Archive for Phantom from Space

Pants From Space

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by dcairns

“How would you feel if someone with a crazy helmet with pipes sticking out of it came at you in the dark?”

I watched PHANTOM FROM SPACE with the usual excuse: it’s depicted in Denis Gifford’s horror movie book. A still shows a muscleman with a big bald dome, wearing jockey shorts and raising his arms in a lackadaisical mime of threat. Since he’s obviously standing quite still, at some distance from anybody else, the raised hands fail to terrify. It looks like he’s been the victim of a stick-up, and his clothes have been stolen.

Grabbing a copy of the film, I watched to the end without having actually researched who made it. It’s obviously a cheapie independent job, as Gifford notes. Then the credits appear: “Produced and Directed by W. Lee Wilder.” It’s like the funeral at the end of DON’T LOOK NOW where everything we’ve seen suddenly makes sense. The am-dram acting, the cheap-ass FX work, the static camerawork (our space-suit monster is seen almost exclusively in extreme long shot, a shiny dot): all of these cease to be puzzling aberrations and become at once the signature of an auteur with a consistent stylistic approach. Consistently poor.

Actually, as noted here, Wilder’s noirs are a good bit better than his sci-fi/horror work, and even in that genre he’s surprisingly variable. THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY is consistently hilarious, whereas THE SNOW CREATURE is so dull, if you start watching it at 7 O’clock, by 7.05 you’re wishing it had ended at 6.30. KILLERS FROM SPACE is uninteresting apart from a psychedelic sequence in a cave full of enlarged bugs, which goes on so long and so plotlessly that a kind of narcoleptic fascination sets in.

This one starts with so much stock footage that for minutes on end it seems like Wilder has succeeded where Ed Wood failed, in his mad dream to make a film without any original film. But then the shots of whirling radar dishes run out, as they must in any film (I like the huge variety and impressive size of outmoded radar equipment, I really get a kick out of it, but every film it features in seems to be lousy, even if it’s by Anthony Mann) and actors start acting, and the level of conviction plummets faster than the Phantom’s UFO (a glowing dot which looks like it’s en route to a yet-to-be-invented game of Pong).

Crashed UFO causes TV interference. Govt. mobile detector units (station wagons with big aerials) try to track down the static. For the only time in the movie, Wilder attempts actual cinematic technique, shooting the cars with Dutch tilts. It merely looks like they’re parked on steep hills.

Soon the source of interference has committed two murders, and police are baffled. They remain baffled throughout the film, and so does everybody else, except when they’re making gigantic and unjustified leaps of reasoning which always prove correct: that’s the only way the writers can get any exposition into this stalled torso of a flick. Ah, the writers: one is Myles Wilder, the director’s son. So Billy Wilder’s idiot brother is joined by an idiot nephew…

An interesting familial resemblance: Billy Wilder was a no-nonsense liberal, by and large, and maybe his brother was too: unlike in most spaceman movies of the era, our invader is benign, just looking for help with his faulty technology. He only hurts the panicky macho types who attack him first. And the humans eventually recognize this and try to help him out. It’s vaguely sweet.

Asides from this refreshing deviation from the red scare psychology informing most ’50s B-movie sci-fi, the film is undramatic and inefficient. Once he removes his boiler suit, the extraterrestrial is invisible, which gives us more opportunity to admire the cheap sets and actors positioned behind him. The action shifts to Griffith Observatory, but Wilder forgets to film the famous dome in his establishing shots, so what we see is just a bland, boxy structure, like all the buildings and most of the thesps in the movie. This is a director who moved from manufacturing handbags to making movies. If this one is anything to go by, I bet the handles came off his bags before you got them home.

(Griffith Observatory is in so many movies one wonders how they ever got any observing done. They seem to have been busy stargazing at James Dean and Natalie Wood rather than at the quasars and novas that should rightly make up their bread and butter.)

Finally the alien is exposed by ultraviolet light, lips working silently. Only the dog can hear him! This muscular fellow has an incredibly high-pitched voice, like Treat Williams in THE RITZ. And it seems the movie still of the Phantom in boxers in Gifford’s Pictorial History is not an accurate representation of the film’s contents, since this Phantom is NUDE. And then he drops dead, of his own accord.

“So he came here, wherever from,” say the film’s wise prof (who counsels non-violence and is RIGHT and they actually LISTEN to him!), “and right before our eyes, his body went through the final phases of life.” Nobody has anything to say in reply to that, so the film stops.

College is ending for the summer, so in theory I have a bit more mental energy, so next week I swear to watch some more dignified arthouse type films and write about them. Class this place up a bit.

Raymond Burr IS “Barney Chavez”…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2008 by dcairns

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…in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.

Barney is “an animal”, according to those who know and love him, so who better to play him than the Mighty Burr, previously winner of a Shadowplay Award  for services to eating?

My problem with this film is… where is it set? Africa, presumably, since a gorilla features so prominently in the title and the film itself (Hugo Barney is transformed into a man in an ape suit by malicious witch-doctoring). What then, to make of Lon Chaney’s appearance as a “native policeman”? Chaney (seen below right attempting to cram a table up his arse) boldly plays this native without recourse to Al Jolson war-paint.

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Writer-director Curt Siodmak (Idiot Brother* of the distinguished Robert) places his authorial stamp on the material from the off, with a tacky montage of jungle stock footage. “This is the jungle,” slurs Chaney in V.O., immediately establishing himself as A Man You Can Trust. Yes, but which jungle, Lon?

Geographical issues continue to arise: how to explain the vaguely Mexican “natives”, and the presence of California-accented Woody Strode as another native policeman — and Gisela Verbisek as “Al-Long” the witch doctress: a cheap Maria Ouspenskaya knock-off (although she looks more like the elderly Buster Keaton in drag), this blatantly Hungarian woman brings a welcome touch of the Old Country to the Dark Continent, while her hot daughter “Lorena” (Carol Varga), Barney’s lover, wears a Maria Montez type sarong ensemble?

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The film’s true leading lady, Barbara Payton, provides a fantastic go-go vibe, kind of unexpected in what is essentially an exotic rehash of Siodmak’s screenplay for THE WOLFMAN. Payton, a decent actress (everybody in this films is slumming, Tom Conway most of all) had a lively and ultimately tragic life and career. It was she whom Tom Neal and Franchot Tone fought over, with Tone ending up hospitalised and almost dead. Payton married Tone, then ditched him and went back to Neal, leaving him soon enough to avoid getting murdered (Neal shot his third wife in the head) but drifting into homelessness, alcoholism, prostitution — having already drifted into BRIDE OF THE GORILLA, which is bad enough.

Amazingly, Curt Siodmak is a better director than he is a writer, even though he made his living mostly as an author. His name is attached to one true classic, the oneiric calypso tragedy that is I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, although Val Lewton extensively reworked his script (Siodmak’s original plot had Tom Conway zombifying his wife so he could continue to have sex with her animate corpse, which Lewton nixed on the grounds that, “She would have no vaginal warmth!” A valid objection, though not the first that would cross my mind). Otherwise, he wrote speeches for Bela Lugosi so bad they had to be cut from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and sci-fi paperbacks full of ludicrous prose: “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” is a surreal favourite of mine. In BRIDE we get monologues like “Out there… in the jungle… out there, everything’s different. My hands, my eyes… I can see further than I’ve ever seen before… I can climb as if I had wings… A thousand smells… flowers, plants, the animals. The jungle is my house!”

But as director he approaches competence. Sometimes he bypasses it and achieves actual STYLE, prowling through the jungle (WHICH jungle? PLEASE!) in subjective shots with big hairy paws in the foreground, even going handheld, like his countryman John Brahm in THE UNDYING MONSTER. And it’s to his credit that he tries to keep the gorilla suit offscreen as much as possible. His dialogues are always played as “flat twos”, it’s true, with an occasional third character standing in the middle, which gets pretty funny during long scenes, where new characters keep coming in and standing where the old ones were a second ago.

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OK, I admit it: the film is clearly identified as being set in the Amazon. There’s no geographical problem, except the gypsy woman and Woody Strode and the fact that IT’S ABOUT A BIG MAGIC GORILLA.

I was also wondering why, asides from the obvious reason of not wanting to terrify the audience TOO much, Barney has his clothes on after he changes back from being the gorilla, who doesn’t have any clothes on. Then I decided that what the film hadn’t told us was that the Amazonian gypsy curse actually causes Barney to go out into the jungle and PUT ON A GORILLA SUIT. Which would explain why the gorilla in this film is obviously a guy in a suit. But then, shouldn’t the film be called THE BRIDE OF RAYMOND BURR IN A GORILLA SUIT?

It should. Because not only is that more accurate, it’s also a far more enticing title.

*I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of the Idiot Brother, maybe because my siblings are both productive members of society, making me one. William Lee Wilder, brother of Billy (their mother REALLY liked that name) is another great I.B. — for every LOST WEEKEND, SOME LIKE IT HOT or THE APARTMENT made by the multi-Oscar winning Billy, W. Lee was ready to respond with a PHANTOM FROM SPACE, a MAN WITHOUT A BODYor a MANFISH, like a one-man campaign to disprove genetics.