Arena

directed by Peter Manoogian
1989 | Empire Pictures | 87′ 

In the future, an intergalactic, inter-species fighting championship is held in a shoddy looking space station. Since the contestants are kept on the same physical level (except for things like size and number of limbs which won’t ever be important in a fight, no sir) by magical scientific handicap beams, a level playing field should be guaranteed for all. In truth, the championship is in the hands of evil Rogor (Marc Alaimo for a change being the evil boss instead of the evil boss’s first henchman) who cheats, lies and sucks the sportsmanship out of the sports wherever he can. Under these circumstances it comes as no surprise Rogor’s rude fighter Horn (Michael Deak) is the Champion of the Universe right now, and there’s no chance for the only honest trainer in the universe, Quinn (Claudia Christian), to ever lead one of her fighter to the title.

That is, until a series of complicated circumstances including a punch-up in a Space McDonald’s, an illegal gambling den and the human’s four-armed buddy Shorty (Hamilton Camp doing his best Ernest Borgnine) turns Earthling Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield in the beginning stages of anime hair) into her main fighter. Steve is not just as pure-hearted as Quinn, but also, as it turns out, the fighter who will once and for all lay the space sports rumour to rest that humans can’t fight, even if he has to survive sex with and a poisoning attempt by Rogor’s (space, one supposes) girlfriend and (definitely) space singer Jade (Shari Shattuck), and other evil plans of Rogor and his assistant Weezil (Armin Shimerman) to get and win his title fight.

People who know me won’t be at all surprised to hear that one of the few movie genres that doesn’t do anything at all for me is the sports film. Turns out I don’t care who can throw the ball hardest or kick his opponent in the reproductive organs the most subtle, and find the whole ideological shtick of these films rather unpleasant. Hell, I usually don’t even enjoy tournament martial arts films, unless they feature a yogi with retractable arms.

But put the sports film onto a space station and make most of the fighters cute little alien freaks, and I get all excited. It seems as if the best method to convince me that the general silliness of sports movies is fun lies in transporting them into even more silly space opera SF surroundings. And who am I to complain about it, seeing as I get a very fun time out of it, at least in Arena‘s case?

 
 
 

One of the best features of Arena is how serious it takes its own silliness, with nary a moment going by where the film isn’t decisively not winking at its audience, even if winking would be the most natural thing to do given the circumstances. However, delivering the weird and the silly with a straight face is often the best technique to make it fun to a viewer instead of just annoying. One doesn’t, after all, go into a movie to witness how much the filmmakers look down on their own work (and implicitly the audience paying to see it). Here, the knowledge of the silliness of the film’s basics is taken as self-evident but not as a reason to half-ass anything.

In fact, half-assing is quite the opposite of Arena‘s way of going about things. Instead director Peter Manoogian (also responsible for the awe-inspiring Eliminators), working for Charles Band when Charles Band was still doing his best to be Roger Corman and not a puppeteer, scriptwriters Danny Bilson (also responsible for a few other fine bits of fun low budget movie writing before he became a videogame company suit) and Paul De Meo (Bilson’s long-time writing partner), and the usual Empire Pictures gang do one hell of a job of piling weird, interesting and often funny detail upon weird, interesting, and often funny detail. There might not have been much money going around, but what these guys had, they put visibly on screen in form of a surprising number of different aliens with actually different body types (no Star Trek “facial lumps” only aliens here), sets that may depend on the audience’s goodwill yet are also built with love and effort, haircut and make-up crimes that make for a distinctly 80s kind of future, and more sight-gags than anyone could notice in a single session with the film.

Arena is the sort of movie that goes so out of its way when it comes to creating its world (even if its is a very silly world), it even features two pretty alien musical numbers for its not-all-that-alien singer Jade where most films would have contented themselves with a mock swing number with synthies instead of horns. The film isn’t creating a believable future (not that it’s out to do that), but it sure builds a place out of cheap sets, concepts and ideas plundered from Hollywood films of the 30s to 50s, pulp SF, and energetic enthusiasm.

That the few fights the film contains aren’t all that great to watch (it seems Steve’s fighting prowess consists in his ability to actually move faster than a snail) isn’t much of a problem in this context, for who cares about the quality of the fights when everything that happens on screen is so fun to look at?


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.

Blu Notes: Virus – Day of Resurrection

This article deals predominantly with the new Kadokawa Blu-ray edition of Virus – Day of Resurrection (復活の日: Virus). Our rather old coverage of the film and the out of print BCI DVD can be found here. This Blu-ray is available now through Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
 9/28/2012
disc: All Region / dual layer BD50
video: 1080i / 1.90:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 33.2 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1
subtitles: SDH Japanese
supplements: announcements (2)theatrical trailers (2) 

Media mogul Haruki Kadokawa bet big when he, with an assist from Tokyo Broadcasting System, chose to produce an adaptation of Sakyo Komatsu’s epic 1964 sci-fi novel Day of Resurrection (復活の日) to the tune of ¥2.5 billion – at the time the most ever spent on a Japanese film. Featuring an all-star international cast including Masao Kusakari, Bo Svenson, Sonny Chiba, Glenn Ford, Olivia Hussey, Tsunehiko Watase, among many many others, the film’s production would encompass 200 days of location shoots outside Japan including a whopping 40 in Antarctica alone, and would drag on well beyond its intended release date of winter 1979 (the hastily devised big-budget hit Sengoku Jieitai / G.I. Samurai would take its place in theaters as Kadokawa’s big New Year’s offering). When it finally reached theaters in June of 1980, six months later than originally intended, Kadokawa’s Virus – Day of Resurrection (復活の日: Virus) proved a substantial hit with audiences, grossing a tremendous ¥2.4 billion, but still fell well short of covering its overwhelming production costs and massive ad campaign. Lukewarm interest abroad did nothing to help. Virus‘ abbreviated export version made it to theaters in only a few markets, and in the United States, where it might have made the most financial impact, the film was consigned directly to television and rental video.

It is through thirty years and more of video editions that interest in and appreciation for Virus – Day of Resurrection has been kindled and perpetuated, and whether through grey market copies of the cut export edition or more upstanding releases at the full 156 minutes, the film has always been in-print on video in some form or other. Still, the quality of many of these releases leaves something to be desired, and unfortunately the only legitimate domestic release of the uncut Japanese version (which appeared alongside Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment and Bullet Train in the ill-named Sonny Chiba Action Pack 3-DVD set) died with its parent company BCI. That set now commands high prices online, even though it retailed for $15 or less upon release.

For those who don’t mind dealing with a bit of a language barrier Kadokawa’s own Blu-ray edition, released just last month, is certainly a viable option for seeing the film as it was intended. The disc is a priced-down release from the company with a modest (by Japanese standards) retail pricetag of just ¥2,940, and at the time of this writing it can be had for considerably less – just ¥1,727 (around $22) from Amazon.co.jp. Those keen to import should know that the release, though all-region compatible (it played perfectly in both my Region A PS3 and secondary Region B Blu-ray deck), is not made to be English friendly. Japanese subtitles are hardcoded to the print for the frequent English and occasional German and Russian, and the only optional subtitles are SDH Japanese.

My old BCI DVD is effectively unplayable after all these years (ah, quality!), and as such I could only manage a couple of grabs from the earliest moments of the film. Still, they’re enough to show the substantial boost offered by the Blu-ray edition. DVD screenshots appear to the left, and are scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison. Blu-ray appear to the right. Frame matches are not exact, but are certainly in the ballpark.

 
 

There’s really not much of a comparison to be made between Kadokawa’s Blu-ray edition and the older SD master, which appeared on DVD both from BCI and in a “Deluxe Edition” Japanese package. Color, contrast, and detail all improve in the expected ways over the overly smooth, yellowish SD, and the windowboxed framing is blessedly done away with. Virus is here presented in 1080i at a ratio of 1.90:1, and while the presentation is imperfect I have few substantial complaints against it. Modest damage remains in the form of light specks and dirt, but at significantly lower levels than was evident on the DVD. Contrast doesn’t have so much black-level pop as some might hope, but appears natural for the most part. Colors are healthily saturated. No efforts appear to have been made to tone down the film texture, which is fine by me (opticals and reprinted library footage have a lovely grit), and while there is undoubtedly some noisiness to its rendering the overall impression, at least, is filmic. Some modest sharpening has been applied, but not to any distracting extent, and I can’t say that it detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the presentation. It’s not the most impressive transfer in the world by any means, and a better scan might have tightened the grain a bit and drawn out a touch more detail, but in motion this still looks damned good. I’ve no complaints with the technical treatment either. The 156 minute film is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and the video receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps.

An all-Japanese dub apparently exists for Virus – Day of Resurrection and has been used in television broadcasts of the film, but it is not presented here (much to the chagrin of at least one Amazon JP reviewer). What you do get are two flavors of the original multi-lingual recording, which is predominantly English and Japanese, with brief instances of German and Russian. The primary track remains true to the original recording and sounds quite robust in 16-bit LPCM 2.0. The 5.1 remix in Dolby TrueHD sounds even better, particularly with regards to the increased clarity and depth of Kentaro Haneda’s score, but also supplements the more modest original mix with new foley effects at times (most notably during the various action sequences). I didn’t find any of the alterations problematic within the context of the picture and they successfully heighten the impact of some key scenes (like the film’s second, nuclear, apocalypse), but those wishing to remain true to the theatrical intentions will want to stick with the 2.0 track. As already noted, Japanese subtitles are hardcoded to the transfer for the English/German/Russian dialogue, and a supplemental set of optional Japanese SDH subtitles are included as well. Supplements are limited to two special announcement trailers and two full theatrical trailers, all presented in SD, and like the rest of the Kadokawa Blu-rays I’ve seen the disc comes packaged in a glossy, opaque black Blu-ray case. The only paper extra is a listing of other available Kadokawa HD titles (those Yusaku Matsuda re-issues sure are tempting!).

Virus – Day of Resurrection isn’t a great film, but it’s flirtations with greatness keep it a compelling experience more than 30 years on. Director and co-writer Kinji Fukasaku’s mark is all over the tense Japanese sequences and the downright beautiful final act, and the elegant, furious montages detailing the world-ending disease’s spread are second to none. The rest is… passable, but there’s enough scenery chewing on the part of the recognizable American cast to at least keep their scenes entertaining – Bo Svenson and Henry Silva each look like they’re having a blast, and Chuck Connor’s half-assed British affectations are certainly something. I’ve no quarrel with Kadokawa’s Blu-ray, which despite its imperfections offers a very good presentation of the film, and certainly the best seen anywhere outside of its theatrical run. The price is as right as one’s ever likely to find for a Japanese release, and for those keen on the film this is an easy recommendation.

And as a side note, Sakyo Komatsu’s original novel – unseen on these shores since it was first published in 1964 – is due out in English from VIZ Media in December. Pre-order here.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in VLC Media Player with yadif handling the interlacing, and were compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magic command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Blu Notes: Giant Monster Gamera

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Giant Monster Gamera (大怪獣ガメラ / Daikaiju Gamera). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Giant Monster Gamera is available now, both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set, from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.28:1 / b&w
Mpeg-4 AVC / 37.5 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer (1080i HD)

What can I say – I love Gamera in all of his various incarnations, but thanks to their staple status in the television syndication packages of my youth my heart will forever belong to the original Showa-era films. I grew up thrilling to every moment as that most unlikely of heroes fought Barugon and Gyaos, Guiron and Zigra, and while it is those imaginative color spectacles that remain my favorites the humble, black-and-white Giant Monster Gamera is where it really all began. Produced on a B-budget by Daiei Co. in 1965, Giant Monster Gamera is beset by all the usual problems associated with first-of-their-kind productions (it was Daiei’s first true giant monster film) and quite a few others besides, but it’s an interesting effort despite its many limitations, and still a heap of fun provided you’re in the right frame of mind.

Given the absolute dearth of critical coverage (in Japanese or otherwise) of Kadokawa’s high definition releases of the classic Gamera films it was with some small reluctance that I invested (and investment is the word!) in the company’s pair of Showa-era Blu-ray boxes – two collectible packages that together comprise all 8 of the original Gamera films. I knew I was bound to be happy either way. Having lived through the days of Sandy Frank and Just 4 Kids’ ep VHS travesties I was excited at the very opportunity to own the original series in HD, but with an asking price of over $40 per film I couldn’t help but wonder just what I had gotten myself into.

It seems important to note that neither Giant Monster Gamera nor its co-features are English friendly in any but the most taunting of ways (the titles are listed on the packaging in both Japanese and English, and exclusively the latter on the disc art). Indeed, even hard-of-hearing Japanese audiences are out of luck here, as no subtitles have been included in any language. The feature audio is pure and simple 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic Japanese only.

Additionally, those expecting some order of supplemental heft will find Giant Monster Gamera and its Blu-ray cohorts sorely lacking in that department. All that’s included with these discs – and I mean all – are the original theatrical trailers for each film. Similarly the two boxed sets offer little of note beyond their significantly reduced per-film prices. The Showa Gamera Blu-ray Boxes (I and II) arrive with attractive outer boxes and include a protective plastic sleeve and obi. First pressings – which mine evidently are – also include a limited lenticular 3D cover art, but no additional paper extras.

Now, what of the film? Giant Monster Gamera premieres in HD digital at the appropriate (if oddball) theatrical ratio of 2.28:1 by way of a slightly windowboxed transfer in 1080i (the rest of the Gamera Blu-rays are interlaced as well). I suspect this to be the same HD master that was originally prepared by Kadokawa for the 11-film 13-disc megabucks Gamera Z-Plan DVD Box from 2006, and it is the same HD master sourced by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVD edition. Seen in its native resolution the HD master offers an appreciable improvement in clarity and detail over the latter (comparison below), though whether or not that’s worth the investment will be up to your individual preferences. Otherwise this is a rather modest show, with an overall aesthetic that reminds of some of Fox’s older black and white HD masters. Contrast is the real weakness here, but the dull original photography appears more to blame than Kadokawa – Giant Monster Gamera has always looked pretty flat, and too much of a bump to the black levels and contrast risks rendering some of its shots downright unintelligible. There’s a certain analogue noisiness to the grain that renders it both more noticeable and less refined than it perhaps should be, but in motion I was undeterred. Otherwise the image retains a reasonable level of detail throughout, and while I suspect some sharpening has been applied it was not of sufficient stuff to distract from my viewing.

Image comparison – DVD left, Blu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 

Though only single layer Kadokawa have not skimped on the technical front – Giant Monster Gamera‘s modest charms receive a robust Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a high average bitrate of 37.4 Mbps. The lossless LPCM audio complements the image nicely, and while personal tastes will vary I found this a pleasing-enough presentation overall.

The more I see Giant Monster Gamera the more I appreciate it. That it’s derivative of Toho’s own Godzilla is undeniable, from its concept right down to many of its narrative tropes, but there’s an offbeat quality to the film that attracts me more and more. There are those who will doubtless expect more for their money from Kadokawa’s Blu-ray (which appears to be all region compatible, and played fine in my region B secondary deck), but them’s the breaks – those who want to play the Japanese import game have to learn to live with top tier pricing, the virtues of value be damned. As for the disc, I wanted Gamera in HD and I got it. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not up to the standards the format is capable of, but it’ll do. Recommended for the HD-hungry Gamera devotees out there. As for the rest, enjoy the pretty pictures.

More Blu-ray shots. These were captured as full size uncompressed .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Giant Monster Gamera is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), Giant Monster Dogfight: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Blu Notes: The Quiet Earth (1985)

So you know how earlier this summer I remarked upon how disappointing Atlas Film’s German Blu-ray of Geoff Murphy’s kiwi sci-fi The Quiet Earth sounded, and how unlikely it was that I might pick it up? I lied. Three months, a property tax return check and one all-region compatible Blu-ray player later that very Blu-ray is here, cluttering up my to-review pile. Consequently, those looking for my opinions on the film will find them here. Now, on to the disc.

Atlas Film’s Blu-ray, marketed as a 25th Anniversary Edition (and with a slipcover to prove it), is a tough fit for North American customers right from the start. While the disc appears to be all-region coded (the packaging says B, but the web says otherwise) I couldn’t get it to register as anything more than a black screen with my PS3 – the contents just aren’t compatible with most American playback systems, and will require a player that can convert from the European 1080i/50hz standard to be viewed properly. Even with that limitation accounted for a more important question remains. Does the troubled presentation here even constitute an upgrade, especially with a strong (albeit out of print) DVD already kicking around domestically?

Others have speculated that the transfer of The Quiet Earth presented here was originally minted for television broadcast purposes, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any I could come up with. Whatever the case it certainly isn’t the same transfer from which Anchor Bay’s earlier DVD was mastered, and that isn’t really a good thing. The bottom line is that The Quiet Earth looks pretty rough here, having been sourced from a positive 35mm source of exceptional grittiness. Indeed, the texture here looks more like analog video noise than legitimate grain, and in darker moments it can be quite overpowering. The image is notably crisper than on the aforementioned DVD, but also lighter and frailer in appearance, artificially sharpened, and blessed with an abundance of physical imperfections (cue marks, dirt, specks, scratches and so on). More problematic still is the color, which is substantially flatter here than on the DVD by virtue of the inferior source materials. The iconic parting shot of Saturn rising on the horizon appears especially, and unforgivably, weak (just compare it to the final shot in our old review, which was taken from the DVD).

Technical specs are modest as well, though considering the limitations of the source transfer they serve their purpose just fine. The Quiet Earth resides on a single layer BD25 and receives a meager Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of just 17.6 Mbps. Ideally interlaced material is more forgiving of paltry bitrates, and that appears to be the case here – despite the unimpressive numbers there are no distracting encoding flaws to report. Audio arrives in four flavors, two English (5.1 and 2.0) and two German (crummy 5.1 upmix and 2.0), each presented in lossless DTS-HD MA. I didn’t linger on the German, but the English sounds just as good as it ever has, and perhaps a tad more robust with regards to John Charles’ score. The disc arrives with optional German subtitles, and despite the 25th Anniversary hubbub only duplicates the supplements of the Anchor Bay DVD – a commentary with producer Sam Pillsbury and a theatrical trailer.

Perhaps it’s memories of just how unimpressive The Quiet Earth has looked in the past (I’m still hanging on to my old CBS-FOX laserdisc) that keep me from loathing this presentation as much as I should, but even they aren’t enough to make me happy with it. Atlas Film’s Blu-ray is at best a passable way to view the film, and for those who already own the fine Anchor Bay DVD it leaves precious little to recommend. Skip it.

More Blu-ray screenshots

All 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.

Still want it? Find The Quiet Earth at Amazon.de

They Came From Beyond Space

directed by Freddie Francis
1967 | Amicus | 85′ 

A number of meteors crashes onto a field belonging to a farm in Cornwall. It’s the most curious thing though – usually, meteors don’t fly in a V-formation. The UK government thinks the phenomenon requires investigation and decides to send a group of scientists lead by an astronomer with special interest in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), to Cornwall.

There is a tiny problem, though: Temple’s love for vintage cars (slightly prefiguring the Third Doctor, like some of the film’s tone, if you ask me) has resulted in an accident some months ago that left the astronomer with a silver plate in his head, and – at least that’s the opinion of his doctor – still too sick to work away from home, even though he’ll act as fit as James Bond throughout the movie. We all know about the dangerous wilds of Cornwall, far away from civilization, after all.

So there’s nothing to it than to send Temple’s colleague and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) to lead the expedition and send all pertinent data up to Temple.

Alas, things at the crash site fastly become problematic. The meteorites contain alien consciousnesses that take over the scientists, break off all contact with the outside world and slowly begin to infiltrate a close-by village too (starting with the local banker, of course, as if that were necessary). Then, the aliens begin to requisition large amounts of building materials and weapons through government channels.

After a time without news, Temple, as well as someone in government, realizes that something’s not right at all (an attempt by the aliens to take the astronomer over too but fails thanks to that practical silver plate helps Temple’s thought processes there). Temple’s investigations in the village and around the crash site turn up curious developments: it’s not just that the scientists and the dozens of people they have taken on are obviously not themselves anymore, they have built an underground lair all the better to be able to shoot rockets to the moon. Fortunately, Temple is one of those two-fisted scientists from the 50s, and his astonishing abilities (yeah, I know, he must have survived World War II, but how many astronomers really were astonishing commandos and still were when they hit middle-age?) at fistfighting, shooting, and escaping from cells will be very helpful in thwarting the plans of the aliens and their leader – the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough). Not even a strange alien illness part of the aliens’ overcomplicated plan can touch Temple; I suspect the illness is afraid to be infected by Hutton’s well-known right-wing real life opinions about everything.

  
  
  

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a 50s alien invasion movie in 1967. This time around, much-kicked Hammer rivals Amicus are throwing their shoestring budget at that old stalwart of British cinema, the alien invasion movie with the American no-name actor in the lead role. One suspects Quatermass and the Pit might have had something to do with that decision, though They Came counters the complexity and intelligence of the Quatermass approach to SF with a tale of a properly dumb alien invasion with a badly delivered 60s peace and love twist at the end that wants me to believe that the two-fisted American scientist whose adventures we have witnessed up to the point is willing to shake hands with aliens who wanted to kill him or make him their slave because they say they now think better of it – twice. Let’s not even talk about these aliens’ idea of secrecy (or the idea of the film’s UK government about how a quarantine works; hint: generally, letting people come and go as they please isn’t a part of it).

This may sound as if I were rather dissatisfied with They Came, but nothing could be further from the truth. The alien invasion plot may be dumb, it is however dumb in the most delightful manner, easily convincing me that I may not live in a world where this sort of plan would sound logical, but I really rather would. Not only are the aliens’ plans and the film’s hero – who reminds me of a more conservative version of one of these non-professional Eurospy movie protagonists – a delightfully groovy age version of 50s traditions (a total improvement on the model, obviously), the way to thwart them is just as beautifully insane, seeing as it consists of knocking one’s possessed girlfriend out, kidnapping her, and using her as a test object while working on a (of course very silly looking) anti-alien-possession helmet, even sillier alien detection goggles and alien re-possession methods with a friendly scientist (Zia Mohyeddin) who just happens to live somewhere in the country close-by, owns many silver trophies and utilities to melt metal. In an especially pleasant development that helpful man is a Pakistani Englishman, not a joke, doesn’t have to die to prove how evil the bad guys are, and will turn out to be save-the-day-competent. Given his role, and how competent Lee is allowed to be once she’s not under alien control anymore, it’s pretty obvious this is a film that may love to indulge in silliness for silliness’ sake but that also has a clear idea of which parts of his 50s models just don’t cut it anymore in 1967.

When people – though too few of them do – talk about They Came‘s special effects, they unfailingly mention their quality to be comparable to contemporary Doctor Who (this was the time of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, if you’re not quite up on important historical dates). That’s an old chestnut when talking about British SF cinema, yet in this case it is indeed true. Consequently, the effects’ execution has more than just a whiff of cardboard and spit, but it also shares the other, more important part of the Doctor’s legacy, a decidedly British visual imagination that makes up for the unavoidable cheapness and threadbareness. My favourite set piece is the yellow and black striped elevator that sits right inside a typical British country home, exemplifying at once the loving absurdity and the Britishness (for wont of a better word) of the film’s production design. It’s the mix of the local and the strange that gets me every time.

What the Doctor generally didn’t have at the time (though the show did have some good ones) were directors quite like They Came‘s Freddie Francis. Francis, veteran that he was, was someone seemingly unable to not put real effort even into his cheapest and silliest films, and he works his magic here too, milking every possibility to turn the cheap yet creative sets and the landscape of the locations into a cheap pop art dream that feels saturated with colours even when the surroundings are rather brown more often than not, and that builds visual interest even from the smallest thing.

The movie’s pop art feel is even further strengthened by James Stevens’s score that belongs to the jazzy swinging kind you often find in Eurospy movies, though it has a peculiar habit to just fall into an unending series of drum rolls when Hutton punches people in the face.

The cheap pop art feel of, well, everything about They Came From Beyond Space is sign of a film made to treat the old-fashioned tropes of the 50s alien invasion movie with the sensibilities that produced the Eurospy movie. In a wonderful turn of event, Francis’s movie actually succeeds at that mission, for words like “groovy” and “awesome” come to my mind quite naturally when I think about 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.

Banned Japan: From Tsuburaya Productions With Love

Given the very nature of the sort of cinema I gravitate towards its an unavoidable fact that every now and again I stumble onto something that’s banned somewhere, but this may be the first time I’ve ever crossed paths with a banned episode of a television series. The now-infamous episode 12 of Tusburaya Productions’ excellent Ultra-sequel Ultra Seven ran afoul of the same cultural sensitivities that would land Toho’s Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999 in the hot seat just a few years hence, the result being that it has not been seen (officially) in its native Japan in decades. Those of us elsewhere have proven luckier. While Tsuburaya Productions have pulled the episode domestically and now (according to the interwebs) refuse to so much as acknowledge its existence, Yusei yori Ai o Komete (From Another Planet With Love) was marketed in foreign territories none-the-less. Those fond of Cinar’s mid-80s English adaptation of the series may remember it as the modestly spelling-challenged Crystalized (sic) Corpuscles.

The fuss in this case is all to do with Cristalized Corpuscles‘ requisite villains, a race of chortling backroom baddies from the nuke-ravaged planet Spellia who are out to fill their irradiated veins with delicious Earth blood (“This planet gives good blood!”). For a television show produced in a nation in which A-bomb survivor lobbyists are still counterbalanced against lingering stigma and discrimination the concept of bomb-happy galaxy-trotting vampires gleefully bleeding Earth-men dry is already treading on very thin ice. While likely more than enough on its own to incite an uproar among victims’ rights groups, Crystalized Corpuscles takes the issue one step further in its physical depiction of the Spell Aliens in their native form:

In retrospect it’s easy to see why the appearance of the Spell Alien – a gargantuan pallid figure with a sinister, expressionless face, covered in glowing keloid scars (lingered upon in close-up, no less) and raving about his desire for the blood of children – proved offensive. Even with my Western sensibilities firmly intact I find the presentation a bit tasteless, though it’s done nothing to lessen my innate personal revulsion to censorship, self-inflicted or otherwise. To that end I’m not entirely positive that the word “banned” is even appropriate to this case. Tsuburaya Productions have certainly pulled the episode from domestic circulation, but that appears to have been of their own volition – an effort made, no doubt, to avoid or mitigate a possible scandal. Crystalized Corpuscles was still made available to foreign markets, and well after the domestic moratorium went into effect. And moratorium be damned, even the original Japanese version is but a few clicks away anymore.

With words like “infamous” and “banned” weighing so heavily upon it, it’s easy to neglect the episode itself, which is second to none as an example of the heady ambition and audacious absurdity that mark the best of classic tokusatsu television. The premise is as ludicrous as they come, concerning a nefarious alien scheme to harvest the blood of women and children with wrist watches, but director Akio Jissoji (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis) delivers not just a rollicking pulp actioner, but an oddball satire of romantic cinematic convention as well! Even the compulsory episode-ending Ultra-fight is handled with unexpected artistry, the battle cast in rich sunset color and depicted in a bizarre freeze-frame style complete with audible shutter clicks. It’s as surprising a 24 minutes as has ever been produced for Japanese genre television, and with an intriguing cultural significance as well. One only wishes it were more officially available…

 

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.

Agon: Atomic Dragon

a.k.a. Maboroshi no Daikaiju Agon /
Giant Phantom Monster Agon
directed by
 Norio Mine & Fuminori Ohashi
1964 | Fuji TV | 24′ (4 episodes) 

Agon is a series consisting of four twenty-five minute episodes that make up two storylines that are distinctive enough in tone and substance to not treat the short series as a traditional four part mini series, but rather as an aborted attempt at a kaiju show.

In the series’ first half, atom bomb explosions awaken and mutate a prehistoric monster and hobby Godzilla impersonator soon to be dubbed Agon (that’s a Japanese English short form for “Atomic Dragon”). Agon has the munchies, so it soon attacks an important nuclear research facility that comes complete with its own nuclear reactor to get at all that tasty, tasty uranium. While its at it, Agon also causes a nuclear explosion, but thanks to this being the 60s, there are no repercussions to that at all.

Anyhoo, Professor of SCIENCE(!) Ukyo (Nobuhiko Shima), shaving-impaired cop Yamato (Asao Matsumoto), roving reporter Goro (Shinji Hirota) and professional professorial assistant Satsuki (Akemi Sawa) are taking on the case of the hungry kaiju. Well, actually, after an unsuccessful fight between Agon and library footage of the JDF, they just lure Agon back into the sea with more tasty morsels of uranium. The End.

Of course, Agon returns in the second storyline to walk into a plotline about two yakuza and a suitcase full of drugs that soon finds the still hungry monster walking around with a small fishing boat and a little boy in its mouth, while vaguely stomping on a small industrial town. Fortunately, our heroes contrive to poison Agon with the suitcase full of drugs, a fantastic plan that at least drives the monster back into the sea. The End again.

  
  

Agon surely is not one of the high points of kaiju film making, but at least the show has an interesting story behind it. I have to admit to certain doubts about that official story that explains why the Fuji TV series was only broadcast in 1968, four years after it was made. Officially, Toho complained that the film’s monster was resembling their very own Godzilla too closely, seemingly not knowing that the monster was designed by an apprentice of their very own Godzilla-creator Eiji Tsuburaya and the much superior first two episodes were written by the frequent Toho kaiju writer Shinichi Sekizawa. Supposedly, when Toho learned of that fact four years later, they suddenly had a change of heart and allowed Fuji TV to go ahead with the broadcasting.

I can’t say that story makes much sense to me, especially when we have the much easier explanation of the utter crapness of its last two episodes for Agon‘s absence from the screen. The Sekizawa episodes, both directed by Norio Mine (says Wikipedia), are actually pretty decent stuff as far as ultra-generic kaiju romps go. There’s nothing about it anyone hadn’t seen in the genre by 1968, but it’s decently enough paced, and rather cleverly written around the problems of a TV budget.

It also helps the series’ beginning’s case that Mine does some quite decent work, too, using clever editing and well-chosen camera angles to let the few extras he has look as much as panicking crowds as possible, and using shots of modernist buildings and models of modernist buildings to get the proper pop art city-smashing mood going even though he doesn’t actually have a city for his monster to smash. The slightly pop art-y mood is further enhanced by the strange sepia-toned black and white stock the series is shot on, which, I assume, is the best way to colour-code things when you can’t afford to actually colour-code your sets. Then there’s Wataru Saito’s strange little score that consists of some jazzy beats and a lot of weird synthesizer warbling that suggest a Japanese version of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and really help to pull the first two episodes into the realm of the cheap yet formally interesting.

  
  

The special effects themselves are all over the place; there are some very fine model shots, but there are also horrible moments like the one where a very bad Agon doll just stands in a pool of water standing in for the monster appearing out of the sea: The Agon suit itself does look good enough from a certain angle, but there’s a lack of detail in its face and an immobility about its whole head – especially the eyes – that’s never convincing, but is survivable as long as Mine shoots around it.

Unfortunately, Fuminori Ohashi, the director of the final two episodes does not keep up with these minor aesthetic achievements at all. The director instead opts for a bland point and shoot style that seems ready-made to show off all the worst sides of the series’ effects work, with Agon walking around with a boat model crammed into its mouth for about twenty minutes being one of the most embarrassing – though of course really pretty funny – things I’ve ever seen in a kaiju picture; and I’ve watched all of the original Gamera movies by now. For some reason, Saito’s music isn’t put to any decent use at all anymore, either, warbling around ineffectively and utterly divorced from what’s going on on screen. It’s difficult to watch these final two episodes and not think nobody involved in the production actually gave a damn about what they were doing.

Apart from Agon’s boating trip, the so crap it’s funny part of the later episodes also includes long shots of the monster standing around not moving a muscle (one suspects the suit actor was on holiday), and one of the more undignified methods of getting rid of a kaiju I’ve ever had the dubious luck to witness. Don’t do drugs, giant monsters, okay?

The rapid decrease in quality is a bit sad, really, for while the script of the show’s first storyline doesn’t have an original bone in its body, its execution speaks of enthusiasm and creativity behind the camera, and it’s not difficult to imagine the show the first two episodes promise to be a lot of fun to watch.


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.

Music Monday – Spacey Edition

Another week, another sample from the unreleased score for an old Amicus production. In this case it’s the main title to famed cinematographer and sometimes director Freddie Francis’ hip ’60s sci-fi They Came From Beyond Space, a film that has the unfortunate distinction of being considered public domain here in the states. The music itself is composed by James Stevens (Sparrows Can’t Sing) and conducted by regular Hammer music supervisor Philip Martell.

Not only is the groovy score to They Came From Beyond Space at present unavailable, but all the domestic copies of the film are crap as well. Those interested in a quality presentation of it (and really, you should be) should check out StudioCanal’s new proper widescreen PAL-format DVD, available now through 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.