As part of the SpectreFest film festival at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, the Cinefamily and SpectraVision present the Los Angeles premiere of DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS DEAD on the second half of a double bill with the original DEAD SNOW – the amusing horror-comedy about Nazi Zombies. Director Tommy Wirkola returns to the directing chair, presumably a sadder and a wiser man after his Hollywood experience with HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS.
The trailer for DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS. DEAD is a real hoot, suggesting that the sequel may be even more fun than the original.
The double bill begins at 7:30pm on October 9. Tickets are free for Cinefamily members, $14 for non-members. The Silent Movie Theatre is located 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036. Click here for more information.
As part of the SpectreFest film festival at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, the Cinefamily and SpectraVision present the Los Angeles premiere of DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS DEAD on the second half of a double bill with the original DEAD SNOW – the amusing horror-comedy about Nazi Zombies. Director Tommy Wirkola returns to the directing chair, presumably a sadder and a wiser man after his Hollywood experience with HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS.
If it was up to me, more previz– those dry-runs filmmakers create of sequences using story board drawings — would actually be done using finger puppets. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and you get to wiggle your digits in front of the camera, which has to be fun. For now, the makers of the upcoming VARSITY BLOOD are at the vanguard, showing how this humble medium can make you laugh, cry, and bleed.
What is that, raspberry jam?
A movie about a sinister ventriloquist and his even more sinister dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, at work? You guessed right! But this time there’s a twist: the ventriloquist is also a mystical mesmerist, and the dummy is not some projection of his fragmented personality; it is actually…well, we’ll get into that. For now, let’s just say that, though not truly good, DEVIL DOLL is certainly strange and interesting.
Set in England, the story follows an American journalist by the name of Mark English (William Sylvester). The weirdness of the film becomes immediately apparent: an American named English – working in England? Is there a point, or was that simply the screenwriter’s idea of a joke (get it – he’s American but he’s English!)? Anyway, Mark English is unhappy with his latest, trivial assignment: covering the act of a ventriloquist known as the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday). At least Mark is unhappy until he sees the act: rather than the usual comedy high jinks, Vorelli and his dummy, Hugo, engage in an antagonist banter whose tension seems palpable – as if ready to explode into violence at any minute.
Eager to learn more, Mark talks girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer Films’ THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) into inviting Vorelli to entertain at a party her family is giving. That night, Mark is awakened by Hugo, who mutters, “Help me.” Unsure whether this was dream or reality, Mark nevertheless checks out Vorelli’s background and learns that years ago he had an assistant named Hugo, who died on stage during their act. Meanwhile, Vorelli has set his eyes on Marianne; after Magda, Vorelli’s current assistant, objects, Hugo kills her. Seeking to unravel Vorelli’s secret and hopefully put a stop to his designs on Marianne, Mark eventually concludes that transferred Hugo’s soul into the dummy, where it remains under Vorelli’s control. If Hugo were ever to regain his free will – say, while Vorelli were distracted or asleep – there would be hell to pay…
Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a hypnotist who casts a spell over Marianne. Unfortunately, this Svengali-esque subplot sends the narrative down a detour that ultimately leads nowhere, since the real story is about the mystery of Hugo.
Fortunately, the story eventually gets back on track for a reasonably exciting climax, which is nonetheless marred by completely side-lining nominal protagonist Mark, who doesn’t really do anything to resolve the story. Yes, Hugo must have his revenge, but couldn’t Mark lend a hand – perhaps unlock the cage in which Vorelli imprisons Hugo while sleeping? (And while we’re on the subject: when Hugo gets out of his cage to ask for Mark’s help, why didn’t he take that opportunity to get even with Vorelli?)
DEVIL DOLL suffers from a problem that sometimes appears in these ventriloquist dummy movies: the Great Vorelli’s act is not that great. Sure, we in the film audience enjoy the tension between the ventriloquist and his dummy, but there is not much humor to amuse the stage audience we see on screen. Vorelli’s hypnotism shtick is not much better: when he presses Marianne into dancing on stage, we are supposed to be amazed at what his mesmeric influence has achieved, but her dance moves are – to put it diplomatically – not at all impressive.
Haliday does not bring much subtlety to the role, no attempt to humanize Vorelli or generate any sympathy; instead, he goes full-on sinister, somewhat in the vein of Todd Slaughter, though without the mirthless humor. In one eccentric touch, Vorelli’s Svengali-like appearance is enhanced by a not entirely convincing beard. Except for a few flashbacks to his younger days, he is always seen wearing it, whether performing or not, suggesting it is not part of his stage makeup. But in his back stage scene with Magda, we see him applying the beard in a mirror – finally justifying its phony appearance. (Since this seen is missing from the Continental version, that cut of the film asks viewers to accept the facial hair as genuine – which strains credibility almost as much as believing in a talking dummy.)
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less date-rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer.
Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo lends an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a final fade out in which the villain gets what he deserves: Vorelli, now speaking in Hugo’s voice, tell Mark, “The tables have turned,” while the dummy, in Vorelli’s voice, begs, “Mr. English, don’t let him get away with it! I am the Great Vorelli!”
By now we know that expecting Mark English to actually do anything is hopelessly optimistic, so the film simply freeze-frames on the dummy. As far as we know, Mark doesn’t get the girl, which is only fair, since he did nothing to save her, and she really is better off without him.
The Continental version of DEVIL DOLL, available on DVD, is even worse, short-changing the narrative to shoe-horn in a nude scene: The dialogue exchange in which Magda threatens to expose Vorelli is deleted, removing his motivation to have Hugo murder her. Instead, we see another performance by Vorelli, in which he mesmerizes a female audience member into doing a strip-tease (though dressed in a modest business suit, she is wearing lingerie appropriate for a nude dance). Otherwise, the differences between the original version and the Continental version are minimal: the credits are different (William Sylvester receives top billing instead of Bryant Haliday), and two scenes are reshot to include topless views of actresses who were covered up in the original. In the first, Magda’s breast is briefly exposed before Hugo attacks her. In the second, a colleague of Mark’s is seen in talking to him on the phone, while a woman (presumably his lover) hoovers in the background; for the Continental version, her bra is removed.
Though our usual inclination is to assume that the version with the most footage is the preferred version, in this case producer Richard Gordon (in a DVD audio commentary) confirms that the original British version – sometimes called the International version – is the official cut. The extra and alternate footage in Continental version was added just for those territories whose distributors required nudity to sell a horror picture.
Lindsay Shonteff directed DEVIL DOLL for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith. Star William Sylvester went on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
DEVIL DOLL earned the dubious honor of appearing on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, for which it was well suited. Good-looking enough to be interesting but absurd enough to deserve derision, the film was a perfect foil for the crew of the Satellite of Love. If you are on the fence about whether or not to see the film, MST3K version should end your indecisiveness.
Note: DEVIL DOLL is not to be confused with the Tod Browning film THE DEVIL DOLL (1939), starring Lionel Barrymore.
DEVIL DOLL (Gordon Films and Galaworld Film Productions, 1964). Produced by Richard Gordon and Kenneth Rive. Directed by Lindsay Shonteff. Screenplay by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter, based on a story by Frederick E. Smith. Richard Gordon. Cast: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain, Sandra Dorne, Nora Nicholson, Alan Gifford, Karel Stepanek, Francis De Wolff.
Celebrating the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1964, Cinefantastique looks back at Ray Harryhausen’s classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.
Fifty years ago, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen took movie-goers on a memorable trip to the moon – a half decade before Neil Armstrong actually reached the lunar surface. Can the cinematic adventure survive not only the test of time but also the incursion of scientific reality, which has debunked the popular notion of life on the moon as a quaint fantasy? The answer is yes: Despite its flaws, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a charming entertainment that stirs our Sense of Wonder with its fantastic imagery, lifting us out of mundane reality and transporting us into an alternative world of the imagination.
To a large extent, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is an archetypal Ray Harryhausen production, which is to say that it initially confounds our expectations only to ultimately confirm them. Critical consensus has taught us to expect an obligatory live-action story that serves only as a showcase for Harryhausen’s marvelous special effects work. However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON launches with a promising start, raising hopes for a truly good movie, not merely a succession of set-pieces. Although those hopes remain unsatisfied when the curtain falls, the film remains engaging and entertaining, if slightly frustrating.
Utilizing a flashback structure, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins with a contemporary prologue depicting a United Nations landing on the moon. The lunar explorers discover a British flag, next to some kind of legal document with a hand-written note on the back, dated 1899, claiming the moon in the name of the Queen of England.
Back on Earth, a team of investigators follow a name on the document to track down Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), an old man in a nursing home, known as a crank for his dire warnings about the moon. Initially panicked about the recent landing, Bedford calms down and relates his story, which becomes the body of the film…
In 1899, after a series of failed business ventures, Bedford is living in a cottage in a the country, where he hopes to write a successful play. His fiance, Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a Boston actress, comes to live with him, in anticipation of getting married. Bedford continually demurs, citing financial concerns; what sounds like an excuse has an element of truth, because Bedford is indeed hiding from creditors.
Financial rescue comes in the form of Joseph Cavor (Lionell Jeffries), a research scientist who offers to buy Bedford’s cottage, for fear that his experiments might damage the property. Bedford agrees, on the condition that he be allowed to reinvest the money into Cavor’s experiments into an anti-gravity substance dubbed “Cavorite.” There is only one problem: though he claims to have inherited the cottage from an aunt, Bedford is actually renting it. He circumvents this obstacle by “transferring” the title to Kate, who sells it in her name, unaware of the illegality of the transaction.
With one or two mishaps, Cavor completes his experiments; at one point, an explosion of Cavorite literally lifts the roof off his house. While Bedford waxes over the commercial potential of anti-gravity boots, Cavor dreams of flying to the moon – an idea Bedford dismisses until Cavor tells him the lunar surface is rich in minerals such as gold (“Better than boots, isn’t it?”).
Kate objects to the planned excursion, which she considers a pointless risk, and threatens to return to Boston. However, when she is served with papers for the illegal sale of the cottage, she runs to confront Bedford, who is about to take off with Cavor in an iron sphere that will serve as their space ship. (The film gets off one of its few really good jokes here: Anticipating the take-off, Cavor warns, “There might be a violent shock coming” – and we cut to Kate outside, knocking on the sphere.) Rather than risk her being killed in the blast, Bedford drags her inside.
After a mishap or two, the sphere lands on the moon. Bedford and Cavor explore the terrain and plant the flag that we saw found in the prologue. They also crash through an artificial, concave surface, leading to an underground area with breathable atmosphere. They encounter pygmy-sized insectoid aliens, whom Cavor dubs “Selenites” without much explanation. Surrounded, Bedford fights several them off, possibly killing some, while Cavor laments the “taste of human violence” that Bedford has given to this alien civilization.
Back at the landing area, Bedford and Cavor see that the sphere has been dragged away. Returning underground, they encounter giant caterpillars, which Cavor takes to be “moon calves” – that is, the lunar equivalent of cows, bred for food. Chased by one of the monsters, they get separated. Cavor is captured and, along with Kate, is taken to meet some taller, apparently more advanced Selenites, who manage to translate English well enough to ask him about Cavorite.
Bedford rescues Kate, but Cavor wants to continue communicating with the Selenites. While Bedford and Kate fix the sphere (which has been partially disassembled by the aliens), Cavor stands before the Grand Lunar (never so named on screen), who questions him about human society. Cavor explains that, unlike the Selenites, humanity is divided into different countries, who sometimes make war. When the Grand Lunar expresses concern that other men may follow Cavor and make war on the Moon, Cavor points out that only he knows the secret of Cavorite. The Grand Lunar proclaims that Cavor must remain with his secret.
Unable to fix the sphere without Cavor’s help, Bedford returns to rescue the scientist, blasting away at the Selenites with an elephant gun. Though deploring Bedford’s violence, Cavor repairs the sphere. Bedford and Kate may escape. Cavor chooses to remain behind, to prevent other humans from discovering the secret of Cavorite…
Back in the present day, Bedford and the investigative team interviewing him watch the moon landing on live television. As the astronauts descend beneath the surface, they pass areas that Bedford recognizes, but there are no living beings; in fact, the entire civilization has been wiped out as if by some disease. While the others marvel at this unexpected turn of events, Bedford gazes at the moon through a small telescope pointing out his window. Knowing now that the danger he feared will not materialize, he smiles to himself and mutters, “Cavor had such a terrible cold.”
PLOT AND PERFORMANCES
What can you say about a film that treats the extinction of an entire civilization as a bad joke? Ironically, the best thing you can say is that ending does not work – and it’s to the film’s credit that it does not. Bedford’s closing comment is laughable only if one shares his simplistic view that Selenites were inherently evil – a threat to humanity that need to be extinguished; however, the action in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON does not support this reading, and it’s a bit of a wonder that the filmmakers thought they could get a laugh with his smirking bon mot. (Additionally, there is the matter of Cavor’s almost symptom-free illness; his “terrible cold” manifests only as a few coughs dubbed onto the soundtrack near the end.)
In fact, the faux-funny conclusion of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is symptomatic of the film’s schizophrenic nature, which suggests two scripts spliced together: the first half is comedy romance; the second half is serious science fiction. Presumably, the humor was provided by Jan Read (who had co-scripted Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS the year before), and the serious aspects were provided by science fiction specialist Nigel Kneale (who created such thoughtful scripts as THE QUATERMAS EXPERIMENT). However the contributions break down, the two sensibilities wrestle for supremacy, and if in the end, the serious aspect loses out, at least it leaves an impression strong enough to endear the film to viewers willing to overlook a few lapses.
After a clever opening credits sequence (a graphic of a crescent moon is “eclipsed” by ripples as if we are seeing a reflection in a pool of water), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins strong with its depiction of a contemporary lunar landing. The international flavor of the crew, including Americans and Russians, is a nice, progressive touch for a film shot during the Cold War, and the sequence not only provides a spectacular opening; it also updates the Wells novel for contemporary audiences, who already knew more or less what to expect on the moon (a lifeless, arid surface with no atmosphere, unlike the blooming plant life depicted in the book). Thus the screenplay provides the scientifically accurate surface while concealing Wells’ marvels below ground, where they seem a bit more credible.
When the action switches to Earth for a few scenes explaining how the U.N. finds Bedford, the script offers what at first seems like a surfeit of comedy relief, as if over-compensating for the obligatory nature of the connect-the-dots narrative. However, once Bedford’s tale takes us back to 1899, we see that the comedy is not merely “relief”; it is in fact the focus. We get comical sound effects for the boiling Cavorite. We learn that working class people are shiftless and unreliable. Laurie Johnson’s otherwise fine score underlines allegedly humorous moments, inadvertently reminding us how un-funny they are. Kate continually says, “We could get married,” to which Bedford replies, “We could, but…”
Essentially, we are watching a Victorian-era Rom-Com, but the situation is not very amusing for two reasons: First, Arnold Bedford is a bit of a scoundrel; second, he never really does anything to deserve Kate’s forgiveness, but she forgives him anyway (a relationship arc that would be more or less recreated in Harryhausen’s 1969 effort VALLEY OF GWANGI).
Actor Edward Judd almost sells Bedford to us as a lovable rogue. Though the script gives us little reason to admire him, Judd shows us the man’s appealing charm, and to some extent gets us forgive Bedford’s deceptions about his embarrassing financial matters. However, the character crosses the line when he talks Kate into “selling” the cottage in her own name – a ruse that puts her in legal jeopardy.
All of this would be acceptable if the script were setting up Bedford as a flawed character who becomes a better man after Kate calls him on his bullshit; unfortunately, the only time Kate shows a little willpower is when she threatens to return to Boston if Bedford refuses to back out of his lunar voyage. Why this should be the breaking point is unclear (it’s almost as if Bedford is choosing Cavor over her), but she is given a real reason to be angry when she receives the legal summons. Nevertheless, the most she says during the weeks-long trip to the Moon is that she “shouldn’t” forgive Bedford (her tone suggests she does). That’s the last time the topic is even mentioned; the romantic-comedy story line is forgotten once Cavor’s sphere lands, at which point the science fiction half of the film takes over.
This is when FIRST MEN IN THE MOON becomes truly interesting. At first, the film seems to conform to the traditions of cinematic science fiction at the time, which tended to portray aliens as hostile and dangerous, justifying any “defensove” taken by the humans, not matter how overtly hostile. And indeed, if you saw FIRST MEN IN THE MOON when you were five years old, Bedford’s violent reaction to the Selenites seems justified.
However, one suspects that Nigel Kneale saw things differently. Unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), which depicted the scientist’s attempts to communicate as hopelessly naive, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON gives Cavor a fair hearing; his despair over Bedford’s actions is palpable and, to some extent, justified. Presumably, Nigel Kneale’s first draft was thematically sympathetic to Cavor, and Jan Read was brought in to conform the script to the tenor of the times, presenting the questionable Bedford as the macho hero battling the evil aliens.
Yes, the Selenites want to prevent Cavor from returning home, but only to protect themselves from other humans, who might use Cavorite to invade the Moon. One can hardly blame them after hearing Cavor himself describe the human propensity for war, which is horrible and yet considered heroic and noble, even glorious. Unable to resolve the contradiction, Cavor is reduced to almost pleading: “We’re not perfect,” he admits, but insists, “There are men of peace.” To which the Grand Lunar replies, “My concern is men of violence,” and Cavor knows that concern is justified.1
When Bedford interrupts Cavor’s audience with the Grand Lunar, the scene is staged like a traditional rescue, and perhaps we are expected to cheer as Bedford fires his elephant gun, yelling at Cavor that his “audience” with the Grand Lunar is actually a trial. On the other hand, Bedford’s actions seem to confirm the Selenites’ view of humans as dangerously violent,2 and a moment later we are given further reason to doubt Bedford’s character: when Cavor says he did not want to be rescued, Bedford responds, “Don’t flatter yourself. I didn’t risk my neck for you. I need you to repair the sphere.”
Pushing the hapless scientist around and even threatening him, Bedford reveals himself once and for all to be a total ass, loosing any sympathy he may have earned, and when Cavor voluntarily decides to stay behind, it is a truly grand gesture. The young handsome Bedford may conform to the stereotype of a movie hero, but it is Cavor who ultimately behaves heroically, sacrificing his return home both to preserve his secret and also to undo some of the damage Bedford has done.
Much of the credit for this goes to actor Lionel Jeffries, whose sincere performance helps Kneale’s intent shine through. Jeffries perfectly embodies Cavor, first as an absent-minded eccentric in the comical half of the film, then as a dedicated man of science in the latter. His frustration over defending the human race’s less noble characteristics is heartfelt, and his initial reaction to the Selenites’ attempt to translate English is splendid (or “imperial” as the character would say – and let’s not forget the irony of the word in the context of a story about aliens wary of Earth’s intentions).
Jeffries wins us over to such an extent that we cannot laugh at Bedford casual disregard for the extinction of the Selenites, which registers as a tragedy instead of a relief. In this context, one should note that the international nature of the contemporary lunar expedition belies the Grand Lunar’s fear of Earth: humanity has outgrown the war-mongering divisiveness, and one suspects that, had the Selenites survived, the meeting may have gone off peacefully.
The supporting cast is strong, filled with reliable British character actors such as Miles Maleson and Michael Ripper, not to mention a young un-credited Peter Finch (who would eventually win a posthumous Oscar for his role in NETWORK). Martha Hyer deserves some credit for playing the rather thankless leading lady role: though Kate is too gullible and forgiving, Hyer almost makes something of the character. In particular, she pulls off scenes that have defeated many an actor in a Ray Harryhausen film: while staring silently at the off-screen special effects, she actually seems to be looking at something, not just waiting for her cue; while Jeffries is given all the dialogue expounding on the wonders being viewed, Hyer seems on the verge of speaking, as if itching but unable to articulate her reactions.
Still, it is Jeffries show, as far as the live-action actors go. Our final image of Cavor shows him crouching before two Selenites as the sphere takes off in the background, leaving him behind on the Moon. Somehow, the character deserves more.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Like the majority of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects epics, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was produced by Charles H. Schneer for Columbia Pictures,. The duo had previously collaborated on an adaptation of a Victorian-era science fiction novel, Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), and Harryhausen had long wanted to film Wells’ War of the Worlds, even going so far as to shoot test footage of the tentacled Martians (though the film ended up made by Paramount instead). Like THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON benefits from the source material, which provides an imaginative, fanciful narrative to which Harryhausen can apply his visual effects magic, though in this case the screenplay is a bit more obviously compromised.
Though shot on a modest budget, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON looks grand in scale. As producer, Schneer kept costs down by putting most of the budget below the line, spending money on the actual production rather than on big-name stars. Wilkie Cooper’s Panavision cinematography (in “Lunacolor”) is beautiful, despite an occasional lapse (e.g., a slightly jittery tilt-down in Bedford’s nursing home). Sets and locations (including some beautiful caverns) effective convey the subterranean lunar landscape with a vividness absent from today’s digitally created backgrounds.
Nathan Juran, who earned a reputation as one of the worst directors ever thanks to his involvement with the bad-movie classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (helmed under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz), proves here that he was actually a competent craftsman, who knew how to stage and shoot a scene with narrative efficiency, if not with a recognizably personal style. Though he resorts to the occasional cliche (the hand that reaches on screen to startle our hero is revealed to belong to a friend)3, Juran also manages a few suspenseful moments (rare in Harryhausen films, which were always wary of scaring off younger viewers), including a nice bit of foreshadowing when we – but not the oblivious characters – first glimpse the lunar inhabitants only as shadows on a cave wall. The script’s comedy may not be particularly funny, but thanks to Juran, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON seldom drags, and once the characters reaches the orbiting orb, the film becomes a non-stop tour of wondrous sights.
Those sights are enhanced by Laurie Johson’s music, which is suitably grand when not obligated to underscore the comic high jinks (the orchestra sounds slightly drunk during the zero gravity scenes). Early on, Johnson uses the recurring motif of a British anthem to tie together the discovery of the British flag on the moon with the presentation of that discovery to Bedford. Later, he offers a stately march as Cavor ascends the stares of the spectacular set for his audience with the Grand Lunar, dotted with strange angular crystals that seem otherworldly but believable.
The cumulative effect is quite impressive, eclipsing the somewhat mundane aspects of the film’s first half. But of course the star of the show remains Harryhausen himself…
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS
Ray Harryhausen is relatively unique in the annals of cinema – a special effects artist who not only provided technical excellence but also contributed to the development of his films, sometimes conceiving sequences that would showcase his visual effects process, which he dubbed Dynamation (short for “Dynamic Animation” or “Dimensional Animation,” to distinguish the work from hand-drawn cartoon animation). In the days before computer-generated imagery, Harryhausen’s specialty was stop-motion, in which miniature creatures, built from foam rubber laid over metal armatures, were manipulated by hand and photographed one frame at a time; the resulting sequence, when projected at regular speed, gave the illusion of motion. Though time-consuming compared to CGI, stop-motion provided a hand-made charm, allowing Harryhausen to work as an artist and almost an actor, imbuing his characters with amazing semblance of life and personality.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is somewhat atypical, in that little stop-motion is utilized; the only animated creatures are the giant caterpillars and the larger Selenites. Despite a weak sound effect for their snapping mandibles, the caterpillars are impressive monsters, nicely detailed and animated, their menace enhanced by Johnson’s ponderous score, but essentially they are a throw-away plot device to get Bedford and Cavor separated, and to showcase the technology of the Selenites, who are able to fell the beast with some kind of ray gun. (We later see its skeleton is picked neatly clean – so much for the voracious monster!) The special effects equivalent of a bit player, the caterpillars do not provide Harryhausen with much opportunity for virtuoso work; the lead Selenites; however, are another matter.
The smaller Selenites are portrayed by children in rubber costumes, which are fairly well utilized, though the rubber faces sometimes bend awkwardly. (Harryhausen uses his special effects to increase their numbers, filming the same dozen or so three or four times and matting them into different parts of the frame.) The later Selenites are achieved with stop-motion, which gives them an entirely different character – more insect-like and alien, able to walk on spindly legs that would not support a human actor’s weight.
They also have a peculiar, almost analytic personality, emphasized in a wonderful shot as one of them peers curiously through a distorting lens while observing Kate (who comically appears only as a talking skeleton, as if being examined via some kind of x-ray device). Harryhausen’s staccato stop-motion emphasizes the inhuman aspect of the Selenites, whose portrayal conforms with the attitude of the time, which often depicted alien life forms as emotionless “brainiacs,” who might be able to run an efficient society but would probably rob it of any soul, turning people into mindless drones.4 Perhaps the Selenites could have been portrayed with masks and makeup, but it is unlikely they would have achieved the same unearthly effect.
Other than that, Harryhausen restricts himself to depicting the wonders of a lunar voyage, putting his special effects in the service of the story instead of generating set-pieces to showcase his work. The results are spectacular to behold.The matching of miniatures to full-scale settings is marvelous, shifting seamlessly back and forth, and the composite work is convincing except for a few matte lines betraying the juncture between elements shot separately from each other. (There is also one weird jump-cut as Cavor and Bedford explore the lunar caves: while the angle angle moves in from long-shot to medium-shot on the actors, the matte painting in the background remains at the exact same distance.)
Five years before the first real-life moon landing, Harryhausen does a fine job of visualizing the event in the modern-day prologue, including a reasonably accurate depiction of a lunar module that separates from the mother ship to touch down on the surface. That the astronaut descends from the vehicle by hanging from a wire like a trapeze artist is eccentric but not enough to ruin the spectacle of the moment.
The 1899 landing is a bit less elegant – the bouncing of the sphere betrays its miniature nature – but the trip through space is convincingly rendered. As Cavor and Bedford explore the Moon, the script provides several wonders beneath the surface, which Harryhausne realizes to perfection, including a gargantuan glass cylinders that provide oxygen for the Moon’s subterranean atmosphere and an enormous rotating orb that generates energy from the sun (yes, the 1964 film predicts solar power!). Hell, even the lunar surface is beautiful – more beautiful than the real thing, filled with eye-catching colors that are consistently amazing in both the live-action and the special effects.
Harryhausen’s hand-crafted techniques have their limitations. When combining live-action, matte paintings, miniatures, and models into a single shot, proper alignment usually required the camera to remain motionless (unlike the sweeping crane shots seen in today’s CGI spectacles). Yet this static quality created its own sense of style, forcing Harryhausen to fill the frame with dynamic action and to avoid letting any shot run on too long. Of all his work, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one of those that best disguises this shortcoming.
Perhaps this is due to the Panavision aspect ratio. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is the only film Harryhausen ever made in a widescreen format, which allows filmmakers to squeeze more onto the edges of the frame without having to pan back and forth. Though Harryhausen felt the process was too cumbersome for his techniques, he filled the frame with such wonders that they eye is seldom aware that the camera has become locked down to enable the special effects.
Typical for its time, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is a bit dodgy in its science. Although NASA receives a thank you in the credits, implying a level of authenticity, the film makes several unapologetic errors, assuming that viewers are not familiar with even the fundamentals of astronomy.
- During the lunar flight, Kate touches the controls, sending the sphere careening off course. Cavor shouts angrily that the ship is now heading “straight for the sun!” His tone somewhat overstates the danger: whereas the Moon is a mere 237,000 miles from Earth, the Sun is 93-million miles away. Assuming the sphere is traveling at the “speed of a bullet” as Cavor says (approximately 800 miles per hour, depending on the bullet), it would take 116,250 hours to reach the sun – that is, 4,843 days or a little bit more than 13 years. Even if the sphere were traveling ten times as fast (which it would need to do to make the lunar voyage in the few weeks the film implies), Cavor would have over a year to readjust the trajectory before falling into the sun. (On another note, though lip service is paid to the issues of food and oxygen, the lack of bathroom facilities is politely overlooked.)
- When confronted with the first Selenite, Bedford remarks on the creature’s diminutive stature, to which Cavor replies, “It’s the low gravity” – as if the statement provides some kind of explanation. If low-gravity results in smaller life forms, one wonders how Cavor accounts for the giant caterpillars.
- During Cavor and Bedford’s initial moonwalk, the film seems well aware of the low gravity; for instance, the not particularly athletic Cavor leaps into the air like John Carter of Mars. Yet when Kate and Bedford are re-assembling the sphere near the conclusion, they lug the items around as if they were at full weight.
- The modern-day expedition beneath the lunar surface is conveyed to Earth via live television broadcast, but we are left to wonder: Who are manning the cameras that film the astronaut’s escape as the Selenite city collapses around them?
- I suppose I should mention Cavorite. Back when Wells’ novel was published, Jules Verne (who strove for scientific accuracy in his own work) derided the concept of the anti-gravity Cavorite, famously demanding, “Show me this metal.”
LOOKING BACK FIFTY YEARS LATER
Like much of Harryhausen’s oeuvre, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON falls short of being a masterpiece but remains a joyful entertainment. To some extent its appeal is rooted in nostalgia: a generation of viewers who saw it at an early age recall it fondly and enjoy revisiting it; some of those now-grownups have graduated to making their own science fiction and fantasy films, keeping the Harryhausen legacy alive through the next generation and beyond.
However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is not merely a museum piece. Its power to captivate an audience remains intact. Though today we are (justifiably) less inclined to forgive Bedford for his dishonesty, and more inclined to question Kate’s devotion to him, the film’s charm lays elsewhere, with Cavor and his mission to the Moon. The fanciful depiction of lunar travel has aged well, partly because the narrative’s framing device accounts for the archaic elements, which were always supposed to look like a leftover remnant from an earlier era. Perhaps more importantly, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON creates its own stylized semblance of space travel. Like the Wells novel, it presents a fantasy rather than believable science fiction, and fantasy’s power to entertain is unchecked by decades of real-world advances in science (unlike the more realistic approach of 1950’s DESTINATION MOON, which seems rather dull now).
Though the film will never stand as Harryhausen’s shining moment – others showcased his talent for amazing animation far more memorably – FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a job well done, its old-fashioned approach retaining a special charm five decades later. As Cavor transports himself and his comrades to the Moon, so Harryhausen transports the audience into a world of imagination where scientific impossibility takes a back seat to our Sense of Wonder.
A trip worth taking!
- One of the screenplay’s more felicitous decisions was incorporating this material into the main body of the story. Wells’ novel, originally published in serial format in a magazine, was intended to conclude with the sphere taking off and leaving Cavor on the moon, but the author decided to extend the story with three additional chapters in which the scientist sends wireless messages to Earth, offering an anthropological account of Selenite society. Communication is suddenly terminated when the Selenites realize that Cavor could transmit the formula for Cavorite, potentially paving the way for an invasion of the Moon. This extended epilogue worked in the literary format, expanding and deepening what had been up to that point an imaginative adventure rather than science fiction. This structure would have been dramatically anti-climactic in the film, which benefits from using Wells’ sociological ideas in the third act.
- This tactic used four years later with the character of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in PLANET OF THE APES (1968).
- Juran pulled a similar stunt in the earlier Harryhausen film, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
- Which is almost literally the case here: when the Selenite chemists have finished their failed attempt to analyze Cavorite, they are cocooned into hibernation. Cavor at first seems to approve of this method for “dealing with unemployment,” until Kate suggests the Selenites may do the same to them. Cavor is suitable horrified – the only time he truly seems wary of the Selenites.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Columbia Pictures, 1964). Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Directed by Nathan Juran. Screenplay by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. 103 minutes. Not rated. Cast: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries, Miles Malleson, Norman Bird, Gladys Henson, Hugh McDermott, Betty McDowall, Michael Ripper (uncredited), Peter Finch (uncredited), John Forbes-Robertson (uncredited).
“Everything Wrong with TRANSFORMERS” was so much fun that we just had to let you see the follow-up, “Everything Wrong with TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN.”
The Cinema Sins folks do a wonderful job of nitpicking their way through the sequel, which was even worse than the original – so much worse, that this video takes 20 minutes to recount the multitude of transgressions. If that sounds excessive, bear in mind that the entertainment-to-length ratio is far higher than that of the film being targeted.
If you have yet to encounter Cinema Sins’ series of “Everything Wrong With…” videos on YouTube, you really should check them out. As the title suggests, Cinema Sins picks apart filmic flaws – usually targeting big-budget blockbusters. The approach is simple but effective: a montage of clips from the target film, with a bland narrator counting through each and every mistake, from the mundane to the massive. Much of the commentary is nitpicky nonsense, but the Cinema Sins crew also scores some major points. The result is good film criticism wrapped in entertaining sarcasm.
A perfect example is “Everything Wrong with TRANSFORMERS in 7 Minutes or Less.” Check it out, and find more here.
A larger version of the video is embedded below.
This early example of a Japanese kaidan (ghost story) with a contemporary setting begins strong but gradually devolves into stupidity, as the scenario figuratively rips itself to shreds with a series of increasingly ridiculous plot twists. In a way, THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen) prefigures the worst aspects of Italian thrillers from subsequent decades, in which gratuitous shocks and surprises overruled logic. The result is too big a mess to be considered good, but it is interesting and occasionally effective. Curiously, the film hailed from Shochiku Eiga, a company more known for respectable dramas than exploitation horror.
The first thing you need to know about the story of THE LIVING SKELETON is that it contains no living skeleton (despite a publicity shot of said skeleton menacing a screaming damsel). Call me pedantic, but things like this matter – especially when this glaring omissions serves as a synecdoche for the entire film, which promises much that is never delivered.
THE LIVING SKELETON begins with a prologue in which pirates (including, apparently, members of the crew) kill everyone on board a freighter ship named Dragon King, including a screaming woman begging for mercy from the visibly scarred Tanuma. Three years later, we find Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) living with a Father Akashi (Masumi Okada). Why is a young, attractive, unmarried woman living alone with a Catholic priest? There is some vague lip-service dialogue about this, but it explains nothing – our first hint that something is seriously wrong with the screenplay.
Saeko is the twin sister of Yoriko (also Matsuoka), who was the woman we saw in the prologue – now presumed dead, since no one knows what happened to the freighter. Saeko, however, gets a premonition that her sister is alive; during a storm, she takes a small boat out to see, accompanied by her boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa); when the boat overturns, Mcohizuki heads back to shore while Saeko ends up aboard the Dragon King, which has returned like a ghost ship in the fog. (And yes, you read that right: Mochizuki leaves his girlfriend in the ocean, not knowing whether she drowned; he remains pretty much this useless for the rest of the film.)
Saeko sees her dead sister in a cabin, then later shows up on shore, before disappearing again. While Mochizuki and the priest look for her, the former pirates begin dying mysteriously, after glimpsing an apparition of the dead Yoriko – or is it in fact Saeko, possessed by her dead sister?
To savor the full flavorful range of silliness that is THE LIVING SKELETON, you really need to have the ending spoiled for you. Here goes…
Eventually, Saeko confesses to Father Akashi, who tosses off a Biblical quotation suggesting she should be merciful. That night, in a genuinely shocking scene, Tanuma strangles Saeko, disrobes her, and hides her body in a suit of armor. It turns out that Father Akashi is actually Tanuma, his scarred face hidden beneath makeup. Tanuma and the remaining members of his gang head out to the Dragon King, where they encounter Doctor Nishizato (Ko Nishimura), Yoriko’s husband, who – despite having been apparently shot ead in the prologue – has been living aboard the Dragon King for the ensuing three years, during which time he has invented very potent acid, which he uses on one of the pirates, melting him down to a soggy mess. Tanuma escapes the doctor but finds Noriko’s corpse holding fast to his ankle.
Saeko shows up (a ghost, presumably, though the script is vague here) and tells Tanuma that Doctor Nishizato had been injecting his own blood into Yorkio’s corpse in an attempt to bring her back to life. (How she knows this is a mystery.) Tanuma tries to escape, but he too falls into a puddle of Nishizato’s acid, which melts him and the floor, eventually eating through the hull of the ship, which starts to sink. Mochizuki arrives to rescue Saeko (one supposes he never noticed her body in the suit of armor), but she apologetically knocks him overboard and goes down with the ship.
Well, that was fun…
THE LIVING SKELETON is loaded with fascinating supernatural elements that are gradually squelched by the narrative nonsense. Saeko’s psychic connection with her murdered sister and the reappearance of the Dragon King set up wonderful anticipation of encroaching revenge from beyond the grave, and the subsequent deaths are cleverly handled in an ambiguous fashion, leaving us to wonder whether it is Yoriko or Saeko who is responsible. However, when Saeko confesses, the story starts to fall apart: she claims to be responsible for murdering four people, but one jumped to his death after seeing her, and another drowned when he became entangled in chains binding several skeletons (presumably of the pirates’ dead victims) under the ocean.
How Saeko is supposed to have affected that death, we are left to determine for ourselves, which renders the “rational” explanation unsatisfactory. Moreover, the murders are generally presaged by omens of the supernatural: bats (of the rubbery flapping genus indigenous to cinema, first encountered on the Dragon King) flap ominously on screen, as if accompanying Saeko/Noriko; and the ghost ship (rendered in moody miniatures not that are not necessarily convincing but are usually somewhat effective) is frequently seen floating through the fog, a harbinger of doom. If Saeko is committing the murders without assistance from her sister’s spirit, these visual motives must be completely coincidental.
Narrative problems multiply with the revelation of Tanuma’s identity. Is this the way a murderous pirate enjoys his ill-gotten gains – three years of celibacy under the same roof with an attractive single woman? The scenario passes up potentially interesting material by playing the deception as a ruse with no clear motivation, instead of suggesting that perhaps Tanuma really was trying to atone for his sins. Also, the possible spiritual conflict between a traditional, vengeful Japanese ghost, and a religion that preaches forgiveness of one’s enemies, is short-circuited when the representative of said religion turns out to be a crook in disguise.
As frustrating as these problems are, THE LIVING SKELETON truly falls apart with the appearance of Dr. Nishizato, who has somehow survived alone for three years on an unmanned ship that has never been sighted by ghost guard. As if that were not enough, his shipboard office serves quite nicely as a mad scientist’s lab, with enough facilities to create a new acid and make at least some headway toward resurrecting the dead. We also have to assume he propped up Yoriko’s corpse so that Saeko could see it standing in a cabin when she boarded the ship earlier in the film. Why? To inspired Saeko to seek revenge? Who knows?
As if realizing the disappointing nature of this “rational” explanation, THE LIVING SKELETON finally gives us what must be a ghost, when Saeko reappears after her death. Even here, the film stumbles, as Tanuma does not seem particularly perturbed over being confronted by the woman he strangled to death. At least Saeko’s revenge gives the audience some small sense of satisfaction in an otherwise frustrating film.
Visually, THE LIVING SKELETON is impressive. The black-and-white photography captures the seaside atmosphere, creating a cinematic world in which we accept the (apparent) machinations of the supernatural. The first few deaths are handled with nice ambiguity, and the underwater skeletons are reasonably spooky, even if their design (which includes various facial expressions etched into bony skulls) is more bizarre and whimsical than genuinely frightening. The score uses plucked instruments, recorded with lots of reverb, to interesting effect, adding a modern tone to the old-fashioned spook scenes.
There are occasionally impressive visual flourishes, such as the pleading Yorko’s face reflected in Tanuma’s sunglasses (which has the added benefit of disguising his face, so that we do not recognize him as Father Akashi later). When Yoriko’s corpse grasps Tanuma’s leg, the gesture recaptures a similar moment when she begged for her husband’s life, emphasized by a brief flashback-cut – letting us know his karma has come back to haunt him, literally.
One must give THE LIVING SKELETON some credit for audacity if not good judgment, taking what initially looks like a traditional ghost story and transforming it into horrific exploitation sleaze. Not only do we get a gratuitous night club scene, in which female dancers jiggle, and jiggle, and then jiggle some more; we also get two gruesome acid deaths! The first stage of disintegration is laughably bad (a matte to superimpose the spreading decay on top of the actor’s face), but once the physical effects take over, the visceral impact is surprisingly effective within the context of what initially seemed to be an atmospheric ghost story. Who needs the subtle scares of a vengeful spirit, when you can melt a body down into a big gloppy mess? (Perhaps the film’s title refers to the victims not being quite dead as their flesh starts to melt from their bones?)
Truly, the best reason to see THE LIVING SKELETON is Kikko Matsuoka in her dual role as Saeko and Yoriko. She conveys an inner sense of tragedy from the beginning that does more than the script to make her eventual doom seem like an integral part of the story; her lovely face invites sympathy even while it is capable of registering in a more sinister light in her Yoriko persona. Unfortunately, the narrative shoves her aside too much, first when the focus shifts to the deaths of the former pirates, and then when Saeko is killed and Nishzato takes over as the film’s locus of horror. Nevertheless, her two deaths scenes (first at the hands of Tanuma, then on the sinking ship) engage our emotions – quite an achievement in a film that otherwise subordinates drama to shock effects.
Ultimately, THE LIVING SKELETON is a frustration experience that promises something much finer than it delivers. There is some camp entertainment in watching the filmmakers carelessly toss their ghost story overboard to make room for a mad doctor movie, but you wish they had finished the film they started, and saved the acid bath for another production
THE LIVING SKELETON is one of four horror and/or science fiction films made by Shochiku in 1967 and 1968, along with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE; GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL; and GENOCIDE. All four are available in the Criterion box set Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. They can also be streamed on Hulu Plus, which has a deal with Criterion for these and several other Japanese ghost stories, such as YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959).
Ghostly goodness marred by medical malpractice.
THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen, 1968). Shochiku Eiga. 81 mins. Unrated. Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno. Written by Kyuzo Kobayashi, Kikuma Shimoizaka. Cast: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, masumi Okada, Asao Uchida, Asao Koike.
Six minutes of trailers for TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION!
I thought the first two films were terrible; the third was so over-the-top that I enjoyed it. Hopefully the fourth will be fun; though I do not hold out high hopes that lightening will strike twice, there is enough outrageous action on view in the coming attractions to make me cautiously optimistic.
The film officially opens on Friday, with “preview” screenings starting on Thursday night. Michael May is back as director, again working from a script by Ehren Kruger. Mark Wahlberg stars as Cade Yeager, supported by Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, and Nicola Peltz. The rating is PG-13, and the run-time is a whopping two hours and forty-five minutes – which is so obviously excessive that it’s either going to be a complete disaster or a stroke of genius. (Wanna place your bets?)
Check out a larger version of the trailer below.
Anybody remember CAPTAIN EO? I do, because I covered the event’s debut at Disneyland, for Cinefantastique magazine back in 1986. The science fiction short subject starred Michael Jackson as the titular space hero, confronting Anjelica Huston in a wicked Giger-esque makeup as the Supreme Leader. Francis Ford Coppola directed for his friend, executive producer George Lucas. If you have never seen CAPTAIN EO, the reason is that the film screened in “4D” at Disney theme parks (meaning that, in addition to 3D photography, the attraction featured live, in-theatre effects, such as fog to simulate the smoke from explosions). It ran for about ten years, then made a comeback after Michael Jackson’s death, but it’s never been easily available anywhere outside of Disneyland and Disneyworld.
Fortunately, you can now watch in online for free, courtesy of YouTube. The impact is considerably diminished by the absence of 3D (the asteroid, which seems to linger pointlessly on screen in the opening shot, was pretty cool when it seemed to float out of the screen to a point about an arm’s length in front of your nose). Jackson is an awkward actor at best, but needless to say he shines when he begins to sing and dance. All in all, this is a curio, not a masterpiece. Enjoy!
See a larger version of the video below.
Check out the original Spanish language version of the cult movie, about a masked wrestler battling evil vampire women. No subtitles, unfortunately, so I hope you stayed away during high school Spanish.
Check out a full-size version of the video below: