Silent Running (1972)

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It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.  After the end of all botanical life on Earth, with all the flora and fauna destroyed and forests defoliated, ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) maintains a greenhouse on a space station around the rings of Saturn in order to preserve various plants for future generations. Assisted by three robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) and a small human crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint), Lowell rebels when he is ordered to destroy the greenhouse in favor of carrying cargo.  The decision he takes puts him at odds with everyone but his robots and they are forced to do anything necessary to keep their invaluable greenery alive. But when he finds himself playing poker with his remaining robots he realises the desperation of loneliness and then his bosses locate him … This is one of a slew of environmentally conscious sci fis from the early 70s. It works because it asks the biggest question:  what do we mean in the universe? And it does so simply and without deep philosophical pondering, it’s just a guy in outer space who wants to save the world and realises he misses human companionship. Dern is superb as the uncomplicated man who tries to save himself. Written by Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco and Deric Washburn. The directing debut of 2001‘s effects guy, Douglas Trumbull:  when you see his charming robots you’ll know why he got a call from George Lucas for Star Wars. Ecological elegance.

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A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

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Everything on this station is either too old or doesn’t work. And you’re both! Mr Porter (Will Hay) is sent to be the stationmaster of an underused and putatively haunted ramshackle Northern Irish railway station in rural Buggleskelly. His unprofessional colleagues are the elderly deputy master Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the insolent young Albert (Graham Moffatt) who operate a black market in train tickets for food and tell Porter his predecessors were offed by One-Eyed Joe. He plans to upgrade facilities by organising a trip to Connemara – unaware that some of his customers are gunrunners intending to transport weapons into the Irish Free State …  Filled with confusion, misunderstandings, a run-in with terrorists and a disappearing train, this is a terrifically realised comedy with Hay and his co-stars performing perfectly in roles that would later inspire Dad’s Army. Written by J.O.C. Orton, Marriott Edgar and Val Guest and based on a story by Frank Launder, this was directed by Marcel Varnel and remains Hay’s most acclaimed work.  It’s a minor British genre classic filled with gags galore – there’s even a donnybrook in a pub!

Island of Terror (1966)

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Some peculiar goings on going on on this island!  On the remote Petrie’s Island off the east Irish coast a farmer goes missing and his wife contacts the police. Constable John Harris (Sam Kydd) goes looking for him and finds him dead in a cave without a single bone in his body. Horrified, Harris swiftly fetches the town physician Dr. Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrne) but Dr. Landers is unable to determine what happened to the dead man’s skeleton. Landers journeys to the mainland to seek the help of noted London pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing). Like Landers, Stanley is unable to even hypothesize what could have happened to Ian Bellows, so both men seek out Dr. David West (Edward Judd) an expert on bones and bone diseases. Although Stanley and Landers interrupt West’s dinner date with the wealthy jetsetter Toni Merrill, West is intrigued by the problem and so agrees to accompany the two doctors back to Petrie’s Island to examine the corpse. In order for them to reach the island that much faster, Merrill offers the use of her father’s private helicopter in exchange for the three men allowing her to come along on the adventure. Once back at Petrie’s Island, Merrill’s father’s helicopter is forced to return to the mainland so he can use it, leaving the foursome effectively stranded on Petrie until the helicopter can return. West and Stanley learn that a group of cancer researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson( seeking a cure for cancer, have a secluded castle laboratory on the island. Paying a visit to Phillips’ lab reveals that he and his colleagues are just as dead (and boneless) as Ian Bellows. Reasoning that whatever it is must have begun in that lab, West, Stanley and Landers gather up Phillips’ notes and take them to study them. From them they learn that in his quest to cure cancer, Phillips may have accidentally created a new lifeform from the siliconatom. Thinking the doctors are at the castle, Constable Harris bikes up there looking for them to tell them about the discovery of a dead, boneless horse, only to wander into the laboratory’s “test animals” room and be attacked and killed by an offscreen tentacled creature, the result of Dr. Phillips’ experiments. The creatures are eventually dubbed “silicates” by West and Stanley, and kill their victims by injecting a bone-dissolving  enzyme into their bodies. The silicates are also incredibly difficult to kill, as Landers learns when he tries and fails to kill one at the castle with an axe when they first encounter them. After learning all they can from the late Dr. Phillips’ notes, West and Stanley recruit the islanders, led by “boss” Roger Campbell (Niall McGinnis) and store owner Peter Argyle (James Caffrey, who seems to serve as Campbell’s second-in-command in an unofficial capacity), to attack the silicates with anything they’ve got. Bullets, petrol bombs, and dynamite all fail to even harm the silicates. But when one is found dead, apparently having ingested a rare isotope called Strontium-90 from Phillips’ lab (via Phillips’ accidentally irradiated Great Dane), West and Stanley realise they must find more of the isotope at the castle and figure out how to contaminate the remaining silicates with it before it is too late. They obtain enough isotope to contaminate a herd of cattle – at the cost of Stanley’s left hand, when he’s grabbed by a silicate – and the silicates feed on these and begin to die. The story ends with evacuation and … a twist. Rather unsatisfying outing from Hammer, despite the icky slimy tentacled monster and the expansive cast which also includes several Irish actors – making up for the lack of a location shoot (it was made at Pinewood). The most interesting part of this action-adventure-disaster is the electronic soundtrack by Malcolm Lockyer and the cool helicopters which photograph rather marvellously.

The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

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Let me tell you something, no woman is gonna go to bear country with you to cook and wash and slave for seven slumachy back woodsmen. 1850 Oregon. Milly (Jane Powell), a pretty young cook, marries backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel)after a brief courtship. When the two return up the mountains to Adam’s farm, Milly is shocked to meet his six ill-mannered brothers, all of whom live in his cabin and she is shocked to realised she’s basically their skivvy, washing and laundering and cooking and cleaning. She promptly begins teaching the brothers proper behavior, and most importantly, how to court a woman. But after the brothers kidnap six local girls during a town barn-raising, a group of indignant villagers tries to track them down and Milly splits from Adam then there’s an avalanche and the pass is blocked for months … Husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and Dorothy Kingsley adapted Stephen Vincent Benet’s story The Sobbin’ Women. It’s one of the most spectacularly staged Fifties musicals but the usual versions are panned and scanned and the colour hasn’t been graded correctly for current enjoyment. Nonetheless, Michael Kidd’s great choreography, the humour (some quite daring) and the relationships are nicely done and the songs are wonderful. Directed by former dancer and choreographer Stanley Donen. Bless your beautiful hide!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

 

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Daphne du Maurier’s novels have never really gone out of fashion, certainly not Rebecca, but this nineteenth century-set variation on gaslighting and Gothic has not been a favourite. Already adapted in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, it gets a run through in a new British version written and directed by Roger Michell. Sam Claflin is Philip the devoted cousin of Ambrose Ashley whose illness drives him to the sun and Italy where he falls for the half-Italian Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and his letters home indicate that she means him ill. When Philip goes to Italy he discovers his cousin is dead, Rachel has vanished and the house is empty with only a man called Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) to suggest what might have happened. Rachel then materialises at Ambrose’s estate in England where Philip is running the show. He wants to kill her and avenge this monster for his cousin’s supposed murder…. but she is stunningly beautiful and she bewitches first his dogs, then him. His godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) warns him off her and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) who is Philip’s presumed future wife also sees that he is enchanted by her. His own doltish undeveloped sexuality means he is wholly taken in by her – and then means to have her, at whatever cost. She prepares tisanes for him that seem designed to poison him but he rushes into a financial settlement upon his coming of age despite evidence that she is sending vast sums of money abroad: a marriage would seem to be the solution to his carnal needs and her avarice. The combination of two attractive players who nonetheless appear to be in parallel universes doesn’t help this interesting interpretation of toxic relationships and male paranoia that wraps around a mystery that isn’t particularly puzzling:  she is after her late husband’s money. The shock of what Rachel does after a bout of al fresco sex in a bluebell wood is one of the several juxtapositions that reminds one that this is a very modern take on a tale that is old as the hills:  marriages are never equal and relationships based on revenge are never going to end well.

Valerie (1957)

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The opportunity to see La Ekberg act opposite then husband Anthony Steel is irresistible. This post-Civil War western noir, directed by Gerd Oswald, is an interesting proposition, maritally speaking:  she’s a real femme fatale, a settler who’s interested in money and sex, keen to pursue an affair, first with her brother in law (Peter Walker) and then a local priest (Steel) who intervenes to save her marriage, above and beyond any concern for her Union soldier husband turned cattle farmer Sterling Hayden. When she becomes pregnant it’s obvious it isn’t her husband’s and she initially refuses to give evidence in the case against him for the tragic death of her parents. Mostly taking place in flashbacks and then bringing the story up to date in the courtroom (and hospital bed) with their conflicting accounts of a marriage gone very badly wrong. There are three accounts of the murders:  whose is right?  Written by Emmet Murphy and Laurence Heath aka Leonard Heiderman, this is a dramatically fascinating if not totally satisfying piece of work (like a lot of Oswald’s films) with a chance to see two quite antithetical performers – Hayden and Ekberg – demonstrating their very different acting styles in this morally involving story a la Rashomon. Ekberg would reunite with Oswald for Screaming Mimi a couple of years later.

Tarka the Otter (1979)

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Henry Williamson resisted Walt Disney for years and eventually succumbed to having his nature classic adapted by wildlife documentary maker David Cobham when he was persuaded by his son Harry, a musician. Narrated by Peter Ustinov from a script co-written by Gerald Durrell we are presented with the life cycle of an otter:  from his birth, through the death of his father, separation from his mother, the gruesome death of his sibling in a trap, mating with White Tip who is the mother of his pups, to an epic conclusion against the otter hound bent on his death. We see Tarka through the seasons and experience the world from his perspective, a kind of anthropomorphism that Williamson resisted. As my own little Tarka (named after this wonderful hero) slept on the couch throughout, I wept.