Yuletide Terror – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

santa-claus-movie-poster

This post is the first part of my Yuletide Terror season, featuring all sorts of ‘alternative’ Christmas movies; it’ll mainly be horror, but I’m starting with this Sci-Fi oddity from 1964

There’s a special place in most nerds’ hearts for the Sci-Fi B-Movies of the 1950′; despite the often terrible acting, and often terrible effects, and often terrible storylines there is an innocent charm and defiant inventiveness about them that is rarely matched by any other genre and/or time period of films. There are of course some excellent examples of effects (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) and some genuinely good films among this genre, but my point is that even those that fall short of the expected standard often have some lovable quality that makes them entertaining in a way that cannot be equaled. So, when this genre became rather mainstream if not over-saturated by the 1960’s it seems only natural that someone would think to make a Christmas movie in the genre. So was born Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Surely the combination of Christmas charm and B-Movie charm is a sure fire way to a cult classic? Well…

I don’t know which one we should be more afraid of…

The film’s opening credits are accompanied by the bizarre surfer rock-esque theme song performed by the Seventh Circle of Hell Children’s Choir. The few minutes the credits last ends up being somewhat like being punched in the ears repeatedly with concrete fists, but in retrospect I think that a further 80 minutes of exactly that may be more enjoyable than the film itself. These 80 minutes are stuffed with filler; people taking an uncomfortably long time to pull levers, long boring scenes of air force stock footage, and similar. However the moments that do contain a plot revolve around the inhabitants of Mars who are noticing their children become particularly despondent each year around the month of ‘Septober’ (yeah), which happens to be December on Earth. Because they are all able to watch TV transmissions from Earth (yeah) they are aware of Christmas and the excitement of Santa arriving so the Martian leader sets out to kidnap Santa and bring Christmas joy to his people’s children.

“For the last time Mr Clause; we are NOT children!”

In itself the plot allows for exactly what this says on the box; an weird, yet inventive and enjoyable Christmas-themed B-Movie; but the execution is just awful on every level without any charm or redemption. There isn’t an actor in the movie who I’d say is even acceptable; the children are unbearable, the ‘comic relief Martian’ merely waves his arms around all the time in a feeble attempt to make us laugh, while the other Martians are so flat-toned that it feels like it’s meant to make them seem scary in some way but it just makes everything they say incredibly boring (which is a real problem when they take up at least 90% of the movie). The real star should of course be Santa, but even he is played like a geriatric alcoholic who makes awkward and entirely unfunny jokes at every opportunity (even his own abduction), and who has such little wit & awareness that he ends up being saved more than a couple of times by the 8 & 10 year old children abducted from Earth alongside him who you’d think he really should be protecting.

santamartians2

There’s probably a Japanese mange subculture dedicated to this

I spoke previously of poor effects in B-Movies being accepted in their own way, but this really pushes the limit. Even though my cheaply produced DVD of the movie has an awful, perhaps even VHS-sourced transfer, I could see the awful sets, botched together costumes, and don’t even get me started on the Polar Bear that is CLEARLY a man in a suit. The Martians are people wearing far-too-tight green costumes with enormous helmets sporting tubes and antennae at various angles with green/silver paint roughly smeared on their faces with a coverage that varies depending on the sweatiness of the actor. The worst effects of all are hard to pick, but perhaps it comes in the scene set in one of Mars’ great forests; a too long, panning, establishing shot suggests they were proud of the work here but some red lumps resembling tree branches with fake spiders webs strewn over them would not be good enough even for Ed Wood’s Mars-based feature. Speaking of Mars’ great forests; any movie is allowed some passes from real-world logic, and any Sci-Fi movie some techno-babble, but that isn’t to say the script can be comprised of nothing but the above elements. At every stage it’s totally unclear how characters know certain things, such as one of Santa’s Elves exclaiming “They’re Martians!” when the green-paint-smeared humanoids walk in even though they are the first creatures on planet Earth ever to witness the aliens. I always work to avoid spoilers in my reviews so I can’t be more specific because most of the major plot points in this film require the writers to simply assume that a character knows something that is otherwise totally unexplained, or for a threat to suddenly have a fatal weakness that had previously gone unmentioned. The quote “It… it turned into a toy!” should be enough explanation for anyone who has already seen this film.

“Can I get my make-up redone?” “KEEP ROLLING!”

This film stands with one foot in the so-bad-it’s-good section of cinema that I adore so much, but never manages to remain for too long. The unintentional jokes wear thin after a while, when the intentional jokes remind us they did expect us to laugh at this film for entirely different reasons, and it all becomes rather tiresome after a while. It does remain good-bad enough in sporadic bursts however to be entertaining for the most hardy aficionados of crap cinema, just don’t expect to introduce anyone to the potential joy of terrible movies with this one. You have to WANT to find this one funny to have any chance of finding some dark enjoyment here. It’s a challenge, believe me.

1/10

Advertisements

ANNOUNCEMENT! – ‘Tis the season of Yuletide Terror

silent-night

It all of a sudden turns out to be December, and as such the Christmas decorations are all around our apartment, we’re figuring out what to buy for friends and family that they don’t already have, and in general having a really nice time in what would otherwise be a very cold and dark Norwegian Winter. This season brings in tow it’s own genre of movies, which I love, but among those cozy and delightful Disney films & heartwarming family films there’s a certain darker side to Christmas Cinema, one that intrigues me most of all. So I’m starting a mini season of reviews called Yuletide Terror where I’ll work through as many of these dark and strange Christmas ‘Classics’ as I can. There’s more information on the dedicated page for the season… HERE!

Save UK cult video distributors from BBFC regulation changes

As my fledgling blog may have suggested, I’m a big fan of Arrow Video. They have gained a worldwide reputation for releasing fantastic editions of otherwise near-impossible to find obscure horror, video nasties and other forgotten gems, all complete with hours of exclusive, in-depth features on the making or the wider impact of these films. There are a number of other labels with similar reputations based in the UK (BFI, Masters of Cinema, Shameless Entertainment, etc) that altogether make this country a great base for fans around the world to get hold of these films in the highest quality possible, without having to resort to buying poorly transferred, cheaply made releases or piracy.

One of Arrow’s most popular recent releases; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

However.

These filled-to-the-brim releases are possible because the BBFC exempts documentaries from being classified; thus it is usually only the films themselves that need to be examined by them on their by-the-minute fees which, as you can see on their fees calculator, means a 90 minute film costs £615+ VAT. Meanwhile, various pop acts have been making naughty music videos and performing on TV wearing less clothes than seems appropriate for the British climate. These seemingly innocuous events have summoned Mary Whitehouse from the grave who has instructed the Department of Culture, Media & Sport that these antics are going to ruin the lives of the children of the country, and also that parents are physically incapable of turning the channel if their fragile-minded cherubs are in the room. Therefore, the only suitable option that remains is to change the legislation allowing this disgusting material to be distributed without censorship; that the BBFC’s government-supplied regulations must now apply to material classified as ‘documentary’.

Literally the devil*

Back to the original point, this new legislation will mean that the likes of Arrow Video will have to submit and pay for classification of every one of the extra features, tallying up a bill probably 3 or more times that of the current guidelines. The much-publicised example comes from Nucleus Films who released an incredible 3 DVD set of Jake West’s equally brilliant documentary Video Nasties: The Definite Guide. Containing original trailers for every ‘Video Nasty’, these alone were submitted & classified as an 18 by the BBFC, but the hours of documentary content all passed as exempt. Under the new regulations, Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris has explicitly stated that they couldn’t re-release this set as the classification would cost them around £7,000. These specialist labels don’t work on great profit margins, so multiplying their classification costs in this way will mean they may find themselves left with three options;

1) Close the doors and give up.

2) Massively increase the price of the packages and probably go out of business when no-one buys them.

3) Forego the extra features that made them famous in the first place.

Meanwhile, the TV shows and pop artists this change is supposed to be clamping down on will continue their risqué broadcasts because the incurred fees will be a drop in the ocean for the companies involved, and I personally think there are barely any performances or videos that would warrant more than a 12A, probably rarely above a PG, meaning they ultimately wouldn’t be restricted at all. I don’t think that these labels are being directly targeted, more being completely ignored and so accidentally crushed by the clomping boots of the department that ought to be championing them for making the UK such a force in the independent home video scene.

Naturally this article has a point. There’s a formal petition online to add your name to the fast-growing list of people who disagree with these changes. I really think it is trying to fix an issue with the music and TV industries that doesn’t actually exist, not fixing it anyway, and causing massive repercussions to the home video industry in the process.

*Disclaimer: I actually like Lady Gaga for the record

Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This review is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

After the massively successful Gojira this sequel was rushed into production and released only a year after the first. In my review of Gojira I mentioned that it would be interesting to see how the transition was made from a powerful atom-bomb allegory to the stereotypical Godzilla that fights a seemingly unlimited onslaught of beasts. It turns out that the transition was rather sudden, as Godzilla Raids Again introduces Anguirus; a dinosaur awoken by the same atomic bomb tests that awake Godzilla who, we are told through some painfully blatant & unexplained exposition, is extremely aggressive towards other similarly sized reptiles.

I’d be annoyed if an atomic bomb woke me up too

This film, probably due to its hurried production, has nothing like the careful, restrained effects of the first; fights between Godzilla and Anguirus are occasionally reasonable but the majority of the time less than good. Some sequences are sped up making them look nothing less than laughable, and the quality of the suits really doesn’t allow the fully-lit, long shots that make up these sequences. Inbetween these sequences are various human stories. The main plot is about two pilots who first discover Godzilla and end up in the teams trying to stop him. This is a pretty straight forward plot, with a Saturday matinee mix of light comedy and light romance, with a few brief but intriguing moments thrown in that seem to challenge some misogynistic ideals of the era. One or two other plots appear without warning that on one hand give the film a wider scope, showing some different perspectives on the city’s destruction, but on the other hand make very little sense in context, meandering along for 5 or 10 minutes without a clear purpose before disappearing from the movie, having created a setpiece for more key characters to be involved in. It’s an interesting way of telling the story but the way it’s pulled off here feels very disjointed and setpieces feel quite forced rather than organically forming as this style could have allowed. That said, regardless of how they’re created, the setpieces in this film have a great sense of spectacle that foreshadows the very visually-charged stylings of more recent Japanese films (not just Kaiju films).

“We need a sequel written by the end of week”

While I was completely aware that my expectation had to be held back as I moved on from the brilliant first movie, I was still disappointed to find this film sitting uncomfortably between the darker, more realistic tone of Gojira and the spectacular, outlandish tone the latter movies are known for, never willing to commit to one or the other. In the context of the series it serves as an interesting transition, but as a standalone movie I had difficulty finding much to enjoy, ultimately being glad of the relatively short 80 minute runtime.

4/10

Gojira (1954) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Godzilla is a franchise known primarily for men in rubber dinosaur suits fighting each other. However, to start my marathon review of every single Godzilla film I naturally go back to the first one and though I have seen it before, it always manages to surprise me with just how good it is. Much more than ridiculous giant monster action (that I’ll no doubt soon be reviewing with glee nonetheless), this film has a very strong dramatic presence. It’s no secret that this is a thinly veiled way of dealing with Japan’s shock from the then-recent Nagasaki & Hiroshima atomic bombings. It was taboo to make a film directly depicting the bombings or indeed war at all at the time, so Toho produced Gojira which manages at once to transpose the frenzy, horror, and despair of the events into an awesome monster movie.

The reptile in question isn’t actually visibly present for the first half an hour or so, with his attacks being presented from a personal, human perspective. It isn’t clear what is causing the disasters to happen and the civilian hysteria is coupled with a mixture of bemusement and arrogance in the political world, instantly hitting some very raw nerves from World War 2. The building tension throughout this section is brilliantly executed too. Some pretty horrific disaster scenes for the time and the complete mystery of the cause all comes to a head when our main characters first witness Godzilla looming over a mountaintop. This first glimpse is… well… actually, it’s pretty terrible.

It’s a shame that this first glimpse is so poor as many later scenes have pretty convincing effects, especially in longer shots where careful lighting and composition coupled with some great composite shots and miniatures really sell the difficult image of a 50-metre reptile destroying Tokyo. Close-ups do suffer in the same way as the first sighting we have, but the content of the film is good enough that these shots only take you out of the action for a brief moment. And you can’t be too harsh on a film that was made 60 years ago which pioneered the new ‘suitmation’ style of effects.

That’s more like it

The destruction of Tokyo is certainly on a wide scale but never creeps over the line to be sensational as there are constant glimpses of the true, human horror of it, again echoing scenes from the real-life bombings. A particularly poignant scene featuring reporters broadcasting literally till the end stands out amongst many and when the destruction ends, truly affecting scenes in makeshift hospitals are painfully reminiscent of documentary footage from the real-life aftermath. The strongest hint of B-Movie styling comes from Daisuke Serizawa, the ‘mad scientist’, complete with eye-patch and pseudo-scientific babble. In practice though, Serizawa is a well fleshed out character and in the wider context of the film doesn’t simply avoid being corny; he provides the more difficult moral discussions in this film.

“Bring me a Dutch angle, STAT!”

It’s fascinating to see how the campy monster movie was dissected to create a pretty balanced account of Japan’s recent history that would otherwise have been frowned upon. So too it will be interesting to see how faithfully these origins are treated in the following films. As for this film in itself, that the only real negative point I can make is about a few dated effects shots proves that it’s actually a fantastic film, not just for fans of monster movies – I would call it a truly essential classic, a precursor and template to the blockbusters that fill cinemas nowadays.

10/10

Mac and Me (1988) – Review

Coming 6 years after E.T. the Extra Terrestrial , Mac and Me’s plot is instantly recognisable – an alien finds himself on earth, befriends a young boy with his own problems, people don’t believe the boy for a while as he’s trying to save the alien from the government officials intent on securing the creature. Further to this, a working title for E.T. was E.T. and MeFrom hereon it would be fair to say ‘okay, it’s not the most original concept, but perhaps it’s a nice enough film’. It isn’t. Produced on a reasonable budget of $16 million it bombed at the box office, received abysmal reviews, and has only since gained some vague popularity as the ‘so bad it’s good’ camps (including myself) have discovered it. The titular Mac (Mysterious Alien Creature) and his horrifically deformed family find themselves inexplicably sucked into a NASA probe and brought back to earth. They are separated meaning the allegedly cute but actually quite disturbing Mac finds himself in suburban California. This is where Eric and his Mother & Brother have just moved to, prompting ‘hilarious’ escapades. Eric is wheelchair-bound (the actor playing him has spina bifida), which in itself is worth applauding. The moments  this introduces vary from agreeable fun; such as him using the wheelchair to speed down a hill away from the bad guys; to somewhat questionable; after this chase he careers into oncoming traffic. Also a scene featuring Eric melodramatically wheeling through a meadow swiftly turns into the most inadvertently iconic scene of the movie – what made them think this scene was okay is beyond me.

OH GOD KILL IT

These adventures in suburbia are juxtaposed against increasingly disturbing scenes of Mac’s family trying to make it through the desert to find him. Growing weaker and thinner, they are seen collapsing while the father desperately tries to find some food for them. On their home planet they are seen drinking from underground liquid, but of course in the desert they find none. Mac however finds a substance that matches perfectly – Coca Cola. E.T. has the somewhat infamous Reese’s Pieces product placement, but it wasn’t a major plot point. I’d estimate that a Coca Cola logo is visible in the frame in at least half of the scenes, and the placement doesn’t end there. Skittles are frequently visible for no reason, until one scene where Mac is somehow able to eat them, bringing his earthly diet up to the standard of a 10-year-old’s dream. The simultaneously greatest and worst moment of the film however comes from what I think may be the most outrageous, blatant product placement of any film. An entire key scene is set in a MacDonald’s restaurant, even featuring Ronald MacDonald himself and a main character a member of staff. If this wasn’t enough, literally everyone in the restaurant is dancing with saccharin grins on their faces; it goes so far that it is like watching a 10 minute advert for MacDonalds. Actually, it is not ‘like’ watching one, it IS watching a 10 minute advert. I watched the trailer for the film afterwards and, well, just have a look for yourselves;

Otherwise, acting isn’t shockingly bad but certainly isn’t great and the effects would be reasonably good if it wasn’t for the horrible design of the aliens. The plot plods through in a pretty straight-forward, predictable manner until the final 10 minutes, which come with a couple of surprises, if only because it seems the writers themselves weren’t too sure what should happen. Ending on a foreboding and presumptuous promise of ‘We’ll be Back!’, the unanimously poor reception provided the mercy of there being no sequel. Unfortunately it doesn’t commit to being completely terrible, with a few positive points stopping it from troubling the greatest ‘bad movies’ like Plan 9 From Outer Space & Troll 2, but it has enough misguided scenes and uniquely shameless product placement to satisfy anyone who enjoys this specific genre.

2/10

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) – Review

I wouldn’t hesitate to say the first Return of the Living Dead movie is one of my favourite horrors of all time. The tightly controlled mix of comedy, original ideas for the zombie genre, rising tension, incredible effects, and a number of other components make it so. However, as a long-time horror fan I’ve become accustomed to dramatically lowering my expectations with progressive sequels. This was proven with the second ROTLD which juggled a mediocre, less comedic re-treading of the original with largely poor writing and some original, yet rather odd, ideas. After ages spent avoiding buying the third installment’s out-of-print, overpriced DVD I was overjoyed to see it screening on the Horror Channel. With hindsight, watching it for free on TV was definitely a good decision.

Telling a mostly standalone story, this film feels like a pre-existing script was adapted to include a few references to the previous films. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, because it allows fresh characters and locations to be brought in. Following the trend of the second movie, this film has practically no (intentional) comedy, but doesn’t entirely manage to pull of the dramatic edge it was trying to achieve. Telling a disappointingly Disney-Channel-with-zombies style story it tells of Curt, son of an army Colonel stealing a security card to sneak his girlfriend Julie into his father’s top-secret base to see the experiments they’re carrying out on the dead with the familiar Trioxin gas of the previous installments. Thrown in are some mentions of the absent mother being dead and some ‘father issues’ scenes which could at best be a little out of place in this sort of film, but thanks to the appalling writing and acting proved less entertaining than the advert breaks.

My expression through the dramatic scenes

I normally avoid spoilers in my reviews, but since every poster for the film features a zombie Julie, it isn’t a massive surprise to know that she dies shortly into the film. Returned to life by Curt using the Trioxin gas, the most interesting plot thread is introduced, as they try to run away while she is slowly becoming one of the living dead that they saw at the beginning. Thankfully the only good actor in this film is Melinda Clarke, playing Julie, meaning the scenes showing her struggling with ‘the hunger’ and coming to terms with her death & impending zombification are actually quite good, but only where the supporting actors and/or script don’t jump out to ruin any drama that may have been built up. As well as this, there are a couple of scenes in the first hour featuring some truly disgusting zombie effects. However, these brief glimpses of ‘guite-goodness’ do very little to push the first hour above being more an endurance test than entertaining.

Looks like he has A SPLITTING HEADACHE!!! … Oh.

The final half hour is where the film takes a turn of sorts. Themes, logic and plot cease to have any real bearing for all but a couple of scenes, making way for quite a long duration of all-out madness. Featuring some of the most sadistic, hideous creature effects I’ve seen outside of the likes of Tokyo Gore Police etc, it’s certainly entertaining if nothing else. And it really is nothing else in all fairness. It’s the sort of bizarre horror that, provided you aren’t at all squeamish, is unavoidably funny no matter how serious the tone of the scenes, which really dampen the attempts to regain the dramatic elements of the film (whether or not they had any impact to begin with could be debated).

This film is a real shame – it has some decent ideas and the bare bones of a pretty good plot are all there but from the offset it is just carried out badly. The script is awful, characters range from non-existent to two-dimensional, creature effects aside, most action scenes lack any menace, and I spent much of the duration waiting for it to end. Unmet potential aside, the outrageous final act, with some sadistically imaginative (if rubbery) creature effects are the main positives though I’d still question whether it was a worthwhile way to spend 100 minutes.

2/10

What!? There’s two more sequels???