Journey to the Beginning of Time

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(7/10) In 1955 ”the Georges Méliès of Czechoslovakia” directed an imaginative ”lost world” film in colour. With stop-motion puppetry and cutout animation, split screen techniques, mechanical puppets, suits and forced perspective shots, Karel Zeman gave life to the wonders of the prehistoric world. Although more ”edutainment” than drama, the film about four boys travelling backwards in time still manages to captivate its viewers with its innovative special effects, its naive and warm approach and the great performances by the young actors. Some special effects do feel a bit creaky.

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Vladimir Bejval and Zdenek Hustak inspecting a dead Stegosaurus.

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955, Czechoslovakia). Directed by Karel Zeman. Written by Karel Zeman, J.A. Novotný. Starring: Vladimir Bejval, Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak, Josef Lukás. Produced for Ceskoslovenský Státni Film & Filmové Studio Gottwaldov.
IMDb rating: 7.5/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

In 1955 American audiences were being wowed by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation in films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review). But Europe had their own Harryhausen, who was much less known to American audiences, partly because he worked behind the iron curtain, and partly because the one film he made that got a wide release in the US, Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do praveku), downplayed his contribution when studios tacked on a newly filmed American beginning and end when it was released overseas in 1966. This was Czechoslovak director Karel Zeman, one of the most brilliant, artistic and inventive animators in the history of cinema. Continue reading

King Dinosaur

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(0/10) Forget Plan 9 from Outer Space, that charmingly childish fantasy from Ed Wood. Bert I. Gordon’s super-cheap directorial (solo) debut King Dinosaur is a much better contender for the title of worst film ever made. This story of four scientists battling a T.Rex on an unknown planet is inept in every single department and doesn’t even have a redeeming amateurish charm to it. The most interesting aspect of the movie is probably the life story of one of its stars, a jazz singer who kickstarted fashion guru Mr. Blackwell’s career and almost caused a diplomatic incident in Argentina.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

Douglas Henderson and Patti Gallagher flee a “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in a promo photo. The actual effects of the film never look this good.

King Dinosaur (1955, USA). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Written by Tom Gries, Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist. Starring: William Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller. Produced by Bert I. Gordon for Zimgor Productions. Executive producer: Al Zimbalist.
IMDb rating: 1.9/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster.

Note the dissimilarity between the lizard in the photograph above and the one on the poster. The poster also as five people in it. That’s more than the entire cast of the film.

I had just finished my one-star review of The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), and thought it probably couldn’t get much worse, when King Dinosaur came along and proved me wrong. It seems that 1955 was the turning-point for sci-fi cinema in the sense that filmmakers realised that by running a shrewd marketing campaign promising monsters and babes, they could really film almost anything that had a fleeting resemblance to the poster, create a script that had a beginning and an end, and preferably some padding in the middle, and get the film released. And since the movies probably didn’t cost more than 30 000 dollars, a profit was almost inevitable. Continue reading

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The father of all giant atomic monsters, The Beast inspired Godzilla and numerous other films to have giant dinosaurs or octopi crawl out of the water and wreak havoc on unsuspecting cities. Stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen’s first film in charge of the effects is somewhat hampered by a low budget and a meandering script, but there’s flashes of excellent acting among the blandness, and extremely riveting action sequences of the titular monster bearing down on New York. The cast is filled with sci-fi noteables and Lee Van Cleef. A genuine classic.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Directed by Eugène Lourié. Written by Lou Morheim, Fred Freiberger, Daniel James, Eugène Lourié, Robert Smith. Suggested by the short story The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury. Starring: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, Lee Van Cleef. Visual effects & animation: Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Jack Dietz for Mutual Pictures of California. Tomatometer: 94 % IMDb score: 6.7

Ray Harryhausen's Beast rampaging through New York.

Ray Harryhausen’s Beast rampaging through New York.

A couple of years back I worked as a foreign affairs editor at one of the top newspapers in Finland. One evening as I sat at my desk I saw the newsflash of Ray Harryhausen’s death. Strictly speaking, movies were not my jurisdiction, but I knew that the culture pages were already done and because of the late hour and recent cut-backs we were working on a skeleton crew, so I decided to walk down to the news desk to make sure they hadn’t missed the the flash.

Poster.

Poster.

”So, I suppose someone here is doing a bit on Ray Harryhausen’s death?” I asked.

I was met with blank stares and an unsettling silence.

Ray who?”

I wasn’t surprised that the people my age or younger didn’t know Harryhausen, but I would have expected at least some of the senior editors on deck to recognise the name. But that’s when I realised just how much the world of movies and popular culture had moved on since Harryhausen. Apart from film nerds like me, no-one under 50 watched of cared much about films like The 7th Voyage of Sindbad or Jason and the Argonauts.

I ended up writing the the short obituary myself. Continue reading

King Kong

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(8/10) In a nutshell: Whether actually sci-fi or not, King Kong still had a huge influence on the genre. The amazing stop motion photography, the models and the merging of live action and special effects, combined with the wonderful imagination of director/producer Merian C. Cooper make this one of the true Hollywood greats. This is rounded up by the groundbreaking musical score by Max Steiner. Unfortunately the dialogue is appalling, the script contrived and the acting wooden. The only actor to hold a candle to Kong himself is the immortalized scream queen Fay Wray.

King Kong. 1933, USA. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon (uncredited). Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray, Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson. Produced by Cooper, Schoedsack & David O. Selznick for RKO. Tomatometer: 98 %. IMDb score: 8.0

Is this the most widely recognized movie scene in history?

Is this the most widely recognized movie scene in history?

We all know the story of King Kong by heart, even if we have never seen the film. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) sweeps up a girl who is down on her luck, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and takes her on a journey on a ship, to appear in one of his films. The trip takes them to an uncharted island, where Denham hopes to film the mysterious Kong – a creature terrorizing the natives. On the island they find that the black natives have built a huge wall to keep out Kong – and they happen to interrupt a sacrificial rite when they arrive. The natives kidnap the golden-haired Darrow and present her to Kong, prompting Denham and his crew to go on a rescue mission, where they first encounter King Kong, the giant gorilla.  Continue reading

The Mysterious Island

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Borrowing the name of Jules Verne’s bestseller, this problem-ridden 1926-1929 production features good acting, some remarkable special effects and a solid-ish script, but alas, the schizophrenic semi-talkie-semi-silent financial disaster is just as equally horrible in many ways, with toy submarines, crocodiles substituting for dinos.

The Mysterious Island. Directed by Lucien Hubbard, Maurice Tourneur, Benjamin Christensen. Written by Lucien Hubbard, Carl Piersen. Loosely based on several novels by Jules Verne (but not The Mysterious Island). Starring: Lionel Barrymore Jacqueline Gadsden (as Jane Daly), Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love. Produced by J. Ernest Williamson (uncredited) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. IMDb score: 6.1

Attack of the 3 foot Donald Duck oompah-loompas of the depths!

Attack of the 3 foot Donald Duck oompah-loompas of the depths!

The jury still seems to be out on this film, judging from the few reviews on the interwebz. Many pro reviewers seem to like it, while more amateur writers find it dull and clumsy. When it was released in 1929 critics heaped praise on it, while the audience failed to show the same enthusiasm. And in truth, it is a hard one to appraise. On one hand there are clear qualities in both script, acting, special effects and sets – indeed it was a very expensive film that took over two years to film. But on the other hand this very very loose adaptation of a mix of Jules Verne books had monstrous production problems that are equally obvious, and simply cannot be forgiven. Continue reading

The Lost World

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(8/10) In a nutshell: Although the plot does completely disappear when the dinosaurs enter, this 1925 classic is still as thrilling an adventure as it was when it was released, and Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary stop motion animations still holds up to scrutiny.

The Lost World. 1925, USA. Directed by Harry O. Hoyt. Stop motion sequences directed by Willis O’Brien. Written by Marion Fairfax. Based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Bessie Love. Produced by: Earl Hudson (uncredited) for First National Pictures. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.1

Willis O'Brien's stop-motion Allosaurus in action.

Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion Allosaurus attacking the beautiful Bessie Love.

At some point when reviewing these old silent sci-fi movies it starts getting a little tedious to introduce them as ”the first film to blah blah blah …” But you really can’t help it. During the twenties not many sci-fi films were made, and even fewer before that. Those that were made will almost by default be the first to introduce something. And – if you want a first of something, then few films are as apt as The Lost World. This is the first full length film to feature a lost world, the first full length film with dinosaurs, and stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s first involvement in a full length film.

The importance and impact of this film cannot be understated. Without The Lost World we probably wouldn’t have King Kong. We probably wouldn’t have any films by Ray Harryhausen, we probably wouldn’t have all those B-movies of Raquel Welch and the likes in tiny fur bikinis, or Jurassic Park or any Peter Jackson, for that matter. We unfortunately do not have any Peter Jackson in tiny fur bikinis. I would pay a long penny for that. Continue reading

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

No rating due to partially lost film

In a nutshell: This 1918 short by stop-motion wizard Willis O’Brien is probably the first film to describe time travel, and is a showcase for O’Brien’s marvellous stop-motion dinosaurs. 

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. 1918, USA. Written & directed by Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Starring Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Stop-motion animation my Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Produced by Herbert M. Dawley (falsely credited as writer, director and animator as well). IMDb score: 5.9

Promo still from the film.

Promo still from the film.

I usually don’t review short films when we start getting into the realm close to 1920, but I allow myself a few exceptions when pioneering concepts, themes or techniques are involved. Such a film is 1918/1919 short The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. It is considered by many to be the first film to deal with time travel, and one of the first where special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong) combined live action with stop-motion photography. The first one was The Puzzling Billboard (1917), where a goat eats a billboard at the end of the film. It is also essentially the first film to depict a time machine (although that is debatable). O’Brien also wrote and directed the The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and it was produced by Herbert M. Dawley, who also played the lead as Uncle Jack Holmes. Willis O’Brien plays the ghost of Mad Dick. Continue reading