Archive for Byron Haskin

Ants in Your Plants of 1954

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-02-08-22h12m58s242

Having enjoyed a re-viewing of George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE and found some things to enjoy in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, we wanted to check out more Pal productions. TOM THUMB wasn’t handy so we tried THE NAKED JUNGLE but couldn’t get through the damn thing.

This is the kind of film that used to be always on. Saturday night, alone and bored, I turn on the TV and there’s Chuckles Heston battling army ants with his fists and chin. The ant invasion is described as “forty square miles of agonizing death” but that’s a description better suited to the film itself.

Pal’s production, directed by former photographer and effects expert Byron Haskin, is matte paintings from the waist up. Various “natives” in shoe polish display various colonial stereotypes. The big threat, other than Heston’s obnoxious he-man characterisation, is the ant attack, only introduced halfway through but swiftly dominating everything and leaving the Eleanor Parker romance angle to bosom-heaving sighs on the sideline.

The screenwriters’ conceit is that marauding ants lay waste to everything in their path and can even skeletonize a man, in exactly the same way that piranhas can’t. As advance lookout, Chuckles selects a particularly fat native on the grounds that it will take the insects longer to devour him, but alas, being fat, dozy, and covered in shoe polish, he falls asleep on watch and gets eaten. Here I was looking forward to something equivalent to the faux time-lapse decaying Morlock in THE TIME MACHINE, but the movie gets all coy, not to mention cheap, on us, so all we get is the actor screaming “My eyes!” and then a shot of an empty suit on the floor. I was also hoping for puppetoon ants courtesy of Pal’s animator associates, even though that would be an INSANE amount of work.

vlcsnap-2014-02-08-22h31m09s123

Fellow Shadowplayers, I was not disappointed — and yet I was. The puppetoon insects duly appear, stripping the leaves from a tree, but only for two shots. That’s not enough puppetoonery for a feature film. I would even have accepted those annoying elves from BROS. GRIMM, as long as Chuck could have punched their stupid lopsided faces in.

The 13th Monkey

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by dcairns

A day of time travel stories —

To the cinema! To see Rian Johnson’s LOOPER. Big fan of his BRICK and I think THE BROTHERS BLOOM deserves more credit than it got even if it didn’t quite make it. After this hit, maybe more people will see it at least. But LOOPER is tough to talk about without spoilers, and it’s new so lots of you haven’t seen it. I’ll just say that Jeff Daniels berating Joseph Gordon-Levitt for copying his style from movies that themselves copied their style from older movies seems a very witty self-critique on Johnson’s part. We’ve already seen JG-L stand before the mirror and adjust his tiny duck-ass quiff in homage to Delon in LE SAMURAI… a movie which, like most Melville, transfigured moments and shots and set designs from old Hollywood noirs.

So it’s not the time to get into LOOPER, even though the film is current. We both really liked it, but I’d always rather talk about old stuff anyway.

The Outer Limits — watched the Harlan Ellison scripted Demon with a Glass Hand the same day as LOOPER, to get our heads nicely a-buzz with time travel ideas. Ellison sued the makers of THE TERMINATOR over its similarities to two of his stories, this and Soldier. Odd, since LOOPER owes much more to THE TERMINATOR, but one can’t imagine anyone suing over that resemblance. In Demon, Robert Culp (who can play both supermasculine and intellectual) comes from the future and has a cybernetic hand that tells him stuff, but can’t reveal the whole plot until it gets all its fingers back. This is a crazy, charming plot device, much more effective to deliver exposition than the scenes where Culp forces his enemies (who all look like Uncle Fester, as Fiona pointed out — except for the one who looks like a pitifully young Iggy Pop) to reveal what they know. They’re all remarkably loquacious, despite the fact that Culp is going to kill them anyway.

Byron Haskin, an old genre hand, directs, and rather delightfully the whole thing (apart from the above studio shot) plays inside the Bradbury Building, famous from BLADE RUNNER and a million other things, a building supposedly envisioned by its architect in a dream. Somebody should shoot some kind of cock-eyed compendium film of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE there, since all of those came from dreams too. The ultimate oneiric movie.

The deserted office building at night is a vivid way to encapsulate the hero’s existential aloneness, which Ellison, lays on thick as you’d expect. He’s like a purple Kafka. Time travel per se plays little active role until the stinger at the end — the bad guys are aliens and removing their medallions could just as easily zap them back to their home world as forward in time. It’s interesting to me how baggy most of the Outer Limits scripts are — the one hour running time demands more complicated premises than Twilight Zone, but often the complications are stray stuff, padding or the narrative equivalent of patio extensions.

A case in point is The Man Who Was Never Born, which begins with a wholly superfluous astronaut character going through a time warp before the story actually begins. The true protagonist is Martin Landau as a futureworld mutant, traveling back in time to kill the scientist who’s going to invent a plague that sterilizes mankind and causes Landau’s disfigurement. So this story, by Anthony Lawrence, actually has more in common with THE TERMINATOR (and T2) than the Ellison story. Yet it’s prefigured too, by John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, which became a memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Lawrence claimed his biggest influence was Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Shirley Knight makes a radiant Beauty), and Conrad Hall’s fairytale cinematography actually conjures a comparable glamour using a very different palette.

The same day we watched LOOPER and the Ellison, the BBC screened the season finale of Dr Who, so we had a serious dose of time travel. Stephen Moffat’s run as script editor has been up and down — he allowed the Doctor to step hideously out of character in one episode, vindictively murdering a bad guy. It seems like there’s a quality control issue in the selection of writers, probably because Moffat doesn’t have time to read script samples and write his own episodes and rewrite everybody else’s.

In principle, I think the Weeping Angels who first appeared in the stand-out episode Blink are a one-trick pony and probably shouldn’t have been re-used. The basic gag of statues which only move when you aren’t looking, is terrific, but somehow stopped being scary after the first show (where it was terrifying). Which means that the pleasures of this episode came from the actors  — Mike McShane rather wasted, but Alex Winter Kingston (d’oh!) zesty as ever. Farewell to the best assistants the doc has ever had, but we still have Matt Smith as the Time Lord himself, a completely wonderful embodiment of the character. It pains me to say, but I think Smith really will struggle to find suitable roles when his stint finishes. As with Tom Baker, when you’re that good at playing an alien/funny uncle/Christ figure, it can be hard for casting directors to see you any other way. But I hope I’m wrong — in terms of emotional range, Smith can play anything, and generally comes at the emotion from a surprising angle, which made the climactic farewell scene here really affecting. Moffat wrote it very nicely, Smith and Karen Gillan (who assuredly will have a great post-Who career) played the hell out of it, and the awful music did its best to smother the whole affair in treacle but couldn’t quite succeed.

The Man of Tomorrow

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2012 by dcairns

I had no fond memories whatsoever of George Pal and Byron Haskin’s THE POWER, but having enjoyed THE SEVEN FACES OF DR LAO so much on revisiting it, I thought I’d give it a try. Pal’s cinema seems to swing from the rather dry spectacle of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE or DESTINATION MOON to something mixing the poetic and strange in with its pulpier elements, as in THE TIME MACHINE.

In fact, THE POWER is a good bit more interesting than I remembered — I’d probably never watched the whole thing, and had probably been put off by a certain surface blandness: late sixties studio espionage thriller + George Hamilton… it’s the kind of film where computers are all whirring tapes and blinking lights and everything is clean and colourful. But in fact I enjoyed it so much I might give DOC SAVAGE, MAN OF BRONZE a try next — now that was a film I couldn’t get along with as a kid at all.

So, there’s this top secret agency devoted to torturing people in order to test human endurance for NASA, but one day some intelligence tests reveal that one member of the team there has an abnormally advanced brain — so intellectually powerful that s/he can be assumed to have weird telekinetic abilities. This makes no sense, but everybody accepts the dubious logic even as they doubt the premise. And soon, somebody is causing the scientists to die, starting with LAO’s Arthur O’Connell, who falls into a trance and accelerates himself to death in a human centrifuge — cue a grisly makeup effect by William Tuttle —

George Hamilton goes on the run with Suzanne Pleshette (I’d like to team her with Diane Baker in something I’d call Hitchcock’s More Interesting Brunettes) and tries to trace a single name that could explain what’s going on. Along the way he meets — guest stars! Lots of guest stars! Yvonne De Carlo, Aldo Ray, Michael Rennie, Nehemiah Persoff and “Miss Beverly Hills.” It all ends in a spectacularly weird psychic face-off which should remind us of SCANNERS but actually gets into peculiar ALTERED STATES imagery — even including a shot of the hammer dulcimer that’s playing Miklos Rosza’s theme music, a shot that’s as non-diegetic as the music itself. That vaguely Eastern European sound always has the effect of making you see Reds under the beds in a film like this, which is ironic as this is one Cold War thriller in which neither the Russians not the Chinese play any role at all. Probably, when Homo Superior gets through with us, there will be no nations at all…

Miss Beverly Hills actually has some pretty interesting credits, but screenwriter John Gay (adapting a sci-fi thriller by Frank M. Robinson, who was Harvey Milk’s speechwriter and plays himself in MILK) takes the cake — Minnelli’s FOUR HORSEMEN, NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, SOLDIER BLUE, A MATTER OF TIME… crazy stuff.

When I first saw this big old bag of mismatched elements, which feels like what you might get if you blended Gay’s entire CV in a human centrifuge, I wondered who the hell it was for, and I suspect 1968 audiences did too. But now I have the answer — it’s for me.