Movie Reviews 262 – Carnival of Souls (1962)

April 28, 2016

Carnival of SoulsWe’re all familiar with those cheap DVD sets that are chock full of movies that have made their way to public domain oblivion for one reason or another. But those dustbins of disregard do hold a few gems. Some, like Night of the Living Dead, are well known and have even attained cult status however most of the movies are in those bins deservedly, having little or no cinematic value, and are now mere curiosities. But in between those extremes are a few movies that have many failing points but at the same time have unique qualities that raise them above their sloppy siblings. At the top of that list is Carnival of Souls.

What it lacks in fine scripting and quality production values it more than makes up for with a distinct mood and ambiance. On the surface it is a simple story of a young woman named Mary (Candace Hilligoss) who emerges from an accident in which the car she was riding in with friends plunges over a bridge railing killing her companions. She miraculously emerges from the mucky waters as the rescuers look on, but from that day forward suffers from haunting dreams and apparitions of an ashen faced figure.

Driving to a small town to work as their new church organ player, she is intrigued by an abandoned roadside carnival as she drives by. She takes up residence in a boarding house where she has to deal with a simple minded shift worker who immediately starts making advances. Almost as soon as she arrives at the church and practices with the organ, she enters a trancelike state and begins playing a high intensity music piece that has her being fired for playing ‘devil’s music’. She later runs into a doctor who briefly tries to help her with her nightmares, but is constantly drawn to the carnival which she eventually visits, only to have more nightmares, the last finally revealing her true destiny.

Hilligoss’ somewhat stilted acting proved to be a gratifying point as her unassured manner fit in perfectly with her character, uncertain of her place in the world. Her tenuous grip with reality is at the forefront of all her encounters with the landlady, fellow boarder, church pastor and the doctor she meets. Accompanied by a haunting score emphasizing the grand pipe organ imagery throughout, it enhances the subtle yet sincere terror, lending the audience to sympathize with Mary.

A shame that this was director Herk Harvey’s first and only feature as his career afterward was concentrated on industrial and educational films. Casting himself in the role of the ashen ghost figure that traumatizes Mary, Herk displayed a knack for pacing and tension.

Once an obscure oddity itself, the movie has steadily grown in reputation over the years and has cast aside the disparaging label associated with most of the other bin buddies. Easily found as there are many public domain collections and single releases of the movie, it is certainly one to look out for.

Invaders from the North – John Bell (2006)

April 15, 2016

Invaders of the NorthI’ve always enjoyed reading books about comic history almost as much as reading comics themselves. Whether it be the trials and tribulations of Superman’s creators (Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero), the indignities endured by Jack Kirby (Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution) or even essays on select comic runs or graphic novels (Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!). But while my reading on comics history has been diverse, it has also been fairly negligent when it comes to the comic legacy of my own native Canada.

Invaders from the North – How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe is a compilation of essays that capture the history of comic publishing here in the Great White North. This includes the faltering starts and stops during the early years (largely due to economic and protectionist measures in those days) right up to the time the book was published. Author John Bell documents the state of comic affairs over the years with near academic precision and the research to match.

Beginning nearly at the same time as the more prodigious American counterpart publications, the history of Canadian comics since the end of the nineteenth century (embryonic newspaper strips) is well covered including even the smallest of publishers, the titles that were available and, for the most part, the individuals or creative teams responsible. The detail is admirable ranging from the better known titles to the most obscure ones that lasted only a few issues.

One of the most Interesting aspects was learning how Canada was not impervious to the anti-comic hysteria rampant in the US during the 50’s and how events here even led to an entire chapter in Dr. Frederic Wertham’s notorious Seduction of the Innocent which triggered the entire debacle. The events here eerily mimicked those in the US.  I never realized that Canada also held senate hearings of our own and much like famed EC comics (and later MAD magazine) publisher Bill Gaines who spearheaded the defence of the comic industry in the US, we had publisher William Zimmerman doing the same here.  The uproar was national news with even Prime Minister Mackenzie King voicing his jaundiced opinion. Sadly, the end result was also pretty much the same with the establishment of our own Comics Code self imposed by publishers as compromise solution. As much as events here shadowed what was happening across the border, the biggest surprise was we even participated in narrow minded comic burning episodes, the most famous occurring at St-Bernadette, a school in Gatineau, Quebec, which is just a few kilometers from where I live now. All fascinating material!

Other chapters plod through the decades capturing all the high points like Dave Sim’s Cerebus, as well as the more esoteric echelons like the underground comix scene, indie creators, the successful Drawn & Quarterly, and of course some of the French language endeavors over the years, some bridging the language divide that seems omnipresent when discussing Canada on any issue.

Nestled among the essays are two spotlight chapters, the first on uniquely Canadian heroes including Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck, Nelvana, Canada Jack, Northguard, and all the rest of the more iconic heroes. The second spotlight features Chester Brown, discussing his much lauded Louis Riel graphic novel as well as his earlier Yummy Fur.

With a snazzy Dave Cooper art cover, there are plenty of illustrations, clips, and cover art within. Perhaps the best treasure are the many vintage posed and candid photos of most of the writers and artists discussed in the book, sometimes jarringly reminding me of how time flies having met a number of these artists today.

One issue that was a bit of a sore point was how the book was cobbled from various essays  written over the years that in some cases, if not all, evidently contained previously published material. Read as standalone segments, the essays are informative and concise. But when presented as a compiled tome as was done here the segments contain a lot of overlap and are annoyingly repetitive on some points. A much better job could have been done to edit out those portions already documented in other chapters. Another lesser gripe was how the volume bounces through the history and is not presented in any clear chronological order as one would expect of a historical accounting.

If your views on Canadian comics were confined to nothing more than Captain Canuck and Captain Canada, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn of the vast history captured here. A must read for any real Canadian comic fans, young and old. Something to keep in mind as we scour the shelves at our local comic shops today and come across yet another rebirth of Captain Canuck!

Movie Reviews 261 – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

April 9, 2016

What Ever Happened To Baby JaneExhibiting the greatest sibling rivalry and betrayal since Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, silver screen divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford give landmark performances in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a movie that not only delivers a thrilling drama, but borders on horror, both on and off screen.

Davis and Crawford, both former screen vixens that were themselves aging legends at the time of filming, perfectly fit the roles of Hollywood stars past their primes and now long forgotten. Sporting golden curly locks, “Baby” Jane Hudson (Davis) was a cherubic vaudeville child star on the scale of Shirley Temple who not only had adoring children panting for Baby Jane dolls but boasted a signature hit song “I’ve written a Letter to Daddy” that had adults tearing up as well. Conceited and vain, Jane’s later Hollywood career did not amount to much and ended on a scandalous note. Her sister Blanche (Crawford) was overshadowed on stage and bullied by Jane as a child, forever standing in the wings as Jane basked in the glow of her adoring fans, all the while simmering and vowing not to forget. In contrast to Jane, Blanche later blossomed into a headline Hollywood star, eclipsing her sister’s languishing career.

Both sister’s fortunes came crashing to halt one faithful night when a car accident leaves Blanche a paraplegic and bound to life in a wheelchair while sister Jane took the rap as the driver of the car that rammed Blanche. Now, years later and living together in a shared house, the women are all but forgotten when a retrospective of Blanche’s movies airs on TV, regenerating interest and fond memories by Blanche’s fans.

The combination of seeing Blanche’s resurrected fandom and the impending sale of the house they share becomes the tipping point for surly Jane. Her former mere annoyance now becomes outright terror as Jane first toys with her sister, now a captive, and then as she spirals down in  drunken insanity, begins to plan a more permanent deadly solution. Delusional and reminiscent of her past glory, Jane also decides that Blanche isn’t the only one that can rekindle a stagnant career and hires a musician via the want ads so that she can practice her signature song again. She entices a burly session player (Victor Buono) looking only for a quick buck who plays along with her off key parlour rehearsals. But it isn’t long before Jane’s every more complicated conniving becomes deadly, leading to a final scene on a beach where Jane creepily dances on the sand after being subjected to one more shocking surprise.

The screen sibling rivalry was nothing compared to be behind the scenes maneuvers exercised  between two combative divas. The studio tried to make light of that strain even going so far to try to dismiss the friction with select quotes in the DVD extra features, but over the years many other sources have documented the on-set battles. Knowing that Crawford was married to the president of Pepsi Cola, Davis had a contract stipulation that a Coca Cola vending machine be made available on the set. Not to be outdone, Crawford donned hidden lead weights prior to shooting a scene where Davis had to lift her. So celebrated was this feud that books and even a documentary capture the public jabs and taunts they inflicted one another over the years.

Despite the animosity, or more likely because of it, both women gave the performances of their careers, which for a time rekindled their own Hollywood postures, Davis even getting a Oscar nomination for her portrayal as Jane (as did  Buono). Sporting a ghoulish caked makeup and shriveled braids, Davis’ menacing look is unforgettable especially in one scene where she seems to undergo a physical transformation after seeing her own horror in the mirror. Swaying from  utter calm and the voice of reason to flat-out caged terror, Crawford elicits compassion and sympathy as the duel escalates.

So positive was the response to the movie that director Robert Aldrich and the writing team  planned to reunite the diva duo in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte again in 1964, only to have Crawford exit the film shortly after production started.  Oh, what could have been…

Movie Reviews 260 – Perkins’ 14 (2009)

March 31, 2016

Perkins 14Despondent over his son Kyle’s abduction over ten years ago, constable Dwayne Hopper (Patrick O’Kane) leads a despairing life with a mundane marriage and a rebellious teenage daughter. His son’s disappearance was the last of 14 kids who disappeared at the time, victims of a serial abductor and a crime that was never solved. Haunted by the events of that night long ago, he replays the minutiae of what happened over and over in his mind. His obsession has led him to prior false assumptions and accusations in the past, further damaging family bonds and blemishing his career.

While processing local cell inmate Ronald Perkins (Richard Brake) for release for a minor infraction, Dwayne becomes convinced that he is his son’s abductor when he lets slip some unrevealed information and some of his statements turn out to be outright lies. When two constables sent to the Perkins household to check out Dwayne’s outlandish claims fail to respond, Dwayne goes to investigate himself.

Not only do Dwayne’s suspicions turn out to be accurate, but Perkins’ crimes go far beyond mere abduction. As Dwayne peruses videotapes found in a secret lair he learns that the kids, now absent, have not only been kept penned all these years, but that Perkins, a pharmacist, has been subjecting his captives to a cocktail of drugs that have transformed them. As Dwayne and the entire town of Stone Cove soon learn, the Perkins’ 14 now under zombie like trances, are intent on inflicting Perkins’ revenge on the town.

While the beginning storyline is solid, has great characters, presents a fairly original plot and promises a great movie, the latter half deteriorates into a cliché zombie onslaught. After developing complementary side plots tackling marital infidelity, teenage insecurities and other daily grind complications, once the kids run rampant the focus quickly becomes the story of the detached and trapped group trying to escape the mindless horde. Some of the central conflicts still remain, but it’s mostly about dealing with locked doors, crawling through ductwork and the other usual shenanigans of entrapment.

The fact that we know that one of the rampant kids is Kyle is enough to figure out where the story leads (and the inevitable conclusion). Not a terrible movie by any stretch, but it could have been so much better if it didn’t fall into the well trodden zombie path. Also sad that they could not come up with a title that doesn’t give away one of the main questions posed until it is divulged that Perkin’s is the real culprit.

Movie Reviews 259 – Bitch Slap (2009)

March 24, 2016

Bitch SlapThis movie was recommended to me by a friend following my review of Sucker Punch, a similar movie featuring a group of girls teaming together in a surreal world. While Bitch Slap presents itself as a ‘real world’ movie, it’s over the top action, characters and situations border on a fantasy world, at least on a male hormonal level if you get my drift.

It’s hard to say that Bitch Slap is solidly grounded in reality for many reasons starting with the improbability of three of the most stunningly, drop-dead gorgeous women, each contrasting in character, could possibly find themselves banded together. The arcane opening scene presents our girls in a remote near desert setting on some sort of common mission. The ambiguity of that mission is slowly pieced together as the movie goes back chronologically in time from scene to scene, each time answering one question posed by the last scene, only to pose another that requires yet another flashback. The pieces slowly fall into place until we understand the whole picture.

Our three vixens are the redhead leader Hel (Erin Cummings) commanding the boisterous Camero (America Olivo) and the fragile glamour girl Trixie (Julia Voth). They seem to be on the run and are looking for something, but that is all we know. Trying to figure out their next move standing by their car in the desolate landscape with only an abandoned gas station within sight, they pop the trunk to try to get answers from an agitated prisoner (Michael Hurst).  His tortured testimony begins the flashback voyage (with intermittent returns to the desert present) which brings us to dance halls, strip joints, gangster lairs, street parties/brawls, and at least one gratuitous wet T-Shirt contest. The varied characters we meet along the way include a lusting Deputy Fuchs (with the obvious name jokes), the deadly duo of Hot Wire and his sidekick (literally) Kinki the Japanese Harajuku girl, and nuns (!) to name just a few.

While Camaro ingests pills becoming ever more agitated as the movie progresses, the girls relive past events throwing their hair back and modeling a string of ensembles that would be apropos of any cat walk fashion list. The flashback sequences not only reveal the past interactions of all the characters to piece the story together, but also brings to light how each of the girls have their own hidden agendas and even past interactions amongst themselves. The flashback scenes make continual reference to another mysterious big wig named Pinky who is never seen, but embodying all the girls greatest fears.

The triumvirate of girls provide a parallel triad of an endless stream of action, violence and titillation. Despite the R rating the sexuality, while extremely hot with a touch of some lesbian steam (not just from the hot summer sun beating down on them), stops short of vulgar nudity. And just as we near the end and think we have it all figured out, the story throws in one final not so surprising twist.

If all of the above wasn’t enough to convince you to watch this movie I doubt adding the fact that there are cameos from Kevin Sorbo, Lucy Lawless, and Zoë Bell (who also assisted with the stunt choreography) will change your mind. Then again, if you haven’t been hooked yet then this movie is probably not for you. I find measly 4.5 IMDB rating is criminally uncalled-for and misleading and those giving it such a low rating probably warrant a bitch slapping of their own. Sure it’s all fluff, but also a lot fun.

Memos from Purgatory – Harlan Ellison (1961)

March 21, 2016

Memos From PurgatoryI’ve always enjoyed, if not loved Harlan Ellison’s writing. Always controversial, sometimes golden hearted, sometimes grade A  jackass, a leading social rights crusader and staunch supporter of the ERA only to them negate all that credence in a shocking infantile public display of sexual objectification (by groping fellow science fiction grand master Connie Willis onstage at a Worldcon awards ceremony no less). Spanning a career over 60 years and garnering every conceivable genre award imaginable, his talents extend to award winning television screenplays and even comics.

He is vocal on every subject that touches rights and freedoms, a voice for writers and pay equity, and with a litigious bent, he’ll make sure you notice him if you ever cross him in any way. He’s pretty hard to ignore and while you may disagree with some of his ideals, you have to respect the writing.

He’s one of the few authors for whom I can read any of his speculative fiction as well as essays (for example his discourses on television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat).

His introductions are sometimes just as entertaining (and volatile) as the book’s content. All this to say that he is one of those writers for whom I will read (and enjoy) anything he writes, on any topic, in any genre or style.

Memos from Purgatory is one of his earliest books, following in the vein of his first book Web of the City where Ellison revisits the topic of juvenile delinquency and street gangs. But this time it is a non-fiction recounting of his few weeks infiltrating a New York gang for the sole purpose of documenting the goings-on, and indeed writing this book. As circumstances would later dictate, the book became a two-parter, when years later the remnants of his gang days come back to haunt him.

He begins by moving into hostile neighborhood in 1954 where he quickly wriggles his way into a teen gang, The Barons. He rapidly digests the culture, rules, and roles of all the hopeless souls that inevitably fall prey to such gangs, sometimes because there is nothing else to occupy the time, sometimes by sheer necessity and choosing the lesser of alternate evils. There among the others with nicknames like Pooch, Flo, and Fish he transforms into ‘Cheech’ Beldone for a number of weeks. But in order to be a member of the gang he must endure several initiation rites, making new friends and enemies along the way. His final initiation test is to take part in a rumble against a rival gang, and when that day arrives, having absorbed all he could handle and then some, takes a beating and an exit to gang life, in that order.

The world of the gang life is richly described in terms of the anguish and misery that most if not all of his new found ‘friends’ toil in. A world of homemade ‘zip guns’ (when the real thing is not available), junkie fixes, ad-hoc leadership and stringent turf boundaries. A grimy existence, temporary for the author, but not those who have to live in the ghettos. Above all else is the violence from both within and outside the confines of his gang Harsh,unrelenting and sometimes deadly.

Once Harlan wrote the book the first time around, he then took to holding public lectures about his experience and even going on television at some point. Part of his lectures included shocasing his cache of weapon which included an unregistered gun. It was holding onto that gun that led to his arrest five years later and then being thrown in jail overnight because of that illegal (yet explicable) faux pas.

While he did garner some sympathy even from the arresting officers, he then met a foe that for a time seemed just as fierce as his gangland rivals; the mind bending legal system and how ‘justice’ is meted. The latter half of the book (now edited to include this second chapter) describes in sordid detail the de-humanization sustained once caught by the system, where “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean you have to be treated with kid gloves until you get that verdict. Abased equally with some real criminals, drunks, psychotics, and others probably just as innocent (if not just as stupid) people as he was, they are all human trash for that time.

The one common thread to the entire book is the utter despair he found in both situations, neither of which some innocent people can escape as he was able to do, freely being able to simply move back to a decent neighborhood when it was time to leave the gang, and having friends being able to come up with a sizeable bail when he needed out of jail (the crime subsequently being stricken from his record).

I have to admit that while the reading was interesting, I found it nowhere nearly as compelling as all his other books and stories I’ve read over the years (over a dozen books including The Essential Ellison, a massive collection of his then 35 year career of short stories and novellas). While the energetic dynamo of a writer is in evidence, he was still a bit green at this point in his profession. A good book but not as nuanced and seasoned as the writer most of us are familiar with. So with some caution, I would say that this book is fine for Ellison fans, but if you’re not familiar with him there are many other books of his you really should be reading before this one.

While I have not seen it myself, the initial story was optioned and picked up as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, however it was significantly altered from what he wrote.

And last but not least, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to my one and only bizarre encounter with the man himself and how that encounter presented it’s own typical Ellison dichotomy. You can find it here, but you’ll have to scroll way down into my lengthy 2006 Worldcon report (and excuse my early faltering attempts at blog writing): https://lazaruslair.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/7/

Movie Reviews 258 – The Tingler (1959)

March 10, 2016

The TinglerThe Tingler is as much an event as it is a literal spine tingling movie. Directed by master showman William Castle who was renown for promotional gimmicks, Castle promised the film would shock viewers who watched it. And ‘Shock” them he did, reputedly placing buzzers under the seats of unsuspecting audience members in select theaters at the time of the release.

Given both the title and the histrionic laced background of the film it would be easy to conclude that it would be nothing but more that a humble B movie, created as a quick cash grab and meant to fade into obscurity once it’s theatrical run was over.  But The Tingler should not to be overlooked as a mere stunt and delivers on more than one account.

Dr. Warren Chapin (played by the legendary Vincent Price) and his protégé David (Darryl Hickman) are obsessed with the study of fear and have been researching the matter by capturing stray animals and subjecting them deadly fright. Warren notices that when death is induced by fear, the spines of the subjects are sometimes mangled by an unexplained force.

When not dealing with his research Warren’s has to contend with his adulterous wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts), a vixen who constantly taunts her husband, openly gallivanting every night with other men. Fed up, Warren awaits her one night and quickly dispatches her, much to her own surprise and shock. Having planned ahead, he uses the occasion (such a professional) to x-ray her spine in a series of consecutive shots. What he discovers is the temporary presence of a sluglike creature that has quickly grown out of nowhere to envelope the spine, then receding back to nothing in a short period of time.

The two scientist postulate that this creature, the Tingler, takes form when subjects are prohibited from expressing their fear, the unspent energy thus manifesting itself as the creature. With the knowledge that a scream prohibits the emergence of the Tingler, Warren believes he can capture one before it can recede by having a subject unable to scream at the time of death by fright. When he befriends a tranquil movie house owner whose wife is a deaf mute, the opportunity to gather a Tingler becomes obvious. But how that creature comes about is not as straightforward as you would think. And therein is just one of the many surprises this movie has in store.

Beginning with a somewhat plausible plot, we’re also treated to fairly neat creature look for the Tingler itself. Aside from a few shots where the guide wires are clearly visible, the Tingler looks quite realistic and creepy, and can put up a mean fight. While the movie was shot in black and white it has select few scenes involving blood where the screen is convincingly colored red only for the blood portions. But best of all is that the audience is really thrown for a loop storywise with a well thought out and genuine surprise towards the end.

So don’t let all the silliness fool you. This is actually an entertaining movie and well worth watching even if you aren’t just a Vincent Price fan. If you can get your hands on the 40th Anniversary DVD (shown above), be sure to watch the special features that document the history of both Castle and the film itself.

Hold on, I’m sensing a tingle under my seat! Nah, it just the Black Russian I’m sipping on as I write this…

Stir of Echoes – Richard Matheson (1958)

March 5, 2016

A Stir of EchoesRichard Matheson not only established himself as one of the greatest writers of horror fiction with his seminal novel “I am Legend” (adapted to screen in three distinctly different, yet entertaining movies) but also cemented his stature as one of the greatest genre television writers having scripted many classic episodes for the original The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Night Gallery, his own series, Circle of Fear and even wrote Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel  about the ghostly 18 wheeler menacing a man driving a car on a desolate highway.

A blend of mystery, horror and science fiction, his stories and novels have been widely adapted to the silver screen as well with adaptations that include The Incredible Shrinking Man (The Shrinking Man), Somewhere in Time (Bid Time Return), The Legend of Hell House (Hell House), What Dreams May Come and the more recent Real Steel.

With all of the above writing credentials you could imagine the high expectations I had for Stir of Echoes, a novel I’d squirreled away for a rainy day and one I swore I would read before watching the movie adaptation I have sitting on DVD shelves.

Tom Wallace develops ESP like powers after being innocently hypnotized by his brother in-law at a dinner party despite being assured that he was released from the hypnotic trance. When he begins seeing late night apparitions of a mysterious black dressed woman in his house, he and his expectant wife begin a rapid descent into an uncertain and nerve-wracking household. As his abilities intensify, his cognitive powers begin to peer into the thoughts and visions of his fellow neighbors and the landlords next door. Eventually Toms capabilities begin to have him react to particular objects upon touch.

The social get-togethers with two neighbor couples exude nuances of infidelity, naivety, lust and mistrust. These fragile relationships among the three couples soon fall apart once Tom’s inferences boil to the surface. Meanwhile the status of former tenant, a sister of the woman who is his current landlord living with a foreboding husband, becomes a concern as they learn of the last tenant’s abrupt departure and lack of communication with anyone since.

Toms and his wife, now in a fragile bond themselves, start to piece together the clues leading to conjectures that may explain the mystery of the former tenant. When their supposed gruesome fate is proven to be conclusive, they confront the guilty party, only to find one more surprise.

I found the first half of the novel to be fairly timid, focusing more on Tom and his wife’s struggles with his new found powers rather the the obvious mystery at hand. The novel does pick up interest and intrigue as they concentrate more on the meaning of his perceptions, but the buildup falls flat at the end, and suffers doubly when presented with a contrived surprise ending that is both clumsy and a cheat. While entertaining, I expected more from Matheson, especially the ending.

I have both the Stir of Echoes movie and it’s sequel Stir of Echoes 2 (A.K.A Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming) sitting on my shelves and will be watching them sometime soon, if for no other reason than to hope that they improved on that unsavory ending.

Movie Reviews 257 – Fantastic Voyage (1966)

February 27, 2016

Fantastic Voyage

Let’s talk shrinkage!

As a young science fiction fan growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, most of the genre fare that came my way via the movies were either those set in space or those with creatures and monsters which included all the horror staples. It was rare to hear about movies that were really ‘science’ based futuristic visions. But once Hollywood outgrew and over serialized their monsters and explored the outer reaches of space as far as they could, it turned to inward looking, speculative science concepts and technologies which included computers, the atom, the mind, and finally medicine. Rarer still was a feature with a budget to match the lofty ambitions of the science being posited.Fantastic Voyage was one of those that delivered a truly science (sort of) based plot while not neglecting the drama and hint of mystery to sweeten the deal.

Indicative of the Cold War going on in that period of history, the story begins with a scientist smuggled across the Iron Curtain. Possessing essential information, he is injured in transport by agents of ‘the other side’ determined to halt his transit. The current state of surgical capabilities are not advanced enough to access the location in the scientist’s brain which has developed a life threatening blood clot. Agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd) is brought into the secretive C.M.D.F. (Combined Miniaturized Deterrent Forces) complex where he learns that cutting edge technological advances have been made in the field of miniaturization and that they have a particular mission for him.

While both sides of the global divide have developed miniaturization technology for some time, they have been equally stymied by the one problem that still persists whenever matter, living or dead, is miniaturized to microscopic proportions … the automatic return to normal size after one hour. The solution to the problem is held within the brain of the scientist brought over and now lies on an operating table. Agent Grant’s job is to join the crew of the Proteus, a specialized submarine that will be miniaturized and injected into the body of the scientist. The catch is that not everyone on the crew can be trusted and it is believed that one will attempt to ensure that the mission fails.

Accompanying Grant and a pilot, we have the arrogant surgeon (Arthur Kennedy) and his personal assistant (Rachel Welch), and the trusted doctor leading the expedition (Donald Pleasence).  As the mission encounters one mishap after another it begins it’s extraordinary journey using blood vessels as highways, stopping at the occasional organ and orifice. Some of problems faced require extra vehicular pursuits that subject the travellers to encounters with cells, tissue and parasites and other anatomy marvels.

The plot is bond-esque and the characters are all unidimensional cardboard cutouts, but we’re not here for that. We’re here to see human entrails in macroscopic detail, or at least their inflatable balloon and plastic prop equivalents. Some of the special effects work, like the kaleidoscopic floating globules we see out the Proteus portals, others fail miserably as obvious, poorly painted sheets and fabric in a stage room. In reality, the science behind the premise itself is not well thought out either, as scale and proportions cannot be changed linearly without adverse effects, none of which we see here.

As for the acting the usual charismatic Donald Pleasance is fine but not given a lot to chew here. Even Rachel Welch’s role is nothing more than a exercise in tedium with the highlight seeing her slip out of her overalls to reveal her tight fitting scuba diving suit which is eventually attacked by antibodies, and as a result the only body stimulation she delivers is to a tendril bush. (Later that same year she would forever alter the evolution of man with the introduction of male hormones to human genome after appearing in a loincloth bikini in One Million Years B.C.)

I’ve always believed that this movie was based an Isaac Asimov novel as I had picked it up and read it as I devoured all Asimov books I could get at the time. But with his name distinctly missing in the credits I found out that Asimov only adapted the script from noted SF author Jerome Bixby, which itself was based on a story by Otto Klement.

So while the promise was there, the execution fails and nostalgia aside, Fantastic Voyage is little more than a B movie. Call it a B+ just like the blood type.

Movie Reviews 256 – Akira (1988)

February 13, 2016

AkiraBack in 1988, Akira set the new standard for animated films. Now, nearly thirty years later and with a slew of advances in computer animation that have since been brought to the field, it still stands as a monumental achievement.

Based on the Japanese manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo (who also wrote and directed the film), the dystopian science fiction classic is set in a post World War III apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo. The story conveys the naissance of a new world order against a backdrop of rival motorcycle gangs, corrupt politicians, and a military regime that has created a trio of cerebrally advanced, but prematurely aging kids, the espers, which have been bioengineered to be the next evolutionary step for mankind.

When a motorcycle accident gives gang member Tetsuo Kaneda esper like psychic abilities, he acquires a taste for greater powers and begins a quest to seek out Akira, a prophesized esper that has been touted as a savior by local cults. Akira was indeed one of the original espers created long ago, but as he was really responsible for the nuclear holocaust that ravaged Tokyo which led to the last world war, he was disposed by the government which only partially succeeded in concealing his existence. Meanwhile Tetsuo’s life long friend and fellow gang member Shotaro has taken up with Kei and her band of anti-government rebels in search of Tetsuo, the espers and the government’s plans for the future.

The story is complex and multifaceted (actually abridged and modified slightly from the thousands of pages comprising the original source material) but remains entertaining and even highly relevant today, with terrorist attacks, government eavesdropping on citizens, and policies and agreements created in secrecy.

The groundbreaking animation manifests stunning details, fluid motion, all while presenting creative visuals in a multitude of chase scenes, futuristic backgrounds, decrepit neighborhoods all wrapped in unapologetically bloody violence.

If you have yet to taste anime movies, this is one that should be at the top of the heap.

Widely available with many media releases over the years, my copy of the 2001 Pioneer-Geneon Blu Ray features not only a remastered video, but also a complete audio redubbing. Both factors highly recommended for such a deserving title. I highly recommend seeking out this or releases based on this superior source.


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