I suppose that, in this day of home video entertainment – DVD, digital downloading, iPods, iPhones (what – haven’t they found a way to beam movies directly into your brain yet?) – that there may be at best limited value in extolling the virtues of the revival house experience, yet I will soldier on, within the confines of this column (i.e. Hollywood Gothique), using retrospective screenings as an excuse to discuss classic horror, science-fiction, and fantasy films when they show up on the big screen in Tinsle Town. Continue reading “John Carpenter's The Thing This Way Comes”
“Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream/Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream…”
– “Sheep” by Roger Waters.
Most entries in the “killer animal” film sub-genre play upon the fears or revulsions of mankind. This one plays upon his guilt. Few animals are, after all, so consistently used and abused by that other animal known as Homo sapiens as the humble ovine. So there is something deep down satisfactory about BLACK SHEEP, in which these put-upon animals finally get the chance to turn upon their tormentors and deliver a little karmic justice. And it is only right and fitting that this film should emanate from the one country on earth that has more reason than any other to offer an apology to its woolly inhabitants: New Zealand.
BLACK SHEEP opens with a sequence as traumatic for the viewer as it is for the young Henry Oldfield, as he is subjected to a joke, using the term loosely, perpetrated by his bitter older brother, Angus, which involves the bloody demise of Henry’s pet sheep, only moments before both boys learn of the death of their father. Fifteen years later, the psychologically scarred Henry (Nathan Meiser) returns to the family farm on the advice of his therapist, looking for closure and intending to sell his interest in the family business to Angus (Peter Feeney), now an agricultural scientist determined to create the ultimate breed of sheep. Unfortunately for Henry – and everyone else within a wide radius – he is not the property’s only visitor. Activists Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver) are on the premises unlawfully, hoping to obtain evidence of what they believe to be illegal experiments on sheep conducted by Angus and a scientist in his employ, Dr Rush (Tandi Wright). Grant manages to steal a glass canister marked “For Disposal”, but as he and Experience flee from Angus’s men, he drops it. The shattered canister releases a foetal sheep that immediately takes a bite out of Grant’s ear. The experimental animal then crawls away to a nearby paddock, where it also bites a normal sheep. Circumstances bring Henry, station manager Tucker (Tammy Davis) and Experience to a farmer’s shack, where they find the owner dead and mutilated. The next moment they are under siege from crazed, blood-lusting sheep. As the three are forced to fight for their lives, their efforts are hampered by Henry’s overpowering ovinophobia: a state he defines for his bewildered companions as “The completely unfounded and irrational fear that one day – THIS would happen!”
To deal frankly with what is at once BLACK SHEEP’s greatest strength and greatest weakness, this is essentially a one-joke film; how much enjoyment the viewer gets out of it will be dictated by how funny he or she finds that joke. The sheer ludicrousness of the premise does carry the production a fair distance. Flesh-eating zombie sheep, rampaging half-human were-sheep, genetically engineered mutant sheep, even a truck-driving sheep – If you can sit through all of this without a goofy grin on your face, well, you’re not the kind of person I want to watch a movie with. However, it is true enough that the film never travels much beyond this point. There was room for a deeper satire in BLACK SHEEP, but nothing like that ever eventuates; the sheep are genetically engineered not because the film is interested in debating the ethics of such techniques, but simply because “genetic engineering” is to the twenty-first century science fiction film what “radiation” was to those of the twentieth.
Of course, no film – least of all one about mutant killer sheep – is obliged to “say something”; so rather than criticise this production for its profound disinterest in anything that doesn’t involve grossing out its audience, it would be more to the point to commend it for the energy it puts into achieving that one great goal. Mutilated human bodies abound in Black Sheep: the camera lingers with glee over disembowellings, throat tearings, limb severings and, in the case of Angus Oldfield’s inevitable demise, genital violence guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of any male viewer.
It is only fair to post a warning that not all of the mayhem in this film is perpetrated upon members of the human race. If you’re anything like me, and find violence against animals, even obviously faked violence, far more distressing than its human equivalent, there are a number of scenes here that will have you covering your eyes in horror. (In fact, if Black Sheep could be said to have any kind of message, it would be that while it’s bad enough to be a sheep in New Zealand, it really sucks to be a rabbit.) Much of this film’s humour is predicated upon the simple juxtapositioning of acts of extreme violence with their supposed commission by that most unthreatening of animals, Ovis aries. For me, the absolute highlight is a shot of quite pastoral beauty, with green hills in the background and, in the foreground, sheep grazing peacefully upon the bloody remains of a dismembered human being. The composition is so perfect, it is guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart. Or at any rate, the cockles of my heart.
It is safe to say that there is no possible sheep joke that doesn’t find its way in front of the camera in BLACK SHEEP. Mint sauce acts like holy water; an antidote for were-sheep-ism, when discovered, is administered in the form of a drench; and although the human characters are powerless to stop it, a berserk were-sheep is brought to bay by the eye of an ordinary sheep-dog. The film’s idea of what a “genetic engineering lab” might look like is, intentionally or otherwise, simply hilarious, as indeed is the wardrobe of choice of its rogue scientist, Dr Rush, who while occupying a sheep farm in the middle of sunny New Zealand, opts to dress in gleaming white pant-suits and spike heels.
However, probably to no-one’s surprise, the bulk of the non-violent humour in this film is focused upon what we have to call, not just “a” New Zealand sheep joke, but “THE” New Zealand sheep joke – and here, too, the sheep is given the opportunity to revenge itself upon mankind when Henry, somewhat inadequately disguised in a covering of sheepskin car seat covers, attracts the attention of a horny ram. After this, there is a certain inevitability about the revelation of Angus’s relationship with his experimental sheep. But don’t think that BLACK SHEEP has hit the bottom of the barrel just yet – if you’ll excuse the use of the word “bottom” in this context. What would a gross-out comedy be, after all, without fart jokes? And BLACK SHEEP isn’t content just to make a fart joke or two; oh, no; instead, it builds its climactic scene around what might just be the fart joke to end all fart jokes. (Quoth Experience: “Methane….”)
The screenplay is rarely more than adequate. The characters are all stock and, while they’re amusing, they’re also fairly one-note. As with many New Zealand films, BLACK SHEEP evinces a degree of suspicion about anyone or anything that is remotely citified. Thus, while Tucker, the Maori station manager, is largely exempt from criticism, almost everyone else takes a severe pounding. Even Henry, our nominal hero, is rigorously punished for his initial self-absorption. Thankfully, this film refrains from falling into the same trap as one of its obvious models, MAN’S BEST FRIEND. It may be Angus and Dr Rush who have developed the ovine horror, but it is Experience and Grant who let it loose; and the film slaps at both sides of this ethical divide with equal gusto. BLACK SHEEP’s use of its locations is a real strength, highlighting the gorgeous New Zealand landscape without ever feeling like a travelogue. Indeed, in this respect the film deliberately and shrewdly undermines itself: Experience pauses on a cliff edge to admire the stunning view, only to be told that this is where Henry’s father fell to his death.
Screenplay, locations, cinematography – Pah! What we’re here for is the killer sheep, right? The special effects in this film are a bit of a mixed bag. The body-part effects are generally convincing, the sheep themselves somewhat less so – although undoubtedly, a lot of the goofiness is completely intentional. There is some CGI on display here, but its use is limited, mostly confined to some of the human-sheep transformation scenes, and to the stampede sequences. The killer sheep effects are predominantly mechanical, achieved through puppeteering and animatronics, and it is to this that most of this film’s idiotic charm can be credited.
It is clear thatBLACK SHEEP’s writer-director Jonathan King knows and understands his roots. Spiritually – spiritually!? – this film’s main inspiration is the early work of Peter Jackson, those home-made splatter films, BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD; but numerous other genre films rate a reference, too. We have, for instance, the inevitable NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD siege sequence; the best mass-slaughter-of-a-social-gathering since ALLIGATOR; and a transformation scene modelled squarely on the centrepiece of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Alas, BLACK SHEEP’s budget didn’t allow for the full extravaganza, but those jutting sheep’s jaws bring a fond smile to the face, just the same. This is certainly a work intended to appeal to those who know and love their killer animal films; who get a nasty thrill out of watching humankind being done unto as it generally does unto others. It’s not great; it’s not original; and it certainly isn’t art. But then, who wants art all the time? As an hour and a half of dumb, disgusting fun, BLACK SHEEP can’t be bleat (ahem).
BLACK SHEEP (Live Stock Films, 2006). Written and directed by Jonathan King. Cast: Nathan Meister, Danielle Mason, Peter Feeney, Tammy Davis, Glenis Levestam, Tandi Wright, Oliver Driver, Mathew Cahmberlain.
Although containing elements from the 1925 silent film version of THE LOST WORLD, KING KONG truly is the prototype of the giant-monster-attacks-city genre. It is also one of the greatest monster movies ever made, thanks to a winning combination of an exciting adventure story, marvelous technical effects, a rousing score, and some iconic performances. Most of all, the film survives the decades because it embodies an archetypal myth rendered so powerfully that it eclipses any dated dialogue and tecnical flaws. The title character is a fearsome, apparently unbeatable brute – until he falls in love with the blond and beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), which turns out to be his undoing. Continue reading “King Kong (1933) – Film & DVD Review”
Two scenes are indelibly impressed on the memory, thanks to late night television, home video, and horror movie anthologies: in the first, a woman removes a cloth from her husband’s head to reveal not a human face but the head of a fly; in the second, a tiny fly trapped in a spider’s web screams in a human voice, “Help me! Help me!” as the spider moves in for the kill. The film is, of course, THE FLY, released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. The two scenes are so indelibly impressed on the public imagination that few people remember the rest of the film: for instance, there is a common misconception, shared by whoever wrote the notes for the old VHS videocassette release, that Vincent Price played the role of the unfortunate scientist. This neglect is rather undeserved because the film, though hardly a masterpiece, stands in many ways above the level of B-movie science fiction common in the 1950s.
The saga of THE FLY began with the publication of George Langelaan’s novella in the June 1957 issue of Playboy magazine. Langelaan, an Englishman reared in France, was a British Intelligence agent in World War II. In his autobiographical account The Faces of War, he described his adventures, which included parachuting into occupied France, being captured and condemned to death by the Nazis, and escaping and returning to England to participate in the Normandy landings. The title of the book refers to the fact that he underwent plastic surgery more than once to disguise himself from the enemy — an experience that perhaps provided the inspiration for the somewhat more radical change of appearance that the scientist undergoes in THE FLY.
Langelaan’s story begins with Henri Delambre receiving a phone call from his brother’s wife informing him that she has just murdered her husband, Andre. The calm way in which she insists upon her guilt while refusing to explain her motive results in her incarceration in an asylum for the criminally insane. After much prodding from the police inspector assigned to the case, who suspects her of feigning insanity, she writes a confession, which forms the bulk of the narrative.
Andre, she explains, was performing experiments in which he would disintegrate solid objects, project them through space, and reintegrate them. After an initial failure with his pet cat Dandelo (the feline disintegrates but never reappears), he perfects the process to the point where he experiments on himself; unfortunately, he emerges with the head and claw of a fly that was in the matter transmitter with him.
When a search for the fly with his head and arm proves futile, his wife convinces him to go through the transmitter again without the fly, hoping that will be enough to restore him. The attempt proves a disaster: Andre emerges mixed not only with the atoms of the stray fly but also with those of the lost cat. With no hope now of restoring himself, Andre destroys his matter transmitter and instructs his wife to kill him by crushing his head under a steam hammer so as to leave no trace of what happened.
Helene Delambre commits suicide after writing her confession, which Inspector Charas interprets as proof that she was indeed insane. Henri, however, informs him that he visited the cemetery with a matchbox, which he buried near his brother’s grave:
“Do you know what was in it?”
“A fly, I suppose.”
“Yes, I had found it early this morning, caught in a spider’s web in the garden.”
“Was it dead?”
“No, not quite. I…crushed it…between two stones. Its head was…white…all white.”
The story won the Playboy Best Fiction Award and was selected for the “Annual of the Year’s Best Science Fiction.” Also, it was read by Kurt Neumann, a director and sometimes producer of low- to medium-budget films such as Secret of the Blue Room, Return of the Vampire (1943, co-directed with Lew Landers), several Tarzan films, and The She Devil (1956). Neumann had been born in Germany in 1906 and worked there as a director of comedy shorts and foreign versions of Hollywood films before moving to America in the 1930s and becoming a feature director.
Realizing the cinematic potential of the story, Neumann brought the property to Robert Lippert, for whom he had produced and directed Rocketship-XM (1950). Lippert had been an independent producer and distributor, but at this time he had a contract with 20th Century Fox, which allowed his production company, Associated Producers, Inc. to act as a sort of B movie unit. Fox would provide finances and distribution but had nothing to do with the films until Lippert handed over a finished product. According to an interview in Fantastic Films magazine with Edward Bernds, who wrote and directed the sequel, RETURN OF THE FLY, for Lippert, “Fox didn’t even have veto power over the cast, and I don’t think they even looked at the finished pictures!”
One control that Fox did maintain was the right of approval over any project Lippert wanted to do. According to Harry Spalding, a story editor and screenwriter who worked with Lippert at the time and for many years thereafter, “Lippert put up an option on the property and brought it to Fox. Fox liked THE FLY so much it went out as a Fox picture. Lippert put the picture together and got a financial benefit, but it had the Fox label.”
The decision to handle the film as a full fledged 20th Century Fox production was unusual, in that Fox had produced nothing resembling a science fiction film up to that time; most probably, Fox production chief Buddy Adler sensed the commercial potential in the story that would capitalize on the currently popular sci-fi genre, and his company was in need of a box office hit. Whatever the reason, the decision insured that the film would be shot in color and Cinemascope on a budget of $400,000 – relatively small by Fox standards but much larger than the $90,000 allotted to Lippert’s independent productions. Lippert had no further involvement with the film, but Kurt Neumann remained as producer and director.
To write the screenplay, producer-director Kurt Neumann obtained the services of James Clavell, an Australian who had been educated at Birmingham University in England and served as Captain of the British Royal Artillery in World War II. Clavell had come to the United States in 1953 to start a career as a writer. THE FLY was his first feature screenplay; later credits include The Great Escape and The Satan Bug.
As Harry Spalding described it, “Clavell gave it that serious touch the British give to the unserious.” Clavell’s adaptation stuck closely to the Langelaan story, with a few exceptions. The setting is changed from France to Montreal, Canada. The flashback structure is retained, but the film begins with Helene Delambre discovered next to the huge press in which she has just crushed her husband; Clavell then uses her confession to segue back in time, revealing the events that led up to Andre’s death.
Several character development scenes are added to humanize Andre (who barely speaks in the novella – except for his typewritten remarks to his wife after his mishap with the fly renders him speechless). Dandelo the cat never becomes mixed up with the fly head — he merely disappears into a “stream of cat atoms,” accompanied by an illogical but nonetheless effectively ghostly wail on the soundtrack. Consequently, Andre’s decision to destroy himself is based on the fact that finding the fly no longer provides the chance of restoring himself; instead, he is driven by the fact that his human intelligence is gradually being overwhelmed by the animal – and possibly murderous – instincts of the fly.
Clavell’s script manages to provide a Hollywood happy ending: Helene is never confined to an asylum; she is merely kept under observation by Inspector Charas until he can decide whether or not she is insane. Besides being gruesomely horrific, the famous “Help me! Help me!” scene, in which Andre’s son draws his uncle’s attention to the human-headed fly trapped in the spiderweb, also serves a dramatic purpose, convincing Charas that Helen’s story is true and thus saving her from incarceration and suicide, as in the novella.
One of the most interesting aspects of Clavell’s approach, an element that helps to set the film apart from many of its contemporaries, is the avoidance (except for a few awkward concessions) of the standard “I meddled in things man must leave alone” mentality. Andre’s transformation is not a moral retribution but a tragic accident (the story could almost have been titled “The Bug in the System”). Helen does express fear about technology’s overwhelmingly rapid advances, and Andre finally concludes, “There are some things man was not meant to experiment with,” but at the conclusion Francois describes his brother as an explorer like Columbus, who sacrificed himself for the sake of discovering something that would benefit future generations.
THE FLY was shot in eighteen days on a noticeably limited number of sets: most of the film takes place in the Delambre’s house, with only a few studio exteriors and no location es¬tablishing shots (the Montreal location is apparent only through a few dialogue refer¬ences). Nevertheless, cinematography by the late Karl Struss gives the film a glossy studio look: Struss, along with Charles Rosher, had won the first Academy Award for photographing Sunrise in 1927; his other credits include Rocketship-XM, Limelight, The Great Dictator, Island of Lost Souls, and the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Neumann’s direction is very straightforward, mostly avoiding B movie melodrama and thus giving an understated tone that lends a decent sense of credibility to the incredible proceedings.
The cast is small but strong. For Vincent Price, this film would help cement his association in the public mind with horror. In the 1940s, he had been a contract actor at Fox, where he played many supporting roles in classics like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven (both with Gene Tierney). He had played a couple of sinister leads in films like Shock and Dragonwyck (again with Tierney), but his previous appearances in horror films were limited to the 1939 version of Tower of London (a sort of historical horror film); The Invisible Man Returns and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (he played the Invisible Man in both); and House of Wax and The Mad Magician during the early fifties 3-D craze.
Producer-director Kurt Neumann cast Price as the sympathetic brother-in-law of Andre Delambra. Fox studio chief Buddy Adler reportedly had doubts about the actor’s marquee value, but Neumann insisted that he could help draw a horror audience to the picture. (A television appearance on The $64,000 Challenge had earned Price a new degree of popularity with young viewers unfamiliar with his older films.)
Decades later, Price looked back on THE FLY with a certain fondness. “I thought THE FLY was a wonderful film – entertaining and great fun,” he said. “It had a sense of suspense,” he said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen. When you saw the Fly, you only saw him for a short while. Jeff Goldblum wrote me a letter when his version came out and said, ‘I hope you like it as much as I like yours’ – which I thought was terribly sweet. I’d never met him, and I wrote him back. I kind of like the new version. It was wonderful right up to a certain point. It just goes too far. I didn’t believe the end of it – it became laughable because too much happened. There is such a thing as suggesting something. It’s like nude women: very few women should be caught nude.”
Patricia Owens, who retired in 1967 after The Destructors to raise her family, is properly convincing as Andre’s wife — actually the film’s largest role in terms of screen time and dialogue; she once claimed the film had helped her overcome an insect phobia: “Now when I see a beetle or something crawling, I just tell myself, ‘Why, that’s only that nice Al Hedison playing a new role.’ Then all fear leaves me.”
Herbert Marshall, a British actor who had been on stage in England and America before appearing in such films as Foreign Correspondent, Razor’s Edge, and Duel in the Sun, does a marvelous job of elevating Charas from a mouthpiece asking questions into a human being; his horrified reaction shot, after crushing the human headed fly in the spider’s web, gives no indication that he and Price were laughing themselves sick during that day’s filming.
“We never could get it all out,” said Vincent Price of the scene’s filming. “We were playing this kind of philosophical scene, and every time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it.”
Cast in the role of Andre Delambre was Al Hedison, a young New York stage actor who had appeared in only one previous film, The Enemy Below. “I had first read the story in Playboy, and I thought it was thrilling. Shortly after that, Fox got the rights, and several actors who were under contract turned it down; when they asked me if I wanted to do it, I was thrilled — I thought it could be a terrific picture. Of course I was a little younger then and they tried to make me look older — put gray in my hair.”
Taking his cue from Clavell’s script (which he calls “a very sympathetic story of two people very much in love”), Hedison plays Andre as a conscientious scientist, not an obsessed fanatic:
“He’s really discovered something pretty marvelous, because he was talking about being able to do wonderful things for humanity: being able to transport food to another place — he had all these wonderful ideas. I thought that was a very important point that James Clavell had made.”
Unfortunately, the finished film doesn’t live up to Hedison’s ideal of what it could have been: “I was a little disappointed in it. When I read the story, I was really thrilled because I’d always loved that story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and this had something of that in it. I ran to [Fox chief] Buddy Adler and said, ‘I think you’re gonna have a terrific picture here, but it must be done with progressive makeup.’ When she first pulls the cloth off, there’s got to be enough to frighten anyone — you know, like half his face. But instead they used this mask, which I fought and didn’t like at all. Unfortunately they wanted to use it and thought it was fast. I thought if they had used progressive makeup and spent a little more time on it, it could have been an even better picture. They could have done more with it in that way and strengthened the human relationship, which would have been terrific. Then it would have been really horrifying.”
Unlike what often happens in scenes involving masks, Hedison played all his own scenes, even though his face was completely obscured and a double could easily have been substituted. At the time, Hedison said that acting through the mask was like “trying to play piano with boxing gloves,” but years later he had softened his opinion.
“I think I did my best work under the mask,” he joked. “I went into makeup several times before the film started, and they got a plaster cast of my head — I went through that for hours; then the finally got the mask to fit my face. I thought, for all that time they could have done it the other way — my way. So then I would go in, in the morning, and they would put it on — it would take about a half hour. They would put these little things in my mouth that would move [the mask’s proboscis]. As masks go, it wasn’t bad, but it didn’t scare me much. I think the mask could have been the final stage, but at the beginning it could have been wonderful if they’d come up with something really frightening.”
Another disappointment involved post-dubbing dialogue, a practice with which Hedison was unfamiliar since this was only his second film:
“They bring you into a dubbing room, and you try to recapture the moment,” he explains. “Well, I was a total failure. I had a plane leaving that afternoon to go to England to shoot a film, a piece of drek called Son of Robin Hood. They just had me for a couple of hours, and I had to do that scene — it was a love scene in the garden with Patricia Owens, which I had filmed, and it was terrific, I thought — a very moving scene. Then I went in to dub it, and I saw the cut version, and I was so unhappy because it was gone; it was totally gone. I mean, it was there — the words were there — but it was a fake and it was cold and didn’t work. That to me was very upsetting.
“And while we’re at it,” he continues, “the other thing that was upsetting was — well, people do an imitation of it all the time: ‘’Help me!’ They had me in the net, and they pasted me white. In the dailies, when I saw that scene it was horrific — the sound of a man who’s gonna be eaten by a spider — I mean, it’s terrible! But they chose to go with that effect — heighten my voice to make it sound like a chipmunk or something — which to me made no sense at all. What they should have done was move the camera in closer and had my own voice screaming, ‘Help me!’”
Hedison smiled. “It’s good to get these things off my chest — thirty years too late!”
The pale, gaunt makeup that Hedison wore in that famous scene was the work of Ben Nye, Sr., who made simple but effective use of highlight and shadow to achieve the death — like appearance. Nye, regrettably, passed away this February 1986. His career spanned five decades, from Gone with the Wind to Planet of the Apes (1969), and included such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Dr. Doolittle. At the time of THE FLY, Nye was the makeup director at 20th Cen¬tury Fox, a position that he held for twenty three years before retiring from the screen to produce his own line of theatrical makeup — a business continued by his sons Ben, Jr. and Dana.
For the effect of a spider web, Nye took two pieces of a 2×4 wood, each about eight inches long, and put white glue between them; then, by rubbing them together and pulling them apart, he could create long thin fibers, which he would lay over Hedison’s head.
“I was concerned that the actor would suffer some in the removal stage,” Nye recalled in an unpublished autobiographical account of his years at Fox. “However, at the end of the day’s shooting, it slipped off of his head completely. Luckily, I only had to do this makeup once. The effect was super.”
For the spider that menaces Hedison, Nye asked the prop department to supply him with a hollow facsimile that could be operated like a hand-puppet. “They got in over their head though, when they tried to put hair on it. We took it over, and my apprentice Dick Blair layered crepe wool evenly with light- to dark-brown hair. We also glued the eyes into place.”
Combining the miniature spider with Hedison, as well as providing the bright blue light seen when the matter transmitter is at work, was the job of L.B. Abbott, who later went on to work on several Irwin Allen disaster films (The Towering Inferno) before his death in 1985.
Nye’s greatest challenge on the film, of course, was creating the fly mask. When first given the script, he was told to read it in a hurry, because the film was scheduled to begin production within two months, and producer-director Kurt Neumann was anxious to know how much time and money it would take to complete the mask.
“Unfortunately, that was never covered in my apprenticeship, and so I told him I didn’t have the foggiest,” Nye recounted. “However, they thought I could do it and they gave what could be called an unlimited budget. Before long, I was meeting with the art director, who was showing me his ideas. They didn’t conform to what I had in mind, but they were good for a start.”
Although Dana Nye recollects that the research department at Fox came up with a color transparency of a fly to aid his father, Ben Nye’s own account indicates that he relied mostly on his imagination. He and his able assistant Dick Smith (not the famed makeup artist of The Exorcist) agreed to create a tightly fitting skin on which would be glued the various components of the insect’s face. After settling on the design and sculpting the fly head, they produced latex sponge pieces and secured them on the mask, which then had a zipper sewn in the back by the wardrobe department.
“When we began to decide what the eyes would be like, I could only imagine,” Nye wrote. Knowing there were multiple cells in the eye of a fly led Nye to a beaded look, so he had the prop department constructed metal frames covered with a fine wire mesh in a convex curve. Then Nye, Blair, and assistant Richard Hamilton applied 14mm pearl-type beads to the mesh.
“We were a little like Laurel and Hardy to begin with. After completing several pairs individually, we discovered, to our chagrin, the beads had been layered in conflicting patterns.”
Once that problem was sorted out, Nye painted the eyes with an airbrush, using iridescent colors: beige, yellow, and green. “This was all done in two very crazy weeks. I was even coming in during the weekend. Meanwhile, I still had all the other responsibilities of running the department. We had three or four features being made on the lot at the time.”
Next a proboscis was sculpted in clay. Its sponge rubber exterior, with a sucker tip on the end, was supported internally by a wooden core. Held in Hedison’s mouth, it provided the mask’s only animation. On each side of the piece were feelers cut from turkey feathers to give an airy look
“This was again what I thought a fly would look like. I painted the feathers a metallic green, blue, and black to get a variegated coloring effect. Finally, at the top of the proboscis, I added little hairs which were constructed out of tiny plastic rods. We learned that by holding them over a flame for an instant, the rod could be pulled apart, and the plastic looked like little hairs.”
A week before the camera test, Nye painted the entire head with metallic green, blue, and black, using more black under the “jaw line” to give the mask better definition. Over this were added coarse whiskers made from the plastic rods held over flame. With the eyes in place, the proboscis ready, and the mask colored, Nye ordered a special wig from Max Factor.
“It was probably the strangest order they had ever received,” he wrote. “We had to send them a plaster head of Hedison so that it would fit him perfectly. What was actually different was the pattern into which the hair was layered. I wanted a sparse effect, and I ordered the individual hairs knotted in the netting about three-eights to one-half inches apart. We could see through it when it arrived, and this gave it a surreal look.”
Since the wig arrived uncut, Nye gave it a haircut while Hedison was wearing it. The wig was then glued to the mask and cut up the back along the path of the zipper.
After all this preparation, there was only one day for a camera test to check for lighting and angles. Unfortunately, although the mask looked great in rushes, close-ups revealed that the eyes looked exactly like what they were: beads. Nye had to come up with a new concept very quickly.
After several days’ experimentation, he decided to create convex eyes out of plastic shells. He discovered that, if he used two thin shells, one could be set within the other and painted to look semi-lucid. After getting the final version made by the prop department (they had to conform to the eye spaces left in the mask for the wire mesh frames), he began using luminous paint: light orchid on the inner shell, light gray on the outer, and yellow and green around the edges to give “an even more mystical effect. ”
The second camera test pleased everyone except for Hedison. The wire mesh eyes had allowed enough air and light to enter so that it was easy for him to breathe and see; the plastic eyes, however, were semi-opaque, and Nye couldn’t lighten the coloring without revealing Hedison’s eyes to the camera. During the test, Nye slightly opened the lower part of the shells to give a bit of ventilation; Hedison asked if they could be left open — this provided him just enough space to look down and walk without falling.
The claw on Hedison’s right hand was supplied by the special effects department. Nye made a rubber sleeve to fit over the rear of the claw and painted it to match with iridescent black, blue, and green, after which Dick Blair applied the hair. The claw plays a part in some action that may actually seem more memorable in retrospect: the warring nature of Andre Delamabre’s fading human personality and growing insect instincts are visualized in scenes of the character fighting with his clawed hand, which almost seems to take on a life of its own – a bit of business that foreshadows a similar predicament suffered by the title character (played by Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Summing up the experience, Nye had this to say: “This was a most difficult assignment since had nothing to start with. However, after I got onto what my imagination told me to do, the concepts unfolded one by one, and the mask and its components were most gratifying. My only disappointment was that the producer thought the mask was too scary for the average child or perhaps adult. Therefore, he ordered that the scenes in the lab be lit very dimly. This was supposed to make sure the audience was not ‘too scared.’ I was mad because much of the detail could never be seen. In the sixties, Irwin Allen moved onto the lot and produced a number of sci-fi stories; we had many special type makeups, but I never did anything as sophisticated or original as THE FLY.”
CRITICAL REACTION AND AUDIENCE RESPONSE
Upon its initial release, THE FLY became an immediate success, grossing nearly $34,000 on its opening day in Los Angeles. According to Lippert’s story editor Harry Spalding, 20th Century-Fox executives were so impressed that they took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety, which stated, “THE FLY opens to astounding results.” However, the ad was immediately pulled because the rather obvious pun was considered in poor taste. The gross increased to a million dollars in the first week and eventually ended up somewhere over the three million dollar mark — making it, after Peyton Place, Fox’s only other box office hit of the year.
Critical reaction to the film was somewhat mixed. Carlos Clarens (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film) stated, “It stands out from ordinary movies in nearly creating an authentic science fiction monster,” but then goes on to accuse the film of botching its own potential. Ivan Butler (Horror in the Cinema) calls THE FLY “the most ludicrous, and certainly one of the most revolting science-horror films ever perpetrated. […] Nothing, anyway, could excuse the head-crushing business.” (Butler tends to be rather squeamish.) Many detractors, including filmmaker David Cronenberg, who directed the 1986 remake, question why the fly’s head and claw appear suitably enlarged on Andre Delambre instead of their normal size — a point neither the story nor the film addresses. Somewhat unfairly, many also question why Andre retains his own personality after losing his head — even though this point is addressed, since Andre’s human personality is gradually being eclipsed.
Of course, the film has earned some praise as well, and not just from sci-fi fans who discovered it on television as kids. In his book of capsule reviews, Movies on TV, Steven H. Scheuer (who was hardly a fan of the genre) praised THE FLY as a “superior science-fiction thriller with a literate script for a change, plus good production effects and capable performances.” Frank McConnell (“Rough Beasts Slouching: A Note on the Horror Film”) wrote: “It manages a profound kind of shock: exactly because the flat, third-person camera angle imposes a tacit equivalence of human and inhuman which is the obverse of Kafka’s vision” (in his famous short story “Metamorphosis”). And John Brosnan (The Horror People) calls THE FLY “a totally ludicrous film but a very enjoyable one, especially since the cast manages to appear to take it all so seriously.”
SPAWN OF THE FLY: Quick-Buck Sequels
Whatever the critical reaction, the box office success ensured a sequel. “I think Fox was very surprised when it made the money it did,” Hedison recalled. “Anyway, it made a lot of money, and I’m sure Fox were very happy. Of course, they made another film called RETURN OF THE FLY to capitalize on the first one – and they went even further into the ridiculous: they had a mask that was six times the six of the first one. I don’t know what they had in mind.”
For the follow-up, Fox chief Buddy Adler turned to the man who had brought the property to him in the first place: Robert Lippert. Lippert’s associate Harry Spalding recalled the reason: “Fox was not interested in a sequel, and Lippert had paid additional money for sequel rights from the author.” If Lippert did in fact own sequel rights, those rights apparently reverted on his death to 20th Century Fox, who claimed to own all rights to the franchise when they produced the remake in the 1980s.A more likely explanation came from writer-director Edward Bernds, who believed that the decision to entrust the sequel to Lippert was an economic one: “Fox was short of money, struggling financially, and they wanted a quick profit with as little financial risk as possible.”
1959’s RETURN OF THE FLY, produced by Lippert’s Associated Producers and distributed by Fox, was almost entirely divorced from its predecessor in terms of cast and crew. THE FLY’s producer-director Kurt Neumann died after completing Watusi (also scripted by Clavell) in 1958. Bernds thinks that James Clavell was unhappy because he wanted to make his directorial debut on the sequel. “He never said that, but I got that impression whenever I came across him — an unfriendly aura. But perhaps that was just his way.” Clavell later got chance to direct (as well as produce and write) several films, notably To Sir, With Love (1967) before becoming a best-selling novelist with Shogun.
Vincent Price reprised his role as Francois Delambre, earning top billing as the only returning cast member from the original. Bernds wanted Herbert Marshall, too, but was told he was too ill; however, since Marshall made several other films before his death in 1966 (including The List of Adrian Messenger), Bernds thinks cost may have been the real factor.
As with other Lippert productions, Fox gave no interference after handing over the money. Atypically, the film was shot on the deluxe Fox Westwood lot, entirely with Fox personnel, so that the production would absorb some of the Fox overhead; consequently, the low-budget black-and-white B-picture had sets and production value on a par with the original.
Brett Halsey stars as Philip Delambre, now an adult with a fear of flies, who resumes his father’s experiments, with predictably dire results. The story suffers from a sense of fait acompli: the raison d’etre is obviously to reprise the fly transformation from the original – although in this case, not through accident but espionage: a murderous thief (David Frankham), seeking to steal the secrets of the matter transmitter, intentionally sends Philip through with a fly. The last act turns into a typical monster movie: the mutated Philip (with a fly head several times larger than his father’s) goes on a killing rampage, before being restored to his original form for a happy ending.
As Henry Spaulding explained of the contrived plotline, “This was a slightly different job as story editor; Bernds and I worked a lot more closely because we were fabricating a story. It was up to us to find some means of getting it to work. It wasn’t that easy — there was no reason to have a sequel. It was a one-idea story — how to get an excuse to make the mistake again. By the time of the third film it was pretty damn hard!”
The result is a melodramatic rehash that lacks whatever credibility the earlier film had. Price adopts the furrowed-brow expression that would become a trademark, indicating that he was not taking the film seriously – and inviting the audience to do likewise. The new inspector is a weak replacement for Marshall’s Charas, and the attempt to portray a fly with a human head, by superimposing Halsey’s face onto an actual fly, yields ridiculous results. Yet, despite the limitations of the story, Bernds managed to deliver a serviceable B-movie with enough thrills to earn a profit for the ailing Fox, helping to establish Price as a star of genre films. RETURN OF THE FLY is not genuinely frightening, but the monster scenes are nicely staged, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Philip kill off the bad guys.
“It wasn’t a bad film, but it was ridiculous to shoot it in black-and-white,” Price lamented years later of the low-budget follow-up. “I love black-and-white, but you do two pictures in color – not one in color and one in black-and-white.”
CURSE OF THE FLY, the final sequel in the original trilogy, was not made until 1965. After his deal with Fox ended, Lippert grew disenchanted with the cost of making films in America and moved to England, where he produced a series of modest pictures. Spalding said that CURSE OF THE FLY was made simply to cash in on the title: “Lippert had a deal to make pictures for $90,000, so he thought ‘Why not a third FLY picture? With that budget, anything that had any kind of value that you could tag on would be a help.”
The film was written by Spalding (“Every so often I’d talk out a script with Lippert — he gave me things anybody else wouldn’t do”) and directed by Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire). Brian Donlevy starred as Henri Delambre, a role written with Claude Rains in mind. The film is seldom screened, and in the 1980s (when the FLY remake was in the works) Spalding himself claimed, “I haven’t seen it since the screening when it first came out twenty years ago.”
Despite an extremely negative critical consensus, the film has at least two defenders: Phillip Strick (Science Fiction Movies) and David Pirie (A Heritage of Horror), both of whom acknowledge the plot weaknesses but praise Don Sharp’s handling of the point-of-view of the unstable heroine (Carol Gray), who escapes from a mental asylum, marries Henri’s son, and gradually discovers that her husband and father-in-law are continuing Andre Delambre’s experiments.
REBIRTH OF THE FLY: Three Decades Later, A Sophisticated Remake
CURSE OF THE FLY brought the original FLY saga to a close; the idea really wasn’t sufficient to support an extended series. However, it was good enough to inspire a new film nearly thirty years later – one of those rare remakes that actually exceeds the original. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, who had released the original, the remake was actually produced more or less as a modestly budgeted independent production by comedian Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilm company – recreating the facts behind the making of the original.
Curiously, 20tb Century Fox made no attempt to contact anyone involved with the 1958 version of THE FLY. Hedison himself found out only by running into the remake’s producer: “I was sitting in the commissary at 20th Century Fox, where I was doing a television show at the time – just guesting – and Mel Brooks came up to me and said, ‘We’re doing THE FLY,’ and I said, ‘No kidding!’”
Writer-director David Cronenberg, who had earned the sobriquet “King of Veneral Horror” for such effective low-budget thoughtful shockers as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood before moving on to high-profile projects like Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, reimagined the concept with some help from screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue. In the new version of THE FLY, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) does not emerge from his matter transmitter with the head of a fly; instead, his genetic structure has been merged with the insect, so that he begins a gradual but inevitable transformation into a human-fly hybrid. With no real hope of a cure, Seth’s story is a depressing tragedy, as sad as it is horrific, and Cronenberg makes it work by staying true to the drama even while supplying the shocks.
The result is a thoroughly engrossing film that works as a f metaphor for untimely death, whether from a disease like cancer or from or from some self-destructive character trait like addiction. Through the eyes of the Geena Davis character, a reporter named Veronica Quaife, who becomes Seth’s lover, we watch like a helpless friend or family member as Seth declines, losing not only his human appearance but also his personality, until he is little more than a ghastly mockery of his former self. Cronenberg’s penchant for gross-out horror (Seth vomits acidic digestive juices on the hand and foot of one opponent) occasionally comes close to pushing the film into excessive, almost campy territory, but the performances by Golblum, Davis, and John Gertz (as the unfortunate recipient of said juices) help keep the story anchored in some sense of believability to the bitter end.
The success of THE FLY led to an inevitable sequel three years later. Unfortunately, Cronenberg had no involvment, much to the film’s detriment. But then, even he might have found the challenge an impossible one: as with 1959’s RETURN OF THE FLY, 1989’s THE FLY II proves that the concept is just too limited to support a sequel, which inevitably is forced to re-run what happened the first time around. As if that were not bad enough, the sequel jettisons the serious storytelling of the original in favor of making an all-out special effects extravaganza that has no integrity.
As in RETURN OF THE FLY, THE FLY II focuses on the son of the unfortune scientist from the previous film, this time played by Eric Stoltz (one wishes the produces had simply used the title SON OF THE FLY). This time, Martin Brundle does not recreate his father’s mistake; he simply inherits the curse genetically. The obvious problem with the story is that Veronica Quaife was clearly planning to get an abortion in THE FLY, so young Martin should not even exist if the writing were to stay true to the characters. Even worse, Veronica dies in childbirth before the opening titles – an example of lazy Hollywood screenwriting, in which audience identification with important characters is sacrificed on the alter of soulless franchise filmmaking. With this callous disregard for what made the first film work, THE FLY II emerges as a mindless piece of by-the-numbers genre filmmaking, whose only achievement is to recreate the human-to-fly mutation of THE FLY with equally extensive makeup effects – but without any of the credibility that made the previous film heart-wrenching as well as gut-wrenching.
Thankfully, THE FLY II fared poorly enough to prevent the embarassment of futher sequels. Unfortunately, the passage of time seems to be leading to yet another attempt at jump-starting the franchise, with a remake of THE FLY scheduled for 2006. With Veronica Quaife listed as one of the characters, the film seems to be a remake of Cronenberg’s version, not the original. But there is no legitimate reason to remake Cronenberg’s film, which is almost entirely successful on its own terms. The 1958 version of THE FLY may have left room for improvement, so that Cronenberg was able to deliver a remake that stood on its own, as something more than just a rehash. It’s hard to imagine what a new version could accomplish, except recasting the roles for younger viewers with no memories of the unbeatable Cronenberg film.
Seen today, the 1958 version of THE FLY is a bit of a quaint artifact from an earlier era. It’s a sincere attempt to tell a frightening science-fiction story with tragic consequences, but the scare scenes work most effectively on young children. Structuring the story like a murder-mystery helps hold interest on first viewing, but once you know why Helene Delambra killed her husband, subsequent viewings reveal a lack of suspense in the early scenes (although there are some remarkable scenes, such as the almost surreal sight of Helene, a beautiful woman in a lovely dress, standing in a darkened factory at night, poised in front of the press that has just crushed her husband to death – an image that would have made Luis Bunuel proud). At times the script seems almost prescient (early on, Francois wonders if his brother Andre is working on “flat screen” television), but much of the science raises unanswered questions (like how the fly’s head got suitably enlarged when it ended up on Andre). Especially in light of David Cronenberg’s sophisticated remake, the original comes across as a bit mild and even a touch naïve. It’s a sort of archetypal ‘50s science-fiction movie, with a scientist who pays dearly for his experiments. But the production values hold up, and the cast helps sell the story, making it worthwhile entertainment for sci-fi and cult fans.
Thanks to the remake, home video, and occasional revival screenings, THE FLY remains a memorable icon in the history of screen monster movies. The original film has maintained its cult popularity among enthusiasts, and its first sequel rides on the coattails of that success (the two films are packaged together on a nice double-bill DVD that includes trailers – but not CURSE OF THE FLY). The Cronenberg remake has entered the pantheon of truly great horror films – one of the best ever made by one of the genre’s most distinctive auteurs. It is available as a two-disc collector’ DVD that includes an audio commentary by the director, George Langellan’s story, Charles Edward Pogue’s original screenplay, Cronenberg’s rewrite, photo galleries, featurettes, trailers, teasers, and other bonuses. And the newly proposed remake of the Cronenberg version seems to lend confirmation, if any were needed, of the enduring popularity of the concept.
That the relatively modest 1958 film would have such a long-lasting impact was beyond the wildest dreams of David Hedison, who changed his name shortly after THE FLY came out in 1958 (“I was under contract to Fox at the time, and they didn’t like the name Al, so I said, ‘Lets just use my middle name…’”) and later went on to star as the captain of the submarine Seaview in the Irwin Allen TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
“I just thought it would be wonderfully amusing and entertaining — and maybe make some money — but I certainly didn’t think it was going to become a cult science fiction film,” Hedison admitted in 1986. “What I should have done actually, is maybe five years ago try to remake it myself … It’s amazing – I’ve gotten more calls, from New York and even Europe, because people had gotten wind that THE FLY is being remade.”
Regarding the original, Hedison maintained his sense of disappointment decades after the fact: “I saw it about five years ago, on Channel 5,” he recalled, “and all the things I felt at the time stood out even more.”
To what, then, did he attribute the film’s reputation as a science-fiction cult classic? “The story,” he stated. “The basic story is wonderful, and that worked. It goes to show, the story’s the thing. Get a good story going, and sometimes even if it’s only in competent hands it’ll be very successful.”
THE FLY (1958). Produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. Screenplay by James Clavell, based on the short story by George Langelaan. Cast: Al (David) Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Kathleen Freeman, Betty Lou Gerson, Charles Herbert.
This article is based on material that originally appeared in Cinefantastique magazine in 1986. This version copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski
THE HOST, which reached U.S. video store shelves today after an art house release in March, is – first and foremost – a great monster movie. However, it achieves greatness by striving to work as a good movie in all departments. The Korean film introduces its monster early – in broad daylight – yet much of the horror comes from watching the film’s protagonists, a family whose daughter has been snatched by the creature, fight against numerous obstacles, including their own government, to try to effect a rescue. There is a heavy dose of political satire in the film, which plays almost like a 1970s conspiracy movie (e.g., THE PARALLAX VIEW), with military and government forces shown as at best indifferent and at worst corrupt and outright hostile to the concerns of the citizens.
This element of political satire may be confusing to American viewers, who know of the Republic of Korea (popularly called “South Korea”) as a democracy partitioned off from northern half, which has remained under communist control since the end of the Second World War. However, South Korea has its own history of political turmoil and quasi-totalitarianism, hiding behind the façade of democracy – a history that THE HOST obliquely addresses in the character of a former student protestor who laments that he wasted his youth fighting for democracy in his country, only to see the government turn against his family in their time of need.
Earlier this year, I got the chance to talk to Bong Joon-ho, the creator and director of THE HOST (he conceived the story and co-wrote the script with Hah Joon-won and Baek Chul-hun). I took the opportunity to address some of the issues that might not be clear to Western audiences. Hopefully, this little primer will fill viewers in on the context, so that they can sit back and enjoy the thrill ride without scratching their heads.
In the film, Park Gang-du is the eldest of three siblings, working at his father’s food stand near the Han River. When the creature attacks the crowds picnicking on the riverbank one day, the simple-minded man sees his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) grabbed and apparently swallowed whole. Later, he receives a brief cell phone call from Hyun-seo, who tells him that the monster deposited her in a sewer, from which she cannot escape. Gang-du tries to enlist the aid of authorities, but they take his unlikely sounding tale as evidence of grief, stupidity, or viral infection; consequently, he and his family break out of quarantine to find Hyun-seo on their own. The film celebrates the resilience of the family unit fighting against great odds while portraying the authority figures alternately as buffoons or unethical psychopaths.
Regarding this negative portrait of the government, Bong Joon-ho explains, “There are lots of elements of satire here. I think it’s because we have a lead protagonist family that are weak and powerless. I sometimes wonder if, for the weak and the powerless, democracy might not be such a huge help. It does take on that perspective. In regards to Korean society or some other countries, I wonder how much the system really protects the weak. That’s definitely reflected in this film. Our family is going on this long journey, but no one helps them at all. That becomes the focal point of the satire. Even though our military dictatorship is over and it’s more democratic than the past, there’s always this sort of thing remaining there, especially for the lower class.”
Park Nam-il (Park Hae-il), Gang-du’s younger brother who is an unemployed college graduate, resorts to tossing Molotov cocktails at the beast during the climax, and we’re clearly supposed to see this as a reversion to his former days as a student protesting against the government – even though he seems too young to have been involved in such activity, which ended at least a decade ago. Bong Joon-ho sees this as a deliberate echo of the past.
“Yes, any protest these days would be done by civil organizations, and they’re quite peaceful,” he admits. “The time of Molotov cocktails and violent demonstrations pretty much ended in the mid-‘90s, so it’s about ten years ago when there was such violent protesting. The second son is sort of like a remnant of that time. In the past he was a protestor; now he is unemployed. When you look in terms of this character, it’s sort of like the feeling of time going backwards. In the beginning, he’s always just complaining. In the middle, after his father dies, he hides in the darkness, then goes and meets up with his old college buddy. By the climax, with Molotov cocktail in hand, it might almost be the image of him in the mid-‘90s. You could say that he is the image of the college protestor back ten years ago; it doesn’t exist in the present day.”
Not only the South Korean government – also the U.S. military presence in the country comes under satirical scrutiny in the film. In the prologue, an American military doctor (Scott Wilson) orders his Korean subordinate to dump toxic chemicals into a drain that leads to the Han River, and the film leaves us in no doubt that this toxic waste is responsible for the mutated creature that emerges six years later. Much of the film deals with government attempts to quarantine people who have come in contact with the creature, because the United States insists that it is the “host” of a contagious virus. Toward the climax, the U.S. intervenes, dosing the city with an anti-bacteriological substance called “Agent Yellow” (obviously named after “Agent Orange”) with little concern for possible side effects on the human population.
Bong Joon-ho sees this plot thread as a standard part of the science-fiction genre (which often relies on nefarious conspiracies to explain the existence of a monsters) as opposed to an overtly anti-American agenda.
“It is true that there is lots of political satire in this film, and that was quite intentional,” he explains. “In regards to the opening scene, there was a famous case seven years ago, where toxins were poured into the Han River. I felt that story also goes in tune with the conventions of the monster genre. For someone who’s preparing a film of a creature coming out of the Han River, to have a case like this in front of me became a very good starting point, and I was very inspired by that event. That was the inspiration for the opening scene and the starting point for the whole story. Of course there would be a line of satire of America; it just became very natural to have it, and it follows in the conventions of the monster genre. But in the broad sense, to compress it or simply it as an anti-American film, I think that’s not correct because there’s always a history of political satire in the sci-fi genre. If you look in the broad sense, the American satire is just one part of it. There is also the satire against the Korean society and, even further, the whole system that doesn’t protect the weak people. That’s the greater flow of satire in this film, not that one part of anti-Americanism.”
Perhaps the first sign that THE HOST is not just another monster movie occurs during the prologue when American actor, Scott Wilson (who played opposite Robert Blake as one of the two stone cold killers in the film version of IN COLD BLOOD) shows up, as an American army doctor. Later, Paul Lazar makes an equally disturbing appearance as another American scientist, who insists that a brain sample needs to be taken from Park Gang-du, the distraught father of the missing girl, in order to “prove” the existence of the virus, which has yet to be isolated. The combined screen time for both actors is only a few minutes, but their presence distinguishes THE HOST from Japanese monster films (like GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH), which typically cast non-professionals when they need to portray American characters.
“It’s also in Korean films where if you had American characters or English-speaking characters, they were cast among American’s living in Korea,” says Bong Joon-ho. “I didn’t like that because it does lower the professionalism of the whole thing. Even though it’s only one scene here and one or two scenes there, I wanted to get professionals to do it right. Paul Lazar was in Jonathan Demme’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and also PHILEDELPHIA. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS he played an insect specialist who made a pass at Jodie Foster; that left a deep impression with me. In terms of Scott Wilson, he’s a famous actor I respect greatly; I have the DVD of IN COLD BLOOD. Knowing his history, I was quite respectful, and that’s way I tried to go for casting him. The whole casting process was actually very by-the-book: I sent them the script along with the DVD of my previous film, MEMORIES OF MURDER; they said yes quite easily. We matched their schedules; they came to Korea, and we shot the whole thing. I was a little concerned about the communication aspect myself, but working with an interpreter it didn’t become a huge problem at all.”
In the great tradition of monster movies, the forces responsible for the beast’s existence remain at the conclusion of the film. When the “Host” itself comes under fire at the climax, you realize that the real villains (the government and military forces) are getting off the hook for their involvement, which leaves the door open for a sequel. Bong Joon-ho expresses no particular interest in doing a follow-up, but the rights for an American remake have already been snagged by Universal Pictures at last year’s American Film Market.
Says Bong Joon-ho, “Whether it be a sci-fi film or a monster film, I would like to do a different type of story [next]. Whatever story I take on next, whatever genre I choose, I’d like to recreate the genre, breathe new life, or find a new form of storytelling with the genre. Except for the musical genre!”
This monster movie from the Republic of Korea is one of the best films of its kind, thanks to director Bong Joon-ho’s insistence on touching all the bases: THE HOST seems equal parts horror story, domestic drama, paranoid thriller, and political satire. Perhaps the filmmaker’s greatest accomplishment is that his loftier ambitions never undermine the horror; he mixes the various ingredients perfectly, creating a wonderfully convincing story in which the monster’s existence is thoroughly believable, its predations intense and terrifying.
In 2000, an American doctor (Scott Wilson) on a military base in South Korea orders toxic chemicals poured down a drain that leads into the Han River. Six years later, a mutant monster emerges from the river in broad daylight, attacking helpless picnickers and snatching the young Park Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) from her mentally slow father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who works at a food stand owned by his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong). Gang-du, Hee-bong, and Gang-du’s brother and sister, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), are quarantined by the government, who believe the creature is the host for a deadly virus. That night, Gang-du receives a brief call from Hyun-seo on her dying cell phone, telling her father that she is trapped in the creature’s lair, somewhere in a dark sewer. Gang-du tries to convince the government doctors and other officials that his daughter is alive, but they think the mentally challenged man was hallucinating or dreaming. Hee-bong pays some crooks to break them out of quarantine, and the family goes searching the sewers for Hyun-seo. Meanwhile, the monster deposits more victims in its lair, all of them dead except for a young boy that Hyun-seo protects, hiding him in a small hole where the monster cannot reach. Eventually, Gang-du’s brother Nam-il, a former student protestor, seeks help from an old college friend who now works at the phone company, tracing Hyun-se’s phone call and thus narrowing the search. Gang-du is captured, and an American scientist (Paul Lazar) insists on an operation to find evidence of the virus, which proves elusive. Gang-du escapes and rejoins his family, tracing the monster to its lair, but the creature swallows the two children it has captured and swims away, inadvertently coming ashore near a protest that has formed around an American attempt to eradicate the alleged virus with a substance called “Agent Yellow.” As the yellow gas disperses the protesters, the Park family attacks the creature, and Gang-du strives to pull his daughter from the monster’s maw. Continue reading “The Host – Film Review”
This is one of the biggest and best-looking horror films of 2006; ironically, it was consigned to brief midnight movie screenings (in R-rated form) before heading off to home video, where it could be seen, unrated, in all its gory glory. The uncut version is a rip-roaring, blood-spattered blast of high-octane entertainment that is thoroughly enjoyable, exuberant fun that could have found a wide audience, despite the graphic and occasionally tasteless material that caused the ratings problems.
FEAST works so well because it is a movie-movie that revels in its own artifice: the film openly reminds viewers that they are watching a movie, going gleefully over the top with its outrageous gore (not to mention disgusting monster sex), while simultaneously undermining genre expectations. Each human character is introduced with a subtitle giving a generic name, an occupation, and a life expectancy (e.g., “Name: Hero. Life Expectancy: Pretty Fucking Good!”) and then, as often as not, blowing the prediction out of the water.
The script by Dunston and Melton follows in the time-honored tradition of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, taking a disparate group of characters and trapping them in an isolated building (in this case a bar) besieged by ravenous monsters outside. The outrageous action that ensues is matched by director Gulager’s frenetic camera angles and high-speed editing, which turns the viewing experience into a high-grade adrenaline rush that almost never lets up from the opening moments until the final climax.
There is a small downside to the stylistic hysteria: the film becomes a lightening-paced fun house ride in which the gore and violence is rendered as an action-packed spectacle – full of suspense and thrills but devoid of emotional resonance. Consequently, when the film breaks one of the (usually) sacred taboos of the genre, killing off a child early on, the reaction is not one of horror and shock but more one of admiration that the filmmakers had the nerve to do the unthinkable. Most of the other deaths have a similar (lack of) impact, with the intentionally generic characters popped off like targets in a shooting gallery.
The silver lining to this dark cloud is that the film can – and often does – get away with almost anything, serving up decapitations and oral rape with equal gusto while never making us sympathize with the on-screen plight to the point where we might turn away in disgust. It’s obviously all make-believe, jolting the senses without offending the sensibilities, creating a galvanic response that makes FEAST one of the great audience-enthusiasm horror movies. It may be fun to watch on your television alone at night, but the experience really takes on expanded life in a crowd of enthusiastic viewers, hooting and hollering at the film’s verve and nerve. FEAST is too giddy to be truly ghastly; it simply serves up its horror with all the relish of the Grand Guignol tradition, like a full-frontal assault, without apology or restraint.
The outrageous content earned FEAST an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. When released theatrically, the film was cut down for an R-rating. The DVD presents the unrated version, uncut. Among the restored footage is a disgusting moment at the end of a scene in which one of the female characters is raped by a monster – in her mouth. The fragmented editing leaves no doubt about what’s happening but prevents viewers from getting a clear look. Restored in the DVD is a shot whrein she spews white fluid from her mouth. Director John Gulager, responding to outraged viewers about how he could have filmed such a scene, responded, “That’s show business!”
BEHIND THE SCENES
FEAST was the result of a contest at Project Greenlight, a company set up by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. In return for financing, director John Gulager and his crew were filmed during production for a reality television show, which aggravated all the usual on-set tension. Gulager (son of actor Clu Gulager [RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD], who plays the filmâ€™s bartender) was ambivalent about the process: grateful that it gave him the money to make the film but unhappy with having dirty laundry aired in public.
“There are conversations that you have to have, because you’re making a film, that should be private,” he said after an October 2006 screening of the unrated version at the Screamfest Film Festival in Hollywood, “but we knew they were going to be on television. And then we would be interviewed about what we had said.”
Gulager also lamented the theatrical distribution of the movie. “It sucks!” he said, adding, “We could never figure it out. We’re getting a lot of airplay now, and it’s great that it’s coming out on DVD, but fuck, man, why couldn’t they do that for the midnight screenings? Nobody knew it was out. Now we have 140 35mm prints available for college screenings across the country.”
FEAST deserved a better shot in theatres than it got. Ironically, Screamfest screened the film immediately after SLITHER, which came out on DVD the same day – a film that got a major theatrical release from Universal Pictures and then fell flat on its face at the box office because its sensibility is entirely of a midnight-movie cult variety. FEAST might not have been a blockbuster, but it had a shot at being a sleeper hit if distributor Dimension Films had gotten the word out.
The silver lining to the story is that the project has opened doors. At the Screamfest screening, writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton said they were developing a murder-mystery television show and have another feature film planned, with Gulager involved. (In fact, they ended up scripting SAW IV for director Darren Lynn Bousman.) Gulager declined to discuss details, saying only that he has “another movie with Dimension, but I can’t say what it is. It’s a secret.”
FEAST(2006). Directed by John Gulgaer. Written by Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton. Cast: Duane Whitaker, Balthazar Getty, Chauntae Dvies, Diane Goldner, Josh Zuckerman, Henry Rollns, Eileen Ryan, Jason Mewes, judah Friedlander, Clu Gulager, Krista Allen, Anthony Criss, Jenny Wade, Tyler Patrick Jones, Eric Dane.
This 50th anniversary grand finale to the long-running series is a rush of explosive excitement that pays homage to what came before but hypes it up into a kinetic brew that feels fresh and exciting — not an obituary-like coda but a glorious send-off. Director Kitamura brings a modern sensibility and fast-paced, unrelenting energy to the screen, with almost literally non-stop action.
Like many Godzilla films from the 1990s on, this one combines many familiar elements, some from older Godzila films, some from popular American films. Bits from Toho efforts like GORATH and ATRAGON pop up. And without looking too hard, you’ll see elements of THE MATRIX and X-MEN, along with scenes reminiscent of everything from STAR WARS to STAR TREK to ALIEN. Of course, the world-wide alien-invasion plot sounds suspiciously similar to INDEPENDENCE DAY, but then ID4 bore obvious structural similarities to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the well-loved 1968 monster fest about aliens invading Earth.
In fact, FINAL WARS is essentially a remake of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (dozens of monsters, controlled by aliens, decimated the Earth until Godzilla emerges to save the day). The film benefits from audience familiarity by simply throwing viewers into the middle of things and expecting them to sort it out: each monster is given at most a brief introduction, with little exposition to explain its existence. This allows the film to race through the projector like an unstoppable bullet train, piling one big scene upon the next.
The film evokes the special effects stylings and more serious approach of the recent Toho films, with Godzilla cast as a sort of dangerous anti-hero not because he likes humanity but because he hates intruders pushing into his territory. But FINAL WARS also harkens back to the colorfully entertaining (if frequently ridiculous) ’60s G-flicks, wherein an anthropomorphised, heroic Godzilla wrestled with his foes to the delight of fans who enjoyed the spectacle even though it undermined credibility.
The special effects are mostly on par with Toho’s previous “Millennium Series” G-films (i.e., those made after the atrocious 1998 American GODZILLA). The miniatures are elaborate and impressive, if not always convincing. The monsters are still men in suits, but the suits are detailed and capable of greater movement and expression. Also, instead of simply using slow-motion to give a sense of scale to the suit-mation, computer-generated imagery enhances the scenes, creating motion blur that gives a greater sense of large objects moving at a powerfully fast speed.
The new Godzilla suit somewhat resembles the look first introduced in GODZILLA 2000, combined with some elements from the earlier 1990s suit. It is also lighter and more upright, moving away from the slouching reptilian walk and returning somewhat to the humanoid swagger of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, allowing for more fast-paced hand-to-hand combat.
Kitamura takes a modern approach to these battle scenes – both the monsters and the humans, with lots of fancy camera angles and over-the-top stunts. In one amusing scene, he even makes the parallel explicity clear when our hero in the foreground is beating up the villain, while in the background Godzilla is fighting a monster on a video screen – and both fights are perfectly synchronized.
Perhaps the best and briefest battle occurs between Godzilla (the familiar Japanese Godzilla, that is) and the infamous Godzilla-In-Name-Only (i.e., the giant iguana from the awful 1998 American film). The classic Godzilla easily dispatches his would-be replacement, while the disappointed alien villain grumbles, “I knew that tuna-eating monster was useless.”
The scene works on a meta-level, with the traditional man-in-a-suit monster vanquishing his CGI-spawned namesake. Ironically, the CGI ‘Zilla (so called to distinguish him from the real Godzilla) is rendered much more effectively here than he was in the American film. In other cases, however, the CGI is not up to such high standards. For example, an early attack by the sea snake Manda is about on the level of a videogame. This is doubly disappointing because the monster looks good at first — when it is realized with a well-manipulated marionette.
The lightening-paced, no-time-to-stop-and-think approach to the film is underscored by great soundtrack music, featuring contributions from prog-rocker Keith Emerson. Most of the nearly wall-to-wall score has a quick-tempo, techno-industrial sound that makes it feel almost as if you are watching a dozen music videos strung one after the other. Only during the closing credits, underscored by a rousing fanfare, does the more familiar Emerson sound emerge, with a catchy organ-riff beneath the synthesized orchestral swells.
As for the human characters, the performers are almost universally engaging and likable. In the Neo role (he turns out to be a “Kaiser,” more or less the same thing as being “The One”), Masahiro Matsuoka is an entertaining Asian equivalent of Keanu Reeves. Special mention should be awarded to the alien villain for his over-the-top temper tantrums every time one of his monsters loses a battle with Godzilla. Even Don Frye, a martial arts instructor, looks properly rough and tough for his role as Captain Gordon; although obviously not a professional actor, he can growl “son-of-a-bitch” really well when something goes wrong.
The overall tone of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is dark and tense and grim, seemingly geared to the key target demographic: young adult audiences eager for action-packed entertainment. Although surrounded by a supporting cast of famliar character actors (including Akira Takarada, whose career stretches all the way back to the original GODZILLA), the leads are young, glamorous types obviously meant to lend a little sex appeal. (You expect the television interviewer to look good, but even her sister, the lady biologist, usually finds a way to pose so that her skirt shows off her legs to good advantage.)
Despite this appeal to viewers in their teens and twenties, some elements – a bit jarringly – are included to reach the kiddie audience that loves Godzilla too. In particular, the younger Godzilla (here called Minilla) looks just as goofy and cute as he did back in the 1960s, and his scenes almost seem dropped in from another movie, or like second-unit stuff inserted at the insistence of the studio. (On the other hand, these comic relief episodes do provide welcome respite from the breathless pace of the rest of the movie.)
These brief missteps are not enough to undermine the film, which is a pulse-pulverizing bit of special effects and martial arts mayhem that truly is good enough to deserve a stateside release. Certainly, the film is over-the-top and utterly fantastic, and it doesn’t provide dramatic closure for the series the way that GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER did in 1995. But even at its worst it is nowhere near as silly as the dreary and unexciting SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. If Hollywood thought that film was worthy of a nationwide release, it is a shame they did not give GODZILLA: FINAL WARS the same opportunity.
GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Toho, 2004). Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Written by Kitamura & Isao Kiriyama, from a story by Wataru Mimura & Shogo Tomiyama. Cast: Masahiro Matsuoka, Rei Kikukawa, Akira Takarada, Kane Kosugi, Kazuki Kitamura, Maki Mizuno, Don Frye.
LAKE PLACID is the next step in the evolutionary process that led from JAWS to ANACONDA. The unlikely but amusing story has a JURASSIC-size Salt Water Crocodile showing up in an isolated lake not too far from the Easter Coast (having apparently migrated across the Atlantic). Needless to say, in order to keep the horror coming fast and furious, the beast has a metabolism like no retile on Earth, eating almost everything that comes into its path. A band of outsiders come to help the local sheriff capture or kill the monster, but the film never really address the obvious question: Why bother? The area around the lake is inhabited only by one crazy old coot (played by Betty White), who turns out to be feeding the animal cattle, as if it were some kind of oversized pet; so the risk to human life is almost nil, until everyone shows up to hunt the thing down, providing a virtual smorgasbord for the creature. Continue reading “Lake Placid (1999) – Horror Film Review”
“It’s awful; it’s just awful,” gasps Marg Helgenberger in one scene of this absolutely abysmal follow-up to the entertaining 1995 hit, and viewers are likely to find their heads nodding in agreement, because truer words were never spoken. It is as if the filmmakers suddenly realized the quality of their own work. This self-awareness is admirable, but it would have been truly honorable if they had included this line in the trailer, as a warning to audiences.
SPECIES had a certain integrity to its plot: having conceived an alien on the loose, scripter Dennis Feldman treated the scenario like a piece of science-fiction, at least to the extent of maintaining some logic about how Sil behaved and how her human pursuers could capture her. SPECIES II, on the other hand, is an out-and-out dumb gore horror movie, in which the behavior of the alien genetic material varies from scene to scene, depending on what is good for the best shock effect. Filled with repeated scenes of sexual couplings leading to grisly death, the result is about as loathsome as producer Frank Mancuso’s late and unlamented FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels. Continue reading “Species II (1998) – Science Fiction Film Review”