Horror Express

a.k.a. Panico en el Transiberiano
Year: 1972  Company: Benmar Productions / Granada Films   Runtime: 87′
Director: Eugenio Martin   Writers: Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet   Music: John Cacavas
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Pena, Angel del Pozo, Telly Savalas, Helga Line, Alice Reinhart, Jose Jaspe, George Rigaud, Victor Israel, Faith Clift, Juan Olaguival
Disc company: Severin Films   Video: 1080p / 480p 1.66:1   Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 / DVD9   Release Date: 11/29/2011
Reviewed from a screener provided by Severin Films (thanks Nicole!).
Available for purchase through 

The last of a three picture deal between American producer Philip Yordan (Crack in the World, 55 Days in Peking) and Spanish director Eugenio Martin (The Ugly Ones), and conceived largely as a means of making use of the expensive passenger train sets devised for the epic Poncho Villa, 1972′s Horror Express is a compact and economical slice of Euro-cult mayhem that benefits from the recycled illusion of production value and a magnificent headline cast. The inimitable duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing join forces once more as a pair of catty, big-headed men of science who must contend with a supernatural sci-fi menace on the Trans-Siberian Express.

The story, penned by the men behind the devilish British actioner Psychomania, follows professor Sir Alexander Saxton’s (Lee) discovery of a 2 million year old ape-man frozen in the chilly north of Manchuria. Determined to provide the remains as proof-positive of the theory of evolution, Saxton loads the crated beast onto the next train towards Europe – a train populated not only with hundreds of disposable personalities, but Saxton’s professional rival Doctor Wells (Cushing) as well.  Soon after the train departs on its long snowbound journey the baggage man is found dead, his eyes a boiled to a ghastly white. Saxton’s empty crate provides ample evidence for the cause – his 2 million year old specimen was not so dead as had been presumed, and had awakened from its frosty slumbers and murdered the baggage man. With the creature at large a concerted, but quiet, effort to find and detain it is mounted, but it soon becomes obvious that there’s more to the monster than meets the eye.

Once the beast is tracked down and killed things take a turn for the decidedly silly. An impromptu dining room investigation of its eye fluid reveals a host of unlikely images suspended there – images of our planet’s biological past, including a brontosaurus and pterodactyl, and a mysterious view of Earth from space. Further autopsies on the creature’s victims, whose brains appear to have been scrubbed clean of all knowledge, leads to an astounding conclusion: The ape-man discovered by Saxton was not the monster, but merely a shell for some malignant alien force capable not only of absorbing the intelligence of others but of possessing their bodies as well.  With the truth of the matter revealed doctors Saxton and Wells are faced with a terrifying fact – not only is the extraterrestrial menace  quite comfortably alive, but it’s hiding in the guise of one of the Trans-Siberian’s passengers!

This film’s got stars, and dinosaurs, in its eyes…

Playing a bit like They Came From Beyond Space by way of Who Goes There by way of Murder on the Orient Express, Horror Express is an uneven genre pastiche that never really capitalizes on its own capacity for thrills, chills, mystery and paranoia. Rather than focus on the mechanics of the genre, writers d’Usseau and Zimet instead lead viewers on a string of oddball diversions that include a bit of international espionage and the ravings of a mad monk in the mold of Rasputin (coincidentally, a part played by star Christopher Lee in an earlier Hammer production). None of it ever amounts to much, but it does pass the time between the various monster attacks and ludicrous plot developments. To be fair, d’Usseau, Zimet, and indeed the whole cast and crew, seem perfectly aware of the absurd nature of the project, and an underlying sense of good humor on the part of all involved goes a long way towards keeping Horror Express from feeling so tired, pointless, and repetitive as it easily might have.

Indeed, stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing look to have had a wonderful time with the alternately strange and hilarious material, particularly when it offers them an opportunity to needle one another. The two also bring a wealth of genuine thespian ability to the production, largely occupied with overdubbed Spanish performers otherwise, and each is possessed of that unique talent for making even the dumbest of lines sound reasonable – a skill that’s indispensable to a film that so frequently asks its audience to believe the darnedest things. The supporting cast is largely disposable with the exception of Alberto de Mendoza, who all but steals the show as an insane monk who drops his godly ways and starts following the alien “devil” at the drop of a hat. Telly Savalas (TV’s Kojak) received high billing in the films advertising and is listed third on this video edition, but only appears briefly as the memorably crazy Cossack Captain Kazan. Savalas’ dialogue is perhaps the most ungainly of the whole script, and while none of it makes much sense on its own terms the actor’s unhinged delivery gives it plenty of oomph.

Horror Express will never be confused for great filmmaking, and is possessed of the same cold and languid quality that makes much of the Spanish exploitation of the time so unappealing to me, but its excellent casting and proclivity for the humorously bizarre make all the difference. As a film about an eye-boiling brain-stealing alien intelligence loosed upon long-distance rail travelers it remains the best, and only, of its kind, and genre aficionados should find it well worth checking out.

There’s something about that guy that just doesn’t look right to me…

Taking a cue from a good number of independent English video labels, Severin Films have chosen to present Horror Express as a combination Blu-ray and DVD package. While we’ll be covering the latter later in this section it is the former, with which the film makes its high definition debut, that rightfully commands the most attention. Severin present Horror Express on Blu-ray in full 1080p at its native theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, sourced from a positive 35mm Spanish print of some dubious lineage (provided you believe the packaging, it was unearthed in a Mongolian film depot…). The print is in decent shape if far from pristine, though I don’t know that anyone was honestly expecting better.

In addition to some printed white damage and splice marks, the print also presents with a healthy assortment of darker debris, scratching, and even the odd tear here or there. This may distract some viewers, but I’d argue that it’s just part and parcel for this sort of low budget exploiter. The source also has its weaknesses with regards to color reproduction and contrast, the latter of which can vary quite a lot depending on the original photography. The image has obviously aged a good deal in the nearly 40 years since Horror Express was originally produced, with the color shifting, at times quite heavily, to the red. I’m not sure what the original photographic intentions were on the part of the director and cinematographer, but it’s impossible for me to believe the flat, over-warm appearance Horror Express currently exudes is accurate. An ounce of restorative attention – some color grading here, some tweaking of the contrast levels there - could well have helped to mitigate the issues with the color and contrast, but these film-based limitations are still far from fatal flaws.  Unfortunately that’s not the end of the story.

Limited though Horror Express‘ source materials may be Severin Films look to have managed a decent high definition transfer of them, particularly in terms of detail. It’s all the more a shame, then, that they’ve bungled things so badly with regards to its presentation on-disc. The numbers hint at the bad things to come – Horror Express limps onto Blu-ray at a total disc size of 21 GB, with a paltry 11.7 GB of that dedicated to the feature and its three accompanying audio tracks. The AVC encoded video averages out at a middling bitrate of just 17.2 Mbps, well less than half of the format’s potential, but even that low figure doesn’t  account for such dreadful results. This is one of the poorest high definition encodes I’ve seen in a while, and it presents with a laundry list of defects that distracted from my viewing at every turn. Most notable in motion are aliasing artifacts that are every bit as frequent as they are ugly. The hounds tooth patterning on Christopher Lee’s suit provides the most obvious examples, with the encoder failing time and again to properly resolve it.

A rough approximation of how this disc’s encode made me feel.

More frustrating on closer examination is the encode’s treatment of the transfer’s grain structure, and vicariously its fine detail. The long and short of it is that there just isn’t much grain or fine detail, as the majority of it has been obliterated by persistent blotchy digital artifacting. The final comparison set below demonstrates the problem most obviously, with the details of the wooden floor disappearing into blotchy artifacts and patches of digital noise, but it is evident to some degree in every shot in the film. There are even some chroma aberrations to be found, tucked away in the lines and patterning of people’s clothing. It’s a hell of a mess all told, and certainly not what I was expecting for a release so oft-delayed as this one – surely in all the months since Horror Express was officially announced someone could have been bothered to check the disc encode? It’s impossible not to feel as though Severin have dropped the ball here, and hard, leaving the video side of the Blu-ray’s feature presentation a very tough sell in spite of some modest improvements over the DVD.

The accompanying DVD is something of a technical improvement given the constraints of its format, but still far from ideal. The disc is sourced from the same hi-def transfer at the same aspect ratio (16:9 enhanced 1.66:1) and features the same inherent deficiencies with regards to color and contrast. Fortunately this disc is dual-layered, a step in the right direction, and while the image still looks substantially weaker than I’d have expected it to (things just aren’t as well resolved as they should be) at least it doesn’t show its artifacting to the same degree as the Blu-ray.  Unfortunately both editions showcase many of the same ugly digital pox marks, as evidenced by Christopher Lee’s suit in the first and next-to-last comparison sets. I’d say it’s a draw as to which is the better way to view the film – the better encoded but visually flat DVD, or the better-resolved but awfully encoded Blu-ray – with neither being particularly appealing in the long run. Amusingly (or distressingly, depending on your frame of mind) both the DVD and Blu-ray share the same menu designs to the point of failure – whoever authored the Blu-ray either forgot or purposefully neglected to include even the most rudimentary pop-up menu during feature playback. That alone is barely worth mentioning, but it is indicative of the breadth of shortcomings that hamper what had the promise of being a fine release.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  DVD screenshots were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC media player, and are provided here in both their native resolution (compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool) as well as upscaled 1920×1080 (scaled in GIMP, saved as .png, and converted per the rest to .jpg) to offer the best range of comparison.
DVD 480p | DVD 1080p | Blu-ray 1080p

While the Blu-ray video was impaired to the point of distraction, at least it got the bump to HD. No such luck is to be had with the audio. Horror Express is accompanied in each of its video iterations by lossy Dolby Digital tracks, either 2.0 monophonic English or 2.0 stereophonic Spanish, each at 192 kbps. John Cacavas’ interesting musical score is served best by the better-preserved 2.0 Spanish track, but both sound flat and unremarkable otherwise. I’m not sure that a lossless encoding could have improved much upon that in the Blu-ray edition, but as things stand now I’ll never know. Adding to the disappointment is Severin’s failure to include any subtitles whatsoever, making the secondary Spanish audio track more a vestigial feature than a legitimate viewing option for the majority of the release’s potential audience.

With the feature presentation a disappointment on practically every front, I’m very happy to report that the supplemental package is quite exceptional. Things begin with Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express, a 14 minute interview with director Eugenio Martin. Though Martin’s accent is thick and his handling of English at times lacking, the information he provides is all quite good. Next up is a wonderful half-hour archival interview with late screenwriter Bernard Gordon (The Day of the Triffids), who served as producer on Horror Express, in which he discusses the Hollywood blacklist, his involvement with producer Philip Yordan and his work on the Samual Bronston epics of the ’60s. There’s nothing whatever about Horror Express here, but I couldn’t be bothered by that – it’s a fantastic interview. Telly and Me grants composer John Cacavas a few minutes to talk about his friendship with actor and singer Telly Savalis and their work toghether on this film and elsewhere. The undisputed king of the supplements is an interview and question and answer session with the inimitable Peter Cushing, circa 1973, which runs for a whopping 80 minutes (!) and serves as a sort of commentary track for the feature presentation. I’ll not spoil any of the goods here, but Cushing fans will be over the moon – the disc may be worth picking up for this alone. An introduction to Horror Express by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander (6 minutes), a theatrical trailer, and three trailers for other Severin titles (Psychomania, The House That Dripped Blood and Nightmare Castle) round out the disc.

Horror Express is a fun little footnote in the annals of Euro-horror, and one that I remember seeing many, many times on discount video racks as a kid. I had exceedingly high hopes for this release from Severin Films, hopes that were effectively dashed as soon as the Blu-ray disc began to play.  The issues with the feature presentation are so distracting as to make a recommendation on its merits difficult, but the supplemental package certainly makes this release tempting.  Given the low asking price it currently commands (just $13.99) fans will likely want to indulge for that reason alone.

in conclusion
Film: Good silly fun  Video: Fair +  Audio: Fair   Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: You’d do better to ask what isn’t wrong here.  The wealth of supplements is the saving grace.
Packaging: Standard two-hub Blu-ray case.
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

War God

Original Title: Zhan Shen   a.k.a. The Big Calamity (Da Zai Nan)
Year: 1976   Company: Xinghua Pictures / Prince Pictures   Country: Taiwan   Runtime: 85′
Director: Chan Hung-Man   Writer: Lam Ching-Gaai   Cinematography: Lai Man-Sing, Lam Chi-Wing, Wong Shui-Cheung    Music: Wong Mau-Saan   Cast: Gu Ming-Lun, Tse Ling-Ling, Cindy Tang Hsin, Chan Yau-San   Choreography: Ho Ming-Hiu    Special Effects: Koichi Takano   Producer: Fu Ching-Wa

Poster for War God under its alternative Chinese title The Big Calamity

Pre-review note: English sources on the cast and crew of this film are practically non-existent, and the information above was gleaned from a combination of a meager HKMDB listing and a Chinese Wikipedia entry.  Accuracy is not guaranteed.

War God, alternatively known online under the unofficial titles Calamity and Guan Yu vs. the Aliens, was once among the rarest of the rare in Taiwanese fantasy, stuff the likes of which we Westerners could only ever dream of seeing in the flesh.  Like Poon Lui’s Devil Fighter and Yu Hon-Cheung’s Monster From the Sea, War God was until recently thought of as un-seeable, with only a handful of advertising images and contemporary newspaper articles arguing for its existence at all.

One can imagine my surprise, then, when a hard-subtitled rental VHS copy of War God found its way into torrent circulation, and the film once thought unobtainable practically fell into my lap!  The future is a wonderful place, my dear readers, a wonderful place indeed.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

film rating:
disc rating:
company: United Artists
year: 1978
runtime: 115′
director: Philip Kaufman
cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams,
Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum,
Veronica Cartwright, Kevin McCarthy
writer: W. D. Richter
cinematography: Michael Chapman
music: Denny Zeitlin
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Plot: Spores from space fall to Earth in a rainstorm, quickly grow into pods and begin replicating the citizens of San Francisco as dull automatons.

It’s ironic, at least mathematically, that it’s so easy to feel so lonely in the big city. I grew up in proverbial small town America, knowing most of the people in my neighborhood and living in close proximity to many of the teachers at my elementary school. I moved to Minneapolis in 2007, into a neighborhood with as high a population as my hometown, and though I have as many friends as ever and a wonderful fiance to boot I still find myself, from time to time, feeling isolated, alienated, and alone. Never have I been in such close proximity to so many total strangers, a new reality that’s been interesting to come to terms with over the last few years.

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Gamera vs. Viras

film rating:
disc rating:
a.k.a. Gamera tai Uchu Kaiju Bairasu
(lit. Gamera against Space Monster Viras)
Destroy All Planets
company: Daiei Motion Picture Co.
year: 1968
runtime: 81′
director: Noriaki Yuasa
cast: Kojiro Hongo, Toru Takatsuka,
Carl Craig, Peter Williams,
Carl Clay, Michiko Yaegaki,
Junko Yashiro, Koji Fujiyama
writer: Nisan Takahashi
cinematography: Akira Kitazaki
music: Kenjiro Hirose
Reviewed from a screener provided
by Shout! Factory, LLC.
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Click here for Gamera vs. Gyaos

If Gamera vs. Gyaos was the high water mark of the first Gamera cycle then the following year’s Gamera vs. Viras marked the beginning of its steady decline. Working with resources whose limitations are often painfully obvious, Viras relies far too heavily on stock footage from the previous three entries while offering far too little original material in exchange. Though director Noriyaki Yuasa’s longtime personal favorite undoubtedly played better with contemporary audiences, offering a sort of hit parade of earlier monster footage, it has aged especially poorly, and rarely seems anything more than one of the cheapest outings of the franchise.

The film follows Masao (Toru Takatsuka) and Jim (Carl Craig), members of the Japanese and American boy scouts who find themselves kidnapped by the globe-conquering denizens of deep space planet Viras, who have themselves implanted a brain control device onto the neck of the monster Gamera. With the United Nations opting to surrender to the invaders rather than sacrifice the two boys, it’s left to Masao and Jim to find a kink in the Viran’s plans and put an end to the invasion for good.

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The Snow Devils

aka: La Morte Viene dal Pianeta Aytin
(lit. Death Comes From Planet Aytin)
I Diavoli dello Spazio (lit. The Space Devils)
company: Mercury Film International,
Southern Cross Films and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
year: 1967
runtime: 90′
director: Antonio Margheriti
cast: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Ombretta Colli,
Enzo Fiermonte, Halina Zalewska,
Goffredo Unger, Renato Baldini,
Wilbert Bradley, Furio Meniconi,
writers: Renato Moretti and Ivan Reiner
cinematography: Riccardo Pallottini
music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
not available on home video

This concluding entry in the Gamma One franchise, a series of four low budget Italian / American co-productions that spawned the swinging cult masterpiece Wild, Wild Planet, is, in a word, forgettable. Whatever funding had existed for the earlier Wild, Wild Planet and War of the Planets had dried up by the time of The Snow Devils production, along with director Antonio Margheriti’s enthusiasm for the increasingly formulaic material. Though the credited director for the project, Margheriti was busy preparing another film when shooting for Devils was underway, leaving his assistant director Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, appearing just as disinterested in the material as Margheriti had become) to pick up the bulk of his directorial duties. There is a minimum of fun to be had with Devils, the lack of imagination and dearth of action leaving it feeling like a pile of second unit footage with no real movie to fall back on.

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The Alien Factor

company: Cinemagic Visual Effects
year: 1978
runtime: 80′
director: Don Dohler
cast: Don Leifert, Tom Griffith,
Richard Dyszel, Mary Mertens
writer: Don Dohler
cinematography: Britt McDonough
music: Kenneth Walker
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A small town in Maryland is hit by a series of gruesome and inexplicable murders. Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith) is clueless what to do about the problem, and even if he had an idea, it would probably be difficult for him to set a plan into action, given that he seems to be fused to his desk and also possibly one of the walking, moustachioed dead. In a sense, I’m quite glad he loves his desk so much, because another sex scene featuring him rubbing his moustache about some poor woman like that nightmarish episode in the later Nightbeast would probably shatter my sanity for good.

Anyway, the Sheriff knows well that he has no clue and no talent for police work and would very much like to call the state police on the mass slaughter. The town’s mayor (Richard Dyszel) however, won’t hear of it. You see, there’s a large “entertainment complex” (I imagine a very pink bordello) going to be built on the edge of town, and the mayor doesn’t want the investors to get nervous. I’m sure they prefer a series of unsolved murders to a solved one.

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Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Columbia and
Clover Productions
year: 1956
runtime: 83′
country: United States
director: Fred F. Sears
cast: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor,
Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum,
John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry,
Grandon Rhodes, Larry J. Blake
writers: Bernad Gordan, Curt Siodmak
and George Worthing Yates
cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.
music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
visual effects: Ray Harryhausen
disc company: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
release date: October 7th, 2008
retail price: $107.95
(Blu-ray only available as part of The
Ray Harryhausen Collection 4-film set)
disc details: region free / dual layer BD50
video: 1080p / 1.85:1 / b/w + colorized
audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround (English)
Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (French)
subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish,
Portuguese, French, Hindi, Arabic, Japanese
(Portuguese, French, Spanish, Japanese
for supplemental content)
special features: audio commentary with
Ray Harryhausen, Remembering Earth vs. The
Flying Saucers featurette, The Hollywood Blacklist
and Bernard Gordon featurette, Original screenplay
credits, Interview with Joan Taylor, photo galleries,
Colorization demo, Sneak peak of Flying Saucers
vs. The Earth comic book, trailers (It Came From
Beneath the Sea
, 20 Million Miles to Earth,
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)
order this film from Amazon.com:
2-disc SD DVD | 4-disc Blu-ray Collection

Plot: Earth is attacked by a fleet of flying saucers from a disintegrated solar system.

The second collaborative effort between producer Charles H. Schneer, still under contract to Sam Katzman and here working under his Clover Productions banner, and visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen is another formulaic science fiction programmer elevated to near-classic status by its labor-intensive effects production.  The picture was another big success for Columbia and Sam Katzman, who released it on a double bill with the even cheaper The Werewolf (a memorably grim horror noir from director Fred F. Sears).  Earth vs. The Flying Saucers would be Schneer’s final film as a Katzman underling, and 1957 would see the release of his first two independently produced efforts – Hellcats of the Navy starring Arthur Franz and Ronald Reagan and the genre classic 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is well-paced if utterly derivative, and follows newlyweds Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe, the Judas of The Day the Earth Stood Still) and secretary Carol (Joan Taylor, 20 Million Miles to Earth).  Both are employed in the Air Force’s top-secret Operation Sky-hook satellite program, which has encountered an odd problem.  None of the satellites are staying in orbit as they should, all having mysteriously crashed back to Earth shortly after their launch.  A few strange encounters and a full-on ray gun attack later, the culprits in the odd disappearances are revealed: a civilization from a dead solar system has set its sights on the planet Earth, which they hope to conquer through the shear obviousness of their technological superiority alone.  Dr. Marvin and his fellow Earthlings are understandably displeased with the invader’s imperialist intentions, and rush to perfect a new anti-saucer weapon before time runs out.

The screenplay by Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates and blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon (Hellcats of the Navy, Day of the Triffids, Krakatoa: East of Java – the authors name, originally listed as Raymond T. Marcus, has been restored in the opening credits of Sony’s latest release of this film) is a mish-mash of original and judiciously absorbed ideas from previous efforts strung together with a little drama and a lot of military hearings and scientific exposition.  The notion of intellectually superior and physically frail extraterrestrials invading the less-advanced Earth dates back to Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, while several moments throughout – a General (Morris Ankrum, of course) commenting on the electronic screens protecting the invaders, an examination of some of their optical equipment – are culled from George Pal’s big-budget 1953 adaptation of the same.

A misunderstanding that leads to the death of the alien’s first Earth delegate harkens to Wise’s 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, as does a mid-picture show of force by the invaders, who cut all manner of Earthly communication in preparation for their final attack.  Then there are the interiors of the saucers themselves, the extraterrestrials’ pontifications of the vast speeds at which they travel, and even the closing lines (“. . . such a nice world.  I’m glad it’s still here.”), all of which are rather reminiscent of Universal’s color spectacle This Island Earth from the previous year.  Derivative as it may be, the film has proven to be quite inspirational as well.  Toho’s Monster Zero follows the same basic plot elements right down to the truck-mounted anti-saucer rays, and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! makes too many direct homages to it for me to even begin to list them here.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers bypasses the standard romantic arc that dominated so many of its predecessors, beginning with a married couple who have gotten that troublesome love-finding out of the way before the film has even begun.  Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor make a believable couple and solid enough foundation for the rest of the picture to rest upon, though precious little screen time is given to their relationship.  Most of the running time is devoted to military meetings (disbelieving Generals and all) and that 50s genre perspective of the scientific process, complete with the obligatory cost-cutting stock footage montages and a newsreel-style narration (perhaps It Came From Beneath the Sea‘s William Woodson again, though the IMDB lists his credit as “unconfirmed”).  Fred F. Sears does what he always did best, making the most of the meager finances and drama that was handed to him, and fills the screen with his trademark mis-en-scene, with actors stacked deep into shots and almost menacing shadows cast on the walls of mundane locations.  I’ve always been a fan of Sears’ work, visually if not substantively, but his position as one of Katzman’s most prolific work-horse would shuffle him off the mortal coil just a year later – dead of cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44.

The film certainly did nothing to hurt Harryhausen’s budding film career, and his carefully animated flying saucers would easily usurp those from The Day the Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth to become the most iconic of the decade.  The aliens themselves, stuffed in clunky rounded suits made of “solidified electricity”, may be anemic, but the saucers in which they fly are alive brimming with menace – he can’t seem to resist giving even these inanimate machines a distinct personality.  The animation is a fine example of the classic Harryhausen style, the saucers delicately weaving back and forth, each motion counterbalanced against another to give the illusion of suspended weight.  It all works amazingly well, and count me as one of those who is amazed, even today, at the actual size of the saucer models.  Imperfections are more obvious now some 20 years since I first saw the picture, imperfect matte lines or jitteriness of elements within the frame, but many of the tricks, like the model of the capitol dome inserted above a photo plate of the rest of the building, are seamless.

I continue to find immense satisfaction in Sony’s Blu-ray Ray Harryhausen Collection, which has given me a much-needed excuse to catch up on four of the films I was raised on.  Like the previously reviewed It Came From Beneath the Sea, Sony has opted to make their Blu-ray of Earth vs. The Flyings Saucers available only as a part of their 4-disc Blu-ray collection.  As with that film, a 2-disc special edition SD DVD with the same supplemental content is individually available and has been linked to at the top of this article.

Like the other two black and white features in the Ray Harryhausen Collection, a Harryhausen-endorsed colorized version of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers has been included along with the original black and white.  While technology has obviously improved since digital colorization was introduced in the 80s, the end product still looks very much like what it is.  Some hues still look bad, and reds are rendered particularly poorly here (an American flag looks dull and pastel, while a briefly glimpsed stop sign is nearly pink).  Skin tones continue to be an issue, with one character (the military man standing next to Morris Ankrum as they gaze out of the control tower at an approaching saucer) is cast in a ghastly yellow.  In spite of the Harryhausen endorsement and the preponderance for discussion of the topic in the commentary, the black and white original is clearly the way to see the film.

Transfer-wise, this is another strong effort.  The 1080p 1.85:1 image presents with tremendous detail and beautiful contrast (see the image of Morris Ankrum’s troubled face), with a healthy layer of grain present throughout.  Damage in the original footage of this popular attraction is limited to speckling here and there, with stock shots varying from pristine to battered – just as they were when the film was released.  Harryhausen’s extensive effects work looks fantastic, only improving with the increased scrutiny the HD transfer allows for.  Audio is presented in another excellent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, and the recording sounds like it could have been made yesterday (from Columbia’s canned effects library, of course).  A Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic French dub is available as well.  Subtitling options are extensive on this region-free disc, with additional French, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese translations available for the supplements.

As with It Came From Beneath the Sea, supplements here are stacked.  The package begins with another fun commentary from Harryhausen, this time joined by fellow effects artists Jeffrey Okun and Ken Ralston.  Aside from the frequent “oohs” and “aahs” over how wonderful the colorization job looks, this is a great track – well worth a listen.  Next up are a series of featurettes totaling around 70 minutes, including a retrospective of the film, a piece dedicated to blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, and an interview with co-star Joan Taylor, who seems positively delighted that she’ll be remembered for her performances in two of Harryhausen and Schneer’s effects pictures.  The original opening credits for the film, complete with the Raymond T. Marcus credit, are included here for posterity.  We get another Harryhausen inspired comic preview, this time for Flying Saucers vs. The Earth, as well as a collection of trailers and image galleries.  The trailer for this film is, again, strangely omitted, though it is available on other discs in the set.  A little bothersome is The Colorization Process, which plays a bit too much like a late-night infomercial for Legend Film’s services and is entirely skippable.

While probably the weakest of the four films available in the Ray Harryhausen Collection, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers was none-the-less influential and remains a fun, if dated, science fiction programmer.  Harryhausen’s meticulous one-man effects production makes the upgrade to HD a no-brainer, just one more reason to pick up the full collection.  Earth vs. The Flying Saucers comes recommended.

order this film from Amazon.com:
2-disc SD DVD | 4-disc Blu-ray Collection

Darna and the Giants

POSTERa.k.a. Mars Ravelo’s Darna and the Giants
company: Tagalog Ilang Ilang Productions
year: 1974
runtime: 109′
country: Philippines
directors: Emmanuel H. Borlaza
and Leody M. Diaz
cast: Vilma Santos, Divina Valencia,
Helen Gamboa, Rossana Marquez,
Loretta Marquez, Desiree Destreza

Narda (Vilma Santos) lives in a typical rural village in the Philippines with her grandmother and little brother Ding (Don Don Nakar).  One evening they witness a saucer-shaped spaceship flying overhead.  Soon spacemen are wandering the surrounding countryside kidnapping locals and vaporizing those who try to escape while reports of attacks by giant people begin pouring into local news stations.  Narda discovers that the evil alien warrior woman X3X (Helen Gamboa) is responsible, kidnapping earthlings to turn them into a destructive giant slave army with hopes of conquering the planet.  It’s up to Narda’s alter-ego, the super-woman Darna, to stop X3X’s terrible  scheme.

Dramatically speaking, DARNA AND THE GIANTS is more consistent (and coherent) than the later DARNA AT DING (the only other of the series I’ve seen to date).  The early narrative focuses on the home life of Narda, the romantic advances of a local young man and the bothersome antics of Ding.  There’s quite a lot of singing here (Narda’s wooer is a musician), including an amusing moment where the cast spontaneously erupts into a Tagalog reworking of Singin’ in the Rain while doing household chores.  There are the expected comic interludes, like a guitar-toting suitor realizing he’s been serenading a homosexual man as opposed to an attractive rural woman, but fewer than one might imagine, and once the aliens have landed things take a more serious turn.

DARNA AND THE GIANTS actually shows us the aftermath of a giant attack before introducing the giants themselves, with Darna and Ding visiting an impromtu outdoors hospital for the many victims.  It’s not a happy sight, as a husband watches his wife die in agony and a young woman searches futily for her lost mother.  When the giants are revealed they turn out to be intolerable bullies who fight amongst themselves before being sent out to frighten the local population into submission.

And frighten they do!  The giants prove to be a nasty bunch, crushing people beneath their feet and using uprooted power poles to swat at them like bugs.  Houses are picked up and shaken about with their occupants still inside, only to be tossed casually aside when the giant’s attention is otherwise diverted.  The death on display is quite graphic for all-ages entertainment, and ensures that our sympathies are squarely with Darna when she flies in to give the over-sized miscreants their just deserves.

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Of course the real villain of the picture is the dastardly X3X, whose brain exists externally in a special container so as to prevent its power from being hampered by any physical strain her body might endure.  While the giants are 016indisputably nasty, it is her bastardization of science that has given them their super-human stature and her dreams of planetary conquest their motivation.  X3X’s own vileness is assured once she reveals her favorite leisure-time activity – watching her elf-eared alien minions slowly crush helpless victims beneath a weighted plate of spikes.

The eventual comeuppance paid X3X and her giant slaves is fitting and violent.  One giant has his eyes ripped out, allowing him to stumble into a nest of hot high tension wires, while another is carried off by his hair and dropped into the mouth of an active volcano.  Perhaps more interesting is the fact that several of the giants are allowed to repent their sins (the sight of a church amidst the devestation is enough to put the fear of God into them) and escape Darna’s wrath, only to fall victim to the telepathic powers of X3X in their efforts to stand up to her.  You can rest assured that after all the death and destruction witnessed (and there is a lot) that X3X gets hers as well, decapitated both figuratively and literally.

I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a simple political message to DARNA AND THE GIANTS.  The film was released just two years after president Ferdinand Marcos instituted martial law in the Philippines.  The resulting censorship of opposition opinions in the media (scripts for films had to be screened by the government before production was allowed to begin) would have prevented direct opposition to Marcos’ methods to be espoused, but the simple story of a 006giant army trampling on the rights of the general populace could easily have slipped by as pure fantasy.  Even if not directly relatable to that contemporary situation, the conflict undoubtedly played well with a country occupied in the past by everyone from the Spanish to the English to the imperial Japanese.

This was the big Christmas season release for Tagalog Ilang-Ilang Productions, and it’s obvious that a good deal of money was put into it.  The plentiful special effects moments were devised by effects man Jessie Sto. Domingo and special photographer Tommy Marcelino.  The giants are brought to life through simple photographic effects and, more frequently, the use of massive forced-perspective setups requiring hundreds of extras to run about in the background while the giants stand among scaled miniatures in the foreground.  It all looks pretty quaint by the industry standards of today, but the shear enthusiasm of those involved is deserving of admiration all the same.

I imagine this was quite a succesful domestic release in its time, the star power of the beautiful Vilma Santos being more the enough to guarantee healthy ticket sales.  The rest of the cast is full of recognizable industry regulars.  Divina Valencia 008[PUSSY CAT, QUEEN OF THE WILD BUNCH] receives second billing in spite of her few lines, but has definite screen presence as a giant in a Viking helmet.  Max Alvarado, who seems to be in just about every Filipino film production since 1950, has a prominent role as a giant as well – a role he would reprise in the fantastic opener for DARNA AT DING.

I’d love it if some enterprising American distributor (Severin?  Synapse??  Mando Macabro???) would pick up the Vilma Santos Darna films for English-friendly home video releases, but for the moment we must settle for tape-sourced VCDs that are often hard to come by.  That’s not to say that DARNA AND THE GIANTS is impossible to see at present – quite the contrary.  You just have to know where to look and be willing to overlook a considerable language barrier.

So, is DARNA AND THE GIANTS worth the effort to see it?  I’d say definitely.  It’s a weird and wonderful little sci-fi fantasy yarn and Vilma Santos is as charming as ever.  Highly recommended.

Quatermass and the Pit

Hammer Film Productions [1967] 97′
country: United Kingdom
director: Roy Ward Baker
cast: James Donald, Andrew Keir,
cast: Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover

Order this film from:
| Amazon.co.uk

When a construction crew working on the expansion of the London Underground uncovers a number of humanoid skeletons, it wastes no time in calling in the archaeological department of the Museum of Natural History – headed by Doctor Roney [Donald].  The military becomes involved when Roney’s dig uncovers what appears to be an unexploded warhead left over from the last World War.  Leading the military investigation into the bomb, which becomes increasingly suspicious as more of it is excavated, is Colonel Breen [Glover], who has very recently been put in charge of the rocket group headed by Professor Quatermass [Keir].  Quatermass, at first uninterested, changes his tune when the supposed missile is revealed to be hollow, aside for a closed off chamber in the front end.  What’s more, intact remains of more of the humanoids are discovered inside of it, implying that they were within it when it first landed.  Given that the skeletons are fully five million years old, finding them inside the thing throws something of a wrench in the idea that it is a defective German weapon from WWII.

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War of the Worlds – Next Century

a.k.a. Wojna Swiatow – Nastapne Stulecie
Zespol Filmowy “Perspektywa” [1981] 96′
country: Poland

Television personality Iron Idem is walking through a city street with his wife when he sees two boys playing – one walking on all fours while the other, masked, walks him like a dog on a leash. Idem is taken aback when the child holding the leash kicks the other – when he confronts him about it, the child simply states that he is a martian leading an inferior human. As Idem and his wife walk away, disturbed by the sight of the children playing in such a way, they pass by television equipment inexplicably set up in the street – the director’s first indications of the nature of the story he is to tell.

We learn, through a stock footage montage, that a Martian civilization has made contact with our own and have traveled to our planet to share with us their advanced ways.

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