directed by Matt Cimber
1983 | Continental Movie Productions | 109′ 

One day, while their best warrior Hundra (Laurene Landon) is away hunting, a generally peaceful village of amazons is attacked and eradicated by a band of ugly, hairy man riding under the sign of the bull. When all is over, a returning Hundra dispatches a horde of the aggressors in a drawn-out fight, but that still leaves her people quite dead.

Our heroine then makes her way to the only remaining elder of her kind, who for some inexplicable reason dwells among a horde of really rude little people. Though after hearing the sage’s glorious plan for the revivification of her people, I’m not surprised by anything about her, for she declares Hundra to now be solely responsible for the survival of the tribe. Our poor, bedraggled heroine shall go down to the land of the men praying to the bull, and get herself pregnant stat.

But Hundra’s first attempt at getting pregnant only teaches her one thing: she still has certain standards, and won’t tolerate the attentions of hairy, unwashed guys who’ll even turn consensual sex into rape. So, after showing off her wrestling skills and sneering at less feminist women (she’d get along well with certain Internet feminists), off she rides to what goes under the term of “city” in sword and sorcery land.

There she will get into trouble with the ruling cabal of religious male chauvinist pigs whose religion is orgies, meet a man who doesn’t stink and isn’t a jerk, learn the womanly arts, teach the warrior arts to her teacher of womanly arts, and be somewhat responsible for a death by sitting on a face.


Among the many, many films jumping on the bandwagon created by John Milius’s Conan the BarbarianHundra is one of the most unique in that it isn’t slavishly copying all of its predecessor’s story beats and aping its philosophy, but actually having a head of its own. Admittedly, Hundra‘s head just might be as much full of nonsense as it is of clever ideas, but I find it difficult to disagree with a film that is clearly having so much fun.

Still, having fun or not, Hundra is at times a film sending very mixed messages. Tonally, it’s just very inconsistent, with scenes of really unpleasant slow-motion violence like the destruction of Hundra’s village (ending – especially tasteful – with the rape of Hundra’s teenage-at-best sister) and sequences of Hundra romping through the city and kicking guards in the balls (one of her favourite fighting moves) standing in strange contrast to each other, quite as if half of the film were made by a low-rent Sam Peckinpah and the other half by the director of one of the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies. I suspect part of this curious mixture is just director Matt Cimber (a man with a career so curious someone should write a book about him, he did Hundra and Pia-Zadorasploitation, after all) fulfilling his quota of exploitational values, just that in this film, violence towards women after the big village destruction usually leads to Hundra giving the respective prick a kick in the respective balls. It’s a bit like a woman in prison film where all the male bad guys are dispatched before the grand climax, and therefore don’t have enough time to get really sadistic.

At times, when it’s not spending its time having strange plot holes (so, the main bad guys are all about seeing Hundra tamed, but they somehow don’t realize when she’s pregnant?) or making jokes about Hundra’s cowardly male dog, Hundra actually becomes a somewhat clever inversion of the classic sword and sorcery tale, where the storyteller suddenly realizes that treating women like objects isn’t alright at all, and sends out a female version of Conan to sort things out with men. The film plays with a lot of traditional sword and sorcery elements this way, turning what begins like the usual tale of vengeance into the story of a woman who learns that a lot of men are indeed shits, but not all of them, and that consensual sex is a-okay if both partners want to have it. And in a really surprising turn of events, this does not lead to our heroine giving up on her curious destiny and only ever living for her man from then on, but just sees her psychologically better prepared for it. Of course, her male love interest here is just as bland as the female love interest in sword and sorcery movies with a male hero often is, so it’s not too much of a surprise she can leave him (at least for a time – the film actually is all about choice on that level).

These clever bits are surrounded by an Ennio-Morricone-scored shot in Spain series of fights, brawls and slow-motion attacks (with a bit of nudity), bad jokes, good jokes, male characters so vile I’m sure they don’t wash, and Spanish actors speaking English with heavy accents. It’s a bit of mess, really, but so much of the film is riding on a wave of fun, with a lead actress who may not be all that great at, well, acting, but sure seems to have as much of a blast in her slightly awkward action scenes as her character has. That sort of thing always goes a long way in turning awkward action scenes into loveable awkward action scenes. And once a film is like Hundra and mixes its loveable awkward action scenes with kinda sorta feminism that would make John Milius (and Robert E. Howard, for that matter) cry, there isn’t really anything anyone could do to remove it from the warm place it has found in my heart.

The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Zemlya Sannikova

a.k.a. The Sannikov Land
directed by
 Albert S. Mkrtchyan and Leonid Popov
1973 | Mosfilm | 90′ 

During the later stages of the existence of tsarist Russia his – most probably revolutionary – politics have brought geographer Ilyin (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) into exile in a town near the polar circle. Ilyin dreams of being the first man to set foot onto Sannikov Land, an area north of the polar ice that is green and fecund instead of icy and barren. Some pretty talk about gold that might be found there with the local evil (as he does of course not actually intend to share the gold with the geographer) capitalist earns Ilyin, who is clearly much less interested in gold than exploration as a goal in itself, the funding for an expedition into the white north.

The expedition isn’t exactly large: Ilyin, the local manly man/drunk/singer of horrible pop songs and fan of the Tsar Evgeniy Krestovskiy (Oleg Dal), and the capitalist’s beleaguered right-hand man and odious comic relief Ignatiy (Georgi Vitsin) – who also seems to stand in for the oppressed working classes from time to time – make up the whole of the expedition, until revolutionary and doctor Gubin (Yuri Nazarov) sneaks on board the ship carrying the trio northwards. Gubin has escaped from prison, and is initially planning to hijack the ship to sail to America, but since he and Ilyin just happen to be old friends, and Ilyin really is quite convincing in his ardour to reach Sannikov Land, he becomes part of the expedition and the trio turns into a quartet.

Once they have set foot on icy land, the expedition doesn’t go too well at first. The corpses of an earlier expedition also looking for Sannikov Land are something of a bad omen, and the Inuit our expedition has hired as guides while the camera wasn’t looking turn back halfway, taking the dog sleds of the expedition with them (note to self: if you ever go on a polar expedition, bring your own dogs and sleds).

Just when all seems lost and our heroes start with the infighting and the dying, they reach Sannikov Land. It turns out the place is a valley kept warm by volcanic activity (uh oh), and really as green and pleasant as Ilyin had hoped. It’s also populated by a tribe of phenotypically very diverse natives (from Caucasians in slight brown-face to a lot of Asians with blond and red wigs) called the Onkilon. While the Onkilon aren’t as threatening as their demeanour initially suggests, their chief does not want anyone in the outside world to learn of the existence of their home. He’s not a bad guy, though, for he is perfectly willing to provide the strangers with places among his tribe and (how romantic!) women of their own – as long as they never leave again.

This could be the beginning of a somewhat wonderful friendship (if one doesn’t mind the imprisonment and shotgun wedding aspect), but alas, the tribe’s shaman (Makhmud Esambayev in a performance somewhere between Iggy Pop and the worst Hollywood Indian you can imagine) has a different opinion. He sees that the strangers are threatening his power over the tribe and decides that he needs to get rid of them; and while he’s at it, he might get rid of that darn liberal chief for good measure.


Zemlya Sannikova is based on a novel in the Lost World mold by early Russian SF writer and man with a highly interesting life (just look at his Wikipedia page!) Vladimir Obruchev, and – as far as I can tell – is still something of a classic in the former Soviet Union. This is another indication (as if we needed more) that people at their core really are the same all over the world, political and cultural differences notwithstanding, for Zemlya Sannikova is exactly the sometimes cheesy, sometimes silly, sometimes awe-inspiringly beautiful kind of adventure movie people all over the world would love, featuring manly, bearded and morally upright heroes (except for the Tsarist, who just happens to be a bit of a prick), an insane shaman, various daring deeds, beautiful women in horrible clothing, and a basic idea that should make everyone’s inner twelve year old gleefully happy. Naturally, there are a few differences in the movie’s stereotypes when compared to western movies – the capitalist is evil in a slightly different way than capitalists in western movies are, for example. The film’s ideology too – the film ends on the heroes planning a rescue expedition for the threatened tribe instead of killing them all and taking their stuff, for Marx’s sake! – is a bit different than one is used to from other adventure movies, though I think this internationalist streak is rather refreshing. Still, below these surface differences waits the archetype of the adventure story.

Often, the film is very good at what it does: Zemlya Sannikova‘s early stages not only convey the romance and pathos the kind of expedition our heroes go on has, but also a subtle sense of melancholia that will return in the film’s final scenes; there’s something desperate and beautiful in the history of human exploration of the world, and the early parts of Zemlya Sannikova really want to make that clear. Of course, that feeling of melancholia (already broken by two really quite horrible pop songs early on) soon enough makes room for one of slight insanity once the focus shifts from the exploration to the natives. For while the film tries its hardest to talk about some serious themes when it comes to the Onkilon, its treatment of everything surrounding the tribe is deeply cheesy and silly. It’s not just the fact that these “natives” are dressed up in ridiculous wigs and costumes no actual human being would ever have worn in any kind of wilderness, nor just that their culture – as far as we see it – does not make the slightest bit of sense (we’re in full grown “they are big children, Jean-Jacques” territory here), nor is it the combination of these factors alone. Rather it’s that their treatment as being the ultimate naïfs seems even more naive than they themselves are supposed to be, as if the film’s only idea of how hunter and collector societies work came from Rousseau and Marx.

The latter gentleman truly comes in once we take a look at the film’s main bad guy, the shaman, who is clearly supposed to be an example of the destructive power of religion (opium of the people, etc) – more evil than capitalism! – as a way to control the minds of a people. Of course, I can’t say I disagree all that much with the film’s views of organized religion, it’s just that Zemlya Sannikova is simplifying a complex web of human wishes and desires until it turns into a ridiculous farce. That matter sure isn’t helped by Esambayev’s – a professional dancer who shows his talent in here in adorably ridiculous ways – hilarious performance. Even if one ignores the ideological aspect, it’s pretty difficult to take a villain seriously who spends as much time shimmying, wobbling, shaking, hip-swinging and doing the funky chicken while chewing scenery as Esambayev does. On the other hand, while the man’s performance might destroy any semblance of seriousness the film had until he appeared, he sure as hell is perfectly entertaining to watch.

Add to that elements like a soundtrack by Aleksandr Zatsepin that reaches from the (still horrible) pop songs to weird, moody synth noodling to Peter Thomas like psychedelic lounge electronica, or ideas like the marriage rites of the Onkilon (basically, they’re playing catch), and you have a film as strange as one could hope for. All the silliness (and the sad, scientifically correct absence of dinosaurs and monstrous animals every lost world is supposed to contain) and the many scenes that are just as cheesy as those in a comparable Hollywood adventure movie would be come together into something highly diverting, if not exactly the film I had expected going in.

Directors Albert S. Mkrtchyan (last seen here directing the excellent Priskosnoveniye) and Leonid Popov manage this strange mixture of the earnest, the bizarre, the dogmatic and the plain fun with aplomb, using – often impressively beautiful – nature shots as the best special effect of them all, and treat every aspect of the film with dignity, never mind if the aspect at hand actually deserves any dignity. It might be a cliché, but there’s just never a dull moment on screen in Zemlya Sannikova.

The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Scarlet Blade

a.k.a. The Crimson Blade
directed by
 John Gilling

1966 / Hammer Film Productions78′
written by John Gilling
cinematography by Jack Asher
music by Gary Hughs
starring June Thorburn, Jack Hedley, Oliver Reed, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Ripper, Harold Goldblatt, Duncan Lamont, Suzan Farmer

The English Civil War is in its last throes. The remaining Royalists, the Cavaliers who are pure as angels I’ll have you know, are fighting a guerrilla war trying to enable the former king Charles to escape from the – satanically evil wouldn’t you know – Roundheads.

Despite the Royalists’ best efforts the men of Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) – officially a traitor to the royal cause himself – manage to capture the king. Now it’s only a matter of holding on to the arsehis former royal majesty until he can be transported to the tower, which is supposed to happen in a few weeks time.

Fortunately or un, a group of especially potent Royalist guerrillas (among them an especially scenery-hungry Michael Ripper in embarrassing brownface as “the gypsy Pablo”) led by Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley), calling himself “the Scarlet Blade” is operating in the area. These guerrillas are of course doing everything in their power to decimate the enemy troops in the area, and find a way to rescue the ex-king.

What Judd doesn’t know is that his daughter Claire (June Thorburn) has been helping Royalist refugees for quite some time, even though she isn’t exactly subtle about her loyalties; from there, it’s only a small step to involve herself in the conspiracy meant to save the king. Ironically, Judd’s right hand man, the deeply cynical Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed) sees quite a bit more clearly what Claire is up to, but instead of denouncing her, blackmails himself into the Royalist conspiracy too. For Sylvester has fallen in love with Claire and has decided that the best way into a woman’s heart is threatening her with exposure and then helping her out with the things she’s afraid of being exposed for. He is a smooth ladies man, Sylvester is.

Alas for poor Sylvester, once Claire lays eyes on the prime middle-aged woodenness of Beverley, her heart is forever lost to him. Of course, being played be Oliver Reed in a very sneering mood, Beverley is not the kind of guy who takes these things on the chin, and again the cause of saving one mass-murdering asshole to replace another mass-murdering asshole with him is threatened by the vagaries of love.

The deeper I dive into the pool of non-horror movies Hammer Studios made parallel to their horror output, the more impressed I am by the non-horror movies’ general quality.


John Gilling’s The Scarlet Blade may not be the second coming of the historical adventure movie, seeing as it uses a period not often seen in this sort of film in a bit too shallow a manner, doing a bit more violence to actual history than seems necessary for the kind of film it is. It’s one thing to decide on one side of the English Civil War to be the moustache-twirling bad guys, but it’s quite another one to basically have the angels sing on the soundtrack whenever fucking Charles I., who deserves the word “tyrant” the film uses for Cromwell quite well too, appears on screen.

However, whenever the film decides to explore the more complex loyalties and motivations of its characters, and relegates actual history to the attractive background like most modern swashbucklers do for a reason (we’re a long way from Weyman, for better or worse), it becomes less annoying, and more believably human. In fact, the strained loyalties all of the film’s major characters except for its nominal hero Beverley have give the handful of scenes of actual physical violence much more poignancy than they otherwise would carry, and give the film’s melodramatic scenes quite a bit of power. Beverley, on the other hand, is and stays the sort of boring, wooden romantic lead you’ve come to expect from this sort of film (the times of Errol Flynn alas being over, too), a man whose moral certainty is not based on an ability to work through his doubts and fears, but on a lack of imagination and personality, which makes him pretty difficult to cheer for, even when he puts love before duty.

It doesn’t help our theoretical hero’s case that Jack Hedley’s performance is so neutral it sometimes becomes difficult to remember he’s there, nor that his main rivals for screen time are Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed, both doing their best to outdo each other in intensity, nor does it improve matters that the script doesn’t bother to give him much of interest to do.

June Thorburn’s character is quite interesting for an adventure movie of this period (and especially one from Hammer, who weren’t exactly front runners when it comes to active female leads) in that her character is actually allowed to have some agency as well as a backbone. In fact, Claire seems a much more heroic character than Beverley to me, because she actually understands the implications of what she is doing, and decides doing it despite of these implications because she thinks she is doing right. I just wish Thorburn were a little better at projecting the force of personality the script suggests her character to have; while she isn’t as lacking in screen presence as Hedley is, she’s never quite convincing enough, which is a bit of a shame.

Other reviews of The Scarlet Blade on the ‘net tend to come down hard on the action scenes. However, I don’t think that’s particularly fair. It’s true nothing Gilling presents here is truly spectacular, but the film’s emphasis lies more on its character-based melodrama of loyalties, with the action only meant to provide the story with enough spice to keep it moving. That, I think, the action does quite well.

The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

King Kong

written by Delos W. Lovelace
conceived by Edgar Wallace and Marian C. Cooper
originally published in December 1932
reviewed copy published by Tempo Books,
a subsidiary of Grosset and Dunlap, in 1976
with illustrations by
Richard Powers
the novelization of King Kong is available in innumerable editions through Amazon and other booksellers.

King Kong is here reviewed as part of MOSS’ May-long Hairy Beasts celebration. Be sure to check out our contribution from earlier in the month – the El Santo saga Santo vs. Las Lobas courtesy of Denis’ weekly The Horror!? column.

Something of an anomaly from a time in which the movie tie-in wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous a phenomena (a difficult past to imagine now that even hollow Hollywood extravaganzas like Battleship are granted novelizations), Delos W. Lovelace’s brisk prose adaptation of the quintessential monster fantasy is, if nothing else, proof positive of the great lengths to which producers Cooper, Schoedsack and Selznick went to familiarize the public with their epic Depression-era production. Lovelace’s King Kong, originally published in late 1932 (well in advance of the film’s March ’33 premiere), wasn’t the great ape’s only contemporary foray into print media either, but while the abbreviated two-part adaptation serialized by Mystery Magazine in February-March of 1933 is now all but forgotten Lovelace’s Kong lives on, having been reprinted time and again, typically in timely association with the latest big screen Kong adventure. Case in point is the copy reviewed here, a mass-market paperback scale-down of the hardcover The Illustrated King Kong from Grosset and Dunlap, originally published to coincide with mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis’ unsatisfying 1976 iteration.

While I picked up my copy of the Lovelace Kong longer ago than I can remember, to the best of my knowledge this marks the first time I’ve actually read the thing. That’s not to say I haven’t been tempted, but having never been without a copy of the film on video (be it VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, or Blu-ray) that temptation was always tempered by the fact that it was just darned easier to watch Kong than read him, even with the big-print of the paperback scarcely filling two hundred pages. And then there was the persistent question – just how much can a Kong book possibly have to offer when the film is so indelible, so familiar?

And indeed, the narrative of Lovelace’s Kong is as familiar as one might expect, deviating little from the screenplay that serves as its foundation. The tale begins with adventurer and filmmaker Carl Denham stalking about downtown Manhattan on a desperate hunt for a pretty (and unrepresented) face for his latest production, a mysterious bit of documentary-fiction whose South Seas subject Denham keeps a closely guarded secret. He finds that face in the beautiful Ann Darrow, a down-on-her-luck performer he rescues from hunger (and certain arrest) after he sees her snatching an apple from a street vendor’s stand. After feeding her, clothing her, and assuring her of his honest intentions (“No funny business!”), Denham whisks Ann off to the tramp freighter Wanderer and sets off, with dependable Captain Englehorn, handsome first mate Jack Driscoll, and three times the ship’s usual crew, for an uncharted speck of land far west of Sumatra…

With rare exception Lovelace’s Kong emulates its cinematic equivalent to a prosaic T in so far as its human drama is concerned. Sure, Ann and Jack’s “I guess I love you” romance is moved ahead in the schedule (and up from the deck to the crow’s nest for good measure) and ethnic stereotype Charlie (the Wanderer‘s Chinese cook in the film) is now a more politically correct old codger named Lumpy*, but substantive differences are few and far between. Ann Darrow makes screaming screen tests while Denham rattles on about Beauties and Beasts (“I’m going right into a theme song here!”) until the Wanderer encroaches upon a mysterious fog bank and Denham’s elusive shooting location is finally revealed – Skull Mountain Island**, a rocky outcrop covered in dense tropical foliage and whose only populated area is cut off from the rest by an immense and ancient wall. The fair-haired Ann inevitably catches the eye of the Island’s native populace, who were in the midst of an ancient sacrificial rite at the time of the Wanderer‘s arrival. They eventually kidnap the unsuspecting beauty with the intention of making her the latest offering to their prehistoric god – a new bride for the mighty Kong.

It is in the story’s comparatively dull buildup to its fantastic adventure across Skull Mountain Island that Lovelace’s Kong shows its weaknesses most. Part of the trouble obviously lies in the familiarity of the drama, but the greater problem rests with Lovelace’s prose itself – this is where the briskness of the novel becomes a bit of a distraction. Technically speaking there is nothing at all wrong with Lovelace’s writing, but all the grammatical proficiency in the world can’t make up for the fact that it’s such slight, barren stuff. The film relies (and beautifully so) on the artifices of its medium, the performances, the photography, the score, the fantastical set and effects design, to build atmosphere and evoke emotion in the viewer. Lovelace finds no literary substitutes for the same, and the novel Kong, bereft of all but the sparest of descriptions and characterizations, suffers greatly for it.

That said, Lovelace’s word-pinching ways aren’t enough keep the story’s most attractive element – its lengthy diversion into the prehistoric jungles of Skull Mountain Island – from being anything less than enjoyable. Indeed, this is where those already familiar with the film (are any of you not?) will find the most to love.

As with the earlier drama, the majority of the Wanderer crew’s death-defying trek through the hostile territory beyond the wall is by the book (or film, as it were), with the sailors menaced not just by the furious Kong, but by the uncharacteristically aggressive advances of two of the Island’s herbivores – a Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus respectively. The major difference arrives at the end of the Brontosaurus attack, after one unfortunate straggler is chased up a tree by the brute, at which point the crew reaches the edges of a tar pit and catches sight of a trio of Triceratops, themselves in pursuit of Kong. The great ape holds his own, bashing in one of the beasts’ heads with a massive slab of slate, but the Wanderer‘s intrepid adventurers don’t fare so well when the remaining pair turn their frustrations towards more defenseless prey. Only a single sailor falls victim to the expected violence – being crushed beneath one of the monsters and eventually gored. The rest are chased towards an enormous ravine-spanning log, and lost cinema history.

Produced, but cut from the film prior to release for whatever reason, the long lost Spider Pit Sequence has become the Holy Grail for fans of monster cinema – and it’s alive and well, if a bit dulled by the paucity of verbiage, in Lovelace’s Kong. With a charging Triceratops at one end of the log and the enraged Kong at the other, the crew of the Wanderer find themselves with no escape but into the dark recesses of a primordial hell below:

“Two of the men lost their holds. One grasped madly at the face of a prone comrade and left bloody finger marks as he went whirling down into the decaying silt at the bottom. He had no more than struck when the lizard flashed upon him. [...] The second man did not die in the fall. He was not even unconscious. He landed feet first, sinking immediately to his waistline in the mud, and screamed horribly as not one but half a dozen of the great spiders swarmed over him.”

The horror of the spiders over and done with, Lovelace’s Kong returns once more to the familiar. Driscoll and Denham survive the onslaught, though on opposite sides of the ravine. While Denham heads back to the wall for help from the Wanderer‘s surviving crew Driscoll silently stalks Kong, witnessing his battles against various Jurassic-age monstrosities on the way to his lair high on Skull Mountain. Aside from a particularly romantic retelling of Driscoll and Ann’s harrowing escape from Kong’s clutches (arguably the most successful part of Lovelace’s novelization, and in welcome possession of the sort of emotional hooks that are in such scant supply elsewhere) the rest of the novel Kong plays in the predicted fashion, albeit less the tragic undertones that make the film’s final moments so unforgettable.

If it sounds as though I’m being too harsh towards Lovelace, I really don’t intend to be. I have no qualms with his style of writing in and of itself, and there are plenty of bloated modern efforts that would do well to take his frugal sense to heart. It just never works well enough with the material in question to make it anything but ordinary, and as such Lovelace’s Kong never excels beyond the low expectations these film-to-book adaptations typically command. Ultimately this is far more interesting as an artifact of early tie-in marketing than as literature, and unless you’re one of those obsessed with all things Kong (I’ll admit I’m guilty, at least so far as the ’33 film is concerned) there’s very little to recommend here.

* Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong wisely took this change to heart, before unwisely offing the character mid-way through.
** Just ‘Skull Island’ in the film, I know. Lovelace, and perhaps the script from which he worked, preferred this less concise delineation.

The Big Trail

dir. Raoul Walsh
1930 / Fox Films Corporation / 122′
written by Hal G. Evans, Raoul Walsh, Marie Boyle,
Jack Peabody
, and Florence Postal 
directors of photography Lucien N. Andriot
Arthur Edeson
musical director Arthur Kay
 John WayneMarguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr., David Rollins, Frederick Burton, Ian Keith, and Charles Stevens
The Big Trail
is now available as a Walmart exclusive Blu-ray / DVD combo release.

While Fox Film Corporation advertised their production of The Big Trail with the usual hyperbole (to the left is one of the few ad images that doesn’t tout it as “The Most Important Picture Ever Produced”), rarely has such hyperbole felt so appropriate – more than 80 years later it remains difficult to overstate the shear scope of the thing. Simultaneously filmed in no fewer than five versions for a reported budget of $2 million (mountainous for the time), The Big Trail fulfills the promises of its eponymous adjective time and again, and with more than just its hundreds of extras and vast locations. A financial disaster at the time of release, the film is perhaps best known today for being one of the earliest of the big-format film productions, exploring the possibilities of 70mm widescreen two decades and more before processes like CinemaScope and VistaVision became the Hollywood norm.

Of course, The Big Trail has at least one other claim to historical import. Though director Raoul Walsh had originally hoped to cast Gary Cooper as the picture’s lead, the latter’s contract with Paramount (and that studio’s reticence to loan him out) eliminated him from contention. Ultimately the role went to a young man Fox billed as John Wayne, a 23 year old prop hand and aspiring actor who had up until that time managed only a single credited supporting role – in the early musical Words and Music. By all rights The Big Trail should have made a star of Wayne, but its middling reception only prolonged his obscurity, and left him to squander his budding talents in B-list productions and serials until John Ford’s Stagecoach arrived in 1939.

As a film The Big Trail serves as cinema’s most spectacular presentation (for better or for worse) of the American myth of Manifest Destiny, the belief that heralded the nation’s often violent expansion in the 19th century. The story follows a caravan of settlers as they head west in their prairie schooners to claim the Pacific Northwest for their own, and the various trials and tribulations they must endure along the way. Wayne stars as trapper Breck Coleman, who signs on to scout for the caravan after discovering among its ranks the gargantuan Red Flack (Tyrone Powers Sr. in his only sound role) and his cohort Lopez (Charles Stevens) – two men he suspects of having killed a fellow trapper on the Santa Fe Trail. As the migration progresses Breck’s quest for justice is waylaid early and often by his obligations to the settlers, who desperately need his experience to guide them across rivers, down canyons, and through interminable desert heat. All the while Flack and Lopez, with the help of itinerant sleaze Thorpe (Ian Keith), conspire to end Breck Coleman before he has the opportunity to end them.

The biggest issue with The Big Trail for most modern viewers will undoubtedly be its politics, particularly with regards to Native Americans. However accurate to the times the film’s events may be, it’s become increasingly difficult (and rightly so) to sympathize with white trailblazers when they earn the violent ire of a tribe or two for trespassing. The concept of Manifest Destiny has become problematic enough in its own right, of course, and the thought that anyone has any sort of God-given right to conquer a territory and subjugate its people is worse than preposterous anymore.

Despite its troublesome as its politics The Big Trail remains an undeniably impressive show. Hell-bent on convincing a Depression-era film-going public that their 70mm widescreen Grandeur process was the next necessary evolution in film, Fox Film Corp. pumped no end of resources into the production of the picture. The most startling, stunning aspect of the production is the fact that the vast majority of it was filmed on location. Rather than rely on process work and second unit background plates Fox literally took their show on the road, allowing their substantial credited cast and even more substantial fleet of extras to play pioneer with breathtaking natural scenery serving as the backdrop. Special effects are practical on a scale that begs belief at times – the precipitous lowering of covered wagons, people, livestock and supplies down steep canyon walls is done, and in harrowing fashion, for real. One gets a sense that this was a hellish production even before the oddball shooting format and live audio recording (the handful of looped lines are painfully obvious) are taken into account, what with thousands of props, animals, and people to wrangle about on location for what must have been endless takes (aside from two English editions, in 70mm Grandeur and flat 35mm, there were alternate 35mm German, Spanish and Italian versions, each with their own cast, filmed simultaneously), but all that work pays off in spades. Westerns just don’t come much bigger than this.

And a big part of The Big Trail‘s big appeal is that aforementioned shooting format – this was one of just a handful of pictures photographed in Fox’s proprietary 70mm Grandeur process, and must have been a real novelty for those few who were able to see it projected as such upon release (there couldn’t have been too many of them, as only Grauman’s Chinese and New York’s Roxy Theatre were equipped to play the format at the time). Despite their inexperience with the format both director Raoul Walsh and director of photography Arthur Edeson (Lucien N. Andriot, credited above, served as DP for the standard 35mm version) take to it quite naturally, particularly during the large-scale action setups. Dialogue scenes can appear a bit too static at times (the shear heft of the 70mm cameras was prohibitive to movement) and there are occasional freshman issues with how to focus important action in the frame (like a secondary character entering or leaving), but Walsh and Edeson get it right more than they get it wrong. There’s a convincing documentary verisimilitude to The Big Trail‘s expansive depictions of life during the great Westward migration, and in its action the film can appear considerably more modern than its age might imply.

With full knowledge of what he would go on to become, it’s fascinating to see an impossibly young John Wayne feeling his way through his first starring role. Still, his performance is only one of many that makes the film so interesting for the classic film fan. Tyrone Power Sr. makes a huge impression as Flack, a grungy behemoth whose evil disposition seems to seep from his rotten teeth outward. Power, a silent film veteran, might have proven himself a formidable character player in the early sound era were it not for a fatal heart attack in late 1931 – The Big Trail was his only sound performance. DeMille regular Ian Keith (The Crusades) is appropriately slick as Thorpe, a perennial louse who looks to take the compulsory love interest (Marguerite Churchill, offering a very good performance in her own right) by hook or by crook. Best of them all is Tully Marshall, here cast as Wayne’s charismatic old trapper pal Zeke. A popular character actor from the middle teens until his death in 1943, Marshall here exhibits a raw energy that reminds wonderfully of Walter Houston. One wonders where he found it – The Big Trail was just one of the twelve films to credit him in 1930 alone.

Long available in its shorter Academy ratio 35mm variant only, the full 70mm version of The Big Trail was only recently restored, and made rounds on TV and at revival screenings before eventually seeing release on DVD from 20th Century Fox in 2008. With the advent of Blu-ray I started itching for a taste of this ’30s widescreen anachronism in high definition, and Fox have finally delivered, albeit with a release that is, for now at least, a Walmart exclusive.

I’ve no doubt that the same HD masters sourced for the 2008 DVD issue were also sourced for this Blu-ray edition, but the boost in resolution and texture suits them very well. Fox present The Big Trail in both its 122 minute 70mm (1080p at a ratio of 2.10:1) and 108 minute 35mm (1080p at a ratio of 1.20:1) versions, and those with appropriate expectations should be very pleased. There’s a lot of damage in evidence across both versions, though most obviously in the 70mm, which suffers from no end of persistent emulsion scratches – the included screenshots give a good indication of what to expect. Still, I didn’t find it to be at all untoward for a lesser-known effort more than 80 years old. Otherwise the 70mm versions looks very good, with tight contrast and healthy detail. In motion this image really pops, and the grain, though a bit clunkier than on might expect from a later Fox transfer, goes blessedly unmolested. The 35mm variant has a more diffuse appearance, but can still look mighty impressive – perhaps the most amusing revelation of its inclusion is that the expository intertitles are actually different across the two cuts! Technical specs are strong if not exactly earth-shattering. The two cuts (totaling just shy of 4 hours) are spread across a dual layer BD50, with the MPEG-4 AVC-encoded video receiving an average bitrate of 22.0 Mbps (with peaks up to 40.0 Mbps) in both cases. For The Big Trail this appears to be more than good enough, and I noted no distracting artifacts either in playback or upon closer examination.

Audio is… well… it is what it is. The Big Trail was recorded live and on location with precious little looping in post, and the limitations of early sound technology are obvious throughout. Dialogue is frail and occasionally unintelligible, and those expecting the expansion in depth that often accompanies HD tracks may be disappointed. But expectations are everything, and while the lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic audio for The Big Trail never sounds good by any estimation, it also never sounds any worse than it should. Unlike their Twilight Time-licensed titles, Fox have included the usual slate of subtitles here – all optional, in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

Supplements appear to duplicate those of the 2008 DVD (except for the image galleries, which only appear on the included DVD, which in turn only includes the 70mm cut of the film), and while there’s nothing new here I’ll take it all the same. The Big Trail arrives on Blu-ray with a feature commentary track from historian Richard Schickel (70mm version only) and a selection of featurettes, all in SD: The Big Vision – The Grandeur Process (12 minutes), The Creation of John Wayne (14 minutes,), Raoul Walsh: A Man in His Time (13 minutes), and The Making of The Big Trail (13 minutes). The two discs come packaged in an eco-friendly 2-disc Blu-ray case, with some not-so-subtle attention paid to ensuring that buyers know exactly who the star of the show is.

The Big Trail is a pretty good film in its own right, but that it was produced in 70mm widescreen decades in advance of that format’s popularity make it an absolute must-see for those large format aficionados out there. 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is as good as I might ever have reasonably expected, and for the $16 it ran me I’m not complaining. Good stuff, and highly recommended!

122 minute 70mm Fox Grandeur (2.10:1) version

108 minute 35mm (1.20:1) version

Screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

The Devil-Ship Pirates

dir. Don Sharp
1964 / Hammer Film / 86′
written by Jimmy Sangster
cinematography by Michael Reed
music by Gary Hughes
starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, John Cairney, Barry Warren, Suzan Farmer, Duncan Lamont, Natasha Pyne, Michael Ripper
The Devil-Ship Pirates
 is available as part of the Icons of Adventure DVD Collection

It’s 1588, and the Spanish Armada has just taken its deadly thrashing. The Diablo, the small ship of Spanish privateer Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee) has taken flight as soon as the tides of battle turned against the Spanish. With his ship in a bad state, Robeles decides to pilot it into the English marshes in the hopes of finding a place to make repairs in peace before he and his crew can take up pirating again.

Their luck leads the pirates into the vicinity of a small English town whose younger male population has nearly completely gone to war, leaving the place in the hands of women a cowardly country squire (Ernest Clark), some middle aged and elderly men of the lower classes, and Harry (John Cairney), a young man who lost the use of his left arm in Spanish captivity, and who romances Angela (Suzan Farmer), the daughter of the squire, quite against the man’s wishes. Harry’s father Tom (Andrew Keir) is something of a spokesman of the villages working classes. (There are, of course, also the women of the village, but the film isn’t progressive enough to do much with them).

Robeles hopes to win the help of the village in the repair of his ship – and later get an opportunity to loot it – by applying a trick that plays on the place’s relative remoteness. He’ll march his men into town and pretend that Spain won over the British fleet and is now occupying the British Isles.

The squire and the local vicar only seem all too glad to oblige the new master in town, but the working classes – especially Harry and his father – are burning to make contact with any British resistance against their supposed occupiers. Ah, class war.

While Robeles has to use all his cunning and cruelty to play his ruse and keep the villagers under control, he is also threatened by philosophical differences with his first officer. That young man, Don Manuel Rodriguez de Savilla (Barry Warren), is a true Spanish patriot, and disagrees quite resolutely with Robeles plans for returning to the pirate business. Perhaps he will even disagree with them enough to partner with a bunch of English villagers?


While everybody (of taste) loves Hammer Film’s horror output, people – me too often included – tend to ignore most of what the studio put out in other genres. In some cases, like the studio’s small yet insipid comedy output, that’s pure self-defence, but in other cases, like its land-locked pirate movies, ignoring these films means missing out on some very fine genre filmmaking.

Case in point is The Devil-Ship Pirates, as directed by the generally dependable Don Sharp (who must have had a very good year in 1964, creatively, for it’s also the year that saw him direct the very fine little horror movie Witchcraft). It’s a film as clearly done on a budget as anything Hammer did at the time, but it’s also a film that knows how to use what it has (one ship, some fine looking sets and a highly dependable cast) in often inventive, always professional ways, and very entertaining ways.

Sharp’s direction isn’t as endowed with an eye for the pretty as it was in Witchcraft, but it provides the film with a sense of pace and tension that works well with the film’s script. Sharp also manages to handle the film’s more melodramatic parts in a rather off-handed way that provides them with a stronger feeling of veracity than you’d usually expect from scenes like them. There may be nothing flashy about Sharp, but he sure does all the right things to tell a clever story in an appropriately clever way.

Clever is a good way to describe Jimmy Sangster’s script for the film. The pirates’ plan does at once provide for a simple yet exciting set-up and keeps the film’s action constrained to a comparatively small number of locations without letting the production feel impoverished in any way; and once that plan is set up, it’s only a question of letting the various characters act appropriately, put in a few opportunities for mild swashbuckling (an English countryman is no Errol Flynn), and just let the plot roll out in a logical yet entertaining manner.


Of course, Sangster also finds time to add in some of Hammer’s usual political interests: the upper classes (especially the middle-aged men of the upper classes; there’s often still hope for the younger men and women in the production house’s films, at least if they’re willing to fall for lower class guys and girls) are not to be trusted, the working middle class is awesome, priests mean well but often don’t really know what they’re doing. It could be quite annoying, if it were not a) obviously true and b) made more complicated by characters who are allowed to transcend their class characteristics to act like actual human beings, or at least the adventure movie version of such.

On the acting side, The Devil-Ship Pirates provides ample opportunity to watch various Hammer stalwarts do their usual thoroughly convincing stuff. Standouts are Andrew Keir – who brings surprising intensity to a rather small roll, and Michael Ripper who portrays a pirate as if his usual innkeeper character had gone nasty with a relish that can’t help but delight.

Even the film’s romantic leads in form of John Cairney and Barry Warren are perfectly okay. That may be caused by the script providing them opportunities to play somewhat more complex characters than usual for romantic leads, but I’m surely not going to complain about added complexity in my adventure movies.

For once, I’m also not going to complain about my least favourite iconic horror actor, Christopher Lee. Sure, he plays more than half of his scenes on auto-pilot, doing his usual menacing shtick with little obvious interest in his role, but he has two really great moments. The first one – in his first violent confrontation with Don Manuel – is one of these (getting rarer the longer the actor’s career went) moments when the actor stops letting his Christopher Lee-ness stand in for acting and really puts some energy into projecting the smouldering menace he always was able to bring into its roles, but often seemed too disinterested to actually bring to use, turning his villain suddenly into someone not just bad in a perfunctory way as afforded by the script, but Evil in a much more total sense. Staying with the capital E Evil, his second great scene here sees Lee delighting in doing the most evil thing imaginable in a movie villain: outwitting a little boy.

Clearly, The Devil-Ship Pirates has everything you could ask of an adventure movie.

The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Lost World

dir. Irwin Allen
1960 / 20th Century Fox / 96′
written by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett
from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
director of photography Winton C. Hoch
music by
 Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter
starring Claude Raines, David Hedison, Jill St. John, Michael Rennie, Fernando Lamas, Richard Haydn and Vitina Marcus
The Lost World is available on both standalone 2-disc DVD and as part of a budget-priced 75th anniversary four-film DVD set (the latter version omits the second disc, which features the George Eastman House restoration of the 1925 The Lost World, as well as a trailer fragment and several minutes of effects outtakes, but pairs the feature with three others – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and The Towering Inferno).

Playing as a sort of matinee-ready follow-up to 20th Century Fox’s successful Journey to the Center of the Earth from the year before, Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is big, colorful, and dumb in more or less equal measure. The screenplay by Allen and frequent collaborator Charles Bennett (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), freely adapted from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel with some allusions to First National’s classic silent version thrown in for good measure, may propel Doyle’s early-century action into more modern times, but the film’s effects production remains positively prehistoric. This is perhaps the slurpasaur epic, second only to Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. in its wholesale embarrassment / abuse of large lizards and others of their ilk. It’s really a dreadful show by most measures, a fact compounded by a stirringly awful turn from Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), but Winton C. Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography and Allen’s own sense for pure stupid spectacle (this may be the genesis of his go-to suspense setup – the ledge) keep it from being a total bore.

The tale begins in London where, shortly after bopping bothersome American newsman Ed Malone (David Hedison) over the head with an umbrella, the imminent and irascible Professor Challenger (the wonderful Claude Rains, horribly miscast) heads to a meeting of the resident Zoological Society to make a shocking announcement: He has discovered an unscalable plateau hidden deep within the forests of the Amazon, a plateau populated by the living descendants of animals thought extinct since the Jurassic Age. In other words, “Live dinosaurs!”

With nothing to show for himself, his photographs and journals having been lost in an accident on the return voyage, Challenger proposes that a new expedition be mounted to his lost world, to be manned by himself, the ZSL’s own Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn, well chosen as Challenger’s condescending professional rival), and two unbiased volunteers. Stepping up to the challenge are Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie!), renowned big game hunter, explorer, and philanderer, and, much to Challenger’s chagrin, reporter Ed Malone, whose boss immediately fronts $100,000 for the expedition’s expenses. With the money and team in order the trip into the Amazon begins, where its roster of personnel quickly bloats beyond all recognition. Aside from the necessary addition of helicopter pilot Gomez (Fernando Lamas!) the expedition takes on the useless and slimy local profiteer Costa (character player Jay Novello, wasted in his role) as well as Roxton’s headstrong love interest Jennifer Holmes (a dreadful Jill St. John) and her brother David, the two children of Malone’s wealthy news-baron employer.


Gorged on superfluous humanity, the Challenger expedition hobbles its way to the isolated plateau and, with its helicopter destroyed by a wandering brontosaurus (amusingly identified by Challenger without him having had an opportunity to see it), quickly becomes stranded there. Taking refuge in a spacious cave, the team members set out to investigate their surroundings and happen upon an example of native wildlife far more interesting than dinosaurs – the beautiful Vitina Marcus as a mini-dressed tribeswoman. Unfortunately her existence suggests that more of her kind are living on the plateau, and soon the expedition finds itself contending not only with dinosaurs and other giant flora and fauna, but a tribe of monster-worshiping cannibal natives as well…

While several oft-omitted elements of the original novel found their way into this The Lost World in heavily adapted forms, including subplots involving diamonds, capture by natives, and even a dramatic conflict between Roxton and Gomez (in the novel this was the method by which the expedition was stranded, and was replaced by a brontosaurus in the 1925 film – this The Lost World keeps both), those hoping that Allen and Bennet’s writing might stick close to the source should look elsewhere. Indeed, the closest Allen’s production comes to honoring the author’s intentions is to put his name above the title card – which summarily bursts into flames. Perhaps the most grievous wound inflicted upon the material, besides the inclusion of Frosty the poodle in the character roster, is a love triangle revolving around the dull Jennifer Holmes and the backwards sexual politics that come with it. The Lost World, like From Hell It Came, is another of those films in which a woman tries to prove herself in “a man’s world” only to be happily put in her place by the final reel. The overtly objectified Vitina Marcus doesn’t escape either, being so much eye-candy that the film neglects to even name her. After an attempted rape by the sleazy Costa is thwarted young David pulls Marcus aside. “We’re not all like that,” he assures, before losing all credibility with his follow-up. “You know, you’re kinda nice!”

Ultimately more problematic than any of that is that Allen and Bennet have populated their The Lost World with such unlikable characters (not to mention that damned dog). It’s impossible not to like Claude Rains’ as Professor Challenger, miscast though he is in the role of the boorish and confrontational zoologist, and at least Gomez is granted a justifiable reason (spoiler: the death of his beloved brother due to Roxton’s negligence) for being such a jerk. Otherwise this is pretty rough going, compounded by the lackluster quality of the writing itself and Allen’s own uninspired direction. Seemingly at a loss for blocking the action in any interesting way, Allen resorts time and again to having his cast wander into a single and double-file lines to fill the frame. Winton Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography helps to distract from some of the deficiencies – Hoch had worked with Allen previously on The Big Circus, and would go on to photograph Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Five Weeks in a Balloon as well as episodes of several of Allen’s television series. More than just an award-winning director of photography, Hoch had helped to develop the three-strip Technicolor process as a lab tech in the 1930s. When it came to color on film he obviously knew his stuff.


Like the majority of Irwin Allen productions the issues of writing and characterization are all secondary to the spectacle of the thing, and The Lost World has spectacle to spare. Aside from the expected encounters with dinosaurs and cave-people Allen also treated audiences to one of his first daring ledge-walks (watch out for those obvious fall-away rocks!) as well as a climactic volcanic eruption and a gaggle of man-eating plants. Though Willis O’Brien receives credit as an effects technician (just what he contributed, if anything, is unclear – sadly this appears to have been his final on-screen credit) his time-consuming stop motion animation process went unused here, and the dinosaurs were instead brought to life through the dubious slurpasaur technique. Used to reasonably good effect in Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth and here managed by the same studio effects techs (L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr.), The Lost World features monitor lizards, iguanas, alligators, and geckos in a variety of rubber appliances. Though close inspection reveals the detail with which the technique was carried out (a lot of work went into matching colors, scale patterns and so forth) it never goes so far as to work – convincing an audience that a Nile monitor topped off with a triceratops’ frill and a stegosaurus’ back plates is anything other than what it looks to be is a losing battle.

The dependence on slurpasaur effects is perhaps the show’s greatest handicap, particularly for modern viewers with higher sensitivity to animal cruelty. There’s little doubt that at least some of the costumed reptiles were outright killed for the production – one is sunk into a bubbling pool and doused with smoldering lava-substitute, while an homage to the star dinosaur battle from One Million B.C. concludes with technicians hurling the participants over a ledge. These scenes were enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth even as a child, and certainly hasn’t grown on me since then. Allen trotted out this dinosaur footage at every opportunity during his television career, from The Time Tunnel to Land of the Giants, and even re-cast Vitina Marcus in her familiar cave-girl role in Turn Back the Clock, a season one episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that replays the events of The Lost World wholesale.

So what are we left with after all this? A well-shot but poorly conceived adaptation of a classic novel that’s loaded with unlikable characters and largely dependent on animal abuse for its thrills. This is one of those cases where I should by all rights hate the film, big and stupid and reprehensible as it can be, but for some intangible reason I don’t hate Irwin Allen’s The Lost World at all. Contemporary audiences apparently agreed. Though it received only middling critical attention the modestly budgeted The Lost World made a mint for both Allen and 20th Century Fox upon its release, fast-tracking Allen’s far more substantial (if no less dumb) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and setting the stage for his successful stint as a producer of 60s fantasy television.


Whether you’ve picked it up on its own or as part of the company’s recent spate of 75th anniversary DVD multipacks (as I did, netting The Lost World and 3 co-features, each on their own disc, for just under $10), 20th Century Fox’s DVD edition of Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is certainly a looker – if I’m not mistaken this is the first time the film has been available on home video in its original CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio.

Aside from some modest edge enhancement, a bit of minor damage (just some speckling, light scratching and dirt – nothing unexpected for a film of this vintage) and the odd errant reel change marker, there’s very little that can be held against Fox’s presentation of Irwin Allen’s schlockterpiece. From dense green foliage punctuated with brilliant blue and red flowers to the glowing reds of a lava chamber to the ridiculous jungle attire of Jill St. John (and her salmon pink luggage), the DeLuxe color is surprisingly bold, only falling flat during the occasional optical work (as when the Challenger expedition spots their first… ehem… dinosaur). To that end DVD Savant wrote of some anomalous color timing, but I didn’t notice anything untoward – note that I’ve only ever seen the film on VHS previously, and never theatrically, so make of that what you will. Contrast is at healthy levels throughout and detail is quite strong, particularly during the miniature photography. Even with a bit of obvious haloing this gave a strong presentation upscaled on my HD set, and the technical specs are unexpectedly robust – the Mpeg-2 encode clocks in with a high average bitrate of just over 8 Mbps.



Audio is less impressive, but gets the job done. The feature is accompanied by two stereo tracks in the original English – the original 4-track stereo mixed as Dolby Digital 3.1 surround as well as a standard Dolby Digital 2.0. There’s some strange directional stuff going on with the 3.1 option at times, with dialogue occasionally feeling as though it’s coming through on the wrong channel, but this didn’t bother me so much as how frail it sounded overall. Paul Sawtell and Bert Schefter’s strong score comes through well enough, as do the dinosaur roars (mostly recycled from Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth) and other effects, but the dialogue can sound quite thin and weak. The 2.0 track does nothing to improve on that front, and I assume it’s just a fault of the original recording. Monophonic dubs in Spanish and French are also included, as are optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

Film-specific supplements are light, but appreciated. A three-minute vintage featurette – Footprints on the Sands of Time - and a brief excerpt from Fox Movietone News (just under a minute) round out the documentary material, with an original theatrical trailer rounding out the video supplements as a whole. The best extras of the bunch are a set of comprehensive image galleries that cover pre-production artwork and film stills as well as ad art, an “interactive” press book, and Dell’s tie-in comic adaptation. There’s some terrific stuff here, especially with regards to the pre-production illustrations, though Fox impairs itself needlessly in making the galleries practically unmaneuverable. Those with the 2-disc standalone edition will also be treated to the George Eastman House restoration of the classic 1925 The Lost World, which runs 76 minutes, as well as some outtake footage and a trailer fragment for that (vastly superior) version of the story.

The $20 retail price attached to the stand-alone 2-disc DVD of Irwin Allen’s The Lost World seems a little steep to this bean counter, but you really can’t go wrong with the Studio Classics four-pack (unless you’re just after the GEH restoration of the 1925 film). This makes for a decent brain-off double bill played back to back with the much better Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and its demonstrable awfulness lends it some unexpected charm. Whichever edition you choose the Fox DVD is good stuff, a few caveats aside, and fans will definitely want to indulge.

Shadow of the Colossus

Year: 2005  Company: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studios, Team ICO
Designer: Fumito Ueda   Writers: Junichiro Hosono, Takashi Izutani, Masahi Kudo
Music: Kow Otani   Cast: Kenji Nojima, Kazuhiro Nakata, Kyoko Hikami, Naoki Bando, Hitomi Nabatame
Reviewed from the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus Collection, released September of this year for Playstation 3, and available for purchase through The original Playstation 2 edition is also still available.

While I’ve toyed with reviewing books, comics and even a bit of music here at Wtf-Film, the one medium I’ve always wanted to cover, but never have, remains video games. I play quite a lot of them, after all, and unlike any number of naysayers I don’t see the medium as being any less a legitimate art form than the others I mentioned above. That’s not to say I think that all art is good art, and personal taste certainly enters into things, but the potential is there for video games to rattle off complex symbolism, big ideas and the just plain aesthetically beautiful every bit as well as the rest of the more lauded forms. What’s more they can do so in collaboration, while at the same time offering a brand of personal interaction with the material that’s unique unto themselves.

But I digress. I’m really not here to argue how the video game should be considered a valid artistic medium – really - you’ll find plenty of that elsewhere, and just as many dissenting opinions. Instead I present for your consideration a game that I certainly consider to be “good art”, the epic Shadow of the Colossus (or Wander and the Colossus / Wanda to Kyozou) from Japanese designer Fumito Ueda and Sony Computer Entertainment’s Japan Studio in 2005. As is too often the case I took a good long while catching up to Shadow, having never owned a Playstation 2, but its recent remastering for the Playstation 3 (along with Ueda’s freshman effort ICO) gave me all the excuse I needed to finally check it out.

Taking place in a nameless expanse at the “edge of the world”, Shadow posits the player as the boy Wander, who travels to the forbidden land with his faithful horse, Agro, and the body of the dead girl Mono in hopes that a mythical demon said to reside there can return her to life. The demon, little but a few wayward shadows and a disembodied voice echoing about an immense shrine, agrees to help, provided that Wander destroys the sixteen Colossi – the vessels for the demon’s divided evil – that roam throughout the territory. As each Colossus is defeated the evil essence within is absorbed by Wander, whose mortal form grows more corrupted and diseased with each conquest…

The simple narrative of Shadow of the Colossus is a familiar one, but is refreshingly free of the heroic ego that so often comes with the territory. Wander proves himself uniquely selfless as video game protagonists go, flinging himself out into the abyss and confronting certain annihilation with unflinching determination, but his singular devotion is to the point of fault. He is driven to sacrifice himself, agonizingly, to save a fellow mortal unjustly struck down (the scant dialogue suggests only that she was sacrificed for being “cursed”), but is so obsessed as to be blind to the consequences of unleashing the greatest evil known to his civilization. In his singular, destructive drive he reminds of Captain Ahab, neither villain nor hero, just a man slowly destroyed by his own obsession. It’s an allusion that becomes all the more fitting once the nature of the game’s action is taken into consideration.

With rare exception the Colossi Wander is fated to extinguish are appropriately massive in scale, and often appear as though they are built from bits of the landscapes from which they emerge. Alternately magnificent and horrifying, the Colossi are the fantasy equivalent of the sea-beasts of old, which a dwarfed humanity once sought to conquer at its own peril, though the odds against Wander, armed only with a sword, a bow, and his wits, seem even more heavily stacked. Each Colossi is a lumbering level unto itself, either to be tricked into allowing Wander passage on it or to be scaled outright so that its vital points, glowing sigils revealed by the sword, can be reached. The gameplay here is harrowing stuff, and quite unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Appropriately, it becomes as much a test of will for the player as for Wander, as you’re dangle perilously from the shaggy, debris-strewn bodies of skyscraper-sized humanoid giants and bizarre, impossibly proportioned animals with your stamina running out all the while.

Even so, success against them is rarely satisfying on its own terms. Much of that is to do with the context for the Colossi themselves, awe-inspiring titans tucked away in some forbidden corner of the world as guardians against the evil banished there. They aren’t the villains of the piece, even if Wander must approach them as such. Each is individual, unique, from a proportional pseudo-mechanical bull (one of the rare small Colossi) and a tremendous electric eel to the earth-shaking bludgeon-wielding humanoid bear that graces the cover art, and each is never to be seen again. For every ounce of awe their appearances inspire there’s just as much poignancy to their defeat, the Colossi crumpling tragically to the ground with venomous black mist spewing from their wounds. Wander’s reward for killing them is to have himself slowly destroyed, with no way of knowing whether or not the demon with whom he has bargained will keep its promise in the end.

Shadow of the Colossus balances its intense action set pieces and grimmer subject matter with an environmental design ethic that’s breathtaking. The forbidden terrain Wander must traverse to reach each Colossi is a vast, seemingly boundless affair, winding from darkened mountain passes through arid deserts and verdant hills to secluded wooded oases, imposing canyons and hot springs. It’s a world unto itself, separated from the outside by a towering, endless bridge and devoid of any living distractions beyond a few lizards, tortoises and birds. Though obviously once inhabited – a monolithic central shrine and other edifices of civilization past, including Asiatic temples, European castles and a massive buried Greco-Roman amphitheatre, are all testament to this – Wander is the only human life to be seen. It’s a place unencumbered by endless hack-and-slash antics, load screens, or droning soundtrack loops, a wide-open expanse both somber and beautiful, ripe for contemplation and all but demanding of the hours it takes to explore it all. I found myself wholly immersed in it, enchanted even, and after a work week worth of play I’ve yet to tire of it – something few of anything, much less games, can claim.

In lesser hands it would have been easy for Shadow of the Colossus, basically a series of boss fights scattered by lengthy violence-free trekking, to feel tired and insubstantial, but Fumito Ueda and his devoted creative team have made it into something truly special. The simplicity of its premise belies the supreme artistry with which it is related, and the sum experience of it all is quite unlike anything else. I’ll not open the can of worms that is the “best game ever” designation, but it’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever played, a potent mix of thrilling action, aesthetic wonder and quiet humanity that really is second to none. This is must-play material, through and through, and one of the easiest recommendations I’ve had in years.

Reviewed from the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus Collection, released September of this year for Playstation 3, and available for purchase through The original Playstation 2 edition is also still available.

Mysterious Island

Year: 1961  Company: Columbia Pictures   Runtime: 101′
Director: Cy Endfield   Writers: John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, Crane Wilbur
Music: Bernard Herrmann   Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Cast: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill,
Herbert Lom, Beth Rogan, Percy Herbert, Dan Jackson
Disc company: Twilight Time   Video: 1080p 1.66:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 5.1 and 1.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH   Disc: BD50 (All Region)   Release Date: 11/08/2011
Mysterious Island is available for purchase exclusively through
The Wtf-Film Guide to Essential Blu-ray is the record of one man’s eclectic journey to uncover the very best of the weird and wonderful that Blu-ray has to offer. The special effects of Ray Harryhausen had to make it onto our list sooner or later, and we’re pleased as punch that it’s the former.

1961′s Mysterious Island begins with one of the great scenes of fantasy-adventure cinema. Imprisoned by Confederate forces in the midst of the Siege of Richmond near the end of the Civil War, Union Captain Cyrus Harding and his underlings, freed slave Corporal Neb and the cowardly Herbert Brown, decide to make a daring escape by the unlikely means of an observation balloon. With Union war correspondent Gideon Spillet and Confederate operator Pencroft in tow the men escape their cell and commandeer the balloon, only to launch themselves into the midst of ‘the greatest storm in American history’. Aloft for days and trapped on a steady course Westward, the escapees are savaged by weather and circumstance until the balloon itself finally gives way, ripping under the pressure of gale-force winds and plunging its crew towards the tumultuous Pacific and a mysterious, uncharted speck of land.

Buoyed by the descending bass and percussive clash of one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest fantasy scores, I remember thinking that this sequence was the most suspenseful, thrilling thing I had ever seen when I first chanced upon the film as a young child. The idea of these men, casting themselves out into the elements toward some unknown, foreboding locale, was harrowing stuff, and as their epic adventure unfolded I was filled with dread excitement. As they dangled from the balloon’s rigging over a seething sea I wondered with fatal curiosity, how would they survive, and who among them? And what if they did make it to that strange island. What then?

Of course Captain Harding and his rag-tag band of castaways do make it to the island, and what follows is a potent mix of survival adventure, science fiction and fantasy that thrills me just as much today as it ever has. Mysterious Island may follow the Vernian adventure on which it is based with only a middling accuracy, condensing and consolidating its events in an economical fashion and taking some pretty judicious liberties with it along the way, but it’s tough to complain when such diversions include the lovely Beth Rogan and her abbreviated lace-up goatskin dress (the height of Victorian fashion, I’m told). Oddly enough it’s one of the film’s many deviations from source that has gone on to make the film so beloved as it is – a sci-fi plot thread that could almost be of Bert I. Gordon’s invention, but which is elevated to the level of pulp genius under the creative auspices of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Though with some obvious variation, Mysterious Island actually follows the basic circumstances of Verne’s story quite faithfully. Captain Harding and his fellows find themselves castaways on an uninhabited volcanic island, and are forced to allay those philosophical differences that plagued them in the civilized world so that they might join forces to survive. Through human ingenuity the five manage to scrounge together a rather satisfying existence, feasting on the island’s often bizarre fauna and taking up permanent residence in a comfortable cliff-side cave they call ‘Granite House’. Along the way they are aided by unlikely coincidences, like the discovery of a trunk loaded with supplies – tools, weapons, and even a copy of The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. After a brief tangle with cutthroat pirates ends in the inexplicable destruction of the pirate vessel the source of the coincidences is revealed. The island is the home port of none other than Captain Nemo, who was thought lost in a maelstrom some years before. With his submarine Nautilus inoperable Nemo was forced to continue his mission for global peace from the confines of the island and its surrounding waters, stalling his terrorist action against the world’s military fleets in favor of eradicating of the root causes of human strife through scientific invention.

Though ostensibly escapist adventure, there are some underlying themes in Mysterious Island that, though largely ignored today, must have held broad appeal in a time of Cold War and civil rights unrest. Nary half a decade after Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education Mysterious Island prominently features an African American (a freed slave fighting for the Union, no less) with the same rights and privileges as his white peers – a fixture of Verne’s novel granted a newfound timeliness in the film adaptation. Indeed, the screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur also simplifies the politics of the Civil War, purposefully conflating its noble struggle to free men with the contemporary Civil Rights Movement. In the context of an ongoing Cold War, Mysterious Island offers the hope of reconciliation among political ideologies by virtue of the relationship between Captain Harding and Confederate soldier Pencroft, each of whom begin the film as a prisoner of the other side only to set aside their philosophical differences for a greater good. So, too, does the character of Nemo offer hope, in converting a destructive weapon (the submarine Nautilus) into a tool for peace – if contemporary science could create the atomic and hydrogen bombs that threatened the world, then perhaps it had the power to save the world from them as well.

All that said, Mysterious Island is still ostensibly an escapist adventure with overtones of fantasy and science fiction, and that which lends it thematic weight also serves as a catalyst for some of its most exciting moments. Captain Nemo’s efforts to eradicate human suffering through science have left his island teeming with an assortment of gigantic flora and fauna, from harmless overgrown plants and oysters to the giant crabs, honeybees and flightless birds that threaten the existence of Harding and his castaways. It’s a plot thread concocted purely to take advantage of the talents of effects artisan Harryhausen, who had pretty perfected his stop motion process (now touted as Dynamation) with the color spectacle The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. By 1961 Harryhausen was at the top of his game, precisely blending live-action back and foreground plates with his meticulously crafted stop motion armatures to create spectacular special effects scenes that even the more obscenely budgeted epics of the time couldn’t match.

In Mysterious Island his work feels like a response to the big bug pictures that had been so popular in the years just prior, with Harryhausen answering the poor travelling matte grasshoppers of Beginning of the End and the monolithic composited arachnid of Tarantula! with a few gigantic creepy crawlies of his own. In the film’s most famous sequence, stills of which populate no end of children’s monster books, Harding and his crew are forced to do battle with an enormous land crab – a scene which concludes with the castaways dining on the beast after it falls into a hot spring. Truer to the giant bug pedigree are a host of car-sized honeybees, which trap young heartthrob Michael Callan and hottie Beth Rogan in the mother of all honeycombs. Later on Harryhausen takes a moment to reference both Verne’s giant squid and his own past work, as a walk on the sea floor leads into a life-and-death struggle with a colossal chambered nautilus. More than just an homage to the sensational squid attack from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, itself entering film history in Disney’s spectacular adaptation, the creature design closely resembles that of one of Harryhausen’s own creations – the city-smashing cepholapod of 1955′s It Came From Beneath the Sea.

Aside from Harryhausen’s considerable talents, Mysterious Island also serves as a colorful showcase for all manner of practical visual effects techniques. Filmed partly on gorgeous coastal Spanish locations and partly on the sound stages of England’s Shepperton Studios, Mysterious Island bridges the considerable gaps between A and B and expands its fictional locale with exceptional matte paintings, composite and miniature work. Indeed, the epic balloon escape that so thrilled me as a child is accomplished through a succession of opticals and process shots, the transparency of which do nothing to impede the experience. With modern expectations in mind there is the temptation to label such vintage effects methods as crude or unrealistic, but as I grow older I become more acutely aware of just how overrated realism is in cinema – especially with regards to such overtly fictional stuff as this. While there’s a concerted effort by the technicians to ensure that the various mattes and miniatures match to the scale sets and locations the effects themselves are more suggestive than literal, the cinematic equivalent of the illustrated plates published in the stories and novels that came before. As such I’d suggest that those tempted to question the methods by which human conflicts with gigantic arthropods and impossible transcontinental balloon trips are related are perhaps missing the point of the experience, and would do well to occupy their time elsewhere.

For my money Mysterious Island is fantastic, beautiful stuff, and a pitch-perfect example of the lost art of fantasy filmmaking as it once was. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full fifty years since it originally premiered, but the taught direction of Cy Endfield (Sands of the Kalahari, Zulu) and a screenplay that’s both wittier and more substantial than I remember have certainly helped it to age more gracefully than it might have otherwise. Much as the novel from which it was (freely) adapted has become a classic of literature, Mysterious Island deserves its place as classic of cinema escapism. For those keen on the rousing genre excursions of old it’s an absolute must-see.

Just in time to celebrate the film’s fiftieth anniversary, Mysterious Island makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of independent collector’s label Twilight Time (in conjunction with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) in a limited run of only 3000. This arrangement won’t be to everyone’s taste, particularly in that it means a high retail price point, a contractually limited slate of extras, and venue exclusivity (it can only be officially had through Screen Archives Entertainment), but the plain fact of that matter is that licensor Sony, after the marginal enthusiasm their previous Harryhausen Blu-rays inspired, had no great interest in releasing this film to Blu-ray themselves. While I’m sure their agreement leaves Sony open to releasing the film in the future, if they should so desire, those wanting Mysterious Island on Blu-ray now (and I’m among them) will find this Twilight Time release to be their only option. Fortunately it’s a good one!

There are those who may worry that Twilight Time have been left to their own devices with regards to the transfers they’re working from, but that’s happily not the case. They’ve instead been granted access to the latest studio masters of the titles they’ve licensed. In the case of Mysterious Island that means a comprehensive 50th anniversary restoration courtesy of Sony’s second-to-none archive restoration team. There is always talk of restorations bringing films back to their original luster, but effort here really goes beyond the call of duty. I can state unequivocally that Mysterious Island has never looked so good as it does on this disc, ever, and that fans of these colorful Harryhausen effects vehicles are in for a downright exhilarating experience.

Past editions of Mysterious Island have all suffered from a variety of damage, from flicker and general aging of the elements to the specks, flecks, dust and scratches that were baked right into the film’s extensive optical printing effects from the start. I know my comparison below is not ideal – I’m forced to rely on a compressed archival copy of the 2002 DVD, having seemingly lost my original – but it does reveal the obsessive extent to which the restorers have gone to remedy the issue of print damage. The third comparison set shows one of the film’s many optical effects, one which, like the rest, was possessed of a good deal of blemishes and imperfections from the start. You’ll note that in the new restoration practically every hint of damage has been successfully removed. Such is the case even with the classic Dynamation stop motion sequences, as evidenced by the final comparison set. Specks and blemishes present in the original back projection and rephotographed during the Dynamation process have been carefully removed, leaving the footage looking even crisper and cleaner than it was when originally produced. That isn’t to say that there’s absolutely no damage to be found in this new restoration of Mysterious Island, which does present with some minor white speckling at times, but the improvements in this regard are striking.

More impressive still is the attention paid to the film’s rich and at times eccentric color design, from the white sands and pure blue skies of the coastal Spanish locations to the fantastical studio interiors, punctuated with unreal shades of yellow, red, blue and green. Whether the result of the telecine process or of fading of the elements themselves, the 2002 DVD edition had some color shifting that resulted in an overly yellow appearance. Comparison set two shows perhaps the most obvious and widest breadth of improvement. Everything from Spillet’s light white undershirt to background rock, foliage, and water has lost its yellow tinge, resulting in purer shades of white, grey, green, and so on, while flesh tones have shifted from the overly orange hues of the DVD into more natural territory. Contrast is similarly improved, with what had before been a comparatively flat image alive with rich, deep blacks and more pronounced highlights (see the third comparison set again). The sum experience of the color restoration here is utterly breathtaking, with ace cinematographer Wilkie Cooper’s dynamic photography more vividly represented than ever. Other aspects of the restoration improve in a manner more typical to these comparisons between standard and high definition. Detail takes a healthy bump upwards, bolstered by the healthier contrast and increased resolution, and the at times considerable grain inherent to the original production is blessedly retained.

Beyond the source restoration, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a robust technical specimen as well. The 1.66:1 1080p image is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, with the feature plus audio taking up more than 30 GB of space on disc. The image is AVC-encoded with a strong average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and the encode frequently lazes about in the upper 30s. You’ll have to look long and hard to find any technical deficiencies in the image, as Twilight Time have ensured that the film receives a very strong presentation. Thanks to its meticulous restoration and beefy technical specs Mysterious Island may well be the strongest a Harryhausen film has appeared yet on Blu-ray.

HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool at a quality setting of 95%. The three DVD screenshots are sourced from my compressed archive copy of Columbia Tristar’s DVD from 2002 (my original disc is somehow missing in action – sorry!), and were captured in .png format in VLC, upconverted to 1920×1080 and saved as .png in GIMP, then compressed to .jpg using the same method as for the HD screenshots.
DVD | Blu-ray

More Blu-ray Screenshots:

While it may be the best looking, Mysterious Island is inarguably the best sounding of the Harryhausen films currently available on the format. The primary track for the feature is a new, restored 5.1 surround mix presented in lossless DTS-HD MA at an average bitrate of around 3 and half Mbps. I’m generally not much a fan of these 5.1 remixes, but this track is a stunner, with more breadth and depth of auditory potential than anything that’s come before – none of that even comes close! The foley work remains consistent with the original monophonic recording, never sounding out of place for a film of this vintage, and all of the dialogue and effects come across crisply and cleanly. The biggest beneficiary of the bump to 5.1 DTS-HD MA, however, is Bernard Herrmann’s tremendous score – for my money the best of the four he composed for Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen. The opening theme, repeated throughout with some variation, blew my mind when I first saw Mysterious Island as a child, and no other viewing of the film has touched that nostalgic experience until now. As Herrmann’s score clashed forth over the classic Columbia logo I felt a chill run down my spine – terrific stuff. With purists in mind Twilight Time have also preserved the originally monophonic recording courtesy a lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 track. Though it obviously loses the LFE of its 5.1 counterpart, which is particularly notable in the music department, this restored track still sounds very good, and is well in advance of the 2002 DVD. Whether you’re fond of original recordings or surround remixes, Twilight Time has you covered. They’ve even included a set of optional English SDH subtitles, leaving me no room to complain.

As noted earlier, Twilight Time are contractually obligated with regards to the supplements they can provide, so Mysterious Island is predictably limited in that department. In terms of complementing video the disc presents both the original theatrical trailer and an imaginatively bizarre 1-minute television spot, each of which are presented in native 1080p AVC encodes (at 1.66:1 and pillarboxed 4:3 respectively) with lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 audio. The only other extra is a big one, an isolated original score track (in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo!) that accompanies the feature. There’s an interesting mix here, with some cues accompanied by sound effects (a la the old Laserdisc edition) and others not. For its part the music here sounds terrific, and those who don’t already own the soundtrack will find much to love here. My one complaint is that the isolated score only appears to be accessible from the disc’s main menu (there is no pop-up that I could find), and plays as a separate timeline from which the audio for the film is likewise inaccessible. Small potatoes, but some may find it bothersome. The package is accompanied by a lovely booklet of film stills and liner notes (all too rare a thing these days) by Julie Kirgo, and my order arrived with a Mysterious Island refrigerator magnet (which replicates the attractive cover art for this release) as well.

There has been some grumbling about the rise of short run ’boutique’ labels like Twilight Time and Olive Films in the home video market, much of it arising from the perceived high price of their releases. In my mind that’s just the cost of doing this sort of business, and if Warner can charge $20 a pop for burned DVD-R of their own catalogue titles then $34.95 for an independently produced limited run Blu-ray of a big-studio title like Mysterious Island seems fair enough. I’ve put my money where my mouth is in this case, happily shelling out the nearly $40 it cost to put a copy on my shelf even though I knew I had a screener en route. It’s a matter of principle. I want to support those companies that release the movies I love, especially when they’re doing it well, and so long as Twilight Time continues to release them so proficiently as they have here I’ll have their back all the way. Now, if they can just find their way to The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and The First Men in the Moon

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Excellent  Audio: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Bernard Herrmann score track, Theatrical Trailer, Television Spot
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case with booklet of liner notes.
Mysterious Island is available for purchase exclusively through

Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

a.k.a. Di Renjie
2010    Runtime: 124′  Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Chen Kuo-Fu, Chang Chia-Lu  Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung, Chan Chi-Ying
Music: Peter Kam Pau-Tat   Cast:
Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Li Bing-Bing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Deng Chao,
Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Teddy Robin Kwan

China in the 7th Century, during the Tang Dynasty. To commemorate her crowning as the first (and, unfortunately, last) Empress of China, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) has commissioned the building of an unpleasantly gigantic statue of the Buddha pretty much next to her palace grounds. Her rather dictatorial policies have left the Empress with a lot of enemies, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when trouble hits her construction project.

Two of the people responsible for the building of the Godzilla-large statue are killed. More surprising than the fact of their death is the way the men die – spontaneous combustion. The deaths may very well have been caused by the victims’ moving of some magical pieces of script hanging inside of the statue, but the Empress is only prone to superstition when it suits her, and stays sceptical. After her chief chaplain (as the not exactly trustworthy subtitles call him) visits her in form of a talking deer and mutters an imprecise prophecy, the Empress decides that the stars ask her to put the mystery into the hands of Judge Dee (Andy Lau).

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