• Film reviews

    #571 – Jason X (2001)

    Jason X (2001)

    Film review #571

    Director: Jim Isaac

    SYNOPSIS: Serial killer Jason Voorhees is being held in a top secret underground facility. Orders are given to move him out for study, but the facility’s director, Rowan, believes he is too dangerous to move. Jason manages to break out anyway, and is only stopped when Rowan traps him in cryogenic storage, and unwittingly, herself too. Rowan awakes in the year 2455 on board a spaceship orbiting the Earth, but the people who brought her to the ship also brought Jason too, and he has thawed and ready to kill…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Jason X is a 2001 film and the tenth film in the Friday the 13th film franchise. The film opens up showing Jason Voorhees being contained in a secret research facility, as previous attempts to kill him have failed thanks to his ability to regenerate. The director of the facility, Rowan, is given orders to transfer Jason out of the facility for study, but she believes Jason is too dangerous to transfer, and wants to cryogenically freeze him. It doesn’t matter anyway, as Jason breaks free of his confines and gets busy cutting through everyone he sees. Rowan manages to lure him into the cryogenic chamber and freeze him, but an accident means she is sealed in and frozen too. Over four hundred years later, Rowan (and Jason) is discovered and brought aboard a spaceship to be revived. Not realising that they have brought aboard a relentless killing machine, Jason picks up where he left off and goes about slaughtering the crew, while the survivors try and work out a way to stop him. The film is about what you’d expect from a slasher film, as Jason mows down people constantly without any rhyme or reason. The sci-fi twist to the typical Friday the 13th film could have two outcomes: it offers a fresh take on the formula, or it can be a travesty of messing with a tried and tested formula that shows a series has run out of ideas. In this case, it is certainly the latter. The sci-fi setting is barely explained: humans have moved to a new planet called Earth II because Earth has become too polluted, but this is mentioned about once. We don’t know anything about this future, and what technologies exist, and not knowing what is possible just leaves things very confusing as if the film makes it up as it goes along. It feels like the film just doesn’t try to take advantage of it’s new setting, and just sticks to filling the film with sex scenes, partial nudity, and slashing without really giving anything new to offer.

    I’m not really sure what the film wants to do: it’s obviously not meant to be a really gritty horror film, as there’s no real suspense, overly visceral gore, or jump scares, and as mentioned, just falls back on randy young people having sex to appeal to it’s young adult audience. There’s no creativity with the kills (maybe one or two) or anything unique about them that the setting gives them. I feel like it would probably be easier to stop Jason on a spaceship, as there’s nowhere to really hide, doors can be secured pretty easily, you could lure him out an airlock and wouldn’t have to confront him at all. But I suppose that wouldn’t make an interesting film. I’m not even sure the film wants to be taken seriously. It does try to inject some comedy by having the characters say really awkward puns and quips, but they are all just so oddly timed and out of place that it’s baffling what you’re supposed to take away from the film.

    There’s quite a large cast of characters, most of whom you’ll never get to know because Jason kills them off fairly quickly. You can tell right from the off what cliché character they are meant to be. There’s no real development in any of the characters, even the lead, Rowan, just doesn’t have any personality, and we have absolutely no idea about who she is and any details about her life. Jason is more or less the same as he has always been, which is good, but the “Cyber Jason” that emerges when Jason’s body is repaired by the cyber nanobot…things isn’t going to become the new Jason: he just becomes a cyborg which is pretty silly and over-the-top, but again, that might be what the film is going for?

    The setting of the spaceship has a fair amount of detail, but the CGI is fairly dire. I don’t think it would have been good even in 2001. The whole film just feels like an episode of a TV series, from the sci-fi corridors which could have easily come from an episode of Star Trek, to the threadbare plot that would have fit neatly into a forty minute episode: the film itself barely stretches over the ninety minute mark. Overall, Jason X just seems like a bit of a mess: it doesn’t have the suspense, jump scares, or gore to make it a decent horror movie, but it’s attempts to be funny and poke fun at the franchise, whether deliberate or not, are never delivered at the right time, and your often left wondering just what the aim and tone of this film is meant to be.

  • Film reviews

    #512 – The Day of the Triffids (1962)

    The Day of the Triffids (1962)

    Film review #512

    Directors: Steve Sekely, Freddie Francis

    SYNOPSIS: After a meteor shower that is seen across the globe, nearly everybody on Earth is blinded by it. Billy Masen, a merchant navy officer, avoids being blinded as he has had his eyes bandaged up from an operation. He takes off his bandages to find he is one of the few people in the world who has not been blinded, and also that the meteor shower has released a strange plant called triffids that are multiplying rapidly, and attacking people…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Day of the Triffids is a 1962 sci-fi horror film based on the novel of the same name by John Wyndham. The film begins with introducing Bill Masen, A merchant navy officer, who is resting in hospital after an eye operation. While his eyes are covered up in bandages, a meteor shower seen across the world blinds almost everybody on Earth. Bill is unaffected because of the bandages covering his eyes, and wakes up the next morning to remove his bandages and find that everyone else around him has gone blind. This has caused not only to society to break down and all services and communications to cease, but also the meteors have released a strange species of plant called Triffids that can move and attack people. The film is a balance between a post-apocalyptic survival film, and also a classic B-movie monster movie, and for most part, it is balanced quite well. The tone of the film remains serious and desperate, without too much of that low-budget b-movie tone undoing it. There’s also a good balance between the two sides of the story presented to us, with Bill and those he meets trying to survive in the world, and scientists Tom and Karen Goodwin, isolated from the world at a remote lighthouse, try to investigate the triffids and find a way to stop them, separating the explanations and exposition from the drama-heavy story of Bill and those around him trying to survive. It should be noted though, that the film is not a particularly faithful adaptation of the book, as it moves some of the settings and omits some characters. There are other adaptations that are more faithful, so you may want to look there if you want something closer to the book.

    Apart from the good balance of characters and tone, there’s also some good shots and settings that set the scene rather well. Shots of the streets of London and Paris deserted are rather striking, and the scenes exploring the fallout of everybody being blind, from mass panic and planes being unable to land gives us some dramatic moments with big consequences, but the main focus is on Bill and his group’s isolated struggle for survival. The triffids themselves look like a b-movie creature, but manage to be quite menacing and threatening at some points, particularly in one scene where you see a hoard of them amassing behind an electric fence.

    The ending is perhaps the weakest part of the film, and again something that deviates from the original novel: it turns out that the triffids dissolve in seawater…and that’s it. The world is saved apparently. It’s an ending twist similar to The War of the Worlds, which released a film adaptation in 19053, and had the invading Martians unable to survive in the earth’s atmosphere outside of their protective environments. We’re not given an insight into how the world is meant to carry on with nearly everybody blinded, but I suppose Bill’s story has a solid ending with him and his cohort reaching safety. One other notable aspect of the ending is that some survivors who have been trapped in a submarine emerge, and…go to a church to give thanks for their survival. This is an odd choice for an ending, particularly because Wyndham was not a religious person, but a a fair few of these sci-fi horror films (The Day the Earth Stood Still springs to mind), where ultimately God and religion are shown to still be all-powerful in the face of science. It’s an ending that comes out of nowhere and isn’t necessary, but is not uncommon in films of this era. Overall, The Day of the Triffids has some good aspects to it: it benefits from having the structure of the novel to balance out the different aspects of the film, but becomes a lot weaker when it deviates from it. The Triffids are a fairly terrifying monster in particular scenes, and are more memorable than a lot of monsters, but their undoing is a little contrived and uninspired. A good example of a b-movie monster flick, with some post-apocalyptic elements that heighten the drama.

  • Film reviews

    #491 – The Alligator People (1959)

    The Alligator People (1959)

    Film review #491

    Director: Roy Del Ruth

    SYNOPSIS: Newly-wed couple Joyce and Paul Webster are aboard a train on the way to their honeymoon when Paul receives a telegram that disturbs him, causing him to get off at the next stop and vanish, leaving Joyce on her own. She relentlessly pursues any clues about where her husband may have gone, leading her to a plantation in Louisiana, which he once registered as his college address. There, she suspects that there may be some answers to her questions, but everyone seems to think otherwise…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Alligator People is a 1959 sci-fi horror film. In the opening, we see nurse Jane Marvin undergoing a treatment to cure her amnesia. While in a sedated state, she recalls to the supervising doctors the plot of the film: Joyce (as she was then known) had just got married, and they were on the train for their honeymoon, when Paul receives a telegram. Paul seems shaken by the contents and gets off the train at the next mail stop and disappears without explanation, leaving his new wife lost and confused about what happened. Joyce spares no effort in tracking him down, but the only clue she is able to find is an address he gave when he enrolled at college for a plantation in Louisiana, and so Joyce heads there to try and get some answers. The story of the film is honestly pretty well done: everything is contained, flows nicely, the twists are decent, and the explanations and justifications for everything that happens make sense. However, it is still a b-movie from a time when these types of films were cranked out en masse, and so it fits into a category in which things are expected to be a bit cheap and unoriginal. It’s executed better than some of the B-movies I’ve seen, but I think the problem is that it’s still not a very interesting setup. The horror element of the film doesn’t really meet expectations, as the “Alligator people” from the title turns out to be just one person, who is fairly humanised so as to not be portrayed as much of a threat.

    The female lead provides a more original twist on the b-movie film, and her inquisitiveness and relentless pursuit of answers concerning her husband is one of the strong points of the film. Unfortunately, there are also moments where she becomes a more typical “damsel in distress,” and the film doesn’t seem to know how to break out of these archetype completely, and her character jumps can go between these two poles very suddenly and awkwardly. The rest of the cast have particular roles to play that, again, while they’re nothing special, fulfil their purpose well. There’s no real gaps in the story or characters which would disrupt the viewing experience, which is pretty rare in a b-movie like this.

    The “alligator person,” when their face is finally exposed, is a scaly and deformed result of an experiment designed to harness the limb regeneration of alligators and apply it to humans (again, the explanation works pretty well). The makeup is okay, and not too distracting. When he finally transforms fully into an alligator human hybrid, the results are much worse, as it is clearly a guy in an alligator mask. Apart from that, the execution and production of the film are generally good, with the photography and camera setups working well, and scenes having a good level of detail. Overall, The Alligator People is a decently executed film that ties its characters and plot together well. The main problem is that it’s just not that interesting, and in terms of b-movie monsters, it’s just not as memorable or terrifying as others. It’s definitely better than many B-movies I’ve seen, but a bit of a bore.

  • Film reviews

    #489 – The Monster of Piedra Blancas (1959)

    The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

    Film review #489

    Director: Irvin Berwick

    SYNOPSIS: The quiet Californian town of Piedras Blancas hides a dark secret: in the caves beneath the lighthouse, there hides an ancient monster that starts killing the residents of this sleepy town. Unaware of the monster’s existence, a number of the residents try to find out what is causing the killings…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a 1959 sci-fi horror film. Set in the small lighthouse town of Piedras Blancas in Southern California, the residents of the town find themselves being killed off one by one, with no idea who…or what is doing it. The film is paced like a typical monster movie of the time, with very little momentum at the beginning, and various murders until the monster’s reveal. The pacing is very slow in this one, and we only get the reveal of the monster about two-thirds of the way in, and everything before just involves these cast of characters that do little to distinguish themselves. The dialogue is pretty dull, and the character development doesn’t help make things exciting. I suppose this dullness reflects the setting of this sleepy seaside town, but it doesn’t really make for an interesting movie.

    The film is an independent production, so it doesn’t have the backing of the big studios, but then again, those same studios were cranking out films like this at about the same quality, and the same runtime just over an hour long (this runtime was typically suitable for being shown at drive-in cinemas as part of double features, that were popular at the time). As such, it’s rather indistinguishable from a more ‘mainstream’ production. The on-location shots of the cliffs and the town do give it a more authentic feel instead of just relying on sets, so it does have that going for it. The cast of characters can easily be remembered by their roles, and their names are somewhat irrelevant: you have the doctor, sheriff, storekeeper, lighthouse keeper and the young couple. Each of them, as mentioned, fills out a fairly predictable role, and adds very little to proceedings. The young woman manages to show a lot of skin fairly regularly (even going swimming in the sea naked at one point), which would have been a little risqué at the time, and not something I’m sure a bigger production could have gotten away with.

    The most notable aspect of this film is definitely the monster itself. Very similar in design to “The creature from the black lagoon,” (and designed by the same creator), the monster is based on a diplovertebron, which was a prehistoric creature that lived over three hundred million years ago. We don’t get too many shots of the creature in it’s full glory, but when we do it looks fairly decent for the time, with a scaly skin and water oozing out of its mouth. One of the other most memorable aspects of the film is the use of gore. In most Hollywood films, the killings would be done offscreen or without any blood or viscerality. When we get the full reveal of the monster, he is carrying the bloody decapitated head of his latest victim, which certainly comes as a shock, since nothing else has happened in the film up to that point, and also you just don’t expect to see that kind of gore in these films; also, the effect looks pretty convincing too. We get another shot later on of the abandoned head being walked over by a crab which is also has the same effect, but apart from that, there’s not too much to say about this film. The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a fairly forgettable film save for one or two moments that show off its horror credentials. It’s fairly short runtime means you can probably check it out without too much fuss though.

  • Film reviews

    #376 – The Mad Monster (1942)

    The Mad Monster (1942)

    Film review #376

    Director: Sam Newfield

    SYNOPSIS: Dr. Cameron, a scientist, has been experimenting with genetic modification, a practice which has left him the subject of ridicule and forces him from his university job. Out in the country, he experiments on his hired help Pedro to turn him into a werewolf, but when Pedro starts killing people in his werewolf form, Dr. Cameron finds it increasingly difficult to keep his experiments a secret…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISThe Mad Monster is a 1942 horror/sci-fi film. The film centres around Dr. Cameron, a scientist whose experiments in genetic engineering have left him ridiculed and cast out of the scientific community. He moves out into the country with his daughter Lenora to carry on his experiments, using his hired help Pedro as a test subject. Cameron successfully develops a serum that can turn Pedro into a werewolf-like creature, which ends up escaping and killing a little girl. Pedro is unable to remember the time when he is transformed, so Cameron uses this to his advantage to take revenge on those that ridiculed his research. The story is quite straightforward, and there’s no real surprises. The plot is all explained at the beginning, and it is up to the characters to unravel the mystery themselves. there’s nothing really special about the film, it’s another simple story of science going too far that has been done many times before (and after).

    The film attempts to create a horror atmosphere through some creative use of lighting and dark, minimal sets. Although all the violence happens off-screen (this is the 1940′s after all), so it is difficult to get much of an idea of how vicious this werewolf creature is. The cast of characters is pretty bland, but well defined, and everyone contributes to the story in some way. The acting and delivery of lines is sometimes a bit flat, but credit to the actor playing Pedro, who gives an expressive performance. One of the biggest drawbacks  of the film is that it often feels boring, with scenes that drag on too long consisting of dull conversations that go nowhere. You become very aware of the beginning and ending of scenes as they mostly end on flat notes without much fanfare, leaving you to wonder what the point of it was.

    As mentioned, the production values of the film are rather low, owing to the general state of the world at the time and having more pressing issues to address. Nevertheless, there are a few positives, such as Pedro’s “werewolf” make-up or costume being quite well put together. Sometimes Dr. Cameron delivers a good speech under an atmospheric light, but other than that there’s really not much else that stands out. The Mad Monster is an entirely forgettable film with a typical message of science going too far, and a blandness in terms of its looks and its dialogue leave little to recommend it.