THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S, that holiday where people kick back and relax, reflect on what they’re thankful for, and eat lots of food, especially turkey.

With that in mind, here are some Thanksgiving Turkey Movie Awards for 2018.  Of course, the year is not over, and so these lists are not final. There’s still room for more turkeys, so to speak.

Okay, let’s get right to it!

Here are my 2018 TURKEY AWARDS:

WORST MOVIE

(And again, this list is not final. There are still five weeks left before we close out 2018.)

Right now, my least favorite film of 2018 would be PEPPERMINT, a dreadful action film starring Jennifer Garner, followed closely by THE NUN, a flat-out awful horror movie, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a very unfunny comedy that wasted a cool concept. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a raunchy R-rated Muppet comedy? But they blew it.

 

WORST ACTING PERFORMANCE

This is difficult because acting is not something that is lacking in today’s movies. Actors today perform at a level that I think generally speaking is much higher than actors in the past.  They convey emotions that come off as authentic more often than actors from  yesteryear. While there have been great actors in every generation, I think in terms of numbers, more actors today deliver performances that are spot on than ever before.

So, how to choose a poor performance when there really isn’t any? I’m going to cheat a bit. I’m going to go with the three main “actors” in Clint Eastwood’s THE 15:17 TO PARIS, and this is cheating because these three guys aren’t actors. Eastwood chose to cast the three real life men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris train to play themselves in his retelling of this heroic tale. Decades from now, Eastwood’s decision may be deemed as genius, but right now, that’s not the case for the simple reason that those young men aren’t actors and as such were out-of-place in a movie, even playing themselves. As a result, their scenes were incredibly boring and lifeless.

 

WORST SCREENPLAY

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – This screenplay by Todd Berger couldn’t be less funny if it tried. They should have hired Fozzy Bear. Waka! Waka!

the happytime murders poster

There’s not much that’s happy in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

 

WORST DIRECTOR

Brian Henson, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. Henson has made real Muppet movies.  He should have known better and pulled off a far more successful movie. He dropped the ball with this one.

 

WORST HORROR MOVIE

THE NUN. Nun of this movie is worth your time.

 

WORST SEQUEL

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, followed by OCEAN’S 8, JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM, THE EQUALIZER 2, and MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! Not a good year for sequels. Then again, when is it ever a good year for sequels?

 

WORST SUPERHERO MOVIE

DEADPOOL 2 – now this is not really a bad movie. It’s simply the superhero film I liked the least in 2018.

So far.

 

And now for the THANKSGIVING AWARDS portion of the column. Movies I’m thankful for this year:

 

MARVEL

Three of the best films of the year so far have been Marvel Superhero movies: BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Yup, it’s been a marvelous year for superheroes!

 

DOCUMENTARIES

With WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? the documentary on the life of Mister Rogers leading the pack, 2018 has been a stellar year for documentaries.

 

MOVIES ABOUT WOMEN

It’s been a great year so far for movies starring women, written and directed by women, and that are telling stories about women.  Some of these movies include BOOK CLUB, EIGHTH GRADE, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ANNIHILATION, and LEAVE NO TRACE.

bookclub1

BOOK CLUB (2018) is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, thanks largely to its female cast which includes Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

 

BEST HORROR MOVIE

A QUIET PLACE – smart horror at its best, even if its ending isn’t nearly as intelligent as the rest of the movie. The horror genre is alive and well.

 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE

BLACK PANTHER – this Marvel superhero movie transcends the genre and is so good it has no business being a superhero film. Marvel continues its run of incredibly entertaining movies.

black-panther-poster

 

CLASSIC ACTORS

Veteran movie actors have graced the screen throughout 2018, including Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

BEST MOVIE

Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for this revelation.

 

So, these are just a few of the movies I’m thankful for this year, along with some cinematic turkeys.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you a happy holiday season!

Gobble! Gobble!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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kong planes

Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

willis o'brien

Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018) – Just Another Inferior Sequel

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Jurassic-world-fallen kingdom - chris pratt

Time for another confession.

I’m just not a big fan of the JURASSIC PARK series. While I loved the original JURASSIC PARK (1993) when I first saw it at the theater upon its initial release and was blown away by its spectacular and genre-changing special effects, it’s one of those films that for me hasn’t aged all that well.  I tend to like it less each time I see it. And while its two sequels were okay, I didn’t love them either.

That being said, I did have a fun time watching the Chris Pratt reboot JURASSIC WORLD (2015), and I generally liked that movie, but now that its sequel has arrived in the form of JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)  I just wasn’t feeling the love. I didn’t really feel like seeing this one, as it had inferior sequel written all over it.

Sometimes these instincts are right. Other times they are wrong. In this case, they were right on the money.

Yup, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is just another inferior sequel. Sure, it has some nice moments, but they are few and far between. In fact,  JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is one of those movies that doesn’t get its story right until the final frame, wasting the audience’s time with a story that should have been cut after the first draft and rewritten to tell the tale which the end of the film unleashes.

Very frustrating.

In  JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM, the dinosaurs left behind on Jurassic World are about to become extinct again because a deadly volcano is about to erupt and destroy everything in its path. Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), dinosaur creator John Hammond’s former partner, wants to rescue the creatures and relocate as many of them as possible to a special sanctuary he has developed just for them. He hires Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help him, mostly because he wants her to reach out to Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) because he’s the only man alive who can get close enough to Blue, the last living Velociraptor.

Since this is a sequel, everyone quickly agrees to help out but there are sinister forces at work. Lockwood’s assistant Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) has plans of his own, and he’s given the aggressive soldier Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) instructions to do whatever it takes to get the dinosaurs back, and these instructions do not include taking back any human survivors.

Which means that Claire and Owen and their team are on their own, and it’ s up to them to save the dinosaurs from the clutches of the evil Eli Mills.

As stories go, the one told in  JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM just isn’t a very good one. It gets off to a slow start and things are rather dull early on as the plight of the dinosaurs and Claire Dearing’s concern for them just never really drew me in.

The screenplay by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow offers little in the way of new ideas nor does it succeed in doing much towards character development. These guys also wrote the screenplay to JURASSIC WORLD, the previous entry in the series, and I actually enjoyed that screenplay more.

The film does have one really good sequence, and it’s the highlight of the movie. It’s the escape from the doomed Jurassic World, as Claire and Owen and friends, and the dinosaurs, race for their lives to get off the island before it is decimated by lava. As movie sequences go, this one is very exciting.  And the final image of the unfortunate Brontosaurus which doesn’t make it, is the one time in the entire movie that the story resonates emotionally. It’s also the film’s most cinematic moment.

Director J.A. Bayona does an okay job. He starts us off with a generally exciting opening sequence, but it’s nothing spectacular and certainly doesn’t give one the feeling that what is going to follow is going to be something special.  On the other hand, the movie looks good throughout and the special effects are top-notch.

If you’re a fan of Chris Pratt, you won’t be disappointed, because he does his “Chris Pratt” thing throughout, and he’s generally entertaining, but on his own, he’s not enough to save this one.

Bryce Dallas Howard is okay as Claire Dearing, but compared to other recent movie heroines, she doesn’t do all that much, and she seems to need Pratt’s Owen to get her out of jams.

Daniella Pineda is enjoyable in a supporting role as Zia Rodriguez, a paleo-veterinarian, and as she says, “yes, that’s a thing.”  She has a stronger personality than Claire, but she’s not in this one a whole lot.  Justice Smith is fairly entertaining as Franklin Webb, the oftentimes frightened former park technician who for most of the film serves as its comic relief.

Rafi Spall is a fine actor, but he’s stuck playing a one note character, as the villainous Eli Mills.  We’ve seen him before in films like PROMETHEUS (2012) and THE BIG SHORT (2015). Spall was particularly memorable in the decent low-budget horror movie THE RITUAL (2017).

Talented character actor Toby Jones shows up as a shady auctioneer, helping Mills sell off the captured dinosaurs in order to raise money to create a dinosaur super weapon. Ooooh!

Young Isabella Sermon looks cute and does “frightened” well as Maisie Lockwood, Benjamin Lockwood’s granddaughter, but the character is simply too similar to other children in movies like this to have any real impact. She is involved in an intriguing plot point, but it’s one that isn’t developed at all.  It’s mentioned and that is that.

And then there’s Jeff Goldblum, making his triumphant return to the JURASSIC PARK series after being absent for the past couple of movies. Actually, it’s not triumphant at all. It’s basically a cameo, folks. Goldblum shows up for two brief scenes in order to deliver one speech, which if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve already seen. Very disappointing.

And like I said, this one should have told the story it ends with.  See, after sitting through this dull tale of bad guys stealing dinosaurs, and good guys trying to save the dinosaurs from the bad guys, the dinosaurs are eventually released to the world, and Jeff Goldblum’s character finishes his big speech by saying humans and dinosaurs are going to need to learn how to live together, and we see some cool shots of dinosaurs existing in our world, like the shot in the trailer with the enormous sea creature ominously appearing in the surf beneath some surfers.

This has the makings of a really cool story, what life would be like with dinosaurs on the loose in the wild.  But alas, we’ll have to wait until yet another sequel to see it, and that’s only if the powers that be decide to tell that story.

I enjoyed the previous film in the series, JURASSIC WORLD, because it was a lot fun. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM really isn’t all that fun. It’s kind of a snooze.

As such, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is a largely forgettable movie. It might satisfy hardcore JURASSIC PARK fans, but for the rest of us it’s hardly worth the trip.

Visit a different park instead.

—END—

RAMPAGE (2018) – Giant Monster Tale Keeps Things Light

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rampage

I am not a fan of movies based on video games.

However, I do enjoy movies about giant monsters, and in general I find Dwayne Johnson to be an amiable screen presence.  So, while I expected very little from RAMPAGE (2018), a giant monster adventure loosely based on the classic arcade video game, I certainly wasn’t dreading it.

RAMPAGE opens in space with an experiment gone wrong. A scientist attempts to return to Earth but her ship burns up upon re-entering the atmosphere.  However, capsules containing an experimental genetic pathogen which causes its subjects to grow and mutate into unstoppable aggressors survive the flight and crash to the ground where they are ingested by a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile.

The albino gorilla, named George, lives in a zoo and is cared for by a zoologist named Davis (Dwayne Johnson).  When George suddenly grows and becomes aggressive, Davis tries to protect his prize gorilla, who also happens to be his friend. Have I said yet that this one is silly at times?  Well, there. I said it.

Enter Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) who used to work for the company that created the rogue DNA.  Yep, once more, the bad guy in the film is yet another— repeat after me– evil company!— this time led by the ice-cold Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her goofy brother Brett (Jake Lacy). Kate tried to expose the evil company for what it was, but was jailed for her efforts.  Worse yet, she blames the death of her brother on Wyden’s faulty research. As a result, Kate wants to take Wyden down, and she and Davis join forces because she tells him that if he wants to save George, Wyden has the answers.

But not so fast! Enter shadowy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who wants to stop the monsters, Davis’ and Kate’s rogue efforts, and the Wydens. He sure has his hands full.

And all three giant monsters are stomping towards Chicago, drawn there by a signal set up by Claire Wyden to bring them there so she can reclaim her research and save her company. What. A. Stupid. Plan.

Yes, everyone’s heading to Chicago, for one big climactic— rampage!

But don’t expect a horrific monstrous finale because RAMPAGE keeps things light. The best thing I can say about RAMPAGE is that it tries to have fun throughout, and for the most part, it is a fun movie.  It’s also a rather silly movie and as such doesn’t do its giant monster tale many favors.

Director Brad Peyton, who also directed Dwayne Johnson in the earthquake melodrama SAN ANDREAS (2015), keeps the action safe and tame. The best action sequence is the final one, when all three monsters converge in Chicago. Before that, there are a few okay scenes, like the hunt for the wolf, and the sequence where George wakes up on the plane, but really nothing all that spectacular.  That being said, I enjoyed RAMPAGE more than SAN ANDREAS.

The screenplay by four writers, Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel is a mixed bag. In general, it does a good job telling its monster story and moves it along nicely towards it climactic showdown in Chicago. But a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Most of Dwayne Johnson’s lines don’t work.  His one liners come off as “Arnold Schwarzenegger-lite.”

And the friendship story between Davis and George made me want to gag. It’s sappier than a maple tree. As such, the rampaging George is more akin to Mighty Joe Young than King Kong.

The monsters are also a mixed bag. The close-ups of George look pretty good, but the giant Wolf and Crocodile didn’t really impress me. Yet another example of underwhelming CGI effects.

Dwayne Johnson does his thing, and per usual, he’s entertaining throughout. He makes Davis a likable character who’s easy to root for. And seriously, there aren’t too many actors on the planet who could share a scene with three gigantic CGI monsters, take part in their physical rampage, and look believable doing it.

Naomie Harris, so memorable as Moneypenny in the new James Bond movies, as well as having notable roles in a bunch of other films, including MOONLIGHT (2016) and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016), to name just a couple, doesn’t fare as well here in RAMPAGE. Her character, Dr. Kate Caldwell, in spite of her dramatic desire for revenge against the Wyden company, is reduced to being Dwayne Johnson’s sidekick and eventual love interest.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as government agent Harvey Russell does his best Negan shtick, the character he plays on THE WALKING DEAD, only this time he’s one of the good guys rather than the villain. Morgan gives the liveliest performance in the movie.

Malin Akerman, who co-starred with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the dark superhero flick WATCHMEN (2009), is sufficiently ruthless as Claire Wyden, but in a strictly cartoonish way. Likewise, Jake Lacy seems to be having fun as her bumbling brother Brett. Lacy enjoyed a memorable brief bit in THEIR FINEST (2016) as the American war hero with no acting experience thrust into a lead movie role.

RAMPAGE isn’t bad. It has giant monsters, Dwayne Johnson, and some decent giant monster action sequences, but its silly script keeps things a bit too light throughout and never becomes all that engrossing. Instead, it plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon of yesteryear.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

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beast from 20,000 fathoms poster

Return with me now to 1953, when the giant monster movie genre was still in its infancy, the year that saw the release of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

Prior to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS,  the world had seen KING KONG (1933), filled with eye-popping special effects by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to make Kong’s quickie (and inferior) sequel SON OF KONG (1933) and later MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), the latter being significant because it introduced O’Brien’s young protegé, Ray Harryhausen, to the world.

Soon after MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen was ready to strike out on his own, and he would provide the special effects for today’s movie, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released a full twenty years after KING KONG, and so for two decades, the giant monster movie lay dormant.  That would change with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which pre-dated perhaps the most famous giant monster, Godzilla, by one year.  Of course, once GODZILLA (1954) stomped onto the world, and Toho Studios opened up the door to their Kaiju universe, giant monsters would never look back.

But it’s quite possible that Toho’s incredible world of monsters may not have happened without the success and influence of Ray Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. And when I put Harryhausen’s name in front of the title, I realize he didn’t direct the movie— that job was handled by Eugene Lourie, who actually would go on to direct two other very significant giant monster movies, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured special effects by Willis O’Brien, and GORGO (1961)— but when you watch a movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, it’s his work that you remember, work that is always top-notch and phenomenal; in short, his name belongs in front of the movies he worked on.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury, who was good friends with Harryhausen.

The movie opens with atomic bomb tests being conducted in the Arctic.  When two scientists visit the scene after the blast to conduct tests, they are shocked to see a giant prehistoric beast roaming through the snow, causing an avalanche which kills one of the scientists.  This plot point, an atomic blast awaking a giant monster, which would become commonplace in the 1950s, was first introduced here in this movie, making THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS the first movie about a giant creature awakened by an atomic blast.

The surviving scientist, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) tries in vain to convince people that he saw a live dinosaur.  Nesbitt eventually makes his way to Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), a prominent paleontologist, and his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and tries to convince them as well, eventually producing enough evidence to get them on board.  However, his contact in the military, Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey)  isn’t so easily convinced.

But when the beast— identified by Professor Elson as a rhedosaurus—  attacks a lighthouse and eventually surfaces in the waters outside New York City, there’s no ignoring the situation.  The beast is very real.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is not only historically significant in that it’s the first of the 1950s giant monster movies, but it’s also an outstanding movie, one of the best giant monster movies ever made.

And the conversation about BEAST begins and ends with the work of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen brought his “A” game to every movie that he worked on.  His stop-motion special effects are always top-notch.  A movie with inferior special effects by Ray Harryhausen does not exist.  The major reason for this of course is Harryhausen’s talent, but another reason is the time he spent on each movie.  Harryhausen never rushed his work, which is why, sadly, there weren’t more movies made with his stop-motion effects.  It often took him years to work on one movie.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is no exception.  It features superior special effects by Ray Harryhausen.  It also features one of the scariest and most memorable scenes from any giant monster movie period— the lighthouse scene.  Which comes as no surprise since this is the scene directly connected to Ray Bradbury’s short story, which was about a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse.

I first saw THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS on TV when I was probably eight years old or so, and the lighthouse scene gave me nightmares and stayed with me long afterwards. In this scene, there are two men in the closed-in confines of the lighthouse, and outside the protective walls, the beast emerges from the ocean, drawn by the light perhaps.  The men inside hear a noise, and look up to see the enormous face of the creature peering through the glass.  The beast then destroys the lighthouse before the men can escape, and as we learn later, eats them.  It’s a terrifying scene.

beast lighthouse

It’s also perfectly shot by director Lourie and Harryhausen.  The matting effect is near perfect, and without a DVD/Blu-ray to freeze fame, it would be very difficult for the naked eye in real-time to see where the real shots of the ocean and the matte shots of Harryhausen’s animation meet.  The chilling black and white photography helps here, and the whole scene is so well done it’s nearly seamless.  The lighthouse itself is also animated, as is the immediate island onto which the rhedosaurus climbs, but the surrounding ocean is not, as it’s the real thing.

There are a lot of other memorable scenes as well.  The rhedosaurus’ first appearance in the snowy Arctic is also quite chilling, and the ending of the film, which takes place by the rollercoaster on Coney Island is also noteworthy.

Beast - snow

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also has an interesting cast.  I could take or leave Paul Christian, whose real name was Paul Hubschmid, as lead hero Tom Nesbitt.  Likewise, Paula Raymond  is just OK as lead love interest Lee Hunter.

It’s the supporting cast that stands out in this one.  Cecil Kellaway does a fine job as the amiable Professor Elson.  Kellaway was a famous character actor with a ton of credits in a career that spanned from the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in such movies as Disney’s THE SHAGGY DOG (1959) and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967).  Kellaway also appeared in two Universal monster movies and was memorable in both of them.  He played Inspector Sampson in the first Invisible Man sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) in which he doggedly pursues Vincent Price’s Invisible Man, and he played the flamboyant magician Solvani in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

Kenneth Tobey plays Colonel Jack Evans.  Tobey of course played the lead hero Captain Patrick Hendry in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and he would play the lead again in Ray Harryhausen’s IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), which tells the tale of a giant monstrous octopus.  Tobey is excellent here in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS in a supporting role.

And yes, that’s Lee Van Cleef as Corporal Stone, the marksman given the daunting task of shooting the fatal radioactive isotope into the wound of the rhedosaurus.

Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger wrote the screenplay, based on the Bradbury short story.  It’s a decent screenplay as it tells a solid story, contains realistic dialogue, and creates sympathetic characters.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also features a compelling music score by David Buttolph.

So, the next time you’re enjoying a giant monster movie, especially one in the Godzilla/Toho/Kaiju universe, remember it might not have happened without the success of Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus, aka THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: KING KONG APPEARS! (2017)

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I wrote the following column in 2015, in which we looked at King Kong’s entrance scenes in the various King Kong movies.  Well, here in 2017, we’ve just had another Kong movie, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017).  And so, here’s an updated version of this column to include KONG:  SKULL ISLAND.

—Michael

 

SHOCK SCENES:  KING KONG APPEARS!king kong 1933 poster

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

Up today is the big guy himself, King Kong.  With apologies to Godzilla, King Kong is the baddest monster on the planet.  Sure, Godzilla is known as the King of the Monsters, and he’s been in more movies than Kong, but Kong is King as well, and the one time they squared off in a movie, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), it was Kong who emerged victorious.

Today we’ll be focusing on King Kong’s entrance scenes, the scenes in his movies where he first makes his dramatic appearance.  We will concentrate mostly on the original KING KONG (1933) and its two remakes, but we will also look at the Japanese films and the awful KING KONG LIVES (1986).

KING KONG (1933) is the classic giant monster movie, one of the most exciting and well-made monster movies of all time.  It has aged remarkably well and still appeals to modern audiences.  The film is chock full of classic scenes, and Kong’s first entrance is no exception.

It starts when the Natives on Skull Island abduct Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and bring her back to the island where they plan to offer her as a bride for Kong.  With Max Steiner’s memorable music blaring, the Natives lead Ann beyond the great wall where they tie her up so she can await the arrival of Kong.

With the beats of a gong, the Natives summon their king, and moments later, he arrives.  First we hear his roar— the special effects department used a lion’s roar played backwards and at a lower speed for this effect— and then as he knocks a tree over, Kong makes his appearance, and we see Willis O’Brien’s remarkable stop-motion animation effects as Kong breaks through the trees and descends upon Ann.

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

We then see a close-up of his monstrous face, which was in reality a huge model of his head built by O’Brien’s special effects team.

As first entrances go, it’s a classic.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like for movie audiences back in 1933 seeing Kong for the first time.  It must have been awesome and frightening.

The special effects here work so well.  To see Kong standing there, with Ann Darrow, with the great wall behind her and the Natives standing on top of the wall, and it all looking so real, is truly astonishing.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) is a silly movie that is only notable for pitting these two legendary monsters together in one film.  Since Kong died at the end of the original KING KONG (1933) falling from the Empire State Building in probably the movie’s most enduring image, there really couldn’t be any sequels.  There was SON OF KONG (1933) which featured a younger cute and cuddly Kong Jr., but that was it.  There were plans for a Kong prequel of sorts, a story which would have taken place in the middle of the action in KING KONG, which would have been built around a storyline of the adventures of Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture on their way back to New York City with King Kong in tow on a raft, an adventure that would have seen Denham and company and Kong face off against a new threat, but that project never got off the ground.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

So decades passed before Toho, the Japanese movie studio which brought Godzilla to the world, secured the rights for the Kong character and made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Kong’s first entrance in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA isn’t memorable at all.  We hear his roar first, and then suddenly he’s there, showing up at the Natives’ village to fight off a giant octopus.  Toho always used the man-in-suit method to create their giant monsters, and their Kong suit in this movie has to be the worst looking King Kong of all time.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) is yet another silly Toho movie, supposedly made to tie-in with the 1960s animated TV series KING KONG.  It certainly plays like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is the complete opposite of the original KING KONG which was much more akin to the relentless ferocity of JAWS (1975).  That being said, I have to confess, I like both Toho King Kong movies.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Still, KING KONG ESCAPES has nothing to offer in terms of Kong’s first appearance.  On Kong’s island a dinosaur shows up and scares young Susan (Linda Miller).  When she screams, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Kong’s face.  His eyes are closed.  He opens them to reveal eyes that look like they belong on a Sesame Street Muppet.  We then see him sitting in a cave.  He quickly gets up and races to the scene to protect the young woman from the dinosaur.  What a gentleman!

KING KONG (1976) the incredibly hyped remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis was a box office bomb and panned by both fans and critics alike.  It’s a pretty bad movie, but in spite of this, surprisingly, it does enjoy a few fine moments.  Kong’s initial entrance is one of them.  In fact, it’s so good that I’d argue that of all Kong’s entrances, it might be the best!  It’s certainly the only part of this 1976 film that even comes close to equaling anything done in the 1933 original.

This time, it’s Jessica Lange who’s captured and tied up as the Natives summon Kong.  I actually love the way director John Guillermin conceived this sequence.  We see trees being knocked over from Kong’s point of view, and we first see Kong through close-ups of his face, and it’s the best most authentic looking face to date, thanks to the incredible make-up of Rick Baker.  We see Kong’s eyes as he marches through the trees towards Jessica Lange.  Close-up, Kong looks as menacing as he’s ever looked on film.  It’s a thrilling sequence, probably the most original and thrilling part of this 1976 flick.

Kong's looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

Kong’s looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

It’s also helped along by John Barry’s music score, which as a whole, I don’t like at all.  But in this scene, it’s probably Barry’s best moment.

At this moment in the movie, the film truly captures the awe of King Kong.  The build-up—audiences hadn’t seen a serious Kong since the 1933 original, the anticipation, is wonderfully captured in this sequence.  And when the camera pulls back, and we see Kong’s entire body for the first time, Rick Baker in his ape suit, he’s awesome to behold, and when he roars, the film nails King Kong at this moment perhaps more effectively than any other moment in any other King Kong movie.

And then— it’s all downhill from there.

It’s amazing how quickly and how far this movie falls after this scene, which is the story for another article.   A lot of it is the silly script, but most of it is the special effects which to me has always been the main reason this 1976 film failed.  Rick Baker’s ape suit looks fine, and in terms of how he looks, he blows the Toho Kongs out of the water, but at the end of the day, it’s still a man-in-a-suit which has never ever been a completely satisfying way to make a giant monster.  The hype for the 1976 KING KONG was all about the giant mechanical robot of Kong that was built and was supposed to be the main special effect in this film, but a not-so-funny thing happened:  it never worked. It appears in two brief scenes in this film for a mere few seconds.

But Kong’s first entrance in this 1976 film— priceless.

 

KING KONG LIVES! (1986) is the horrible sequel to KING KONG (1976) that is believe it or not even worse than the 1976 film.  In this one, scientists bring Kong back to life after his fall from the World Trade Center so the first time we see Kong in this one he’s a patient in a laboratory.  Not very exciting.  Neither is this movie.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING KONG (2005) is Peter Jackson’s homage to the 1933 original.  Jackson’s obviously a fan of the original Kong, and this was clearly a labor of love, but strangely, it’s a very uneven movie.  The scenes on Skull Island are exceptional and make this one worth watching for these scenes alone, but surrounding these scenes is a dull opening in New York City, and the climax which also takes place in New York also doesn’t really work.  Kong and Ann share a romantic moment in Central Park?  Seriously?

Now while I love the Skull Island scenes, I’m not so hot on Kong’s first entrance.  Why?  Because it’s oddly all very undramatic!  It’s Naomi Watts who’s abducted for Kong this time, and when Kong appears, he just sort of shows up, coming out of the jungle swinging his arms and roaring.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and it plays much closer to the mundane first appearances in the Toho movies than the well-crafted and dramatic entrances in the 1933 and 1976 versions, making it yet another contribution to the reasons why the 2005 version is an uneven movie.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017) was just released a week ago, and while many fans are instantly calling this the best Kong flm since the 1933 original, I was only lukewarm on it.  I found the script rather stupid, the characters dull and not developed to any degree of satisfaction, and Kong himself, while looking fine, rather boring.

Kong in this movie is probably the least satisfying Kong in any of the movies for the simple reason he has zero personality.  In the other movies, Kong showed a wide range of emotions, from anger to rage to ferocity to even tenderness, but here, he’s just a slow moving enormous creature who fights monsters and humans.  Blah.

There are actually two entrance scenes here for Kong.  The first is a teaser, in the opening moments of the film, which takes place during World War II.  Both an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island, and they quickly become involved in hand to hand combat, when suddenly King Kong appears.  We see his giant hand, and they see him.

Kong’s official first appearance comes later in the movie, which now takes place in 1973, as military helicopters carrying the scientific expedition to Skull Island suddenly encounter Kong who introduces himself to the copters by hurling trees at them.

Kong-Skull-Island-Kong

Kong battles helicopters in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017)

This scene had the potential to be awesome, but the full effect of this first entrance is never as cinematic as it should have been.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seemed satisfied to film this as a routine war scene as opposed to a larger-than-life Kong-makes-his-first-appearance scene.  Too bad.

Like the entire movie, Kong’s first entrance in KONG: SKULL ISLAND falls short of expectations and never rises above standard giant monster fare.

 

You can’t really argue that any other Kong movie is actually better than the 1933 original KING KONG.  It simply hasn’t been surpassed yet.

However, I can and will argue that in terms of first appearances, if any other film challenges Kong’s first entrance, surprisingly, it’s the 1976 version of KING KONG that does this.  Director John Guillermin pulls out all stops and creates an impressive and thrilling first Kong scene, combined with John Barry’s effective music—the only moment in the film where his music works—, as well as Rick Baker’s amazing make-up, makes this moment as good as Kong’s opening moment in the 1933 film, and way better than similar scenes in any of the other Kong movies, which is saying something, since the rest of the 1976 film is so bad.

So there you have it.  A look at King Kong’s first entrances in the KING KONG movies.

Hope you enjoyed today’s SHOCK SCENES.  I’ll see you again next time when I look at more classic scenes from other classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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godzilla-vs-gigan-poster-2

For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

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