Wednesday 31 August 2011

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)

LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE is an Italian zombie horror film by Spanish director Jorge Grau that was originally released in Italy as Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti in November 1974; it is also known as 'The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue'.  It stars Ray Lovelock as George, a rather camp and short-tempered young man who befriends a young girl, Edna, (Christina Galbo) trying to get to her sister's house in the north of England.  When they eventually get there they find her sister virtually catatonic and her brother-in-law brutally murdered.  An even more short-tempered police inspector (veteran Arthur Kennedy) turns up and takes an immediate dislike to George, suspecting him of being the murderer.  However, it soon transpires that there is an even more horrific explanation.

George and Edna on their way to Windermere
I've said before that when Italian exploitation flicks are shot in England you often get an off-kilter, almost dreamlike feeling because while the locations obviously look familiar the cast are usually foreign and just don't seem quite right.  It's definitely the case here as you get Arthur Kennedy - not really bothering to attempt the accent - as a tough copper and a load of hairy Italians as good old fashioned British bobbies wandering about chasing zombies through Dovedale and Cheadle.

Despite that, the sheer energy and bad taste of Italian exploitation cinema carries it through.  There are some very tense sequences, notably when George and his chums are trapped inside a church beseiged by hordes of recently awakened corpses, and at the titular 'Manchester Morgue' as he tries to save Edna.  The ending is great too and manages to be downbeat and upbeat at the same time.

Ray Lovelock is an interesting character, an Anglo-Italian who has worked almost exclusively in Italian films.  His first role was the ill-fated Evan in Giulio Questi's bizarre spaghetti western Se sei vivo spara, aka DJANGO KILL.  He has worked with the likes of Carlo Lizzani, Michele Lupo, Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato and Lucio Fulci.  Very occasionally he has made a more mainstream picture, such as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and THE CASSANDRA CROSSING.  Still only 61 he continues to work on the continent.

Ray Lovelock as George
Arthur Kennedy is probably best remembered as Jackson Bentley, the reporter who doggedly follows Peter O'Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA [1962].  Jorge Grau had a very patchy career of which this film is probably the high water mark.  He also directed the very obscure but reputedly very intense crime drama Coto de caza [1983]; stay tuned for a review in due course.  One final film anorak point: the visual effects and make up are by Giannetto de Rossi, who as well as working on big budget Hollywood pictures like David Lynch's DUNE [1984] has had a hand in most of the most popular Italian exploitation films, including several with the aforementioned Lucio Fulci.

Arthur Kennedy

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is an American thriller directed by Jean Negulesco that was released in July 1944.  It is based on a novel by Eric Ambler and stars Peter Lorre as a writer of detective fiction who learns about the death of an underworld figure called Dimitrios Makropoulos and, intrigued by his semi-mythic reputation for cunning and cruelty, determines to find out as much as he can for his next book.

The 1940s was a fertile period for character-driven, globe-trotting thrillers.  WW2 had no doubt introduced many cinemagoers to places they had never heard of before and rarely, if ever, seen depicted; for example, CASABLANCA [1942] is set in Morocco, ACROSS THE PACIFIC [1942] is set in Panama, BACKGROUND TO DANGER [1943] in Ankara, Turkey, and THE CONSPIRATORS [1944] in Lisbon, Portugal.  CASABLANCA of course was an enormous hit and therefore set the template for most of the films that followed, either in terms of plot or personnel.

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is slightly different however.  It has an exotic setting, true, and it also uses Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet from CASABLANCA; but it isn't really interested in heroism, self-sacrifice or romance.  Indeed, all the characters are self-serving to one degree or another and delineated essentially by how far they are prepared to go to get what they want.  This degree of cynicism pushes the film away from romantic adventure and a lot closer to film noir territory.

Zachary Scott as Dimitrios
Also like film noir, DIMITRIOS uses the flashback to tell its story.  This film is structured as a series of flashbacks illustrating episodes in the life of Dimitrios as told to Lorre by people who were involved; that's very much a borrow from CITIZEN KANE [1941].  Each episode reveals a further lead for Lorre to follow up and these take him from one European city to another: Athens, Sofia, Geneva and Paris.  It is noir in style too: the contrast between the bright light of the Mediterranean contrasting with the murky shadows and alleys to hint at the shades of morality we are watching.  The cinematography is by Arthur Edeson who can be considered something of a pioneer of the style, at least in the US.  He shot John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON [1941] and all the films I mentioned above, except BACKGROUND TO DANGER.

DIMITRIOS is notable, as that old curmudgeon Leslie Halliwell pointed out, for being entirely populated by character parts - there are no romantic leads here.  Peter Lorre was a star, certainly, but he was famous for his supporting roles.  Similarly, Sydney Greenstreet was a very popular actor but he was no leading man.  Zachary Scott went on to enjoy some degree of success but this was his first film.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

It's got an awful title but ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is actually a quality bit of science-fiction: it has some neat special effects, an intriguing premise and a humanitarian message.  Add the fact that it is also a great 'boy's own' adventure story, a la Jules Verne, and you have to wonder why it isn't better known.

Directed by Byron Haskin in 1964, the film introduces us to two astronauts (and their pet monkey) who have been conducting research in deep space and are about to make the long journey back to Earth.  Taking evasive action to avoid a passing meteorite, their craft enters Mars orbit and lacking sufficient fuel to pull out they abandon ship in separate escape pods.  From this point we follow Cmdr Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) as he first tries to survive, then locate his colleague Col Dan McReady (TV Batman Adam West).

Paul Mantee as Cmdr Draper

Adam West as Col Dan McReady
I love a bit of survivalism so I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, with Draper encountering and solving a myriad of problems in order to stay alive.  Now science isn't my strong point and I'm sure a lot of Draper's solutions are fanciful but they at least made sense and were hard-fought victories.  It doesn't do to put your hero into a tight spot and then make it easy for him to thrive so I enjoyed seeing Draper struggle, come to terms with his environment, adapt himself and then exist in relative comfort.  He has luck too in that he finds the ship's monkey who inadvertently leads him to a solution to one of his most pressing problems.

The title being what it is, naturally enough Man Friday turns up eventually; in this case he is an escaped slave of an unseen power.  I say unseen, although we do see their spacecraft hovering above the planet as it hunts him down.  It isn't really explained why they're hunting him down but it does allow the plot to move on - literally, as the spaceships' firing means Draper and Friday have to find somewhere else to live.

On location in Death Valley...
A combination of the unearthly landscape of California's Death Valley and some good process work means that Mars really comes alive.  There are also some great cavernous sets, in the style of Henry Levin's JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH (1959): coloured rocks and water rushing through channels - they're great.

...and in the studio, plus process / matte work
Haskin is an interesting character - a true industry professional.  I think it's probably fair to say he was a technician more than a director: apparently he started out as a cinematographer before working on special effects and helping to develop the technology for sound films.  I get the impression that effects was his great passion though, as most of his best remembered work is in the sci-fi genre.  He also directed the original film version of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955) and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958).

Monday 1 August 2011

Stake Land (2010)

STAKE LAND is a hybrid genre movie which combines elements of the post-apocalypse movie with elements of the horror, specifically vampire, movie.  It stars Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Sean Nelson and Bonnie Dennison.  It was directed by Jim Mickle and originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010.

Vampires makes a change from zombies but even so this isn't an original idea.  Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend posited a virus-ravaged future in which a lone human fought hordes of vampires for the right to survive; it has since been adapted for the screen at least three times (see entry for THE LAST MAN ON EARTH).  STAKE LAND uses much the same background, except that there are loose groups of humans eking a meagre existence during daylight and trying not to get picked off at night.  The film follows two such characters: the monosyllabic but tough 'Mister' and Martin, the young boy whom he saves from a vampire that kills his parents.

A vampire chows down on Martin's baby sister
All that may make it sound hackneyed, and I suppose it is, but actually it's really effective.  There's just the right balance of survivalism, vampirism, road movie and humanity.  Plus there are some scenes where the visuals and voice-over combine to produce genuinely lyrical moments that recall Terrence Malick.

Director Jim Mickle may not be in that class but he along with script collaborator and leading man Nick Damici know their way around a genre picture; Mickle also has a very good eye for frame composition.  Their first effort, MULBERRY STREET [2006], was a micro-budget zombie virus flick; it had flaws but showed promise, particularly in its determination to draw credible characters around which to base the action.

Connor Paolo as Martin (L) and Nick Damici as 'Mister' (R)
STAKE LAND builds on that promise and retains the commitment to character-based action.  The central relationship, between surrogate father and son, is unsentimental but touching.  The various characters they encounter and in some cases befriend along the way are necessarily less well drawn but nevertheless make an impact, particularly an almost unrecognisable Kelly McGillis as Sister.

Kelly McGillis
As is the case in a lot of zombie / post-apocalypse films, it soon becomes apparent that other survivors pose an equal if not greater threat than the monsters.  Here that comes in the form of Christian fundamentalists (i.e. nutcases) who believe that the vampires have been sent by God to cleanse the Earth.  In a neat twist, they subdue the vamps and at night drop them from helicopters into human settlements in an effort to wipe out the last of the survivors.

There's plenty of gore and shock moments to keep genre fans happy but if you're not averse to the idea of films striving for something more then STAKE LAND delivers on that too.