Archive for Q The Winged Serpent

Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by dcairns

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…or S.U.B.S. for short. Fiona coined this phrase to describe the way the killer babies kept popping up in Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE II: IT LIVES AGAIN and ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. We had rented the first film in the series on VHS from the late lamented Alphabet Video in Bruntsfield, years and years ago, and been impressed by (1) leading man John P. Ryan, who brings far more commitment and credibility than the monster baby movie would seem to deserve, and (2) Bernard Herrmann’s score, which seems to come from a different, better era/film.

Cohen has a tendency to cast well and then not give his actors time to get it right, but at least he does pick out good people. Ryan returns in the second film, where Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd take over the leading parts — talented actors, as you’d know if you saw them elsewhere, but struggling with the material and tending to over-hype the emotions — too many scenes feel like promising rehearsals.

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Une Etrange Aventure de…

We also get, improbably, Eddie Constantine as a porridge-faced obstetrician, Cohen fave James Dixon, the only actor in all three films, as a cop with Donald Trump hair, and veteran John Marley, who is completely authoritative and nails every moment he’s given — thereby making everything else seem even more unbelievable.

The mutant rugrat is no better in film two than it was in film one — Rick Baker famously complained that Cohen sprang the project on him with no prep time, promised to not show the creature (an immobile sculpture) except for “flashes,” and then kept inventing new shots to showcase it. He also apparently suggested making a baby costume for his cat, which Baker balked at, so Cohen suggested using a chicken. “But chickens have two legs. Babies crawl on all fours.” “OK, two chickens! And maybe they’d fight!” (This story may have grown in the telling.)

***

Sidenote — on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, they apparently experimented with putting an orangutan on rollerskates to simulate an alien visitor. It didn’t come off. Undeterred, George Lucas attempted to cast a monkey as Yoda, but couldn’t quite get the effect he wanted and settled for a shit muppet. Only the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica seem to have gone all the way and put a chimp in a weird Honey Monster/bondage costume to impersonate some cyborg space pet.

At this stage, I would be unsurprised to learn that E.T. was planned as a marmot on stilts, or that Orangey the cat from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’s was set to be the original Chewbacca. But I have no definite information as to these theories which I have just made up.

Star Wars Yoda monkey

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In the end, there’s the sculpture, plus a mask and glove for closeups, and the keeping-the-monster-unseen strategy, stretched as far as it can go, comes off as cheap rather than Lewtonesque.

The second film attempts to “surpass” the first by throwing in a couple more killer sprogs, but the original is still dead so the title should really be SOME MORE ITS ARE ALIVE or IT DIES AGAIN or something. Cohen’s other saving grace is his politics, which sadly don’t get that much of an airing here. The third film goes a little further but flounders in a welter of bad effects work and bad story ideas ~

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The casting coups this time are Karen Black (not in it that much) and Michael Moriarty, who seems curiously miscast in the role of an actor. As a no-hope lounge singer in Q – THE WINGED SERPENT, I thought he was great value. I reminded Fiona that his piano-bar noodlings formed a major part of the soundtrack of that flying lizard police procedural, and she was startled at the memory. It was such a bold choice. “I wonder if he’ll sing this time?” And moments later, aboard a yacht bound for the ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, he launches into a rousing rendition of The Skye Boat Song, in Scots brogue, no less, which goes on for an uncomfortably long time and is very, very funny.

Elsewhere, things are dreadful: a bunch of the babies grow into adult-sized monsters within five years, but still have giant baby heads because I guess a redesign was going to be too expensive. Karen Black narrowly escapes gang rape by punk rockers (a very real social problem in Florida in 1987, I’m sure). Moriarty has a run in with the Cuban secret service. A bizarre post-nuclear family happy ending is contrived that makes no sense — we are supposed to feel hopeful as our heroes, who are international celebrities, flee the authorities with a mutant baby in a hot car.

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The biggest problem, for me, is that Cohen is really terrible at filming stuff — his coverage is erratic and often actually incomplete, missing shots he can’t do without to achieve coherent continuity. At other times he uses more shots than he needs, and they’re almost never the RIGHT shots. Even the few stop motion shots in the third film are oddly selected, very brief and usually showing the baby from behind, so we can admire its muscular latex buttocks but get little sense of threat, unless we’re meant to be scared it’ll do a toxic poo. Which is something a serious mutant baby movie would have to tackle, come to think of it.

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The Frankenheimer Monster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Had heard great things about how bad John Frankenheimer’s PROPHECY was, but we still couldn’t believe our eyes. Actually, it’s a movie that gets magically worse as it goes on, starting kind of OK and actually starting to get interesting until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Like GODZILLA VERSUS THE SMOG MONSTER, this is a film with something to say about pollution. How it’s bad, and stuff. But the technical details are kind of plausible, and the human cost evoked with some conviction, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Frankenheimer always delivers technical competence and guts at least — this movie compares favourably with his delirious, delightful, godawful ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, in that the technical competence and guts are stretched awful thin at times — you now have an unpleasant mental image of intestines being stretched to snapping point, I know, and I wouldn’t have handed that to you for anything in the world except that it’s kind of an appropriate image to carry in your mind when considering PROPHECY. Until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

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Sadly, this isn’t the monster.

Makeup effects by the Burman brothers — Thomas and Ellis Jnr, who also worked on THE MANITOU, making them masters of late seventies Amerindian prosthetics movies (what, no NIGHTWING?). They have some good credits, and some really bad ones, though I’m disinclined to blame them for HOWARD THE DUCK — life is so much simpler if you just blame George Lucas for every awful thing involving George Lucas. I don’t want to blame them for PROPHECY either, and the script (by OMEN guy David Seltzer) is certainly guilty of multiple compound stupidities. Frankenheimer seems to be doing everything a profoundly drunk, talented man can do to disguise the bad moments and capitalise on the good ones, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

When it does, replacing the tentative feeling of “this movie might actually be OK” with one of “this movie just became awesomely terrible,” it’s tempting to wonder what could have been done to salvage the bad bear suit. Can a movie about a giant mutant grizzly bear get by without a convincing giant mutant grizzly bear? Well, of course it can — look at JAWS. Of course, the giant mutant grizzly bear in that movie was a shark, and it swam underwater, and you could keep it offscreen. When it did appear, it looked fake as hell, though, and yet the movie survived.

The problem with the bear suit is that it moves like Godzilla, ie like a man in a costume wobbling about. Slow-motion might have helped, and keeping the goofy thing in silhouette for maybe 95% of the action might have helped. POV shots might have helped. God knows, Frankenheimer doesn’t linger on the beastie, anymore than he lingers on the Goodyear blimp nosediving the football stadium in BLACK SUNDAY, but even allowing the fucker to take a single step exposes it outright as the laborious make-believe of a sweaty man in a hot costume. He might as well be dressed as Minnie Mouse.

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The best monster shot because it’s eerie, and the monster is too far away to make out.

And then the movie ends, and we’re waiting for some horrible pay-off to the fact that leading lady Talia Shire is pregnant, and she ate the fish from the polluted river, and the mutagens are raging within her. And instead, as she and her hubby are airlifted out, another giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

My good friend screenwriter Colin McLaren refers to the “closeup of a bee” ending, that staple of 70s horror movies that says “the Whole Thing is going to Start All Over Again…” and reflects the fact that 70s filmmakers and their audiences expected to be unsettled, rather than reassured, by horror movie endings and movie endings in general. Of course it quickly became a cliché and wouldn’t unsettle anyone anymore by the time of PROPHECY. But while ending Q THE WINGED SERPENT with a shot of a giant egg may be knee-achingly predictable, ending a giant mutant grizzly bear with a close-up of ANOTHER giant mutant grizzly bear is just hysterically pathetic. And this one looks like a glove puppet. It’s not even uglier than the first one.

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I think my search to find the most stinking John Frankenheimer movie is over. Back to the good ones, if I can identify them.