Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Porcelain Man

Director: Sameer Kumar Madhar
Writer: Colin Bickley
Producer: Colin Bickley
Cast: Greg Hobbs, David Arnold, Scott Morton
Country: UK
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: screener


This film was sent to me several years ago and at the time I was unfortunately unable to review it because for some reason the disc wouldn’t play in my machine. This week, I came across the disc and thought what the heck, let’s see if my current DVD player will accept it. Lo and behold, it worked perfectly.

Sadly, it wasn’t worth the wait.

Let me just, before launching into the review proper, tell you about Stone Man. Stone Man was an Italian superhero thing touted around in the early 1980s which never, so far as I know, actually got made. But it had a super poster. And I remember someone in Starburst - possibly John Brosnan - bemoaning that it was a real shame the Italians didn’t put as much effort into their movies as they did into their advance publicity materials.

Well, a similar thing applies here. On receiving the disc, and indeed for several years after, right up until this week, I had assumed that The Porcelain Man was a low-budget but professional movie. It had a slickly designed DVD sleeve and quite the most professional-looking full-colour promo pack I had ever seen for a low-budget UK indie film.

But when I finally got to see the thing, it turned out to be a 94-minute home movie. Utterly amateur on every artistic and technical level and, as is so often the case with these things, woefully unaware of its own massive shortcomings, The Porcelain Man is self-indulgent, unwatchable rubbish. Which is a shame.

The creative force behind the film was writer/producer Colin Bickley who, according to the website and glossy press pack, first came up with the idea in 1993. Although it’s unlikely he came up with the whole idea because the opening scenes are a rather obvious rip-off of 28 Days Later. On the other hand, 28 Days Later was released in November 2002 and The Porcelain Man allegedly started shooting on 4th December 2002, so maybe it was just synchronicity. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Christ, they need everything they can get.

You will recall how 28 Days Later started with some animal rights activists trying to ‘liberate’ a bunch of infected chimpanzees from a lab staffed by the funny-faced bloke off The Friday Night Armistice. Well, The Porcelain Man also starts with a deadly virus escaping from a lab due to the activities of anti-vivisectionist idiots. Except that Colin Bickley and his chums don’t seem to have really grasped the idea of animal rights activists because the two young men who murder a security guard, break into a lab and murder the scientist they find there later discuss how they did it for the money. Look, either these are hired goons or they are tree-hugging psycho animal rights loons. They can’t be both and the latter do not employ the former.

Also - and frankly I’m surprised this would ever need pointing out to anyone - the labs that animal rights activists break into tend to have, you know, animals in them. And the activists tend to make off, where they can, with the animals.

This lab (filmed at Aston University) has no animals, there is no suggestion that it contains any animals and the balaclava-wearing hoodlums who break in don’t look for animals. Instead they demand “Where is it?” and are told “Here it is,” as a terrified lab assistant hands them a rack with a couple of unlabelled test tubes of blue liquid. So in what sense are these animal rights activists, except in the sense that you had just watched 28 Days Later and thought: ooh, that’s a good idea?

It sort of reminds me of all those dodgy Terminator rip-offs which used the term ‘cyborg’ without bothering to check what it meant. Arnie was a cyborg because he was a cybernetic organism, part machine and part living being. That was essential in order for him to travel back through time, wasn’t it? Part organism, part robot. A bit like the Six Million Dollar Man who originated, as we all know, in Martin Caidin’s novel... Cyborg.

But all those 1980s and 1990s dodgy B-movie makers just called any old killer robot a ‘cyborg’ without knowing why because that’s what The Terminator did. Similarly, these are animal rights activists because that’s what 28 Days Later did.

I mean, it wouldn’t have been hard. Borrow a pet rabbit or a couple of white mice from someone, film them in close-up from a few angles, maybe changing a sign on the cage to look like there’s a bunch of them, then film your lab scenes creatively and add animal atmos to the soundtrack in post. How hard can any of that be?

Sadly, after this prologue the rest of the film is not ripped off from 28 Days Later or any other film that I know, which is a shame as that may have given me a clue as to what is going on. It’s some sort of police procedural, and the virus spreads gradually through human contact, and an old guy who may be a scientist sleeps in the nude and keeps getting phone calls in the middle of the night, and all sorts of people get killed, and there’s a police inspector with the biggest (non-prosthetic) nose you’ve ever seen, and there’s the world’s least exciting car chase around a multi-storey car park, with both drivers rigidly observing the 5mph speed limit.

And the whole thing, while it claims to have cost £5,000, looks like the film-makers may have got £4,990 change back. Because this really is the cheapest, tattiest, most ludicrously over-ambitious piece of amateur rubbish I’ve seen for a while. It makes no concessions to its minuscule budget and inexperienced cast and crew but just blithely charges ahead, somehow convinced that it’s going to end up as a watchable film. Which was never, ever going to happen. Because a watchable film can only start out with a decent script.

Like far too many ultra-low budget British action films, there is absolutely zero characterisation. I couldn’t tell you what any of these characters are called, what they do, who they are, how they relate to any of the other characters, what their motivations are, where they come from, nothing at all could I tell you about them. And it’s clear that the film-makers couldn’t either. All we know is that they all like to spout clichés and run around pretending to shoot at things.

Oh, and there are zombies in this film.

You might think I’ve left it a bit late in the review to blithely mention the existence of the living dead. But that’s because the zombies themselves barely feature. They’re in maybe two scenes and they’re discussed in a couple of other scenes (using the Z-word) but otherwise you could easily miss them. It’s absolutely extraordinary. Why would you film a zombie movie and almost entirely neglect to feature or mention zombies? This is just the most half-arsed, half-hearted, pointless zombie film I have seen in a very long time because There Are Almost No Zombies In It.

It’s possible that one reason the zombies are so limited in their screen time is because they are really, really crap zombies. You know, the world isn’t short of aspiring make-up effects artists who know how to do a zombie and are willing to pitch in on a project so they can get a feature credit on IMDB. And while there were fewer such people in 2002, they were certainly out there.

But these zombies just look like they’ve had a bottle of ketchup poured over them, which makes the often ludicrously purple dialogue even more risible as characters are repulsed by these ‘rotting corpses’ and then amazed when they somehow ‘come back to life.’ “He was dead. I saw him. He was dead,” emphasises one character whose name (like all the rest) I don’t know. But what he saw was what we saw: someone who appears to have had a drunken accident with a ketchup bottle shortly before collapsing into a coma.

“Have you ever seen anything like that?” asks another (or possibly the same) character in another scene, staring in horror at his hand which has a small violet blotch on it. Actually yes, I have seen something like that. I remember it distinctly because it was the last time that my pen leaked. This disconnect between dialogue and image reaches its apotheosis with a character explaining how his hands are now covered in whatever this is, except that he’s explaining over the phone so we can actually see one of his hands and it’s as clean as a whistle.

Although that’s not the only disconnect between soundtrack and image. Director Sameer Kumar Madhar was brought on board the project shortly before principal photography via Shooting People, after a number of other directors had apparently stepped up and then backed off from the project. He has a - shall we say? - distinctive style.

Basically, what Madhar does is constantly cut between two different scenes one of which is silent leaving a continuous soundtrack of dialogue from the other. Which might have worked sparingly but is employed almost continually here. And it might have worked in instances when the two scenes take place simultaneously within the narrative, but Madhar likes to do this with scenes that take place consecutively within the narrative. Often featuring the same character. This adds enormously to the incoherence of the plot, although I’m sure it would be equally incomprehensible if it had been directed by somebody who wasn’t convinced that film direction needs a new paradigm and a crappy micro-budget horror/action picture shot in Nuneaton is the place to start.

There are no credits for production designer or costume designer which is fair enough because clearly nobody bothered to design the production or costumes. Despite several of the characters being police officers, none of that alleged £5,000 was spent on hiring a couple of police uniforms for a day from the local fancy dress shop to tog up a couple of extras and actually give the impression of police work. It’s very obvious that all the actors are simply wearing their own clothes (or not, in the case of the old sleeps-in-a-smile geezer).

The mostly amateur cast includes nobody you’ve ever heard of and neither Bickley nor Kumar Madhar seem to have ever done anything else. Originally running 117 minutes, the running time was cut to 94 minutes by hacking out a lot of exposition at the start. “What was originally a 20 minute investigative segment (lots of mobile phones, edgy 24-style camerawork and creepy 'trust no-one' X-Files-type glances between leads), containing five chronological scenes now exists as one five minute sequence of cross-cut scenes that effectively explain the whole plot in one short swoop” reckons the press pack. Well, apart from the fact that the phrase is ‘fell swoop’, you dingdong, I can also certify that whatever this five-minute sequence might be, it only explains the plot to people who already know it.

The Porcelain Man (I’m still not sure what the title means) had a single cast and crew screening in July 2004 at Warwick Arts Centre and then was sold on DVD via the website (without certificate), presumably also to the cast and crew. There were a couple of reviews (from people who could evidently get their screener disc to play) before the movie and all associated with it lapsed back into justifiable obscurity. I can’t see a special edition of this one being released any time soon, sorry.

MJS rating: D
review originally posted 26th August 2011

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus

Director: ‘Ace Hannah’
Writer: ‘Ace Hannah’
Producer: David Michael Latt
Cast: Deborah Gibson, Lorenzo Lamas, Vic Chao
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: UK DVD

website: www.theasylum.cc

Shark your love! Just can’t shark your love!

I would like to commence this review by giving props to former teen chanteuse Debbie Gibson who is surprisingly good in this film. The list of pop stars who have acted in SF/fantasy films is a long and largely inglorious one and Gibson’s acting career has not exactly been a string of hits. Wedding Band?Body/Antibody? Celeste in the City? Anyone heard of any of these?

Ironically, Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus, despite being the cheesiest, dumbest movie the woman has acted in to date (something I feel confident in saying, despite never having seen any of her other films) it is undoubtedly her highest profile screen work. And the fact that she acquits herself well, bringing far more to her role than the script or the production values could ever justify, should lead on to bigger and better things.

Although, in the short term, all it seems to have lead to is The Asylum deciding that their next aquatic giant monster movie, Mega-Piranha, should star Tiffany. Good grief.

Gibson (who acts under the name Deborah but is prominently credited as Debbie on the UK sleeve) plays marine biologist Emma MacNeil. Even in her late thirties, she’s peppy and preppy but that’s all right because marine biologists are hot. Everyone knows this. Brinke Stevens has a degree in marine biology. I rest my case.

It is a well-known fact that all hot women with a professional interest in science are either astronomers or marine biologists. A mascara overdose aside, Gibson is credible in the role. Except when she’s piloting a mini-submarine.

MacNeil and her colleague Vince (Asylum regular Jonathan Nation: War of the Worlds 2, Death Racers, 2012: Doomsday, Dragonquest) are scooting around off the coast of Alaska in this mini-sub watching humpback whales, in fact steering right through the middle of a pod, which seems awfully dangerous. The whales are CGI but verisimilitude is added (or subtracted) by stock shots of seals and hammerhead sharks (despite the fact that all nine species of hammerhead live in tropical waters).

High above flies a small helicopter whose solo pilot (David Meador) releases some sort of experimental sonar device into the water. The problem with this sequence is that it looks like the sub and chopper are in radio contact as there seems to be no-one else around. But actually the chopper is speaking to some ship or base elsewhere and neither vehicle is aware of the other’s presence.

The sonar device spooks the humpbacks and causes chunks of glacier to break off into the sea, freeing two enormous, indistinct shapes, one of which is roughly shark-like and the other approximately octopoid. MacNeil catches a glimpse as she tries to steer the sub away from danger but dismisses the sight as her imagination.

MacNeil is sacked - for ‘borrowing’ the sub - by whatever institution employs her, but not before she is called to examine a forced perspective lump of stuff which is presumably a whale carcass although it is not actually named as such. She is convinced that the injuries on this beast are natural - bite-marks - but is over-ruled. When nobody is looking she removes a two-foot-long, jagged, off-white, razor-edged slab of something from the carcass.

Unemployed, she moves in with one of her old professors, an Irish ex-Navy-guy named Lamar Sanders (Dublin-born Sean Lawlor, who was Captain Nemo in the Asylum’s Verne homage 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was also in Space Truckers and Titanic). Together, they conduct all sorts of scientific tests on the mysterious shard. Of course, any real marine biologist would spend their time measuring every piece of the thing and searching scientific journals for something comparable. But in this movie’s version of ‘science’, everything involves combining aqueous liquids in conical flasks.

Seriously, that’s all they do. In this and other science scenes. Conical flask with liquid A. Pour or drip in liquid B and watch liquid A either change colour or stay the same. Because that’s what scientists do, right?

After a considerable amount of this, MacNeil and Sanders eventually conclude that the two-foot-long, jagged, off-white, razor-edged slab removed from a giant bite-wound is... a tooth! Seriously. There’s the whole conical flask montage thing and it all builds up to the two of them saying, in amazement: “It’s a tooth!”

No shit, Sherlock.

What sort of marine biologist can’t identify a shark’s tooth, even at umpteen times normal size? Although, to be fair, this particular prop has been created by someone who has obviously never seen a shark’s tooth. Which is understandable really, because they’re so rare. It’s not like you can pick them up for a few cents from any beachfront gift shop...

Meanwhile, we get to enjoy a couple of scenes of the newly unfrozen mega-shark and giant octopus wreaking havoc on the high seas. The cephalopod attacks a Japanese-owned oil platform, which the caption identifies as belonging to the ‘Kobayshi’ corporation - although they probably meant to type the much more common Japanese name ‘Kobayashi’. A single, Australian survivor of this disaster (Michael Teh, who played Keanu Reeves in a film called Little Klaus Big World) is questioned in Japan while the official story released to the press is that there were no survivors and the cause of the disaster is unknown.

A giant octopus attacking an oil rig is all well and good, but the film’s most notorious moment is the giant shark’s astounding first appearance, leaping out of the water to grab an airliner in flight. This is a scene of utterly astounding magnificence, glimpsed briefly at the very end of the trailer but much more effective here where we have 30 seconds or so of build-up. Outside shots of the plane; interior shots of the stewardess asking people to put their seats up; some bad turbulence (because of course, any attack by a sea monster can only take place during a storm, even at 15,000 feet).

Then that great POV shot from inside the plane as a single passenger in exactly the right (or wrong) seat looks out and just has time to say “Holy shit!”

It would have been easy to milk this scene but its brevity is its success. Plane is flying, man looks out of window, shark bites plane. Remember that ludicrous bit in Orca - Killer Whale where the titular beast actually destroys a house? It’s like the guys at The Asylum have watched Orca recently and gone, “Pfft - that’s nothing. We can come up with something that will really knock their socks off.”

So superb is the shark-vs-airliner scene that it has swiftly passed into the general zeitgeist, to the extent that I found a diagram on a genuine marine biology website calculating exactly how deep and fast the shark would need to go in order to be able to launch itself high enough to grab the plane.

In setting out to investigate mysterious maritime goings-on, MacNeil and Sanders are joined by Japanese scientist Seiji Shimada, with whom Lamar has been in contact by e-mail although they have never met. Shimada flies over to the States: it’s never clear where these folk are but it looks like California and, the prologue notwithstanding, it sure as heck isn’t Alaska. Actually, that’s rather ironic because this film has more captions identifying locations than any other movie I’ve ever seen. Every three to four minutes, it seems, a bunch of words appears on screen to tell us where we are, even though we can usually tell from the ensuing scene what sort of place it is and no-one ever mentions any location by name.

Anyway, back to Shimada-san. He is played by Chicago-born Vic Chao who definitely looks more Asian-American than Japanese - and isn’t ‘Chao’ a Chinese name? Nevertheless, against all expectations, Shimada turns out to be the romantic lead, falling in love with and even getting down and dirty (not shown!) with MacNeil. Credit must be given to this little film for breaking down stereotypes like this and highlighting the prejudices and assumptions that still exist within society. Come on, when was the last time you saw a film where the principal romance was between a white girl and an Asian guy? And we’re not talking arthouse here, we’re talking Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus. Nor are we talking about a rebellious white girl because, for all the character’s sub-stealing recklessness and a couple of intervening decades, this is Debbie freaking Gibson, a women who spent her teenage years as the squeaky-cleanest, all-American teen imaginable and who never, as far as I know, turned bad-girl. This isn’t Britney, this is the blonde one who wasn’t Tiffany.

And Chao? He was an engineering graduate before he took up acting. One of his early roles was inside the mascot of the Chicago Bulls basketball team and he was also a contestant on American Gladiators. He has played a mix of Chinese, Japanese and American characters on big and small screen including two recurring roles in 24. He was in Mask of the Ninja, Organizm and Miss Congeniality 2.

When the trio are kidnapped by Government agents, we finally meet the fourth of our leads: second-billed king of the pony-tails Lorenzo Lamas. He plays Allan Baxter, a no-nonsense, straight-talking ‘equal opportunity racist’ (which really means he makes one passing comment about “limeys and spics”) who is in charge of some non-specific US government force, which has full access to all military and naval resources. It’s Baxter’s job to deal with the unleashed sea monsters and he has forcibly recruited MacNeil, Sanders and Shimada to help him.

Lamas, of course, is a legend with a career that combines sappy daytime soaps (Falcon Crest, The Bold and the Beautiful) with cheesily awesome action series (Renegade, The Immortal). Film roles include Gladiator Cop, CIA Code Name: Alexa, Terminal Justice, Dark Waters, Raptor Island, Sci-Fighters, Succubus: Hell Bent and the previously mentioned 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Clearly, Lamas is the man.

The first thing they do is realise that the wave of attacks are the work of two giant beasts, not one. They work this out by looking at a map of attacks: the North Pacific is dotted with scores of points but there are also three or four off Newfoundland. So there must be two monsters because it can’t be in the Atlantic and the Pacific at the same time. Although of course anything that could swim through the Northwest Passage could easily swim back again. And indeed so it presumably does because their plan to deal with the titanic twosome involves cornering one in San Francisco Bay and the other in Tokyo Bay.

They also don’t give any consideration to the possibility that there might be more than two of these things.

Then a package arrives from MacNeil’s old pal Vince which is plainly a DVD although Sanders refers to it as a 'videotape'. This is footage from a camera onboard the mini-sub from the prologue and clearly shows what MacNeil thought she saw: a giant octopus and a, well, mega-shark. Incidentally, the shark is identified early on as a prehistoric Megalodon, despite the fact that it is clearly more than twice the size of such a beast. There is also an unfunny and inconsistent recurring joke about MacNeil referring to a ‘giant squid’ with Sanders and Shimada correcting her: “Octopus!”

Anyway, the plan that our team devise is to lure the giant octopus into Tokyo Bay - because giant monsters must always attack Tokyo. It’s a tradition or an old charter or something. And the mega shark will be lured into San Francisco Bay. Once bay-bound, each beast will be destroyed by ... something. I’m really not sure how this is going to work. If you want to have a pitched battle with a super-massive predator, wouldn’t it be better to do that away from busy shipping lanes and major population centres?

And how will they lure the things there? After more malarkey with coloured liquids in conical flasks, our team of scientists come up with the idea of pheromones. Well, sharks are renowned for their incredible sense of smell - and octopuses have pretty good smell-sense too. No, the problem here is: how could anyone possibly know what the pheromones of these creatures smell like? Remember: these are species unknown to science, there’s only one of each and no-one has got close enough to study it without being eaten. Even if we were to just take a best guess (Megalodon’s closest living relative is the Great White - although some experts argue that it is actually the Mako) we don’t even know if these monsters are male or female.

Well, as plans go, this is only partially successful. Yes, they are able to lure the monsters into the respective bays, but whatever the second part of the plan was, it fails. The shark takes a massive bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge, while the octopus trashes Tokyo, although the latter carnage is only reported to us via a video-link with Shimada who has gone back to his home country to co-ordinate things there.

Plan A failed. Then MacNeil comes up with Plan B: “The thriller in Manila! We’ll get them to fight each other!” After all, they were locked in mortal combat when they were frozen in the ice millions of years ago. So they obviously don’t like each other. And this is a film with ‘versus’ in the title, after all.

Let’s just consider that title, because it is one of the greatest ever. It tells you exactly what you’re going to get. It is just clunky enough to not be slick but not so clunky that it doesn’t roll off the tongue. It is instantly memorable. It positions this film in the subgenre of great clashes: Freddy vs Jason, Alien vs Predator, King Kong vs Godzilla (all the way back to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). And what is really cool is that this is not a sequel or a spin-off. It’s just: there’s this giant octopus, right, and this mega-shark, right, and they’re going to have a fight, right.

Genius. Genius, I tell ya.

So anyway, vast squadrons of CGI submarines are called into play, both American and Japanese. Lots of them, all sailing along below the surface within a few metres of each other. Unbelievably dangerous.

Except, in an elementary mistake, these very obviously aren’t American or Japanese subs. They’re British. What’s the difference? It’s the fins, the horizontal planes used to assist diving and surfacing. American subs - and Japanese ones - have them on the conning tower. British subs - and CGI ones, evidently - have them on the bow.

I’m really disappointed. Bang goes my suspension of disbelief. I can accept a 40-metre Megalodon. I can accept an octopus that’s larger than an oil rig. I can accept both aquatic behemoths surviving, frozen in ice, for millions of years. I can accept the preparation of megalodon pheromones in a conical flask. I can accept Debbie Gibson as a marine biologist.

But if you ask me to accept a US Navy submarine with diving planes on the bow, I will just say no. There is a line to be drawn and I’m drawing it here.

Anyway, the subs use the pheromones to draw the monsters together. MacNeil and Sanders are in one of the US Navy subs (during Plan A they were in the mini-sub which apparently she has been allowed to use again) and Shimada is in one of the Japanese subs. The submarine sets incidentally, are okay: bunch of dials and things on the walls, periscope in the middle, red light over everything. But they are less successful in the scenes where basically the same sets are passed off as the bridge of a surface vessel. Bridges tend to be pretty well lit - windows on three sides usually - rather than encased in metal and illuminated with a red bulb.

The climax, though exciting I suppose, isn’t really very interesting. Let’s face it - once we’ve seen the shark attack an aeroplane and a major US landmark, everything else will be a disappointment. Shimada’s sub looks like it has been sunk - but no, he’s okay! And the two monsters tumble down into the deep, locked in mortal combat, although I’m fairly certain we don’t see either of them actually die. Which of course opens up the possibility of a sequel.

The Asylum aren’t averse to sequels/prequels. They have made two War of the Worlds movies, two Transmorphers movies and two Omen-esque movies. And Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus has easily been their highest profile picture to date. As soon as the trailer was released, it became an internet meme. I don’t know how many people have seen the film, but a lot more people are aware of it than, say, Alien vs Hunter or King of the Lost World.

But if they do a second film, how will they up the ante? Are they going to add a third monster? Because that’s what people will want. Just like, after Freddy vs Jason, the fans were clamouring for Freddy vs Jason vs Ash or Freddy vs Jason vs Chucky. So what can The Asylum do? Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus vs... what? The supercroc from Supercroc maybe? Or the monster from their Cloverfield rip-off Monster? Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus meets the Wolf Man?

Wait! I’ve got it!

What’s big, aquatic, dangerous, world-famous but conveniently devoid of copyright?

Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus ... vs Nessie!

Oh yes. Get me The Asylum on the phone now. Because that’s a film they need to make and I’m the guy to write the script for them.

Meanwhile, what else can be said about Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus? Well, writer-director Jack Perez, who uses the pseudonym ‘Ace Hannah’ here, previously directed the Asylum’s Omen knock-off 666: The Child, when he preferred to call himself ‘Jake Johnson’. But he’s fooling no-one. He also helmed Canadian TV movie Monster Island and Andy Hurst-scripted sequel Wild Things 2. I found an online interview with him and he seems a pretty cool guy.

Among the large cast, most of whose characters have no names, are Mark Hengst (Live Evil), Stephen Blackehart (Retro Puppet Master, Cannibal Dead, Tromeo and Juliet), John Bolen (the 2005 silent Call of Cthulhu), Russ Kingston (Day of the Dead 2: Contagium), Cooper Harris (A Rogue in Londinium, Meteor Apocalypse) and Matt Lagan (various anime voices). Many of these actors have previous form with The Asylum, having appeared in the likes of 100 Million BC, The Terminators, Death Racers, 2012: Doomsday, 666: The Beast, Princess of Mars and, erm, Sunday School Musical.

Cinematographer Alexander Yellen is also an Asylum veteran with Universal Soldiers, I am Omega, 100 Million BC and Street Racer under his belt. Composer Chris Ridenhour likewise has worked for the company, scoring Transmorphers, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Merlin and the War of Dragons, The Terminators and Dragonquest. Funkily named editor Marq Morrison on the other hand is an Asylum virgin, most of his previous credits being DVD extras for things like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and Charlie Chan box sets. Make-up designer Megan Nicoll has the usual Asylum credits but has also worked on two zombie films I had not previously heard of: My Wife is a Zombie and ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction.

The DVD includes a trailer, a couple of minutes of bloopers and an eight-minute Making Of which includes interviews with the four leads and DP Yellen although director ‘Ace Hannah’ is conspicuous by his absence. Behind-the-scenes footage shows that the film was just called Mega Shark on the slate but I suspect that’s not so much an alternative working title as simply a clapper loader who couldn’t be bothered to write the whole thing out.

Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus works brilliantly. Everything that’s right about it is perfect but, even more importantly, everything that’s wrong about it is just wrong enough to be, well, perfect. It knows just how daft the premise is but it never milks that. The actors play it commendably straight and that makes the film all the more entertaining. The effects are not over-used and fit the overall tone.

You would have to be a right miserable sod to not enjoy this. It’s fab.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 31st January 2010

Mega Python vs Gatoroid

Director: Mary Lambert
Writer: Naomi L Selfman
Producer: David Michael Latt
Cast: Debbie Gibson - hubba!, Tiffany - wowser!, Mrs Landingham off The West Wing - ooh yeah!
Country: USA
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Metrodome)
Website: www.theasylum.cc

I miss Bill Hicks. Who doesn’t? Inarguably one of the greatest comedians of all time, one of the most astute political commentators, one of the sharpest satirists, one of the most uncompromisingly honest performers ever. Taken from us far too soon by, if I recall correctly, pancreatic cancer.

I saw Hicks twice. Once in Nottingham and a year or so later in Stoke-on-Trent. On that second occasion, I actually got to interview him. I was at uni, there were plans for a student magazine, it never came to anything but while it was a possibility I used it as an excuse to contact the promoter and arrange a pre-show interview with hot US comedian Bill Hicks. The student mag didn’t appear but I later sold the interview to a short-lived comedy mag called Squib (co-edited by Douglas Adams’ Footlights comedy-writing partner).

Let me just clarify this because it’s something deeply cool of which I’m actually quite proud. I met Bill Hicks. I didn’t just meet him, I spent about 30-40 minutes alone in his company asking him questions about himself, his life and his work, I recorded all the answers and he autographed a cassette for me. (Shows how long ago this was: Hicks’ first comedy album was only released on cassette. Wow.)

Hicks was a fascinating man. He was warm and open and honest and really not tremendously different from his stage persona. Bill Hicks on stage was Bill Hicks. By this stage, just a year or so before his sudden passing, he was talking in his act about how he had given up smoking - but he had puffed on one while we were talking.

Oh, I do miss Bill Hicks. So much unfulfilled promise. Don’t you ever wonder what he would have made of the Iraq War. He would have absolutely skewered that sucker.

So what has all this got to do with Mega Python vs Gatoroid? Well, this film seems like an homage to Bill Hicks. Remember that bit about the “two little peach fishes”?: “Oh Debbie,” “Oh Tiffany. “Oh honey, why have we never tried this before?” Well, here they are Bill, here they are. Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, rolling around together at last. They fight, they throw food at each other, they end up in the water. I am certain (and not because I paused the disc) that at one point Debbie Gibson forcefully and deliberately pushes a handful of whipped cream into Tiffany’s cleavage. It may quite possibly be the single most erotic thing I have ever seen.

‘Deborah’ Gibson of course resurfaced from years of relative obscurity in 2009 in The Asylum’s genre-defining monster face-off Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus. The following year, always ones to trade on a successful formula, The Asylum made Mega-Piranha - starring that other teen songstress of the late 1980s Tiffany. It was obvious what would happen next. I wanted it, you wanted it, the ghost of Bill Hicks wanted it. As sure as Freddy would eventually meet Jason, as sure as the Alien would one day square up against the Predator, it was obvious that these two cult icons would meet on screen.

Sure, the film may be called Mega Python vs Gatoroid but its raison d’etre, its high concept, is not the meeting of a giant alligator and a giant snake, it’s Tiffany and Debbie having a cat-fight at a party and ending up in a lake. That’s what we’ve paid to see and what the film quite happily delivers in a way that only The Asylum would have the balls, the chutzpah, to do. Roger Corman wouldn’t have bothered, that’s for sure. Still, just like the man famously said about Freddy vs Jason when the umpteenth script of that failed to get made: “What do they do for the other 85 minutes?”

In a stock footage Everglades, Tiffany (39) is Terry O’Hara, some sort of wildlife ranger, and Gibson (40) is Dr Nikki Riley, some sort of animal activist. With her two acolytes (Arden Cho and Carl Ciarfalio), Riley is in the habit of stealing people’s pet snakes and releasing them into the wild, despite the effect this has on the local ecosystem. Just a week or so before I watched this, someone in Florida caught a 15-foot Burmese python. They are decimating the local wildlife. Not that the film is bothered about that.

Ranger Terry is bothered about the local wildlife, or at least trying to preserve a dwindling gator population, and she withholds hunting permits from a load of redneck yahoos who are this close to having the words ‘gator bait’ tattooed on their foreheads. The problem starts when the local snakes start growing to extraordinary size. Not Mega Snake size (not yet) but certainly King Cobra size. Various people get killed by the snakes including Terry’s fiancé Justin (Carey Van Dyke, also in The Asylum’s Titanic II and A Haunting in Salem) so she decides that the only way to deal with these big snakes is to create even bigger gators. To this end, she illegally acquires some steroids, puts them inside shop-bought, oven-ready chickens and feeds them to the alligators.

Over the next six months, not only do the gators grow into leviathan, oddly-muscled monsters but the steroids get into the snakes when they devour gator eggs. And before you know it, there’s evidence everywhere of giant monsters, although apparently no-one has yet spotted the actual giant monsters themselves. A Martinez is Dr Diego Ortiz, a supposedly Native American(!) herpetologist called in to assess the situation, which predictably kicks off on the night that O’Hara is organising a fund-raising soirée for her wildlife charity, or something. This is where we get the Tiff-vs-Debs food fight. (Soap actor Martinez was in The Asylum’s The Terminators, the 1991 version of Not of This World and millions of TV episodes including Mission: Impossible and The Incredible Hulk.)

By the next morning, the two ladies, Dr Ortiz and elderly ranger Angie (Kathryn Joosten: The West Wing’s Mrs Landingham, also in episodes of Buffy and Charmed plus a Hellraiser sequel) are driving through assorted city blocks that are supposed to be Miami but obviously aren’t. They eventually solve the problem by, I think, luring the animals with pheromones and blowing up some eggs. Actually, I have no idea how they solve the problem and neither did the film-makers. Some stuff happens and then it’s the end.

This is one of those films where the journey is more important than the destination and the journey is surprisingly fun. Scriptwriter Naomi Selfman, whose other Asylum gigs include 2012 Doomsday, Grimm’s Snow White and non-Debbie sequel Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus, has great fun showing how silly this is. “We’re feeding steroids to alligators. Nothing stupid about that,” says Tiffany as she thrusts a bottle of pills inside a chicken. There’s even a bit where Tiffany says “I think we’re alone now - there doesn’t seem to be anyone around”! (There may well be a Debbie Gibson lyric reference in here too but at no point does Dr Riley offer to shake someone’s love and I don’t know any of her other songs.)

The story is bollocks, of course. The CGI critter effects are embarrassingly poor, of course. The whole thing was made for about a dollar fifty and looks it. And the title doesn’t even make sense because it implies a single monstro-a-monstro face off à la Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus but actually there are dozens of both things. But none of this matters when there are two former teen idols MILFs having a food fight.

Also in the surprisingly good cast are Kevin M Horton as the other ranger, Sarah Belger (Titanic II, Claws and Fred Olen Ray’s Super Shark), Jay Beyers (an Asylum regular who was in Dragonquest, The Terminators, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, Transmorphers 2, Princess of Mars, Mega Piranha and 2010: Moby Dick plus, bizarrely a feature-length Harry Potter spoof), Harmony Blossom (Titanic II, Mega Shark 2 and, hmm, Super Shark - is Corman stealing The Asylum’s casts?), the wonderfully named Clint Brink as a waiter, Timothy E Goodwin (Bubba Hotep), Kaiwi Lyman (Mega Shark 2, Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove), Chris Neville (Komodo vs Cobra), Robert R Shafer (Mega Shark 2, Psycho Cop 2 and, yet again, poached by Corman for Super Shark), Vanessa Claire Stewart (who was in a Ron Ford movie!) and Kristen Wilson (all three latter-day Dr Dolittle movies and the pilot of TV series Shark - which disappointingly turns out to be about a lawyer). Plus Mickey Dolenz as himself in one of the great comedy cameos of our time.

Cinematographer Troy Smith worked as a Steadicam operator in the 1990s before making the move to DP with canine sequel Shiloh 2. But the biggest surprise is the director. Yes, it’s that Mary Lambert, the one who made Pet Sematary (and Urban Legends 3 and Halloweentown 2).

I enjoyed Mega Python vs Gatoroid, for all the wrong reasons, but The Asylum have my money so I doubt they care. Actually, no they don’t: I bought this in a charity shop. Well, they have someone’s money. Although rated 15, I was able to watch this with an enthusiastic eight-year-old: there’s no swearing, no drugs and, sadly, no nudity. I imagine the rating is for the handful of very fake-looking prosthetic heads that the gators and snakes cough up.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 25th August 2012

The Mechanical Man

Director: Andre Deed
Writer: Andre Deed
Cast: Andre Deed, Valentina Frascaroli, Mathilde Lambert
Country: Italy
Year of release: 1921
Reviewed from: R0 DVD (Alpha)


This has to be one of the most amazing films that I have ever seen and I am mystified as to why it is not better known. And by ‘better known’ I mean: I had never, ever heard of this. How could this be?

There are some silent sci-fi/horror films that everyone has seen, such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis. There are others that people might or might nor have seen, such as Der Golem, The Student of Prague or the John Barrymore Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And there are plenty which are ultra-obscure, of which I have on occasions been privileged to see a copy, such as You’ll Find Out, the 1914 A Christmas Carol and Ultus, Man from the Dead. And of course there are scores which no-one has seen because they are lost forever.

But how could a silent film this extraordinary, this groundbreaking, this cool have escaped my attention so completely that, when I spotted it in Alpha Video’s catalogue, my initial thought was that it must be a modern pastiche of a silent film. There was no way that there could be a 1921 Italian film about a giant robot because if there was - well, I would have read about it somewhere.

But no, bambinos, it does exist. Well, about a third of it does.

This fragmentary version runs 26 minutes at a sensible projection speed, being 740 meters of a film which originally measured 1,821 metres. As such, it would make precious little sense, even with translated intertitles, if Alpha had not thoughtfully added an opening precis derived from contemporary reviews.

The villain of the piece is Mado (Valentina Frascaroli), a female criminal mastermind who escapes from prison by injecting herself with a drug that causes her to appear critically ill. She is transferred to a hospital where she causes a fire and escapes during the confusion, dressed as a nurse.

In the missing footage that preceded this, Mado and her gang had apparently killed an inventor who had designed (but not built, presumably) a huge, remote-controlled robot. The detective who arrested Mado, Ramberto (Fernando Vivas-May) sets out to track her down again but also has to search for the inventor’s kidnapped niece, Elena D’Ara (Mathilde Lambert). Also searching for Elena is our romantic lead, ‘Modestino, called Salterello’ (writer/director Andre Deed) who refers to her father, Professor D’Ara (Gabriel Morceau) as his uncle and is therefore presumably the son of the murdered inventor, as well as Elena’s sweetheart. (‘Salterello’ is a type of dance, derived from the Italian ‘saltare’ meaning to jump or leap.)

Deed was a little chap, not much over five feet and looking and acting a little like Marty Feldman but without the protruding eyes. He does a lot of Keaton-esque, athletic/comic falls and jump (hence the character’s nickname) and it’s clear that his role is played for comedy, which sits oddly in the film where little else seems to be intended to be funny. That might mean however that this was originally intended as a comedy; after all, many of the best film comedians, from Bob Hope to George Formby, were hilarious precisely because everyone and everything around them was played relatively straight.

Anyway, Elena is recovered with the help of a gypsy woman (I think) but is in a trance-like state, from which she recovers at the sight of Salterello’s ‘hilarious’ clowning. However, it seems that while kidnapped and hypnotised, Elena gave Mado the instructions of how to build a giant robot, ‘The Monster’ goes on the rampage, smashing its way into houses and stealing valuables. In one scene we see Salterello hide in a wardrobe which the robot picks up above its head and carry to the edge of a high balcony; he slips out and escapes just before the wardrobe is smashed to pieces.

When Salterello and friends escape in a car, the robot gives chase, which is quite impressive given that until now it has lumbered along at a very slow walking pace. The chase is brilliantly executed using clever editing and double exposure to show the mechanical monster running along at 30 mph or so, plus some shots which were evidently achieved by attaching the top half of the robot costume to a frame on the back of the car. Then the robot suddenly stops dead as Mado’s control panel, back in her secret hideout, suffers a short circuit. Mado and her gang later collect the robot and ship it back for repairs.

The film’s climax comes at a masked ball in the opera house where Elena is the guest of honour. Someone turns up dressed as the robot which has terrorised the city and everyone thinks it jolly amusing as the costumed giant waves and breaks the tops off champagne bottles. But Elena’s companions are worried - what if that really is the mechanical man, being controlled to act in a friendly, amusing manner in order to lull them into a false sense of security? And so it proves to be.

Fortunately, Professor D’Ara has built his own version of the robot and sends this to the opera house where the two mechanical monstrosities tangle in a fiercesome battle, though truth be told they manage to do little except hold onto each other and shuffle round in a circle, making the exciting confrontation look more like the last dance at the giant robots disco.

At the very same time, Salterello (dressed as Napoleon, by the looks of it) rushes out, steals a police motorbike and heads off for Mado’s hideout, the location of which he has somehow divined. He is followed at high speed by Roberto (in drag!) in a car, who has proof that Salterello is innocent of something that he was arrested for (possibly the original kidnapping of Elena) - although our hero of course thinks that he is about to be re-arrested. In Mado’s hideout, Salterello causes another short circuit and this one backfires through the control panel and kills the evil genius. Mado is one of those supervillains, found in various 1920s and 1930s sci-fi adventures, who never removes her mask. Even in the first scenes we saw, when she was in prison, she still had her mask on. Now Roberto and the cops unmask her and find that the notorious Mado is actually... ah, that would be telling.

Meanwhile, in the opera house, the short circuit in Mado’s robot causes it to explode, bringing chunks of masonry crashing down to destroy both machines. In an epilogue, we see Salterello bidding goodbye to his cousin and uncle before flying off in a large biplane.

What an amazing film! Though chopped about, the quality of the Alpha footage, located in an archive in Sao Paolo, Brazil apparently and released on DVD in 2005, is pretty damn good. There is some terrific tinting, including a neat scene of Mado in prison which is blue but turns yellow when she strikes a match. The new intertitles (English translation by Liz Corra) are tastefully and artistically presented and two shots of a newspaper and a handwritten letter have been replaced with unpretentious, new, computer-generated shots with the headlines and script in English. So full marks for presentation, Alpha, and credit to Rachel Gutches for an effective score which incorporates some crude electronic sounds when the robot appears.

And what a robot! While it is not quite the 20-foot colossus depicted on the DVD sleeve, it is a good eight or nine feet tall and appears even taller next to the diminutive Deed. Designed to look as if it is made of plate steel, held together with industrial rivets, the costume nevertheless allows the uncredited actor a degree of movement in both arms and legs. The robots has glowing headlights for its eyes and acetylene torches in its hands which allow it to steal a safe in one scene and burn a hole through a locked metal door in another.

There surely can be no precedent for such a huge, mechanical monster - and when it starts carrying Elena in its arms, just before the climactic confrontation, it looks like every iconic 1950s robot, alien or monster. There are a couple of very brief shots of the robot right at the start of this fragment, which are taken from later in the story, and for a while, as I watched a tale about detectives and dinner parties, I wondered if that was all we were going to see - but no, we do get lots of robot footage and even some great (but ultimately disappointing) robot-vs-robot footage.

Almost nothing has been written about this film it seems. I have nothing in my magazine archives and all that I can find on the web, apart from sites listing the Alpha DVD, is a PDF document (now removed), in both English and Italian, about an Italian version, L’Uomo Meccanico (which is listed as 30 minutes so is presumably the same fragment, though with a different score). This lists one additional actor, Giulia Costa, who plays Countess Donadieff. The article points out that Karel Capek’s play RUR, which introduced the word ‘robot’ was written in 1920 and first performed in Prague in 1921, and that this film was passed by the Italian censor on 1st November 1921 but not released until 25th October 1922. Intriguingly, it seems that a ‘ballo meccanico futurista’ was held in Rome in June 1922 featuring a very similar robot costume to the ones in this film. The silent screen’s most famous robot, Maria, did not appear until 1927.

This surviving print was shown on the big screen at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival as part of a robot retrospective which also included screenings of Westworld, Demon Seed, Deadly Friend and the three Avengers cybernauts episodes! Apart from the cast and Deed, the only other credit is cinematographer Alberto Chentrens whose other work includes a 1922 Italian version of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea.

Andre Deed is described on the back of the DVD as a protege of Georges Méliès, with whom he worked on films such as Dislocation Mysterieuse, a 1901 two-minuter in which Deed’s limbs detach themselves from his body. In 1904 Pathé poached Deed from Méliès in order to learn the secrets behind the director’s special effects.

Deed was born Andre Chapuis in 1884 and worked as a music hall entertainer before making his screen debut. From 1908 until the mid-1920s he starred in a series of knockabout comedies as the tastefully named Cretinetti, who was renamed Boireau in his native France, Turibio in Portugal, Toribio Sanchez in Argentina and Foolshead in the USA. Some of these also featured Valentina Frascaroli who was married to Deed. The Inaccurate Movie Database lists 111 films for him although some of these may be duplicates as it gives Boireau and Cretinetti titles as separate pictures. Some of these had fantasy elements including one film in which Cretinetti dies but causes so much comic havoc in Heaven that God throws him out! Deed also starred in La Panna degli Aeromobili, a 1915 science fiction film about flying cars.

Nevertheless it’s clear, even from the limited availability of English language resources, that Deed was for a few years a huge star in France and Italy (he was lured from Pathé to a studio in Turin in 1909, returned to France in 1911, then moved back to Italy again); I have also seen it stated that he was the first actual ‘movie star’ ie. a personality identified by, and popular with, the movie-going public. His anarchic, surreal, effects-heavy early work was certainly popular with James Joyce who screened his films at Ireland’s first cinema, which opened in 1909.

Andre Deed died in obscurity in 1938 but his work has recently been rediscovered by film historians and there has even been a book about him (in Italian, sadly).

Though missing a lot of footage and displaying little lasting comedy, The Mechanical Man is a must-see for anyone who loves early science fiction movies. Alpha’s disc pairs the film with The Headless Horseman, a 1922 version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow starring Will Rogers.

MJS rating: A
review originally published 31st October 2005

Masterpiece

Director: Andrew C Tanner
Writers: Andrew C Tanner, Rhys Hills
Producer: Andrew C Tanner
Cast: Mark Paul Wake, Sarah-Louise Tyler, Boyd Clack
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener

There’s really not a lot to say about Masterpiece, the second feature from Andrew Tanner. It’s very, very good. But my God, it’s depressing.

That’s about your lot, really.

Mark Paul Wake delivers an absolutely extraordinary performance as Martin, an aspiring writer whose obsession to write his epic novel threatens to destroy him. Martin is a thoroughly unsympathetic character - a self-obsessed, self-centred, deluded monomaniac with a callous disregard for the concerns and feelings of those around him.

Not that he exactly has a big social life. Just his tolerant, long-suffering girlfriend Kate (Sarah-Louise Tyler: High Stakes) whose tolerance, like anyone’s, has a limit. And Rod (Boyd Clack, from Welsh sitcoms High Hopes and Satellite City) - beardy, sincere tutor on Martin’s creative writing course who wrote a couple of books himself once in the day.

There’s no real plot to describe here, just a slow, inexorable descent into madness and pain, a self-destructive downward spiral fuelled by anger, booze and misplaced belief that the world is waiting for this one random, rambling work. We’re not told anything about the content of Martin’s novel, we just see him writing it endlessly, day-after-day, in longhand on lined paper. Page upon page upon page, stacked up inches deep. Page after page after page, taped to the walls of Martin’s study from where he refuses to emerge. He is literally living inside his book, literally wrapped up in his work.

Eventually things come to a head when Martin encounters a stranger in a pub (gamely played by co-writer Rhys Hills with undisguisable glee), an almost spiritual figure, a johnny-come-lately Mephistopheles whose advice will resolve Martin’s situation one way or the other. Does this bleak, angst-ridden tragedy have a happy ending or fade to black? Either could be narratively satisfying. I’m giving nothing away.

Much of the music used throughout the film is Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and they fit the pace and structure perfectly. The whole film feels like a gymnopedie, an endless repetition with subtle variation that travels without ever going anywhere, the gentlest of musical or dramatic gradients which continues down forever.

The central performance is magnificent; Martin is a gift for an actor and Wake has embraced the role fully. This is the sort of acting that wins awards - and indeed, the day after I drafted this review, Wake picked up Best Actor at the British Independent Film Festival! The rest of the cast are flawless too, especially Tyler who pulls off some disturbingly emotional scenes. Kudos also to cinematographer Robbie Bryant (camera assistant on The Feral Generation, Burke and Hare, Cockneys vs Zombies and Captain America: The First Avenger!) whose photography is spot-on, complemented by Tanner’s own razor-sharp editing.

If there’s a mis-step in the film (hey, nothing’s perfect) it’s the sequence where Martin is fired from his part-time job as a hotel cleaner. Despite his antisocial attitude, obsessive nature and arrogant belief that he is better than the other minimum wage monkeys, the actual trigger for his dismissal is an honest mistake. A moment of genuine concern and an uncharacteristic attempt to do the right thing backfires.

There’s no doubt that his well-meaning boss uses this as an excuse to let Martin go, but there’s no real acknowledgement of the utterly cruel irony in this situation. Apart from that though, it’s hard to fault Masterpiece (which is just as well, given the presumptive title!). The whole thing is a step up from Tanner’s promising debut Psychosomatic, both technically and artistically. Neil Jones executive produced the film for Burn Hand Films which is becoming quite the movie factory nowadays.

The cast includes Ieuan Rhys (who was a traffic cop in Darklands and spent 13 years in Welsh soap Pobol Y Cwm), Gareth King (also in Burn Hand Films’ The Reverend and Risen), and Madeleine Havell who, along with Sarah-Louise Tyler, was in a previously unknown 2008 horror anthology called Dreaming of Screaming. Art director Felix Coles also worked on Jack Falls, Panic Button, Kill Keith and for You-Know-Who on Eldorado.

Though there is a little violence, Masterpiece is by no means a horror film. I would hesitate to even call it a thriller, it’s really a pitch-black psychodrama, intense and strangely compelling despite its 104-minute running time.

And that short review really is your lot. Masterpiece: brilliant film, bloody depressing.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 10th May 2011

Mars Men

Director: Chen Hun-Ming
Writer: Jack Lin
Producer: Tsi See-Shung
Cast: Wen Chang-Lung, Yeh Hsiao-I, Fang Mien
Year of release: 1974
Country: Thailand/Japan
Reviewed from: Italian VHS (Torino Video - and that spaceship is not in the movie!)


Here’s what I can discern from this, with the aid of Damon Foster’s indispensable and sorely missed Oriental Cinema magazine and the also-now-defunct Ultraman 2000 fansite. Gli Uomini di Marte is the Italian dub (and apparently, to some extent, re-edit) of a Thai/Japanese co-production called Yak Wat Jang wu Jumborg A in Thailand and Janborg A tai Giant in Japan.

This is the feature film spin-off from a 1973 TV series, Jumborg Ace/Janborg A, which was a Thai attempt to make a show like Ultraman, using the effects expertise of the Tsuburaya Company, who of course made Ultraman in the first place. Eiji Tsuburaya’s Thai protege was called Somport Sangdaunchay or Sompot Saengduenchai. Jumborg Ace (‘jumborg’ = ‘jumbo cyborg’!) looks very like Ultraman, but can produce a sword from a slot in his chest. He is created from a light aircraft piloted by someone who, well, isn’t actually shown in this movie, using a magic stone set in a wristwatch. Intriguingly, the Italian dubbed dialogue refers to the giant robot as ‘il gigante roboto Americano’...

So here is my attempt to make sense of an nth generation copy of an Italian dubbed video of a bad print of a Japanese/Thai film. We open on some kids playing baseball near an ancient Thai temple; one little kid (called Lin) goes looking for the ball, finds a hidden cave, and unearths a small statue, about a foot high. This is a typical Thai demon - scary face, pointy hat, long frock coat, etc. - called Yak Wat Jang (first seen in the bizarre fantasy Tah Tien).

Meanwhile, Lin’s father is watching TV when the broadcast is interrupted by a Martian spaceship announcing that it is planning to conquer the universe - starting presumably with Earth. Lin runs in and shows his dad the statue, which the old chap identifies as being 3,000 years old (according to my rudimentary knowledge of Italian, self-taught from horror movie titles!).

A young lady (Lin’s sister?) comes home and finds both the old guy and the kid on the floor. They are rushed to hospital where it is discovered that their skin has turned to metal (I think!). Neither is ever seen again, so presumably they’re actually dead! The young lady is Nipha, wife of Dr Suriya - both are members of a super-high-tech Earth defence force called the Protective Attack Team (PAT) and race to their secret base in an old temple, where they wear gold space-suits.

Although there are a bunch of Martians on the flying saucer which is menacing Earth, the only two we see do anything are the leader, who has a mane of golden hair and is (I believe) called Jump Killer in the original, and his pointy, more cowardly lieutenant named Antigone. The two ‘beam down’ to Earth, where they turn out to be giants, and destroy some buildings. It must be said, the miniatures aren’t bad and the effects shots of the flying saucer passing over cities are nicely matted.

In the cave where Lin found the statue, Antigoné finds a magical stone, the solar eclipse diamond, seen by Dr Suriya and Nipha. (The Ultraman 2000 site said that this happens at the start of the movie, which leads me to think the Italians re-edited the film; also some sources give the length as 100 minutes, when this version is a bit under 90 minutes.)

The Martians use the diamond to set up a giant heat-beam weapon on the Moon, with which they blast cities on Earth. Who can defeat them? Well, il gigante roboto Americano (Jumborg Ace to his friends) for one - who is introduced with no explanation whatsoever. At the same time, Dr Suriya and Nipha check Lin’s father’s house with a geiger counter and discover the small (radioactive) statue, which they take back to their base and blast with X-rays. When they look at it again later, it has tripled in size and shows signs of movement. As they watch, it leaps off the table, flies out the conveniently open door and heads off up to the Moon, growing to giant size as it does so.

The last half-hour is basically a series of fights between the four giant characters: Jumborg Ace, Yak Wat Jang, Antigone and Jump Killer. Initially the two good guys make the mistake of fighting each other, but later join forces to grapple the Martians. Yak Wat Jang has a sort of magic staff, while Jump Killer has an eye in his waist which blasts a heat-beam, and can also fire bullets from his torso. It’s cracking stuff, it really is! At one point, Jump Killer calls forth two rubber monsters (one of which has a gauze patch in the neck - for the actor to see and breathe - which is painfully obvious even on this fuzzy copy). When Yak Wat Jang destroys these two, the suits actually explode! Fantastic! Eventually, the Martians are defeated, Yak Wat Jang and Jumborg Ace thank each other and return to their respective parts of Earth.

This is a rollicking good piece of fun, with the Thai designs giving a whole new look to the normal Japanese giant hero genre. It’s difficult to read the credits on the small jpegs of Italian posters that I have found but they clearly don’t correspond with the ones on the print: the director is given as ‘Seika Den’ but that’s not a name you’ll find on any other film. It is also interesting how the title Mars Men is prominently displayed on the Italian posters to give the impression that this is an American picture, even though it has never even been dubbed into English, let alone released in the USA.

The French version, Les Hommes d'une Autre Planete, credits Ho Li Weper as producer and lists the cast as Yen Chiang Lung, Wang Pao Yu, Yen Tsiao, Fang Yen, Yan Fran Sua and Ro Gei. Allegedly this film was released in Thailand but not Japan. I don't know about that but it's worth noting that the Turkish(!) poster seems to be a merely a Chinese poster with the title Mars Adam printed over the top.

Fans of Ultraman, Godzilla and pals will love this and should watch out for two similar subsequent Thai/Japanese co-productions, Hanuman vs 7 Ultraman and Hanuman vs 5 Kamen Rider. However, beware of a Thai VCD which purports to be the original Yak Wat Jang Vs Jumborg Ace but is actually a hopelessly incomprehensible bodge of footage from this film and the Jumborg Ace TV series, together with some material about a new version of the PAT.

MJS rating: B-

review originally posted 6th January 2005

Monday, 24 February 2014

Man Who Sold the World

Director: Louis Melville
Writer: Louis Melville
Producers: Louis Melville, Stuart Fenegan
Cast: Jonathan Sidgwick, Rita Kvist, Dan van Husen
Country: UK
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: advance screener disc


Even from this unfinished version it's clear that Man Who Sold the World is an authentically spooky fantasy and an undeniably original film. The two central performances are both great, the creepy kid is suitably creepy, the sense of paranoia and nightmare is very well built, the transitions between levels of reality/dream are adroitly handled, the locations are marvellous and well-used, the editing is bang-on, the camerawork is great and the music is terrific.

But I would be lying to you if I said I understood the ending.

Jonathan Sidgwick (The Witches Hammer, Bane) stars as Max Trisch who inherits a rambling, antiques-filled stately home from his grandmother and drives out there to take a look. In an upstairs room he finds Zisna (Dan van Husen: House of Blood, Forest of the Damned, Cold and Dark), an Aleister Crowley lookalike priest, helping himself to some thing that Max’s mother had borrowed. Subsequently exploring the local area, Max finds an empty church with a worried Christian priest, Reverend Carmichael (Andrew Tiernan: 300, The Quatermass Experiment, The Bunker), who is evidently in opposition to Zisna.

But mostly what Max sees is an expressionless, silent boy (Alex McNeill), aged about 12 or so and wearing an old-fashioned school uniform. Appearing and disappearing, this ghost leads Max through the woods until he collapses and finds himself revived in the stately splendour of Zisna’s home, from where the charismatic leader controls, via internet sermons, a worldwide cult of ‘Koslantians’. This seems to be a standard end-of-the-world cult: armageddon is a-coming and the Koslantians will be saved and transported to humanity’s true home, a place called Koslantis. Evidently, acolytes can progress through levels as a ‘tapoge’. It’s all a sort of Branch Davidians meets Scientology set up with a heavy dose of Crowleyism. Max, understandably, is polite to his gracious host but remains thoroughly cynical.

Max’s Scandinavian girlfriend Lidija (the lovely Rita Kvist - The Weight of Water, Lime - about whose brief, gratuitous nude scenes you won’t find me complaining) arrives to keep him company. Together they investigate the old house and find evidence that Max’s grandmother was inadvertently responsible for allowing the Nazis to get their hands on the Holy Grail. This ties in with visions of Nazi pomp and circumstance which Max is experiencing, all Teutonic knights and busty Rhinemadchen.

This is one of those films where the weirdness builds relentlessly over the full ninety minutes. Max and Lidija attempt to drive away but however far they go, they’re still within walking distance of the house. Red-jacketed Koslantian tapoges hunt for them; Reverend Carmichael bangs on their door, shouting that the apocalypse is here; Max’s pet python Fido escapes and is never found (a shot of Fido slithering past a half-eaten apple must have some sort of Biblical symbolism, I guess). Most significantly, elements of Nazi concentration camps start to appear with first the creepy boy and then Max himself in stripy prison pyjamas with a yellow Jewish star. (This raises the question of whether Max is Jewish, which seems unlikely as what we are told about his paternal grandmother indicates her to be Christian, possibly Catholic. Maybe he’s Jewish on his mother’s side.)

Interspersed with this are interactions between Max and a beardy psychiatrist, sometimes in cutaways, sometimes in voice-overs which sound rather too much like narration. I actually found these quite confusing: at first I thought they were flashbacks to before Max left London, then they seemed to be part of the main story (which left me wondering how Max was able to drive back and see the shrink, then get home so quickly). Eventually I decided that they must be a framing story with everything else as a flashback. The disc I saw wasn’t the final edit so this confusion may be cleared up - or perhaps it’s deliberate.

And that ending? I really don’t know. It’s something to do with stigmata, and Adolf Hitler himself appears briefly in some sort of white limbo. But precisely what is going on, what it means and how it relates to anything else - search me. In some way, Man Who Sold the World reminded me of old European films: plenty of weirdness, middle class protagonists trapped in a nightmarish series of events and no real explanation for the viewer. If this had been made thirty years ago in Spain, Redemption would be all over it. There is also a touch of The Avengers in the dangerous eccentricity hidden away in the English countryside, maybe a dash of The Wicker Man too.

For a first-time director, Louis Melville does a bang-up job. Every time I made a note of something which didn’t seem to make narrative sense, I had to scribble it out two minutes later as the situation was explained in the dialogue. He is greatly assisted by the cinematography of James Friend (Wishbaby, Reverb) and Boyd Skinner (Cargo, Springheel Jack) although there is an unavoidable shot-on-DV flatness to the image. Editors Adam Biskupski and Richard Graham are also to be commended for stitching together such a potentially disjointed story. A fine orchestral and piano score by Simon Lambros (The Last Horror Movie, Puritan) is augmented by a handful of sparsely beautiful songs by Tally Koren. Mark Stevenson, who was so great as the assistant in The Last Horror Movie, appears as a monk with a mask even beakier than the one in HellBride.

Though it kept me gripped to the very end, Man Who Sold the World left me slightly niggled because I don’t know whether I was even supposed to understand the denouement. The whole film goes somewhere - but where? Undeniably skilfully constructed and resolutely intriguing, here is a movie which raises more questions than it answers. Take a look - maybe you’ll spot something I missed.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 29th June 2007

The Man from Beyond

Director: Burton L King
Writer: Harry Houdini
Producer: Harry Houdini
Cast: Harry Houdini, Jane Connelly, Arthur Maude
Country: USA
Year of release: 1922
Reviewed from: UK VHS (VRI, 1993)


Believe it or not, Harry Houdini also made films - several of them - and the best thing that can be said about them, based on this example, is that as an actor he was a great escapologist. He also wrote this movie. It seems to have been his only attempt at writing a ‘scenario’ and, well, he should have stuck to acting.

The film opens with an Arctic expedition reduced to two blokes, one sled and a couple of huskies. The chaps are Dr Gregory Sinclair (Erwin Connelly, who appeared with Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr and with Valentino in Son of the Sheik) and a grim-looking French-Canadian named Francois Duval (Frank Montgomery, a prolific director-turned actor) who is just about to leave the ill Sinclair to die when he spots an old ship, frozen into the ice.

Duval and the suddenly much-better-thank-you Sinclair explore and find a ship’s log that shows the vessel was abandoned just over one hundred years ago in 1820 and a thousand miles from their present position. On the deck, Duval examines a chunk of ice and - blimey, there’s a fella inside it! He chips away the ice then drags the body into the captain’s cabin where he and Sinclair manage to revive the ‘man from beyond’ somehow.

This is our hero, Howard Hillary. (Houdini had a thing for his initials and in other films played characters named Harvey Hanford, Harry Harper and Heath Haldane.) A letter to his sister which Sinclair finds in the cabin tells us that he joined the Barkentine as First Mate then fell in love with the daughter of one of the passengers, Felice Norcross (Erwin Connelly’s wife Jane, who was also in Sherlock Jr), inciting the jealousy of the ship’s captain (Luis Alberni, who had an uncredited role in the 1934 The Black Cat). In a dreadful storm, Hillary and Felice were lowered over the side in a boat but she begged him to return to the ship and save her father (Yale Benner). Back on board, in an argument with the captain, Hillary was knocked out and everyone else then abandoned ship. This is shown in flashback and makes about as much sense as what I have just typed.

Now here’s where the film gets seriously screwy because Sinclair and Duval resolve to not tell Hillary, for now, that a century has passed. They take him back to upper class US society - and they still don’t tell him. You would think that at the very least the changes in fashion would confuse or puzzle him - oh, and the motor cars that he sees - but apparently not.

They reach the home of Sinclair’s brother-in-law, Dr Crawford Strange, just as Sinclair’s niece is about to be married to her oily neighbour Dr Gilbert Trent (Arthur Maude). The marriage is interrupted and then abandoned because - wouldn’t you just know it? - Miss Strange is a spit for Hillary’s lost love Felice (and played by Jane Connelly too, naturally). Oh, and she’s called Felice too. Hillary’s ravings see him dragged off to a lunatic asylum where he is securely tied in a straitjacket and strapped to the floor of a cell (very humane treatment of a mentally ill person, I must say).

At this point, our interest perks up. Houdini has been tied up: how will he escape? Felice, curious to know more about this man who claims to know her, goes to the asylum to see him but when the warders open the door to his surprisingly spacious cell... he has gone! What a cheesy swizz! You pay good money to see an escapologist and he escapes while we’re watching other people.

In actual fact his escape is shown in its entirety a little later when he sneaks into Felice’s boudoir and he explains it with a flashback. But it is still thoroughly dull. He struggles and wriggles on the floor until eventually he is free of the straps and the straitjacket, then he ties them together into a rope and uses that to escape through the high, barred window. I’m sure Harry H really did escape, and it’s shown in one continuous take - but so what? If we had seen him do this on stage after members of the audience had fastened the straps and attested to the soundness of the straitjacket that would be jolly impressive, but this is the movies. It’s not real. It’s all pretend. We know he wasn’t really encased in ice, so why should we think - or, frankly, care - about his apparent bondage? Any actor, anyone at all, could have done the same thing. We don’t even get any close-ups of the situation to allow us to examine the buckles and belts, it’s just one slightly fuzzy bloke wriggling out of a slightly fuzzy white get-up on the floor of a room. As spectacle, it’s rubbish.

It is while Hillary is explaining this to the woman he still believes to be Felice Norcroft that she, Felice Strange, shows him the date on the newspaper. My Lord, it’s 1922, more than a century since he was on that boat. So Felice Norcroft and everyone he knew is dead. And there’s an explanation for all the horseless carriages and electric lights and everything else that apparently was invented while he was in the Arctic.

Now, adding to the complications is the disappearance of Dr Crawford Strange, Felice’s father. He set off on the expedition with Sinclair and Duval but turned back when a message reached him that Felice was ill. But Felice has not been ill and sent no such message. So what happened and where is he? I’m sure it has nothing to do with that conniving rascal Trent next door, or the cellar where, we are told, he conducts experiments on animals (something that has no bearing on anything and is never mentioned again).

Trent endeavours to have Hillary imprisoned by introducing Duval to a femme fatale, Marie Le Grande (Nita Naldi, a genuine screen star best known to genre fans for her role opposite John Barrymore in the 1920 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) who persuades the ‘half-breed’ to claim that Hillary murdered Strange. The ‘man from beyond’ is marched off to prison; could another perilous escape be on the cards? Sadly no, because on the way there he successfully persuades Duval to admit to lying, whereupon the guards let Hillary go and march Duval off towards the State Pen.

Hillary and Sinclair investigate Trent’s house (for some reason) and spot a rat at the foot of the stairs with a scrap of cloth tied to its leg. On inspection (it’s a remarkably tame and hygienic rat) this proves to bear the embroidered initials ‘CS’ which they deduce to mean Crawford Strange. Examining where the rat came from, they find that the stairs are actually a cover which can be lifted up, and underneath them is a flight of stairs down to a hidden cellar. And in this cellar they find a barrel which is actually a fake barrel concealing a doorway to a low tunnel. Boy, whatever is down here certainly needs to be kept hidden. Lo and behold, it’s Dr Crawford Strange who has been imprisoned under Trent’s house for three years but finally decided to rip his shirt pocket off and tie it round a (tame, hygienic) rat’s leg shortly before his newly returned neighbour and a friend broke into the house.

Last time Trent was down there, Crawford refused to sign over his property so Trent declared that he would get his grubby mitts on half of it anyway by forcibly marrying Felice. Hillary races to wherever it is that Trent has taken the young lady and has a fight with him atop some high rocks while Felice runs alongside the river, chased by Trent’s servant. Having disposed of Trent, Hillary also runs along the riverbank but Felice, to escape, has climbed into a canoe and paddled off into the river. Alas, this just happens to be slightly upstream of Niagara Falls. I don’t know which is worse: the arbitrary convenience of the canoe or the utter irresponsibility of leaving such a thing lying around a few hundred yards from the most dangerous waterfall in the world.

Hillary bravely leaps into the water, swims through the rapids, climbs into the canoe then climbs out again bringing Felice with him and they cling to a rock while the canoe tumbles over the falls. How they then get back to the bank is not shown. An epilogue sees Felice, whom we have discovered is the great-great-niece of the original Felice, admitting to the possibility of reincarnation as she talks with Hillary while her father and uncle look on admiringly. A close-up shows us that Hillary is reading a copy of Spiritualism and Rationalism, a 1920 non-fiction book by notorious spiritualist dupe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

And so they all live happily ever after, but what a rubbish film. The reason you have probably never heard of this and almost certainly never seen it is simply because it’s crap. The story makes little sense but worse than that it is entirely devoid of thrills, tension and excitement - which are the sort of things that you associate with Harry Houdini and probably what people associated with him in 1922.

Houdini’s film career is a little-documented aspect of his weird life. According to Wikipedia (the online equivalent of a man in a pub, but you have to start somewhere), he first appeared on screen in 1901 in Merveilleux Exploits du Celebre Houdini a Paris but that’s awfully early in cinematic history. Any such film would have been about three minutes long and quite probably didn’t star Houdini but just someone pretending to be him. In 1916 he was allegedly a ‘technical consultant’ on the now-lost serial The Mysteries of Myra, in which the villains are adept in black magic but there is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no evidence for this rumour whatsoever. Nor do I give any credence to the wiki-claim that he was offered the role of Nemo in the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Houdini was not an actor and that is just hogwash.

Houdini made, it is generally accepted, five films. The Inaccurate Movie Database (and various websites deriving their information from same) lists a sixth, a 1921 picture called The Soul of Bronze which Houdini allegedly starred in and directed. Of the five proven Houdini movies, the first was a 15-chapter serial, The Master Mystery, in which Houdini’s character did not have the initials HH (he’s called Quentin Locke). He played a sort of pre-FBI man investigating a bunch of crooks who have a large robot at their beck and call. This at least sounds like fun because you can’t go wrong with a robot, however goofy it may be. Burton L King and Harry Grossman shared directorial duties.

He followed this with two features for Famous Players-Lasky. In The Grim Game (1919) he played a man wrongly imprisoned for murder who uses his amazing escape skills to, well, escape. It was directed by Irvin Willat and the cast included Augustus Phillips (who played the title role in the 1910 Frankenstein) and regular Laurel and Hardy co-star Mae Busch. The second feature was Terror Island, set in the South Seas and directed by James Cruze. There is no reason to suppose that either of these films is any more thrilling than The Man from Beyond.

Unhappy with working for The Man, Houdini set up his own film company which made made this tedium and a final feature, Haldane of the Secret Service, which Houdini actually directed himself. Since he was a fairly wooden actor and a hopeless scenario-writer, we can safely presume that he was also a rotten director. What I have read about Houdini indicates that he was frustrated as a magician because all that anyone wanted to see was his escapology - and the reason they didn’t want to see his magic was that, although technically proficient, he lacked the showmanship that a great magician needs to ‘sell’ his tricks to the punters. And I think that lack of showmanship is evident here.

The Man from Beyond exhibits competent, workmanlike direction by Burton L King, who had directed most of the episodes of The Master Mystery. But the scenario, adapted by Coolidge Street from Houdini’s own story, combines an unexciting plot with deus ex machina developments. Most astoundingly of all it completely and utterly fails to explore the man-out-of-time possibilities of the basic premise. The fact that Howard Hillary was frozen in ice for one hundred years is totally irrelevant to the main story.

This is the only one of Houdini’s films which is readily available. The British VHS was released in 1993 by an outfit called VRI on their ‘Golden Age Films’ label (which also released Murnau’s Faust and a few other titles). The music, which was composed and performed by Andrew Youdell, an experienced British accompanist to silent films, is not memorable but at least it was specially written so it doesn’t jar with the images. The film is now available on DVD from Alpha; I don’t know what their soundtrack is like.

However, there seems to be some serious debate about the movie’s running time. This tape’s sleeve claims 80 minutes but the film actually runs 60 minutes and appears to be projected at the correct speed. The website of the Houdini Museum describes this as a 90-minute film. The IMDB, for what it’s worth, says 74 minutes. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The film is just boring and a longer version is just more boredom.

Finally, it is worth noting that although Houdini is the subject of a 2005 graphic novel entitled The Man from Beyond, that has no connection with this film.

MJS rating: C-
review originally posted 10th March 2007