IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ONE MILLION B.C. (1940)

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one million bc battle

After KING KONG (1933), film audiences really had to wait a while before any other giant monsters returned to the big screen. The next major giant monster release really wasn’t until Ray Harryhausen’s special effects driven THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” Of course, the following year Japan’s Toho Studios released GODZILLA (1954) and after that there was no looking back for giant monster fans.

But in between 1933 and 1953 were lean years, with just a couple of films released featuring oversized creatures. One of these films was ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), an adventure about two different cave tribes who have to overcome their differences in order to survive.

One of the reasons they have to fight to survive is there are some prehistoric beasts on the loose. Yup, this isn’t factually accurate, of course, as some of these creatures would have been extinct long before cave people walked the earth, but who’s complaining?

While ONE MILLION B.C. technically isn’t a horror movie, it does feature enormous ferocious creatures, and it is also of interest for horror fans because it features a pre-Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. in the cast.

The plot of ONE MILLION B.C. is pretty much a love story, as Tumak (Victor Mature) and Loana (Carole Landis) who are from opposing tribes meet and fall in love. Loana’s tribe is the more advanced and civilized of the two, and as they welcome Tumak, he learns of their more modern ways and uses this knowledge to help his own people. Meanwhile, life in the stone age is no picnic. There are nasty creatures at every turn, and pretty much all of them want to eat people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Tumak’s father Akhoba, who is a bit rough around the edges and sees nothing wrong with eating all the food first and letting his underlings have the scraps, which is unlike Loana’s tribe, who share their food equally.

While Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney Jr. and the rest of the human cast are all fine, since they’re playing cave people, they don’t really have any lines of dialogue, meaning this one can become tedious to watch.

The real stars in this one are the creatures, and the special effects run hot and cold. Mostly cold. There is a T-Rex like dinosaur that is laugh-out-loud awful. It’s obviously a man in a suit, its size changes, and at times it seems to be no taller than a center for the NBA.

The best effects are when the film utilizes real lizards and makes them seem gigantic. Most of the time this type of effect is inferior, but in this film the “giant” lizards look pretty authentic. The film also does a nice job with the “mastodons” which are elephants in disguise. If anything is done well consistently, it’s the sound effects. All the creatures, regardless of how they look, sound terrifying.

The special effects were actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940).

ONE MILLION B.C. was directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., and while the monster scenes are all rather exciting, what happens in between them is not. In fact, most of the film is pretty much a bore.

But audiences in 1940 didn’t think so. ONE MILLION B.C. was the box office champion that year.

Mickell Novack, George Baker, and Joseph Frickert wrote the standard no frills screenplay.

Victor Mature would go on to make a lot of movies, including SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) and THE ROBE (1953), while Carole Landis, who pretty much gives the best performance in the film, sadly struggled to land leading roles in subsequent movies, ultimately leading to her tragic suicide at the age of 29 in 1948.

And Lon Chaney Jr. of course would make THE WOLF MAN the following year, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Over the years, ONE MILLION B.C. has been overshadowed by its Hammer Films remake, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), which starred Raquel Welch and featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Neither film is among my favorites.

This Thanksgiving, as you prepare to give thanks and dig into that grand turkey dinner, you might want to check out ONE MILLION B.C., a movie that recalls a long ago time when it was humans who were on the holiday menu.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: GODZILLA (1954)

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godzilla 1954 first appearance

For my money, Godzilla’s first ever appearance on-screen in GODZILLA (1954) as seen in the picture above is hands down one of the scariest moments in the entire Toho Godzilla series.

And that’s because the original 1954 is unlike any of the Godzilla movies to follow it. By far, the deepest, most serious of any Godzilla movie, with Godzilla himself symbolic of the atom bomb which ravaged Japan just nine years earlier, if you have never seen this film, you are missing one of the best giant monster movies ever and one of the few that transcends the genre and works as a tragic drama, a metaphor for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For years, I had only seen the American version with the Raymond Burr scenes added, which was called GODZILLA- KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) but even this version is superior to the films which followed it, although the original Japanese version is preferable to the Raymond Burr one.

Anyway, in this first appearance, Godzilla is terribly frightening. I first saw this film on TV when I was probably about 10 years old, and it gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards. I’d hear his thunderous footsteps, his unique roar, and I’d see that massive shape with the jagged teeth looking down upon me.

Scary!

Although Toho primarily used man-in-suit special effects for their Godzilla movies, in this first appearance that’s a puppet being used, and a mighty frightening puppet at that.

While I certainly enjoy the Godzilla movies which were to follow, the ones that turned Godzilla into a sort of superhero fighting all the “bad” monsters to save the Earth, and in fact I actually prefer some of those films, I can’t deny that the one and only true Godzilla horror movie is the first one. It’s terribly scary.

And Godzilla’s rampage and destruction of Tokyo remains one of the most memorable scenes in any giant monster movie.

The recent GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) while an okay film pales in comparison to this cinematic classic.

Wanna have a nightmare? Watch GODZILLA (1954). Or maybe just stare long and hard at the photo above.

Either way, you might be in for a restless night.

—Michael

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) – Mixed Bag of A-List Actors and Mediocre Giant Monster Battles

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), the latest American made Godzilla film and sequel to Warner Bros.’ GODZILLA (2014), is a well-acted action-filled monster movie that somehow in spite of these strengths is sadly underwhelming.

And that’s because this movie contains an odd mix of often ridiculous plot points combined with a tone that simply takes itself way too seriously. Instead, the film should have gone for one or the other. A campier tone would have aligned itself better with the goofy superficial plot points. Likewise, a much more realistic and gritty storyline would have fit in better with the film’s serious feel. As it stands, the movie mixes both, and it just doesn’t work.

Following the 2014 Godzilla attacks which left the world a different place, the secret organization Monarch is in charge of monitoring all the new giant monsters which have been discovered in various places around the globe (silly plot point #1), but the U.S. government and military want to shut down Monarch so they can destroy the monsters and save the Earth. But the Monarch scientists argue that the monsters really aren’t here to destroy the Earth but to save it from its worst enemy: humankind.

Top Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) lost their son in the previous Godzilla attack, and his death caused them to separate, and Emma alone is raising their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). It also caused Emma to have extreme ideas about these monsters, and so she aligns herself with the dubious Jonah Alan (Charles Dance)— cue evil villain music!— and the two plan to release the giant monsters so they can unleash their wrath on the world and “cleanse” it of its human cancer.  Hmm. Where have I heard this before? Is that Thanos I see whispering into Dr. Russell’s ear?

But Dr. Russell isn’t arguing a la Thanos that half the population has to be wiped out by the monsters, only some of it, and that at the end of it all there will be new growth and the planet will be greener for it.  Come again? 

Of course, when this starts happening, the rest of Monarch and the U.S. military go ballistic, and they not only form an uncomfortable alliance to thwart Emma’s efforts, but they also call in Mark Russell to help them. Mark is mostly interested in finding and saving his daughter, and speaking of Madison, once she learns what her mom has planned, she changes her tune about which parent she wants to be spending time with.

Things grow more complicated when one of the monsters, King Ghidorah, is discovered to be from another planet, and he decides that he’s going to control and lead all the monsters in a battle against Godzilla for supremacy of the Earth.

Godzilla? That’s right! This is a Godzilla movie!  Funny how I haven’t mentioned him yet. Real funny. Not. Which is to say more Godzilla in this story and less elaborate saving-the-world-nonsense would have been most welcome.

Anyway, it’s up to Godzilla to take on King Ghidorah and ultimately save the world.

But as you may surmise from this plot summary, it’s a helluva convoluted way to tell a story about everyone’s favorite fire-breathing radioactive giant lizard!

Poor Godzilla. He was supposed to appear in this movie more than he did in the last one, the 2014 film, and while that may have been the case, it sure didn’t feel like it. For a movie that’s called GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS it sure seemed like he took a back seat to the other monsters in this one..

The best thing that GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS has going for it is its cast. It boasts a really strong cast of actors, led by its three principal leads.

Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell and Millie Bobby Brown as daughter Madison were both excellent. This is Millie Bobby Brown’s film debut. Brown, of course, plays Eleven on the hit TV series STRANGER THINGS (2016-19) so her effective performance in this movie is no surprise.

Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses working today, and while her movie performances have all been superb, it’s her work on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) based on PSYCHO (1960) where she played Norma Bates that I think is among her best stuff. Her interpretation of Norma Bates was much more nuanced and three-dimensional than the character ever was before in both the Hitchcock movie and Robert Bloch’s original novel.

Kyle Chandler is always enjoyable in nearly every movie he’s in, and he’s been in a lot, from light fare like GAME NIGHT (2018) to more serious stuff like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) to small supporting roles like in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), Chandler always makes a lasting impression. His work here in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is no exception.

When these three actors are on-screen, the movie is at its best and most watchable, and the good news is they’re on screen a lot, but the problem is they are stuck in a ridiculous storyline and are often uttering some very superficial and god-awful dialogue that really detracts from the seriousness of their performances.

Incidentally, Kyle Chandler also appeared in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) which is not part of the current Warner Bros. giant monster universe, and he’s set to appear in the next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG.

The supporting cast is every bit as good as the three leads.

You have Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER [2017]), Ziyi Zhang, and Bradley Whitford as fellow Monarch scientists. Watanabe and Hawkis are reprising their roles from the previous Godzilla movie, and in Watanabe’s case, he’s playing Dr. Serizawa, a name that goes back to the original GODZILLA film from 1954.

Bradley Whitford gets the liveliest lines in the movie, but strangely, his frequent attempts at humor seem to misfire repeatedly. Again, it’s that odd mix, and his campy lines seem out-of-place with the serious tone surrounding him.

David Strathairn plays Admiral William Stenz, another character back from the 2014 film, and Charles Dance does his villainous best at bad guy Jonah Alan, although at the end of the day the character is pretty much all talk and no action. In short, he does very little here.

The true villain is King Ghidorah, which brings us finally, to the monsters. After all, you don’t see a Godzilla film for the actors. You see it for the monsters. So, how do the monsters fare here?

Well, the main monsters here are Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, and while they are all given modern-day looks, I can’t say I was all that impressed. It sounds strange to say this, but with all our current CGI technology, I find that I prefer the old-fashioned man-in-suit monsters from Toho’s glory days. These monsters all look okay, but nothing about them I find special nor memorable.

In the Toho films, for better or for worse, the monsters, both good and bad, had personality. The monsters here have no personality. They are quite simply generic and not at all cinematic, which is a major knock against this movie, and quite frankly against the other Warner Bros. monster universe films. If the Marvel superheroes lacked similar charisma that series would have never gotten off the ground.

Also, I did not like the look of this movie at all. Most of the action takes place during various weather events and storms, and so it’s always difficult to see what the heck is going on. For example, the film’s climax takes place in Boston, and at Fenway Park specifically, and I have to say it’s one of the poorest and most fake looking interpretations of Boston I’ve ever seen in a movie. What could have been iconic and devastating is instead cartoonish and superficial.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS was directed by Michael Dougherty, and he also wrote the screenplay with some help from Zach Shields. This is the same creative team that gave us the horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), a film I actually liked quite a bit. In fact, I enjoyed KRAMPUS more than I enjoyed GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.

Dougherty gives us plenty of monsters and monster battles, but since 1) the monsters didn’t look outstanding, and 2) the settings of these battles were often in storms and difficult to see, as presented here, the monsters’ presence didn’t really lift this one to great heights.

The screenplay is superficial at best. It never gives us real terror— real people are noticeably absent here—- other than the scientists and a few military types, we see no one else reacting to the monsters. The film lacks real world emotion big time.

While it attempts to be an homage to earlier films at times, like the use of the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon from the 1954 GODZILLA, it does it all in a fleeting manner that never really gets to the heart of the matter.

Dougherty has a cast of seasoned and talented actors that make this movie better than it is,  but he doesn’t really help them out. They are in few cinematic scenes and more often than not are uttering lines of dialogue that are pretty bad.

So, where do I stand on GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS? For the most part, I did enjoy this movie, especially when watching Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, and Kyle Chandler, but whenever Godzilla and his fellow monsters showed up, I would lose interest, and for a Godzilla movie, this is NOT a good thing.

The film is a mixed bag to be sure, and while I enjoyed it more than GODZILLA (2014), I still prefer the Toho films of old, from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Now, Toho continued the Godzilla series into the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, even making the critically acclaimed SHIN GODZILLA (2016), and while those films in general are okay—I like the aforementioned older ones more—, they’re about on par with this current Warner Bros. series.

The next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG, slated for release in 2020, is one that while I’m definitely interested in, based upon the Warner Bros. films so far, I can’t say I’m excited about.

So, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is okay, but since the best part about it is NOT Godzilla, I don’t think Godzilla himself would approve, and for me, that’s all you need to know about this one.

—-END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HORROR MOVIES 2018 – Worst to First

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Jamie Lee Curtis as long suffering Laurie Strode striking back against Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (2018)

2018 wasn’t really the best year for horror movies, at least not at the theater. Netflix actually had some of the better horror movies I saw this year. But at the theater it was slim pickings. Of the nearly 100 movies I saw at the move theater this year, only 12 were horror films, and a few of those weren’t really “horror” per se. Granted, there were a few clinkers I avoided all together, and so by design I saw fewer horror flicks in 2018.

Here we go, my list of HORROR MOVIES 2018, from worst to first:

12.THE NUN  – by far, the worst horror film I saw this year. I know, a lot of people liked this one, but the script with both its lame story and ridiculous dialogue was horrible. Shot on location in Romania, the film looks terrific, but that’s all it has going for it. Part of the CONJURING universe.

11.INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – yet another INSIDIOUS prequel. I really wish they’d put this series to rest already. I do like Lin Shaye as demon hunter Elise Rainier, but since this character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, the continuing back stories told in the prequels don’t really resonate.

10. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – not really a horror movie, but you do have those dinosaurs. Pretty bad entry in the JURASSIC series. Silly and oftentimes dull.

9. HALLOWEEN – after all the hype, this latest entry in the HALLOWEEN series was ultimately a disappointment. Ignoring every other movie in the series except for the original John Carpenter classic HALLOWEEN (1978) the film joins Laurie Strode 50 years later as she’s still dealing with the traumatic events of being stalked by Michael Myers on Halloween back in 1978. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the series to play Laurie once again, and her scenes are by far the best in the movie- the best written and the best acted. The rest of the movie is surprisingly awful. Tells nearly the same story as HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER (1998).

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8. RAMPAGE – Again, not really a horror movie, but the film does feature giant animals battling each other. This ultra silly Dwayne Johnson vehicle has its moments, and it’s more fun than you might think.

7. HEREDITARY – I know, for a lot of horror fans, this was the best horror flick from 2018. I was lukewarm to it. I enjoyed it for nearly 2/3 of the way through, but its ending pretty much ruined it for me. There’s a lot to like about this horror movie, which for me, ultimately did not deliver.

6. OVERLORD – this horror move/World War II action adventure combo wasn’t half bad. On the eve of D-Day, a small group of American soldiers on a secret mission discover a horrific Nazi secret. Works better as an action film than a horror movie, as the horror elements don’t really show up till the end, and they’re not as horrifying as expected.

5. THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE – this demonic possession movie was better than I expected. The gimmick here is that the possessed being is a corpse rather than a living person. I know. That doesn’t sound like much of a gimmick. But it works here thanks to a compelling lead performance by Shay Mitchell as the woman in the morgue who encounters the angry demon.

4. HELL FEST – another one that was better than expected. This one got off to an awful start with some sloppy direction and bad dialogue, but its standard tale of a crazed killer causing havoc at a Halloween amusement park gets better as it goes along, much, much better. Amy Forshyth is excellent as main character Natalie, the one girl in the group who’s not interested in horror or the supernatural but finds herself smack dab in the center of all it.

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3. THE MEG – this giant shark tale starring Jason Statham should have been stupid, but surprise! It’s actually pretty good. So much so that it was one of my favorite movies from last summer. No, it’s not JAWS (1975), but it’s the best of the recent shark movies, in spite of run-of-the-mill special effects.The strength of THE MEG is its surprisingly snappy script and exceptional performances by everyone involved, and seriously, you can’t really go wrong with a Jason Statham action movie, even if he’s battling a gigantic prehistoric shark.

2. ANNIHILATION – this film is way superior to the previous ten films on this list. This horror/science fiction flick about a group of women led by Natalie Portman on an expedition to investigate a bizarre phenomenon where the normal laws of nature don’t apply has three things going for it: the science fiction aspects will blow your mind, the horror scenes deliver, and its female cast is second to none. Exceptional science fiction horror.

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1. A QUIET PLACE – my pick for the best horror movie of 2018. Sure, its ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what comes before it works so well I let the weak conclusion slide. This tale of vicious alien creatures with exceptional hearing which hunt down humans whenever they hear them follows one family’s efforts to survive in this apocalyptic tale directed by John Krasinski, who also stars as the father in the family. Co-star Emily Blunt has one of the best scenes in the movie, a birthing scene. Yup, try giving birth silently as a hungry alien creature closes in for the kill. Scary stuff. Well done throughout. Also a lot of fun to see a movie that for nearly 45 minutes offers no sound on the soundtrack as the family has to survive silently. It was amazing how fast the silence caused people in the theater to stop munching on their popcorn.

There you have it. A look at the horror films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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