The War of the Worlds

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(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.

The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki.

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki. Look closely and you see the wires.

There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history. Continue reading

Where Did You Get This?

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(5/10) In a nutshell: This 1952 movie, Min aina laka haza? in Arabic, has the distinction of being the first science fiction movie of Egypt. Starring four of the biggest movie stars of the country and directed by the B movie specialist and effects innovator Naizi Mostafa, this film is inspired by Universal’s Invisible Man films, but plays out as a romantic musical comedy. A fun, light-hearted and well-made popcorn movie that is enjoyable even without understanding the dialogue.

Where Did You Get This? (1952). Directed by Niazi Mostafa. Written by Ali El Zorkani and Muhammad Fawzi. Starring: Muhammad Fawzi, Madiha Yousri, Farid Shawqi, Ismail Yasseen, Hassan el Baroudi, Zeenat Sidqi. Produced by Muhammad Fawzi for Film Company Muhammad Fawzi. IMDb score: 5.0

Muhammed Fawzi becomes invisible in Niazi Momammad's Where Did You Get This?

Muhammed Fawzi becomes invisible in Niazi Momammad’s Where Did You Get This?

This is a rare entry on this blog of Arabic science fiction cinema, which is certainly not a huge subgenre, but nevertheless not to be completely overlooked. As a prosperous, stable and fairly secular country, Egypt was long the dominant film producer of the Arab countries and the golden age of Egyptian cinema lasted from the forties to the sixties. To a modern viewer, the liberal take on violence and sex in of some of the genre films of the golden age is surprising. Where Did You Get This? is in comparison a rather timid little film, and like much of the genre cinema of Egypt in the day, it was a blatant ripoff Hollywood’s genre films, in this case the Invisible Man franchise by Universal. Continue reading

Tales of Tomorrow

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Tales of Tomorrow aired on ABC in the US from 1951 to 1953 and was the first exclusive science fiction anthology series. Adult, intelligent and genuinly unsettling scripts are intermingled with more staple mystery and sci-fi fare. The live broadcast sets limits for direction, but genius camera work and editing sometimes surpass these limits. Leslie Nielsen dominates the cast, and watch out for the masterclass in method acting between Rod Steiger and James Dean.

Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953). Created by Mort Abrahams and Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Man Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, Alvin Sapinsley, David E. Durston, Max Ehrlich, Gail Ingram, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, et. al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, et. al.  Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon for George F. Foley, distributed by ABC. IMDb score: 7.4

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of television lately: there was the first televised sci-fi series, Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review), the first anthology series featuring science fiction, Lights Out (1949, review), but now we get to the third one, and the last one I’ll be reviewing in a while: Tales of Tomorrow, which ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. This has the distinction of being the first television anthology series to feature exclusively science fiction, foreshadowing legendary TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). Continue reading

Tômei ningen arawaru

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(5/10) Tômei ningen arawaru or The Invisible Man Appears has the distinction of being Japan’s earliest preserved science fiction film. More inspired by Universal’s Invisible Man films than H.G. Wells’ novel, the film concerns a mysterious invisible man out to steal a diamond necklace. This crime mystery drama meets tokusatsu film boasts the special effects of the great Eiji Tsuburaya and a superb performance from one of Japan’s biggest cinema legends, Takiko Mizunoe; a singer, dancer actress, gender bender and union activist who would go on to become Japan’s first female movie producer at a major studio.

Tômei ningen arawaru (1949, Japan). Directed by Nobuo Adachi. Written by Akimitsu Takagi & Nobuo Adachi. Starring: Chizuguru Kitagawa, Takiko Mizunoe, Daijirô Natsukawa, Mitsusaburô Ramon, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Kanji Koshiba. Produced by Hisahi Okuda for Daiei. IMDb rating: 6.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

The invisible man appears!

The invisible man appears!

Here’s one that got away! I finally managed to find an online copy of the Japanese film Tômei ningen arawaru (透明人間現わる or The Invisible Man Appears), made in 1949. And lo and behold! It even had English subtitles – unusually good subtitles, in fact. Now, I won’t be able to give you as detailed information on this film as I normally do, since there is not a lot of information about it online in English. What I know about it I’ve picked up from Japanese sources. I don’t read Japanese, and Google translates the language into almost unintelligible English. Please let me know in the comments below if I’ve misunderstood something or if you have any additional information on the film! Continue reading

Time Flies

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(4/10) In a nutshell: In this breezy 1944 musical comedy from Britain, four friends accidentally travel to 16th century London where they meet William Shakespeare and try to sell America to Queen Elizabeth. Petite American jazz singer Evelyn Dall is the real star of this B movie, since radio comedian Tommy Handley’s horrific puns get old even before they get going. Good production values, the lighthearted tone and nice musical numbers make it worth a watch. Not, however, as often claimed, the first film featuring a time machine. 

Time Flies (1944). Directed by Walter Forde. Written by Ted Kavanagh, J.O.C. Horton, Howard Irving Young. Starring: Tommy Handley, Evelyn Dall, George Moon, Felix Aylmer. Produced by Edward Black for Gainsborough Pictures. IMDb score: 5.4

Tommy and Bill fleeing the police into the time machine in the musical comedy Time Flies fron 1944.

Tommy and Bill fleeing the police into the time machine in the musical comedy Time Flies from 1944.

Filmmakers in the United Kingdom were certainly not too hot about science fiction in the thirties and the forties. Most British sci-fi in the thirties was co-produced with either Germany or France, other films just slightly dipped their toes in sci-fi matter. Science fiction guru H.G. Wells momentarily awakened the British film industry’s interest in the genre with his extremely expensive Things to Come in 1936 (review), directed by William Carlos Menzies. Although it was the most lavish sci-fi production in the world since Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis (review), audiences and critics panned the sluggish and moralistic script and the partly wooden acting brought on by the bombastic, long-winded dialogue. The film nearly bankrupted the studio and made the British industry shun sci-fi for one and a half decade. Continue reading

Invisible Agent

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The fourth of Universal’s invisible man films, made in 1942, has a Griffin descendant fight Nazis in Germany. The special effects are impressive, as is much of the cast, incliding Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre. But the comedy is lame and the script by Curt Siodmak falls far from his best efforts. Still, it is fairly entertaining as bit of a jumbled spy thriller.

Invisible Agent. 1942, USA. Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Written by Curt Siodmak. Inspired by the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Starring: Jon Hall, Ilona Massey, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, J. Edgar Bromberg, Albert Bassermann. Produced by Frank Lloyd for Universal. IMDb score: 6.0

Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) and the invisible agent (Jon Hall), covered in cold cream.

Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) and the invisible agent (Jon Hall), covered in cold cream.

I almost feel like I’ve got to apologise for posting yet another bland five-star review. But that’s just the thing with a lot of the sci-fi in the late thirties and early forties. The momentum that drove especially the mad scientist subgenre in the first half of the thirties was gone, and many of the directors that created such visionary films had been replaced by studio hacks. But on the other hand: even when relegated to Povery Row studios and bigger studios’ B units, there was still a lot of talent surrounding the genre, who were often able to elevate the films above their slight budgets. Such was the case with Invisible Agent. Continue reading

The Invisible Woman

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The third ”invisible man” installment is a good, solid comedy with a great female heroine, but hardly brings anything new to the sci-fi table.

The Invisible Woman. 1940, USA. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland. Written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Gertrude Purcell, Joe May, Kurt Siodmak. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Starring: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, Oskar Homolka, Edward Brophy, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard. Produced by Burt Kelly for Universal. IMDb score: 6.1

Virginia Bruce not seen in The Invisible Woman.

Virginia Bruce not seen in The Invisible Woman.

Number three in the Universal Studios Invisible Man franchise takes the humorous elements of its predecessors to a new level. While James Whale added his pitch-black witty comedy to The Invisible Man (1933, review), it always remained at heart a horror film. Joe May toned down the horror for laughs in The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), but still kept the serious mystery thriller element dominant. With director A. Edward Sutherland, one of the original, Keystone Cops, it is slapstick comedy all the way, and now there is very little, if anything, to remind the viewer of H.G. Wells’ original novel written in 1897 – which still gets screen credit. Continue reading

The Invisible Man Returns

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(7/10) In a nutshell: The horror icon Vincent Price takes over the empty shirt and trousers of Claude Rains in The Invisble Man Returns (1940). Univeral was still making good sequels to their horror films, although this one does clearly fall into B-movie category. But this is a good B-movie, well acted, well filmed and well received, but a harmless Hollywood sequel nonetheless.

The Invisible Man Returns. 1940, USA. Directed by Joe May. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Joe May, Lester Cole. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Forrester Harvey. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Produced by Ken Goldsmith for Universal. Tomatometer: 80 %. IMDb score: 6.5

The bandaged head is back! Now in the profile of Vincent Price.

The bandaged head is back! Now in the profile of Vincent Price.

When Universal bought the rights for the novel The Invisible Man from author H.G. Wells for their first film (1933, review), they made a contract for several films. But it would pass seven years before the studio re-opened the Invisible Man files again in 1940. By now Frankenstein had had both a Bride and a Son, and Dracula had a Daughter, so it was no more than fitting that The Invisible Man should have a Return, and later the same year The Mummy also got a Hand. Of course undead beings like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and The Mummy were easy enough to reanimate, but things were slightly more complicated with the invisible man, Jack Griffin, who was very much an ordinary man. So despite the fact that Claude Rains had made such an impact with his role seven years earlier, it was decided that a new invisible man was needed, as Griffin had very clearly died at the end of the previous film. And rather than bring in a Lugosi or a Karloff, Universal decided to do what they did with The Invisible Man – that is to cast a relatively unknown actor with a fantastic voice, and reveal his face in the last scene. This actor turned out to be a young Vincent Price in his first major role, and once again the casting agents at Universal had scored gold. Continue reading

Things to Come

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Screenwriter H.G. Wells, producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies take us on an epic journey through the future in this pompous 1936 social prophesy. The most expensive film ever made in Britain in 1936, Things to Come boasts incredible sets and miniatures, great effects, high quality filming and a team of great actors. But ultimately the movie trips on its clay feet, which is the impossibly stiff script, lacking in emotion and real dialogue. Wells is using his biggest sledgehammer to pound in his message, and prevents the audience from doing any thinking for themselves.

Things to Come. 1936, UK. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written H.G. Wells, based on his own novel The Shape of Things to Come. Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke. Music: Arthur Bliss. Produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions. Tomatometer: 92 %. IMDb score: 6.8

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

Things to Come was Great Britain’s most impressively epic science fiction film to date – without even a close rival – when it came out in 1936. It had a budget of about 350 000 pounds, equal to about 21 millions today; an absolutely astounding amount of money to put on a film back in that day. And thus it would remain all the way to 1968 when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey in London. Penned by the 70-year old sci-fi master H.G. Wells from his own 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, it was however more an ideological treatise and a futuristic prophesy than a dramatic film. Although time has conjured up a good deal of latter-day apologetics who hail Wells’ vision and – rightly so – praise the production design, the simple truth of the matter stands: Wells was an awful screenwriter. Continue reading

The Invisible Man

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(8/10) In a nutshell: Lead actor Claude Rains does a tremendous job of not being seen in Universal’s classic 1933 horror sci-fi. The special effects are bind-boggling for their day. Una O’Connor screams and the rest of the cast are able, although their characterisations are written down on the back of a matchbook.

The Invisible Man. 1933, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by R.C. Sherriff. Uncredited writers: James Whale, Preston Sturges, John Weld, Philip Wylie. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Starring: Claude Rains, Una O’Connor, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.7

The invisible man makes his entrance.

The invisible man makes his entrance.

The early thirties were indeed a time of magic for Universal Studios. In just three years they were able to conjure up four of cinema’s most beloved, successful and influential monsters. After Dracula and Frankenstein (1931, review) came The Mummy (1932), and in 1933 it was time for The Invisble Man to – not – reveal himself. Seated in the director’s chair was once again Briton James Whale (Frankenstein), but this time the monster wasn’t played by either Bela Lugosi (Dracula), nor Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), but by the relatively unknown British actor Claude Rains – and once again Universal’s casting proved itself a stroke of genius.  Continue reading