Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: AMERICAN GOTHIC









I've extolled the virtues of Jonathan Rigby's book ENGLISH GOTHIC several times on this blog. Last year saw the release of EURO GOTHIC, and now Rigby's AMERICAN GOTHIC has been re-released in a revised and expanded hardcover edition from Signum Books.

The first edition of AMERICAN GOTHIC came out about ten years ago in softcover. That version covered American horror films from the silent era to roughly 1956. The new edition adds a brand new chapter going up to 1959, right before the release of HOUSE OF USHER and PSYCHO. The book has the same clean efficient design as ENGLISH GOTHIC and EURO GOTHIC.

In the new AMERICAN GOTHIC Rigby singles out 111 different films for special coverage, and he briefly examines hundreds more. The volume is filled with black & white stills from the features discussed, and there are two sections of color illustrations. The book doesn't just deal with the famous usual suspects--many low-budget (and no-budget) independent films are included.

If you are any sort of a classic horror film fan, you've no doubt seen or read about most of the movies in AMERICAN GOTHIC dozens of times. Despite that, Rigby still is able to bring insightful analysis and dry humor to the subject. The author makes his points clearly, and avoids excessive plot synopsis. Rigby looks at the films chronologically, which allows him to place the titles in the context and times in which they were made.

The main thing that a reader takes away from AMERICAN GOTHIC is how much early 20th Century "old dark house"/mystery novels and theatrical plays influenced the development of the American horror film--a far greater influence than one might suspect.

I do wish that Rigby had continued the book into the 1960s, and reviewed the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe film series. But there's still 384 pages here of entertaining and informative reading. The best compliment I can give to any film book is that reading it made me want to watch the titles discussed all over again--and AMERICAN GOTHIC certainly does that.

For those folks serious in learning about the history of horror films, any volume of Rigby's "Gothic Trilogy"--or better yet, all three--is essential.




Jonathan Rigby's Gothic Trilogy

Sunday, November 12, 2017

RETURN OF THE APE MAN









RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944) was the last of the infamous "Monogram Nine", a group of very low-budget horror films from that Poverty Row studio starring Bela Lugosi. It has nothing to do with THE APE MAN (1943), which was also released by Monogram and starred Bela. Both movies do have a number of similarities--the main one being that they are as goofy as all get out. RETURN OF THE APE MAN has just received an official home video release from Olive Films.

The story starts out with two Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and John Gilmore (John Carradine) thawing out a tramp who has been in frozen suspended animation for four months. The poor fellow wakes up with no memory of the experience, and since he seems hale and hearty, the scientists immediately send him on his way, with Gilmore giving him five bucks for his trouble! (The professors don't even worry about keeping a tab on the homeless guy to see if there's any aftereffects--for all they know, the guy could have dropped dead five minutes after he left the laboratory.) Dexter (we never learn his first name) is now convinced that a human being can be kept in frozen preserve for years and years. Dexter decides to go to the Arctic in an attempt to find a frozen prehistoric being, and Gilmore, despite his misgivings, goes along.

In a very tacky looking fake "Arctic" indoor set (augmented by stock footage), the scientists do find a frozen man, and they take him back to America. Lugosi proceeds to thaw him out (with the use of a blowtorch), and the ancient fellow is alive! Dexter next plans to use brain surgery--and a modern man's brain--to advance the prehistoric man's intelligence. Dexter sets his sights on the fiancee of Gilmore's niece, and he manages to get the young man into his house and put him under, but Gilmore stops him at the very last moment before surgery. Gilmore isn't smart enough to tell the authorities about what's going on, and sure enough the "ape man" escapes from Dexter's Laboratory (sorry DeeDee) and creates havoc. Dexter convinces Gilmore to help him destroy the beast--but it's all a ruse to get Gilmore's brain in the creature, which does happen. The "ape man" is now advanced--well, advanced enough to talk like the MGM version of Tarzan. Of course, Dexter can't control him, and the part-Gilmore escapes again, killing Gilmore's wife and kidnapping his niece, leading to a fiery climax.

As usual, merely describing the plot of a Bela Lugosi/Monogram picture in no way does it proper justice. All the events I've described take place in about an hour's running time, but due to Phil Rosen's rather generic direction, it seems longer. Both Lugosi and Carradine here seem a bit more reserved than usual. Bela's Prof. Dexter is a perpetually grumpy sort of fellow--the only time we get to see the expected wicked gleam in Bela's eye is when he finds out his brain surgery on the ape man is a success (if you want to call it that). Carradine's Gilmore is so high-minded that when he's captured by Lugosi he almost begs the man to use him as a guinea pig so no one else gets hurt. The two actors do an okay job here, but I expected a little more verve out of them (I'm sure though that it was hard for any performer to get fired up over acting in a movie like this).

If you have seen the photo above, you'll notice that the great character actor George Zucco gets third billing in this film. That was because he was supposed to have played the Ape Man. Zucco did not play the role--Frank Moran did. Some say that when the creature is first thawed out and is lying on a table in Dexter's Laboratory (again, DeeDee) that it is Zucco, but it's hard to tell. Most monster movie experts say that Zucco left the project saying he was "ill"--others say that Zucco was so angry at his role he simply walked away from the movie. There is one still that does show Zucco as the Ape Man, so he did actually appear on set--but how much time he spent on the film, and what, if anything, was shot with him remains a mystery. Even esteemed classic horror historians Greg Mank and Tom Weaver don't really know the exact details of Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN. One thing is for sure--Zucco does get billing on the film's credits. I hope he at least got paid for that! Monogram did a lot of crazy things--but casting the erudite and very British Zucco as a half-witted brutish caveman takes the cake. My own personal theory is that because Dexter gave the ape man part of Gilmore's brain, the creature's intelligence was supposed to develop over the movie's running time, and Zucco's version of the creature would have had more dialogue and more scenes which required expressive acting. But we'll never know.




Just about all that remains of George Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN
(Zucco is in the middle, flaked by Bela Lugosi and John Carradine)




Frank Moran plays the thawed-out throwback as a typical movie caveman--he's shaggy, unkempt, and has limited vocabulary. The movie does try to show that something of Gilmore is striving to come out of the creature after Dexter's operation. The Ape Man does return to Gilmore's home, and once there he begins to play "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano (earlier it had been established that was Gilmore's favorite piece of music). When the Ape Gilmore encounters his wife, he seems to try and make some sort of contact with her, but then winds up strangling the woman. (Did Gilmore have some issues with his wife?) This idea of a victim of a forced brain transplant going back to his home and not being recognized by a mystified wife would be examined far much better in Hammer's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. The very beginning of RETURN OF THE APE MAN, with has a sequence involving a man being restored to life after being frozen, also reminds one of a later Hammer film: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. For all its inherent goofiness, RETURN OF THE APE MAN does present a few interesting themes that later movies would take better advantage of.

What makes RETURN OF THE APE MAN really goofy is its climax, which has the prehistoric man running around with Gilmore's niece slung over his shoulder like a sack of laundry. (The Ape Man's interest in the pretty young niece makes one wonder if Gilmore had repressed feelings for the girl.) The niece is played by Judith Gibson, who would later change her stage name to Teala Loring, and her fiancee is played by Michael Ames, who would later change his name to Tod Andrews. (In his fantastic book POVERTY ROW HORRORS!, Tom Weaver jokes that it was RETURN OF THE APE MAN that caused the actors to assume different monikers.) Lugosi winds up getting killed off ten minutes before the film ends, which is a waste....while the Ape Man is cornered in Dexter's...er, lab and is burned to death. (The cops on the scene talk about how they hope the fire department takes their time getting to the blaze.)

Olive Films has released RETURN OF THE APE MAN on Blu-ray and DVD. I bought the DVD to save a few bucks...this is, after all, a low-budget film in full-frame black and white. The visual quality on this Olive presentation is acceptable, nothing more. While some sequences look a bit better than others, for most of the time the image is very soft. I doubt that the Blu-ray version of this film would look that much better. As usual with Olive Films, there are no extras whatsoever.

I wouldn't rank RETURN OF THE APE MAN as even one of the best Lugosi/Monogram pictures, but it is nice to see it get an official home video release. Any film with Bela, John Carradine, and a crackpot caveman can't be all bad.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

How Much Ice Cream Can You Eat? (A Few Thoughts On Entertainment Franchises)





This post is the direct result of the announcement that Disney is going to produce another Star Wars trilogy, one that will deal with new characters and a new story line.

I'm sure most of you are thinking, "You love Star Wars, don't you Dan? Isn't this great??" Yeah, I love Star Wars. But my definition of Star Wars is the Sacred Original Trilogy. I loved ROGUE ONE, and the CLONE WARS and REBELS animated TV shows are very good. But how much Star Wars do we really need?

To me, Star Wars is supposed to be special--like ice cream. You wouldn't want to eat ice cream three times a day, every single day. THE LAST JEDI will come out this year, and the Han Solo film will come out next year, and in 2019 the final part of the second trilogy is expected to be released. This just announced trilogy is scheduled to begin in 2020...which means we are probably going to have new Star Wars movies every year in the immediate future.

The films in the original Star Wars trilogy were released three years apart--and as a kid that seemed an interminable time. But it made you anticipate and appreciate the movies even more. It made the movies seem more special.

I fully understand why Disney is cranking out as much Star Wars product as possible. I have no problem with people trying to make money off of creative endeavors--that's something I want to do myself someday. But with all these titles coming out, it's easy to foresee the watering-down of the Star Wars Universe.

Just because you slap the Star Wars label onto something doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good. You can make a rom-com, and put Bib Fortuna in it for five minutes, and technically you can call that a Star Wars film. As we have learned from the prequels, finding out more information about the Star Wars Universe doesn't guarantee to increase our enjoyment of it.

My friend Will McKinley (not the 25th President of the United States) has warned of "Star Wars Fatigue". Is it possible to be tired of Star Wars?? Maybe...but I think it has to do more with "Franchise Fatigue" than Star Wars in particular.

We live in an age of Geek Culture. One of the most important elements of Geek Culture is that you don't just watch filmed entertainment--you obsess over it, you totally envelope yourself in it, you wallow in the minutiae. Being a Geek requires a lot of time and effort...and money.

Think about all the big-time entertainment franchises that are active today. Star Wars, Star Trek, The Walking Dead, the Marvel movies, the DC movies, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Stranger Things...and I've just scratched the surface. There's so much Geek stuff out there that you have to be independently wealthy (and have a lot of time on your hands) to keep up with it all.

The result is that when one of these many Geek Franchise titles comes out, one feels almost obligated to see it. Nearly everything in entertainment is now part of some expanded universe, or part of some vast connection. The idea of an original stand-alone movie, one that does not have well-known characters, and isn't connected with any other medium, seems almost quaint.

I can't tell you how many times over the past few years someone has told me, "Dan, you need to see this movie/TV show because it's the kind of thing you're supposed to like." When you watch something because you're supposed to see it--you're putting it on the same level as getting the oil changed in your car or doing the laundry. The movies and TV shows that I love the most are the ones I discovered on my own. Today it's almost impossible to stumble upon a movie or a TV show, because we are inundated with so much media on everything.

I know I sound like a grouchy uptight white guy (maybe because I am one), but the anticipation of looking forward to the release of a major genre film has lessened considerably for me over the years. It seems that they come out almost every other week now. And when they do come out, they inevitably do not live up to all the internet hype.

When I was a kid, there wasn't a lot of big-time science-fiction movies, or fantasy films, or comic book pictures. In other words, you very rarely got ice cream. Now, you can eat ice cream 24/7, if that's what you want to do.


Monday, November 6, 2017

BARRY LYNDON On Criterion Blu-ray









Criterion has pulled out all the stops for their Blu-ray release of Stanley Kubrick's 1975 historical epic BARRY LYNDON. An entire extra disc is needed for all of the extras.

BARRY LYNDON has never seemed to accumulate the kudos that more renowned Kubrick films have garnered over the years--films such as DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and THE SHINING. It seems that appreciation for it has started to grow recently, however. BARRY LYNDON is one of the most sumptuously photographed movies ever made--you can literally freeze frame the disc at any point and wind up with an image that could be hung inside a portrait gallery. There were no sets used during the making of BARRY LYNDON, and the result is that the movie avoids the typical Hollywood history aspects of cinema set in the past. I'm no expert on late 18th Century Europe, but if I was able to go back to that time period and find out that it didn't look or feel like BARRY LYNDON, I'd be extremely disappointed.

If there is one particular thing about BARRY LYNDON that does not seem to jibe, it may be Ryan O'Neal's performance as the title character. When I first saw BARRY LYNDON I was convinced that O'Neal was miscast--that he was too American, too modern to portray an 18th Century opportunistic Irishman. I wondered how the movie would have been if someone who was more of an "actor's actor" had played the role....Malcolm McDowell, perhaps?

After seeing the movie a number of times since then I am now of the opinion that O'Neal was exactly what Kubrick wanted. O'Neal sticks out like a sore thumb...and that's one of the points of the film. No matter what situation Barry finds himself in, no matter how he is able to take advantage of his surroundings, the man simply does not fit in. He's an eternal outsider. He's also not very likable either, which doesn't make this film attractive for a mainstream audience (especially if you consider that it is three hours long). Most movie historical epics deal with famous (or infamous) real-life characters, or fictional characters who are involved in great events or deeds. Barry does take part in the Seven Year's War, but that's really a minor incident in his story. Kubrick isn't interested in big exciting moments here--he's more concerned with observing Barry and whoever or whatever he comes across. Some may find BARRY LYNDON to be cold and remote, but that could be said about every Stanley Kubrick production.

Nearly every aspect of BARRY LYNDON is explored on the extras disc in this Criterion Blu-ray--photography, production design, costumes, music, editing, sound, etc. Watching all these extras only made me want to know even more about the film. Criterion also provides a 42-page booklet which has an essay on the film by Geoffrey O'Brien and reprints two different articles on the film's visuals from AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER magazine.

Criterion presents BARRY LYNDON in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, and in my opinion it looks even better than the Warners Blu-ray of the film that was released a few years ago. Two soundtracks are provided--mono and an alternate 5.1 surround mix.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest--and most meticulous--filmmakers of all time. Every single second of BARRY LYNDON reinforces that. Criterion has come out with editions of a number of Kubrick's films, and since next year is the 50th anniversary of 2001, I can't help but hope that the company will do the ultimate release of that classic.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER





Not that long ago I wrote a blog post on the 1969 Hammer Sci-fi film MOON ZERO TWO, since it was featured in the latest issue of Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine. Another film was also featured in that issue--TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the very last Hammer horror film made in the 20th Century.

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was released in 1976, way after the English Gothic horror boom had ended. The movie was one of many attempts by Hammer head Michael Carreras to change the company's direction and make it more relevant to the changing tastes of film viewers. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER had a very torturous and convoluted production history, which is definitively chronicled in David Taylor's article in LSOH #39. I won't go into the various details of what led up to the film, but considering the state of Hammer at the time, it's a minor miracle the movie got made at all.

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was based on a novel by English writer (and occult expert) Dennis Wheatley. Hammer had already adapted Wheatley's work before--their screen version of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT remains one of the company's best films--and they felt that using the author again might give them something akin to THE EXORCIST. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER isn't anywhere near the same level as THE EXORCIST, or THE OMEN, which came out later in 1976.





The front cover of LSOH #39, with artwork by Belle Dee


TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER has an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee), attempting to create an avatar from the combination of a demon baby and a young nun named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski). At least...I think that's what Rayner is trying to do--the priest's evil plan is somewhat perplexing. Catherine's father (Denholm Elliott) asks best-selling occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark) to help his daughter. Verney is a bit skeptical, but he soon comes to find out that he really is dealing with dangerous dark forces.

The story of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is formatted much like a mystery--the audience finds out what is going on right along with the characters, and very little is explained. Some may contend that this gives the film a sense of unease, but personally I find TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER confusing to watch. The movie has a very abrupt editing style--a number of sequences seem to be leading up to something, and then the movie switches over to another sequence entirely. One of the writers on the film was Christopher Wicking, a man who penned a number of hard-to-follow horror films...but in his article David Taylor reveals that another writer, Gerald Vaughn-Hughes, was on the set almost everyday rewriting scenes with director Peter Sykes. (Taylor also explains that the film has very little in common with the novel that it is supposedly based on.)

One big problem with TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is Richard Widmark. According to Taylor's article, the past-his-prime Hollywood star wasn't enthusiastic about making the film, and he didn't get along with most of the cast & crew. Watching the movie you can't help but notice how forlorn and uninspired Widmark looks...and I don't think it has anything to do with his character's feelings on battling Satanic evil. If the nominal lead of the film acts as if he doesn't want to be there...why should the audience?

Christopher Lee, as expected, is the best thing about the film. He's absolutely chilling as Father Michael...but instead of ranting and raving, he spends most of the story with a satisfied smile on his face, as if he's in a diabolic state of grace. Richard Widmark may have been the bigger mainstream name, but Lee was the real star here. Denholm Elliott is very good as Catherine's tormented father.

As for Nastassja Kinski, as Catherine....she's one of the main reasons it is hard for me to appreciate this film. It's not that her performance is bad, it's just...if you go by the most recognized date on the internet, Kinski was only 14 years old during the production of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. Kinski not only is present during a Satanic orgy in the movie, she also has a full-frontal nude scene. Kinski's supposed age is one of the many unpleasant things in this movie. I understand that the movie is supposed to be unpleasant--it has to do with Satanism, after all. But when it comes to horror films, I'm more drawn to Saturday afternoon creature features, or Gothic tales set in a European never-neverland. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is a contemporary film, and it's not comfortable to see a scene involving a woman being strapped down while giving birth to a demon baby (and dying because of the experience).

And then there's the ending to TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. I won't give it away here, but it's rather anti-climatic...so much so, that you're liable to exclaim, "That's it???" One thing the ending does do, it brings down the entire history of 20th Century Hammer theatrical horror with a whimper instead of a bang.

There are a few Hammer fans who have come to appreciate TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. For myself, I found reading David Taylor's article about the making of the movie was more entertaining than actually watching it. I don't believe that TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER killed off Hammer Films--I think the company was basically doomed no matter what they did. Director Peter Sykes tried to bring some atmosphere to it, and I do have to point out that Paul Glass' music is compelling, but even Christopher Lee can't overcome a confusing and mystifying script.






Monday, October 30, 2017

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)--Restored, And On Blu-ray









I've been looking forward to the Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of the newly restored THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and now that I've viewed it, I can say that it lives up to all my expectations. It is a magnificent restoration, and I'm not exaggerating in saying that watching it is like seeing the film for the very first time.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE was produced by Universal in 1932 and directed by James Whale. For many years the film was almost unavailable, and even today it is rarely shown on TV or cable. Universal doesn't even consider the film to belong to its lineup of Monster Classics, and technically that's correct. THE OLD DARK HOUSE is not really a horror film--it's more of a bizarre satire on English eccentricity (despite the fact that the abode of the title is supposed to be located in Wales). Boris Karloff may get top billing, but he doesn't have all that many scenes as the brutish butler Morgan. The real stars of the film are Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as members of the Femm family, who are forced to allow a group of stranded travelers into their Old Dark House during a terrific storm. Thesiger and Moore give two of the most quixotic portrayals ever seen in a movie made during the Hollywood studio era, and they not only outshine Karloff, they manage to overwhelm such performers as Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton as well.

James Whale was probably the most idiosyncratic movie director to work in 1930s Hollywood, and his patented combination of camp & creepiness is given full rein in THE OLD DARK HOUSE. I realize that there are a few film buffs that can't stand Whale and his work, but he's one of my favorite filmmakers. THE OLD DARK HOUSE is outlandishly theatrical, and it is not built around Karloff, but it is one of the best unusual films ever made.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has been available on DVD from Kino, but the Cohen Blu-ray is miles ahead in visual quality. The increased sharpness brings out all sorts of detail--just check out the shimmer of Gloria Stuart's satin evening dress. We also get to see, more clearly than ever, Jack Pierce's make-up job on Boris Karloff. Most of Karloff's face here is covered in hair, but his character also looks to have been mauled by a ferocious cat. This Blu-ray makes one appreciate the atmospheric black & white cinematography of Arthur Edeson, and the production design of Charles D. Hall (the Old Dark House itself is as important a character as any member of the cast).

Most of the extras on this Blu-ray have been carried over from the Kino DVD--audio commentaries from Gloria Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis, and a short talk with director Curtis Harrington, who was instrumental in preserving the film. There is a new interview with Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris, in which THE OLD DARK HOUSE is barely discussed.

I was hoping that there would be an extra on this disc detailing the new restoration of THE OLD DARK HOUSE....and there isn't. But that's a minor quibble. Cohen's Blu-ray of THE OLD DARK HOUSE makes the film look as fantastic as the recent Universal HD releases of their most famous Monster Classics. That alone makes this release a worthy purchase.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

MOON ZERO TWO





Last weekend, I received the latest issue of Richard Klemensen's magnificent LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine. It has become a recent tradition of mine to write a blog post on the movies featured in each new issue of LSOH. Issue #39 has inside looks at two Hammer films: TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and MOON ZERO TWO. I'll tackle MOON ZERO TWO first. It's one of Hammer's most unusual features.

MOON ZERO TWO was produced in 1969 and released in the U.S. in 1970. Hammer executives had high hopes for the project. They felt that the real-life Apollo 11 space mission would be a promotional coup for the movie, and with financial help from Warner Bros., far more money was spent on the production than the typical Hammer picture. The main idea behind MOON ZERO TWO was that it was supposed to be the first "Space Western".

The movie did not wind up being a success with either the public or the critics. The many books on the history of Hammer tend to be dismissive of MOON ZERO TWO, when they even bother to
mention the movie at all. Issue #39 of LSOH has a comprehensive article on the making of the film by Hammer expert Bruce Hallenbeck. Thankfully Bruce writes about the film objectively and fairly, and he gives it far more credit than most Hammer fanatics.

Justly or not. MOON ZERO TWO will always be compared with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. There's no way that MOON ZERO TWO can come close to Stanley Kubrick's epic vision--it didn't have the budget or the production time for that. MOON ZERO TWO is meant to be entertainment, and while I wouldn't rank it as among Hammer's best, it doesn't deserve to be included among the company's worst. What hurts MOON ZERO TWO is that it is an in-between movie--it's not wild enough to be an all-out fantastic adventure and it's not serious enough to be thought-provoking science-fiction.

The year is 2021. The Moon has now been colonized, and space pilot Bill Kemp (James Olson), the first man to land on Mars, is now reduced to salvaging space junk. Kemp is in danger of being not allowed to fly, due to the age and condition of his spaceship, the Moon Zero Two. Kemp receives an offer from a greedy millionaire named Hubbard (Warren Mitchell). Hubbard plans to capture an asteroid containing tons of sapphire and crash it on the Moon, an illegal endeavor. The millionaire promises Kemp a brand new ship if he takes part. At the same time, Kemp's help is also requested by the beautiful Clemantine (Catherina Von Schell), a woman who is searching for her missing brother. The brother was a miner working on the far side of the Moon. Hubbard's plans and the disappearance of Clemantine's brother are linked, and Kemp has to use his astronaut expertise to set things right.

MOON ZERO TWO may be billed as a Space Western, but I don't see it like that. Most of the supposed Western elements are incidental--there's a saloon-type bar, there's miners, a sort-of-sheriff, etc. Maybe if it had tried to be more like a Western it would have gotten more notoriety. The actors, and the soundtrack music, certainly don't have a Western flavor to them. James Olson is a good actor, but he seems more like a character player than a heroic leading man, which is what Kemp is supposed to be. At the time Hammer probably wouldn't have been able to get a famous young American actor, but they might have been able to get a American TV star of the period....say Adam West, or Robert Conrad? The role of Kemp needed someone with a bit more vitality. (By the way, James Olson would later go on to play Arnold Schwarzenegger's former military superior in COMMANDO.)

The Hammer Glamour element in MOON ZERO TWO is provided by Catherina Von Schell (who would later change her name to Catherine Schell and gain cult fame for her role in the TV series SPACE 1999), and Adrienne Corri. Schell at one point strips down to her space underwear, and Corri, as the Moon "sheriff", gets to wear a couple of outrageous costumes. The Moon City saloon-bar features a group of dancing girls, but their routines are not out of this world. Warren Mitchell does very well as Hubbard (he comes off as a minor version of a Bond villain), but the rest of the cast isn't all that memorable. You don't get the usual Hammer repertory group in MOON ZERO TWO...but there is a cameo by Michael Ripper (I think he was included just to convince people it really was a Hammer movie).

The production design of MOON ZERO TWO is sleek and futuristic...but it isn't outlandish enough to be unbelievable. The same can be said of the special effects. The moon base, the Moon Zero Two ship, the Moon buggies, the spacesuits, the asteroid...they all have a realistic and practical look and feel to them. Many of the FX artists who worked on MOON ZERO TWO also worked on 2001. This movie makes extensive use of model work, but that doesn't bother me--I think models have a texture and reality to them that most CGI can't match. The floating-in-space sequences use wires, of course...but since these were filmed against a black background it works. One has to consider the FX of MOON ZERO TWO in the context of when it was made, not against movies of today. If a viewer does that I feel one will have more appreciation of the film.

Michael Carreras, son of Hammer chief James Carreras, was the producer and screenwriter of the film, and the driving force behind the project. Michael Carreras was always trying to do something different with the Hammer movies he personally worked on, and he has to be given credit for that, even though many of his ideas might not have worked out properly. MOON ZERO TWO isn't boring--there's plenty here to keep one's interest--but it might have been better if the story had been a bit more dynamic. Many of the action scenes take place in zero gravity, and this has a tendency to slow things down. There's a fight in the saloon-bar which takes place in zero gravity, and while it's supposed to be a satire on the classic Western bar brawl, it doesn't play out well. Roy Ward Baker was the director of MOON ZERO TWO. Baker made some of Hammer's best films, such as QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and he also made one of the company's worst (SCARS OF DRACULA). MOON ZERO TWO fits somewhere between great and terrible, and I wonder how much enthusiasm Baker had for doing it.

The most intriguing thing Michael Carreras' screenplay for this movie, in my opinion, is the idea that after colonization the Moon has become all about commerce and bureaucracy.  Science and exploration have taken a seat to big business and tourism. This is the best idea in MOON ZERO TWO--the idea that no matter how much progress we make in the future, the mundane, ordinary things of life we always be with us.

MOON ZERO TWO isn't classic Hammer Gothic horror, and it doesn't even have a classic Hammer cast, but it does have its moments. I've seen plenty of science-fiction movies that were far worse. MOON ZERO TWO is available on a Region 1 DVD with WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH on the same disc. If you are interested in more information in this movie, please check out Issue #39 of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS. Besides Bruce Hallenbeck's excellent article, there's a plethora of photos, artwork, and interviews concerning the production. Heck, if you have any interest at all in any aspect of Hammer Films, you should be reading every issue of LSOH no matter what.

Coming soon to this blog--a examination of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER.