Sunday, July 21, 2019

Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

In a boarding house run by an aging stage actress, crime is afoot! A criminal organisation is using the house as a means of transporting large sums of money for a foreign cause, and things are complicated immensely when a member of the gang is murdered. It's to aspiring writer Hugh and the landlady's daughter Sylvia to solve the case...

Shadow on the Stairs is a little slow to get going, and it has a lot of characters to introduce in its first act before we fully understand what's going on. It almost feels like a compressed stage play, although if this were 3 hours long I hardly think it'd be improved. The first act isn't bad, but just a little staid, and not wholly interesting.

There's intrigue from the start here. We always have some semblance of an idea as to what's going on. When the murder happens, the film picks up considerably. Shadow on the Stairs is quite an effective whodunnit, with well placed clues, plenty of viable suspects, and a great solution I didn't see coming. Definitely a treat to behold.

While it takes a little while to emerge, the comedy in Shadow on the Stairs is on point. There are some hilariously brutal put-downs, and adorable moments.

The ending is completely unexpected, and actually makes a couple of weird elements throughout make more sense in a way.

The characters are all quite good. As stated above, it takes a bit before we're familiar with everyone. Some characters like the landlady Stella, beleaguered maid Lucy, and criminal/victim Joseph get a good introduction, while the young lovers Sylvia and Hugh, ostensibly the protagonists, don't really start coming into the forefront until the halfway point. Ram Sing is neat as a shady customer, while my favourite cast member was definitely Phoebe St. John Snell! She's the funniest character in the film. "Actually it's Phoebe Martia St. John Snell. I usually omit the 'Martia'. Too many names seems a bit pretentious, don't you think?".

The direction is quite good, with many well filmed moments. We're treated to good character profiles, and dynamically staged action sequences.

The acting, meanwhile, is mixed. Most of the performances are ok, with Bruce Lester and Heather Angel being decent leads. Frieda Inescort however is quite bad in places! I'm not sure if the writing or direction is to blame, or if it's her, or a combination of all three. In any case, it's both funny and cringey to watch, almost too much at times. On the flip side, Mary Field has to wait a while before she's able to show her talents, but show her talents she does!

I've seen a lot of 1940s mystery-comedies from America lately, so the very British Shadow on the Stairs was a nice treat. It's an enjoyable whodunnit and I recommend it...

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy (1981)

Struggling writer Robert has come up with a new idea for a science fiction novel, but he's unsure of what direction to take it in, and feels pressured by the people in his life, such as his girlfriend Biba. One lonely night while working on his manuscript, he receives a message from the robot woman Andra, one of the characters from his book. Shocked at first, Robert goes to an isle to meet with his creations, and find out what they want...

Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy was an interesting film to seek out from the get-go. A Yugoslavian sci-fi film? Sign me up! Then I got to thinking, how could 1980s Yugoslavia possible produce a big budget science fiction spectacle on par with Star Wars, with great space battles and epic alien landscapes? As it turns out I should've listened to that feeling, because this movie is set entirely on Earth! It does so in a way that makes sense though, and doesn't feel like a cheap excuse to keep the budget low.

The plot is kooky, in a low-key kind of way, if that makes any sense. Weird things will happen and characters either aren't as shocked about it as they should be, or they have reactions that are utterly bizarre to normal people! The character of Biba epitomises this, like when she strips off to show the robot woman why she hasn't got a hope of winning Robert over. The story itself isn't concerned with major world shaking events, but more on smaller moments. The aliens for example only wanna hang out with Robert, while the authorities could not give one less of a shit about extraterrestrials.

The movie moves by at a quick enough pace, but not much happens. For example, by the hour mark, all that's really happened is Robert chats with his creations a bit, and they're visited by some dopey earthlings. Oh, and his apartment gets vacuumed. The film isn't boring, or even poorly paced, but it is thin. I was a little disappointed that the film doesn't delve more into what the aliens want, the limitations of Roberts powers (if there are any), or how he can even do this. But then again, those questions might be too for a movie as silly as this.

All of this culminates in a weird finale! Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy isn't a full-on comedy for the first hour, nor is it a horror, yet the last act seems to be intent on being both. It is funny, but this comes at the cost of the climax being in any way tense, as well as feeling a tad weird compared to what the film was like before. The worst part is that Robert and the aliens don't play any part in it! The reason the monster even goes on a rampage to begin with is tenuous at best. It's not like the government comes knocking on Robert's door to kidnap the aliens and take them to Yugoslavia's version of Area 51. Overall, it feels a little like this climax was just trying to pad the movie out beyond an hour, as if the writer had run out of ideas for the other characters.

The final scene of the movie however is pretty fantastic! It's high concept lunacy, and it's brilliant!

One thing that impressed me about the film is how readily people believe things. Often in movies, characters will ignore so much evidence that real people would listen to just to keep the 'suspense' going, but here, when a person sees something odd, they act! It's also interesting seeing how the community of a seaside resort react to such an an alien landing. Unfortunately the movie...uhh...goes just a wee bit too far, like when everyone strips naked to show the aliens that they come in peace.

The acting is pretty decent, with some performances being better than others. Žarko Potočnjak convinces as the lonely and pressured lead, while Ksenija Prohaska is great as a robotic personality with emerging emotions. The kids however fare less better. They're often amusing, but uh, to describe them as being good actors would perhaps be a bit too generous. Noted Yugoslavian actor Ljubiša Samardžić delivers a decent enough performance here, but doesn't get much to do, and his whole character arc ends up becoming pointless by the end of the movie.

The effects here are definitely the best part! While some look more cheesy than others, the costumes look good, especially for the robot Andra, and moments like finger blasting followed by an electric swat, 'anatomy class', and laser eyes are all entertaining to see. On top of all of this, there's also the occasional use of neat stop motion! Not all of the scenes look convincing, but the really fake ones seem to be played for laughs.

The biggest effect is by far the monster Mumu. He looks stellar, though the impact is a little lessened when you see him in full light, and for prolonged periods of time. He ends up becoming less threatening and more silly. Apparently cult auteur Jan Svankmajer contributed to the movie's effects  Yeah, I can definitely see that!

The direction by Dušan Vukotić is very good, and there are many really well staged moments throughout! He really makes the most of the locations he's given, too.

This film was a co-production between Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Kinda interesting that it's made by two countries that technically don't exist anymore! If we were to address it by today's standards, Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy would be a Croatian film, and it makes great use of the natural scenery, and the colourful locals.

Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy is a flawed movie, but it's nothing if not creative, and I recommend it, especially if you're interested in Balkan cinema, and wanna see how they tackle genres like science fiction...

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Horror Express (1972)

After a dig in Manchuria, archaeologist Professor Saxton is returning to London via the Trans-Siberian Express, with a unique new specimen in tow, of what he believes to be the Missing Link. However, this 200 million year old relic soon shows itself to be not quite as dead as it looked, as it starts killing passengers one by one, absorbing their essences into itself, until its sinister motives become clear...

Public domain horror sets are usually home to movies that fell into the public domain for good reason, but occasionally you'll spot a gem, and many have when it comes to Horror Express! Starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and having a guest appearance by Telly Savalas, it has a packed story involving a mad monk who foretells doom, a kooky Cossack commander, and an ape man who turns out to be either Satan or an alien (or both!) killing people by sucking out their brains! There's more, but I wouldn't wanna spoil the rest of the movie for you...

The tone of the film is different from your usual Gothic British fare, and there's a reason for that-It's Spanish! A Gothic atmosphere still permeates the film, with with a slightly different tone than other more traditional U.K. movies, especially thanks to the hint of science fiction that becomes apparent later on.

The story is simple, taking place entirely in the one place, but it's effective! It's never boring, it takes some surprising twists and turns, and I'd say that every half hour it radically shifts the action to keep things fresh.

The characters here are a diverse and eclectic bunch, with no two alike (well, except for the women, who are all unfailingly gorgeous Spanish beauties in their 30s). One thing that surprised me was who dies! It's...well, not unpredictable, and obviously Cushing or Lee don't snuff it 20 minutes in, but some of the characters who do die I wasn't expecting to so soon!

Professor Saxton and Dr. Wells (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, respectively) are both stuffy academics to various degrees, but while Saxton is more unfeeling and clinical, Wells has more of a sense of life and dun to him, even if his curiosity is something of a problem. Despite his brusque behaviour, Saxton falls into the final hero role pretty well, though the almost swashbuckling attitude he takes in the end is maybe a bit too much.

The monk is weird. He's fanatically religious, and is the first one who knows something's wrong. But the second he sees the pictures in the monster's eye, he realises its knowledge, and suddenly wants to join it. So the guy who spent the last hour demanding the creature's destruction has now allied with it because he saw a map of the Earth? Really I guess this was inevitable. If you look like Rasputin the mad monk, then it stands to reason you'll become a bad guy.

My favourite character was by far the Cossack commander. His methods and demeanour are unorthodox, but he gets shit done! That's probably why it takes him so long to show up, because if he arrived any earlier, the movie would've only been half an hour long! Unfortunately the writers saw common sense. It probably would've been poor screenwriting if the threat that's been building this whole time was suddenly solved by a new guy we've never seen before, so what happens instead is that Savalas is out of the movie after only 10 or so minutes in action! I understand, but I'm very disappointed! Especially with how poorly the super strong Cossack legion is dispatched, despite the ridiculous edge they have.

The persuasive and sultry Natasha is a neat addition, and looks superb in appearance and in fashion, but is pretty underused, and killed very early on. It's kinda amusing watching herself introduce herself as a helpless and innocent fawn, but later says things like "My glass is empty" to her new male companions. Dr. Well's scientist friend Miss Jones is sassy and likeable, and is missed in the last act. The engineer is likewise alright, and felt like he could've made a greater contribution.

The movie keeps things ambiguous as to whether the villain of the piece is really supernatural or not. They're a well-written foe, and while they get a bit too talky later on (and his characterisation runs the risk of melding with others and perhaps diluting), they're still an imposing figure.

One random note is a bit of a plot hole, when after Saxton orders everyone to always be in pairs, they frequently go off alone (mainly Lee himself!). There's also some hilarious science on display. The concept of seeing the final image a person saw before their death is bunkum, but it's feasible bunkum. This movie goes one step (or rather 100 steps) further by saying that if you drain the liquid from the eye and look at it through a microscope, not only will the image be preserved, but you can see every image the person in question ever saw, like a gruesome viewfinder!

The acting is all well-done. The regal Christopher Lee is convincingly unfeeling as Professor Saxton, while not coming off as so selfish that he'd take no action when things get bad, while Cushing's character has a somewhat irresponsible streak at times, but is otherwise a good guy, which Cushing gets across well. From his very first scene, Telly Savalas exudes charm, and I wish he had a bigger role. Alberto de Mendoza is alright as the monk, and Julio Pena is decent as Inspector Mirov, but disappoints a little in his later villainous turn.

The score to Horror Express is very good! Played subtly, it's made up of a melodic whistling. Strange enough to be creepy, but not so much that it's obvious.

The effects on display here are neat! The whited eyes is a good effect, and though it soon becomes a bit overused by the end (this is a film not short of bodies!), it's effectively creepy. The monster perhaps could've seen a bit more use, but I guess the writers realised it'd soon become ridiculous for a 6 foot tall prehistoric ape man to be roaming around the carriage without anyone noticing, so it's gone after half an hour, bar a recurring furry hand. Lastly, there's the setting. I'm not sure how much of the train whizzing by was shot on location and how much is model work. It looks like a bit of both, and it looks good! An atmospheric and chilly location, with sombre lighting, and well crafted models.

Horror Express isn't perfect, but it's a real gem, and I appreciate it for its creativity and effort. If you're looking for a Lee or Cushing film that's a unique treat, or you're wondering what Telly Savalas gets up to on his off days from Kojak, look no further...

Monday, July 1, 2019

Puma Man (1980)

Regular joe Tony Farms is an American paleontologist working in London. Lately, disturbing events have been occurring, with several Americans being killed, and Tony himself also soon finds himself tossed off a building. Luckily for him he was found by the right person. South American priest Vadinho tries to convince Tony that he is the Puma Man, and must take up the mantle to defeat the evil Kobras. Tony is skeptical at first, but quickly realises how real everything is, and must master his newfound powers if he has a chance of saving the world...

On the surface, Puma Man is a pretty terrible movie. It's cheap, got bad effects, cheesy sound effects, and hokey writing. Despite all this, the movie is loads of fun! It has a harmless and infectious charm to it, that helps make it enjoyable despite its numerous hilarious flaws.

The story is simple, but satisfactory, with just enough common tropes to be fun, while bringing lots of enjoyment to the table. As for its tone, the film gets a lot of flack, which might a little unfair to a degree. The movie's not a comedy but I wonder if was intended to be at least a little goofy and over-the-top. Some elements are definitely unintentionally bad, but like such movies as The Refrigerator before it, I think the filmmakers were partially in on the joke.

The MST3K version is the most famous, but it's not actually the complete film. A few scenes had to be trimmed to meet the show's time constraints. These 'extra' scenes actually clear up a couple of little plot holes in the shorter version, such as why throwing out random Americans out of windows is meant to reveal the Puma Man to Kobras, as well as who the heck Tomy's seemingly out-of-nowhere friend is.

While it's showing a fictional belief (as far as we know???), it's nice to see a superhero film (and film period) big on Native American spiritualism. It doesn't treat it as a joke, but with a nice solemnity and reverence that really makes you believe that there are Puma Gods. There are even a couple of lines that are legitimately good answers to major religious questions that still come up to this day.

"Are you sure they're up there listening to you?" "Of course." "And are they powerful?" "Absolute" "Then why don't they give us a hand?" "They always do, only we do not usually know it.", and the later exchange of "Man is free. Man is master of himself. But if they come, man is no longer free."

Tony is a decent-ish enough protagonist. He sensibly thinks Vadinho is friggin' crazy at first, and is then reasonably skeptical, but not ridiculously so. When he realises what's going on, and the gravity of the situation, he comes around quickly enough. He does whine a little, but not to an annoying degree, and while Vadinho has to get more involved than most other mentors, Tony isn't useless

I like Tony and Vadinho's  relationship. Vadinho is definitely a more hands on mentor, actively helping in dangerous missions, and being pretty on par with the hero's strength. I feel it helps make him a formidable ally, and it doesn't just come across as a student-mentor relationship, but two partners in 'crime'. I also appreciate that he doesn't succumb to the tired cliche of the mentor dying in the third act. As for the biggest problem people have with this character, I'd say the 'mentor overuse' issue doesn't really come into play until the climax, as that's the only time Tony isn't kicking ass regularly.

Kobras is a cheesy cliched villain, and has terrible fashion sense. While the latter problem can't be remedied, there is some fun at least in how traditional a baddie he is, with his penchant for standing ominously and making evil remarks, his aspirations for world domination, his thug henchman, etc.

As far as lawyers go, Walter George Alton isn't that bad of an actor, and I do mean that in a good way. Miguel Angel Fuentes is likeable as Vadinho. He exudes a feeling of strength and wisdom, playing the mentor role well. Donald Pleasence (not Pleasance as the erroneous credits misspell it as, same with me in this very review at first) does well. Not at his A-game obviously, and you get the impression that he knows it (He would later recall this as being the worst film he ever appeared in), but he's certainly not bad. He is Blofeld after all! He can play villains to a tee!

The effects in Puma Man are the lowest point   The worst by far is the flying, which is really bad green screen projection work, overlaid with the actors clumsily swimming around on a string, all the while the projection can't keep still, giving the effect of falling at a 60 degree angle and breaking the laws of physics. The close quarters flying is handled better.

The Puma Man outfit looks neat. I like how the cape has a sort of poncho effect when it's not unfurled. It has a distinct South American feel to it. Besides that, the rest of the costuming is somewhat ridiculous. The mask is well crafted, but looks cheap and feels too lightweight

The best effects in the movie are those of destruction. The cars, brickwork, and walls Tony busts apart all look convincing, with the former effect looking the best.

Despite sounding like it came from a casio, the score is pretty good. A lot of it is the one tune arranged a few different ways, from the jaunty main iteration, to the softer melodic piece. They sound effective. Others I didn't like so much though, like the one that plays during the 'mind travelling' scene, which seems to be trying to sound ominous, but the core music is far too happy to achieve that.

Puma Man has got a fair bit wrong with it, but I still think it's great fun. The MST3K version is very funny, and that comes heartily recommended, but I also suggest you watch the film on its own if you can stand excessive cheesiness, as it does stand reasonably well on its own two feet...