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Plutonium Baby (1987)
A truly toxic production
Here's another no-budget exploitation quickie in which the senseless plot is merely an excuse to string together scenes of overage teenagers running through the woods in their underwear while a badly made-up monster goes around to commit a string of gore murders. This amateur production is lacking in every respect and has little to recommend it unless you're a die-hard bad movie buff. I guess I should have known what to expect from the silly title, although it has to be better than the original PLUTONIUM BABY, because there isn't actually a baby in the film (well, briefly, but there you go)!
Auteur Ray Hirshman (I'm disturbed to see that he made another movie along with this) knows how to captivate his audience from the start - we kick off with a young boy, Danny, dancing his way through the woods without a care in the world. This boy looks perfectly normal, apart from two things. Firstly, he has a birthmark on his neck which pulsates when he gets upset. Secondly, he likes to eat raw fish whole. So far, so good, you may think. It turns out that Danny lives with his grandfather (the best actor in the film, and he gets shot early on) in the woods. The grandfather is prepared to pass a lawsuit on the firm that contaminated and murdered his daughter twelve years previously. Understandably annoyed, the bad guys (led by the sinister Doctor Drake) make their way into the woods in preparation for some killing.
Unsurprisingly a quartet of grating teenagers also happen to be out camping in the woods at the same time. After lots of unattractive love-making, one of the boys is attacked by a mutant rabbit in one of the film's funniest scenes - funny because the special effect is so poor it has to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, the hit gang discover loads of mutilated corpses in the woods (all laying about, fresh as can be) and they themselves get picked off by Danny's mother, who is alive as a radioactive mutant. One of them gets hanged from a tree, with his intestines hanging out and tied in a bow! Lovely.
Meanwhile the boy who had a close encounter with the hand-puppet, sorry, mutant rabbit, finds himself turning into a radioactive mutant and goes on a killing spree. Events culminate in a bloody shoot-out at Danny's shack where the hit gang are decimated, Doctor Drake is stuffed inside a radioactive canister and half the teens die. Rather incredibly, all of the above takes forty minutes to happen, which gives you some idea of how slowly this moves. At around this point, the film cuts forward ten years and a whole new movie begins which makes the first half look like a tense and realistic thriller.
A pair of brain-dead rednecks, out walking in the woods one day, open the aforementioned radioactive canister and release Drake, who proceeds to kill them in slow motion. Drake has had an attack of bad makeup but seems to be in pretty good shape, considering that he's been jammed inside a small drum for ten years unable to move, with nothing to eat. Drake makes for New York to find Danny, who is now grown up (as introduced in an incredibly long sex scene with his unattractive girlfriend). After murdering a few inconsequential people, Drake and Danny, now both radioactive, have a bust-up on a rooftop.
I find it difficult to convey how poor movies like these are. Everything is bad; the camera-work, the direction, the absurd dialogue, the unattractive and unbelievable actors and actresses, the cheapie special effects which have been done better in camcorder home movies I've seen, the plot or lack thereof. Unwatchable drivel which is only saved from terminal boredom by having the plot switch halfway through, so at least the second half has a different setting to recommend it. Probably the best part of the film has somebody taking a camera down a New York street, where we see all sorts of weird and wonderful cinema displayed on the cinema billboards. For a halfway good "radioactive trash movie", why not check out REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE REPORTER, which I enjoyed for some inconceivable reason when I watched it years ago.
The Musketeer (2001)
Routine adaptation, aside from the cool Hong Kong style action
A slightly lacking but generally sound updating of the classic swashbucklers of yesteryear, this action-packed offering proves to be a revitalised updating of the classic Alexandre Dumas tale, and as such would doubtlessly go hand-in-hand with the other recent French offering, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. The plot is involved but light at the same time, basically revolving around a series of fights, battles, and skirmishes, with some characters standing out from the crowd. The major musketeers are in the background now, however, to make way for fresh-faced newcomer D'Artagnan to cut, thrust and parry his way through the opposition until he reaches the treacherous Man in Black (a splendidly pantomime performance from Tim Roth).
The supporting cast is generally left in the background, although there are dozens of familiar British faces in the crowd keep an eye out for Bill Treacher (for UK readers, the late Arthur in EASTENDERS) as a weaselly peeping tom! Others like Nick Moran and Stephen Rea fill out showy roles, and Mena Suvari is around as the love interest, looking as lovely as ever but with even less to do than as per usual. One void in the film is Justin Chambers, who just doesn't cut it as the supposedly dashing hero D'Artagnan, and is hopelessly miscast. In some cases this film is pretty weird the opening titles are the cheapest ever but stick with them, because the film isn't really that bad, I promise. In other areas the editing is poor and the dialogue, to be frank, sucks. But as I mentioned before, the action is agreeable, especially the opening and closing fight scenes (choreographed by a Hong Kong veteran no less). In particular the ladder fight at the close is fantastic stuff, ending things on a high.
Murders in the Zoo (1933)
Neat story of a madman's reign of terror
This rarely-seen film is astonishingly gruesome for the time in which it was made, especially when compared to the other popular horror films of the time, like Dracula, which merely hinted at depravity and had all the violence occur off screen. Not so with MURDERS IN THE ZOO, a film which opens with a man having his lips sewn together for a minor misdemeanour, a stark moment designed to shock an audience hungry for blood. I'll bet that the opening moments got a few people fainting in the aisles, after all, they probably never expected anything like it.
Today the film is worth seeing not just for the shocks, but for the characterisation too. Gorman, the central character, is a husband whose insane jealousy of any man his wife flirts with leads him to coldly murder all involved. Lionel Atwill plays Gorman with just the right glossy sheen of respectability, hiding all the oozing evilness underneath with ease. Atwill gives a wonderful performance, really adding strength to the character, when he might just as well have been an over-the-top maniac. Just watch Gorman entertaining dinner guests above the table while underneath it he stabs venom into a rival's leg, killing him. I would say that this film shows Atwill at his best, a man whose coldly calculating mind is finally outwitted by a triumph of science, an anti-toxin which returns one of his victims from the dead.
The use of a zoo as a setting is an interesting one, and allows for plenty of footage of lions and snakes to pad out the running time. Although there is a low body count, the deaths are inventive, with Atwill planning them intrinsically to make them look like accidents. The supporting cast is a good one, with Kathleen Burke (the panther woman from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) making a striking heroine, and Charles Ruggles manages to be amusing, although I could have done without his non-stop comic relief. I know that most of these early films had wisecracking reporters prowling around, but this comedy goes on and on throughout the film, balancing uneasily with the grisly murders occurring - in fact, it almost seems like it should belong in a different film.
Another plus is the extremely short (sixty minute) running time, which keeps things flowing along smoothly and never lets up with the action. The film is at it's best when shocking the audience, either with the aforementioned mouth-stitching or the bit where Gorman drops his wife into a pit full of crocodiles which proceed to gobble her up (other films would have cut away at this point, but not this one). Atwill's terrific performance is just the icing on the cake in this neat story of a madman's short reign of terror.
Gloriously old-fashioned murder, Tod Slaughter style
THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN, sometimes subtitled MARIA MARTEN, is based on the true story of a murder that took place in Suffolk in 1828. It was subsequently adapted for the stage by the Victorians, and in the 20th century Tod Slaughter became popular for his performance as Squire Corder, the villain of the play. With the success of Dracula, FRANKENSTEIN, et all in the early 1930s, some cheapie British producers obviously felt the time was right for some home-grown horror and melodrama, and the play was finally adapted for the big screen. This low budget production is neatly preceded by an announcer introducing all of the actors in the movie, which proves to be a charming reminder of the olden times.
The film itself is a sometimes turgid potboiler that manages to pack quite a lot of detail and incident into a scant one hour running time. To cut the story short, a young village woman shuns her gypsy lover in favour of an older seducer. When her seducer learns she has become pregnant, he murders her, with the rest of the film chronicling the subsequent investigation (by the Bow Street Runners, no less). THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN is cheaply made and impoverished, and the sets and camera-work can't hold a candle to American or German competitors. However, it is entertaining in its own right, with an engaging storyline forgotten today and a barnstorming performance from Tod Slaughter, one that was to put him on the movie map and which was to lead to his typecasting as a villain in another dozen or so movies over the next twenty years. Slaughter is an acquired taste, to be sure; he's often hammy, but gives the performance here his all, so he's impossible to dislike; imagine an early Vincent Price or Michael Gough and you'll be halfway there, although Slaughter is all on his own. He's like a throwback, a leftover from yesteryear, an age when silent film and stage actors had to overdo their expressions and overemphasise their lines so audiences could understand what was going on.
The rest of the cast are also surprisingly good, and I can't think of one weak performance. Sophie Stewart is a damsel in distress whom you can root for, while Eric Portman's gypsy hero is always sympathetic. Inspector Lestrade actor Dennis Hoey has fun in a mostly comic supporting role as a gambler who drains Slaughter's money. The first half of the film is quite slowly paced, setting up the plot until the actual murder, but the last twenty minutes is tremendous fun, with people shooting pistols all over the place, Slaughter undergoing a mental breakdown and becoming haunted and mad in equal measure, and a neat conclusion that sees him climbing the gallows. Slaughter's next role was to be his most famous; that of SWEENEY TODD, DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.
Murder by Decree (1979)
Great cast, engaging Holmes vs. the Ripper story with just a few slow spots
MURDER BY DECREE is a pretty good exploration of what might have happened had Sherlock Holmes encountered Jack the Ripper. The story had already been done previously in the 1965 film A STUDY IN TERROR, which I found to be this movie's superior, but MURDER BY DECREE still has a lot going for it. It's got a heady atmosphere and some truly sinister moments, like the close-up of the killer's black-iris eyeball, which come courtesy of Bob Clark, the famed director who made the creepy slasher film BLACK Christmas. The look and feel of Victorian London is spot on.
It also boasts the finest Watson put on screen to date: James Mason. Mason is one of those impeccable English gentlemen Peter Cushing was another who has the ability to make us believe in any character, no matter what film he appears in. His Watson is humorous, kindly, but exceedingly tough, too, a real force to be reckoned with. Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes is less successful. He's not likable, but the neither was the literary Holmes; Plummer is a fine actor, but I don't know. He just doesn't seem as painstaking as some of the actors who have portrayed Holmes on television. He's good, but not Rathbone.
The story of the Jack the Ripper murders is very familiar. I've seen plenty of films about him, and most of those have a detective as the central character anyway, so the presence of Holmes doesn't really make much sense here. The main drawback with this film is the running time: it's far too long. When it's moving, with the scenes of detection, of carriages flying past, and the excellent, chase-focused climax, it's good fun; when it slows down, as in the drawn-out asylum sequence, it's a bore. The plot elements don't really go anywhere and the various elements of the mystery Freemasons, the royal family, etc. don't gel too much. So this is a film that gets by on atmosphere alone.
There are other strengths, though. The supporting cast is fine, with David Hemmings and Anthony Quayle great as stuffy officials, and Frank Finlay splendid as Lestrade. There are some notable cameos from the likes of John Gielgud as the prime minister, Genevieve Bujold as a madwoman, and Donald Sutherland as an eccentric psychic. The comic interplay between Plummer and Mason is splendid, and for me the film's highlight is the small matter of a pea on Watson's plate! As a whole, though, the Johnny Depp-starrer FROM HELL was more to my liking, despite the flashiness and obvious attempts to appeal to the modern audience.
Murder at 1600 (1997)
Not bad action thriller with an unusual premise
This White House thriller sees top detective Wesley Snipes investigating the murder of a young blonde woman found dead in one of the toilets. His investigation soon leads him up dangerous alleyways as he uncovers a far-reaching conspiracy involving adultery and men who will stop at nothing to cover up the truth. To be fair it's a rather pedestrian storyline and indeed the film follows a safe, middle of the road pattern, never presenting anything original in the way of ideas or plotting. The scripting is rather predictable and the characters contrived, and the input of journeyman director Dwight H. Little doesn't add much in the way of interest either.
Still, it's rather hard to dislike this movie. Wesley Snipes is on top form here as the likable detective, and I loved his war gaming hobby. Diane Lane makes for a pretty foil, and there are some distinguished actors in the cast, although Ronny Cox is unwisely underused as the good-guy president; I would have preferred to see him playing another weaselly villain a la ROBOCOP. There are a few action scenes which feel tacked on, including a somewhat cheesy climax, but in the end I enjoyed this film to a certain degree. It's not world changing, but for the 1990s a decade of usually poor filmmaking it's not too bad.
The Mummy's Shroud (1967)
Enjoyably old-fashioned romp
Unfairly put upon by critics and fans alike, THE MUMMY'S SHROUD remains a classic Egyptian adventure which will greatly entertain when given the chance. The plot is unremarkable - even clichéd, a simple variation every mummy film has ever used since Karloff's original classic, but the strength of the film lies in the characterisations, especially that of Stanley Preston, a superb performance by John Phillips (who has one of those familiar faces) of hypocrisy, greed, contempt, and sheer unfeelingness.
A lot of the film concentrates on his relationship with the poor assistant, played by Michael Ripper, and the two spark each other off nicely in their many conversations. These scenes, although brief, are numerous and hugely enjoyable. Andre Morell also stars as a father-like figure, this time with his hair floured grey, and he comes off the worse for wear. Maggie Kimberley is the token blonde bombshell, but remains an intelligent character, while the villain of the piece is played by non-other than Roger Delgado, the Master himself from DR WHO! It's good to see Delgado in another typically villainous role, even if his stereotypical mad Arab is a somewhat racist portrayal.
The mummy story is familiar to horror fans, even down to the Egyptian flashback, but a nice score complements the action as it unfolds. This time the sets are also different, as the location is Egypt, instead of the fog-bound London we have in CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB (which, incidentally, is inferior to this film), which makes a refreshing change. The deaths in the film, although few and far between, are spectacular.
The highlight of the film is the smashing ending in the museum, where the survivors battle the invincible mummy, using axe and gun to no effect as it rampages through the cases and other antiques. The final disintegration is also superb, one of the best deaths I've seen in a Hammer film, and also pretty macabre (just what I like to see). THE MUMMY'S SHROUD will win no awards for originality but it remains a thoroughly enjoyable, and old-fashioned, horror romp.
La venganza de la momia (1975)
Antics with Paul Naschy's gruesome Spanish mummy
Paul Naschy's take on the story of the mummy is a disappointingly plodding film which rehashes all of the old mummy clichés used to death in the 1940s and adds nothing new to the proceedings apart from extra lashings of gore. Actually, I think this was the goriest mummy movie around until DAWN OF THE MUMMY came along, but don't be fooled into thinking this is some bloody gruesome gore fest - the violence is limited to a few throat-slashings, a head-squashing, a brief impaling and a surprisingly violent interlude when Naschy's mummy mutilates the faces of a number of dead girls by bashing them apart with his powerful fist.
The expected Egyptian flashback is used to open the film, where we see Naschy sitting on this throne amid some cheap unconvincing sets while pretty girls are tortured and killed for his amusement. It isn't long before Naschy is bumped off by his scary-looking High Priest and his body mummified. After a brief (and very dark) tomb-opening sequence, the film shifts to London where the mummy is displayed in a museum. Egyptian priest Assad Bey (also played by Naschy, I guess he couldn't bear to be under wraps for a whole movie) uses the blood of three virginal girls to bring the mummy back to life and a string of gore murders commences.
The film looks to be very cheaply-made, with lots of poor editing and disconcerting camera angles which don't work. It's also badly dubbed and has really annoying tinny screams for the ladies. Director Carlos Aured displays little professionalism in his work and is a far cry from Leon Klimovsky, who directed some of Naschy's best movies in my opinion. He fails to create much interest in the proceedings and only minimum Gothic atmosphere in the scenes where the mummy prowls around the dark vaults and sewers of London.
The film's hero is played by Jack Taylor, a genre regular whose roots go back to three of the bizarre Neutron films in the early '60s, which were Mexican wrestling/superhero combinations. Taylor isn't exactly what I would term a quality actor, but he had enough experience of these sort of things to know what to do, thus making for an adequate heroic lead. However, the focus on the film is Naschy in both of his roles, so as usual he becomes a kind of anti-hero in the film. Maria Silva and Helga Line are familiar faces but fail to add much to their roles of the victimised women.
Naschy's performance as priest Assad Bey is a fairly typical suave one from the actor, no better or worse than all this others. He does, however, make for an unusual barrel-chested mummy, one of the most agile I've seen in the movies. Thankfully, the mummy make up is actually pretty good and convincing for the film, which helps it considerably and makes it work watching. The unintentionally funny ending is pretty impressive, as Bey and the mummy are trapped in a building on fire and both go up in flames; the mummy's agonised groans are hilarious to listen to because they're extremely over-the-top! The ending also throws in a hideously burnt corpse and a female corpse shrivelling (due to being kissed by the mummy!) for good gruesome measure. Despite being one of the worst Naschy films I've seen, THE MUMMY'S REVENGE does pass the time painlessly in an uninspiring way, but I was expecting a lot more from the Spanish Master of Horror.
The Mummy Returns (2001)
Awful acting and rubbish CGI, but it's still an improvement over the first
I wasn't a major fan of the first MUMMY film so it took me six years to finally bother watching this sequel when I happened to catch it on television. In all respects it's a direct continuation of the first in the series, with the viewpoint of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". THE MUMMY made a whole heap of cash at the box office, so the big wigs ordered more of the same, and what we get is THE MUMMY RETURNS. Loud, brash, and resolutely dumb, this is a film that requires you to leave your brain outside the door before sitting down to watch. It's packed with preposterous special effects and some awful acting, but despite these things, I couldn't help but enjoy it a little. It's certainly more fun than the first film, as everything's settled down a little and there are no hopes waiting to be dashed. Despite the overlong running time, THE MUMMY RETURNS provides adequate entertainment for those in a forgiving mood.
I won't talk about the plot suffice to say the action shifts from Egypt to London and then finally back to Egypt again. It's all wonderfully stupid, and the script is a real clunker this time around. Unfortunately the film-makers decided to put a kid into the proceedings, and Freddie Boath plays an irritating public school brat of a boy; you'll be praying for him to get his head lopped off or at the very least lose an arm during the proceedings, but to no avail. Fraser and Weisz return as the hero and heroine; Fraser is typically wooden, while Weisz gives another absolutely appalling performance; how is this woman still getting acting jobs? Far better is John Hannah, whose comic relief role is reduced here, and the returning Arnold Vosloo seems a lot more comfortable with his central role. Heads up to The Rock, who impresses despite only having five minutes of screen time, and Patricia Velasquez, who seems to be trying to rival Weisz in terms of bad acting but who really looks the part especially those eyes! Other characters I liked were Izzy, the black pilot; the black bodyguard, who whups major backside, and Alun Armstrong, who seems a little lost here, a world away from his usual films.
This being an action-adventure, you'd better pray there's plenty of action to be had, and the good news is that there most definitely is. Whether it's mummies chasing a double decker bus through the streets of London, Arabs and Westerners duking it out in displays of swordsmanship, or deadly pygmies lurking in the bush, the fight scenes come thick and fast and once again, they're heavy on the special effects. As for those FX, they're a mixed bunch, ranging from passable but seeming to deteriorate as the film progresses. By the time the completely-CGI Scorpion King shows up at the film's climax, they're hopelessly messy and quite appalling, and the cartoonish pygmies are also a disappointment. But never mind that THE MUMMY RETURNS improves on the first film, and that's a definite good thing. Just don't go in expecting too much.
The Mummy (1999)
CGI roller-coaster ride for kids
As the latest overblown big-budget remake hits our cinema screens, once again I despair at the direction Hollywood is taking. If it's not making cheap, sentimental dross, then more likely than not the new offering will be a film full of CGI effects and nothing else. And THE MUMMY falls into this latter category amiably enough, not being bad enough for me to rant on endlessly about the faults, just being boringly average and entertaining enough on a superficial level for me to moan about the state of the world these days.
Forget about the original MUMMY film for a start, as it had Boris Karloff in it. Karloff was an actor. A real, true, actor. Sadly there is little acting in this film, and what there is instead is atrocious comedy filler which is recycled and totally lame in concept. The 'actors' are required to run around and react to various pyrotechnic or computer generated effects, and that's exactly it. There is little plot, with the film merely being a string of action sequences, so many that it's hard to label this film horror at all.
The 12 certificate means there is virtually no blood in the film, so the deaths are not very good, and those which are left to the imagination are the most effective. A variation on the black slime from THE X-FILES turns up in the form of a flesh-burrowing scarab beetle in an amusing scene, but the effects of the beetles never look for a moment convincing - they look like exactly what they are, computer graphics. The ten plagues are understated (a fountain runs red to show 'rivers running with blood' - talk about disappointing) and merely an excuse for more special effects, briefly done. The action scenes are probably the best thing the film has to offer, and Fraser leaping about firing two handguns is enjoyable enough.
Unfortunately, the mummy itself is most disappointing. The original form is fine, but then some idiot had to give it eyes and a tongue so it could talk, ruining the effect. The mummy makes scary faces like it's in a Disney film, so that also ruins any frights there might have been. It's just ludicrous and downright embarrassing. The regeneration moments are okay, but Arnold Vosloo is not exactly a frightening person, and his naked torso and eye make up just make him look like a drag queen in his/her finest silk dressing gown.
Which leads me on to the acting. Rachel Weisz is a bad actress and therefore well suited to this film, she fits in nicely. Worst of all she's British, and her grating accent soon becomes apparent. Look, nobody speaks English like this and the portrayal borders on stereotypical. John Hannah is a bit better as a timid, weak coward type, and to be fair I found myself liking him. Brendan Fraser is also okay as the brainless Indiana Jones-type explorer, and he's good in the action scenes. The rest of the characters are all one-dimensional stereotypes and not worth bothering with. The special effects are pretty bad, with Vosloo's stretchy jaw being the worst offender. Gosh, it's ridiculously bad! The beetles are fake, and only the sand faces are effective. Stephen Sommers, with this and DEEP RISING, shows himself to be a competent director, but I only wish he could get better material and steer himself away from these FX-filled bloaters. Then perhaps he might make something interesting. THE MUMMY is a bit enjoyable in a loud, superficial, disengage the brain kind of way, but otherwise it's sorely disappointing, much as you would expect from Hollywood these days. And something of an embarrassment all round. And this was a hit? What's the world coming to?