Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Last Dragon

Director: Justin Hardy
Writers: David McNab, Justin Hardy, Charlie Foley
Producers: Ceri Barnes
Cast: Ian Holm, Paul Hilton, some dragons
Country: UK/Germany
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: UK TV broadcast

I completely missed the first broadcast of this unusual feature-length fantasy in March 2005 so when a repeat turned up in the schedules eight months later, buried away in the small hours of Channel Four with no real clear description on the listings, I had to tape it and find out what it was, especially as there was no sign of it on the Inaccurate Movie Database. The only thing that I could tell in advance was that it was definitely not the martial arts picture Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.

What it turned out to be was a fake docudrama - I suppose that makes it a dramadocudrama or a metadocudrama or a pseudodocudrama, or maybe just a drama. I don’t really know what it is, to be honest.

Fifty per cent of The Last Dragon is in the mould of Walking with Dinosaurs; that is, presented in the manner of a nature documentary, using CGI creatures in real locations. We actually follow three or four different dragons through the ages.

Back in the cretaceous period, we find a young male dragon, searching for food in an arid desert, who encounters an equally hungry Tyrannosaurus rex, who has a slight size advantage. Fortunately, the youngster’s mother appears and fights of the T rex who take a severe scorching and lopes off to die. However, the adult female dragon received a broken wing in the fight and so can no longer hunt for food for herself and her son. Weakened, she also dies and the juvenile, who is not yet old enough to fly, survives on his mother’s carcass for a period.

But a big lump of dead dragon meat attracts pterosaurs and circling pterosaurs attracts the attention of an unusually old male dragon, who can only have reached his great age by seeing off a lot of younger challengers. He would rather eat fresh meat than rotting flesh so he chases the younger dragon, and here’s where the biology comes in.

It seems that dragons have two large sacs, connected to their respiratory system, which they are able to fill with hydrogen as a result of aerobic exercise. These not only provide the fuel for their fire-breathing, they also act as buoyancy aids, giving the dragons sufficient lift to be able to fly using their large wings, which would otherwise need to be impractically huge to get them off the ground.

So the young male dragon learns to fly, just in time. After some aerial wandering, he encounters a mountainous area with an established breeding pair and he successfully fights off the male to claim both the territory and the mate.

The question then arises over how something as large as the dragon could have survived the ‘K/T event’ which killed off the dinosaurs, and the answer is that it didn’t. But... there were other species of dragons, including ones which had adapted to life in the sea. With their hydrogen sacs adapted as swim bladders and their vestigial wings in use as fins, these were essentially sea serpents. As the age of mammals dawned, some of the sea dragons returned to the land in Asia to become forest dragons - hence the rather elongated, wingless dragons of Chinese folklore. We watch one of these prowl through the bamboo, stalking a (real) wild pig and then fighting a (real) tiger.

The suggestion then is that some of these forest dragons evolved into mountain dragons not too dissimilar to those that existed alongside the dinosaurs, and our final tale involves a lone female living in the Carpathian mountains in the 15th century. She is able to mate with a male who has travelled up from the Caucasus and one of their two eggs successfully hatches. However, after the male leaves and while the female is out hunting, having been forced to start raiding farms in the valley, a couple of knights arrive to ‘slay the dragon’. They kill the juvenile and then fight the lonely, heartbroken mother - the last dragon.

So that’s half the programme, but intercut with this is a modern day ‘drama’ about a young American palaeontologist - variously called ‘Doctor Tanner’ and ‘Professor Tanner’ (Paul Hilton) - who is working at the ‘London Museum of Natural History’. (It’s not clear whether they actually mean the Natural History Museum or whether they’ve invented a fictitious museum for copyright/legal reasons. the actual museum scenes were shot in Oxford.)

This is where the science, which was quite well thought out in the ‘walking with dragons’ sequences, falls apart. Tanner has unearthed a fossilised T rex skull and believes it was attacked by a dragon because it has scorch marks on it. This is slightly ludicrous of course because a fossilised skull is not made of bone but is simply rock on the shape of a skull which has filled up the gap in older rock where the skull was. So running your finger along the blackened bits on the outside and saying “This is carbonisation” should be enough to get you thrown out of any decent museum.

Tanner and two unnamed colleagues - identified only as ‘biologist (Katrine Bach) and ‘data analyst’ (Aidan Woodward, who gets a curious stand-alone credit as ‘co-writer’, as distinct from the ‘script’ by David McNab, Justin Hardy and Charlie Foley from a ‘story’ by those three plus Kevin Tao Mohs) - are sent to the Carpathians to examine the alleged frozen corpse of a dragon. Their investigation of the body - and the scorched remains of two medieval bodies found alongside it in an ice cave - is intercut with the dramatised dragon footage. Their scientific method, however, leaves something to be desired. Tanner investigates the hydrogen sacs by cutting open the body, sticking his hands in and ripping the organs out. And it is only after extensive study and numerous x-rays - which of course could not actually be done in situ - that Tanner and his colleagues realise the creature has six limbs. Duh.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting and entertaining programme. The dragon sequences certainly have the edge - in terms of both script and production values - over the present day stuff, but I can see why the two have been combined in order to provide a more cohesive narrative. As aspects of dragon physiology and anatomy are discovered and/or theorised by Tanner (in voice-over, mostly), we also see how they related to the real things when they were alive.

The most surprising thing about this whole production is that it is British; technically it is Anglo-German, but the principal production company is Darlow Smithson “for Animal Planet, in association with Tandem Communications and Sat 1 Satellitenfernsehen". Checking the Darlow Smithson website it’s remarkable how many of their programmes I have seen and enjoyed, bearing in mind how little TV I actually watch: dramatised documentaries on Albert Einstein (E=mc2) and the Wright Brothers (The Wright Stuff), Station X, Lost Buildings of Britain, What We Still Don’t Know, The World’s Biggest Airplane: Airbus 380; they also made the successful theatrical documentary Touching the Void.

Director Justin Hardy is best known for being the son of Wicker Man director Robin Hardy and for helming the Christopher Lee-starring public school black comedy A Feast at Midnight. His surprisingly extensive CV also include the 2001 Raffles telemovie (with Bach in the cast) and two other 2005 docudramas, The Princes in the Tower (with Hilton as Henry VII) and the rather good Trafalgar Battle Surgeon. Also episodes of Harbour Lights, London Bridge and Hope and Glory, plus a 1997 paranormal documentary series, Strictly Supernatural, narrated by his old pal Chris Lee.

Charlie Foley, director of development at US cable channel Animal Planet, gets a ‘created by’ credit as well as co-credit on story and script. John Smithson, David McNab and Alice Keens-Soper were executive producers. Ceri Barnes, former head of production at Tigress, was producer. Ed Neumeier (RoboCop, Starship Troopers) is credited as ‘consulting producer’. Matthew Graham, who wrote the enjoyable post-holocaust sci-fi drama The Last Train (as well as episodes of Hustle and Spooks) get a credit as ‘script consultant’. Tanner’s boss at the museum, in the prologue and epilogue, is played by Tom Chadbon (The Stone Tape, The Beast Must Die, The Tenth Kingdom).

Curiously, there are three different versions of this programme with three different narrators of the (pre-) historic sequences. When it was broadcast in the USA (as Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real - which is why I drew a blank with the IMDB) the narrator was Patrick Stewart but for the C4 broadcast it as Ian Holm. Apparently there is also a version narrated by Brad Lavelle (Hellraiser II, Nightbreed, Judge Dredd, Razor Blade Smile) which seems to have been prepared for trade screenings but not used because Lavelle (who does a lot of voice work on anime) is not well-known enough. This may also be the version called Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real, which seems to be another variant title.

John Howarth, who also worked on Walking with Dinosaurs, was one of two cinematographers while the editor was Rick Aplin whose credits include the outstanding Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, without a doubt the best documentary series of recent years of any sort at all. Framestore CFC handled all the CGI effects, with Alec Knox (Walking with Dinosaurs, Dinotopia, Batman Begins) as CGI supervisor and Mike Milne as director of computer animation. Jamie Campbell was physical effects supervisor.

Three biologists are credited as ‘dragon consultants’ and, buried away in the credits, one can spot no less than Neil Gaiman as ‘creative consultant’; I suspect that just means that Neil offered to have a chat with them if they needed him.

Leaving aside some dodgy science and the rather intense, unsympathetic nature of the main (human) character, The Last Dragon is an entertaining, imaginative and clever hundred minutes.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 30th October 2005

Wednesday, 29 January 2014


Director: Emiliano Ranzani
Writer: Emiliano Ranzani
Producer: Emiliano Ranzani
Cast: Omar Ramero, Alessio Vacchi
Country: Italy
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

A few months ago (as I write this), Tim Lucas was bemoaning in his Video Watchdog editorial the lack of Italian horror cinema nowadays, with all the old masters being dead or making half-hearted, low-budget (even by Italian standards) TV/DTV stuff. I pointed out that, in listing currently working Italian directors, Tim had not mentioned Ivan Zuccon. Turns out Tim had not heard of Ivan. Hopefully he’ll get the chance to see some of Ivan’s work soon.

I mention Zuccon for two reasons. One is that, eight years ago when I saw the original short version of The Darkness Beyond (which was just called The Beyond) I spotted something special. Since then I have championed Ivan’s work to anyone who will listen, seen him blossom and develop as a director and now his latest movie gets a world premiere at a festival in New York with people like Don Coscarelli and Tony Timpone in the audience.

And with Emiliano Ranzani’s short film Langliena, I may have found another Italian film-maker who can carry that country’s tradition of frightfilms well into the 21st century, making horror movies that are not only very, very good but also very, very Italian.

On the other hand - and this is my second point - maybe Emiliano’s work isn’t that special. Maybe it’s just the first Italian film I’ve seen in a while that wasn’t directed by my pal Ivan. Because at the same film festival in Torino where Zuccon’s Colour from the Dark is receiving its domestic premiere, Langliena is showing as part of a package of no fewer than thirty home-grown shorts, ranging from Bruno Sartorini’s four-minute Stria-Strega (in which ‘a mysterious book provokes strange and destructive instincts’) to Luca Baggiani and Emanuele Contadini’s borderline feature-length, 65-minute Le Legione Fantasma (‘a distant epoch and a curse that breaks the barriers of time’).

Inbetween these are Marco and Riccardo Di Gerlando’s Dylan Dog adaptation Taxi, Stefano Colombo’s anthology Snuff: Niente e Come Sembra, Luca Ruocco’s Jekyll/Hyde, Roberto Loiacono’s Hellequin, Pierluigi Rossi’s Where She Lies, Francesco Erba’s Asylum, Francesca Fini’s Immortals and Filippo Palmesi’s astoundingly titled Bazaar: Scrotum Amputation, plus many more. Also at least one other full-length feature, Renato Esposito’s A 6 Giorni dalla Fine about four boys spending their last week alive before a comet slams into the Earth.

So perhaps fantasy film-making is alive and well in the land of Popes, pizzas and pasta. Maybe there is an Italian Horror Revival to match the British Horror Revival of recent years. Could it be that we’re just not getting to see this stuff here in the English-speaking world? Perhaps Langliena will open the floodgates.

Because this extremely professional-looking six-minute short is a little gem that any international horror film festival would be pleased to screen (and indeed some already have). And if all those other films playing the Tohorror Filmfest are half this good, then I want to see them, you want to see them, we all want to see them.

Of course there’s always the matter of language and it helps enormously that Langliena has very, very good subtitles, a quite poetic translation of the voice-over monologue which a character identified only as ‘the Protagonist’ (Omar Ramero) recites into a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the flashback which constitutes the bulk of the film, we watch him investigating an old shack in the woods wherein he finds evidence of horror: blood, meat-hooks... and something else. Something alive.

“Do you know what a ghoul is?” he asks the tape recorder and the audience. Played by Alessio Vacchi under some impressive make-up, this sub-human creature begs to be fed. But the ghoul is not what has created this little house of horror in the woods because the ghoul is chained up and the door was, until our hero broke it open in an act of feline-dooming curiosity, firmly locked. The ghoul belongs to someone and if that someone traces whoever has broken into the forest shack... well, the ghoul may be fed after all.

This is an almost perfect little slice of horror. It’s not a second too long, there’s not a shot wasted, it is edited together with precision (by 23-year-old writer-director Ranzani) and the cinematography by Mauro Regis is simply gorgeous. Regis captures the beauty of the Italian woodland as expertly as he photographs the shadows and bloody gloom of the shack interior.

The excellent special effects were created by Emanuele De Luca who was a protégé of Rosario Prestopino, an effects man who worked with Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava and many other big names in Italian horror. Langliena is dedicated to Prestopino’s memory; you can see some more of De Luca’s work at The music credit is shared between Giorgio Grosso and Richard Kosinski, the latter being a regular Full Moon composer whose credits, mostly directed by Ted Nicolaou, include Leapin’ Leprechauns, Totem, Vampire Journals and all four Subspecies pictures.

I’m really glad that Emiliano Ranzani sent me a copy of Langliena and I am very much looking forward to seeing what this exciting young director can do in the future.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 30th October 2008

The Landlord

Director: Emil Hyde
Writer: Emil Hyde
Producer: Emil Hyde
Cast: Rom Barkhordar, Derek Dziak, Erin Myers
Country: USA
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: US DVD

The Landlord is that rare creature: a genuinely funny horror comedy which derives its humour from character and situation rather than lampoon or spoofery. I first caught part of the film at the 2009 Festival of Fantastic Films and a few months later, when a press release about the DVD appeared, I made sure that I collected a screener. And I’m glad I did.

Derek Dziak stars as Tyler Czarnecki, the landlord of the title. The building he manages was his childhood home although it technically now belongs to Tyler’s sister Amy since he sold her his half.

There are three apartments: Tyler lives in one, Ms Lipinsky (Joan McGrath) in another and the top floor is rented out to a succession of tenants, none of whom stays very long. This is because the building is home to two flesh-eating demons: lupine demon-queen Lamashtu (Lori Myers) and her servant Rabisu, played to comic perfection by resonant voice-artist Rom Barkhordar (who does Subzero for Mortal Kombat games, appeared as a child in Every Which But Loose and was also in a stage production of The Elephant Man).

Lamashtu speaks only in a (subtitled) demon-tongue and maintains a haughty regal aloofness from the human world but Rabisu, with his cheery, optimistic disposition, is a great foil for Tyler’s impotent frustrations as yet another tenant falls prey to the demons’ murderous possession-powers before paying their second month’s rent.

There is a great sitcom in here somewhere, especially with the law enforcement double act of uptight, white Detective Lopez (Kurt Ehrmann, whose stage credits include Equus, Rhinoceros and Death of a Salesman) and calm, black Detective Rosen (Ezekiel Brown). Lopez is determined to uncover Tyler’s serial killer status but he’s got no evidence and Tyler is adamant that he is just unlucky in having tenants who up and disappear.

Enter Donna (Erin Myers), with one crate of belongings, she is on the run from her abusive husband Reggie (Brion Bliss, who was half of a Blues Brothers tribute act) and wants only two things: a divorce and an abortion. When Donna moves into Tyler’s vacant apartment, Lamashtu takes an interest in the phoetus and makes Rabisu imprison the young woman. This drives Tyler to desperation, especially as he and Donna seem to be getting along so well when she accompanies him to the local bar’s karaoke night.

Meanwhile, Amy (Michelle Courvais, who was in a horror short called A Haunted House) has her own problems. She is a bent cop, cheating on her husband Gary (Brian Amidei, a member of the Wildclaw ‘horror theatre’ company which has presented versions of Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House and Machen’s The Great God Pan) with her equally corrupt partner Warren (Rob McLean). Amy and Warren have some sort of scam going on with various individuals with scuzzy skin, long sharp teeth and an invulnerability to bullet wounds. It’s not entirely clear what these are; they’re referred to as ‘ghouls’ in the credits. It’s also not entirely clear what the deal is between them and the cops but it involves setting the ghouls on junkies and other lowlifes and some sort of payback to the bent cops.

Things get complicated when Amy, with Warren’s assistance, kills a ghoul out the back of a cafe for - well, it’s yet another thing which isn’t entirely clear but seems to be because he approached her in the cafe with a pile of bloody money when he wasn’t supposed to be seen with her in public. Or something. Anyway, it seems these ghouls aren’t invulnerable to having a broken beer bottle rammed repeatedly into their chest. Quite a bloody scene this, and short on laughs.

This angers local gangster ghoul Dimitri who takes his revenge first on Warren and subsequently on Amy. And here’s where The Landlord has its biggest problem which is: there is no obvious connection between Tyler’s A-plot and Amy’s B-plot. Yes, they’re siblings and granted, Tyler is crashing over at Amy’s on the night that Dimitri’s ghouls come calling. But her situation is entirely unrelated to his.

We eventually learn, in a flashback to Amy and Tyler’s childhood, the origins of Lamashtu and Rabisu and the reason why the two humans are enslaved to them (although Amy seems remarkably unenslaved, living happily with her husband and kids a few blocks away while Tyler has to paint over the blood and dispose of the body parts). But there is no indication of how or why Amy became involved with the ghouls. It’s like two different films have collided.

This is unfair on audiences. We expect things to come together at the end and, while some things do come together - including the otherwise underused Ms Lipinsky and a nice comic performance from Amanda Cohen as Baba, cynically efficient proprietor of a local witchcraft shop - the whole Amy/Warren/ghouls thing is entirely separate to the Tyler/Donna/demons storyline. And, without giving away any spoilers, it is also slightly frustrating that the demons’ eventual downfall comes from infighting rather than any triumph by Tyler.

While we’re at it, there is a funny but basically irrelevant scene introducing Donna as she tries to rent a room in an ultra-scuzzy hotel, with writer-director Emil Hyde as the clerk letting rooms by the hour to local whores. It’s a good scene but it has no bearing on the plot and in fact leaves us wondering why Donna is one minute trying to pay for a room for the night in a shit-hole and the next time we see her she can afford to put down a deposit on a whole apartment (albeit one with a surprisingly low rent).

However, such structural problems are more than compensated for by Hyde’s brimmingly confident script and direction and some terrific performances which generate laughs by playing things straight. At heart, the comedy in The Landlord comes from that old staple: exploring the practical aspects of a fantastical situation. There is a great gag about Tyler realising that the dimensional portal to hell in his basement can also function as a waste disposal for body parts.

But it’s Barkhordar who is the comic soul of the film, with Dziak’s Tyler as essentially the straight man. Green and scaly, with a polite, formal nature and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, Rabisu is a terrific comic creation, especially when he finds Tyler’s credit card and starts ordering products from a shopping channel.

I laughed out loud several times at The Landlord, and we all know how many ‘comedies’ there are out there which don’t so much as crease the corners of one’s mouth. Phil O’Neil’s cinematography suffers in some of the dark scenes but the editing and effects are good and Karen Sandvoss’ music works well.

Emil Hyde (it’s not his real name but it’s similar to his real name), Phil Johnson and Norwegian teenager Ole Jørgen Næss are credited with visual FX; Jen Hiltwein and Matt Stratton with special fx; Kristin LeClair and Crystal Portillo with make-up FX. Most of the cast seem to have a background in theatre companies around Chicago.

The DVD, released through Tempe, includes a deleted sequence, an extended scene and two full-length versions of video clips watched by characters in the film, totalling seven and a half minutes altogether. There is also a fairly entertaining 23-minute Making Of, a silly three-minute film by the same cast and crew called Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast, a trailer for The Landlord and a trailer for Hyde’s earlier film Escape from Planet Love, plus a cast and crew commentary and optional drinking game captions.

Very enjoyable and skilfully crafted, The Landlord is a solid slice of monster fun.

MJS rating: B+

review originally posted 29th March 2010

The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze

Director: Charles Grosvenor
Writer: John Loy
Producer: Charles Grosvenor
Cast: Robert Guillaume, Thomas Dekker, Anndi McAfee
Country: USA
Year of release: 2001
Reviewed from: UK VHS

When I reviewed The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure, it was just a whim. I didn’t think too many people would be interested in the first of an endless stream of stravisnuts spun off from a non-Disney animated feature about baby dinosaurs.

How wrong I was. LBT2 has consistently been one of my most popular reviews. In fact, as I type this in the middle of May 2006, a quick check of the stats page shows that The Land Before Time II has been viewed 74 times already this month, making it the ninth most popular review on the site. And unlike certain pages, I know it’s not getting the hits from people googling the names of porn stars.

So here is my second venture into the prehistoric world of Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, Petrie and Spike - The Big Freeze. In this one, an ice age comes to the Great Valley; at first everyone loves playing in the snow (“frozen ground stars”) but they soon discover that the plants are dying because of the cold, taking away the leaves or “tree stars” on which the dinosaurs feed. (Remember: the Great Valley is home only to herbivores, despite the ecological unsoundness of such a set-up.)

Back in Part II, the valley was completely isolated and the story involved the baby dinos accidentally opening a passage to the outside world. By Part VIII, the valley is obviously accessible because a herd of stegosauri (“spiketails”) is passing through. Silent, ever-hungry Spike is the only resident steg in the valley, an orphan who lives with Duckie and her family. Now he meets a new friend, Tippy, and goes with him and his mother as the herd leaves the valley, just as the snow arrives. Duckie, who was up till then getting increasingly fed up with her adopted brother’s snoring, misses him dreadfully and sets off through the snow to find him, so Littlefoot, Cera and Petrie follow on later in search, in turn, of Duckie.

New to the cast is Mr Thicknose (Robert Guillaume), a grumpy old styracosaurus who is revered as the wisest dinosaur in the valley and who teaches the children. Unfortunately, his failure to predict the ice age and the disappearance of all the food makes him a pariah. Isolated, he accompanies the youngsters on their quest to find their friend. Unfortunately, as they go through the pass, a massive snowfall leaves the way behind them blocked - which is basically the reverse of the plot in Part II.

After locating Duckie and escaping a T rex, they discover a hot spring which not only supplies a refreshingly warm pool of water but also fosters the growth of plants. By causing another snowfall to clear the pass, they are able to lead their parents and the others to the food and warmth, just as Spike arrives, having led the shivering, hungry stegs with his unerring ability to locate food. Everyone lives happily together until the thaw comes - so it’s more of an ice week than an ice age - whereupon Tippy and his herd leave with the promise that Spike can visit any time and Duckie welcomes her big brother home again.

I actually enjoyed this more than Part II. It wasn’t as cute and it didn’t play up the whole herbivores-vs-carnivores stuff. I think the songs are marginally better and there is some surprisingly serious social commentary in the dinosaurs’ attitude towards Mr Thicknose. Cera’s father in particular is keen to ostracise him. The film therefore has stuff to say about old people as well as youngsters. On the downside, the pool fed by the hot spring is pretty small and there seem far, far fewer dinosaurs than in the earlier film, suggesting that the ecosystem is collapsing - although there are at least another three films after this one.

Littlefoot (in Parts V to IX) is voiced by Thomas Dekker who was 13 when he made this film. He also had the lead role of Fievel in Parts III and IV of An American Tail and, aged six, was one of Picard’s alternate reality sons in Star Trek: Generations. I assume his voice broke after Part IX, but no such problems for the female voice artists: Anndi (sic) McAfee was Cera from Part V to Part XI and in the forthcoming, inevitable Land Before Time TV series. Her coolest credit is a 1998 animated episode of Batman: Gotham Knights in which she voiced Carrie Kelley, the girl who took on the mantle of Robin in The Dark Knight Returns.

Jeff Bennett’s voice broke long ago (he was in his mid-20s when he made Friday the 13th Part VII) but Petrie has such an artificially squeaky voice that it doesn’t matter so he has played the little pteranodon in every film since Part II. He also has Batcredits: the Batcave computer in Batman: The Animated Series, TV anchorman Jack Ryder in Gotham Knights and various voices in Mask of the Phantasm and The Batman vs Dracula, plus a million cartoon shows, animated features and Star Wars video games. Most of all though, Jeff Bennett is the voice of Johnny Bravo and we, therefore, are not worthy. Aria Noelle Curzon has played Duckie since Part V and Rob Paulsen has provided Spike’s occasional grunts since Part II, with both of them still around for the TV show.

Kenneth Mars (Parts II to XI) and Miriam Flynn (Parts V to X) are Littlefoot’s grandparents while Tress MacNeille who voices Duckie’s mother is better known for playing Principle Skinner’s mother in The Simpsons. Tippy is Jeremy Suarez (Koda in Brother Bear) and his mother is Susan Krebs (Earth Girls are Easy). Robert Guillaume’s distinctive, rich tones provide the voice of Rafiki in The Lion King and its sequels and spin-offs. His genre credits include Meteor Man, Big Fish and Pandora’s Clock. Mr Thicknose did not appear in any of the other LBT sequels.

Charles Grosvenor seems to have made a career out of the Great Valley. He has a few earlier credits but since 1997 all he has done is direct and produce Land Before Time sequels. John Loy, curiously, wrote Parts II, III, V, VI, VIII and X (but not IV, VII, IX or XI) as well as O’ Christmas Tree, the Hercules and Xena animated movie, Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein/Meet the Wolf Man and, by way of a live-action change, Beethoven’s Fourth.

Incidentally, take a look at the two sleeves here. One shows the five main dinosaurs, but in the other, Cera has been removed and Tippy added (as well as a few adjustments like flipping Petrie so he flies the other way). This instalment in the saga is much more about Duckie and Spike than Littlefoot and Cera, although Cera does get to sing a song and ultimately saves the day by yelling loud enough to cause a snowfall, so it’s a bit rotten that she has been cut from the most commonly used video sleeve. She needs a better agent.

MJS rating: C+
review originally posted 20th May 2006

The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure

Director: Roy Allen Smith
Writers: John Ludin, John Loy, Dev Ross
Producer: Roy Allen Smith
Cast: Scott McAfee, Candace Hutson, Kenneth Mars
Country: USA
Year of production: 1994
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Don Bluth was pretty much the only viable alternative to Disney when it came to feature-length animation. From The Secret of NIMH in 1982 to Titan AE in 2000, he directed eleven animated features, including The Land Before Time for Universal/Amblin in 1988. This straight-to-video sequel was released six years later, a few months after The Return of Jafar became the first DTV sequel to a theatrically released animated feature. Bluth was not involved.

In the original (which I haven't seen) five baby dinosaurs led their respective herds into the Great Valley, somewhere where they would be safe from predators. This is of course an ecologically unsound move since without predation the populations of the herbivorous species would outgrow the capacity of the area to feed them, and without any means of escape from the isolated valley - the only pass is blocked off by rockfalls - the result would be mass starvation. But let's not worry about that because there are far bigger moral dilemmas in this film.

The little dinos are inquisitive brontosaurus Littlefoot, bossy triceratops Cera, nervous pterodactyl Petrie (Petrie speak ungrammatically and always refer to himself in the third person), cute anatasaurus Ducky and bulky stegosaurus Spike who never speaks and is the dinosaur equivalent of 'the fat kid.' For some reason which is probably explained in the first movie, Spike has been adopted by Ducky's family; similarly, Littlefoot is being raised by his grandparents.

In LBT2, the dinos get into trouble attempting to cross some quicksand and have to be rescued by their parents. Fed up with being treated like babies, when they spot two oviraptors (crafty Ozzy and thick Strut) stealing an egg from Ducky's parents' nest, they decide to apprehend the villains themselves. Chasing Ozzy and Strut causes a rockfall which opens a path to the outside. The egg gets passed from oviraptors to dino-babies and back, eventually disaappearing; what the little dinos recover and bring back to the valley is an egg which is the same colour but, when sneaked back into the nest, is clearly far, far too big.

Undaunted, Littlefoot and pals decide to incubate the egg themselves, which they somehow manage, but when it hatches - quelle surprise - they find themselves presented with a baby Tyrannosaurus rex. Initially frightened, they decide that they can look after him and name him Chomper (although it mostly sounds like 'Chopper' when characters say it). Herein lies the unsubtle and frankly not-very-well-handled attempt at morality in the film. Meat-eaters ('sharp-teeth' in dino-speak, which gives some idea of how anodyne the whole thing is) are banned from the Great Valley, but the dino-babies have brought one inside. But should they fear him? He's only a baby and he is dependent on them. On the other hand, what is he going to eat?

There is a story to be told about tolerance for those with a different lifestyle, but put into this situation it just doesn't work because the idea falls apart when that lifestyle specifically requires 'the other' to kill members of one's own group. The little dinos have every right to fear Chomper because in order for him to survive he will need to kill and eat their own kind. Other animated films which have dealt with the moral aspect of carnivores, such as the excellent Ice Age, have a character agreeing not eat his/her friends but remaining a carnivore. But the Great Valley is a self-contained ecosystem where all the herbivores live together as one big happy herd. The introduction of even a single carnivore threatens that ecosystem and all the individuals within it.

Littlefoot, Cera and pals should not fear Chomper because he is different, or because they assume that he will be dangerous, they should fear him because he is dangerous and has no other option but to be dangerous.

Anyway, a few life lessons are learned, there is some more comedy schtick involving the two oviraptors, including a scene where they are frightened of a giant T rex shadow which turns out to be Chomper. Then two adult T rex enter the valley, leading to some almost exciting fights. Well, of course they are Chomper's mum and dad and they eventually help Littlefoot and co to send the oviraptors packing. Then, having collected their son, they return to the outside and the adult herbivores engineer another rockfall to once again isolate the Great Valley. Where, as we have seen, they will all starve to death in a few years because there is a fixed amount of vegetation but nothing to stop their population increasing exponentially.

This is a weak film and I understand that the original is not so bad. Candace Hutson (Cera) is the only returning voice artist from the original and she stayed for the next two sequels, as did Scott McAfee (Littlefoot) and Heather Hogan (Ducky). Jeff Bennett (Johnny Bravo) as Petrie and Rob Paulsen (Pinky in Pinky and the Brain), who is credited as Spike though I don't recall the stegosaurus ever saying anything, continued on through all the sequels which at the last count had reached ten, meaning that there are more Land Before Time films than Star Trek movies!

In recent years, the US releases of the films have tended to drop the number which makes a certain kind of sense if there is no specific order to them or development from one to another, although the numbers remain on the UK releases. In order, the eleven movies are:

  • The Land Before Time (1988)
  • The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure (1994)
  • The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving (1995) - ie. the Christmas one!
  • The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through the Mists (1996)
  • The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island (1997) - which brought back Chomper, resulting in a rather curious double-bill re-release of parts II and V...
  • The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock (1998)
  • The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire (2000)
  • The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze (2001)
  • The Land Before Time IX: Journey to the Big Water (2002)
  • The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration (2003)
  • The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses (2004)

Bennett and Paulsen also voice the two oviraptors and Paulsen provides Chomper's baby gurgles. Linda Gary (Aunt May in the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon and its spin-off DTV feature Sins of the Fathers, also in Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night) is Littlefoot's grandmother and no less than Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein) is his grandfather; Mars continues in the role to this day but Gary is only in parts II-IV, though in her case it's because she died in 1995. John Ingle (Skeeter, RoboCop 2) and Tress MacNeille are also in the cast (MacNeille does voices for The Simpsons and played Lucille Ball in the video for 'Weird Al' Yankovic's early hit 'Ricky'!).

Director/producer Roy Allen Smith and co-producer Zahra Dowlatabadi were also responsible for Part III and Part IV which probably explains why these three films are some sort of loose trilogy, at least in terms of cast and crew. Of the credited writers, John Ludin worked on LBT II and III, Dev Ross worked on LBT II, III and IV as well as The Return of Jafar, and John Loy worked on LBT II, III, V, VI, VIII and X plus the Hercules/Xena animated movie, Alvin and the Chipmunks meet Frankenstein and Alvin and the Chipmunks meet the Wolfman!

Although there were (I understand) no songs in the original, this film has a few, mostly written by sisterly singing trio The Roches. And not to put to fine a point on it, they are awful (although to be fair, they were the only parts of the film when my guest reviewer, 18-month-old TF Simpson, actually paid attention). The rest of the music is by Michael Tavera (Honey We Shrunk Ourselves, Cinderella II, Beethoven). Most of the other names in the credits are Korean as the (thoroughly unremarkable) animation was all done by Akom Productions Co Ltd (which also does animation for The Simpsons). Akom’s President Nelson Shin is credited as ‘animation producer’; he directed Transformers: The Movie and allegedly designed the lightsabre effects in Star Wars!

MJS rating: C-
review originally posted 16th June 2005

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

interview: Mads Koudal

In July 2006, Danish actor Mads Koudal’s name cropped up in the cast list of two films that I plugged on the news page. I contacted him through his website and he kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Why did you go to the UK to study acting?
“Well, I have always had a love for the English language and I thought if I went to study in the UK, I would have a much better chance to get into English language films as well as Danish films. I have also always been very keen on studying Shakespearian theatre. And if you want to ‘work’ with Shakespeare, I guess there is no better place in the world than London.”

What sort of films do you like to make and what sort of roles do you prefer to play?
“First of all I have to say that I like the idea of doing a lot of different kinds of films. It is such a cliché to say, but there has to be a good story. On the other hand, let’s say the story is not perfect - then there has to be something unique or something I have not tried before, something I am little afraid of doing maybe. If you don’t challenge yourself you cannot change, and if you cannot change there is no point in acting.

“As long as I can find something interesting in the project I’m in. If the script has substance to it, I’m not concerned about the genre at all; it can be drama, comedy, horror, musical, sci-fi or western - anything. I prefer to play people that carry a development with them through the film. I’m always open towards portraying stories. The people can be evil, good, ridiculous - whatever - as long as there is a secret, an inner struggle or the like to them. I like progression.”

In Jeff Brookshire's Awaken the Dead you have a small cameo as ‘blender zombie’. How did it feel to go from playing leading roles in European films to a very small part in an American film?
“It felt weird because the part was so small in Awaken the Dead, there was nothing I could actually do with the part. I was a zombie... I mean, it’s pretty hard to do research in real life, so I watched a few zombie flicks to get an idea.

“The reason I choose this specific movie was because I wanted to be in an American movie. I lived for a while in Los Angeles and at that time Awaken the Dead was my first part ever in an American production. So I kind of thought if I don’t get any roles at all in Los Angeles ... well, then I could always say that I have played a ‘blender zombie’... ha ha ha! But I must say I did thankfully get other roles after Awaken the Dead and there was a lot more substance in those characters.”

What is your character like in Rovdrift? What can you tell me about this film?
“I’m playing a pretty terrible human being. I’m playing one of these sociopaths that is stalking young girls. In the movie I am the first person the girl meets. During the whole story she meets three really unpleasant guys. My character is walking into a bar where the girl works as a bartender, she is closing down for the night, but my character is a complete and utter scumbag, so of course he is not keen on leaving. Instead he is walking to the bathroom and is just staying there until the girl comes in to kick him out. My character then attacks her physically. So basically the story is about a girl and her meeting with three mostly unpleasant men.”

Of all your roles so far, which one is your favourite (and why) are there any you regret?
“That is a tough one... I’ve got three favourites, three movies that mean a lot to me in different ways. One month ago I finished the movie Six Reasons Why in Alberta, Canada. It is a western. I played the part of ‘The Sherpa’, a cowboy whose mission it is to track down a killer dressed in black.

“It was such a great adventure to be on this set. Everybody involved was so talented. We shot on location in the desert, running around with hats and guns - almost like when we were kids... But Six Reasons Why is a lot more than foolish men running around with guns - personally I think it is a really good drama dealing with a lot of emotional issues like loss, revenge and father/son conflicts.

“Another great project I did was a movie called Footsteps, shot in Wales. It is a social realistic tale about loss and what loss can do to people. I play the part of Paul and my character is forcing the lead character, Andrew, into a world of snuff movies and drugs. It’s a very brutal and dark story, but made in a very intelligent way. So far it’s the most powerful thing I have done, because there is no hope for the people involved. This was a really good example of great screenwriting.

“The third one is a Danish movie called Skuespilleren (English title: The Actor) and ironically enough I am playing a Danish actor who wants to go to the US to try to make his way in the movie and theatre industry. There were so many parallels to my own life in this story so in a way it was an ‘easy’ role. At the same time challenging, because I had to bring so much of myself into the part. Of course actors in general bring themselves into the stories, but this was pretty close, I think. The director had a great eye for making the movie really intense, he did a good job.

“And no I don’t regret anything - why should I do that? I can’t change it now anyway. I would say though that I have done some things in the past I would turn down now for sure. And another cliché; my choices of yesterday make me the one I’m today.”

How closely is your career following the path you hoped for or expected when you started acting?
“Well, my dream was to work as an actor and be able to do a mix between Danish and English speaking projects. There are a lot of things I still want to do of course. I want to continue to be open minded about choosing projects. I have always been that, and that’s also why I have been working in different genres. And of course, I want to learn something new each time.”

interview originally posted 16th July 2006

interview: Chiaki J Konaka

Screenwriter Chiaki J Konaka has worked on many Japanese series that are familiar to western audiences, including cult anime (Bubblegum Crisis), Saturday morning cartoons (Digimon) and live action (Ultraman Tiga), as well as writing feature films, notably Evil Dead Trap 2. Now, with the extraordinary Malice@Doll he ventures into CGI territory. Mr Konaka has his own website and, since his English is considerably better than my Japanese, I was able to interview him by e-mail in January 2003.

What was the original inspiration for the story of Malice@Doll?
"The idea came from imagining the world where Malice lives. Before writing the script, I had wanted to make this film using stop-motion animation like Czech film-makers such as Jiri Trnka or Jan Svankmajer.”

How did your script affect the character and creature designs; or how did the designs affect your writing?
"The writing of the script and designing of the characters proceeded in parallel. I gave inspiration to the designers and they in return inspired me.”

How closely did you work with the director Mr Motonaga and the designers Mr Nishioka and Mr Moriki?
"I had worked with Mr Motonaga and Mr Nishioka before Malice, on Devilman Lady, so we knew what we could create by our chemistry.”

Why was the 'camera' kept stationary in every shot in the film?
"That was what Mr Motonaga wanted. He doesn't like typical CGI images.”

Why was Malice animated traditionally, rather than by computer, when she became a spirit at the end?
"That was not only the spirit Malice; she was variously animated both by computer and human animators. Mr Motonaga is an anime director, not a specialist in CGI. He made the film as he wanted to see it.”

What are the literary or cinematic influences on this story? Is it influenced by Alice in Wonderland? Or by the novels of Philip K Dick?
"As I said, I quoted the stop-motion animation films of Trnka, Svankmajer et al. But the frame of the story, yes, is Alice in Wonderland. And you are correct in surmising that Philip K Dick is one of my favorite writers.”

How long did it take to make the film?
"Almost a whole year.”

How was the film distributed in Japan? Did audiences like the film? What did critics and reviewers say about the film?
"Malice was released on video in Japan. I can't honestly say it was successful at a commercial level, but people who like cutting edge films loved it.”

When writing the script, did you treat the story as anime or live action or something different?
"I wrote this as grand guignol.”

What is the significance of the ghost of the little girl?
"Whatever she signifies or symbolises, that is something that belongs to the audience and is for the audiences to decide.”

Why does Malice stay beautiful when she becomes human, but the other dolls become monsters?
"Malice was the carrier of the ‘infection’. This story can be grasped as a variation of the traditional vampire story.”

Perhaps I am seeing something which is not there, but: in this film, there is a sort of disease (life) which makes people suffer and die, and it is spread by love (kissing) - is this an allegory for AIDS?
"In anything that I write, I don't want explain too much about the story. I just want the audience to see and feel things that are influenced by their own standpoint. But in this case, I have to say no, it’s not an AIDS allegory. If I dealt with AIDS in my fiction, I would do it a different way.”

Do you have any plans to work again with Mr Motonaga, Mr Nishioka or Mr Moriki?
"Unfortunately not this time.”

What is the connection between the film Malice@Doll and the dolls which you make?
"Making actual dolls is a completely different matter from writing. But this film was an interesting experience which led me to think about what a doll actually is.”

What projects are you writing now?
"I have just finished writing the second season of The Big-O. I am now working for some new animation series, and I will write a long horror novel this year.”

Konaka-san, domo arigato gozaimasu.

interview originally posted before November 2004

Creep Creepersin's Frankenstein

Director: Creep Creepersin
Writer: Creep Creepersin
Producers: Creep Creepersin, Nikki Wall
Cast: James Porter, Nicole Nemeth, Kelly Kingsbury
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: VOD (HorrorInc)

When perusing obscure indie horror films, there are a couple of danger signs to watch out for. One is a possessory credit. In marketing terms, it means something if this particular New Nightmare belongs to Wes Craven, or if John Carpenter is prepared to accept personal responsibility for these Ghosts of Mars. But a film you’ve never heard of that was made by a person you’ve never heard of? Who cares? That’s just vanity.

The other warning signal is an obvious, quirky but not actually funny, horror-related pseudonym; an, if you will, ‘spookonym‘. What’s wrong with the name your parents gave you? And if your parents were Mr and Mrs Carpenter and named you Johnny and you want to avoid confusion (if only to make it clear that you are not to blame for Ghosts of Mars), well there are plenty of distinctive but sensible sounding names to choose from.

These two elements don’t always indicate that what you are about to watch is a piece of ultra-low-budget, me-and-my-mates, self-indulgent crap. But they are red flags of which you should beware.

Which brings us to Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein.

I first became aware of Mr Creepersin last year when I was writing my review of Ivan Zuccon's Wrath of the Crows and I noted that Domiziano Arcangeli had appeared in a number of films by this director (albeit not this one). Given that Creepersin’s 40+ credits include such cheap-jack exploitative title as Orgy of the Damned, The Brides of Sodom, Awesome Girl Gang Street Fighter, Alien Babes in Heat, Caged Lesbos A-Go-Go and, ahem, Vaginal Holocaust, I really was expecting this film to be unashamed, unadulterated, unapologetic - and quite possibly unwatchable - trash. But I’m a sucker for Frankenstein movies and it’s available on VOD on HorrorInc for 75p, and I had 55 minutes to spare, so what the heck?

Let me clarify that first point. I love Frankenstein movies. Larry love ‘em. They fascinate me. I’ll never knowingly turn down a chance to watch a new Frankenstein film. Some people love slasher movies, some are obsessive zombie fans. For some folks it’s vampire or werewolves or kaiju or whatever. For me, it’s Frankie and his pals.

And one of the interesting things about Frankenstein films is that they are very, very difficult to do. Sure, you can go the gothic historical route if you have the budget. Or you can laugh it up and spoof the whole idea in some way. But a serious, modern-day Frankenstein story is a very difficult thing indeed to pull off. Pretty much the only good one I’ve seen in recent years was Sean Tretta’s The Frankenstein Experiment/Syndrome. That one worked but, with the best will in the world, John R Hand’s Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare is incomprehensible and that 2007 BBC version from Jed Mercurio was all over the shop.

The inherent problem is that the Frankenstein story is both a science fiction tale and a gothic romance. There’s room in the world for medical science fiction, of course. And gothic romances can still work if they rely on magic and mystery, which is why vampires and werewolves don’t go away. But it’s 200 years since cutting edge science was in a sufficiently rudimentary state that it could effectively meld with the gothic romance genre. Modern medical experiments are neither gothic nor romantic and trying to squeeze the two genres together, especially within the limitations of a well-established story, is a very, very difficult thing to do. Lean too far either way and you’re no longer a Frankenstein film in anything but name.

All of which preamble does indeed lead me to discussion of the motion picture entitled Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein and to the revelation that this is, in fact, a very good film. Despite all the warning signs, despite the inherent difficulties of this particular subgenre, despite my own low expectations, I was captivated by this and I’m not ashamed to say that it is one of the best Frankenstein films I have watched for a long time. Let me clarify that: not one of the best films about Frankenstein - clearly there are many better (though also some worse) - but one of the best uses of Frankenstein ideas and tropes in a film.

So I loved this for its originality and the brilliant way it did something radical and new with the Frankenstein subgenre. I also loved it because it is grim, bleak and wrist-slashingly depressing - and that’s the sort of horror movie I enjoy. Don’t come here looking for gore and splatter. Certainly don’t come here looking for lurching monsters. But if your idea of a good time is an hour-long study in mental illness interspersed with clips from classic horror films, brother you’ve come to the right place.

James Porter stars as Victor, a lonely, middle-aged guy without apparent friends or family, or job. He lives in a small apartment on a farm in Hicksville somewhere, his only companion a white rat named Frankenstein. Victor has what we might term learning difficulties, and we are left to decide for ourselves whether his awkwardness and stilted mannerisms have contributed to his social isolation or have resulted from it in some way. In what is apparently his only screen role, Porter is absolutely terrific, bringing real sympathy to the pathos of Victor’s sad existence.

The one human being with whom he has any contact is a neighbour, Shelly (Nicole Nemeth), who is actually his landlord (I didn’t pick up on that but there is a clue). In one of several innovative and effective directorial decisions, all of Shelly’s dialogue is played backwards on the soundtrack. Victor hears and understands her and the two converse normally, but the garbled pseudo-speech we hear underlines Victor’s alienation from even his single point of contact with the rest of the world.

Every day in Victor’s life is the same. He rises, cleans his teeth, subsists on a diet of scrambled eggs, talks to Frankenstein and watches old horror movies. We see this two or three times. In fact one of the first scenes in the film, after a five-minute title sequence, is a single locked-off shot of Victor cleaning his teeth for more than a minute (when we all know you should scrub for at least two...). At first sight this seems like padding, the work of an incompetent director who doesn’t even understand how to edit a scene together. As I waited for the camera to cut away, I pondered how other film-makers could show a person’s entire morning routine with a handful of one-second shots: alarm, shave, breakfast, teeth, dressed, out the door. Sorted,.

But Creepersin doesn’t want to be conservative or succinct with his storytelling. The whole point of sticking with the mundane scene of dental hygiene is to let us witness the mundanity of Victor’s life. And the reason it’s repeated later is to emphasise the repetitiveness of Victor’s life. We see him clean his teeth, we see him feed his rat, we see him eat his scrambled eggs, we see him watch his old movies - because that is all he does. That is his life. And he’s not really aware enough to try and break out of this. But he is lonely. And haunted too.

Not literally, but by visions of his mother (seen only from the back, played by the director’s spookonymous wife, Mrs Creep), an overweight sack of hate who hurls homophobic abuse at Victor because he let his father sexually abuse him.

Victor’s only relief from all this is a succession of flickering images: scratchy prints of old horror films on his TV, all of them public domain for obvious reasons. We see clips from Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, the silent Phantom of the Opera, the silent Hunchback of Notre Dame and Carnival of Souls. The actual Frankenstein mythos is represented by two early 1950s telecasts. One is Tales of Tomorrow, in which we see John Newland as Victor Frankenstein in the creation scene but not Lon Chaney Jr as the monster (this show was the infamous incident when Chaney was so drunk he thought the live broadcast was a rehearsal and was careful not to smash any of the break-away props). The other clip is Chaney in full Universal get-up dancing with Lou Costello in The Colgate Comedy Hour.

From watching these clips, which are cleverly selected to intercut with and reflect Victor’s own actions and feelings, and from a voice in his head (played by the director) which he believes to be his rat speaking, Victor gets the idea to create a bride for himself. Next thing we know, he has the bloodied corpse of a young woman laid out on his couch. Her name is Mary, so our three named (human) characters are Mary, Shelly and Victor. Which reminds me that another danger sign inappropriate in this case is in-joke character names.

We don’t actually see how Victor came by Mary until later, in a scarlet-tinted flashback (yet another unconventional but thoroughly sound directorial choice). What we do see is Victor denying to Shelly that he has seen the missing young woman, and then setting about re-animating her. For reference he uses a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (which he owns, somewhat improbably) and a hardback copy of The Annotated Frankenstein. I didn’t get a great look at this but I think it was the 1977 edition published by Clarkson N Potter, edited by Leonard Wolf.

Here’s where the film really gets clever. Of course he doesn’t reanimate Mary. He can’t do that, he’s just a socially awkward loner in a grubby, untidy apartment whose only companions are a pet rat and a hallucination of his abusive mother. Plus, reanimating dead people is impossible.

But a significant part of this film takes place inside Victor’s broken mind. So instead of sewing Mary together, he draws the stitches onto her skin with a magic marker. This is a startling and audacious move by Creepersin but it bloody works. It tells us exactly what is happening in Victor’s head and shifts the already compelling film up a gear as we wonder what will happen next.

What happens next is that Mary is living once again, drawn-on stitches and all, but because Victor only understands love through his crackly old PD films, especially the silents like Hunchback and Phantom, Mary herself appears in a scratchy sepia world, communicating through intertitles. This is a conceit which in anyone else’s hands would have been a gag. God knows a silent pastiche like this has been used for comedy plenty of times, but here it’s just another facet of Victor’s increasingly disturbed reality. There is even one superb shot where Mary’s sepia, silent existence and Victor’s physical world share the screen.

But there is a problem. Mary is not the loving girlfriend Victor desires, not the kind companion, not his Esmerelda but his Christine, immediately negative in her attitude towards him. Victor has no concept, outside of those flickering frames on TV, of what a real woman is like. Shelly is alien to him so that his only notion of womanhood is his mother and before too long Mary and Mother are laughing together at his expense, driving Victor further and further away from reality and deeper into a black hatred.

What I particularly love here is that this is a perfect retelling of the essence of the Frankenstein story: the creator rejected by his creation. Just like his namesake, Victor has hubristically sought to create a human but has not thought ahead to what would happen once that human has freedom. He has assumed loyalty towards himself but finds rejection from one who did not ask to be made. That’s the essence of the story. The whole original novel is encapsulated in the quote from Paradise Lost which appears on the frontispiece: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay. To mould me Man, did I solicit thee. From darkness to promote me?” That’s Mary Shelley’s novel right there in 21 words. And that’s Creepersin’s film story too.

In fact this is doubly apposite because in creating a female companion for himself, Victor is also reflecting the later part of the story when Shelley’s hero, hidden away from the world on a remote Scottish isle, sets to making a female companion for his first brute creation who is pathetically lonely and seeks only a mate. This aspect of the film has just dawned on my as I write. Honestly, with every paragraph, my admiration for this little film grows.

One more thing that impressed me was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it close-up, after we have seen Mary drinking coffee and smoking, of an untouched coffee cup and cigarette on Victor’s table. That’s the cold harsh reality of Victor’s physical world right there, but it is barely touched on because we see this story through Victor’s mind and he is almost entirely detached from cold hard reality. He does not acknowledge the unfilled cup, the unsmoked cigarette, yet he has provided them explicitly for his imaginary companion, like a little girl playing tea party with her dolls. What makes this absolutely perfect is that Victor tells Mary he himself doesn’t smoke. Has he found a cigarette somewhere, specially for her? Has he made it himself by rolling up a piece of paper? It doesn’t really matter, what matters is the storytelling and the characters and what we see happening inside and outside of Victor’s head at the same time.

This is masterful storytelling, and the fact that it’s being told in a film which gives every impression to the casual viewer of being a tuppeny-ha’penny piece of crap, of having been made for next to nothing in, according to Creepersin, only a day and a half, just makes it all the more impressive.

Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein is a bleak, thankless hour spent in the bleak, thankless world of Victor as his misguided attempt to create a semblance of a normal life falls apart under the weight of his own paranoia. I loved it! There’s no happy ending, but nor is there a tragic one, it’s just more bleakness and thanklessness and it completes the story (inasmuch as it will ever be complete). This is one of those films where, after the closing credits, one has to sit still for a while and consider what one has seen. It put me in mind of another obscure on-line marvel, Joe Wheeler’s extraordinary The Rise of Jengo, not least through the magnificent performance of James Porter who is entirely without reservation in his sometime very physical portrayal of a descent from madness, a descent from a glimmer of optimism and self-content, into a deeper madness riddled with angst and anger, fear and loathing.

The credits are pretty much limited to Creepersin, Mrs Creep and their associate AL Smith who appears briefly on screen as Mary’s companion. Creepersin self-released the film on DVD in May 2009 and it is now available on various VOD sites including Amazon and Daily Motion.

According to his Wikipedia page (which needs updating), Creepersin is a Californian musician who formed a sort of garage-goth-punk band - called Creepersin, naturally - in 2004, since when they have released a couple of albums and some other stuff. He has also recorded some solo stuff and, with Mrs Creep, one album as The Sci-Fi Originals. From what I can gather, most of his songs are related to or inspired by old horror movies. After a number of short films and music videos, Frankenstein was his first long-form movie (it’s not quite a feature).

I really don’t know whether Creepersin set out to make the brilliant film he has ended up with. I don’t even know whether he realises what he has created, but that doesn’t matter. It would be the final superb irony if what many people (to judge by IMDB/Amazon comments) consider to be a hideous monster of a film actually took on a life of its own, beyond what its creator envisaged.

Perhaps this was all intentional. Perhaps if I were to explore Creepersin’s filmography further I would find that Caged Lesbos A-Go-Go is a sensitive tale of a gay woman’s sexual awakening, that Awesome Girl Gang Street Fighter is a harrowing exposé of inner city teenage violence, that Alien Babes in Heat is... no, I’m really not sure what Alien Babes in Heat could be if it’s not a trashy exploitation picture about sex-mad space-women. Frankly, even if everything else that Creep Creepersin has ever made is utter shit, that doesn’t detract from the achievement that is Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein; if anything, it makes this film all the more remarkable.

Maybe he peaked early in his cinematic endeavours, but in any case Creepersin continues to bang out films at a prodigious rate, several each year. Recent productions have included Zombie Dollz, Satanicus, a remake of White Zombie with Creepersin himself as Murder Legendre, and Frankenstein’s Bride. This last appears to have no connection with the film under review but does feature some actors who have been in real episodes of real TV series and even in some films I have heard of (not seen, but at least heard of). Creepersin seems to be building up quite the rep company around himself.

So: Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein. I am fully aware that this film is not everybody’s cup of tea. But if you have an open mind, if you seek something different from standard video fare, different even from the oft-times formulaic crap which believes itself to be different, if you want to be both amazed and depressed for 55 minutes, if you want to get some idea of the tortures which can go on inside the mind of a lonely soul, if you want to see a Frankenstein film which is thematically closer to what Mary Shelley wrote than a dozen lurching monsters - then seek out a copy today.

Please note: this review is not a spoof. I really, genuinely do think that this is an awesome film. It is the discovery of hidden gems like this which makes wading through all the shit worthwhile.

MJS rating: A

Saturday, 18 January 2014

interview: Marc Kolbe

Watching Krrish when it was released in June 2006, I decided that I had to interview someone who worked on the film. I contacted Marc Kolbe who, with Craig Mumma, provided the effects for both Krrish and Koi... Mil Gaya and he very kindly agreed to answer some question by e-mail.

How did you and Craig Mumma get the job of providing special effects for Koi... Mil Gaya? (Was this before or after you worked on Devdas?)
“We were working on Devdas at the time and Rakesh Roshan had just watched Independence Day and saw our names and had heard we were working in India. So we had a meeting with him and hit it off. We were very excited about the project and we were looking for projects that would allow us to push the Indian talent to the limits. And this was the perfect fit.”

How familiar were you with Bollywood cinema before you started working on Indian films?
“Not very familiar. But we learned very quickly. And are still learning. But then, we are still learning in Hollywood...”

What are the biggest differences, as a visual effects artist, between working in Hollywood and working in Bollywood?
“The biggest difference is the culture. And I use the term ‘culture’ because I haven't really found the perfect word that explains it. Oh sure, the technology is the same, the talent is working its way up the ladder to the same quality levels, that just takes time, it’s the look and feel that is different. But this is why we shouldn't make Bollywood films feel like Hollywood films. They should stand on their own. Now as for quality, yes, they are in the process of coming to International levels.

“Now for us, growing up with the Hollywood style of film making, it is a very different mindset than in India or anywhere else in the world for that matter. But that is why working with good film-makers, who understand their market and genre, and listening to their ideas and taking that and adding the quality of work which they are wanting - that is the challenge. Trying to mix ideals and getting something different.

“As for the artists, all they want to do is learn. And that only takes time. With each project, they get better and better. They have a huge desire to succeed in this industry. Which I really like.”

How closely was Rakesh Roshan involved with the effects on Koi... Mil Gaya and Krrish?
“Very involved. As I implied above, he was our guide to his market. We brought the experience and quality to get his vision up on the screen. But he brought us into his world. There were many times that we would argue about a particular shot and the look and feel of it. Craig and I would make sure the quality was there and he made sure it was the vision. When all was said and done it worked very well.”

What new challenges did Krrish present over and above what you had done on the first film?
“Every film has its own set of challenges. The biggest one was learning to work with basically two directors at the same time. I had Rakesh and then I had Tony Ching directing the action stunts. Two completely different people. But I learned so much from the both of them, it was an exciting project. Working with Tony was more like choreographing a dance number. He worked with Hrithik during the stunts and then would play with camera speeds to get the flow of the stunt. Great experience. Working with Rakesh is always fun, we have a great time and have a great admiration for each other’s expertise. I enjoy learning new areas, I always say there are no experts in this industry, only ones that have made more mistakes. And obviously, the key is to learn from them...”

How has Bollywood’s understanding of effects and effects technology developed in the time that you've been working on Indian films?
“By leaps and bounds. With every project we do, the level of professionalism gets better and better. That goes for the production side as well. I feel we have finally convinced the producers and directors that if they want to do this level of VFX and have it be a key element in their film, they need to think and plan for it way in advance. This was a big issue when we started in India. Once, VFX was an afterthought; now films are built around them.”

interview originally posted 6th July 2006

interview: Rich Knight

Rich Knight designed and created all the great make-up effects for William Winckler’s Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove. That meant he had to make not just the Frankenstein monster and an ersatz Gill-man, but also a werewolf, the Bride of Frankenstein, the ghost of Dr Frankenstein himself, assorted injuries and even scars on his own face because he was in the cast as Salisbury, assistant to mad Dr Lazaroff. Rich very kindly answered some e-mailed questions in July 2005 and also provided me with these terrific behind-the-scenes photos.

How did you become involved with designing and creating the monsters for WWFVTCFBC??
“I was originally contacted by Bill Winckler to work on the sequel to his film the The Double-D Avenger. He wanted to have me design some retro style werewolf characters for the movie. Soon after he contacted me, Bill told me that he had placed DDA2 on the back burner, but he had another monster movie in mind. Bill sent me a copy of his script for Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove and once I discovered that it was a Frankenstein remake I was hooked. That's basically where it all started, it would be two years later that the film was finally made.”

And how did you end up playing a major acting role too? Is acting something you're interested in or was it just convenient?
“The role of ‘Salisbury’ was originally supposed to go to the late actor Ed Bishop. However for whatever reason he was not able to take the part. There was even mention of casting one of the actors from the old Godzilla movies to play Salisbury, but that never happened either. As we grew closer and closer to getting the green light for the project, Bill came up with the idea of making the character a scarred victim of the creature and suggested that I play the part in make-up. This immediately appealed to me, and gave me the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of such make-up greats as Lon Chaney and Tom Savini, both of whom are famous as make-up artists and actors.

“I did have prior acting experience before WWFVTCFBC, but this would be the first speaking role I would receive. Soon after production ended on Frankenstein, I was offered acting roles for two other movies: Night Walker in which I play a vampire, and Killer Sound (currently in pre-production) where I play a musician who becomes a killer.”

What sort of brief - artistic, technical, financial - were you given for the various monsters?
“I pretty much had complete artistic freedom on this project. I had been in contact with the director for a period of two years, corresponding via e-mail and phone. I would design sketches of the monsters and e-mail them to the director, he'd then put in his two cents, and I would create more designs based on his input. This process carried on until both he and I were happy with the designs. Technically everything had to be designed from scratch, so we started with life-casting the actors and then commenced with the sculpting process.

“Financially there wasn't much to work with. Although I am not at liberty to discuss the exact amount of our make-up effects budget, let's just say that with that amount of money you might be able to buy a used car, and if you saved up some more money, and if you're lucky, you might be able to get that car to run. I ended up investing some of my own money in order to ensure a higher quality production value to the make-ups, but even with that, the money we had to work with was very low.”

Very few make-up designers have had the daunting task of creating a full-body, completely practical monster suit on a low-budget, let alone one that could withstand submersion in water. In creating the Creature, how much were you working from experience/learning and how much were you finding your own way?
“The budget was definitely tight on this project, and naturally the bulk of it went towards designing and creating the Creature suit. It wasn't really the cost of creating the suit that was most challenging, but rather the time we were given to do so. In total our crew had one month and two weeks to create not only the Creature suit but all of the make-up and effects for the film. There was a tremendous amount of work to do in such a short amount of time. On top of the time crunch, we also encountered many setbacks due to the heavy rains we suffered here in Southern California throughout the month of January.

“I relied on my experience in creating monster suits and creature effects for this project as there simply was no time for experimentation or error. This suit had to be able to withstand the abuse it would receive during the fight scenes, and be able to go underwater. To top it all off we only had enough time and money to create one suit. A shoot like this really calls for three suits (two for on-set use and one as a standby) but we were only able to create one. In addition we should have had six months to create the suit, but we were given a mere month and a half (part of which was during the Christmas and New Years holiday), despite my constant appeals to the director to rearrange the shooting schedule.

“I didn't get too much sleep throughout this shoot as I was commonly working for ten to twelve hours on set in Woodland Hills, then driving back to my shop in Riverside County (about two and a half hours driving distance) to finish the work needed on set the next day. The first week into the shoot we still did not have a Creature suit; I literally worked day and night along side my crew to make all of these make-ups happen on time and within budget.

“The Creature suit held up surprisingly well because I tried my best to account for the wear and tear that it would surely endure. I spent many hours late into the night patching and repairing the suit as well, preparing it for the next day of shooting... only to repeat the process all over again for the next day of shooting. Honestly the suit was never really finished as it was intended to be. The work was rushed in order to accommodate the extremely tight shooting schedule. In the end, the suit worked, however it could have looked and functioned so much better had the director only given us even just one more week of pre-production time.”

How long did each of the various make-ups take to apply and remove?
“My own make-up was a very simple application of rigid collodion scarring material, combined with a blind eye contact lens - the total application took me about twenty to thirty minutes. The Frankenstein make-up, a multi-piece foam latex appliance, took an average of two and a half hours to apply which is pretty standard for such an intricate appliance. It took about 45 minutes to remove the make-up. The Wolfman make-up took about the same amount of time to apply and remove.

“The Bride make-up took the longest, mostly because we had to actually run the moulds on set. I created a gelatin appliance for the Bride's stitches, but unfortunately I only had enough time to make the mould for those appliances. Once again time was against us, so to make up the difference I brought the moulds to the set and ran them right there on location. The total time for the Bride make-up was somewhere around four or five hours... but again, this was mostly time spent preparing gelatin and running moulds, actual application time was about the same as the other make-ups.

“The Creature suit was easy, simply put on the suit, darken the actor's eyes, put on the feet, the gloves, the mask and the teeth and there you have it - instant monster. It took about 15 minutes to get the actor in and out of the Creature suit. The ghost of Dr Frankenstein was just an over-head mask, so all it required was a little blending around the eyes and hands. Of all the make-ups, the Frankenstein monster was the most rigourous because we had fifteen days with the monster on set. That means fifteen separate appliance applications in a short period of time which can be stressful on anyone. Lawrence was a real trooper though, and he did a wonderful job bringing our monster to life! In all honesty I believe my crew and myself must have broken some sort of records with all the work we did in such a short amount of time, but sadly the director still felt that the average time of two and a half hours in make-up was too long.”

What did you learn from working on this film which you will be able to apply to future work?
“I think that the most valuable lesson that I learned on this shoot is the importance of a proper budget and pre-production time. I took on this project for one main reason, because it was a Frankenstein remake. Because this project appealed to the ‘Frankenstein fan’ in me I was willing to cut my salary in order to get the gig ... this was a big mistake! I believe that when you allow yourself to work for less money than you are worth the production company either has no respect towards you because of it, or they will try to get away with adding more to an already agreed upon FX budget. This project was no exception, and I suffered for my art to say the least. The most disappointing part of this sacrifice is that the director never ever realised just how much he was getting for such a small budget and he probably never will.”

interview originally posted 25th July 2005