Wilbur-10

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Reviews

Ratchet
(1996)

A mish-mash of 1990's Film Noir clichés cobbled together for the undiscerning
I suppose this is just about watchable as erotic thrillers go. Everything is very tame though and were it not for the one torture scene ( hands nailed to table in case you were wondering ) and the themes of bondage and murder, this would probably get a 'U' rating.

The story has scriptwriter Elliot Callahan heading off to Nantucket island to try and find some inspiration for his latest, overdue, assignment. Once there he becomes embroiled in the usual small-town high-jinks of murder, madness, sex and violence. The chain of events spiralling out of control after he decides to pass off the local weirdo's script as his own.

There is little else to say really - all the characters and performances are dull and bland ( apart from the 'comic-book-guy' on the plane who is quite amusing ) and the story is uninvolving, full of unexplored themes. To be fair the film seems to have had some thought behind it ( the opening and closing credits are neat ) and I'm prepared to believe that writer/director John Johnson put some passion into the project, but nothing really comes together properly.

All I learnt was that scriptwriters are semi-alcoholic, whining wimps with no morals or dress sense. I mean this guy was sobbing when he was having the nails pulled out of his hands. I seem to remember Barton Fink blubbing as well - jeez !! - pull yourself together you writers.

Also, can anyone enlighten me as to the meaning of the title - maybe i'm missing something obvious but why Ratchet ?

Female Jungle
(1955)

Where was the tribe of Amazon women ?
Even at 73 minutes this film began to drag, which is a shame because as B-movies go it had quite a lot of promise. The 1950's were better known for the sometimes laughable sci-fi offerings - it was often only the cheap special-effects which caused derision though and the films had lots of good ideas and storylines. The film noir rip-offs from the same period didn't rely on effects and most are worth watching - they are certainly better than the straight-to-video junk churned out in the 90's.

'Female Jungle' begins with the murder of a glamourous blonde actress outside a bar. Having immediately grabbed our interest the narrative steadily falters and ultimately the good work is undone by a confused plot and characters who elicit little interest.

Lawrence Tierney plays the central character, a drunken cop who may be involved in the crime, but he only serves as a dull vehicle around which the minor, but more interesting, characters can operate. These are primarily John Carradine as the suave but sleazy agent of the murdered actress and Jayne Mansfield who plays Candy Price, the mistress of a down-on-his-luck artist who knew the victim ( the artist is played by one Burt Kaiser who also wrote and produced the film, but seems to have done nothing else at all - wonder what happened to him ).

The action seems to take place over one night - there are certainly no daylight scenes - but there is a disjointed feel to proceedings and I kept getting lost towards the end as to what was exactly happening.

If you take away the great title, the opening 5 minutes and Jayne Mansfield then there is not much here. B-Movies don't need a great deal though and these 3 elements make the film just about worth catching.

Frightmare
(1974)

British Horror at its best - grim and gruesome, but intelligent.
This is an impressive downbeat British horror from the Pete Walker / David McGillivray partnership which, despite its gory reputation, works on more of a psychological level.

From the grainy black & white prologue, with a pre-Fawlty Towers Andrew Sachs visiting a deserted fairground, to the terrifying climax in a farm attic, 'Frightmare' holds itself together incredibly well.

The bulk of the narrative revolves around twenty-something Jackie and her wild-child teenage sister Debbie. Jackie frequently goes to visit her parents in an isolated farmhouse, both of whom have recently been released from a mental institution. The atmosphere of unease built up in these family scenes is almost suffocating, with Sheila Keith putting in a virtuoso performance as Dorothy, the mother.

Things come to a head when Jackie's psychiatrist boyfriend Graham (complete with incredibly annoying thick framed glasses), decides to start prying into the family history and takes a visit up to the farm.

The film has been termed as Britain's answer to 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and make no mistake, 'Frightmare' is every bit as impressive as its more famous American counterpart. There are also a few nods to Hitchcock's 'Psycho' and once again any comparisons are favourable.

The only previous Pete Walker film I'd seen was 'The Confessional' (1975) which despite some interesting ideas was overall disappointing. 'Frightmare' really delivers the goods though and should be in everyone's list of Top Cult Horror Films.

BEST SCENE - any of Dorothy's Tarot Card readings.

Kramer vs. Kramer
(1979)

It's very good, but didn't quite deserve the Oscar sweep which it received.
A virtually flawless drama concerning marriage break-up and the ensuing custody battle. Don't be put off by the storyline - the film has quality stamped all over it, and anybody with an appreciation for the cinema will lap it up. I'm a B Movie horror & sci-fi fan, but 'Kramer vs Kramer' is still in my Top 50 films of all time list.

I'm sure everyone is familiar with the plot, so I won't go over old ground. Needless to say that Dustin Hoffman is excellent, but is matched by Justin Henry who really does give a performance by an 8 year old which is Oscar worthy (he was nominated for Supporting Actor but didn't win). Meryl Streep is fine in a difficult role which is bound to elicit little sympathy from the audience - fortunately her part becomes more secondary as the storyline develops.

There's little else to say really - the classical music score is spot-on, the film forces you to cry without resorting to crass tear-jerking sentimentality and the ending works, despite being a bit implausible. A fine film to round off the best decade of cinema.

The only real grumble I have is that 'Kramer vs Kramer' was used by the 'powers-that-be' to make a point and dampen down the fire which the new wave of young, radical directors were stirring. The film was rushed out by Columbia to qualify for the 1979 Academy Awards and compete against 'Apocalypse Now'. As top notch as 'Kramer vs Kramer' is, the Best Film Oscar it won should have rightfully gone to Coppola's Vietnam epic.

BEST SCENE - the French Toast breakfast fiasco.

Le frisson des vampires
(1971)

A couple of striking images can't dilute the fact that this is like watching a tacky porno film with all the juicy bits cut out.
Dreamy European vampire art-film with a modern-day setting, but all the trappings of a more traditional period horror. Throw in a psychedelic pop score and various hippy motifs and the result is an awkward hybrid of themes and ideas.

'Le Frissons des Vampires' is basically a slow series of impressive images set to music, with limited dialogue and a disjointed narrative. The characters and performances are wooden but functional, although this is probably a deliberate method of enhancing the surreal aspects more. The allusions to vampire eroticism, with semi-clad females and implied lesbianism, are not unwelcome but the results are singularly uninteresting with little to excite the viewer.

The storyline - pair of newlyweds stop off at a Castle inhabited by vampires - meanders dreamily (drearily) along, with no points of interest to break up the monotony. Despite some individual images which are stunning - the female vampire emerging from the grandfather clock - it's difficult to find much to recommend here. I'm not sure how much of the film's strength was lost to the poor dubbing, but even so I can't help feeling that 'Lust for a Vampire' (1971), despite its lack of artistic merit is better entertainment.

For all its striking visuals, Rollin's film falls down on too many basic levels and as naked lesbian vampire films go, it's simply dull to watch.

The Vampire Bat
(1933)

Misleading title glosses over a run-of-the-mill mystery thriller.
'The Vampire Bat' is definitely of interest, being one of the early genre-setting horror films of the 1930's, but taken in isolation everything is a bit too creaky for any genuine praise.

The film is set in a European village sometime in the 19th Century, where a series of murders are being attributed to vampirism by the suspicious locals. There is a very similar feel to James Whale's 'Frankenstein' and this is compounded by the introduction of Lionel Atwill's Dr Niemann character, complete with his misguided ideas for scientific advancement.

The vampire theme is arbitrary and only used as a red-herring by having suspicion fall on bat-loving village simpleton Herman (Dwight Frye), thus providing the excuse for a torch-wielding mob to go on the rampage - as if they needed one.

This is one of a trio of early horror films in which Lional Atwill and Fay Wray co-starred (also 'Doctor X' and 'The Mystery of the Wax Museum') and like their other collaborations the film suffers from ill-advised comic relief and a tendency to stray from horror to mainstream thriller elements. Taken in context though, 'The Vampire Bat' is still weak and derivative.

All we are left with is a poor-quality Frankenstein imitation, with the vampire elements purely a device to hoodwink Dracula fans. But for the title the film would struggle to even be considered as a horror and it is worth noting that director Frank Strayer was doing the 'Blondie' films a few years later.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
(1986)

Wholesome entertainment for all the family.
A flat disturbing film, almost documentary in scope which trawls the depths of the human condition. 'Henry' is not surprisingly often slated as a violent exploitation film, bundled together at Film Fairs with the Italian cannibal flicks of the 70's.

Make no mistake though, this is a highly commendable piece of movie-making, which tackles the subject of serial killers with the same no-holds-barred approach which 'M' did way back in 1931. By referencing the early Fritz Lang classic, I am intentionally comparing 'Henry' favourably with it. I would also say that Henry Rooker's performance is on a par with Peter Lorre's.

The film develops like a three-handed play, revolving around Henry's flat which he shares with former prison-mate, Otis. The trio is made up by Becky, the sister of Otis, who comes to visit.

We are introduced to Henry immediately as a killer and the story does exactly what it says it will in the film's title. We simply follow Henry throughout his daily routine. No mention is given to any police enquiries and Henry is oblivious to any notion of avoiding capture or covering his tracks. Much of the film's power comes from this nonchalant approach, whereby if a person doesn't register that something he is doing is wrong, then it quickly becomes almost acceptable.

Rooker, in the title role, is totally convincing and gives a chilling performance, free from the mannerism clichés which detract from more famous serial killer characters like Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates. I can only think of Kevin Spacey in 'Seven' (1995) giving a similar level of performance for this character-type.

Despite a couple of scenes whose violent content borders on the gratuitous, for the most part 'Henry' succeeds by relying on a suffocating atmosphere and it's down-beat characters.

Anyone without a sense of desolation at the end of the film must be devoid of their senses.

BEST SCENE - Henry and Otis enjoying a night in on the sofa, watching their recent home-video recordings, is one of the most disturbing scenes I can remember watching.

Shivers
(1975)

Cronenberg's finest hour.
I'm not usually a Cronenberg fan - I find his films self-indulgent, pretentious efforts with nothing but a misconceived sense of style going for them - a bit like Brian DePalma really.

'Shivers' was his first commercial feature and I assumed it was going to follow the path taken by his subsequent efforts. As usual I was wrong though, instead finding it to be a first-rate, low-budget, exploitation sleaze-fest which deserves all the praise it gets.

The action takes place in an apartment complex, where consumerism and faceless modern society are king. The inhabitants are a lifeless bunch of middle-class people going through the motions of life. All is about to change however, as a Scientist's experiments have resulted in people becoming sexual predators and carriers of a foot-long parasitic creature which is passed from person to person.

The film has all the shortcomings of being low-budget, but it also has a real raw energy and succeeds in ramming it's point home to the audience. The commercial restraints become positive influences on the story and enhance the overall result - a semi-documentary approach is used, seen with similar success in 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'(1986).

Whilst in no way trying to elevate 'Shivers' above it's station as an above-average cheapo exploitation flick, it can certainly be considered alongside other influential horror film debuts of the period like Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead'(1968) and Hooper's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'(1974).

BEST SCENE - Barbara Steele taking a bath with something wet and slimy heading in her direction.

The Treasure of Jamaica Reef
(1974)

Painful to sit through - an unwatchable mess.
A cobbled together non-film, which ranks as one of the most tedious 75 minutes I have ever spent.

The story, for what its worth, concerns a cop who comes into the possession of a cursed treasure map - he takes a vacation and jets off to the Caribbean to try and find the sunken treasure.

There may be more to the plot than this, but it would be impossible to tell from watching this utter shambles of a film - the increasingly random and meaningless scenes are tenuously held together by voice-over explanations. Arbitrary underwater footage is used whenever the stitched together dialogue scenes go off at too great a tangent.

The search for the treasure totters along until the spare footage runs out and we have the cop returning to his desk delivering some banal story wrap-up.

Don't misunderstand me, I am a lover of rubbish films, but 'Evil in the Deep' doesn't even register on my scale as a film in the proper sense - there is no characterisation, no dialogue of any consequence, no continuity, no token nudity, no nothing ! ! Even Cheryl Ladd (billed as Cheryl Stoppelmoor) in a bikini can't save this from sinking like a brick.

As the video cover states - "Rips your Nerves to Shreds" - too right! I was a gibbering wreck after being subjected to this water torture. I can't figure out how to quantify just how bad this film is, but 'Jaws IV The Revenge' is at least 10 times better.

The Man Who Would Be King
(1975)

A rousing colonial adventure which shrouds a very sombre tale of greed and lost dreams.
This is a first rate historical adventure film, which also succeeds as a grim morality tale with the addition of a clever framing story.

Top British stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine team up as a pair of vagabond soldiers in India, who are out to scheme their way to fame and fortune. Their latest plan involves travelling to the remote kingdom of Kafiristan, where legend tells of vast treasures ripe for plundering.

This is story-telling on a grand scale, with sweeping outside locations and cinematography. The two principles are perfectly cast, although maybe as a result of this both tend to go through the motions somewhat. Caine gets away with this just about, but Connery is often found wanting - the frequent reliance on humour in the first half of the film in both their performances adds little. Fortunately help is on hand from Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey, who take the acting honours in supporting roles.

The reliance on action means the script plays a minor role and it's a shame there isn't more interplay between the characters - the storyline is very strong and would have accommodated more scenes with an emphasis on dialogue.

These are minor quibbles though, and 'The Man Who Would be King' is still a very good film - potentially it could have been a classic though.

Michael Caine's stunning wife Shakira plays Roxanne, the modern incarnation of the wife of Alexander the Great, and makes an impression despite having no dialogue.

Widow's Kiss
(1996)

Come back Shannon Tweed, all is forgiven.
As soon as I was subjected to the incredibly irritating music over the opening credits I should have stopped watching this film. Instead I persevered and wasted 103 minutes of my life, hoping in vain that the situation would improve - it never did. In fact thinking back, the opening music was the film's highpoint.

I'm usually a fan of these semi-erotic Made-for-TV thrillers despite all their cheesiness, but 'Widow's Kiss' has absolutely nothing going for it. For what it's worth the story has a lawyer, played by Bruce Davison ( remember him in the title role of 'Willard' back in 1971 ), falling for a recently widowed dyed-blonde.

Before you can blink and say 'Somebody shoot the script-writer', they have had a whirlwind affair and are married in Las Vegas. She moves in to the family home, where the lawyers son is suspicious of his new step-mom and her wardrobe of see-thru nighties .

Anyway, blah-blah-blah-blah - everything is Grade-Z, but what really grates is that no-one in the whole sorry affair seems to even make any effort. The people responsible for this turkey should suffer career freefall - Beverly D'Angelo next starred in 'Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills'(1994), so maybe there is some justice in the world.

Life in Danger
(1959)

Cracking British B-Movie - why is this so little known ??
Virtually unknown British film which deals with an escaped prisoner from an asylum and the paranoia this causes in the local community.

Parkways is the institution which dominates the area - a siren is sounded when there is a possible escapee and stops everybody in their tracks, causing instant panic. The story introduces the small-town characters, who have become short-sighted and mistrustful because of the presence of the asylum. One typical character, the Major, talks about hunting game in Burma, and how escaped lunatics should be dealt with in similar fashion.

Having set the scene, the narrative unfolds with a young man drifting through town, the day after an escape from Parkways. He befriends a young boy and a teenage girl and the stage is set for confrontation, with the audience unsure who their sympathies should be with.

This really is a solid effort and makes one realise that Britain has its own sub-culture of commendable B-Movies from the '50s and '60s. Director Terry Bishop's next film was the even-more impressive 'Cover Girl Killer' (1959), which seems to be equally unheard of.

Derren Nesbitt is good in the lead role - looking like a young cross between Paul Newman and Rutger Hauer - and the film is well above-average, with an intelligent, tight storyline. Explores similar themes to 'The Ox-Bow Incident' (1943).

It Came from Beneath the Sea
(1955)

One of the best giant octopus on the rampage films I've seen.
Having already starred in 'The Thing from Another World' (1951) and 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms' (1953), Kenneth Tobey completed a memorable treble of classic Sci-Fi films with this offering.

Make no mistake, 'It Came from Beneath the Sea' is one of the classics of the genre and as such is above the mundane criticism about poor script, narrative, performances etc. We all know that these monster-flicks from the 50's and 60's had their shortcomings, but they were made to a formula for a target audience and in this respect there is little to fault and much to commend.

Here we have a giant octopus, disturbed from it's Pacific lair by atomic testing, heading for San Francisco in a foul mood. The Harryhausen effects are great, the narrative follows a course of some scientific logic and Faith Domergue, if a little too old, looks good enough in her tight blouse.

Director Robert Gordon did little else of note which is surprising - he did a good enough job here and whilst not up to the standard of '20 Million Miles to Earth' (1957), 'It Came from Beneath the Sea' is still superior for its type.

BEST SCENE - no contest; the octopus trashing the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pleasantville
(1998)

Dull, preachy, patronising ....... and boring.
I had no great expectations for 'Pleasantville' but felt sure it would be a solid effort, with a lot to quietly appreciate. Initially everything seemed fine - the premise was good, the performances above-average and I settled back for some low-key but worthwhile entertainment.

The story involves a brother and sister who become transported into a 1950's black & white sitcom. Here they are able to influence the limited TV-existence of the people and literally bring some colour into their lives.

It's difficult to know what precisely sinks this ship - but I really found it an ordeal to sit through.

Firstly 'Pleasantville' is at least 30 minutes too long, the narrative becoming patronising and preachy with scenes added just to force points home. The film tries to convince itself and the audience that it has a profound statement to make, which it clearly doesn't. It certainly has some poignant social comments but as Dirty Harry would say, you have got to know your limitations.

By wanting to convert the world, 'Pleasantville' turns into a rampaging, out-of-control, maniac. I felt I'd been subjected to a Cold War brainwashing session by the end of the film - never have I watched the credits move up the screen with such relief.

The Pearl of Death
(1944)

Good entry in a series where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
One of the better Sherlock Holmes entries starring Basil Rathbone, 'The Pearl of Death' features a mystery/horror storyline rather than the clumsier adventure/spy narratives which the films in the series were increasingly reverting to.

A pearl is stolen from a museum as Holmes is inspecting the safety arrangements - "Electricity - the High Priest of false security" he warns whilst being shown the high-tech system. The pearl is stashed away and ends up hidden inside one of six busts of Napoleon which are then sold on by an antique shop.

This is one of the best entries in a series of films which I have a soft spot for - admittedly the storylines are usually implausible, cliched and sometimes jingoistic, but the films are great fun to watch so long as you enter into their spirit.

That said, 'The Pearl of Death' has the usual bumbling stupidity of Dr Watson and Inspector Lestrade which, whilst slightly amusing at first, soon becomes a needless irritant which gets in the way of the plot. I'm sure Holmes would be better served by aides of comparable intellect to compliment him more, instead of the Shaggy and Scooby Doo-types he is lumbered with.

With a genuine physical threat in the shape of The Creeper played by Rondo Hatton and a fast-moving pace throughout, 'The Pearl of Death' will be well appreciated by fans of the series.

Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon
(1967)

Comedy at its worst - mind-numbingly boring and unwatchable after 20 minutes.
This is a shoddy effort which seems to have been cobbled together to ride on the back of 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines' (1965) and the like.

Proceedings begin with a long prologue introducing the Victorian age of invention and adventure, which leads us on to the P.T. Barnum character whose latest plan is to send a man to the moon.

The story unfolds like a third-rate childrens pantomime with lots of sight-gags and silent comedy exaggeration. Caricatures abound with clear labels as to who should be hissed and who should be cheered by any audience member still awake.

Even allowing for any post-production difficulties which the assortment of alternative names the film goes under would suggest, the final effort is insulting to the intelligence and all age groups will be bored by the tedium it offers.

Even Troy Donahue doesn't add a spark to the dismal affair, his dashing hero character coming off like a poor man's Doug McClure without the charisma or acting ability. An inferior McClure clone would normally be a contradiction in terms, which only goes to show just how low the bottom of the barrel is which 'Rocket to the Moon' scrapes.

BEST SCENE - the closing credits had me cheering from the rooftops.

Meatballs 4
(1992)

I kept losing the storyline because of all the half-naked women running around in bikini's - most annoying.
Teenage, Summer Camp, Tits n'Ass movies can almost justify a minor sub-genre of their own - I'll wager there is the odd student thesis floating around, discussing their effect on late 20th Century American history.

'Meatballs 4' is a sequel in name only (in the UK it was retitled 'Summer Vacation'), and is a dumb pointless release which will provide shallow laughs for the most undiscerning adolescent male. The story, for what its worth, involves the rivalry between two summer camps, one of which is trying to buy-out the other. Things stumble along until the watersports competition finale between the camps which will decide the fate of each.

It's a complete waste of your reading time and my typing fingers to go into any more detail. The film is rubbish, but there is no point in criticising it for this - it doesn't fail to live up to expectations because it doesn't have any. You don't go to a burger bar for nouvelle cuisine and you don't put 'Meatballs 4' in your video hoping for 'Battleship Potemkin'.

BEST SCENE - the film peaks early with a superb naked college girls shower scene.

The House Where Evil Dwells
(1982)

Would make a brilliant 'Simpsons-Treehouse of Horror' episode.
Director Kevin Connor and wannabe action-hero / romantic lead Doug McClure, re-team in this ghost story set in Japan. They had been moderately successful together in the 1970's, with the likes of 'The Land that Time Forgot' (1975), 'At the Earth's Core' (1976) etc. Without plastic monsters to carry the narrative along though, the results are shabby and derivative in the most corny way.

The film begins with a prologue set in the 19th Century, with a samurai husband killing his wife and her lover before committing suicide. A move forward to the present introduces married couple Ted & Laura, visiting Japan and moving in to the house where the tragedy took place.

No surprises as to what happens next, with the spirits of the dead starting to take over the new inhabitants with family friend Alex (McClure) assuming the role of the wife's lover.

Everything rumbles clumsily along with the elegance and grace of a charging elephant, to an inevitable ( but surprisingly downbeat ) conclusion. Main points of interest are two feeble decapitations ( 'The Omen' has a lot to answer for in promoting this as a standard horror set-piece ), and the love-making scenes featuring the doe-eyed but extremely kinky Susan George. The first is a long 'Don't Look Now' inspired piece with her hubby, complete with piano music; the second a much shorter (probably at her insistence) entanglement with McClure, both looking pretty uncomfortable. Anyway, every cloud has a silver lining and both scenes show of her fantastic knockers so all is not lost.

Overall I can't decide whether 'The House where Evil Dwells' is rubbish, watchable rubbish, or entertaining in a masochistic kind of way. If you're not into the genre there is nothing here at all, but for horror fans there is probably enough to provoke the odd rye smile and appreciative nod of respect for effort.

BEST SCENE - in any other film the big, black, tree-climbing, Japanese-muttering mechanical crabs would have stolen the show. They are eclipsed though by the legendary family meal scene, where a ghostly head appears in the daughters soup. On seeing this apparition she asks what kind of soup it is (!!!!), to be told beef and vegetable, before uttering the immortal line "Ugh - there's an awful face in my soup". If this wasn't enough the reply is "C'mon, eat your soup for Daddy." Laurel & Hardy rest in piece.

The Amazing Colossal Man
(1957)

He is definitely Colossal- not sure about the Amazing bit.
*** Minor Plot Spoilers ***

Soldier Glenn Manning is exposed to the blast from a plutonium bomb when he runs onto a test-site to help rescue somebody. Taken to hospital with his skin burnt off he is barely alive - the next day his skin has repaired itself and he begins to grow !

This is a thoughtful Sci-Fi, with Manning becoming a victim of the system which has caused his condition. Like the monster in the original 'Frankenstein' (1931), he becomes a sympathetic figure, created and then destroyed by society. Disillusioned, unbalanced and with a weak heart due to his size, Manning breaks out of the military base holding him and sets off to wreck some havoc.

Now a bald giant, about 75-ft tall dressed in a massive nappy, he heads for Las Vegas, where he destroys some of the huge displays of wealth which man has built for himself. He meets his demise at the Boulder Dam, where, like King Kong, he is persuaded to put down his captive girl, to be promptly blasted into oblivion by the army - never trust blokes with big bazookas.

The last third of the film is a standard monster-on-the-rampage story, but this is a fairly intelligent film which makes good points about the nuclear, faceless menace which America had become - towards the end Manning is simply referred to as 'The Giant', his human personality ignored.

The special-effects are rubbish and the performances poor, but by becoming almost fable-like, 'The Amazing Colossal Man' achieves some poignancy which make it just about worth seeing.

The Plague of the Zombies
(1966)

Even by undead standards, these Zombies are pretty lifeless.
This is one of the fillers which Hammer made in the mid 60's to second feature with one of their more ambitious Dracula or Frankenstein films. As a result 'The Plague of the Zombies' is always struggling, but even allowing for it's lesser status the film disappoints.

The story takes place in a Cornish village, where Sir James Forbes and his daughter have come to visit their friend, the local doctor. Strange deaths have occurred, which are tied in to the nasty Baskerville-like Squire and his tin mine.

Nothing is really explained and there is no mystery attached to the circumstances behind what is happening. None of the characters elicit any reaction from the audience and as a result their fate becomes of little consequence. There is a great still from the film which is in many a horror book, with a masked demon-like figure grabbing a vicar round the throat. In the film itself this scene, along with most of the other set-pieces, is dull and not at all frightening.

The Voodoo practising squire is a role which would have been ideal for Christopher Lee. John Carson looks very similar to Lee and plays the character with a degree of refined menace, but overall he is 1-dimensional and doesn't come across as a real threat. Diane Clare is dreary as the lead female (she and Jacqueline Pearce should have swopped roles), whilst Andre Morell is OK but soon realises that he can't single-handedly support the film and stops trying - Michael Ripper is convincing as always in too small a part.

Everything plods along to a feeble conclusion in the mine itself, where the zombies turn out to be a bunch of Worzel Gummidge lookalikes who shamble around aimlessly before spontaneously-combusting. The squires male henchmen represent the only tangible threat - particularly in the scene where they cut cards to see who should assault Miss Forbes first.

'The Plague of the Zombies' is average enough not to warrant scorn, but it offers nothing of depth in any area. Bland and often boring, without even a flimsy nightdress in sight, the film has some interesting themes for horror fans but is only fodder from a viewing point of view.

Born on the Fourth of July
(1989)

Undeniably great filmmaking ... but too manipulative for total comfort.
This is without doubt a very good, well-made film, exploring the effect the Vietnam War had on America and its values.

The film is based on the true-life experiences of Ron Kovic, and is scripted from his book by director Oliver Stone and Kovic himself. Tom Cruise, continuing his move away from teenage heart-throb, plays the lead character whom we follow from fresh-faced youth, to frontline soldier in Vietnam, to hospitalised patient, right through to embittered wheelchair bound protestor.

'Born on the 4th of July' revolves around Kovic to such a degree that any flaws in the characterisation would be fatal. It is some achievement that Cruise more than pulls off the part and, despite the straggly stuck-on moustache, never fails to convince. Supporting performances are universally good, without the story or script requiring them to particularly stand out.

Praise aside, the film doesn't achieve the epic status it strives for and it was no real surprise that it lost out on the Best Picture Oscar to 'Driving Miss Daisy' - in similar circumstances 'Apocalypse Now' was beaten by 'Kramer vs Kramer' 19 years earlier.

Comparisons with Coppola's masterpiece are a mismatch however - 'Apocalypse Now' is clearly the superior effort. To be fair 'Born on the 4th of July' doesn't try and cover similar ground, but herein lies the problem. I'm not sure what ground Stone and Kovic were hoping to cover and whether the methods employed played strictly by the rules.

It appears to be a hard-hitting anti-war film, criticising the very fabric of America in the late 60's. The audience is lulled into this premise, the effect heightened with disturbing scenes to make sure the point is rammed home - Vietnamese women and children are accidentally killed by US soldiers; Cruise is left lying wounded on a stretcher, given his last rites; the hospital back in America is a sordid, filthy hell-hole etc. These images are in our face, so we unwittingly embrace the film as being highly critical of the circumstances behind the story it is telling.

The problem is that 'Born on the 4th of July' isn't an anti-war film, it is a propaganda film. The story takes the angle of naive youth being drawn into horrific events because of a blind adoration for the Stars & Stripes and Mom's Apple Pie. Despite the pain which then had to be endured, by the end we are celebrating the resilience of the all-American boy who has come through with his personal values intact. The system may have been rotten around the time of Vietnam, but the people and their beliefs were to be celebrated. The concluding atmosphere is of hope and light, with a stronger America emerging from the dark in a new blaze of glory and jingoism. After seeing the film, spotty teenagers are more likely to grab those Marine enrollment applications again - this is why the film is very subtle and clever in its underlying message.

'Born on the 4th of July' hits all the right notes and is rightly acclaimed for this - I'm just not sure that the notes it aims for are as wholesome as they first appear. The excellent music by John Williams is perhaps the final giveaway - its just a little too rousing at every key scene, trying to make us react like Pavlovian dogs whenever the high notes are struck. Like everyone else I salivated at all the right times, but afterwards I found a sour taste in my mouth.

Dial M for Murder
(1954)

Highly enjoyable suspense/thriller with the emphasis on dialogue rather than action.
Another top-notch thriller from the master of suspense, 'Dial M for Murder' is one of Hitchcock's smaller films but still has all the hallmarks of quality we expect from him.

The film is based on a stage play and, similar to 'Rope'(1948), has all the action (bar one scene) set in a single location - the living room of a London flat. The story develops around Ray Milland and his cunning plan to do away with his philandering wife, played by a rather lifeless Grace Kelly.

The basic storyline is very strong and in some ways Hitch merely goes through the motions to produce a fine effort. The dialogue is first-rate, which it needs to be as some of the performances are run-of-the-mill. Milland is good, if not spectacular, but Grace Kelly seems bored and Robert Cummings, as her lover, registers little impression. It is left to the supporting roles of the killer and the Chief Inspector ( Anthony Dawson & John Williams respectively) to provide the only performances worth a curtain call.

The plot is great though and despite the whole issue of the latch-keys becoming a little confusing, holds the viewers attention right to the end. As good a reputation as Hitchcock has, there are plenty of other names who would have done as solid a job with the source material, so whether 'Dial M for Murder' enhances his reputation or not is debatable.

The 1998 Michael Douglas/Gwyneth Paltrow re-make, 'A Perfect Murder', whilst not in the same league as the original, is still very watchable and well worth seeking out. No doubt Hitchcock snobs pour scorn over it, but I was pleasantly surprised and Gwyneth Paltrow is better in the role than Grace Kelly.

Also, maybe its me but I always think the poster for 'Dial M for Murder' seems a bit strong for the time. Grace Kelly looks like she is being attacked sexually as she reaches back for the scissors. Maybe Hitchcock was playing out his fantasies !!!

The Evil Below
(1989)

It may not win any awards, but its made with more passion than most releases these days.
***Minor Plot Spoilers***

I must confess to having a soft spot for Wayne Crawford. I know little about him, but he appears to have masses of enthusiasm to compensate for his lack of talent. In his films he usually performs multi-tasks - perm any 3 from lead male, director, producer and script-writer - tackling story lines from the sub-basement. Despite this the end product is usually enjoyable fun for the non-discerning.

'The Evil Below' features Crawford as a down-on-his-luck Captain of a ramshackle charter boat, a bit like Bogart in 'To Have & Have Not' - the similarities between the films ends here though.

The story begins with an underwater scene with two divers searching a wreck, before being attacked by an unseen creature - bit like the start of 'Jaws 2'. The wreck turns out to be that of the 'El Diablo', which went down centuries earlier. The ship was manned by heretic priests on the run from Spain, with a cargo of stolen Church treasure. This allows the introduction of various links to supernatural forces with Lucifer and The Armageddon both getting a look in. The films title refers to this sunken Devil-ship, rather than any malevolent sea-creature.

Whatever faults the film has (and there are many) it is fun to watch and competently made. You can't help but like a film which, in the final 5 minutes, copies the famous beach scene in 'From Here to Eternity' and the final line from 'Casablanca'.

Procès de Jeanne d'Arc
(1962)

A minor work from a sleeping giant which oozes quality and demands respect.
To appreciate this film you have to be a supporter of the 'Less is More' school of thought. Bresson presents the viewer with a stark, simple story, employing virtually no cinema devices at all - whilst 'Trial of Joan of Arc' isn't one of his best known efforts, it bears all the hallmarks of being touched by genius.

With a running time of just over an hour, the film covers the trial of the famous French heroine, the script solely based on the historical notes from the trial itself. As usual with Bresson, the cast is made up of non-actors who prove that simple delivery of potent narrative is more than convincing.

The actress who plays Joan, Florence Delay, is superb and stunningly attractive - on watching the film I assumed she was a major star of 1960's French cinema, rather than an unknown in her first ( and last?? ) role. The film concentrates so much on her character that she has to be convincing - every word she delivers has an edge to it and you can truly believe that here was a teenage girl who had an inner strength which entire armies would follow.

Everything which is good in foreign films is encapsulated here - the simple approach, the dialogue, the static camera and the realism which combine together as a piece of cinematic art. Bresson's next film was the highly praised 'Au Hasard Balthazar'(1966), which continued the themes of quiet dignity and immense power within a basic framework.

The Conversation
(1974)

One of Coppola's smaller films which still manages to create a big impression.
***Some minor plot spoilers***

A first class effort from the mid-70's golden age of cinema. The film is a psychological/political thriller, with Hackman an obsessive bugging expert, assigned to record a young couples conversation. He becomes personally involved in the situation when he thinks the couple are in danger, with his recording putting them in further jeopardy.

The premise and execution of the main plot are both excellent - even the technical elements of the bugging become enthralling as the tapes are played back and forth to draw out more and more audible dialogue. The eventual plot solution, with its irony and implications, is superb and the final scene with Hackman alone in his flat is a defining moment from 70's movie-making.

'The Conversation' has its faults though, which prevent it from being a classic. The mid-section of the film loses momentum, with Hackman's character, so carefully built-up and defined early on, acting implausibly and even downright dumb - from being a lonely but strong, obsessive man, he crosses the fine boundary to being rather sad and loses some of the audiences empathy. The dream sequence, while not totally plot destroying, is still clumsy and pointless.

Despite these annoyances, the film as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts - there are similarities to Antonioni's 'Blow-Up'(1966) in themes, but also quality. The structure of the film probably puts too much emphasis on Hackman's character, but the overall effect is strong and whilst not one of the best films of the 70's, it is still an important offering. Coppola shows his usual mixture of brilliant and frustrating elements and the film is understandably one which has more critical than popular acclaim.

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