft model work, the huge, imposing and beautifully realised Krell underground cities (structures that completely dwarf their human interlopers), or the eerie and disturbing animated silhouettes of the Id monster, courtesy of Disney’s Joshua Meador, who was loaned to MGM for the film.
The story is not entirely original of course. Forbidden Planet often gets branded as a space opera version of The Tempest, and while that is not strictly true, it does share some similarities with Shakespeare's play. The Tempest centres on Prospero, a magician exiled to an island with his daughter Miranda by his brother Antonio who then steals his title and property. Prospero uses his powers to cause a storm that shipwrecks Antonio, trapping him on the island where he can take his revenge. Morbius is the Prospero character with Altaira as Miranda, and Altair 4 stands in for Prospero's island. After that the comparisons don't really work as Adams and the crew are strangers to Morbius, and he is not driven by revenge, rather a desire to be left alone to carry exploring the planet and the Krell, the now extinct civilisation that lived there previously.
Forbidden Planet works much better if you judge it as a piece of work in its own right, and as a time capsule of the ideas, attitudes and obsessions of the time in which it was made. The first of these obsessions is Freudian psychoanalysis, which by the 1950s had come out of the consulting room and into popular culture, in particular the movies, through the work of directors such as Hitchcock. It is made explicit in Forbidden Planet through talk of "Monsters from the Id". The Id is what Freud thought of as the primitive, instinctive, often illogical aspect of our personality that demands immediate satisfaction, regardless of the consequences. Morbius thinks both he and the Krell have outgrown this, but it soon becomes apparent, particularly when handsome space pilots take a shine to his daughter, that he has not, and the raging torrent in his psyche takes a more literal and deadly form when linked to the highly advanced Krell technology.
Forbidden Planet is also very much of it's time in its look and attitudes. The Flying Saucer that the crew arrive in is another 1950s icon, albeit one here used by mankind rather than little green men. The film has some of the 50s can-do optimism of a country riding high from the post-war euphoria, with a new generation of pioneers, rolling up their sleeves and carving out new worlds. The craft is run like the ships and subs that some of the audience may have served on during the war 10 years earlier, even down to the cook with a taste for bourbon.
Robby the Robot is also a very old fashioned idea of a robot, basically a butler with a deadpan tone of voice. Although a wildly impractical design, he would go to become an iconic figure in further films and TV shows, and here, more importantly, plays an important role, driving the plot forward with his manufacturing capabilities and programmed attitudes towards human life. The deadpan tone also provides some comic relief to the sometimes very serious onscreen talking.
The astonishing, unsettling soundtrack is the work of electronic music pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron. It breaks all the rules of what a soundtrack should be in two big ways. Firstly it is entirely atonal, being composed and performed on oscillators made by the Barrons, and fed through echoes and tape loops. Secondly, by having their work represent everything from the ambient noise of the Krell buildings, the roar of the monsters and the ship’s engines, but also having it underpin key scenes to add to the tension, they blur the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic audio.
Forbidden Planet had a further influence beyond this, leaving an undeniable mark on the whole sci-fi genre. It paved the way for serious, adult sci-fi such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as providing the template for Star Trek. The film and TV show both feature a ship run like a military craft, exploring new worlds and investigating mysteries, but using a scientific approach to explain things. In addition, the human drama in Trek and Forbidden Planet centres around the three main crew members, the First Officer, the ship’s doctor, and the steely, unflappable captain with an eye for the ladies.