The Depression-era spectacle of Felix E. Feist’s DELUGE

It’s been nearly 90 years since RKO’s Deluge first raged across the silver screen, leveling the concrete modernity of 1933 to rubble and inviting audiences to ponder the consequences, but its history, beyond those first furtive months of general release, has been a troubled one. Indeed, one could argue that Deluge‘s history was troubled almost from the beginning.

Author S. Fowler Wright was responsible for the film’s eponymous source material, but little of the novel’s preoccupation with interminable personal introspection or post-calamity sexual politics would find their way into the RKO film. Though Wright had been shopping a self-written screen treatment for Deluge around Hollywood on his own in the early 1930s, it was to go unproduced. After purchasing the story for film development in February of 1933, K.B.S. Productions’ Samuel Bischoff hired scenarist John F. Goodrich (The Last Command) to adapt it for the screen. Deemed unfit for production for reasons that go unpublished, Goodrich’s screenplay was eventually to be re-written by Warren Duff (Angels With Dirty Faces) and an uncredited Joe Traub (The Death Kiss; Traub, as Variety reported, was brought in “to insert laughs”). By the end of May ’33 financing had been secured through distributor RKO and Deluge, under novice director Felix E. Feist (Donovan’s Brain) and the producers of K.B.S., began production.

RKO appear to have had few ambitions for Deluge, excepting that it be made cheaply and help to pad their ever-imperiled bottom line. K.B.S. felt differently, with the result that Deluge swiftly overwhelmed its low B-picture budget. As Feist toiled away in the field, the run-ins with his penny-pinching producers helping to pad the margins of the Summer trades, Deluge‘s hired effects talent were busy running up the tab. Pioneering effects director Ned Mann (later renowned for his work under Alexander Korda) was purportedly given carte blanche to manufacture the film’s singular highlight; the utter annihilation of New York City by earthquake and tidal wave; and cost K.B.S. backer RKO a small fortune in the process. By mid-August Deluge was in the can, but at well more than double the anticipated expense.

On September 15th 1933 Deluge went into regular release, and though often noted for its novelty, swiftly developed a reputation as a poor earner at the box office. Good showings (like a whopping $15,000 take during its run in Chicago’s 2,600-seat State-Lake Theatre) were few and far between, and the Autumn trades are full of instances in which Deluge “disappointed”, or worse, was a “miserable flop”.Âč

Deluge continued to fizzle, often as the bottom half of a B-picture double bill, through much of 1934, and with the founding of Herbert Yates’ Republic Pictures the stage was set for the film to slip into obscurity entirely. Desirous of special effects and other stock for their film serials, Republic moved to purchase the special effects takes from Deluge from RKO outright, with one historically relevant caveat: that Deluge itself be pulled from circulation. And so it was for some fifty years. Deluge‘s epic disaster footage lived on, cobbled into Republic serials like S.O.S. Tidal Wave and King of the Rocket Men, its production (illustrated with fantastic images of Ned Mann and his crew strolling among their plaster replica of New York City) spotlighted in the occasional book or magazine, while the film languished, unpreserved through RKOs final mid-century upheaval and ultimately feared lost.

Deluge first re-emerged in the 1980s, when a release print of the Italian-dubbed version (La Distruzione del Mondo) was unearthed from a private collection. This was eventually subtitled and restruck, granted the odd theatrical screening and a short-lived VHS releaseÂČ, but the film, as originally produced in English, remained as obscure as ever.

. . . Until now, that is. Following the discovery of a 35mm nitrate dupe negative, France’s Lobster Films have restored Deluge in its original English, allowing the film to be seen in the closest approximation of its original form that has been available in nearly a century. The restoration thrilled attendees at various festival screenings in late 2016, and Kino Lorber have made it available to wider audiences still, courtesy of new Blu-ray and DVD editions released in February of this year.

As for Deluge itself, it remains a distinct curiosity among 1930s film productions. While spectacle was the order of the day post-Depression, end of the world scenarios were a rare sight in cinemas of the time.Âł In this sense Deluge was well ahead of its time, even if a century of post-civilization fiction has left it feeling more than a little rote. The narrative follows lawyer Martin (Sidney Blackmer, Tammy and the Bachelor), who is separated from his family by a world-ending cataclysm, and the bond that forms between him and fellow survivor Claire (Peggy Shannon, Turn Back the Clock), a record-setting swimmer whom he discovers beached at his doorstep. Together they combat a rapacious criminal element and eventually rediscover civilization in the form of an unsubmerged rural town, but complications arise when it is discovered that Martin’s missing family, long presumed dead, are also alive and well there.

There’s little of significant interest to be found in Deluge‘s post-disaster melodramatics, an indifferent and mercilessly spare distillation of the novel’s original narrative that hits upon the major points, but little more – with only 67 minutes at its disposal, the film has little time for else. The Bronson Canyon-bound siege that dominates the middle third of the running time is a serviceable piece of action for the time, with some violent pre-Code appeal besides (Shannon hacking lead baddie Fred Kohler to death with a pike is the ferocious non-effects highlight of the film), but the rest is passable at the best of times. Much of this is down to Wright’s novel, which has not aged at all well in its politics since it was first published in 1928. The film deftly sidesteps the author’s most controversial subject (the novel’s polygamist finale, in which Martin’s estranged wife and Claire both opt to devote themselves to him), substituting a visually poetic, if substantively disturbing alternative. Here Claire, vowing to die rather than lose Martin to another woman, flings herself back into the sea as her distressed beloved looks on, ending Deluge on a note of tragedy.

Deluge ultimately appeals more in its bits and pieces than as a whole. Shannon holds up well, even as the screenplay can’t decide quite what to do with her. Claire is at once headstrong and driven and utterly dependent, a confusing quality that persists across the novel as well (in which she regularly effaces herself in light of Martin’s righteous male superiority, regardless of any evidence to the contrary). She is also the most exploited element of the film, second to the effects, her scant dress, implied nudity, and binding a frequent object of the film’s affections. Blackmer stumbles through the awkward scripting well enough, his occasional Southern inflection adding interest to an otherwise disposable performance, but serves the film best in a purely visual sense. The image of his lonesome figure, shocked by and dwarfed within a landscape now sparse and alien, is iconic, and closely echoes the finale of Geoff Murphy’s 1985 sci-fi The Quiet Earth.

Still, it’s Deluge‘s effects production which remains its prime selling point, even if it seems almost entirely dissociated from the rest of the film when viewed in context. Feist frames the action with scenes of a meteorological community (headlined by Samuel Hinds, The Boy with Green Hair, and Edward Van Sloan, Dracula) in turmoil, assured by the increasingly ominous evidence that something awful is on the verge of happening. It’s a novel sequence, wholly contained as it is within the film’s first reel, and the flickering montages of stock footage and Bible-thumping evangelists that divide the drama remind of those found within Abel Gance’s troubled 1930 effort La Fin du Monde (a truncated and bizarre hour-long version of which would release to American screens in 1934). When the inevitable disaster strikes it does so in grander fashion than had ever been seen on screen before. The impossible upheaval Mann constructs echoes the similarly implausible disasters of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 and the more recent spectacle of San Andreas, but retains a wondrous phantasmagoric aesthetic all its own. It’s amidst all that crumbling plaster that Deluge finds its place as art.

Deluge is ultimately more a blip than a milestone, more curiosity than classic, but the momentousness of its present reemergence is no lesser for that. Lobster Films’ restoration is not perfect, dictated as it is by the state of the materials in question (there are splice-y segments here and there, and the new restoration lacks both an opening insert shot and the first line of the picture), but one doubts Deluge will ever play better. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray and DVD editions are well worth it for those curious, offering the restored Deluge with informed commentary from Richard Harland Smith and alongside the low budget 1934 drama Back Page, also starring Shannon.


Âč A rare exception was reported in Variety from Tokyo, of all places, where Deluge thrilled audiences on a double bill with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights in February of 1934. One suspects that the theatre had more to do with the film’s success than Deluge itself did, in this case. The cinema in question was the historic 4,000-seat Nippon Gekijo (iconically demolished in the 1954 Gojira), which was still riding a wave of public interest only three months on from its grand December 1933 opening.

ÂČ Wade Williams, who produced the first restoration and under whose name the VHS issue was released, continues to assert his control of all rights regarding the film Deluge via his website. To say whether such claims are legitimate or otherwise would go well beyond my realm of expertise, but neither the recent Kino Lorber video editions of the film nor the restoration upon which they are based make any mention of them.

Âł Journalist and script doctor Ferdinand Reyher was working on a screen treatment of M.P. Shiel’s bizarre last-man novel The Purple Cloud under various titles (Purple Cloud, The Last Man, and End of the World) throughout the decade, but no film resulted. His work was eventually credited as the source for writer and director Ranald MacDougall’s The World the Flesh and the Devil, from HarBel and MGM in 1959. Also unmade was Cecil B. DeMille’s production End of the World, which was to be a $400,000 adaptation of Wylie and Balmer’s novel When Worlds Collide. The film was announced in the trades in mid-1933, but just as quickly disappeared – Paramount cancelled the project before it had really begun, reportedly on account Deluge‘s thematic similarities, and DeMille switched focus instead to his historical epic Cleopatra.


A very brief note: I used Archive.org’s collection of historic issues of Variety *a lot* for this article, and thought it deserved a shout-out all of its own. Those curious are encouraged to set a few hours aside and dive into an issue or three.

No room to run! No place to hide!
Cornel Wilde’s ‘No Blade of Grass’

NBoG_posterHow would so-called civilized men react were the first world to find itself in the midst of devastating famine? This is the question posed by No Blade of Grass, the penultimate directorial effort of eccentric talent Cornel Wilde (Leave Her to Heaven), here adapting John Christopher’s monumentally successful freshman novel The Death of Grass (which had been re-titled for its Stateside publication). One of the first of its kind, Wilde’s No Blade of Grass is a tale of social collapse in a time of ecological catastrophe – a virus has crippled worldwide grain production, plunging the developed nations into desperate hunger-driven anarchy.

Caught in the resulting upheaval are well-to-do architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport, Phase IV), his wife (Wilde’s then wife Jean Wallace), his teenaged daughter (Lynne Frederick in her film debut) and younger son. Working with advance information from a lab-tech friend (actor and body-building stud John Hamill, here leaving his physical assets fully under wraps) the family escape a nightmarish London, patrolled by machine gun-toting bobbies and barricaded by trigger-happy military forces, just as chaos descends upon it. The plan from there is simple enough – seek the safety of brother David Custance’s isolated and easily defended farm in Westmoreland – but with every individual in England suddenly fighting to survive the veneer of civility soon wears thin, and the Custances find themselves adopting unexpectedly vicious practices to preserve themselves.

Wilde’s modestly budgeted production ($1.3 million according to this Associated Press piece circulated at the time of release) follows the Christopher novel quite closely, though with some bizarre and frequently unsettling flourishes entirely its own. In terms of substance Wilde’s film deviates most in its marked focus on environmental issues, a reflection of growing public awareness of the same following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. While the root cause of the cataclysmic virus is left undiscussed in the source novel Wilde (here serving as co-writer, producer, and narrator as well!) places the blame squarely at industrialized man’s feet. “By the beginning of the 70s man had brought the destruction of his environment close to the point of no return. Of course there was a great deal of rhetoric about saving the Earth, but in reality very little was done.” Wilde’s narration is heard over a lengthy montage of packed car parks and urban blight, fumes spewing from tailpipes and factory stacks, polluted water, poisoned wildlife, starving children, eroded land and nuclear tests. “And then, one day, the polluted Earth could take no more,” he gravely intones as his space-bound camera closes in on our angry, poisoned world. The delivery is every bit as stark as it is lacking in subtlety, two qualities that aptly set the tone for the rest of the film.

No Blade of Grass quickly evolves into a brutal survival piece that rapes, blasts, and otherwise hammers home its thoughts on the “civilized” first world’s considerable capacity for violence. Indeed, the ease with which John Custance, his family, and the numerous upstanding citizens they encounter take up arms, not just in self defense but in cut-throat schemes to acquire precious resources as well, is downright disturbing. Custance, an ex-military man with an eye patch who ‘just hates killing’, may falter when first tasked with murdering the innocent for the good of his family, but once the severity of the situation sinks in he becomes as willing as the next man to kill the odd rural farmer for his bread and ammunition.

Of course this is the whole point of the thing, both with regards to the novel and Wilde’s film. No Blade of Grass is ultimately concerned with showing that we’re not nearly so civilized a bunch of animals as we like to pretend, and as jarring as all the rape, plundering and murder may be it’s the film’s quieter commentary on the subject that I find most affecting. Case in point is an early scene in an upscale London pub, where the well-dressed and very proper clientele devour full plates of sliced meat and vegetables as the bar-top television set broadcasts grotesque images of starving, skeletal children. Both in the novel and in the film the Western world laments the poor form with which the Chinese – first to encounter the virus – have dealt with the situation, only to find itself resorting to the same savage methods once the famine arrives on home shores.

In terms of direction No Blade of Grass is easily the most eccentric film of Wilde’s career, incorporating both flashbacks and flash forwards into its otherwise traditional linear narrative and augmented with surreal negative printed imagery, distorted stills, and so on. In its unconventional structure No Blade of Grass reminds heavily of Wilde’s earlier Beach Red (1967), a war drama which uses flashbacks to delve into the pre-battle lives of its characters, but in its flair for the experimental it remains thoroughly unique – something that has infuriated no small number of viewers, particularly with regards to the handful of fluttering flash forwards that ‘spoil’ future events. Director of photography H.A.R. Thomson (a talented veteran cameraman fresh from Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes) brings to the film’s imagery a spare, stripped down aesthetic not at all dissimilar to that of The Naked Prey, which he had photographed for Wilde in 1966. There are even a few moments in which the photography shifts from 35mm Panavision to what looks to be flat 16mm, possibly even 8mm, to provide that additional ounce of stark, documentary verisimilitude. It’s an intentional crudity that works quite well in conjunction with the bleak subject matter, supporting Wilde’s efforts to present a believable social apocalypse.

To that end No Blade of Grass maintains a decidedly bleak and downright nasty tone throughout, to its benefit for the most part, and its more shocking moments have lost none of their gruesome efficacy in the near 45 years since it was made. A multiple rape early on is a brutal and repulsive affair, scored with grating rock-and-roll and filmed with an in-your-face frankness that borders on exploitation, while a later still-birth (intercut with a flashback of the birth of the eldest Custance child) is more graphic still, and must have had censors in an uproar at the time of release. Even the film’s few overtly comedic moments are of the distinctly black variety, like a flashback cued with a religious hymn following a character cursing “Jesus Christ!” or a Rolls Royce sales pitch that accompanies the discovery of an abandoned car.

That’s not to say that the film always works. No Blade of Grass certainly has its fair share of issues, not the least of which are a band of ridiculous horn-helmeted motorcycle Huns who torment Custance and family along their way – a development that would have been more at home in a contemporary action exploiter than Wilde’s cautionary survival tale. But No Blade of Grass wouldn’t be such a memorable experience were it not so bizarre and incongruous, motorcycle Huns, ham-fisted eco-rhetoric, bombastic score and all, and in retrospect I’d never have wanted Wilde to make it any other way. It remains a surprisingly prescient and ferociously original example of the post-Easy Rider push towards a more independent cinema, and in spite of its ugliness (indeed, perhaps because of it) it rates as must-see viewing in my book.


No Blade of Grass is available now as a fine MoD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection, which has offered the film fully uncut and in widescreen for the first time since its original theatrical release. The film is also intermittently available in HD via Warner Archive Streaming (the film is currently offline, natch).

For the sake of full disclosure, this article originally appeared at Wtf-Film  in January of 2012 and has been slightly revised for its re-publication here.

Robert Moore Williams’ The Second Atlantis (1965)

TSA_CoverIt shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with my taste in film to learn that I have something of a soft spot for the garbage literature peddled by publishers like Monarch and Ace Books in the early half of the ’60s, particularly the science fiction potboilers that earned them so much of their keep. With its stilted prose, paper-thin plot and utter lack of literary aspiration, Robert Moore Williams’ (The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles) The Second Atlantis comfortably dwells inbona fide guilty pleasure territory, fighting the good fight for cultural degradation and brain damage right with the best (worst?) of them.

Offering up very, very little in the way of plot (basically it’s ‘a bad thing happens and people walk away from it’ for 120 pages), The Second Atlantis presents readers with a singular horrific event and then bombards them with unnecessary characters until the feeble, New Age-y conclusion is within sight. At least the event in this case is a good one, a massive chart-topping earthquake that just keeps rolling, turning the greater Los Angeles area into a crumbling, fiery ruin before unceremoniously burying it under the Pacific. The improbable catastrophe is of Emmerich-ian magnitude, baring no small resemblance to that director’s destruction of L.A. in the recent mega-budget mega-disaster flick 2012. It’s not particularly well conveyed, with Williams’ awkward nested metaphors proving more distracting than illustrative (see the example below), but it offers up enough in the way of trashy thrills to keep the page turning.

The whole mountain seemed to lean forward as if it were bowing in deep reverence to some ancient god of the planet it saw coming toward it; then, at the sharp command of the god, the mountain returned to its former position like a soldier snapping to attention at the approach of his commanding officer. (p. 33)

The author seems to have realized early on that the earthquake was all that was keeping the pages turning and milks the cataclysm for practically all it’s worth, stretching the disaster (and its credibility) across a solid half or more of the story. While this works well enough from an exploitation angle, keeping readers guessing as to which poorly introduced piece of humanity will have their head smashed in by the crumbling edifices of civilization next (Will it be the gas station attendant, the happy drunkard, the smiling secretary? I’ll never tell!), but it forces the quality of characterization to basement levels, even with regards to the story’s would-be protagonists.

In fact, it becomes a bit difficult after a few chapters to discern just who the protagonists of The Second Atlantis are. Ostensibly filling the bill are the Gray family, the head of which spends his days thinking at a ‘space age factory’ in Santa Monica. When the disaster arrives on his doorstep Mr. Gray hits the road, leading his wife and young child down a nearby car-clogged freeway towards the presumed safety of the San Fernando Valley. From the moment the Gray’s begin their escape the author begins to assault his reader with superfluous side characters – a rich womanizer, an enterprising Cosa Nostra hit man, a prophet creatively named Propher – who serve only to distract from the lack of a central narrative and to bolster the left-field conclusion.

That’s not to say that these characters don’t offer something in the way of entertainment value despite their near pointlessness. The Cosa Nostra hit man, for instance, goes on an earthquake-inspired quest to usurp his boss and spends the rest of the book wandering a scorched countryside with said boss’ head in a sac (a fact the author tries, and poorly, to keep a surprise). Meanwhile, Propher entertains with random visions of the lost civilization of Atlantis, of which he is sure he is a reincarnated citizen:

The city before his inner vision was a jewel, a holy place, a city devoted to the arts and to healing and to the correlation between art and healing 
 Around the jewel city, in the grain fields, were twisted towers that rose like strange ropes into the sky. Propher knew these towers were part of a complex system of collecting various energies from the great vault of heaven, including an energy that was prior to both electricity and magnetism.  (p. 65)

But the prophet and the hit man don’t get all the fun. One of The Second Atlantis‘ most memorable moments revolves around Mrs. Gray, who finds herself in the midst of her own crazy vision during the wonky finale. Rather than being haunted with visions of ancient Atlantis, Mrs. Gray is participant to a protracted philosophical conversation with her long-dead grandmother, actually a collective of all the long-dead grandmothers of Westward expansion. Granny Gray offers up tasty ponderings on such diverse topics as the woman’s place in the home and the spirit-driven force of evolution before dropping a bombshell – the real reason behind what the author calls ‘the westering’:

If you use the opportunity thus given to improve the heart and mind of the ape hidden inside you, then you will have taken a step toward the land where spirit intends us to live eventually – the region of the summer stars 
 We have been brought westward because it is here on the shores of the western sea that the first crude spaceships will be built.  (p. 116)

That’s right, kids, the whole point of Manifest Destiny, of Western civilization’s conquest of the last few unspoiled miles of the North American continent, was to put men in place to build space ships and set out to conquer the rest of the Universe. Perhaps most ridiculous of all is the counter-revelation that the massive disaster at hand, the sinking of the Los Angeles basin and the incalculable loss of human life, was a pre-destined event necessary to reveal the true purpose of Westward expansion and to thin the herd before right-minded men can set out into the depths of space! And just what sort of men are we talking about? It’s safe to say that minorities are probably not on the list, as several awkward instances of racism reveal:

(Granny Gray talking about her ancestors landing in Massachusetts) We were greeted by painted Indians who had never had a bath in their lives!  (p. 113)

(The author describes the hillside homes in Hollywood) Some were supported on steel poles that left their backsides hanging over nothing like a Mexican woman defecating into a ravine.  (p. 32)

(The author discusses how the West Coast was the end of ‘the westering’) Beyond this sea were the Japanese and the Chinese. To the people of the westering, heaven was not to be found on the ocean, and paradise for them was not an oriental garden inhabited by slant-eyed, thinly-clad beauties.  (p. 7)

The Second Atlantis ends on what was intended to be a hopeful note, with the vast resources of the Federal government and the Army descending upon the quake-stricken area in a response as unprecedented in its scale as the disaster itself. It’s a feel-good conclusion that can’t help but ring false, especially with hurricane Katrina so recently in our past. Mr. Gray’s thoughts on the subject seem especially timely in their irony:

If this had been done for strangers, then how much greater would be the response when the catastrophe was here in their own land! Hardly a county or village in all the nation but had sent a son or a daughter to the West Coast. Now that catastrophe had come, there would be hardly a county or a village in all the nation that would not have a personal reason for sending helpers here.  (p. 99)

Published for the first and as yet final time as Ace Book F-335 in 1965, The Second Atlantis debuted at an astounding suggested shelf price of 40 cents. As a testament to the story’s staying power, third party Amazon sellers are currently offering the title at the shockingly appreciated sum of … well … 41 cents. Gloriously oversold as ‘a prevision’ and ‘a prophetic novel with an unforgettable impact’ on its own back cover, The Second Atlantis is the kind of thing I could see myself plunking allowance money down for week after week (if only I’d been born a few decades earlier!). Out of print for almost half a century, this Ace paperback is still a pretty easy find – I found my copy was cluttering up the science fiction shelf at a local second hand book shop.

As literature The Second Atlantis is about as satisfying as a handful of Cheetos, and its low-grade paper left me with the same post-consumption sensation of needing to wash my hands. But nothing fills a trash craving like trash, and Williams’ story hit the spot for this reviewer. If you’re into this sort of thing, then The Second Atlantis comes recommended.

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This article was originally published at Wtf-Film in June of 2010. It has been (very) slightly revised for its reprinting here. For the present you can still find the original article here.

The Earth Dies Squirming: Behemoth (2011)

BehemothCoverA US small town situated close to a mountain that was an active volcano ages ago is hit by a series of tremors and rather curious earth activities, while deadly CO2 starts leaking all around the mountain. Strangely, at the same time this mysterious activity starts up, various off-screen natural disasters hit places all around the world.

Retired professor William Walsh (William B. Davis) has found an explanation for the strange phenomena through his extensive study of myth, or rather myths. William thinks what’s happening has to do with the true base of various myths shared by cultures all around the world, myths in which a gigantic creature acts out the wrath of the Earth whenever humanity too actively disturbs the natural order; now, says William, the creature is waking up again.

Of course, William is mentally ill (probably schizophrenic, though the film doesn’t dare use the world in what I assume is an example of inexplicable US puritanism), and going off his meds, so neither his son Thomas (Ed Walsh), a lumberjack boss, nor his twenty year old daughter who acts like a teenager Grace (Cindy Busby) believe a single word he says. Too bad he’s right.

The seismic activities are so peculiar that Thomas’s former flame Emily Allington (Pascale Hutton), now a seismologist, returns to her hometown to find an explanation of her own, and convince her Sheriff uncle (Garry Chalk) of the danger of the situation, if need be.

The danger is, of course, even larger than she could have expected. Also as a matter of course, Emily, Thomas, Grace, and a mysterious government agent of the Department of Weird Shit (Ty Olsson) will end up on the mountain exactly when the tentacles really hit the fan, and William’s theories are proven quite beyond doubt.

The Internet disagrees with me here, but I truly think W.D. Hogan’s Behemoth is a particularly fine example of SyFy movie making. Certainly, it’s a film pushing a lot of my buttons with the way it mixes a basic SF horror idea right out of Weird Tales or Astounding in its more horrific moments with the highly localized global disaster movie style SyFy is so very fond of. It’s a great mixture, particularly because Hogan (and/or Rachelle S. Howie’s script) really does know how to sell the age-old clichĂ©s most of the film is built from as natural instead of annoying.

Plus, there’s a monster as big as a mountain with tentacles that is first partially revealed in a sequence where its very large eye peers angrily out of a hole in the mountain at our non-teenage teenage co-protagonist and her boyfriend, which is as perfect and resonant an image as one could hope to find anywhere. Once we get to see the monster completely, it also turns out to be one of the rather more creatively designed SyFy CGI creatures, again fully fitting into the traditions of certain old pulp magazines. The only disappointment when it comes to the monster is the rather lame way our heroes end up getting rid of it, even though this comes with a territory when you as a filmmaker aren’t allowed to let it eat the world and surely couldn’t afford the pyrotechnics anyhow.

Behemoth, despite being a film deftly made from clichĂ©s and well-worn tropes, also has some moments when it’s making small steps into directions you don’t expect. I was particularly surprised by the film’s treatment of William’s mental illness (even though it doesn’t dare name it – people could infect themselves with it, or something). There’s a believability and truthfulness about the way his environment reacts to William’s illness and what they believe to be just another expression of it in what must have been a long line of expressions. William’s family shows a mixture of sadness, exasperation and plain tiredness that isn’t just unexpectedly real for a SyFy monster movie but for movies in general. Even better, the film also allows its mentally ill character the same degree of dignity (one thing many mental illnesses don’t exactly leave you much of, while your environment generally does its damndest to take away the rest) it gives its other characters, and even provides him with an opportunity for small-scale heroism without feeling the need to kill him off for reasons of redemption.

William B. Davis uses the opportunity to for once in his life not play a bad guy, and provides William (the name-giving fairy was out, sorry) with just the right mixture of obsessiveness, fragility, and a warmth suggesting a complete human being.

In general, Behemoth is pretty good at breaking up its ultra-competent and highly entertaining giant monster/disaster tale with small moments of truth in the character department (not in the moments when everyone just has to act like an idiot for genre conventions, obviously). Apart from everything to do with William, there’s – just for example – the telling fact that the Sheriff doesn’t take what Emily tells him about a possible catastrophe seriously, despite her being an actual expert, because she’s just his niece, and surely she can’t know more about anything than he does, which seems to mirror the experience most younger women of my acquaintance have with their own families.

For me, these kinds of elements and small details often are what make or break a SyFy creature feature; it is of course important (and pretty much unavoidable) to work with and within clichĂ©s and tropes when making a low budget genre film for TV, but it’s these small things that differentiate a competent movie from one truly worth watching. Behemoth, for its part, clearly belongs to the latter group.


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!?

Gripping Spectacle of the Ages! Campaigning for a Deluge

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I don’t have much to say about this little artifact, a vintage campaign book for the 1933 release of RKO’s Deluge in the United Kingdom. Much like the film, memorabilia for Deluge is pretty scarce, but I was lucky enough to snag this at online auction a while back. It evidently went through all the trials ofAd_2 hell getting to me, and somehow survived – intact – some of the worst package handling I’ve ever seen evidence of.

The campaign book is full of the usual stuff – a few stills ripe for reproduction in your local rag, cast bios, and plenty of hyperbolic ad-speak. In their pre-fab press RKO promises a film of extraordinary realism and excruciating expense and whose technical might dwarfs even their own King Kong, which was doubtless still in circulation at the time. Stars Sidney Blackmer and Peggy Shannon are talked up a bit, but RKO wisely underplay the film’s dull drama and instead make the most of the significant effects spectacle it offers. In what sounds like a back-handed compliment (from the studio no less!), the press says of the “human actors” that they are, “dwarfed by the drama of the elements, but they do their parts effectively.”

“Spectacular” and “unusual” entertainment is, of course, guaranteed.

What follows are the entirety (excepting those already shared at the top and right) of the print ads offered in the book, which unfortunately had to photographed as my scanner is on the fritz. The full text pages of the book (including a few more images) are appended afterwards for those who wish to peruse them. As ever, click on an image to see it full-size.

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La Distruzione del Mondo: Felix E. Feist’s Deluge (1933)

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Peggy Shannon and Sidney Blackmer in a publicity still for RKO’s Deluge.

Chalk this up as another one of those troublesomely hard-to-find examples of early science fiction cinema. RKO’s 1933 disaster drama Deluge, loosely adapted from Englishman S. Fowler Wright’s 1928 novel of the same name, led a post-release life so muddled that it’s a minor miracle that it can be seen at all.  It would seem that over the course of the last 80 years nearly every film element for Deluge has evaporated into thin air, and despite suggestions that a print may reside with the author Wright’s estate, the only one to surface from murky oblivion thus far is a dubbed Italian export print unearthed in Rome in the early ’80s. First released to tape by Wade Williams in 1998, the Italian Deluge has itself become needlessly difficult to see since, a long-standing victim of the curse of OOP.

With original tapes selling for $200 or worse and no domestic DVD on the horizon, the best alternative for the moment is, appropriately enough, Italian. Sourced from the same video master as the Williams release (hardcoded English subtitles included) but with the original Italian titles intact, La Distruzione del Mondo arrived last year from Fantacult in a limited edition of 999. Response appears to have been tepid at best – the release is still readily available and plenty cheap besides.

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And what of the film? For my money it’s just not very good, and most of the genuinely interesting bits are out of the way in the first twenty minutes. Beginning with a globe-spanning disaster that wipes out all but a few scant handfuls of humanity, Deluge soon devolves into a dull survival romance that pits family man Sidney Blackmer (Rosemary’s Baby) against a band of rape-happy thugs and later finds him in a romantic tangle between marathon swimmer Peggy Shannon (Night Life of the Gods) and his long-lost wife, a presumed victim of the disaster. Those keen on post-apocalyptic social rebirth may find some value in seeing Roosevelt’s America reduced to a pre-industrial state, but even at a scant 70 minutes Deluge‘s dramatics are slow-going.

Any genuine interest the film generates these days is due wholly to the special effects that dominate the first third of its running time, which were ruthlessly copied and pasted into a number of Republic serials thereafter. For Deluge pioneering effects man Ned Mann (Things to Come) concocted a spectacle of city-destruction literally unlike anything that had been seen up to that point, and the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until Roland Emmerich’s delirious end-of-the-world bonanza 2012. Here the sprawling metropolis of New York is rocked to its very foundations by an earthquake of unprecedented scope, and its remnants swept away in a massive tidal surge. Most of what’s on display here is of excellent stuff, with tremendous miniature design and some process work that’s well ahead of its time. Only a few composite shots of cartoonishly sped-up crowds fleeing through the toppling city blocks underwhelm, and even they aren’t without their impact. You’ll find the full thrilling sequence below.

Even if I don’t particularly care for Deluge‘s drama, its landmark effects design is enough to make me wish better copies were available. For now the Fantacult DVD is about as good as things get. While quality leaves a lot to be desired (this is an NTSC-to-PAL conversion, and there’s plenty of ghosting and artifacts to go around) it makes for a passable watch under present circumstances – that the only other option is a grotesquely overpriced tape from fifteen years ago makes Fantacult’s inexpensive disc tough not to recommend. La Distruzione del Mondo is a PAL-format limited edition of 999, and is readily available through Amazon.it and elsewhere.