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 Deemed unfit for production for reasons that go unpublished, Goodrich’s screenplay was eventually to be re-written by Warren Duff (Angels With Dirty Faces) and an uncredited Joe Traub (The Death Kiss; Traub, as Variety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”.¹

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 release², 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.³ 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.


¹ 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.

² 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.

³ 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 CloudThe 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.

Bollywood Shuffle: Jaal (1986)

With his mother developing a consumption-like illness that makes it impossible for her to keep continuing the cooking work that paid for the family’s food and education, and since his father has been dead for quite a few years, it now falls to kind-hearted part-time badass Shankar (Mithun Chakraborty) to earn the money that pays the rent.

His first attempts are – of course without his fault – without much success. His luck changes when a mysterious woman calling herself Sundari (Rekha) makes Shankar an offer he can’t refuse. She’s going to pay him quite a lot of money if he’ll do whatever she asks of him for two years. Once Shankar has reluctantly agreed, Sundari tells him what his first mission for her is going to be: he is to go to a small village and somehow slime himself into the trust of the local evil Thakur, a man named Bhanu Pratap Singh (Amrit Pal).

Obviously (well, for everyone except for Shankar), Sundari has chosen Shankar for a reason. Soon enough our hero will learn the truth about the death of his father (Vinod Mehra) and a sticky and complicated past, find his true love (Mandakini), lead a minor revolution, and kick people in various parts of their anatomy with all the power his Mithun fu provides him with. And if you think I just left out about a dozen minor plot lines, detours, and flash backs, you’re absolutely right.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve last watched a Bollywood movie, and as always when I let this happen, I’m asking myself afterwards: why the heck did I take so much time to look towards India again? Thanks to the watchalong efforts of my delightful friend Beth, I’m back in the groove again, and we couldn’t have chosen a better film than the delectable Jaal (which means “Trap”, and is not to be confused with other Hindi movies named Jaal). Apart from being pretty damn fun to watch, Jaal also again made clear some things one really should keep in mind when watching masala of the 70s and 80s, lest one’s false expectations turn an incredible experience into something dreary and annoying.

Jaal‘s mixture of melodrama, a complicated backstory to be revealed sooner or later, overheated action, sudden bursts of psychedelia, musical numbers (written by Anu Malik) in at times frightening and always imaginative choreography, unfunny humour (responsible here: Jagdeep, one of the true horrors of the ages) and plain weirdness for weirdness’ sake looks typical of masala movies even to a Bollywood dabbler like me; the only things missing to the formula are a death scene for Mithun’s Ma and long-lost siblings at odds with each other. Of course, and that’s the main thing I need to remind myself of whenever I dabble in Bollywood movies of this style, one shouldn’t go into most of these films in search of originality or a sensible. linearly presented plot but to enjoy them scene for scene in a game of “whatever will they come up with next”. These films were after all meant to include something for every potential member of their Indian audiences, which is not something that makes coherence as Hollywood praises it (and often doesn’t achieve for completely different reasons) an easy or even useful element of what the films were supposed to be and do. The masala approach does lend itself to produce joy, though.

In Jaal‘s case, what the filmmakers came up with to produce that joy are delights like Mithun hitting someone with his crotch (to my disappointment only once, or I could have used the phrase “crotch fu” to describe his fighting style), Rekha’s vengeance plans including awesome details like provoking one of the bad guys into a heart attack via an aerobic themed (well, nominally breakdance themed) musical number that for some reason also features mimes. There are also needle-dropped Madonna songs, the misadventures of the easiest marks for a confidence trick ever, Rekha doing her patented (and inspired/awesome) glowering, moral confusion, women getting very very wet during a musical number, magical jumping boots that appear for one scene only to forever disappear from the film afterwards, girls with guns, some deeply problematic ideas about prostitution that collide with some rather more humane and progressive ideas about prostitution and never get directly resolved into what I’d call a position, and a baseball match that ends with Moon Moon Sen being board-cified in a sexually suggestive position I’d really rather would have expected – and raised an eyebrow at – in a Japanese film.

As is so often the case with masala movies, it’s difficult to talk about Jaal as the sum of its parts, because, as explained above, a lot of masala films (there are of course humungous amounts of exceptions to this rule) don’t seem all that interested in being the sort of thematically coherent whole that is best looked at as the sum of its parts. Consequently, it makes little sense to judge the merits of a film like Jaal that way, or to get cranky at it for not following the rules of filmmaking made to construct and understand something with very different goals. Why, it would be like looking at a Hollywood blockbuster the same way as you would look at an arthouse movie. So instead, I like to look at these films and praise (or not) them for the amount of joy their succession of single scenes provided me with while watching.

Seen from this angle, Jaal looks pretty darn great to me, seeing as it contains not a single boring minute, and is never afraid to just throw in anything director Umesh Mehra found cool on that particular morning.


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!?

A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day

VSDDPosterIt’s 793, and a band of Vikings led by Athelstan (Christopher Godwin) has just raided the abbey of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England. Athelstan is obsessed with the idea that acquiring the Lindisfarne Gospels will give him the power to make his son the ruler of England, perhaps even of the whole of the British Isles. His plan’s a bit like my last Crusader Kings II run-through, really. Unfortunately for him, all his slaughtering of unarmed monks has been for naught, for an elderly monk and what amounts to his adoptive son Hereward (Marc Pickering) have escaped with the mission to carry the Gospels the long way to safety – to Iona off the west coast of Scotland.

The monks are supposed to meet up with a group of armed protectors in a nearby ruin, but the protectors had their own encounter with Vikings that left only one warrior, Aethelwulf (Mark Lewis Jones) alive. A small group of Athelstan’s men are following the trio through the woods that make up most of England at the time, not all of them happy with their leader’s plan. But after Athelstan’s son is killed by Aethelwulf in an encounter that leaves the old monk raped and dead and Hereward well on the way to PTSD, there’s no holding him back anymore; he’d probably go to the Holy Land itself to get it back now.

Hereward and Aethelwulf for their part have additional problems to being followed by a small group of brutal maniacs, for Saxon England is pretty much a hell hole, full of bandits, desperate religious maniacs, and so much death and destruction Hereward will have to give up at least parts of his soft-spoken and slightly naive approach to Christianity and life (a poison-induced vision of Christ helps there too). On their way, our protagonists also encounter the Pictish “witch” Eara (Elen Rhys) who demonstrates a rather different approach to paganism than the Vikings have to offer.

Chris Crow’s A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day is not at all the film I expected. What I expected was an Asylum-like attempt to cash in on Hammer of the Gods at worst, or a fun piece of medieval hack and slash at best. This was before I actually saw Hammer of the Gods and realized not even the part of Asylum responsible for that horrible Sherlock Holmes film could manage to create something worse than that, nor would anyone with even a mild degree of sanity try to rip that thing off.

What I got with The Darkest Day however, is a film exceedingly interested in exploring various directions of the early medieval mindset (of course a thing we can never do more than make informed speculations about), taking great care to take its characters’ various ways of filtering the world through their ideas and beliefs very seriously. Doing this, the film avoids looking down on the characters for what they believe in, yet also avoids agreeing with it as objective truth. On paper you could read the film, particularly Hereward’s character development, as a defence of violent Christianity, but I assume it is rather trying not to let the way its medieval characters develop become too influenced by our contemporary views. This attempt to stay – at least to a degree – true to a medieval mindset, is quite effective, I think.

In fact, one of the film’s strong suits is how it gives the characters’ various world views (and at that point in human development, religion in one form or the other was the natural seeming basis for seeing the world, for better as well as for worse) space, and takes a look at what happens when they are confronted with the facts of life of a horrifying and violent time. It has to be said that the film’s title is a bit of a lie: this is no Viking saga. The Vikings are pretty much the designated bad guys here (something of a pleasant change of pace after one too many Viking metal glorifications of the inventors of the blood eagle, a people who were about as sympathetic as any Christian crusader), and while the film spends some time with them, it’s Hereward and the people he encounters who are the film’s protagonists and targets of audience sympathy. Crow does spend time to give the Vikings actual motives, though, and while we’re clearly supposed to like them less, he does leave them their humanity.

When it comes to the violence, Crow goes for short, intense bursts of it which emphasise brutality and desperation, with people struggling, biting and scratching for their lives until it ends cruelly and suddenly. As befits the tone of the film, there’s no elegance and beauty in killing here but a mixture of desperation, cruelty and necessity. I was quite surprised to find a male-on-male rape scene in the film used to double down on the fact that violence really is not a fun thing; like it goes with all rape scenes, it’s not exactly something I was clamoring to watch, but it also very much belongs to the world the film takes place in, and therefore needs to be shown.

The only flaw worth mentioning I can find in The Darkest Day is the usual insistence on using the monochromatic colour schemes so beloved of contemporary filmmakers as a cheap and easy way to build mood. This method can still be effective, but has mostly become a boring short hand that only displays a lack of visual imagination and tends to bring up the question why the hell you’d shoot a film in colour when you then won’t actually use colours, or even colour contrasts. In The Darkest Day‘s particular case, I can’t help but think that these monochrome ways are actually weakening the impact the awesomely bleak landscape (somewhere in South Wales, the IMDB says) the film was shot in could otherwise have had.

However, I don’t want to end on this somewhat sour note, for if I’m not willing to accept the use of short cuts in a low budget movie willing to put this much thought and actual emotional power into so many of its other aspects as The Darkest Day is, where would that leave me as a film fan?


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!?

Manchas de Sangre en un Coche Nuevo: Blood Stains in a New Car (1975)

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posterOn the surface, Ricardo (José Luis López Vázquez) seems to have a rather pleasant life in late Franco Spain: he’s the owner of successful art restoration business, his wife Eva (Lucia Bosé) is stinking rich, and he keeps his young and pretty employee Maria (May Heatherly) as a really rather emotionally loving mistress on the side.

However, the cracks in Ricardo’s ordered life of quotidian hypocrisy deepen when his wife buys him a new luxury car (oh, the glories of Volvo, master of cardom) as a wedding anniversary gift. On his first drive home with his new toy, Ricardo passes the scene of a car accident by the side of an otherwise empty road. A man and his little son are trapped in the flipped car and beg Ricardo for help, but out of fear of getting involved – and what of his brand new car!? – he drives on again, only to see the car explode in his rear view mirror.

Afterwards, things really go downhill for Ricardo. He begins to see blood stains nobody else can see on the backseat of his car, something that disturbs his already very guilty conscience even more. Ricardo is becoming unable to drive his car himself. It seems driving is now something the women in his life must do for him (holy metaphor, Batman!). He also begins – not for the first time it seems – to doubt the basics of his life. Is having a convenient, rich existence with a woman who won’t sleep with him (and who reacts to his tale about leaving people behind to die with pure cynicism), clearly doesn’t love him, and never wants kids, and a job that makes him rich yet also hides a minor criminal enterprise (Ricardo’s in the art forging business too, we learn late in the movie), truly all he wanted from life? Then there’s the fact that Eva has been sent yellow roses these last few days and seems even less inclined to loving companionship of any kind than usual, awakening an unexpected amount of jealousy in Ricardo, given the actual relationship between his wife and him that I’d explain more through hurt machismo than anything else.

Despite Maria’s reaction to the whole situation being quite more humane towards Ricardo – the dead people are ironically not important to anyone but Ricardo himself – than Eva’s, and a hopeless attempt to cure him of car related anxiety through good old car related intercourse, it’s clear that Ricardo is going to crack soon.

Antonio Mercero’s Manchas de Sangre is a minor, yet very interesting psychological thriller that suffers a bit from how on the nose its metaphorical and symbolical language is. As it often goes for me with this sort of thing, it’s all a bit much, and I’d like to take the director to the side to tell him: “Yes, Senor Mercero, we get it already. All his symbols of masculinity can’t absolve Ricardo from the guilt he suffers for a misdeed I can only read as a metaphor for the sins of looking away the upper bourgeoisie in Franco’s Spain committed again and again. But did you really have to hammer his emasculation home by giving his wife a lesbian affair? And while we’re at it, why does it sometimes look as if Ricardo’s feeling of emasculation seems more important to you and not just to Ricardo than his being a murderer by inaction?” But then I have a rather low tolerance for this sort of thing, so your mileage may vary.

Mercero does make some rather interesting decisions, though, namely turning Ricardo – quite perfectly embodied by Vázquez, who is the kind of guy you never see playing the lead in a genre movie – into a surprisingly sympathetic figure despite of all the perfectly horrible things he does, even if you’re like me and do not care about anyone’s lack or possession of any degree of masculinity, and generally don’t have very much empathy for people who care about this sort of thing. Still, the respectful and deeply human way Mercero and Vázquez portray Ricardo makes empathising really rather natural.

Ricardo is a man whose central problem in life seems to be that he has always played by the rather perverse rules the society he lives in has established, yet has never quite been able to stomach these rules, nor believe in them as the way the world should be. He is consequently plagued by a guilty conscience, but at the same time, and despite all his emphasis on overt masculinity, never courageous enough to stop and lead a life he needn’t be secretly ashamed of. It is the central irony of the film’s plot that he’s either too cynical, or not cynical enough, not moral enough, or too moral, to live in this movie’s Spain, a place where only cynical monsters like his wife can be happy. Of course, I could have lived quite well without the film treating Eva’s lesbian sex life as a sign of her complete lack of morals; her “just take a valium” reaction to Ricardo’s guilty conscience is rather more poignant and less bigoted, and would have been more than enough to make the point. Which leads us back to the point that Mercero likes to lay things on a little too thickly.

Formally, Mercero clothes these themes and ideas into a well-done, if not overtly spectacular psychological thriller (the only kind of thriller that doesn’t need an actual bad guy in its plot because people are able to destroy themselves well enough without more direct intervention) with a more subtle hand for the visual than the writing side of things, that perhaps suffers a bit from showing little interest in being exciting on its surface because it is much more interested in other things.

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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!?

Valkoinen Puera: The White Reindeer (1952)

valkoinen_peura_posterWe agents of M.O.S.S. defy your oppressive assumptions about seasons in the northern hemisphere. To prove you (yes you!) wrong, May will be all about ice, snow and everything cold for us. Everything is better in winter, after all. And what other climatic conditions could bring us a movie about a were-reindeer?

The birth of Pirita stands under a bad star, with her mother desperately racing through the snows of Lapland to give birth to her in the warmth of somebody’s tent, and then dying during birth. The owner of said tent take Pirita in as their own daughter. They may be relatives of her mother, but the film does not explain this, nor why Pyrite’s mother wasn’t giving birth at her home, nor if she even had one, but the staging of the scenes makes it quite clear that the baby’s birth is not exactly accompanied by good omens.

Still, Pirita (now played by Mirjami Kuosmanen, co-writer and wife of director Erik Blomberg) grows up into a beautiful and happy young (well, Kuosmanen was close to forty at that point, but that’s not really a problem here) woman. She and strapping reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) fall in love and marry. However, as a herder, Aslak is away from home for long stretches, and Pirita misses him painfully. She goes to visit the local shaman (Arvo Lehesman) to ask him for a love potion.

The shaman agrees to help her, but questioning the spirits doesn’t exactly achieve the results anyone would have hoped for. The shaman prophecies Pirita will be irresistible to all men if she sacrifices the first living thing she sees on her return home at an altar, but the shaman also foresees a fate too horrible to speak of. Something – perhaps based on her birth – takes possession of Pirita at that moment, and she is fated to continue the process she has begun, walking through the next scenes like somebody submitting to the inevitable. So even though the first living thing Pirita sees on her return home is a white reindeer calf her husband gave her as a token of his love, she still can’t escape sacrificing it.

Afterwards, Pirita becomes quite popular with the male population, though she seemed to attract men before she let the spirits put a spell on her quite well already, and Aslak never was anything but in love with her. The truth about the spell is something quite different anyway: by the light of the full moon, Pirita turns into a white reindeer that irresistibly draws men into hunting her, following her alone into the wilderness. Once the animal is alone with them, it turns back into a Pirita with fangs and claws who kills the man she has drawn away.

In a population as close-knit and full of knowledge of the old ways (it’s impossible to call it superstition, for in the context of the movie, it’s all true), this sort of situation can’t hold up for long, and soon every Lapp in the area knows that a white reindeer is a witch killing men. It’s only a question of time until they make spears of cold iron and kill her; and if you know the sort of story this is, you’ll already know who will be the man to kill her.

I couldn’t find out much about the era in the Finnish film industry when Valkoinen Peura was made (there’s quite a bit of material online about the 1930s and 40s and then the 90s and onward, but little specifics about the period in between) though I am quite sure that Erik Blomberg’s film wasn’t typical of the output of the country’s three major studios. The film seems too personal and too idiosyncratic for a pure entertainment, yet also seems far away from everything that would later become arthouse movies. If you’re from Finland and know better, please correct me.

Stylistically, the film uses two very different approaches to filmmaking. The parts of the film concerned with the day to day life of the Lapps are filmed close to the style of a documentary (Blomberg made more documentaries than feature films, so this isn’t exactly a surprise) with a major eye for the telling detail, and the patience to just let things happen on screen in their own time. These scenes make clear that Blomberg is highly interested in a feeling of veracity and authenticity, treating Lapp culture with a respect you don’t generally see in films of the 50s for anything or anyone not in the mainstream culture of the country they were made in. If Blomberg got everything right about Lapp culture is quite another question, though not one I’m knowledgeable enough to answer. For the purposes of the film and this review it’s probably enough to know that Blomberg strives for and achieves a feeling of veracity.

At first, this documentarian part of the film seems to rub against the way Blomberg stages most of the appearances of the supernatural, with highly expressionist lighting and editing that might just as well have been taken from a German silent movie of the 20s; even the acting tends to a certain wide-eyed and melodramatic style, and Blomberg clearly prefers silent actors making expressive faces while dramatic music plays to dialogue – in fact, quite a few scenes seem to be shot without sound.

Instead of lending a schizophrenic feel to the film, both stylistic directions are well integrated into each other: all scenes that deal with day to day practicalities are shot in the more mundane documentary style, and the moments that deal with the vagaries of the human heart and the supernatural are made all the more emotionally powerful by being staged quite differently. This is particularly effective when Pirita’s curse (really, I’m tempted to use the word “wyrd” here, even though it is culturally inappropriate) begins to infect her daily life with her husband and a scene that would have been shot bright and clear at the film’s start, now is full of shadows and ambiguity.

If I were in a blithe mood, I’d call Valkoinen Peura the best movie about a were reindeer you’ll ever see, but apart from being, you know, blithe, it would also mean selling the film quite short. There aren’t many movies trying to take on the feeling of myth and legend while at the same time attempting to be truthful towards more mundane realities, and even fewer succeeding at it. Blomberg’s film absolutely nails the right mood, and tells the right story in just the right way, resulting in a film with its own bleak kind of poetry.


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 End of the World in Six Stirring Parts

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It’s safe to say that Denmark’s Nordisk Films Company was well ahead of the disaster movie curve when they produced one of the classics of cometary collision cinema way back in 1916. Verdens Undergang beat Abel Gance’s eerily similar La Fin du Monde to theaters by a decade and a half, and has thankfully weathered the ravages of time more smoothly than that troubled French production.

Pictured above is a detail from my latest memorabilia pick-up, a trade ad from the year of the film’s production, published on May 20, 1916 in Moving Picture World. The ad’s centerpiece artwork was a black and white reproduction of the lovely 6-sheet (!) lithograph produced by Nordisk Films to promote the picture, originally serialized in “Six Stirring Parts”, in English territories. The Great Northern Film(s) Company, Nordisk’s American branch, handled the domestic advertising and distribution.

The Danish Film Institute undertook a restoration of Verdens Undergang in the early 2000s, and the fantastic results made their way to DVD (alongside the fascinating 1918 trip-to-Mars fantasy Himmelskibet) in 2006. The disc is still very much in print, and can be purchased from the Edition Filmmuseum shop. (Those wishing to try before they buy can see the full film here, though there’s no telling when Youtube might pull the plug on it)

Verdens Undergang / The End of the World was written by Otto Rung and directed by August Blom, with photography by Louis Larsen. Starring Ebba (Emma) Thomsen, Olaf Fönss, Carl Lauritzen, and Johanne Fritz-Petersen. For more, see my old review at Wtf-Film.com.

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The full ad, and the oldest piece of film memorabilia I own by a margin of nearly half a century. The full run of Moving Picture World from 1907 to 1919 has been digitized and is available for browsing here.

41 Hours of Terror: The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」

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The Golden Gate Bridge goes to pieces in Toei’s The Final War, photo courtesy of LIFE Magazine c. November 1960.

It’s a little startling to realize just how prescient a modest end-of-the-world effort from more than fifty years past can be. In the last few weeks the DPRK has done away with the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, cut off hotlines to the South, blocked access to a joint North-South industrial complex, and even announced a ratification of plans for nuclear attack on American interests. It’s far from the first time the DPRK has threatened international incident, as a spate of mid-century assassination attempts (and plenty else) will attest, but the country’s most recent descent into Cold War-era craziness does make one wonder where it will all end. More than that, it begs the question of how far things could have progressed if international relations were any less sensible than they are now.

Offering one range of possibilities for that tantalizing what-if is Toei’s obscure The Final War (「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 or World War III: 41 Hours of Terror), a grim monochrome nuclear war drama that beat Toho’s more lavish The Last War (「世界大戦争」) to cinemas by nearly a year. While Toho’s cautionary yarn offered big-name stars like Frankie Sakai and OTOWA Nobuko and plenty of big color production value to boot, it sidestepped any overtly controversial political content by presenting its global conflict on strict, if transparent, fantasy terms – it’s an Alliance and a Federation who nuke each other into oblivion, not NATO and the Warsaw Pact. What’s more, the human reaction to The Last War‘s central conflict is quite muted, and imminent annihilation accepted with solemnity rather than panic.

The Final War pulls no such punches. There’s no confusion about who is behind the northern hemisphere’s headlong race towards oblivion here, and any sense of social order falls swiftly to the wayside once the issue of individual survival becomes paramount. Perhaps most controversial is The Final War‘s view of its own homeland. Far from the peace-making innocent of The Last War, the Japan of The Final War is guilty by association. In aligning itself with the United States and allowing a continued American military presence on its shores the nation has signed its own death warrant. Whether this should be viewed as a criticism or merely a reflection of Japan’s postwar political reality is difficult to say.

Blessedly The Final War is more concerned with the people caught up in its global political insanity than the politics themselves, and its eponymous conflict is filtered through perspectives from nearly every rung of Japan’s social ladder. The story begins with a school lecture on the arms race and the atom bombing of Hiroshima, a lesson that has quite an effect on young Shigeo. Haunted by images of the charred remains of Hiroshima’s children and horrified by the continuing arms race, Shigeo becomes a helpless paranoid, obsessed with the threat of a nuclear war. Guided by his fears and accompanied by a pair of school buddies, Shigeo steers a yacht (gleaned from another classmate, the daughter of the rich Fujishima family) straight into the Pacific in a desperate bid to escape his doomed civilization. The flight is short lived, however. A typhoon catches up to the boys, capsizing the yacht and setting them hopelessly adrift.

Enter newspaper reporter Masaki (UMEMIYA Tetsuo, Battles Without Honor and Humanity) who, looking for a scoop, sets out with his faithful photographer (ORIMOTO Junkichi, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) on a helicopter hunt for the lost boys. The boys he finds, and a scoop he gets – Shigeo and his nuclear paranoia make the front page, even if no one takes his fears very seriously. Elsewhere life goes on. Masaki begins a relationship with nurse Tomoko (the lovely MITA Yoshiko in one of her earliest film appearances), Shigeo returns to his family, a single bank clerk father (KATO Tadashi) and elder sister (FURASATO Yayoi), and his classmates get back to their routine of daytime studies and nighttime partying. It’s (big) business as usual for the upper-class Fujishima family as well, while in a Tokyo shantytown the poor Tonomura couple continue to scrape by, with Mr. Tonomura (MASUDA Junji, Invasion of the Neptune Men) devoting his meager earnings as a street musician to caring for his ailing wife (HOSHI Michiko).

The peace can’t last of course, and it isn’t long after The Final War‘s many personalities are set in place that an announcement comes over the radio: an American plane carrying nuclear fuel has exploded over Korea. The South accuses the North of causing the explosion, while the North regards the incident as an act of war. NATO forces rush to the region and the Soviets answer in kind. As armed jets streak through the skies of Japan, where American airbases provide crucial strategic access to the conflict, the population starts to sense its vulnerability. Panic creeps through the streets of Tokyo, and the 41 hours of terror begin.

Toei would devote itself almost exclusively to exploitation by the end of the 1960s, making a mint on the oodles of stylish sex and violence that pervaded the work of men like ISHII Teruo and FUKASAKU Kinji, but even before this transition the studio’s product retained a uniquely ragged edge. HIDAKA Shigeaki’s The Final War, with its massive scenes of panicked humanity and abounding examples of the very worst of our nature, is a perfect example of this. Hoodlums on motorcycles rape and maim their way through swaths of fleeing citizenry, doctors abandon patients in their hospital beds, and the sick and injured are left to their own devices to find the dubious safety of somewhere else. The paths of the primary characters intersect in a number of sad and tragic ways, none of which I’ll spoil here, and the subway terminals beneath and woodlands around Tokyo are glutted with teeming thousands of terrified, desperate people. Only the meek Tonomuras approach the end with any dignity, opting to spend their final moments at their otherwise empty Catholic parish. Beyond the panic reaches a fever pitch, and from Moscow a final announcement crackles across the radio: The time of peace has passed, the missiles are primed, and for Japan mere minutes remain before holocaust…

The special effects in The Final War are quite limited, but calculated for maximum impact on a minimum of setups. Once the missiles (a combination of miniatures and stock shots) are launched only three cities are shown to be destroyed, each through its own identifiable landmark. It may not be much, particularly when compared to the heaps of colorful destruction scenes prepped by Toho for their The Last War, but it certainly packs a wallop. In Soviet Russia the campus of the prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University is obliterated, while in the United States the Golden Gate Bridge crumbles. In Japan, Tokyo Tower is demolished as the Diet spectacularly explodes. Survivors in the wooded outskirts are treated to the grim sight of a mushroom cloud rising angrily above dead Tokyo, and left a few moments to ponder their fate before the final warheads fall.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it all a bit depressing – it is. By the standards of the time, even for nuclear war films, this is a decidedly unpleasant affair, and possessed of a cynical disposition that wouldn’t catch on in Western equivalents until the ’80s. Even the advertising imagery has a tendency towards the unusually gruesome, as evidenced by the shot below – that’s young Shigeo and his sister suffering in the foreground, surrounded by hundreds of other dead or dying as a mushroom cloud looms in the distance. It’s this sensibility, I imagine, that goes a long way towards explaining The Final War‘s obscurity. It’s undeniably well-made and effective to an extent that few of its ilk can match, but it’s not very likable, and not the sort of thing that begs to be seen again and again.

Toho’s The Last War may be softer all around, and more interested in effects splash than it really should be (a message picture has to put the asses in the seats with the rest of them), but it offers one important element nowhere to be found in the Toei film: Hope. That old sword of Damocles may still be hanging over our heads, suspended by the most slender of threads, but even a perennial misanthrope like I prefers to think higher of humanity than The Final War gives a chance.

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Our other articles on The Final War:

Lost and Found: The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 (published 3/21/13)

41 Hours of Terror: Eye on The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 circa November, 1960 (published 03/22/13)

A Brief American History of The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」 (published 3/23/13)

Special thanks to Brett HomenickJules L. CarrozzaGreg Shoemaker and August Ragone for their assistance with all this The Final War stuff – I’d have been nowhere without them. Call me when the American version turns up, gentlemen!

Lost and Found: The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」

posterThough largely unseen since its release in December of 1960 it’s not strictly accurate to say that Toei’s nuclear war drama The Final War (「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」, or World War III: 41 Hours of Terror) was a lost film. That’s not to say it was an easy film to find. Unlike the rest of the company’s special effects product The Final War never found its way to VHS or Laserdisc, and has yet to appear in DVD either – a dubbed version which played US television is rarer still. Until recently the only visual evidence of the film’s existence were the few stills making rounds online, including the poster thumbnail to the left (shamelessly copied here from the Eiren film database).

But things change, and even that considered most rare can eventually come to light. A few years ago The Final War aired on a Japanese television network, proving at the very least that it still existed. Yesterday a copy of the same made its way to me. It might have been a thrilling moment had the circumstances not proven so mundane – there’s little sense of discovery when long-lost artifacts arrive first class on sharpie-marked DVD-R.

As for the film, I’ll devote an article to it properly once I’ve had the time to parse through all of its drama. It was clearly a big-deal production for Toei, who may have been looking to one-up Toho films by getting their dismal Cold War tragedy into cinemas first. Where Toho’s The Last War elaborated on its fictional conflict with lavish miniature effects sequences, in blazing color no less, The Final War opts for a more personal approach, following the lives of several everyday Japanese citizens (a student, a reporter and so on) as war and rumors of war swirl about them. Everything is seen from a distinctly human perspective, with chilling results. Radios broadcast the latest political huff from either side (familiar gaijin in the roles of American and Soviet representatives), while jet aircraft speed overhead, ominous and untouchable.

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The intricate effects sequences that mark the Toho production (a showcase for effects pioneer TSUBURAYA Eiji) fall largely by the wayside here in favor of big-scale dramatic set-pieces. Thousands amass in an exodus from doomed Tokyo, and huddle in forests far from the city limits to hope and pray that the worst doesn’t come to pass. It does, of course. Survivors are few, and there is no cheerful resolution, no escape from the all-consuming crucible of a dumb and pointless war.

Filmed in stark black and white ‘Scope and directed by the little-known HIDAKA Shigeaki, who flourished in the early years of Japan’s post-occupation film boom only to disappear at the start of the ’60s, The Final War benefits as cinema from its technical inferiority to Toho’s melodramatic effort. Its perspective is direct and human, its conclusion understated and terrifying. It’s about the tragic consequence of a world that puts wars of ideology ahead of the welfare of billions, and it remains a harrowing watch more than fifty years on from its original release.

Would that I could provide the whole film here, but the best I can offer is a taste. Rest assured that it does exist, and that it’s a hell of a lot easier to find now than it used to be.