The Real B. I. G. Picture Show:
King Dinosaur (1955)

PosterFour generic science-types do generic science-y stuff on the wandering planet Nova in this bargain basement sci-fi yarn released through independent Lippert Pictures (The Lost Continent, Rocketship X-M) in the summer of 1955. The eponymous King Dinosaur and his prehistoric pals are a sad sack indeed, a menagerie of decidedly normal animals that only show up to threaten our intrepid astro-nots in the final reel. Essentially just 62 minutes of utter disappointment hiding behind an exploitable title and keen ad campaign, King Dinosaur‘s singular claim to fame is the man who made it all happen – Bert I. Gordon – who not only directed the picture (his first feature in that capacity), but produced, co-wrote, and devised the visual effects for it as well. Gordon’s career would soon come to be dominated by films built around the optical enlargement (and occasional reduction) of both man and beast, leading to at least a few honest B-grade classics along the way. One wonders what might have been lost had King Dinosaur not been there to provide the dubious springboard.

Fortunately we have King Dinosaur, though unfortunately it’s still King Dinosaur.

Written by Tom Gries (The Hawaiians) from a story by Gordon and co-producer Al Zimbalist (Robot Monster, Cat Women of the Moon, Monster From Green Hell and so on), the sum total of King Dinosaur‘s narrative impetus is related in a single slogging 10 minute montage at the start of the show. The key points are hit upon swiftly – the newly-discovered planet Nova has wandered into our solar system, and scientists are naturally eager to investigate. What follows is padding upon padding, with Hollywood narrator extraordinaire Marvin Miller (the voice of Robby the Robot) doing his best to make a stock footage history of an entire space program seem exciting (“Switch on for jet engine test number eighty-seven!“) while the cast silently fidgets with test tubes and technological whatsits. With more than a sixth of the running time already over and done library footage of a V2 rocket test is rolled out, and the film finally migrates to the pristine and distinctly Californian countryside of planet Nova.

vlcsnap-2014-03-11-13h47m09s230 “It resembles a Tyrannosaurus Rex, of Earth’s prehistoric age!”. . . Or not.

While the departure from stock footage hell is welcome, I can’t say that it improves things much. The band of interchangeable explorers (Will Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, and Patti Gallagher, all making the best of the barren material) disembarks from their ill-matted spaceship and romps around in the woods, looking at dirt and occasionally saying science-like things (“An active volcano! This planet is quite young, Pat!“). Drama arrives courtesy of a handful of animal interjections – a python that harmlessly wanders the camp at night, another snake that stupefies one of the female scientists with its horrible tree-sitting, and an unfortunate alligator, which is fallen on and then pretend-fought-with by one of the male leads. More enticing for aficionados of Gordon’s peculiar brand of effects madness is a Jerusalem cricket the size of a Volkswagon bug that appears half-way through the picture, threatening a pair of scientists in truly dreadful traveling matte fashion. Like most of the rest of Nova’s indigenous wildlife, it is shot on sight.


And so the first three quarters of King Dinosaur go. With just fifteen minutes to spare the band decides to cart itself to a desolate, vulture-infested island, and the film’s prehistoric miseries finally begin. While wandering one of the island’s canyons the explorers find themselves at the mercy of one of history’s top predators – a ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, here played by an agitated green iguana with a small horn glued to its snout.

Yes, kids, this is yet another in the long line of dinosaur films that relies on animal abuse for its effects thrills. Nova’s rather Earthly dinosaur king is man-handled into battle first with a young alligator, and later with a tegu, two manufactured conflicts that obviously injured their unwilling participants. When the astronauts seek shelter in a nearby cave the animal wrangler is there, shoving the distressed star iguana’s head into the cave’s miniature entrance. It’s lamentable stuff through and through, to the point that I was actually relieved when the explorers finally escaped, leaving the animal violence (if not the animals themselves) behind.

vlcsnap-2014-03-11-13h47m53s162Prehistoric horror!

The final few minutes of King Dinosaur are perhaps its greatest asset, a fever-dream sequence that has the explorers planting an atom bomb (it was handy) on the island and fleeing from a series of increasingly unconvincing horrors. A bus-sized armadillo sends them into hysterics while stock footage of a pursuing mammoth (courtesy of Hal Roach’s One Million B.C.) is made to look a cool hundred or so feet tall. As the explorers reach their dinghy they look back in stark terror at an insert shot of a mata mata turtle creeping along a riverbank. Louis Palange and Gene Garf’s score builds to absurd degrees of overstatement, and the iguana looks on, seemingly wondering at just what the hell is happening. Our “heroes” eventually reach shore, seeking the shelter of a dirt pile just moments before all stock footage hell is unleashed afresh. A mushroom cloud bursts onto the screen, blasting Nova’s prehistoric island (and the Nevada test site…) into oblivion. “We sure have done it,” one of the men says before cracking a smile. “We’ve brought civilization to planet Nova!”

One would be tempted to parse that final statement for meaning if the film were any more interesting, but in the case of King Dinosaur there’s little to do but chuckle at the blind stupidity of it all and move on to better things. Gordon did, after all. His next film, The Cyclops, would repeat some of King Dinosaur‘s regrettable animal abuses, but is still a hoot compared to what preceded it. King Dinosaur went on to be plundered for stock footage (along with One Million B.C.) by the amusing Mexican lost world production La Isla de los Dinosaurios in 1967, and doubtless bored fervent young genre fans half to death in television syndication. There’s really not much else to say. King Dinosaur is the pits.

There are a few DVD iterations of King Dinosaur out there, most notably a cramped (particularly during the “dinosaur” scenes) widescreen offering from VCI and an open matte edition from Retromedia. The screenshots in this review are from the latter, which is mastered from an old tape source with analog glitches to spare. The film doesn’t deserve much better. Buy at your own peril.

Le Bossu: The Hunchback of Paris (1959)

le_bossu_posterFrance in the early 18th Century, during the reign of Louis XIV. Philippe de Nevers (Hubert Noel) and Isabelle de Caylus (Sabine Sesselmann) have secretly married, despite traditional hatred between their families. They have already produced one child, a baby daughter named Aurore. Isabelle has somehow managed to hide the little girl away in the very same building where she lives with her father. Either, Aurore is a peculiarly silent baby girl, or Isabelle’s dad is a bit deaf.

De Nevers confides the situation to his uncle, Duc Philippe de Gonzague (Francois Chaumett), hoping Gonzague might sway the king who in turn might sway the Marquis de Caylus towards accepting his and Isabelle’s marriage. Unfortunately, de Gonzague is not a man to be trusted, particularly when only Philippe is standing between him and the de Nevers family fortune, so he uses an opportunity opened by the secret of the lovers to have de Nevers and his daughter assassinated. The fiend’s men succeed in de Nevers’s case but the rather gallant and eminently helpful Henri de LagardĂšre and his comic relief servant Passepoil (Bourvil) save baby Aurore and flee with her to Spain. On their way (and afterwards) our heroes are not only hunted by whatever scoundrels Gonzague can come up with, but also the King’s men, for Gonzague has managed put de Nevers’s death on LagardĂšre’s head.

After some adventures and fifteen years, Aurore (now also played by Sabine Sesselmann) has grown up into a beautiful young woman, leading to the foster father and foster child kind of love story between her and LagardĂšre most modern audiences run away from screaming, but that I’m willing to accept with a shrug.

LagardĂšre decides that it’s time for Aurore to be able to take her rightful place (and return to her mother so that mum can approve of a marriage for them), and for Gonzague to get his just deserts. For some reasons, LagardĂšre’s plans to put things to rights include disguising himself as an elderly hunchback and getting a lot of hunchback rubs from Gonzague. Now, I’m usually not someone to look down upon anyone’s kinks, but seriously, Monsieur LagardĂšre, what the hell?

It’s one of the more unfair aspects of genre film history that the great French swashbucklers of the 50s are rarely seen outside the French language space, for the best of them (at least going by the subtitled films I’ve seen) stand on the same level as Hollywood’s best swashbucklers of the era. It can’t have helped the films’ historical position that some of the genre’s best directors in France, like Le Bossu‘s AndrĂ© Hunebelle, were particularly disliked by the nouvelle vague filmmakers and critics. Not needing to fight the theoretical battles of decades ago – battles which always look rather childish and petulant to me, I have to admit – fortunately means I can enjoy the films of the nouvelle vague directors and those of their sworn enemies.

There is, one has to admit, a certain stiffness surrounding Hunebelle’s directorial approach here, a willingness to be lavish and serious in a very old-fashioned way that is anathema to the (in the beginning) much more improvisational nouvelle vague style of filmmaking, as well as to any naturalistic approaches, but it’s also a natural approach to the particular kind of escapism the swashbuckler trades in. It’s a perspective that treats history as a playground for the kind of story that tends to treat even the greatest hardships the genre’s protagonists go through with a certain levity, and that will always result in a happy ending.

If you ask me, this kind of escapism is not a bad thing, particularly because escapism by its very nature always carries the knowledge that there’s something worth escaping from with it; showing us wish fulfilment fantasies also means understanding what we wish for. The wish to see some clear good to win over some clear evil may be naive when mapped onto the complexities of real world politics, but it is a part of human imagination whose existence can’t be denied.

Anyway, Hunebelle was quite a master at the sort of historical fantasy we know as the swashbuckler, using the fact that he’s actually filming in the country his film takes place in (and the existence of an actual budget for his project) to put some impressive locations and mood-setting landscape shots in a genre that is often rather set-bound (though there are of course numerous colourful sets on display here, too), and showing a sure hand for the all-important timing. There’s not just never a dull moment on screen but never a moment that doesn’t contain something exciting or interesting (one suspects that’s pretty much a technique Paul Feval, the author of the much-filmed novel the book is based on, and one of the most important writers to run with the genre after Dumas, would approve of).

Not even Bourvil’s comic relief is too painful. I could rather have lived without it, obviously, but then I never wished for him to be slowly, and painfully tortured to death, so we can add his treatment to the film’s positives (even though I’m not a fan of the classism that can only use the “low-born” as comic relief).

As a hero, Marais has slightly less charm and slightly more gravitas than the Stewart Granger/Errol Flynn type of swashbuckling hero, but he does have the all-important charisma, and looks good in his action scenes (even those parts not done by a stunt double), which is really all you’d ever want from the hero of a swashbuckler. It’s also really funny to see people with a low tolerance for this sort of thing squirm when Sabine Sesselmann makes lovey eyes at him but that might just be an effect of my particular sense of humour, and my utter lack of a moralizing backbone when it comes to love.

So please repeat after me: “If you don’t come to LargardĂšre, LagardĂšre will come to you!”

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)

A long time ago, a secondary world fantasy continent was kept under the thumb of the exceedingly evil followers of the Book of Vile Darkness, a tome made of bits and pieces of an evil necromancer. This reign of terror ended when a new order of knights, the Order of the New Sun arose, blessed by the powers of the god of light. The knights freed the lands, and, while they didn’t manage to destroy the Book, they did force its few remaining followers to split they book apart and hide it away.

During the course of the following centuries, with their goal fulfilled, the Order of the New Sun descended in importance and power. At the beginning of the film, none of its knights have been blessed with godly powers for eight hundred years, and the Order has been reduced to a handful of people. Just after young Grayson (Jack Gerges) has been initiated into the Order – of course without any resulting supernatural powers – a band of evildoers slaughters what’s left of the order and kidnaps Grayson’s father. Our hero doesn’t know it, but it’s all part of a plan to find the remaining pieces of the Book of Vile Darkness, and create it anew.

Grayson barely makes it out alive, and swears to do anything to rescue his father. “Anything” in this case means the young man goes undercover with a small party of evildoers led by the witch Akordia (Eleanor Gecks) who are out looking for the cover to the Book. Soon, Grayson’s virtues are put to the test, his oath of chastity threatened by a certain witch, and he just might realize he carries rather more darkness inside himself than he expected. On the positive side, Akordia grows rather fond of him, which just might become helpful when Grayson’s plans start going awry.

It’s a bit ironic that the third Dungeons & Dragons movie, which was after all produced for our dear friends of SyFy by the same companies who made the – not quite as horrible as the first one, yet still pretty bad – second D&D film, and even was directed by the very same Gerry Lively, turns out to be rather fun. On paper made-for-TV movies are a step down from direct-to-video films, after all, even though the borders between both have begun to dissolve increasingly in the last decade or so.

It’s best I’ll qualify the word “good” here right at the beginning, for The Book of Vile Darknessis certainly made for an audience willing and able to suspend their disbelief regarding a fantasy world full of characters dressing like (good) LARPers, sometimes cheesy melodramatics that fit the generally melodramatic acting style (which again fits D&D, and I do mean that as a compliment), and dialogue that can be sharp and funny, yet at other times sounds as tinny as an old shellac record. I guess if you can say the film’s title three times without giggling or rolling your eyes, you’re a) like me and b) perfectly able to actually enjoy this.

Personally, I find myself enjoying the seriously played cheesiness of the whole affair in particular, and see the melodramatics as a way for the film to demonstrate how seriously it takes itself. In fact, I don’t think secondary world fantasy can work on the movie screen without a film treating all its sillier elements with dignity and quite as a matter of fact; irony does not build worlds. Why, yes, of course evil people dress in black, have sex, tattoos and piercings and like long philosophical speeches about the appropriateness of their alignments! And make no mistake here, writer Brian Rudnick does clearly know how D&D’s alignment system works and just as clearly realizes how much of a shame it were if he didn’t use it. Having respect for one’s source material is of utmost importance for a movie like this.

The film’s core character developments are deeply grounded in the alignment system, but they’re also constructed flexibly enough to produce Book of Vile Darkness’s main message, namely that your “virtue” isn’t much of a thing to be proud of if you never had any reason not to be virtuous; it’s also a nice change for the fantasy genre in its incarnation on screen that Book does seem to realize not all evil aligned people would be raving maniacs, nor see themselves as “evil” as much as following a violently libertarian philosophy (the jerks!). So, just like real libertarians.

Obviously, Book of Vile Darkness is rather darker than its predecessors, with a hero who will even stoop as low as murder by poison (including a use of a Bag of Holding right out of a slightly out of control tabletop session) – clearly, he’s Chaotic Good at best – and a pleasant sense for the bizarre. The latter is demonstrated via elements like a prehensile eyeball (which is awesome, if I even have to explain that), an – decidedly creepy looking – undead child nourished by negative emotions and evil yet poisoned by love and compassion, or the Book of Vile Darkness (do I love writing the phrase? Yes I do.) needing to be written with the pain of someone with a pure heart. If you have played less RPGs than I have, you’ll also find scenes like the one where a helpful prostitute brings Grayson (a stupid name for a hero, but what can we do?) into an RPG-typical shop for magic items that is about as mystical as a supermarket rather strange. Yes, I’ll take that Bag of Holding, this Ring of Force, and of course that evil looking armour. It is, as our American brethren would say, awesome.

I was also positively surprised by some of film’s effects: the red dragon our evil party of adventurers fights is particularly great, as is the undead child, but spell effects and digital matte paintings are also much better than I would have expected. There’s nothing half-assed about the film in this regard.

Nor is there much half-assed to find in The Book of Vile Darkness as a whole. Lively and Rudnick go about their job of creating a low budget sword and sorcery movie with an enthusiasm and a care you don’t always find in the genre, turning what could be as perfunctory as the second D&D movie, or as embarrassing as the first one, into a whole lot of fun.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?


posterWarning: if you need the movies you watch not to run roughshod over actual history, you’ll probably need to keep away from Ironclad, or die of annoyance.

It’s 1215 in the Kingdom of England, and King John (Paul Giamatti chewing scenery like a true champ) is quite displeased by having been pressed into signing the Magna Carta. So displeased, in fact, he imports a group of Danes under their Captain Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich) into the country to help him take the baronies he just made peace with truly back into his loving arms.

But a small part of the former rebels led by Baron William D’Aubigny (Brian Cox) and Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) are willing to even hand the crown of England to the French king Louis to keep John out of power. The French, however, will take their time. Who wants a crown delivered on a silver plate, right?. Because of the French dithering, their cause could be lost before it even truly begins if John and the Danes are able to take the strategically important castle of Rochester, which controls access to large parts of England.

Our rebels are a bit low on bodies at the moment, so it falls to D’Aubigny to take a troop of seven men he gathers in the traditional manner of such films, and who are played by people like Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook, to the castle to help protect it together with the minor garrison its actual lord Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) can – not exactly happily – muster. D’Aubigny’s trump card, though, will be Knight’s Templar Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy!), a man who may have been traumatized by the Crusades but who is still the best at what he does (which, as you can assume, isn’t very nice).

Soon, John and his Danes arrive at Rochester and a siege ensues. The fighting and screaming and nearly dying of hunger is only interrupted by various discussions about the worth of faith and oaths, as well as the mandatory love story: Marshal and Reginald’s wife Isabel (Kate Mara) – a woman really too independent to be happy in her time and place – fall for each other hard.

As I already warned, if you go into Jonathan English’s (a rather ironic director name taken in this context) Ironclad hoping for respect for historical facts, you’ll be struck down with some kind of fit sooner or later; this is, after all, a film taking place in 1215 that ends with the French king Louis holding the crown of England, which is not a thing that happened, and, curiously enough, also not really a historical fact that needed changing for the film’s story to work at all. It has to be said, though, that the film does show an interest in a degree of historical veracity beyond historical fact, so the middle ages in Ironclad‘s England are appropriately poor, cold, muddy, and the populace’s education leaves something to be desired. I think the easiest way to ignore the film’s historical failings is to treat it as a – rather excellent – sword and sorcery film without the sorcery. Just pretend this takes place in Engelund, and the king’s name is Jim, and all problems are solved.

If you are one of those people unable to do that, though, you’ll probably also be quite annoyed by the film’s treatment of its characters. Everyone’s psychology works more or less like that of people in a movie made in 2012, with little regard taken for what we today assume to be the specifics of the medieval mind. Personally, I don’t mind this too much. I’m generally doubtful when a film turns historical figures into aliens, because I doubt human psychological and emotional needs have changed all that much during the course of history, but rather our consciousness of them and our way to express them has.

Anyway, the film’s rather open approach to history also results in something I find rather believable, and definitely one of the three elements I like most about it. Namely, Ironclad‘s willingness to treat its female lead as an actual human being with a degree of agency. The film is never confusing Isabel’s position and rights in life with an expression of her actual inner life. Isabel is still, alas, neither hero nor actual centrepiece of the film, yet Ironclad shows a respect for her and interest for her that can’t be taken for granted in this sort of historical adventure movie, particularly not a contemporary one where historical veracity often rather seems to mean “putting the women in their places”.

The second element of Ironclad I find particularly noteworthy is of course James Purefoy, for James Purefoy is an actor who is evidently improbably awesome in whatever role he is cast in, putting charisma and effort in whether a film and script deserve them or not. What is true in general is also true here. Actually, the rest of the cast of predominantly British character actors are no slouches either (particularly Kate Mara and Paul Giamatti), but, you know, James Purefoy!

Finally, Ironclad is also just very, very good at the main thing it sets out to do, creating gory, exciting and slightly repellent battle scenes which from time to time feature a bit too much of the old shaky cam but make up for that by their sheer blood-spattering power. These scenes are quite a thing to behold and are in fact so convincing they leave no doubt in a viewer’s mind that twenty men can hold off one thousand enemies in a siege. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to take from my medieval adventure movies. Hail King Louis!

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Flame and the Arrow

PosterIt’s the 12th Century and the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations under Emperor Friedrich I. (aka Barbarossa) controls large parts of Europe, among them the Lombardy in what we now know as Italy. The Lombards are less than enthused about their new masters, and a resistance movement that seems to concentrate on throwing grim glances and urging people to join their cause without ever acting for said cause has come into existence.

Lombard and hunter Dardo (Burt Lancaster) is not into that whole revolution thing, though. The man prefers rugged individualism and sexual promiscuity as long as no feelings are involved (I’m being a bit more straightforward about the latter element of his character than the film can be, but it’s as unsubtle about things as a film made in 1950 can be) to social responsibility, though he does take good care of his son Rudi (the atrocious Gordon Gebert) and is the sort of rugged individualist who still has friends like his childhood friend, the mute smith Piccolo (Nick Cravat who was Lancaster’s real life partner as a circus acrobat as well as in the movies, and has pretty wonderful chemistry with him). Ironically, Dardo has more reason to hate the Germans than most, for the local potentate, Count Ulrich aka “The Hawk” (Frank Allenby) took Dardo’s (consenting) wife as his concubine five years ago, leaving Dardo alone with his son and certain trust issues when it comes to women that do explain his sexual and emotional habits.

Things between Ulrich and Dardo finally come to a head when the hunter quite purposefully shoots one of Ulrich’s hunting hawks. In retribution, Ulrich decides that it’s best to take Rudi into his castle to live with his mother. Dardo disapproves of the idea quite violently, but all that gets him is a crossbow bolt in the back and a new status as an outlaw; at least he also learns that he has quite a few friends willing to become outlaws themselves to help him.

The rest of the movie does of course consist of various Robin Hood-like deeds, the difficult romance between Dardo and Ulrich’s niece, the much more agreeable Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo). Important lessons are learned by the rugged individualist (the social sphere exists and can’t and shouldn’t be ignored unless you are a total jerk or a hermit) and lazy revolutionaries (you actually need to get off your ass when you want to get rid of Evil) alike.

Everyone reading this surely knows Jacques Tourneur as a master of subtle horror as well as the film noir, what with little, totally unknown movies like Cat People and Out of the Past on his rĂ©sumĂ©. As someone working inside the studio system for most of his career, Tourneur did of course have to direct films in various other genres too. With The Flame and the Arrow, the director created a fine (and pleasantly Technicolor) adventure movie/trapezoidal swashbuckler that isn’t quite as deep in the Robin Hood mold as one would expect. Sure, many of the expected elements are there and accounted for, but blacklist victim Waldo Salt’s script and Tourneur’s sense of style give most of these standard tropes small twists and turns that keep the film more lively and surprising than expected. My description of the movie’s “rugged individualism versus social responsibility” theme may sound rather sarcastic, but the film actually does interesting things with it, never forgetting that its characters are supposed to be people and not walking metaphors, which leads to more complexity in the characterisation of especially Dardo and Anne than you’d need in an adventure movie or a film arguing philosophy. As an additional bonus, Salt’s script also shows a degree of class consciousness that is more than just a little useful when you want to talk about the Middle Ages yet always comes as a surprise in a US movie. One could even read the whole film as one about class struggle, if one had the intention to do so.

Because Tourneur knows what he’s doing, he also never steps into the trap of forgetting The Flame‘s identity as an adventure movie above its various subtexts. This may be a film that wants to talk about the problems and attractions of rugged individualism but it’s also one that wants to show off particularly acrobatic (at this point in his career, more often the reason why a studio would hire the former acrobat Burt Lancaster than not, as you will know) swashbuckling (historically speaking, it’s of course not swashbuckling, but you know what I mean) fights, bad guys acting dastardly, good guys being clever and charming, and women having a mind of their own, in a good-natured and brilliant manner. In Tourneur’s hands, this still leaves room for the philosophizing as well as for sudden bouts of directorial brilliance like a certain swordfight taking place in a very Tourneur darkness. Even better, it’s a film that knows perfectly well how to do this, how to let its subtext sing and its surface action shine, probably leaving every audience with as big a smile on its face as it did with me.

My Bollywood-loving friends will perhaps be interested and surely just as delighted as I was to learn The Flame and the Arrow also contains a scene where Lancaster and Cravat disguise themselves as members of a circus troupe to enter Ulrich’s castle, with all the non-existing subtlety of disguise you’d see in a Manmohan Desai film. It’s a glorious thing even without a musical number. Good taste in plots is obviously as timeless as it is international.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?