Is that the time? I’d better have another rummage around the giant-ape genre, I think. Today, I’m taking a look at Konga (1961), starring Michael Gough, who died in March aged 94. As always with these in-depth reviews, beware: there are heavy spoilers ahead, including the film’s ending.
A light aircraft crashes in a Ugandan jungle, igniting in a ball of flame. It’s feared that its famous occupant, English botanist Doctor Charles Decker (Michael Gough), was killed in the explosion along with the pilot. One year later, however, a very-much-alive Decker returns to London, explaining that he’d managed to bail out of the plane before the crash, and had spent the past 12 months living with a native tribe while conducting experiments on insectivorous plants. His groundbreaking findings, he claims, will establish a close link between plant and animal life.
The Ward – or John Carpenter’s The Ward, to give it its full and proper title – is a film I’ve been pining to see for what must be the best part of a year, ever since I heard it had gone into production. Carpenter has long been one of my favourite directors. I’ve been enjoying his films since I was 14 years old, at the height of the home-video boom. Long before I even knew what a director did, Carpenter’s name in the opening credits of a movie assured me that I was in for a good time.
Fast-forward 27 years, and here I am, sitting on a train heading for London’s West End. Destination: the Empire, Leicester Square, where The Ward, Carpenter’s first theatrical release in a decade, is playing its opening weekend. I’ve avoided seeing any trailers, and I deliberately haven’t read any synopses or reviews. I want to have no expectations; I want the film to surprise me. When I’m at the cinema, I like to feel like I’m sitting in the front car of a white-knuckle ride. It’s more fun than climbing in the back and slipping on someone else’s vomit… er, so to speak.
Wandering around Collectormania London recently, I saw on one of the stalls a copy of Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, John D Hancock’s cult chiller from 1971. This was a movie that had long been on my want-to-see list, thanks largely to the critic Kim Newman. In my late teens, I was a regular browser of Newman’s 1988 book Nightmare Movies, in which the author championed the film, describing it as “shamefully underrated” – though, really, the title of the movie alone was enough to convince me that I ought to see it if I ever got the chance (see also Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things).
The stallholder was asking the not-unreasonable sum of £4.99, so I paid up and took the disc home. When I sat down to watch it last Saturday night, a curious thing happened: the film’s title prevented me from enjoying it as fully as I should have. To understand why, you have to know something about Jessica’s narrative – and here be spoilers, so if you’d rather be blind to what happens in this movie, shut your eyes now. (Beware the trailer below, too.)
Continuing my in-depth look at various giant-ape movies, which began last month with Yeti – The Giant Of The 20th Century, I’m now going to take a peek through my fingers at A*P*E, another mid-1970s production that seemingly hoped to ride the slipstream of the first King Kong remake. Before I begin, though, be warned: hulking great spoilers lie ahead. If this doesn’t bother you, then let’s head straight back to 1976.
A captured giant gorilla is being transported by sea to Disneyland when it shakes off its sedation and escapes, blowing up the ship in the process. After tussling with and killing an oversized shark, the ape dries off on the coast of South Korea, where, in the excitement of its freedom, it destroys buildings, igniting both flames and panic and accidentally alerting the Korean and US militaries to its presence.
As the end credits roll on Monsters, British director Gareth Edwards’ first theatrical feature, the gentleman sitting behind me says what many viewers might well be thinking.
The film’s set-up is this: a space probe returning to Earth explodes over Mexico, scattering spores that grow into giant, octopus-like aliens. These aliens, known to the population as simply ‘creatures’, turn large parts of the country into a no-go area, a huge ‘infected zone’. Six years later, a photo-journalist on assignment in Mexico (Scoot McNairy) is given the task of bringing his boss’s daughter (Whitney Able) home safely to America. So far, so ‘multi-million-dollar blockbuster’, right?
High-flying entrepreneur Morgan Hunnicut (Eddie Faye) visits a palaeontologist friend, Professor Henry Waterman (John Stacy), to ask for his help with a “humane expedition” in northern Canada. Though Waterman has been taken for a ride by his friend in the past, he reluctantly agrees. Hunnicut’s mute grandson, Herbie (Jim Sullivan), has discovered a large creature preserved in ice, which Hunnicut Sr wants to thaw and use as publicity for his business. On inspection of the animal, Waterman decides that it must be a yeti that was trapped in an avalanche millions of years ago.
In an attempt to revive the yeti, he’s put in a transparent cage, winched under a helicopter and flown to 10,000 feet, the height of his prehistoric, Himalayan habitat. He eventually awakes and, after almost causing the ‘copter to crash, is given a sedative gas and brought back to earth. The effects of the gas quickly wear off, and he breaks free from his cage, causing panic – until he befriends Herbie and his older sister, Jane (Phoenix Grant), whom he sees as his kin. With the yeti calmed, Hunnicut puts him on display in Toronto, but he quickly breaks loose, his reputation – and fate – now in the hands of Jane and Herbie.
Having missed it at FrightFest, where it was the closing film of the five-day festival, I took the opportunity while on holiday last week to see Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism.
Produced by Eli Roth – who also seems to have taken on a large chunk of the film’s PR, if the number of times he’s crossed my line of sight in the past month is anything to go by – this latest entry in the exorcism sub-genre was shot in a shakycam style, which cunningly draws comparisons away from the The Exorcist, the untoppable grandaddy, and towards recent first-person horrors such as REC and Diary Of The Dead.
The Last Exorcism’s story centres on a likable but troubled preacher called Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a man whose faith has been on the wane for some time – if it was ever there at all. Disgusted by reports of a boy being smothered to death during an exorcism, Marcus has decided to expose the mundane, conning secrets of the practice by hooking up with a small TV crew to make a documentary, so that, hopefully, people will be made aware that demonic possession is nothing more than a delusion.
“In case no one can hear you, laugh!” That’s the advice on the back of the DVD packaging for Dark Star, a movie celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The quote, which parodies the original tagline for Alien, sounds like a weak advert for Scary Movie 9: Terror Beyond The Stars, and on its merits one could be forgiven for expecting the film that carries it to be a broad comedy full of puns about the captain’s log, black holes and re-entry. Dark Star, however, is cleverer than that.
Made over four years on a budget of around $60,000, this one-time 16mm student short was the calling card for two young filmmakers, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. Expanded to feature-length, transferred to 35mm and released theatrically in 1974, Dark Star tells the compact tale of a small group of astronauts – Doolittle, Boiler, Pinback (played by O’Bannon himself), Talby and Powell – who’ve been sent into deep space to seek out and destroy unstable planets to make way for colonisation. And despite the film’s technical deficiencies (not-so-special effects and some less-than-stellar acting), it flies the line between comedy and science-fiction with precision.
It’s a tradition on this day that I post a pic of my efforts with a pumpkin and a tiny hacksaw blade so, well, here’s this year’s flawed masterpiece. Nothing radical; just a good old-fashioned jack o’lantern. A hint of evil in the eyes and a toothy smile – exactly how it should be.
Halloween actually started a day early for me, as I spent Thursday evening supping pints of the Devil’s brew (well okay, Strongbow) in the company of Satan’s house band, Slayer. Hammersmith Apollo was the venue – the very same place, albeit with a different name, that I saw my first Slayer gig 20 years ago, on the South Of Heaven tour.
The nice lady in the chemist handed me a packet of travel sickness pills.
“These might make you drowsy. You’re not driving, are you?”
“No, I’m not driving.”
What I neglected to mention was that I wasn’t travelling at all – not in the physical sense, anyway. My plan was to pop a pill, sit in a darkened cinema and spend 90 minutes goggling George A Romero’s Diary Of The Dead – hopefully without puking at the handheld camera work that’s marred my enjoyment of recent, similarly styled films.
Romero’s fifth ‘Dead’ movie takes a year-zero approach to a worldwide zombie outbreak: it’s a reset for the series, rather than a continuation, and most of what’s on screen purports to be shot by the story’s characters. After the gloss of 2005’s Land Of The Dead, Diary is an attempt by Romero to return to his roots and make a truly independent, low-budget, interference-free zombie film.