Return of Daimajin (Daimajin Ikaru)

For our review of Daimajin on Blu-ray, click here. The Daimajin Triple Feature Blu-ray is available now from Amazon.com.

When Daimajin premiered in April of 1966 it did so to big returns, earning ¥100 million or more in its initial distribution. Producer Daiei Co. was naturally anxious to take advantage of their successful property, but the speed and efficacy with which they did so is mind-bending by the standards of modern productions. Daimajin Ikaru (大魔神怒る, previously released to domestic video as Wrath of Daimajin and here known as Return of Daimajin) debuted on a double feature with Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi Umi o Wataru (Zatoichi Across the Sea) on August 14th, 1966 – just shy of four months from the premiere of its predecessor.

Serving once more as screenwriter is Tetsuro Yoshida (who would script all three of the Daimajin films), and those familiar with the first film will find themselves in familiar territory so far as story is concerned. The kind, prosperous communities of Chigusa and Nagoshi find themselves under the envious eye of the greedy warlord Danjo, who promptly conquers each for himself. Danjo takes to his newfound affluence in the usual way, with plenty of geisha girls and alcohol, but violent encounters between his forces and the surviving royalty of Chigusa and Nagoshi prove a constant distraction. The remaining royalty are eventually captured of course, and swiftly primed for public execution. Unfortunately for Danjo local superstitions he was so quick to discredit prove to be more fact than fantasy, and dreadful divine vengeance is visited upon him in the form of one very angry giant Majin.

Though the tropes may be familiar Daimajin Ikaru benefits handily from a more vigorous approach to the material, courtesy of ace director Kenji Misumi – master of all things chanbara and one of the biggest names among Daiei’s creative staff at the time. Where Daimajin was a more sullen venture, low on action and high on stiff period dramatics, Misumi’s entry in the series is a pure action picture, with plenty of intrigue, chases and swordplay to keep viewers hooked until the fantasy comes to the fore. Misumi lends a potent vitality to the material and just plain keeps things moving. Even the requisite drama has a spring in its step, and is bolstered by Misumi’s wholesale embrace of the stereotypes of the genre. The good guys here are of such saccharine purity that it can make one’s teeth ache, and the villains are delightfully pulp – Danjo can’t so much as spit without erupting into maniacal guffaws over how clever he is. It’s tremendous stuff, and played with an unflinching earnestness that prevents it from ever falling into glib parody.

More than just an accomplished genre craftsman Misumi was also Daiei’s preeminent peddler of DeMille-ian excess, having previously thrilled audiences with 1961′s Shaka - a massive 70mm undertaking and Japan’s most direct answer to the big-name religious epics of the ’50s. That film climaxed with the epic destruction of a temple by an earthquake, a sequence that reminds heavily of the showstopping finale of DeMille’s 1949 smash Samson and Delilah, but the similarities there pale in comparison to the transparent reinterpretation of DeMille spectacle that awaits in Daimajin Ikaru. The influence of Paramount’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments on the Daimajin films, as noted in my first article, comes full circle here in one of the Japanese film industry’s most dramatic (if derivative) special effects accomplishments.

In Daimajin Ikaru the Majin (referred to simply as kami – god – in this film) resides on a holy island on a placid lake between the kingdoms of Nagoshi and Chigusa, a location that becomes a rally point for the kingdoms’ surviving royalty, and thus a target of the evil Danjo’s violent advances. As in the first film the Majin’s statue becomes a target in its own right, though Danjo’s forces do a more complete job in desecrating it – whereas the first Majin survived intact, with only a chisel embedded in its forehead to show for its troubles, the statue in this case is obliterated outright with explosives. Its destruction is only temporary of course, and when its patience is finally at its end the Majin rises, whole once more, from the depths of the lake. What follows is awesome in the original sense of the word. The island splits in twain and crumbles into the lakebed as the waters part, creating a miraculous path for the wrathful god to tread. The ode to The Ten Commandments is obvious, making the Majin’s passage through the parted “sea” as much pop art as effects extravaganza. Effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda (assistant SFX director at the time of Shaka) and series photographer Fuji(r)o Morita pull off the concept, perhaps the most ambitious of the entire series, with nary a hitch, setting the bar still higher for what should be expected of contemporary Japanese special effects.

The rest of the giant Majin’s righteous rampage, here limited strictly to the baddies (a contrast to the violent ambivalence of Daimajin), is handled with the same flair, with Kuroda and company taking heed of their missteps in the production of the first film (particularly in the implementation of the full-scale Majin mock-up) and crafting a near seamless sequence in the process. Series composer Akira Ifukube also improves upon his efforts for the first film, providing a superior score that lends a palpable weight and added purposefulness to the Majin’s advance. Ifukube was short of resources more often than not in his film work, leaving some of his scores sounding quite ragged for want not of ability or effort, but of time. While Daimajin is a quintessential example of just that Daimajin Ikaru proves a lovely exception, and obviously benefits from whatever additional resources were thrown Ifukube’s way. The themes here are undeniably heavy, dominated by low brass and even lower woodwinds, but balanced by an almost indefinable elegance, and taken in context with the work of Misumi, Kuroda, Morita et al the effect is appropriately divine.

Even more so than with the first film, Mill Creek’s new Blu-ray presentation of Daimajin Ikaru puts past editions to shame. The initial releases on VHS and DVD from ADVision were sourced from laserdisc masters that were already out of date by the time they were licensed, but at least presented the film in its original ‘Scope ratio. The company’s second run of DVDs (those in the white cases for those seeking to avoid) needlessly complicated things for Daimajin Ikaru on that front in presenting it panned-and-scanned at a compromised ratio of just 1.78:1. With the advent of this new Blu-ray edition that past transgression can be blessedly forgotten.

Mill Creek present Daimajin Ikaru progressive at its original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 courtesy of a fine 1080p master from Kadokawa. Like Daimajin, this is not a perfect filmic presentation, but its improvements over the SD editions of the past are such that I can live happily with its minor limitations. The worst that can be said of the transfer here is that it can look a touch processed, and by virtue of that a shade more video-like than some my prefer, but detail and texture still prevail and in motion it can look quite striking. Colors and contrast are each at natural levels, and the dust-soaked conclusion is thankfully free of the unnatural saturation of the last DVD. Detail isn’t so crisp as it perhaps should be, but makes strong advances over SD just the same, and the various composite work retains the thicker, grittier quality inherent to its production. This made for a fine home presentation for me – I dig it!

 

Technical specifications are comparable to those for the first film (which shares the same dual layer BD50). The 79-minute show receives a nice Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 28.1 Mbps, and artifacts are kept sufficiently at bay. The primary audio, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, is again a touch flat – a product of its original recording – but sounds quite good even without an excess of range. Ifukube’s cues certainly sound better here than they have in the past, making it easier to appreciate their instrumentation, and this may be worth the upgrade alone. The Titra-produced English dub that graced the AIP television version of the film (Return of the Giant Majin) is included, also in DTS-HD MA 2.0, but sounds quite compressed in its range compared to the Japanese – I suspect fans, forced to rely previously on bootleg tapes or Retromedia’s unimpressive double bill DVD, will be happy that it’s here at all.  Well translated optional English subtitles accompany the Japanese version, and the film is flanked by the original theatrical trailer (HD) and another substantial interview / effects discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r)o Morita (HD), both of which can be found on disc 2 of the set. Though marked for Region A only I suspect these discs to be all-region compatible – each of them booted up just fine in my secondary Region B deck.

There’s really not much else to say – this is another strong showing for Mill Creek, and another must-own for Blu-ray capable kaiju fans. The film itself makes a strong argument for being the best of the series, a fine actioner with a strong fantasy bent and an effects production that’s second to none for its time. Recommendations don’t come any easier – see it!

Blu-ray screenshots were made using our usual method – taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to see full size.

Daimajin Ikaru is available now at Amazon.com

Daimajin

The 1960s were a time of flux for the Japanese film industry, with the postwar cinema boom finding itself at odds with both lavish import epics and that old Hollywood nemesis – television. Of the prosperous studios of the time it was Daiei who made the biggest gamble towards competing with the West abroad and the tube at home, going so far as to invest in and implement large-format film equipment as a means of differentiating themselves from their domestic competition. It was a bold move that elevated the expense of practically every picture Daiei produced, but one that failed to pay off. By the middle-60s a financial disaster was already brewing at Daiei and in 1971 the company collapsed outright. While the Daiei story doesn’t end there – the studio would see resurrection under Tokuma Shoten in 1974 and survive until 2003, when it was absorbed entirely under the Kadokawa banner – it was certainly the end of an era.

In this context Daiei’s Daimajin films, a series of three high profile special effects vehicles produced back-to-back in 1966, takes on renewed significance, not just as one of the more interesting diversions of the decade’s kaiju boom, but as one of the last gasps of the grandeur that had marked the studio’s postwar career. “Great Films are Daiei Films” the ads said in a pun on the company name, and for a time at least they spoke truth. The production of the first Daimajin (titled simply enough Daimajin [大魔神]) proved particularly ambitious, with Daiei’s Kyoto studio undertaking the project simultaneously with Daiei Tokyo’s production of the A-list Gamera sequel Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon (Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon) – the two films would premiere as a much-publicized double bill on the April 17, 1966.

Penned by Tetsuro Yoshida, a regular contributor to Daiei’s jidaigeki fantasies and chanbara actioners, and directed by studio veteran Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Daimajin plays for the most part as a straight period drama, albeit with an important fantasy twist. The vile Samanosuke, a drifter taken in and made chamberlain by the kind Lord Hanabusa, rises up against his master and takes the feudal lands of Yamanaka Castle as his own. The elder Hanabusa and the majority of his confidants are murdered, but household samurai Kogenta escapes with the lord’s two young children – daughter Kozasa and son Tadafumi – and takes shelter with his aunt, a priestess of the local mountain god. With Samanosuke ever vigilant the priestess leads the usurped to the only safe haven around, the forbidden holy mountain of her god, where the surviving Hanabusa’s rest uneasily, praying for a day when they might reclaim their kingdom.

In the meanwhile Samanosuke consolidates his power, striking bargains with surrounding warlords and raising an army with which he hopes to conquer Edo. His citizens are forced into slave labor building a monstrous fortress and taxed to the point of starvation and homelessness. Gatherings are forbidden, and much to the priestess’ horror the local faith falls by the wayside. In ancient times it is said that the mountain god did battle with the evil spirit Arakatsuma, whom he defeated and imprisoned in a giant statue of his own likeness – a great stone warrior. With gatherings banned the rituals to appease the mountain god and keep Arakatsuma, the dreaded giant Majin, at bay go undone, and as the years pass the god grows very, very angry.

Things come to a head in the tenth year of Samanosuke’s reign, when Kogenta and young lord Tadafumi are captured in their attempt to infiltrate Castle Yamanaka and slated for crucifixion. As though that weren’t bad enough, Samonosuke also murders the mountain god’s priestess and orders the guardian statue – now known as a Hanabusa safe haven and a rallying point for local rebellion – destroyed. But there are consequences for inviting the wrath of a god. Just as any hope for peace in the territory seems abolished the angered deity takes action, loosing the devilish, unstoppable Arakatsuma against Samanosuke’s fortress…

There was a decidedly DeMille-ian influence upon Daiei’s upper echelon productions in the ’60s, courtesy of that director’s recent VistaVision smash The Ten Commandments, and nowhere (except Kenji Misumi’s monstrous 1961 production Shaka, Daiei’s most direct answer to Western epics and Japan’s first 70mm film) is that influence more obvious than in the Daimajin trilogy. Indeed, strip away its distinctly Japanese sensibilities and the first Daimajin feels a lot like a thematic retread of DeMille’s swan song, complete with peasant-oppressing iron-fisted overlord, ill-advised heresy, and a climactic third act loaded for bear with Old Testament-style divine intervention (and for anyone doubting the DeMille influence, just wait for Daimajin part two!). In terms of dollars the end result was much what Daiei had hoped – a whopping success home, even if the international impact left something to be desired. Stateside Daimajin went unseen theatrically, and was instead integrated into American International Pictures’ television syndication packages as Majin, Monster of Terror.

Inspiration for the giant Majin himself, identified here for the only time in the series as Arakatsuma, came from Julian Duvivier’s 1936 film Golem (another retelling of that oft-filmed folktale), memories of which Hisashi Okuda carried with him until he became production director for Daiei Kyoto. In stark contrast to his simplified portrayal in successive films the giant Majin here is quite morally ambiguous, unleashing his monstrous vengeance not just against Samanosuke, but the oppressed villagers as well. Even his one demonstrably heroic act, the saving of lord Tadafumi from crucifixion, has a malign undercurrent, giving the impression that the Majin would just as soon have killed him, too. It’s a poetic device, not any personal sense of “mission accomplished”, that eventually ends Majin’s rampage and sends him on his way. Moved by the tearful pleas of young Kozasa, whose prayers raised the devil in the first place, the Majin’s spirit speeds off in a ball of light, leaving its physical form to crumble back into the earth.

Though well produced in terms of its drama the human element here is pretty formulaic, and ultimately just a narrative means-to-an-end to draw audiences in to the real star of the show – its ace special effects production (advertising proudly proclaimed Daimajin as “Japan’s first full-scale special effects samurai spectacular!”). So important was the effects production deemed that director Yasuda is billed alongside special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda in the opening credits. Even today the effects for Daimajin are captivating, not only in their superior execution but in their considerable style as well. The Majin’s arrival is heralded by grim clouds and blood-red skies, and his reduced stature (around 20 feet) in comparison to the usual kaiju combines with a sense of vengeful purpose (and some tremendous large-scale model work) to lend his attack a potent immediacy. Contemporary critics took note, and the film’s standard-setting effects photography earned cinematographer Fujiro* Morita the Miura Prize from the J.S.C. in 1966.

*The supplemental subtitles for this release say “Fujio”, and I’ve no idea which is accurate. Online translators are unhelpful, though amusingly so, translating the name as “Shiro Moritani wealth”.

Daimajin has been available in America before, but never like this. Original television airings were predictably pan-and-scanned from the original ‘Scope ratio, and dubbed into English besides. ADV (now defunct) went a long way towards remedying both problems with VHS and later DVD releases of the film, sourced initially from the Japanese laserdisc masters and later from those prepared for remastered DVD editions. Though better, these releases were still imperfect, with unreliable translations and image quality that just doesn’t hold up to contemporary standards. Since the folding of ADV bargain-bin proprietor Mill Creek have taken up their stead, and contrary to what some might have expected they’ve done a hell of a job bringing Daimajin to Blu-ray.

Daimajin arrives in great form, sourced from the latest HD masters and progressive at the original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Rather than just ordinary 35mm anamorphic ‘Scope Daimajin was photographed using the same large-format VistaVision equipment that had earlier been put to use for Daiei’s epic Shaka, and the resulting image is of terrific quality. Detail is very strong where the photography allows, as in the close-up that follows this paragraph, and the filmic quality of the original elements is blessedly retained courtesy of a fine, unobtrusive layer of unbastardized film grain. Unlike rival Toho’s recent HD restorations of their tokusatsu properties, which can look quite pale and over-bright (more on that in our upcoming review of Destroy All Monsters), Daimajin presents with contrast and color that are each at lovely, natural levels. I’m unsure of what degree of restorative work was undertaken here but I noted no damage beyond a few wayward specks and scratches and the usual grit associated with the film’s practical effects techniques – in motion this makes for a wonderful presentation.

Where Mill Creek have been found lacking in the technical department on earlier releases (like their single-layered double features from a couple of years back) they leave nothing to complain about here. Daimajin is paired with its sequel Daimajin Ikaru (The Giant Majin Grows Angry, under the title Return of Daimajin) on a dual layer BD50, and while the encode is only single layer (the same is true of the Japanese Blu-ray releases) the support is more than substantial enough. Daimajin receives an average video encode in Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps, but artifacts are kept well at bay and the fine grain is well maintained throughout. Audio is provided in two flavors of DTS-HD MA 2.0, one being the original Japanese and the other being the same English dub that graced the Majin, Monster of Terror TV version. The original Japanese sounds precisely as it should, notably flat in comparison to modern mixes but significantly more robust than in past iterations – the lows of Akira Ifukube’s score (very similar to, if less bombastic than, his work on War of the Gargantuas the same year) have punch hitherto unheard. The big news, however, may be the quality of the English dub which, despite some additional flatness, sounds practically pristine. Optional English subtitles are included and, with the exception of some unintended humorous moments (“Gasp!”), are very well translated. Aside from its two co-features Daimajin Ikaru and Daimajin GyakushuDaimajin arrives on domestic Blu-ray accompanied by an interview / SFX discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r?)o Morita (28 minutes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer, both in HD. The two-disc release (2x BD50) comes housed in standard side-lock Blu-ray case and fancy slipcover, and retails for $24.98.

I came into this Daimajin triple feature Blu-ray fully expecting to find the plethora of minor faults that have plagued many of Mill Creek’s past Blu-ray editions, and to have to defend those faults with a low price tag. Instead I find one of the best genre releases of the year hiding in plain sight, offering domestic fans the same kind of quality the Japanese are charged six times more for. This isn’t just a recommended release, it’s unskippable stuff, and the best deal to arrive on the Blu-ray shelf in ages. I literally cannot recommend it highly enough.

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Music Monday – Zog Edition

The thematically-sound odd man out among Kevin Connor and John Dark’s spate of mid-70s Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations may not actually be a Burroughs adaptation at all, but that doesn’t keep it from being the best of the bunch just the same. 1978′s Warlords of Atlantis takes Burroughs’ popular motifs and runs with them, crafting a suitably original tale of turn-of-the-century men forced to muster both brain and brawn against a slew of outlandish threats on the sunken continent. The scripting for this long-time favorite is pure pulp, and all the better for it, and Doug McClure is again tapped to play the quintessentially Burroughsian leading man, but it’s Roger Dicken’s stable of memorable creatures, many of which look to be ripped right from the edges of old maps, that really steal the show.

As with the previous year’s At the Earth’s Core, versatile composer Mike Vickers was tasked with providing the score for Warlords of Atlantis, and much of the picture’s success is owed to his moody themes and exciting incidental cues – none of which, of course, have ever been released officially. As such the cut today is presented as it is in the film, with dialogue and sound effects intact. And in case you’re one of those without a clue as to what a Zog is, do yourself a favor and pick up the film. It’s terrific old-school action and adventure, and comes highly recommended from this fan.

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.

Hammer Definition: The Reptile

Before I begin, a huge thanks is owed to my readers, without whom this Blu-ray review of The Reptile would not currently be possible. It was your support of this site, through our Amazon affiliate links, that allowed for the purchase of the disc here reviewed, as well as The Plague of the Zombies, which is to be reviewed here shortly. Thank you!

The final in an unsuccessful four-film experiment by producer Anthony Nelson Keys to make Hammer Film Productions’ operations at Bray Studios more cost effective, John Gilling’s The Reptile was produced back-to-back with the same director’s The Plague of the Zombies and released in the Spring of 1966 on a double bill with Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk. A small-scale horror produced with modest resources, The Reptile was the only of Keys’ four experiments to come in both on time and under budget, but it proved a case of too little success too late. Hammer Films’ operations at Bray Studios wrapped in October of 1966 with the conclusion of production on The Mummy’s Shroud, coincidentally also a Gilling film (this time under producer Michael Carreras), and scarcely four years later Bray was sold outright.

Though in scope only a minor Hammer horror, noticeably constrained by the limits of both time time and budget (the title for the original concept, The Curse of the Reptiles, hints at greater things, if by plurality alone), The Reptile ultimately rises above its modest ambitions through a keen sense for atmospherics and a generous helping of weird. More than that, The Reptile stands as a quintessential example of English Gothic horror cinema, replete with suspicious locals, strange happenings on the moors, and deep family secrets, and anchored with a downright Jamesian perspective on the dangers of venturing where one doesn’t belong.

After the unexpected, unexplained death of his brother in a small Cornish village, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett, of Thunderbirds and Stingray fame) and his young wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniels, Kiss of the Vampire) take over his small cottage estate as their own, much to the consternation of superstitious locals. Suspicious as to the nature of his brother’s untimely demise Harry sets about investigating, and finds an unlikely co-investigator in friendly barkeep Tom (Michael Ripper, Hammer’s preeminent regular). It seems a regular spate of unusual deaths has the populace spooked, convinced that pestilence is afoot, but an examination of exhumed victims reveals things stranger still. The afflicted present with grotesquely swollen, blackened faces and, more bizarre, puncture wounds not at all unlike those inflicted by the King Cobra – a creature not exactly native to Cornwall.

Meanwhile the Spaldings become increasingly acquainted with Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman, ), a domineering theologian who keeps a stranglehold on his beautiful daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) with the help – or is it hindrance? – of a mysterious Malay servant (Marne Maitland). Dr. Franklyn, who spent his professional years investigating the obscure cults of Southeast Asia, keeps the temperatures within his sprawling isolated estate at tropical levels, perfect for the exotic plants that fill his greenhouse and fit, perhaps, for a reptile…

The Reptile certainly isn’t the first film to ponder the cinematic potential of people who moonlight as monstrous snakes (it’s a sub-genre especially well represented throughout Asia), but it may be the first to attach to them the principals of Gothic horror – and indeed, the transposition of such an alien thing upon Victorian English sensibilities is a deliciously odd one. More interesting still is the context for it all. Though far from loaded with subtext The Reptile‘s premise does offer a bit of intellectual bite by way of an oblique criticism of England’s colonial past. In his travels through Asia Dr. Franklyn trespasses where he isn’t wanted, presuming the sanctity of his own research in an invasive investigation of local rites, and finds himself cursed for so long as he lives by a feared and secretive snake cult. As repayment for his own assumptions of superiority he must now watch as his own beloved daughter is regularly transformed into a malignant inhuman beast, powerless all the while to control her murderous impulse.

For his part character player Noel Willman is superb in the role of the tormented yet dominating Dr. Franklyn, a man trying desperately, if ineffectually, to keep the family secret under wraps. It certainly helps that Willman’s character is the one most developed in the screenplay (courtesy of regular Hammer producer / writer Anthony Hinds), but the actor layers the part with genuine pathos, backing a cold and icy demeanor with a palpable sadness. Jacqueline Pearce’s Anna evokes a comparably conflicted nature, but underwriting keeps her from being truly memorable beyond her exotic looks (including those plastered so thoroughly on the film’s advertising, the intriguing if not entirely effectual creation of ace make-up artist Roy Ashton). Pearce had starred in Hammer’s previous production The Plague of the Zombies, but isn’t the only carry over here. Fifth-billed Michael Ripper takes a substantial second turn as well as the good-hearted barkeep, and seemingly the only friendly sort in town. Ripper remains one of Hammer’s most recognizable faces (and voices), and though never so prominent as mainstays Cushing and Lee he would go on to appear in more of the studio’s productions than either.

Hammer’s close-knit staff of artisans were masters of style in their time, and despite the limitations of its production The Reptile is a pre-eminent example of the same – no small feat given that director Gilling was veritably hounded to bring the film in as swiftly as possible. The set and production design of studio regulars Don Mingaye (They Came From Beyond Space) and Bernard Robinson (These Are the Damned) is stellar, dominated by sprawling Gothic interiors that belie the compactness of the production. Ace DP Arthur Grant (Quatermass and the Pit) treats Mingaye and Robinson’s work right, demonstrating again his keen understanding of the importance of shadow, while director Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends) does his best to elevate a shoestring production to something more. By my estimation he and his crew succeed admirably. The Reptile may not always work, but it’s rarely if ever a bore.

StudioCanal disappointed with the lackluster video presentation on Dracula: Prince of Darkness, a particularly embarrassing development given its status as a flagship Blu-ray from the most recognizable of Hammer franchises, but to their credit they appear anxious not to repeat the mistakes of that release here. Quatermass and the Pit still reigns as the superior HD Hammer presentation, but The Reptile certainly isn’t far behind.

Restored from a fresh 2K scan of the original negative (with the exception of the ratty opening title sequence), The Reptile looks absolutely marvelous in its new Blu-ray edition. The 1080p 1.66:1-framed transfer isn’t entirely spotless, and still kicks up the occasional speck or vertical scratch, but a substantial effort has obviously been undertaken (as the included restoration comparison attests) to ensure that it appears as good as is reasonably possible. The fine film grain isn’t quite so well rendered as on Quatermass, but it does appear demonstrably filmic and goes blessedly unperturbed by the kind of egregious digital manipulation that ruined Dracula: Prince of Darkness – in motion it looks damned good. Otherwise, contrast is at robust levels and the level of detail is impressive, with some of the close-ups looking mighty impressive. I really have no complaints, and can’t imagine The Reptile looking much better.

Technical specifications are similarly impressive. The Reptile receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 31.9 Mbps, with peaks reaching as high as 35.0 Mbps. The encode is stable and free of issues, thoroughly avoiding the issues of posterization and noticeable artifacts. Perhaps the best thing one can say about this sort of thing is that it’s transparent, and doesn’t obscure the strengths of a transfer. The Reptile‘s encode fits that bill, and I’ve no complaints. It’s more difficult to laud the audio presentation, though the issue rests soundly with the quality of the original mix and not with any error on the part of Hammer / StudioCanal. The Reptile simply sounds no better and no worse than other efforts of its place and time, and while the mix will rarely impress its 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic rendering here is authentic and trouble free, and remarkably clean to boot. A set of optional English SDH subtitles is included, and as with the rest I’ve no complaints.

Supplements are a bit lighter here than with Quatermass and the Pit or Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but no matter – any love at all for this modest film is appreciated. Newly produced is the short documentary The Serpent’s Tale (22 minutes, 1080i / 25fps HD), featuring interviews with writer / actor Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Wayne Kinsey, critic Jonathan Rigby, film music specialist Dr. David Huckvale, Pinewood restoration manager Jon Mann, and The Reptile‘s surviving art director Don Mingaye. Other feature-related content is limited to a nifty theatrical trailer (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that wisely avoids showing Pearce’s make-up and a brief restoration demonstration (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that reveals the not inconsiderable work that has been done to restore the film. Rounding out the package is the World of Hammer episode Wicked Women (25 minutes, PAL SD), which is perhaps most interesting in that it doesn’t discuss The Reptile at all!

The double play package includes both the Blu-ray disc reviewed here and a PAL format DVD that duplicates its contents for standard definition viewers. The package is region locked, region B for the Blu-ray disc and region 2 for the DVD – as such viewers outside of those respective territories will need multi-region capable hardware in order to view it.

I have to admit that when I first saw The Reptile many years ago it didn’t do much for me, but with time the film has definitely grown on me. Imperfect as it may be it’s rarely less than interesting, and at times it manages to be quite an arresting Gothic horror experience. Words cannot express how much it pleases me to say that there’s nothing at all wrong with Hammer / StudioCanal’s Blu-ray edition, which so thoroughly trounces the mediocre standard definition representations of the past that they don’t even bear mentioning. Even with the distraction of region locking (which can be circumvented easily enough these days) this gets an easy recommendation – fans of the Hammer horrors are heartily encouraged to indulge.

Order The Reptile on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

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

Order The Reptile on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

 

Music Monday – Don’t Give a Damn About Dinosaurs Edition

What can I say – I love John Scott’s score to Amicus’ minor 1977 Burroughs adaptation The People That Time Forgot. The sequel to the swell The Land That Time Forgot largely eschews the narrative of the eponymous Burroughs source story and filling in the spaces with some nonsense about a living volcano and an inordinate amount of explosive pyrotechnics. Provided expectations are checked it can be a whole heap of fun. John Scott’s score is of higher stuff than the film (best remembered these days for star Dana Gillespie’s gravity-defying prehistoric top) really deserves, and its moody themes have stuck with me since childhood.

I had a time deciding which track from the score to share here today, but ultimately settled on Court of Nagramata, a set of cues that concludes with the memorable March of the Nagas, a rousing number that was bouncing around my young mind for days after I first saw the film. The complete John Scott score to The People That Time Forgot is available on CD through the composer’s own JOS records, and can be purchased through Amazon.com or ScreenArchives.com.

Day of the Giants

by Lester del Rey
originally published in the December 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine as 
When the World Tottered, and reprinted  in hardcover by Avalon Books / Thomas Bouregy and Company in February 1959. Reviewed from the Airmont Publishing Company Inc. paperback, circa March 1964. 

It’s always a little dangerous to go about buying books based strictly upon the merits of their covers, but what self-respecting pulp fiction fan could possibly pass up this, with its promises of amorphous gargantuan city-stompers, fleets of flying saucers, and silhouetted acts of chivalry? I certainly couldn’t, even with my backbrain veritably screaming that it couldn’t all be true. It wasn’t, of course, though thankfully that isn’t enough keep Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants from delivering a fine afternoon-worth of escapism.

Albeit labelled “A Science-Fiction Classic” this is more a fantasy with sci-fi trappings than any kind of pure example of the genre, and the front blurb promising a “Final battle between the Norse gods and the Giants!” is infinitely more accurate than the cover art.

The tale begins with a world in turmoil, in which the sudden ushering in of a new ice age sees cities descending into anarchy and citizens battling one another for the remaining spoils. Superstitions run wild, and reports of angel sightings rule the news. In the midst of the inexplicable cataclysm and mystical weirdness Midwesterner Leif Svensen makes a bid for survival on his rural farm, even as his once-neighbors coalesce into a lynch mob hell-bent on killing his faithful pooch Rex, unjustly pinned for a spate of local wolf attacks, and possibly him as well. Complicating matters are Leif’s thrill-seeking war hero twin brother Lee, who claims to have once seen an angel himself, and the arrival of a grisled stranger of questionable origin.

Introduction are slight here, but no matter. As soon as readers are given a taste for the characters del Rey launches headlong into the action, pitting the four (dog included) in a losing battle against a malignant local horde that leaves countless nameless citizenry dead and both Leif and Lee gravely wounded. Fortunately for them divine providence is right around the corner. As the twins lay dying several Valkeries (the angels spotted earlier) descend from the sky on horesback to whisk them away from the mortal world of Midgard and across the rainbow Bifrost to Asgard – the world of the gods. There the brothers’ find their life renewed, though not without purpose. Loki (the grisled man, now revealed to be a god himself) leads the pair to a council with Odin, at which their destinies are secured. The catastrophe threatening Earth is no less than the foretold Fimbulwinter, precursor to Ragnarok, and Odin has called Leif and Lee to fight alongside him in Asgard’s final battle against the fearsome giants of Jotenheim!

Though low on artistic pretensions (del Rey was, after all, an author reported to once have said “Get out of my ghetto” in reaction to academic ingress into his beloved genre) Day of the Giants is sky-high on the escapism meter, and if nothing else offers one of the best wish-fulfillment scenarios I’ve heard to date. Though presenting with no especially heroic ambitions at the outset, humble Leif soon finds himself not only fighting for the future of the Universe (a fight he takes to zealously, concocting such modern arms as grenades, exploding arrows, bazookas and atomic bombs (!) for the gods’ fighting forces), but weeding out a plot of godly usurpation and courting the affections of the beautiful goddess Fulla as well. Even his skills as a farmer are put to grand use in Asgard, where he uses his know-how to revive the ailing tree that provides the gods their golden apples of power and immortality. Odin is so pleased with his progress that he makes the mortal a god (!!), changing his name from Svensen to Odinsson and allowing him to feast upon the golden apples, that he might cultivate his godly powers! Who could ask for more?

Being mercifully short, Day of the Giants maintains a high level of action while outright ignoring anything inessential to its single narrative thread. The downside to this is the underdevelopment of some aspects of the story, most notably that of the treacherous plot to overthrow Odin. That said, it’s difficult for me to fault del Rey for neglecting that sort of thing when he otherwise loads the tale with such terrific action setpieces as the recovery of the sword of Freyr from Jotunheim, Leif riding to battle on a bladed chariot lead by two massive armored goats, and Fulla using the flying horse Hoof-Tosser (Hófvarpnir, the closest we get to the flying saucers on the cover) to bomb the encroaching giant horde with atomic grenades. Those hoping for deep characterization and substantive discourse will be out of luck with Day of the Giants, but if it’s pure ridiculous mythology-fueled heroics you’re in the mind for then del Rey definitely has you covered.

And I think that’s as far as I’ll allow this review to go, lest I betray the good-fun intention of the thing and begin to take it too seriously – it just wouldn’t do to have del Rey rolling in his grave after he’s entertained me so greatly. Day of the Giants may be the literary equivalent of the cool, saccharine stuffs that see us through the haze of Summer (it’s 128 pages of shave ice, sundae, and root beer float with a heaping helping of Mjölnir on top), but as I see it that’s no insult. This makes for perfectly outlandish company on a toasty late-June afternoon, and comes well recommended.

Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants is available in multiple editions, though the cheapest and most readily accessible may be the 1964 paperback from which I read.

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.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

dir. Henry Levin
1959 / 20th Century Fox / 129′
written by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett
from the novel by Jules Verne
director of photography Leo Tover
original music by Bernard Herrmann
starring Pat BooneJames Mason, Arlene Dahl, Peter Ronson, Thayer David, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Alan Caillou, and Gertrude the Duck
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Journey to the Center of the Earth
 is out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel Voyage au Centre de la Terre has been adapted many times for screens both large and small, most often quite badly, but despite some considerable liberties taken with the source material this big-budget adaptation from 20th Century Fox remains the best of the bunch. The (very) big brother to Irwin Allen’s lamentable yet lovable sci-fi fiasco The Lost World, Fox’s 1959 production of Journey to the Center of the Earth fills the CinemaScope screen with vivid color spectacle and A-list talent while one of Bernard Herrmann’s best fantasy scores rumbles forth in 4-track stereo. It remains a damn fine show more than half a century on, bolstered by an intelligent, often playful screenplay (from Charles The Lost Weekend Brackett and Walter Gaslight Reisch) that still holds up – it’s no surprise the film made a small mint upon release, and continues to generate royalty checks for its then-young star Pat Boone.

Though substantially altered in its details the narrative here is familiar enough: When the recently-knighted Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, displaying the same charismatic misanthropy that would mark his performance in Kubrick’s Lolita) receives a celebratory paperweight – an unusually heavy chunk of igneous rock – from his star pupil Alec (Pat Boone, whose heart-throb appeal is plundered early and often), he suspects there’s more to the thing than meets the eye. A chance encounter with an overfed laboratory furnace reveals the suspicious rock’s secret – within lies a plumb-bob upon which is etched the last words of explorer Arne Saknussem, who therein claims to have reached the center of the Earth!

Thus is launched the Lindenbrook expedition, an effort by the Professor and his loyal underling (Boone is, amusingly, billed above Mason) to follow in Saknussem’s footsteps and reach the furthest recesses of the inner Earth. After joining forces with Madame Carla Göteborg (the lovely Arlene Dahl as the freshly widowed wife of a rival scientist), Icelandic strongman Hans (legitimate Icelander Peter Ronson), and his devoted duck Gertrude, the expedition makes its way down into an extinct volcanic crater and through the cavernous interior of the Earth, threatened all the while by hazardous geology, dinosaurs, and a devious heir to the Saknussem legacy who wishes to claim the center of the Earth as his own…

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a matinee-style programmer done in atypically grand style, and one of the few honestly BIG science fiction spectacles of its day (along with Forbidden Planet and the productions of George Pal). While some of the set design is suspect (director Henry Levin and director of photography Leo Tover keep those early cavern interiors dark with good reason) the overall scale of the thing, particularly when the ruins of Atlantis and the expansive mushroom forest make their appearances, and the caliber of the talent involved more than make up for it. Boone no doubt set his young idolaters’ hearts a-twitter, both with his early crooning and later clothing-impaired antics, but for me this has always been Mason’s show. The actor was arguably at the height of his potential here, with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest under his belt and Kubrick’s Lolita within sight, and had already proven his Verneian mettle as the quintessential Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just a few years earlier. Perhaps more important than Mason alone is the convincing tit-for-tat relationship that develops between him and his co-star Arlene Dahl (one of Minneapolis’ own, for those of you locals reading) – this drama has always worked for me, even as a kid who was accustomed to patiently waiting out the “boring parts” to get to the sensational trappings.

Of course Journey to the Center of the Earth has sensational trappings in spades, including such suspense staples as the ledge walk (soon to be appropriated by Irwin Allen, who evidently thought it the epitome of screen thrills), the giant rolling boulder, and the collapsing rock bridge – this was one of the earlier big-budget efforts to co-opt such B-grade cliffhanger devices, before Lucas and Star Wars made the practice an industry standard. The special effects production is top-notch throughout, with the matte artist(s) proving especially deserving of commendation (the early vistas of Icelandic mountains and later revelation of a vast underground sea are both breathtaking stuff), though, as ever, there is at least one point of contention. Like One Million B.C. and the Flash Gordon serials before it, Journey to the Center of the Earth relied on the deservedly criticized slurpasaur technique to bring its various dinosaurs to life. In this case its a gaggle of rhinoceros iguanas and one rather irate tegu pulling monster duty, though at least the former are cast as morphologically similar Dimetrodons – in the annals of slurpasaur history they are easily some of the most convincing. Fox obviously deemed the monster efforts of Emil Kosa Jr., James B. Gordon and L. B. Abbott to be “good enough” in this respect, as the trio were tasked with the process again just a year later, for Irwin Allen’s The Lost World.

Slurpasaurs or no, Journey to the Center of the Earth‘s tremendous entertainment potential remains (there’s a reason the ScreenArchives servers crashed the day this film went up for pre-order, and it wasn’t just the promise of Pat Boone’s autograph!), and with a host of wonderful performances, a taught script, and superb production design on its side it stands firmly as one of the best of its genre. This is a film that’s captivated me since before I can rightly remember, and is more than worthy of recommendation if for that reason alone. See it!

I’ve owned Journey to the Center of the Earth on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD over the years, and as such I’ve looked forward the title’s debut in high definition with the utmost anticipation. I was not disappointed.

If I’m not mistaken, Journey‘s negative was in too ragged a condition to be sourced for either DVD or Blu-ray, and as such the film had to be reconstituted from 35mm separations (essentially three individual black and white prints, each of which represents one color of the three-strip color process) for its more recent video transfers. Given the quality of the results, I’m glad 20th Century Fox went to all the trouble. It seems pertinent to get the worst out of the way first. Journey isn’t a spotless presentation by any means, and minor flecks and speckling are in evidence throughout. More bothersome is faint but notable vertical scratching to the right of frame center that persists for what appears to be an entire reel, from roughly 00:35:00 to 00:48:00 (see the first screenshot below, just above Alec’s shoulder). The anomaly is present in the 2003 Fox DVD of the film as well, but has become more noticeable with the increased resolution (it’s easy to miss unless hunted for on the DVD).

The issue of damage aside, it’s difficult to fault Journey‘s HD presentation for much of anything else – in 1080p this film can be quite stunning, and the improvement in-motion is substantial (gone forever is the modestly ghosty, video quality of the DVD). As I find myself saying so often of these older CinemaScope productions, detail doesn’t improve so much as the texture of the thing. This is another film that has thankfully been allowed to retain the physicality of that medium on Blu-ray, even if the grain isn’t so well rendered here as on The Egyptian or Picnic. Color reproduction is vivid and natural (this is perhaps the greatest benefit of working from separations), with robust saturation and sharp contrast that really puts past editions to shame. In purely technical terms this is another good showing for Twilight Time - Journey receives a typically strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. The feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and artifacting, if any, is negligible. Fans of the film should be very pleased.

Journey to the Center of the Earth receives a considerable bump in the audio department courtesy of a lovely lossless DTS-HD MA encode of the original 4-track stereo mix, and it should come as no surprise that Bernard Herrmann’s bass-heavy score, often muddled in past editions, sees the most benefit from it. The organs underlying the opening title theme are thunderous here, and as a former bass (and contrabass) clarinetist I was thrilled to finally be able to distinguish that instrument’s role in things as well. As is the norm for Twilight Time’s Fox-licensed titles, there are no subtitles available. Supplements offer Herrmann’s score as an isolated lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, as well as the original American and Spanish trailers for the film (both SD). Packaging is of the company’s typically high standards, spearheaded by another wonderful essay from Julie Kirgo, and the disc is, again, fully functional, with non-generic chapter stops, pop-up menu and so on.

What else can I say? I love this film, and Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray soundly bests what’s come before. This gets another easy recommendation from me.

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

Darna! Ang Pagbabalik

a.k.a. Darna: The Return
directed by
 Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes

1994 / Viva Films / 104
written by Floy Quintos, from characters by Mars Ravelo
cinematography by Marissa Floirendo
music by Archie Castillo
starring Anjanette Abayari, Edu Manzano, Cherie Gil, Pility Corrales, Rustom Padilla, Bong Alvarez, and Lester Llansang

If you want to know more about Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired yet supremely Filipino superheroine Darna and her different on-screen incarnations, head on over to my buddy and fellow agent of M.O.S.S. Todd of Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill, who has spent a lot more time watching and thinking about Darna movies than I have.

The home province of everyone’s favourite rural superheroine Darna (Anjanette Abayari) is flooded in a villain-caused (yet not exactly explained by the film) catastrophe. Worse, a large woman clad in green and wearing a turban accosts our heroine in her non-superheroic form as country girl Narda while she’s distracted by a snake and clobbers her from behind. The villainess then proceeds to steal the stone Narda needs to swallow to transform into Darna, leaving our heroine for dead and in the rather undignified position of having to be rescued from the rising flood by her Grandma and her little brother Ding (Lester Llansang).

Either the clobbering, the loss of the stone, or the trauma of the natural catastrophe leaves Nards rather addled in the brain, and she spends the following escape of her family to Manila – as well as her first days there – as a happy, mute, loon, though somewhat threatened by various unpleasant males who find her mental state all too inviting. Still, it’s like a super hero vacation.

Once arrived in Manila, the family takes shelter in the hovel of Pol (Rustom Padilla), who may or may not be a distant relative, but who in any case once left their country home for the big city.

 
 
 

After various adventures – among them a meeting with local gangster chief Magnum (Bong Alvarez) – a sort of plot develops. It turns out that Darna’s arch nemesis, the snake-haired Valentina (Pilita Corrales), is responsible for the loss of Darna’s stone. She needs it to keep herself from turning into an – probably ill smelling – heap of goo, it seems.

Apart from that Valentina has bigger plans too. Her – also snake-haired – daughter Valentine aka Dr. Aden (Cherie Gil) has founded a millennial cult playing on the fears of the poor parts of society, promising her followers that Manila will rise into the skies to save them all from the coming destruction of the Philippines by floods, if they just pray hard enough. Valentine’s crazy preacher TV programme (she has interpretative background dancers) puts the mind-whammy on Grandma, who soon spends all her time praying and furnishing Pol’s hovel with plants. Which is actually an improvement, but hey – evil!

Anyway, while he’s out and about sniffing around the cult’s lair (why? you got me there), Ding manages to steal Darna’s stone back, and soon enough, our heroine is fighting evil-doers again, getting into a romantic triangle with Pol and a cop named Max (Edu Manzano), and saving the Philippines from the snake family’s evil plans.

Well, say what you will against the at times plodding pace of this outing of the ever-popular Filipino heroine Darna, but it’s still packed full of stuff, some of it interesting, some puzzling, some just plain weird. My plot synopsis has left out various side plots, “comic” distractions and characters – like Ding’s female friend Pia (Jemanine Campanilla) – the movie decides to forget halfway through, but really, this is not the kind of film that’s interested in a finely crafted dramatic arc. The film’s structure is – like in most other films meant for a more rural Filipino audience I’ve seen – episodic and distractible, and often reminded me of the way 70s Bollywood tried and succeeded to be everything to every viewer. Despite the absence of musical numbers, Darna! Ang Pagbabaliktruly squeezes everything and the kitchen sink into its 100 minutes of running time: cute children, low-brow humour, superheroic throw-downs, romance, a bit of horror, some excellent South-East Asian weirdness like freaky snake person transformation effects and an exploding villainess, a bit of social melodrama, and even a bit of religion (not surprising in a Filipino movie, really).

 
 
 

This kind of approach does of course threaten a film’s coherence and always risks to annoy a given viewer by spending too much time on the elements she isn’t interested in. As a German viewer, I’m certainly not part of the film’s core audience, seeing as it is clearly produced with a Filipino audience of the early 90s in mind, playing with and against the anxieties – poverty, religious mania, natural catastrophes – of its time and place. If you look at a film like this as an outsider, you need to bring a bit of patience and a willingness to accept a slightly different view of the world than you’re used to; in this regard, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik is just like a Ramsay Brothers movie or the body of work of Sompote Sands, though certainly more good-natured than the works of the former, and far less painful than those of the latter.

Fortunately, the film – co-directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes – does have more than a few elements that make getting into it quite easy for somebody of my tastes, and, I suspect, the discerning tastes of the typical reader of this column. If there’s one thing that speaks a true international language, after all, then it’s scenes of a statuesque and likeable beauty in a skimpy yet curiously not sleazy outfit flying around punching evil-doers and monsters. Abayari may not be the greatest of actresses (especially when playing trauma clown Narda), but she’s likeable (you seldom see a US superhero grin this much, as if it were an actual joy being a hero, flying and saving people, instead of a pain in the ass), has the right physique for her role and manages to wear a skimpy costume with a degree of dignity that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But even when it isn’t clobbering time, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik has more than enough enjoyable, or at least interesting moments. Some of the scenes surrounding the snake women’s cult are actually somewhat disturbing in their portrayal of religious mania – those that aren’t pretty goofy, that is – and the whole plot line of Grandma turning into one of the cult members is not exactly realistically handled, but quite effective as a play on the fear of losing a lost one to malevolent influences without having the power to do anything about it.

These scenes are pretty dark for what is at its core a family movie, and would be quite unthinkable in a Hollywood family movie (just as the semi-realistic portrayal of poverty and desperation), which is, of course something I do approve of.

And even though Darna! (you gotta love that exclamation mark there) Ang Pagbabalik isn’t meant for me, it still made me glad to have watched it.


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.