Roger Moore, RIP

Roger_Moore_as 007Actor Roger Moore, who played James Bond in seven films, succumbed to cancer in Switzerland at the age of 89. His family made announcement was via Twitter. Besides acting, Moore was a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and an advocate for children’s causes and animal rights. In 1999, he was given title Commander of the British Empire.
More first gained in the television series THE SAINT. He was supposedly an early choice to play James Bond when Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were preparing DR. NO, the first big-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s spy novels, but the role went to Sean Connery instead. After seven Bond films (including one with George Lazenby), Moore finally got to play 007 in LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), which was a box office success though not beloved by fans, who thought that Moore lacked Connery’s lethal quality.
Roger Moore was the right Bond at the right time, emphasizing the humor when the series reached a point it could not be taken even half-way seriously. In interviews, he expressed amusement that 007 was supposed to be a “secret” agent, yet every bartender in the world knew he wanted a “vodka martini – shaken, not stirred!” Moore avoided ordering the famous drink onscreen, though other characters would order it for him. Moore added his own touches to the role, such as smoking cigars rather than the Turkish cigarettes mentioned in Fleming’s books. The actor played up the one-liners (which he delivered with aplomb even when they were duds) and provided occasionally comical reaction shots to Bond’s predicaments. At times, the films approached self-parody, which irritated fans looking for something closer to Fleming’s hard-edged original.
In truth, the flaws with Moore’s first two 007 films were more due less to him than to the direction the series was taking, even before he arrived. A look at Connery’s last official Bond, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (made by the team of director and writers who would do the first two Moore Bonds), reveals everything that’s going to go wrong with LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN – including the goofier tone, to which Connery was ill-suited. Moore’s films got better with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), one of the most enjoyable 007 outings. After the cartoonishy comical follow-up, MOONRAKER (set in outer space to cash in on STAR WARS), Moore got more serious in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) and OCTOPUSSY (1983).
Though Moore’s tenure as the world’s most famous fictional secret agent ended in 1985 with A VIEW TO A KILL, he continued to work, appearing in television productions and providing voices for such films as CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE. His other film appearances include FFOLKES (with David Hedison, who had played CIA agent Felix Lighter in LIVE AND LET DIE); THE WILD GEESE (with Richard Burton); and THE QUEST (with Jean-Claude Van Damme). He was also in an odd doppleganger movie, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF.
Read Variety’s obituary here.

RIP: Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson (right) with Dario Argento
Keith Emerson (right) with Dario Argento

Keith Emerson – the keyboard genius and composer – has died. According to Rolling Stone, the 71-year-old musician was found at his home in Santa Monica, with a single gunshot wound in his head – an apparent suicide (though that has not been confirmed yet). Emerson was known mostly for his virtuoso keyboard work in the 1970s prog-rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but he also provided soundtrack music for such horror films as Dario Argento’s INFERNO, Lucio Fulci’s MURDER ROCK, Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH, and Godzilla’s 2004 swansong, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS.
Emerson was a flashy musician, who combined virtuoso technique worth of a concert pianist with outrageous stage antics (such as thumping his Hammond organ up and down to distort the sound, and using alligator clamps on the keyboard to create droning notes over which he could solo). Besides organ and piano, he was an early user of the Moog synthesizer, a monophonic instrument that could produce novel, electronic sounds, which Emerson used to create amazing solos and sonic landscapes, many with fantasy, science fiction, or mythological overtones, such as “The Three Fates” and “Tarkus,” an epic suite whose cover art suggested an epic battle between a manticore and a biomechanical armadillo-tank. His music combined rock and pop with classical and jazz influences. He frequently performed rock arrangements of classical pieces such as Holst’s Mars, Bringer of War (on the Emerson, Lake, and Powell album from 1986) and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a staple of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s live shows (including the throbbing and creepy “Hut of Baba Yaga,” inspired by a painting of a witch-like character from Slavic folklore).
Brain Salad Surger - artwork by Giger
Brain Salad Surger - artwork by Giger

Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 album Brain Salad Surger featured cover artwork by H.R. Giger, and climaxed with Karn Evil 9 – 3rd Impression, which featured an early use of a sequencer (a device to pre-program notes which can be played back at any speed), with lyrics suggesting a futuristic battle between humanity and artificial intelligence.
Emerson’s work on INFERNO – his debut as a soundtrack composer – features a quieter, moody approach, with melancholy piano chords over strings, but there are a some faster-paced cues with pulsing rhythms and/or ominous electronic sounds. The soundtrack album represents some of his finest, most subtle work. It is also remarkable for representing one of the few times that director Dario Argento used a complete score intact in one of his films, instead of cutting and pasting together bits and pieces: the music on the album and in the movie coincide almost identically (with one or two minor deviations).
Emerson’s later soundtrack work was not up to par with INFERNO. NIGHTHAWKS was adequate. MURDER ROCK has one or two interesting cues. His main theme for THE CHURCH was effective, but his contribution to that film was limited to a few cues, mixed in with contributions from Phillip Glass, Simon Boswell, and Fabio Pignatelli of Goblin.
Purchase at Amazon.com
Purchase at Amazon.com

GODZILLA: FINAL WARS was another patch-job, stitched together from Emerson’s contributions, along with music by Daisuke Yano and Nobuhiko Morino. Fortunately, Emerson’s distinctive contribution shines through, particularly his glistening fanfare for the main title theme, which features Emeron’s trademark keyboard sound, emulating brassy orchestra.
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s back catalog remains easily available. Emerson’s soundtrack albums may be out of print or hard to find, but the tracks were assembled into the album Keith Emerson at the Movies, which is available on CD through Amazon and via streaming through Spotify.

PETER CUSHING: A Tribute to Christopher Lee

The ninth issue of Cinefantastique featured a career article devoted to Christopher Lee, way back in the fall of 1973. Peter Cushing wrote this heartfelt introduction for his good friend, although they were only to make three more films together. Luckily Ted Newsome brought them together one last time for his documentary on Hammer films, Flesh and Blood, shortly before Mr. Cushing died in 1994.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee sharing a joke on the set of THE GORGON
In May 1972 Christopher Lee and I made a psychological thriller entitled Nothing But the Night. It was our 18th film together, a partnership spanning some fifteen years. It was fitting that this “Coming of Age Anniversary” should be celebrated by the first film under his own banner—Charlemagne Productions, Ltd.
One of the greatest compliments any actor can be paid is to hear people say, “It all looks so easy.” It is not.
To reach this stage in his career and maintain his position and enormous popularity has cost him much in hard work, dogged determination, resolution and sheer drive, sometimes in the face of ruthless competition and misunderstandings, apart from facing and learning all the technical difficulties presented in the art of film acting—yet still making it look “all too easy.” The art which conceals art.
Of commanding stature (some 6 foot, 4 inches tall), he uses his physical presence to great advantage, moving with grace and authority. Some are awed when first meeting him in person, but they would do well to know that beneath this outward aloofness and dignity lies a very human being: sensitive, warm, and oft times suffering from nerves which he goes to great lengths to conceal.
Among his accomplishment—perhaps unknown to his public—he is a Greek scholar, he possesses a magnificent bass singing voice, a wonderful knack for impersonation, has command of at least six languages, is an expert swordsman and a superb amateur golfer. Couple all this with a delicious sense of humor and wit—plus a deep personal kindness—then you will be getting somewhat closer to the real personality of this truly remarkable man.
He holds strong views about the business in general and, in particular about the misuse of the word “horror” as applied to some of his films, rightly preferring the more subtle and correct term “fantasy,” for that, indeed, is what they are.
Unstintingly, Christopher gives his public one hundred percent of himself and his talent, but full use has not yet been made of his range. Knowing him as I do, it will not remain hidden under a bushel forever.
I am privileged to count him as a dear friend as well as a valued and respected professional colleague.
PETER CUSHING
Whitstable, 1973

RIP: Godzilla FX director Koichi Kawakita

Godzilla vs. Biollante
Godzilla vs. Biollante

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Koichi Kawakita, the special effects director who updated Godzilla for the ’90s, helping to spur interest in an American remake, has passed away. Kawakita died on his 72 birthday anniversary, December 5, 2014; the cause of death was liver failure. You can read an obituary by August Ragone here.
Kawakita took over the special effects for the GODZILLA series with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), a film which saw a new generation of behind-the-scenes craftsman reinventing the character for a new generation. Directors and writers came and went, but Kawakita remained with the series throughout the 1990s, recreating many of Godzilla’s most famous opponents in GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993). He also directed special effects for OROCHI, THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON (1994, aka YAMATO TAKERU) and the Mothra spin-off series that began in 1996 with REBIRTH OF MOTHRA (aka MOSURA).
Koichi Kawakita, surrounded by his beastiary.
Koichi Kawakita, surrounded by his beastiary.

Kawakita helped return Godzilla to his roots, abandoning the comical hijinx of the 1960s and 1970s films in favor of a more serious approach, with the monster depicted as a destructive force of nature, though not necessarily evil. The Godzilla depicted in his effects work was an enormous beast with shark-like rows of teeth and more facial expression than in the older films; the design of the suit remained mostly consistent from film to film, though it did evolve gradually, the bulky proportions helping to hide the human anatomy of the actor inside. Awe-inspiring and sometimes frightening, Kawakit’as Godzilla was an anti-hero – dangerous but sometimes preferable to the alternative – perfectly suited to a series of screenplays that consistently played around with the question of whether we should root for or against the monster.
Though not realistic, Kawakit’as work was imaginative and colorful, and it was filled with spectacular, memorable images: Godzilla decapitating one of Ghidorah’s heads with a blast of atomic breath; the shock wave of Rodan’s flight creating miniature explosions in the ocean beneath him; Mothra’s wings gracefully unfurling as she emerged from her cocoon; and Godzilla himself going China Syndrome at the end of GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995).
Kawakit’s work was filled with a Sense of Wonder. He brought a beloved fantasy character back to life for a new generation, and his legacy lives on in the films that followed, including this year’s American remake.

Podcast 5-5-2: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Maximillian Schell, Gordon Hessler

Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast
A sad installment of the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast, as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski note the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman (THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE), Maximillian Schell (THE BLACK HOLE), and Gordon Hessler (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN). Also, Dan Persons weighs in on his first exposure to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).


[serialposts]

Richard Matheson: He Was Legend

Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson

Influential author and screenwriter passes away. Works included I AM LEGEND and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.

Multiple sources (including io9 and the Guardian Express) are reporting that author Richard Matheson – the man Stephen King cited as the greatest influence on his work – has passed away at the age of 87. The news originated with a Twitter post by his daughter, announcing that her father had passed away after a long illness.
It is quite literally impossible to exaggerate the significance of this news. The world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction has just become smaller, now that one of its major lights has been extinguished. Although Matheson’s heyday as a novelist and screenwriter was decades ago, his work continues to inspire others. The recent hit REEL STEEL (2011), starring Hugh Jackman, was inspired by his work, and Matheson had been shopping his back catalog (over 150 novels, short stories, and screenplays) around to studios, with the plan of bring the material to the screen only with the author’s oversight and approval.
Matheson’s horror, fantasy, and science fiction novels include I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House, Bid Time Return, and What Dreams May Come, all of which were adapted into films, usually with the author working on the screenplay. His short stores filled over half a dozen paperback collections; many of them found their way in front of the camera, either for films or television.

A fight with a spider becomes an epic struggle for survival in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN
A fight with a spider becomes an epic struggle for survival in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN

Matheson got his break into the feature film business when Universal Pictures sought the rights to film The Shrinking Man, which became THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). As part of the deal, Matheson insisted that he be allowed to write the adaptation. Although the final version was reworked by Richard Alan Simmons (to get rid of the flashback structure), Matheson received sole credit, and was pleased with the result, except for the ending, which he felt over-stated the point he made in his book, when protagonist Scott Carey shrinks to infinitesimal size but realizes he will not cease to exist because “to Nature there was no zero.” In the movie, the line became, “To God there is no zero. I still exist.”
I’m not sure whether it is on record anywhere, but Matheson’s attitude toward THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN mellowed in his later years. During a question-and-answer session after a screening in Hollywood a few years ago, he dismissed any ill feelings about the ending, saying it was essentially what he wrote. (Matheson may have “got religion” during the interim. His early science fiction novels have a strong existential streak running through them; his later fantasy stories often deal with life after death, particularly What Dreams May Come, which includes a legnthy bibliography of non-fiction source material.
After THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, Matheson went on to a busy career in films, which including adapting numerous other books and stories to the screen for such classic films as THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968, a.k.a. THE DEVIL’S BRIDE), starring Christopher Lee; BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962, a.k.a. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), based on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife; and MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961), based on two novels by Jules Verne.
Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in an episode from TALES OF TERROR, an anthology scripted by Matheson from stories by Poe.
Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in an episode from TALES OF TERROR, an anthology scripted by Matheson from stories by Poe.

For producer-director Roger Corman, Matheson stretched the work of Edgar Allan Poe to feature length, often expanding the short stories into what were essentially original screenplays: HOUSE OF USHER (1960), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), TALES OF TERROR (1962), and THE RAVEN (1963). The latter two added comedy to the horror mix, a formula Matheson attempted again with his original script for THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963), which was directed by Jacques Tourneur (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE).
For the small screen, Matheson penned numerous episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, including two starring William Shatner (“Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”). He also scripted the STAR TREK episode “The Enemy Within,” which split Captain Kirk into his good and bad selves. His other episodic work includes WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE; HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL; THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR; THE GIRL FROM U.N.CL.E.; LATE NIGHT HORROR; JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN; Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY; CIRCLE OF FEAR; and Steven Spielberg’s AMAZING STORIES.
In the 1970s, Matheson wrote several made-for-television movies, beginning with DUEL, based on his Playboy short story. Directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Dennis Weaver as a driver mercilessly hounded by a big rig truck apparently out to kill him for no reason, the film is a classic thriller.
Darren McGavin and Barry Atwater in THE NIGHT STALKER, which Matheson adapted from a novel by Jeff Rice.
Darren McGavin and Barry Atwater in THE NIGHT STALKER, a telefilm that Matheson adapted from a novel by Jeff Rice.

Matheson then teamed up with producer Dan Curtis, scripting such telefilms as THE NIGHT STALKER, about a vampire in modern day Las Vegas. Other collaborations included THE NIGHT STRANGLER; TRILOGY OF TERROR; and DRACULA (whose lost-love-reincarnation plot greatly influenced Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA).
Later work included TWLIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1982) and JAWS 3-D (1983). Most of his subsequent screen credits (nearly 20 since 1990) are for previously published stories that were adapted into films, such as the  big-budget version of I AM LEGEND (2007), starring Will Smith. He also wrote the novels Earthbound (1989) and Now You See It… (the latter adapted from his stage play).
Matheson’s influence on the horror genre is incalculable. Outside of the 1950s science fiction films, horror and monster movies tended to use period settings; the traditional Gothic atmosphere seemed essential to establishing an atmosphere that would make the incredible events believable. However, this also established a distance between the cinematic events and the every day life of the audience. Matheson pioneered the art of placing horror in suburbia – not in a forgotten European castle, but right next door, and sometimes not as far away as that.
In Matheson’s novels, all manner of strange and bizarre things can happen in your very home- such as a daughter disappearing into another dimension in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Little Girl Lost.” Even when Matheson did opt for an isolated location, as in Hell House (which became THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE on screen), the setting was contemporary, and there was a patina of scientific verisimilitude that made the horror convincing.
Besides the numerous official adaptations of his work, Matheson’s shadow extends far and wide, reaching all the way to the recent release of WORLD WAR Z. Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (about a world overrun by vampires, leaving only one human alive) provided the inspiration for George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) (which basically turned Matheson’s blood-drinkers into flesh-eaters). Romero’s later DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) expanded the first film’s narrow scope to an apocalyptic scale, suggesting that the walking dead were eclipsing humanity. This became the template for all the zombie apocalypse tales to follow, including not only WORLD WAR Z but also THE WALKING DEAD.
Sadly, the greatness of Matheson’s novel has never been captured in the official film adaptations, which shy away from the existential shock of the ending, in which hero Robert Neville realizes that, in a new world of vampires, he is the outcast; he is the monster:

Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.
[…] To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones. […]
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. […] A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortresses of forever.
I am legend.

His fantasy novels What Dreams May Come and Bid Time Return (the latter adapted in 1980 as SOMEWHERE IN TIME) are marked by a deep commitment to romantic love – which is portrayed as strong enough to outlive time and survive death itself. The films, although earnest and sweet, do not live up to the source material, which in both cases strives to sell the potentially treacly ideas with genuine dramatic conviction. (Even confirmed atheist Harlan Ellison, in his Los Angeles Times review of What Dreams May Come, admitted that Matheson made a damn convincing emotional argument for the afterlife.)
That is the thought which I hold in my mind now, more than the handful of times when I saw him in person, affably answering questions about  his work and autographic his books. I imagine him somewhere on the other side, whispering to us (or more probably to his surviving family members, like Robin Williams in the screen version of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME): “I still exist.”
Perhaps that is not quite the epitaph the author deserves. Better to note this profound truth:
For those of us with a Sense of Wonder, Richard Matheson was – and is – Legend.

Ray Harryhausen has passed on to "the land beyond beyond"

Ray Harryhausen graced the cover of Cinefantastique magazine no less than three times - a tribute to his monumental contribution to horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema.
Ray Harryhausen graced the cover of Cinefantastique magazine no less than three times - a tribute to his monumental contribution to horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema.

Ray Harryhausen, the special effects genius who used stop-motion effects to enchant a generation of film-goers, has passed away. According to The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Facebook page, Harryhausen died in London today, May 7 (less than two months short of what would have been his 93rd birthday).
Harryhausen caught the filmmaking bug after watching a screening of the original, black-and-white version of KING KONG (1933), which used wire-armature models, photographed one frame at a time, to bring the giant ape and his prehistoric reptilian adversaries to cinematic life. For each frame of film, a miniature model of Kong, a T-Rex or some other dinosaur would be positioned, then photographed; then O’Brien would reposition the model, and shoot another frame. After several hours of this process, there would be enough frames to portray a few seconds of a Kong pounding his chest, attacking an opponent, or climbing the Empire State building.
Ray Harryhausen animated Mighty Joe Young.
Ray Harryhausen animated Mighty Joe Young.

As a child, Harryhausen experimented with the technique at home (at one point, famously scavenging his mother’s fur coat to provide a skin for a wolly mammoth). His early efforts earned the approval of Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer whose work on KING KONG had inspired Harryhausen. O’Brien hired Harryhausen to provide animation for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1948), a sort of kinder, gentler verion of KING KONG. If anything, Harryhausen was an example of the student surpassing the master. O’Brien had a genius for engineering how special effects could be achieved, but Harryhausen had a deft touch as an animator, imbuing Mighty Joe Young with a touching personality. This characteristic would carry over into later films when Harryhausen branched out on his own.
The fiery death of the Beat from 20,000 Fathoms
The fiery death of the Beat from 20,000 Fathoms

In 1953, producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester needed someone to bring THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS to life. Harryhausen adapted O’Brien’s old and somewhat expensive technique for low-budget filmmaking, using split screen effects to mix the monster with live-action footage, instead of crafting numerous miniature sets and matte paintings.
The film was a hit, which led to Harryhausen joining forces with producer Charles Schneer, a partnership that led to the subsequent films IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957).
Harryhausen animated the dragon from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Harryhausen animated the dragon from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

In 1958, Harryhausen and Schneer switched from black-and-white science fiction to color fantasy with THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, a colorful adventure film filled with amazing visual delights: a snake-woman; a one-eyed cyclops or two; a fire-breathing dragon; and, perhaps most famously, a skeleton that comes to life and engages in a sword-fight with Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews). With its childlike, almost naive tone, the film is perfect entertainment for children and families – one of the best in Harryhausen’s career.
Later collaborations between Harryhausen and Schneer included THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969), the later of which was based on an idea by Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. There were two Sinbad sequels, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), which is possibly even better than the first, and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). Harryhausen also provided dinosaur effects for Hammer Films’ remaking of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966).
The giant crab from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
The giant crab from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND

The last Sinbad film was a bit disappointing. In the new era of science fiction films, inaugurated by STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Harryhausen’s style was starting to seem a bit quaint, both in terms of effects and story. Harryhausen’s films typically were showcases for his effects process, which he dubbed “Dynamation” (short for “Dimensional Animation,” because he was animating three-dimensional puppets, not two-dimensional drawings).
In spite of the occasional dramatic deficiencies, several of his films do stand up as solid movies, in particular MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. But regardless of whether they were sophisticated cinema, Harryhausen’s films could always enchant, engendering a wide-eyed sense of wonder that could last a lifetime (typified by Tom Hanks, declaration, upon presenting a lifetime Oscar to Harryhausen, that “JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest movie ever made”).
Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS
Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS

Harryhausen wrapped up his film career with CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980), which featured a bigger budget and a more stellar cast than his previous movies. Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, and others presided as the gods over Mount Olympus, while Harry Hamlin provided the human heroics as Perseus. The film captured an appropriate sense of grandeur in its early sequences, but the later portion is marred by some ill-conceived pandering to the kiddie market (in the form of Bubo, the mechanical owl, who sounds like R2D2). Nevertheless, CLASH OF THE TITANS featured what may be Harryhausen’s greatest set-piece, the length and quite suspenseful cat-and-mouse encounter between Perseus and Medusa, set in the terrifying Gorgon’s shadowy lair.
In his retirement, Harryhausen kept his legacy alive through DVD releases of his old titles, sometimes in new colorized editions and through authoring and/or collaborating on such books as RAY HARRYHAUSEN’S FANTASY SCRAPBOOK and THE ART OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN.
Harryhausen brought dueling skeletons to life in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
Harryhausen brought dueling skeletons to life in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

As a technical matter, the stop-motion process required precision and patience. Harryhausen possessed both patience and precision, but also something else – the soul of an artist. As much an actor as a technician, he did not not simply execute special effects; he crafted performances. In a figurative sense, he “animated” his creatures according to the original definition of “animate” – breathing life into them.
With today’s more sophisticated computer-generated effects, stop-motion has fallen somewhat out of fashion, but many of Harryhausen’s old fans work in the industry, and some keep the technique alive. Recent examples of stop-motion films include Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE, Henry Selick’s CORALINE, and Nick Park’s WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT.
The Facebook post announcing Harryhausen’s death is filled with tributes from George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Nick Park, Randy Cook, Phil Tippett, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. However, Terry Gilliam says it best:

“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.”

Jon Finch, R.I.P.

Alien (1979) Jon Finch as Kane abandoned footage
Jon Finch as Kane in ALIEN. The actor dropped out due to illness.

The UK’s Hastings Observer reports that 70-year-old British actor Jon Finch has died of natural causes at his home in Hastings. Although he spent most of his career on the stage, Finch is well remembered to all of us at Cinefantastique for a handful of screen appearances in horror, fantasy, and science fiction films in 1970s.
Finch played the romantic lead opposite Ingrid Pitt’s voracious Countess Karnstein in Hammer Films’ THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970). He etched an uncharacteristically youthful portrait of the title character in Roman Polanski’s blood-soaked adaptation of Shakespeare’s MACBETH (1971). And Finch was bemusingly dead-pan as author Michael Moorcock Jerry Cornelius in campy film version of THE FINAL PROGRAM (1973, a.k.a. THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH), which was adapted and directed by cult auteur Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES). Finch also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s violent and horrific thriller FRENZY (1972).
Finch also had a couple of near-misses in the genre. He turned down an offer to play James Bond in LIVE AND LET DIE (1973).  And he dropped out of what would have been his most high-profile film assignment, as Kane, victim of the chest-burster in ALIEN (1979). Although details of accounts differ, Finch became ill after filming started (apparently his respiratory system did not react well to Ridley Scott’s smokey interiors), and he had to be replaced by Jon Hurt. (Finch later worked with Scott in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.)
Finch also had roles in THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1971), DOKTOR FAUSTUS (1982), LURKING FEAR (1994), the telefilm MERLIN OF THE CRYSTAL CAVE, and in episodes of THE NEW AVENGERS (1977), HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (1980), THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980), and THE MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, appearing as Count Sylvius opposite Jeremy Brett.
There was a quiet intensity about Jon Finch. He was not a conventional leading man or a movie star, but in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN he showed more personality than most of the young leading men in other Hammer horror films. His best genre performance was probably as Jerry Cornelius in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, playing a an unconventional hero who walks with practiced insouciance through the film’s bizarre happenings in a manner that foreshadows the later THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION. The film’s final gag, a quote from Humphry Bogart, was Finch’s on-set ad-lib.
Finch was once married to actress Catriona MacColl, who is known to cinefantastique fans for her appearances in a trio of Lucio Fulci horror films, including THE BEYOND (1981). The couple divorced in 1987

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

bradbury2Ray Bradbury (Ray Douglas Bradbury) passed away June 5th, 2012. He was 91.
Bradbury was perhaps the best known writer of fantasy and science fiction in the United States. The poetic, literary quality of many of his stories helped improve the reputation of science fiction from its critically dismissed pulp beginnings.
Unlike many writers in the SF genre, Bradbury was not particularly interested in technology or scientific theory; it was the memories and emotions of the characters that he captured so well. He considered himself simply as a writer, and indeed many of his works are mysteries, horror, and other genres. His output counted 27 novels and over 600 short stories. When pressed, Ray Bradbury might call himself a fantasy writer.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois, and spending his early childhood there before moving to Los Angeles, his tales often involved nostalgia, homesickness, characters feeling displaced, and a yearning for simpler times.
Many of his short stories were adapted for radio and early television, on programs such ad X MINUS ONE, LIGHTS OUT, and SUSPENSE.
Brad_beastIn 1953 he contributed to the story of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and in a complicated way his Saturday Evening Post story became THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Only a single scene was used, of the dinosaur attacking a lighthouse. Bradbury would subsequently re-title the story The Foghorn, to set it apart from the film. 
BEAST featured the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen, who was a good friend of Bradbury’s, first meeting at the home of Forrest J. Ackerman. All three were part of SF’s “First Fandom” and among the first genre enthusiasts to make the jump from fan to professional.
Also in 1953, Ray Bradbury  began the screenplay for John Huston’s MOBY DICK (1956), and turned the story of his involvement into the fictionalized Green Shadows, White Whale.
A number of Bradbury’s mysteries were adapted for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS from 1956-62.
Surprisingly, given the many thematic similarities between their work, only one of Ray Bradbury’s stories was adapted for Rod Serling’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE: I Sing The Body Electric. This would be later remade as the TV movie THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER (1982).
Bradbury mentioned in later years that he was friendly with Gene Roddenberry, who wanted him to write a STAR TREK episode.  However, he had to turn him down, as Bradbury felt he had no talent for writing to fit other people’s fictional creations.

 FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966) was directed by François Truffaut. Despite it’s stilted dialog and performances, Ray Bradbury was fairly pleased with the film, something that would not be true of many of the other adaptations of his work, such as THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969) and the TV mini-series THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980). Brad_Martain Chron

Although Bradbury had consulted with Richard Matheson on the CHRONICLES  teleplay, he publicly announced that the results were “boring” and found fault with the decidedly uneven and dated special effects. Hard to disagree on that point, the whole production seems  bland, unimaginative, and half-hearted.
 
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983) was a better attempt to capture Bradbury’s writing on film, and the film does have it’s moments, though it’s a flawed production.
 
From 1985 to 1992, over 60 of Ray Bradbury’s stories were adapted for the syndicated RAY BRADBURY THEATER. Some of the Martian Chronicles tales were adapted by the show, and making allowances for  its low budget are as good or better than the network mini-series.
 
A moderately high budget didn’t help 2005’s A SOUND OF THUNDER, a film I can’t comment on because (like most people, I suspect) it’s one I have never seen. I have heard it called laughingly bad.   That’s a shame—it’s a great short story. Maybe that’s the problem, it’s a SHORT story: Setup, Small Error, Swift Conclusion.  Being inflated into a feature film was probably a mistake.
 
Still, disappointing adaptations and the desire to revisit them and get them “right” just point to the power and influence of Ray Bradbury’s work. 
He will be missed.

Ralph McQuarrie, R.I.P.

McQuarrie_picRalph Angus McQuarrie, best know for his conceptual artwork for STAR WARS, passed away March 3rd. He was 82.
McQuarrie came from a background in the advertising and aerospace fields, doing work ranging from dental equipment and conceptual work for Boeing. He also did film posters, and supplied the animation CBS used to show what viewers what the Apollo moon landing would entail.  
mcquarrie_SW_RobotsRalph McQuarrie was approached by George Lucas in 1975 to do presentation artwork to help sell “THE STAR WARS” to film executives unable to envision what the film would look like.  He designed the robots C3PO and R2D2, and the iconic Darth Vader, giving him the distinctive helmet and breathing mask.
He was quoted (by the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying: 

“I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea. I didn’t think the film would ever get made.
My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough of an audience. It’s just too complicated.
But George knew a lot of things that I didn’t know.”

McQuarrie_illo

At Star Wars.com Lucas was quick to praise McQuarrie:

“His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘do it like this’.”

And indeed, many of the scenes and settings in the first three STAR WARS films looked very much like McQuarrie’s paintings come to life.
Ralph McQuarrie also designed several of the the UFOs  in Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), including the mothership, inspired by Speilberg’s description of it looking like ‘an oil refinery at night’.
He also did design and production illustrations for E.T:  The Extraterrestrial, the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR TREK IV, and COCOON (1985), for which he won an Academy Award.
He appeared uncredited as “General McQuarrie” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and even had an action figure made of his character.
He did design work on a STAR TREK film that did not get made (prior to STAR TREK: The Motion Picture), which featured a radicallly redesigned Enterprise. The study model for this project was eventually used as a background ship on STAR TREK: The Next Generation.

MCQ_enterprise

NIGHTBREED (1990), BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED and JURASSIC PARK were other productions on which he worked.