Yuletide Terror – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

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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.

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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

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ANNOUNCEMENT! – ‘Tis the season of Yuletide Terror

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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!

Predator: Dark Ages (2015) – Comic-Con Premiere Review & Watch the Film!

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I have returned, like a six foot Hobbit, to my quiet little village in the Highlands safely and relatively unscathed, if exhausted and penniless, after a voyage to the big city of London where I attended my first Comic-Con. It was the most incredible three days; surrounded by cosplayers, merchandise, artists, food, and weird “squashy loaf of bread” toys from Japan. I was also lucky enough to drop by the world premiere of Predator fan-film “Predator: Dark Ages” followed by a Q&A from the cast & crew. The film has since been made available online, it follows my mini review.

This is just awesome.

Walking into the Vidzone tent to see an independent fan film I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. My fears were dispelled about 0.3 seconds into the movie however, when it was evident that this is an incredibly slickly produced short. Running just over 25 minutes, the budget of about £13,000 is a bit more than nothing, but it has been very well spent; the quality of this film could easily sit aside professionally produced films that cost many times that amount per minute. The cast have a very impressive collective CV, and it shows. A tightly written script that restrains itself to only a handful of cheeky throwbacks to other entries in the franchise is carried brilliantly by the cast. A slow build pays off with fantastic effects, brutal gore and brilliant fight scenes – everything a fan of the original movie(s) could have hoped for.

“U HAVIN A GIGGLE M8?”

The tropes of the two genres have been thrown together perfectly, to the point that it doesn’t feel like a fan film theorising “What would happen if…”, but it feels like a legitimate entry to the franchise, and a bloody good one at that. It doesn’t take liberties with the material, remaining wholly faithful in tone and content, but does give a great insight to the nature of the Predator that I think also fits brilliantly with the franchise as a whole. One question threatened to tear the fim apart, as to why the Predator still has the laser gun & heat tracking technology 1000 years ago, but this was calmly shut down by the director who pointed out that they had this technology 3000 years ago in the Aztec sections of Alien vs. Predator. So there.

I wish I could find something bad to say about this film, but it’s too difficult. All I can say is watch it NOW!

10/10

Extraterrestrial (2014) – Review

extraterrestrial

Just in case the Vicious Brothers felt they were risking becoming typecast as supernatural found-footage directors after their incredibly well-received Grave Encounters and its sequel they took a sudden turn with this movie, a mostly traditionally-shot Sci-Fi/horror mashup pitting the standard troupe of teenagers partying in a cabin in the woods against vicious (heh) alien invaders.

Like moths, actors are attracted to blue lights

That’s about all there is to say about the setup of the movie. The opening scene sets the tone pretty firmly; with incredible visual flair a poor sod is zapped away by some unknown presence, leaving local police baffled, especially since the phone box disintegrated with him. This strong sense of visuals carries through the movie with no end of red and blue lights and a very modern glossy sheen to everything, it looks like something the 1980’s could only have dreamed of. Once we finally see them fully the design of the aliens is basically the standard “alien” trope, nothing particularly original, but this is often the point of the movie in my opinion; so many elements are throwbacks to standard tropes of the Sci-Fi and horror genres, it’s doesn’t seem like an entirely original movie was the aim, more a unique blend of the two genres in their purest forms – a cinematic smoothie. This could be seen as a strength or a weakness for different people but for me the result was such a bizarre, jarring experience that I actually loved every minute of it.

It’s like this, but imagine Drew Barrymore getting her face torn off in 1.5 seconds

It jumps wildly from “cabin in the woods” slasher to government conspiracy to all-out alien action, with characters and tropes of each genre, often interacting with each other with such dissonant tones and various concurrent plot threads that could never belong together in the same movie unless it was helmed by the gleeful, almost stubborn persistence that the Vicious Brothers have shown here. As such it’s not always easy to determine what will happen next – it could be argued that much of the plot is cliched with hindsight but the question remains which genre’s cliches the next plot twist will adhere to! The main cast are perfectly likeable; performances aren’t stand-out but neither are they awful; and certain characters are given some heartfelt backstories and relations that are often fairly predictable but still give a welcome human depth to the plot and characters.

“Terribly sorry to interrupt your soirée, but someone appears to have left their headlights on”

I’m sure this isn’t a film for everyone – some other reviews I’ve read confirm this, but for me it was a consistently entertaining ride and I would happily watch it again. While this is of course far from the first Sci-Fi-Horror, and no question far from the best (though it has some extremely high competition against Alien & co.), it is quite unique in the way it merges the two genres as separate entities rather than settling on some middle ground. As would be expected for the established horror directors the horror elements of this movie are very effective – plenty of tense cat & mouse sequences, a number of decent scares and some brutal gore should satisfy any horror fiend who doesn’t mind a film that plays on the genre conventions & doesn’t always take itself too seriously.

7/10

Chappie (2015) – Review

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I’m going to start this review with a sentence very similar to a lot of other people’s reviews of Chappie that I’ve read: I absolutely loved District 9 and was incredibly excited to see what Blomkamp was able to do with a similar, alternate-reality South African setting, a higher budget, and assumably more experience. I still haven’t seen Elysium, partially due to laziness, partially because I can’t stand Matt Damon, but largely because of the bad things I’ve heard about it. Even Blomkamp himself recently said he “fucked it up”, so I’m still not dying to see it. Back to Chappie however; based on his 2004 short Tetra Vaal,  merging Blomkamp’s brilliant way of creating an overblown, yet entirely believable alternate world with ideas reminiscent of Robocop, Artificial Intelligence, et al, pitting foul-mouthed underworld gangsters against high-tech scientists, and throwing in a couple of sick He-Man: Masters of the Universe references, this is by no means a “safe” blockbuster. In fact, this film is absolutely barmy, whether that’s a good thing or not.

“Right, imagine there was a ROBOT, that was a COP…”

This film is all over the place. That isn’t even necessarily a bad thing; it’s consistently entertaining, and it’s very hard to predict what is going to happen next when you aren’t always entirely sure what just happened. That’s not to say the film is hard to understand, but it relentlessly fires what feel like key scenes at you like a cinematic gatling gun, each offering up new moral questions, plot threads, motifs, or setpieces. For every idea to be fully developed and resolved the film could easily run four hours or more. What we’re left with is not necessarily a film that makes us think about any of the interesting & well-meaning, but ultimately half-baked issues for a particularly long time, but a ridiculously fun rollercoaster that would not be out of place in a 1980’s video store.

Ninja spends the film making silly faces and talking in gibberish, like an alien who’s pretending to be a human.

Another layer to the unique experience that Chappie offers is just how incredibly odd certain aspects of it are, mostly in the casting and direction of the characters. The oddest thing of all is Die Antwoord. Everything about them really. In fact, I was tempted to subtitle this review “Why Antwoord?” or “Die AntWhy?” but they’re both terrible ideas. Yolandi and the embarassingly named Ninja play characters of the same names, who drive around in their incredibly ‘gangsta’ style whilst listening to music by Die Antwoord (or some approximation of music anyway) and wearing Die Antwoord merchandise. This confused me perhaps much more than it should have done, as I tried to work out whether Die Antwoord exist in this movie’s universe and they are playing their own fans, whether they were depicting fictional equivalents of themselves, or what the hell was going on with this cross-promotional nightmare. Ninja is incredibly unlikable, a trait that it seems is not so much the result of good acting, but reality shining through the fiction. Apparently he was a total nob on set, with Neill Blomkamp writing him out of pickups just so he didn’t have to bear with him on set, and an unnamed cast member referring to him as “that pile of shit”. Yolandi, however, is impossible to define. Frankly I find her irritating to look at with her otherworldly make-up & garish clothing, her voice is grating and her acting resembles the panicked enthusiasm of a high school drama fanatic. But somehow she’s so damned likable that I feel immensely guilty for finding her annoying, a really warmed to her character as the film progressed. Dev Patel is once again playing a cardboard cutout of himself, with an emotional range that extends from slightly happy to slightly upset while Hugh Jackman & Sigourney weaver are fantastic, with Weaver playing an unquestionable authority figure and Jackman being so angry even Wolverine would be passing him a Mars Bar to try and calm him down. Most of these characters are so extreme, and feel deliberately two-dimensional without becoming hollow and boring. It’s all like a live-action cartoon. Not an adaptation of a cartoon, literally a live-action cartoon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, but may make outsiders of other viewers.

“I am SO mad right now! 😡 #angry”

Saving the best for last, Chappie himself is truly the star of this film. His character seems to be developed far greater than any human on screen (perhaps in a deliberate move, nudging us towards the central questions the movie presents). Little touches in his movements, intonations in his voice, and subtle expressions created only by a small LED panel & some moving bars on his “face” all contribute to conveying this. You really feel for his character, no matter how much Ninja & co aim to twist his morals, no matter how foul his language becomes in some hilarious scenes, he consistently retains a childlike innocence & an unquestioning loyalty that is impossible to dislike. I’m a special effects snob; bad CGI takes me right out of a film; but I realised through the third act that I had genuinely forgotten Chappie was not really there. His interaction with the real world and actors is pulled off stunningly but filmed in such a matter-of-fact manner. It’s all very reminiscent of the incredible FX work on District 9, and showcases what is clearly a strength in Blomkamp’s filmmaking.

OOOOH THIS PICTURE MOVES!!! Oh and effects are very good.

It’s not going to be a film for everyone, I feel many of the points I made could be seen as good or bad depending on your view, and throwing in countless logical anomalies (“How is this arms dealer so easy to steal from?” etc) it’s easy to see how someone could write a scathing review but I found it entertaining from beginning to end & the two hours flew by and that’s enough for me. It’s so odd I see it becoming something of a cult hit over time, not least because it straddles being far too good to be an all-out B-Movie, but is far too ridiculous to be a mainstream, serious film. Unashamedly unique, there’s a hundred things I’d have done differently if I’d made it, but this is Neill Blomkamp’s film – he’s certainly made it his own. And that’s an increasingly rare trait in big-budget films these days.

7/10

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

In 1972 Toho ran a competition for school children to design their own Kaiju; the winner would have their creation seen on the big screen. In a decision that I refuse to accept as truth, the ‘best’ entry was a humanoid robot named Red Alone. The name was changed to Jet Jaguar and his feature film went into development with him facing off a new monster; Megalon. During pre-production however they realised how terrible Jet Jaguar was, so the obvious solution was “Let’s just put Godzilla in it”. Production started immediately, reportedly lasting just three weeks. It’s fairly clear how this is going to go.

“Look, I’ll give you an autograph only if you promise to stay out of my films”

Godzilla vs. Megalon opens with a nuclear test practically destroying Monster Island, upsetting the inhabitants as well as the citizens of Seatopia ; an underwater nation whose presence isn’t questioned or explained, and is portrayed in a manner that can only be described as ‘Greeks in a 1950’s spaceship set’. They’re so angry that they summon their ‘beetle with drills for arms’ God Megalon to wreak havoc on earth who bursts out of a riverbed in a sequence that is actually very effective. I fear the budget may have been blown with this moment though, because many of the monster sequences are painful to watch. This feeling is made all the worse by Jet Jaguar, who is the invention of our earth-based protagonists that manage to get themselves knocked out by goons all too frequently but have a number of entertaining scenes. In a first for the series, this means the human story is actually more bearable than the monster scenes. Light relief comes courtesy of Jet Jaguar’s ridiculous arm gestures that apparently prepare him for flight, and seeing him getting punched repeatedly. The highlight of the film is without question the bizarre, hilarious moment Godzilla discovers a new gravity-defying fighting move.

10/10

This is far from the worst Godzilla film I’ve seen so far, but it does have rather few redeeming features. One great sequence early on (the river draining) and some enjoyable moments in the human storyline aren’t enough to save this film. It manages to make the most fundamental, usually most reliably entertaining part of these films – monsters fighting each other – boring. Ultimately it was clearly made in a hurry, to try and squeeze a bit more money from the commitment to make a Jet Jaguar movie.

3/10

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Two years after Godzilla vs. Hedorah made reasonable steps in trying to drop the goofy, childish tone that the franchise had slowly erred into, Godzilla vs. Gigan pushes this further. It’s a more violent entry that continues the reinvention of the famous lizard as Earth’s eco-saviour, saving us from the evils of our own creation, but this time with no child protagonist in sight, leaving the adults to carry the story along. Or at least try to…

Godzilla: “GEEZ YER LUNCH MONEY OR ELSE” – Anguirus: “Yeeah… or else”

After some pretty cool laser effect opening titles, Godzilla vs. Gigan follows a simple graphic designer as he tries to sell his Kaiju stories to various comic book publishers with no success. Eventually he gets a lot of interest from the operators of the incomplete World Children’s Land, centred around the life-size Godzilla Tower. Finding himself working alongside the shady businessmen who claim to be working towards world peace, he is accosted by another group of people claiming the same thing. Somewhere in this un-gripping but reasonably fast-paced plot there are illegible audio tapes that somehow are heard and understood by Godzilla and Anguirus on Monster Island. There are a few too many forced attempts at humour from these characters, and when they don’t really offer much else beyond simply forwarding the plot it makes them a bit annoying. At other times the tone of the film is trying to be more serious than the content; a certain big reveal mid-way through is laughably awful, lifted straight from the cheesiest B-Movies of the 50’s, but it’s played straight-faced, as are many of the moments in this film that would have benefitted from the sort of campy tone that made Invasion of the Astro-Monster so great.

SKWAAWK!

Thankfully this film affords the monsters a good portion of the runtime, including a brilliant extended introduction to King Ghidorah’s new ally; the scythe-armed, bandsaw-bellied space-parrot called Gigan. This is probably the best-looking monster rampage of the franchise so far, with explosions and fire aplenty providing much of the lighting for the night-based sequence, and some brilliant shots showing off the monsters. Later battles are almost as good, with some fun tag-team style moves and a surprising amount of blood shed by the monsters. As seen once or twice before, the monsters occasionally “talk”. But with no translators, and with the film not taking place in a child’s dream, inspired moments show comic-book speech bubbles appearing on the screen; a hint of the tone that could have made the main plot of this film so much more entertaining.

I can’t print the translation to that. Godzilla, you foul-mouthed monster!

Confidently proving that vs. Hedorah wasn’t a flukey step in the right direction, this film casts aside the childish elements that were fast running the franchise into the ground, but doesn’t offer much to replace them leaving the human story very bare and unsatisfying, with some themes plastered in that cross the line of feeling almost preachy at times. The monsters once again do their best to rescue not only Tokyo, but the film itself.
6/10

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

After the abomination that was All Monsters Attack I found it a bit wearisome to see how many Godzilla films I had left. Encouraging is the general consensus that it is the worst one of the lot, so onwards and upwards hopefully, onto 1971’s offering; Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

Awesome.

The general tone of this entry casts aside the children’s matinee feeling that had the last few films slowly nudged the franchise into, this is an evasive eco-awareness story, opening with a cheerful-sounding song typical of the era. The subtitles alert us however to the fact that the lyrics paint a brutal image of pollution to the sea and air eventually causing the demise of mankind, with the refrain being a desperate plea for the sun to return to earth. A pretty sombre message considering the previous film was about a little boy running around with a talking mini-Manilla (I’ll try to eventually stop moaning about All Monsters Attack). Continuing the theme, the titular monster, while looking actually pretty awesome, is basically an enormous pile of sulfur-exuding, smog-inhaling sludge that literally represents the effects of pollution on the earth. Godzilla here turns eco-warrior, not only setting upon Hedorah as the title hints at, but getting pretty miffed at the nasty piles of junk and muck floating around the Japanese coastline. Theme tune aside the message doesn’t feel like it’s being mashed into the film forcefully, it’s more clever than that, making “pollution is bad” an integral part of the story. The monster scenes are considerably slower-paced, with more time featuring them facing off, building up to the fights, and letting us see a much more intelligent Godzilla as he measures up his foe and eventually employing tools to defeat him.

Mmmm… cars.

All this seems very dark, serious and almost adult again, and a number of scenes showing Hedorah’s effect on people are pretty unpleasant, but somehow we once again have a small child as a main character who inexplicably knows what Godzilla’s up to & comes up with all the answers the scientists can’t figure out. It’s a complete contradiction of my previous comment that it chucks out the child’s matinee tone, and that’s the biggest issue with this film; it is in itself a constant contradiction. It flips between dark and grim, to childish and almost whimsical. And that’s before I begin to mention the weird moments that sit in a tone of their own such as the few brief animated sequences. Or the subplot where, basically, a group of hippies have a party in the middle of nowhere for no reason (complete with electric guitars and keyboards somehow). Or the new hidden talent that Godzilla reveals very near the end…

Wait, what?

It’s largely a decent return to form for the Godzilla franchise, with a strong purpose, some great scenes of devastation & monster mayhem and some awesome “hero” shots of the lizard. Hedorah’s design is fantastic, somehow making a monster suit that both actually looks like a gloopy pile of sludge, and is quite a horrific sight for the right reasons.  However, the enjoyment and involvement is frequently broken by odd events that make you wonder what you’re actually watching, and shifts in tone that suggest they couldn’t quite commit to a return to a more adult film. Despite it’s issues, it represents a massive step back in the right direction, and certianly enough to rekindle my interest.

6/10

Lifeforce (1985) – Review

Following the enormous success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist (with the enjoyable The Funhouse in between doing pretty well too), Tobe Hooper signed a three film deal with Cannon Films, the company famed for their flurry of crazy films through the 1980’s. Both parties had big ideas of adapting the subtly titled novel Space Vampires to shake their respective  images as horror director and exploitation film studio, and this $25 million blockbuster was released… To near indifference, as it received mixed reviews and made back less than half it’s budget at the Box Office. What may have been forgotten about slowly became a cult hit, with a high-concept blend of sci-fi & horror, eventually prompting the dependable Arrow Video to release a special edition Blu-Ray. Does it deserve to remain forgotten or is it an under-appreciated gem?

Blue lights… it’s definitely an 80’s film.

Opening with blockbuster intent, the powerful score accompanies some spectacular scenes of asteroids and a space shuttle, as the British/American crew of the Churchill investigate Halley’s Comet. There’s a brilliantly handled mixture of suspense, mystery and a strong visual flair to the whole section of the film that takes place in space, as the investigation unearths alien activity in the form of a famously nude Mathilda May. The camera floats around dreamily, really helping to sell the zero-gravity effect, plus showing off the set designs with their vast & desolate, yet visually striking presence. The effects in deep space shots have inevitably dated, but rather than looking objectively bad, there’s an almost cel-shaded, unique quality to many of them that I felt enhanced the otherworldly feel of this section of the film. Returning to earth rather abruptly we’re left to discover the fate of the Churchill’s crew at the same time as the search party. I try to avoid spoilers but let’s be realistic; if the novels’ titular “Space Vampires” sat playing Monopoly with the humans there wouldn’t be much of a film. Their intent is slowly revealed throughout the film, in a surprisingly clever Rashomon-effect manner, relying on characters’ revelations. Though according to they’re being honest or true or being deceived the “truth” can change. With a film that already merges different genres together, adding this element of mystery really creates a unique experience. True to the horror element however, the means by which the Vampires acquire their sustenance has some horrendous results, with some genuinely shocking moments and fantastically unpleasant practical effects.

SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH

With the basic synopsis being; Tobe Hooper directs Cannon Films’ movie where space vampires are brought back to earth from Halley’s Comet, only to break free and cause chaos around London; it would be easy to assume that this is on some level a campy film, or at least has moments of humor. However, it is rare any of the uptight British characters or the tough-talking Americans crack a smile, let alone the film having any moments of comic relief. It’s an entirely straight-faced, sombre affair that would have so easily misfired into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory if it wasn’t so masterfully pulled off. For the most part, the cast are excellent, with some unexpectedly esteemed faces including  (later Sir) Patrick Stewart. It’s a shame however, given everything that the first two acts work so hard to achieve, that the third veers into the territory of yet another _____ of the Dead clone. It may have been budgetary constraints, as I’m sure the near-apocalyptic sequences in London were intended to be more exciting and more unique than what we’re ultimately presented with, and the alternative would have been having the big events unseen which would be even worse. It manages to narrowly avoid descending into visual gags and the like, so while this is by far the weakest part of the film, it isn’t destroyed in these moments. Thankfully returning to point towards the end, the crescendo of the film is as unpredictable and exciting as much that precedes it.

“Glasgow’s miles better”? Looks just like Glasgow to me.

I often see debate surrounding Tobe Hooper’s quality as a director, with some passing off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s most terrifying and difficult to watch moments as happy accidents; the result of the poor technical aspects of the film rather than masterful direction; and perhaps the same people perpetuating the belief that Poltergeist was practically directed by Steven Spielberg. Whatever truth lies in these stories, Lifeforce for me certainly adds another impressive entry to his early catalogue. Rather than reinvent Cannon’s label as exploitation masters, Hooper has managed something perhaps even harder; to make the signature excess and gratuity seem classy.

9/10

Critters (1986) – Review

Critters was released in 1986, and was definitely not a cash-in on the success of Gremlins two years prior (incidentally one of my favourite films of all time). It was apparently written before the Joe Dante film was released and they claim to have actually reworked the script to make it less similar. Regardless, it’s not the first time, and far from the last time, that two films have stark similarities so I’m not going to try and draw comparisons between them. (But obviously it’s nowhere near as good as Gremlins.)

Eeeewww.

The sci-fi opening to this film immediately demonstrates the good intent of this film. It has a visibly low budget, but a great deal of care has gone into the sets and costumes of this sequence. It’s a simple set-up scene with the “Crites” escaping a meteor prison (?). The apparent chief, an obese blue… thing, instructs two bounty hunters to hunt them down. No explanation is given about any of this, and it’s perhaps for the best. On their way to Earth, they take on human form in a sequence with some awesome Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque effects. One of them takes their form from a transmission of fictional rock star Johnny Steele’s music video “Power of the Night”. This is seemingly an enormous hit in the film’s setting as it’s played repeatedly by different characters throughout the film, but oddly no one ever seems to recognise the alien who’s taken on his image, but I digress. This duo is given some of the best scenes of the film, as they wreak havoc across the town in their search for the Crites. Their deadpan destruction lends a genuine dark humour to the film that carries over in many later scenes.

“Take me to your leader”

We are also introduced to a family that lives in Kansas. Supposedly the main characters, they’re lifted directly from every family film that has ever been made; the troublemaking brother that irritates his older sister and their parents who are just there with little purpose beyond the Dad owning a shotgun and the Mum from E.T. screaming a lot. They’re likeable enough, but a little bit too long is spent setting up their paper-thin characters, and those of some other citizens of the town, with some incredibly awkwardly acted/directed dialogue and ensuring that the boy has plenty of dangerous toys and hobbies that would come in handy in the slim possibility that a group of alien beasts started terrorising them, or anything like that.

Etc.

It seems like quite a long time after the opening scene that the Crites feature again, and they’re only seen in brief glimpses for the first part which gives a good build-up to the attacks.Eventually it builds to a full face-off which is exciting and tense and funny when intended, especially a gag involving the Crites’ subtitles that I expect will be rehashed through the sequels. It does feel like this film was dialled back to attain a more family-friendly rating as the brief glimpses of somewhat nasty deaths coupled with the antics of the bounty hunters and wide pool of expendable secondary characters suggest much darker early drafts, but the result is an entertaining, funny sci-fi monster movie that’s a good introduction to this type of horror for younger viewers and a good, if almost entirely by-the-numbers example of 80’s horror, for better or worse depending on your view (in my opinion for the best).

7/10