Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: A*P*E (1976)

When I was a kid one on my most anticipated movies was the Dino De Laurentiis remake of KING KONG. I had heard the rumors - that there weren't going to be any dinosaurs in the film and that the much hyped forty foot tall mechanical Kong didn't work and would be replaced by a man in a suit. I didn't care. The 1933 original got regular rotation on one of our local UHF channels and I was a big fan. I couldn't wait to see what modern filmmaking technology could add to this great story. So great was my anticipation that when the South Korean KONG knockoff A*P*E came to my local theater a few months ahead of the remake I was the first in line. After all, it had two thing that even KING KONG didn't have: the giant gorilla fights a shark (cool!) and it was in 3D, back when it was a fun gimmick and not just an excuse to raise ticket prices.

The film doesn't waste any time getting to the ape action. At the film's start the thirty six foot gorilla has already been captured and thrown into the cargo hold of a ship en route to Disneyland (!) where's he's to be put on display. Within minutes he breaks free of his prison, has his wrestling match with the shark and makes his way towards a rural area outside of Seoul. The amiable ape then proceeds to try and make friends with everyone he meets, from a group of school children to a hang glider to the least convincing cow ever committed to film. All are terrified of his great size and he's about to take his toys and go home when he literally stumbles onto a film set where he crosses paths with American film goddess Marilyn Baker (Joanna DeVarona, aka Joanna Kerns of GROWING PAINS infamy). It's love at first sight and it looks like a happy ending for at least half of our star crossed couple until the army gives the order to shoot to kill, leading to a protracted (and surprisingly bloody) standoff between our hero and the military.

Obviously, the story doesn't stray too far from the KING KONG formula. Where it differs, however, is in the execution. While all three versions of KONG used the leading technology of the time to tell its story, A*P*E looks like a version of KONG filmed by children in their backyard in Super 8. The ape suit looks like it was made out of someone's old wool coat, saved from the garbage can by this production.An overwhelming aura of cheapness pervades the entire production. the scenes of "terrified" villages fleeing their homes feature literally dozens of people, many of them visibly giggling, and the toy cow that the ape interacts with has to be seen to be believed. For some reason, the ape is constantly swinging his arms over his head, like he's auditioning for an all gorilla production of Swan Lake. And then there's the 3D. As I (barely) remember, the 3D used in A*P*E's theatrical engagements wasn't any better or worse than other 3D films of the time. However, while watching it on television in 2D the attempts to simulate three dimensions are every bit as obvious and silly as you'd expect. No opportunity is spared to throw objects at the camera in order to make the little kids in the theater duck. On shot of the ape throwing a boulder at the screen is repeated at least four times. Still, you haven't truly lived until you've seen a giant gorilla flip the bird at a crashed helicopter in 3D.

Yet, for all its faults I still love this movie. The moron plotting, the nonexistent production values and the barely even trying direction all add up to something special, to me at least. Sure I'm laughing at the movie and not with it. I'm sure that the people who made this movie were laughing at it too.  After all, the thing wouldn't even exist except for the opportunity to cash in on the big budget remake. When it was originally released, Paramount forced A*P*E's distributor to put a disclaimer on the poster stating that it wasn't to be confused with KING KONG. I seriously doubt that anyone was confused. For all its similarities, A*P*E is its own thing. It's a perfect movie to watch with a few friends, have a few beers and stare in awestruck wonder at the ineptitude before you. 

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)

Besides the gothic horror films that made them famous, Hammer Films dabbled in other genres with varying degrees of success including a series of psychological thrillers designed to capitalize on the success of PSYCHO in 1960.  Titles such as SCREAM OF FEAR, PARANOIAC, MANIAC and NIGHTMARE were all designed to exploit the memory of Hitchcock's film. Val Guest's STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!, the first of these films, was released only four months after PSYCHO's premiere in the US so it may be more a beneficiary of good timing rather than a conscious effort to exploit the earlier film. 

The film begins with professional race car driver Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) showing he may want to rethink his chosen profession by barely surviving a head-on collision en route to his honeymoon.  A year later Alan's still not quite over his brush with death so he and his wife Denise (Diane Cilento) decide to take a vacation in the South of France as a means of getting Alan to relax. It turns  out that Alan is afraid to have sex with Denise because of an overwhelming compulsion to strangle her to death afterwards.  Luckily, the couple meet a dedicated, cat-loving psychiatrist, Dr. Prade (Claude Dauphin), who is willing to work with Alan to rid him of his compulsion. All goes well until the morning when Denise disappears amid signs of a struggle and a box full of bloody surgical tools.

PSYCHO worked because Anthony Perkins was able to create audience sympathy for Norman Bates. Unfortunately Ronald Lewis is unable to make Alan Colby, as tortured as he is, into a halfway sympathetic character. As written, not only is he a potential murderer but he's also an arrogant hothead, constantly flying off the handle  at whoever he's interacting with at the moment and accusing them of thinking he's insane (which he certainly appears to be). This film could just as easily been called STOP ME BEFORE I ACT LIKE A JERK!  Also it doesn't help that the plot  revolves around him being an abusive husband (intentionally or not). After all, he doesn't want to kill anyone else, just Denise.

Still, the film does have its pleasures, chief among them the performance of Claude Dauphin as Dr. Prade. It's not to guess that his motives in the film might not be entirely altruistic but he still exudes a trustworthy, paternal quality that makes it a pleasure whenever he's onscreen. I also found the film depiction of psychiatry to be interesting. I was very amused when Prade lists lobotomy as a treatment option in his first session with Colby. Also very intense was the scene where Prade forces Colby to breath carbon dioxide in order to literally choke repressed memories out of him.

Val Guest contributed several classics to the Hammer Films canon both as a writer and director, including QUATERMASS 2 and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! may be minor Guest but it's still interesting enough to be recommended. It's dated somewhat and its twists aren't terribly difficult to see coming but it's still able to entertain as an example of a competently made B movie of the period. Just keep away from the carbon dioxide.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Lisztomania (1975)

Throughout his long career Ken Russell, who passed away on November 27 at age 84, showed a desire to elicit visceral reactions from his audience through his use of outrageous imagery, whether it be sexual, religious or surreal.  LISZTOMANIA is easily Russell's most visually extravagant film and to this day remains one of his most polarizing for viewers.

Advertised by its studio as the film that "Out Tommys TOMMY," LISZTOMANIA was Russell's followup to that box office hit.  It features TOMMY's very English leading man, The Who's Roger Daltrey, in a biopic of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Russell uses Daltrey to reimagine Liszt as the world's first pop star, complete with perm and outfits emblazoned with giant keyboards.  The film follows Liszt's dealings with his various mistresses and groupies, his romance with Princess Carolyn of Russia (Sara Kestelman) and his struggles to create great music.  However, the main focus of the film is Liszt's relationship with Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) which begins as a friendly professional rivalry and ends much more seriously when Wagner marries Liszt's daughter and his music begins to be used as propaganda espousing pro-German superiority.

Throughout the film Russell outdoes himself in terms of crazy visuals, most of which are informed by his love of pop culture. For instance, Wagner's nationalism eventually causes him to to transformed into a Nazi uniform wearing Frankenstein's monster, complete with a machine gun guitar. The film's sweetest sequence shows Liszt in domestic bliss with his wife, shown as a parody of THE GOLD RUSH complete with Liszt as the Little Tramp. And I would dearly have loved to be in the room when Russell explained to Warner Brothers executives the rationale behind the scene where Liszt returns from Heaven in a music-powered spaceship in order to defeat the Nazis.

Daltrey has since proven to be a capable enough actor in the right role but he's pretty much out of his element here. Like in TOMMY, he pretty much acts with his hair, tilting his head so it sways in the breeze at a tempo that corresponds to whatever emotion he's supposed to be feeling at the time. At least he's better than Ringo Starr, who cameos as the pope, complete with a eyepatch with a rhinestone cross sewn on it.

Obviously this kind of thing isn't going to be everyone's cup of classical tea. I'm not sure what value, if any, this film has as a biography.  I didn't learn a whole lot about Franz Liszt and I'm even hard pressed to remember any of his music from the film (the score is credited to Rick Wakeman "with assistance from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner"). In the film defense I'll say that I was never bored and was constantly amused at how Russell constantly managed to top himself with one insane sequence after another. Today's film industry simply won't allow another maverick like Ken Russell an that's really too bad. Like it or loath it, there's never been another film like LISZTOMANIA and there's not likely to be again.

For more overlooked film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.