Monday, September 6, 2010

Adventure Time!!!!

One of the things I've hoped to accomplish by doing reviews in pairs is not only to make historical/cultural connections between two films or illustrate quickly the relationship between two works but also occasionally to give you patient students ideas about potential double features. Today we look at a genre that I really wish people still did well, the adventure film. These are unconventional to be sure but if you were ever looking to kill an evening with two wholly entertaining and exciting movies and you've exhausted all the good Indiana Jones/Ray Harryhausen movies, look no further. Both work so well because they came in the middle of careers in entertainment so their respective directors were able to play up their greatest strengths and use every lesson they'd learned. Sergio Martino scored what has to be the biggest budget he'd ever had judging by the fantastic widescreen cinematography and production design. Michael Carreras had fought to have a little more creative control over Hammer Films and so when he found himself in the director's chair he didn't let the opportunity to do something different slip. Both films deliver what they promise and then some and even with a bit of lagtime in both they come across as pulpy and spooky when they want to. It's with no little admiration that I say that these are the sorts of films I hope to make someday. Granted, I'd get better fishmen costumes, but...

Island of the Fishmen
by Sergio Martino
Lieutenant Claude De Ross is up a creek without a paddle, and I mean that almost literally. He was the doctor aboard a prison ship that sank and now he's the only one on the lifeboat who isn't between jail cells. Seeing as the year is 1891 and mysteriously failing to report is sort of par for the course whenever you head to sea, Claude gets that he's stuck with these guys and the prisoners also know that if they're ever found Claude's going to turn them in. So when something green and scaly tips the boat over one night and kills one of the prisoners, at least it breaks the tension. The next morning Claude wakes up on a beach and gets to wandering. He finds José, one of the only affable prisoners, in time to stop him drinking sulfur, gaining him his only ally among the remaining prisoners; and he's definitely going to need one. When one of the men, François, wanders off and then gets attacked by something with webbed hands, Claude's perplexed. A tiger trap later and it's just Claude, Peter, the prisoner with the biggest vendetta against the doctor, and José left when they make it to the manse in the center of what turns out to be an island. Right from the get go there's something fishy about this place...yeah, I went there. The place is owned by Edmond Rackham and Amanda Marvin, who look outwardly like a perpetually feuding married couple but when we get a glimpse of their private life we see that it's much more complicated.

Amanda shows an interest in helping Claude which she demonstrates by shooting an attacking snake before he makes it to the house, but she goes out of her way to make sure Rackham doesn't know that she cares about him in the slightest. So when Amanda goes out the night to do something in the waves and both Claude and Peter follow her, the plot thickens. When Amanda goes out into the surf with a jar of something she is greeted by scads of humanoid fish (they look more like amphibians, but in a film like this it pays to shut your brain off) whom she feeds a powdery chemical. On her way back Peter tries to rape her but a quick chase back to the beach puts him in the clutches of the fishmen and the next day Claude and José are the only ones who don't know what's going on. José decides to cut his losses and steals a horse; Claude runs after him but to no avail. What José finds is a cavern with a boat in it all ready to roll but Rackham and his native minions stop him from getting anywhere. So just what the hell is Rackham doing on an island full of fishmen? Why does Amanda stay when she clearly hates her brutal captor? Who's the old man she keeps meeting privately? What's to become of José? And who's to say that once Claude learns the truth it will leave him any better off?
I think it's safe to conclude that Island of the Fishmen was Sergio Martino's last great film. He was a champion of the giallo and produced some of the best regarded movies of the genre (All The Colours of the Dark, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardth, etc.) and then turned his not inconsiderable visual flare to a cycle of adventure films with horrific elements. When the 80s came knocking he tried in vane to make his kind of giallo (the tepid The Scorpion With Two Tails) and, relevancy slipping away from him, he turned to making movies as commercial as could be. But before that he had one last win with Island of the Fishmen. Interestingly when New World Pictures bought the distribution rights they somehow got it into their heads that what the film needed was a new opening. Miller Drake wrote and Roger Corman himself directed this fake out beginning and though it's only six minutes long it makes for just as grim and fascinating a watch as all of Island of the Fishmen. Corman's direction is something I tend to think gets overlooked a lot because the bulk of his career was spent producing one shitty movie after another (with the odd success here and there). Anyway the opening featured a great bit of special effects where the characters (including Mel Ferrer, who, along with Richard Johnson and Joseph Cotton, took the job while waiting to die) were turned inside out by the fishmen. This was then put on the posters and ads and people were so excited by the idea of everyone being turned inside out by fishmen they had to add more of it to the film; all this, I can't help but speculate, was probably what drove Corman to make the much scarier Humanoids From The Deep two years later. This of course was after it had already had two less-than-great theatrical runs. Anyway the final cut that finally made it to DVD doesn't have Corman's added footage, but it does preserve Martino's full length original. That this includes cleaning up the print so that Giancarlo Ferrando's cinematography can be seen in all its lurid beauty is no small triumph.

Coming at the end of his adventure cycle (to be fair I think this was released before The Great Alligator, but Cassinelli and Barbara Bach look older here and the locations are different from the ones used in Mountain of the Cannibal God, so I'm going to assume he shot this one last and just got it to theatres quicker realizing how much better it was than his giant crocodile farce) Island of the Fishmen has all the strengths and few of the weaknesses of his previous efforts. The fishmen themselves are kooky and fun, if not entirely convincing, but the movie has the feel of an old adventure comic or serial so I was willing to let a few things go. The mad science, for instance, is just as mad as you'd expect (in fact we have both the old chestnut of trying to cure world hunger driving one madman, and plain old greed driving the other). There are shades of Dr. Moreau and the giant volcano threatening to level the island reminds me of Mysterious Island, as do the homemade contraptions Rackham uses to explore the island. And to top it off we have the lost continent of Atlantis just below sea level. A dearth of creativity was not one of Martino's problems. Claudio Cassinelli and Barbara Bach are both fun to watch, and Richard Johnson seems to finally be enjoying his role.
All in all these disparate bits of inspired lunacy and excellent craft combine to make a never-dull adventure mystery that shares few of its predecessors' problems. The 70s are loaded with poorly thought out movies of this kind and it's nice to see that some people could learn from their mistakes. Not to use the worst segue in the history of segues but Michael Carreras was a guy who also learned quick and knew what audiences wanted. While the rest of the higher-ups at Hammer Films were content to simply play with the elements that had worked in the past, Michael Carreras, son of studio head James, was constantly looking for new angles. If the bosses had put him in charge sooner, Hammer probably wouldn't have gone under so quickly. Glimpses of Carreras' ingenuity are few if you look just at Hammer's output but they are always revelatory, as well as lurid and exciting. Some people say he invented the Spaghetti Western with Tierra Brutal (or was one of the hands involved in inventing it, anyway), he made one of the strangest and most beautifully shot of the Mummy films, he made the movie with the blowtorch murderer, he made the truly bizarre Prehistoric Women, and was responsible for the downright indecent To The Devil A Daughter, Hammer's last movie before folding. And in the midst of all that he directed one of, if not my all-time favourite, Hammer film The Lost Continent, which was one of the last great moderately budgeted British adventure films. the 70s just didn't deliver this kind of thing (exception: Man Who Would Be King, directed by American John Huston) and then they just stopped making them. This movie has just about everything I could ever ask from a movie like this: cults, sharks, shipwrecks, deadly plants, big puppety crab monsters. There were a lot of weird things in the 70s but nothing that unapologetically presented this kind of thing and let our brains sort it out.

The Lost Continent
by Michael Carreras
After perhaps the greatest film theme song ever written (Not to exaggerate, but "Lost Continent" by The Peddlers is the greatest song ever written. The Peddlers also composed a number of lite organ themes that show up sporadically during the first act) we open on a group of people dressed in everything from 60s mod to Conquistador-esque attire. We focus on one Captain Lansen who watches as the crew pushes a coffin overboard and wonders to himself: How did we all get here? Good question. The start of the story probably goes back thousands of years but we only concern ourselves with the fellows dressed for a cocktail party. They were all passengers of a tramp steamer called the Corita, headed for Caracas. Customs doesn't want them to leave because they rightly suspect that the boat's cargo isn't on the level. And not only is that true but of the five passengers who paid to tag along, all of them has a filthy little secret they're trying to hide. Dr. Webster and his sluttish daughter Unity are running from his potential malpractice suits and the questionable circumstances surrounding her mother, Harry Tyler is a drunk and a conman, Eva Peters is carrying stolen bonds that Ricaldi, a Sammy Davis Jr. wanna-be, has been dispatched to retrieve from her. The cargo that Lansen is so nervous about is Phosphor B or white phosphor. He hopes to sell it and the boat when he docks and so isn't hearing any of it when customs tells him to turn around. He does perk up when he hears that the boat's sprung a leak. Phos B's one weakness is that it explodes when it comes in contact with H2O, so he knows he's got a crisis on his hands. Once the crew puts 2 and 2 together and figures out they're about to be blown sky-high, they commandeer a lifeboat and leave only three engineers and one of the cooks behind in their mad dash off the boat. The first mate tries to reason with the passengers but they paid good money to get to Caracas without anyone knowing about it and they aren't about to head back now. Once the captain gets the idle passengers to get all the canisters of Phos B out of reach of the leak, they have to abandon ship because the engine and the generator won't come back on. Everyone but Patrick the Bartender makes it on the lifeboat.

The lifeboat drifts for at least a few days, during which time Dr. Webster and Tyler get into an argument and wind up in the ocean. Only Tyler makes it back in and Webster is eaten by a shark. After this Tyler swears off the drinking that lead to the argument. The last day of their drifting leads them to a strange part of the Sargasso with red skies and a kind of weed covering most of the surface of the water. The cook wakes up and, delirious, runs right over the edge. In seconds the weed has enshrouded and eaten him. Now everyone is perfectly aware how fucked they are. Luckily hope arrives in the form of Patrick the bartender! He and the Corita didn't sink or blow up after all and beat them into the weeds by a day or so. Any attempts to start her again are foiled when they realize that the weed has wrapped around the boat and the engine and is pulling it further away from the open ocean. The crew has nothing to do now but see where it takes them. Meanwhile Unity is dealing with her father's death exactly like you'd imagine: getting drunk and trying to screw Tyler. When he rebuffs her advances she tries Ricaldi, who's more than willing (and to look at this guy you'd think he's never said 'no' to anything). Their tryst is cut short when a giant plant with a huge glowing eye snakes on board and wraps itself around Unity's waist. Ricaldi saves her by cutting her out with an axe but at the cost of his own life. The list of don'ts is growing by the minute.
The following morning a gorgeous woman called Sarah finds the boat and climbs on, but she's not alone. She's being followed by people dressed in hundred year old garb and most curious of all, everyone's wearing snow shoes and a backpack fitted with balloons. Now the shoes I get, to keep you above the weed when you walk on it. The balloons are a little obvious and no explanation for where they've come from or how they keep filling them is ever fielded. Well, Sarah's got some exposition for us. This place, as you may have already guessed, is frozen in time and has dragged in many a poor traveler, including Sarah and her family who went looking for religious freedom back when you had to sail to get it. But when they arrived here and found themselves under the cruel reign of El Supremo, a boy king who takes orders from a scarred fanatical priest, they were less than thrilled. Sarah escapes the following day to try and find her family (I think) and as Tyler's fallen in love with her, or at least her plunging neckline, he goes after her, Patrick and chief engineer Nick follow behind. They encounter a giant crab-like beast, a large Scorpion (on wheels!!!) before finally being brought to the spanish galleon that serves as El Supremo's headquarters for their sentencing and, once Lansen arrives with a homemade catapult, the final showdown

There's so much to love about The Lost Continent it's tough to know where to start. First of all, any movie that is able to skate by crazed developments like shark attacks, giant crabs, and large quantities of explosives and keep right on rolling because something even fucking crazier is just around the bend, that's the kind of film I want to watch. I think my favourite part of the whole movie, and it works as a metaphor for the whole movie, is when we get our first glimpse inside El Supremo's galleon. In a single excellent tracking shot Carreras shows us all the different costumed survivors and the crazed priest running the show, as well as someone being tortured on the rack. The priest's crackling voice and Klansman's hood make him extra crazy and the scenes that follow drive home just how insane life on the lost continent has become. Later in the scene when we see them feed a failed soldier to the giant mouth in the hole in the floor that was when I fell in love with this film. Carreras was clearly trying to push Hammer films out of the "what's been done before, but different" mould that his dad and Tony Hinds had been pushing since the 50s. That said the film is pretty dated and that probably accounts for its lack of popularity. Why this isn't more loved though is beyond me. I love journey films, I love movies like this that rely on solid performances from reliable repertory players like Michael Ripper, Suzanna Leigh, Nigel Stock, Dana Gillespie, James Cossins and Eric Porter. The photography is moody, the effects are deliciously cheesy, the script is zany, fun and sound, the direction tight, the performances great, the music awesome, I love every 1968 minute of this movie. I won't pretend it's perfect: it drags a bit and I wish I knew a little more about the minor characters but I don't mind so much. I don't even mind so much that it takes almost an hour to get to the titular continent, though I suppose I did the first time around. Now it's all just one sublime puzzle.
So, yes neither film is what you'd call perfect but they have a charming lack of pretense and deliver the goods. And because their so cock-eyed and fun, they go quite well together in their sleazy, zany way. The next time you're looking for something fun to watch and remember that the only thing out is...oh, shit, I don't know, looking out at a marquee now I see The Expendables, Piranha 3D, Eat Pray Love, The Switch, Twilight: Eclipse, and some other shit. Wouldn't you rather see something you can rely on than all of that shit? Not that I'm against new things, Neil Marshall's Centurion is out and it's awesome, for instance, if you can find it, but I like to have stores of dependable schlock in the wings for dry seasons like this one. So by all means, track 'em down, snuggle up to your loved one like a python and enjoy the sight of fishmen tussling with Richard Johnson or of a giant crab fighting a giant scorpion on wheels while men in snow shoes and balloons watch terrified. You'll be glad you did.

No comments: