Tuesday, December 10, 2013

War of the Worlds, The (1953)

... aka: H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

Directed by:
Byron Haskin

H.G. Wells' landmark sci-fi novel "The War of the Worlds" is one of those juggernauts that will never die. It's constantly being revived, remade and homaged, and has gone on to influence all manner of popular entertainment over the years. The book became even more legendary after a now-infamous radio broadcast aired right before Halloween on October 30, 1938. Put on by CBS as part of their anthology series "The Mercury Theatre on the Air," the novel was adapted for the airwaves by Anne Froelick and Howard Koch and directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The first two-thirds of the broadcast (listened to by about 6 million people) was fashioned like a mock news report detailing an invasion of our planet by deadly alien spacecraft, which gave many listeners a real fright when they believed this was all actually occurring in real time. A mild panic ensued in some areas, concerned listeners flooded the phone lines and the rest is history. Public statements were later issued and some listeners scared by the program even unsuccessfully attempted to file lawsuits against CBS. Welles gladly took the publicity and ran with it; he'd make Citizen Kane (1941) just a few year later, and the broadcast's headline-making notoriety was enough to secure the tale a place in pop culture history. And not just in American pop culture history. In 1946, a radio station in Ecuador produced a Spanish-language version of the play, which led to panic, mass rioting and seven reported deaths! It made perfect sense that a film version be made once the available technologies were available.

War (loosely adapted from the novel by Barré Lyndon) opens with narrated footage briefly describing weaponry in both World Wars as well as space-set narration by Sir Cedric Hardwicke detailing our neighboring planet of Mars. The denizens of Mars, far more technologically advanced than we here on Earth, are tired of their severe weather and want a new place to call home. Instead of asking if they can move in, they decide to stage a full scale takeover of Earth instead. The denizens of Linda Rosa, California will be the first to encounter the beings when a red hot meteor the size of a house crash lands in the woods near the small town. A handful of scientists from Pacific Tech happen to be on a camping and fishing trip nearby and one of them, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a famous inventor who was on the cover of Time Magazine for creating a new atomic engine, decides to stay behind and wait for the meteor to cool down. Late that night while the rest of the town is busy at a square dance, three men watching over the meteor notice it moving. Something begins to screw off the top and a cobra-like appendage pops out. Deciding it best to announce themselves as friends, the men approach the being only to get blasted into smithereens with a laser.

The lights go out, the phones stop working and watches and other battery-operated devices become magnetized and cease to function. After Dr. Forrester and the Sheriff go back to the meteor crash site and see what they're up against, the U.S. Marine Corp - led by General Mann (Les Tremayne) - are immediately called in.  Meanwhile, hundreds of other similar meteors, each housing a separate manta ray-shaped spacecraft, are falling in pairs of three all across the planet. In Linda Rosa, after the aliens blast local pastor Matthew (Lewis Martin), the marines open fire. Since the ships have the ability to shield themselves from blasts from guns and tanks using an electromagnetic force field, they make short work of the military. Dr. Forrester and Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), a USC professor and Forrester's obligatory love interest, commandeer a small plane, crash it and then retreat for cover to a farmhouse. There, they get sight of a squatty, silly looking alien with three pupils and long suction cup fingers and manage to get their hands on some of the alien's blood as well as a periscope-like camera the crafts use to sniff out prey. The items are brought to some scientists in hope they can find a weakness.

Nations attempt to band together to fight the alien invasion but despite our collected scientific knowledge and military power, nothing seems to stop these things. As a last ditch effort, the military drops an atomic bomb directly onto one of the crafts, but it emerges without even a scratch or dent. Exhausted of options and hope nearly non-existent, people begin to panic, loot, riot and steal any vehicle available to them. Others peacefully congregate in churches; hoping their prayer will be enough to extinguish the menace. The ending both maintains the source novel's ending (the aliens being unable to adapt our atmosphere and dying from microbial infection), but also shoehorns in the religious angle to cater to the audience of the day.

Upon release in 1953, WOTW  became both a critical and financial success for Paramount, and it deservedly retains its status as an influential genre classic nowadays. Produced on a healthy 2 million dollar budget (Cecil B. DeMille was the uncredited executive producer), it was nicely shot in Technicolor and boasted state-of-the-art special effects for its time. While some of the fx are now, of course, dated and sometimes hokey, others (particularly the spacecrafts laying waste to a big city) continue to impress. The film also still manages to excite modern audiences with a speedy pace, lots of action and scenes of wide scale destruction, which create a wonderfully frantic, apocalyptic feel toward the end. The cast is sufficient, and small roles are also played by Robert Cornthwaite as a doctor, Paul Frees as a radio reporter (he also narrated the war footage), Henry Brandon and Jack Kruschen, with small uncredited parts played by Russ Bender, Paul Birch, Ann Codee, Russ Conway, Carolyn Jones, Alvy Moore, Walter Sande and James Seay. Producer George Pal has a cameo as a bum listening to a radio news report. It netted three Oscar nomination; winning for its special effects.

The legacy of Wells' novel has only been strengthened in recent years; managing to bleed over into film, TV, radio, comic books, video games and other forms of popular entertainment since its publication. Numerous radio stations around the globe continue to air the original 1938 broadcast as a Halloween tradition, while others go all out and put on their own new broadcasts of it (there was even a musical version). In 1988, the same year a War of the Worlds TV series aired here in America, NPR put on a new radio production, which ended up being nominated for a Grammy Award. The 46-page script for the radio broadcast later broke records for entertainment memorabilia when it sold for 143,000 dollars at Sotheby's Auction in New York City. A second radio script (which had belonged to Wells) turned up and was purchased by Steven Spielberg for 32,200 dollars. 

In 2003, the broadcast was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress. In 2005, two new versions of the novel were made; one a big-budget blockbuster by Spielberg (which was heavily weighed down by the inclusion of two extremely annoying child characters) and another cheaper cash-in by The Asylum. In 2011, this 1953 film version was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. A documentary about the radio broadcast played on PBS right before Halloween earlier this year as part of their "American Experience" series.


Yi mei dao ren (1989)

... aka: New Mr. Vampire 2
... aka: One-Eyebrow Priest
... aka: Vampire vs. Vampire

Directed by:
Ching-Ying Lam

The official Mr. Vampire series consists of four eponymous titles produced between 1985 and 1988, plus Xin jiang shi xian sheng (1992), which was also released as Mr. Vampire 5, Mr. Vampire 1992 or Chinese Vampire Story. All five of those were directed by Ricky Lau for Golden Harvest and all but one starred the wonderful Ching-Ying Lam as a "one eyebrow" vampire buster (usually a priest). The series also had many spin-offs which closely copied the winning format and were titled to try to cash-in on the popular series. Wei Tung's excellent MAGIC COP (1990), which also starred Lam, was re-titled Mr. Vampire 5 in some quarters, causing confusion with the other Part 5. Released the same year as the second official Mr. Vampire film was Billy Chan's Jiang shi fan sheng (1986), which was released as Kung Fu Vampire Buster some places and as New Mr. Vampire in others. Three years later came this one; originally Yi men dao renon, and released as a sequel to Chan's film (New Mr. Vampire 2), or (under the title I watched) Vampire vs. Vampire. Another well-produced Golden Harvest production, this one fits in perfectly with the official 5-part series thanks to its similar tone and the presence of Lam in the lead role. He also got to direct this time out, as well.

The format is laid out almost identically to the other films: even-keeled, experienced, cool-as-a-cucumber priest + bumbling, immature young assistants who can't seem to stay out of trouble + various evil fiends to do battle with = excuse for lots of juvenile comedy, crazy special effects and elaborate stunt / wire / martial arts action. 

Things open with a long comic set-piece with young understudies Hoh (Siu-hou Chin) and Fong (Fong Liu) having to fix a chapel roof. Moonlight (which animates the dead) gets in, some black gunk oozes from an urn and a slimy, fanged little puppet monster emerges from it. A tame, bouncing little boy vampire who is fine with just eating tomatoes also escapes from his casket and is involved in some cutesy slapstick scenes accompanied by comic sound effects. Frantic Chi Lei Kan (Yuet Sang Chin) shows up next asking for help after his brother is bewitched by a love-hungry female "palm ghost" (So Yip). And then there's another female ghost (Yuk-Ting Lau), a singer who had acid thrown in her face by her pimp. Her body must be located and laid to rest or else her spirit will continue to haunt the area. If this all sounds rather episodic, it's because, well, it is.

Thankfully, enough of a central story begins to take shape upon the arrival of a bunch of new people to the area who are planning on starting a village there. One Eyebrow Priest and his boys are in charge of using fung shui to help find them the ideal spot to start building. Meanwhile, Mother Superior (Maria Cordero) and four young nuns take over an abandoned, bat-infested church that used to be occupied by Satan-worshipping priest Father Kei, who's since disappeared. The mummified, fanged priest is eventually unearthed while the land is being excavated and he has a silver, ruby-encrusted cross wedged in his chest. A greedy general (Billy Lau) and his prissy cousin (Sandra Ng) decide to remove the cross. The general accidentally cuts himself while doing so, starts bleeding over the corpse and brings the evil priest back to life. He quickly turns the cousin into a vampire and then flees to some temple ruins to bring his lost love back. Our heroes must set about stopping the powerful zombie-vampire and all the resulting vampires.

A little unfocused and slow to get started (so hang in there a bit), Vampire vs. Vampire ends up being a successful, rousing and extremely fun blending of horror, action and comedy. The English release title is likely in reference to its novel merging of Asian and European vampire mythology; with the little vampire boy (kept in check by spell paper taped to the forehead) representing the former and the revived priest (who is weakened by garlic, crucifixes and sunlight, unlike his usual Asian counterpart) representing the latter. The comedy elements are a bit hit-or-miss, but when they hit they're pretty damn hilarious. All of the action scenes are great; very well-choreographed, directed and edited, and just plain fun to watch. The make-up and special effects are also very good and some amusing characters (especially the lead nun) add to the enjoyment. Some standout scenes include a vampire bat attack on the church (one of the best of such scenes I've seen), and the finale, where the Taoist priest and the vampire priest face off in the forest by some quicksand pits.


Atração Satânica (1989)

... aka: Satanic Attraction

Directed by:
Fauzi Mansur

The director of THE RITUAL OF DEATH (1990), which was threatened with an X rating here in America due to excessive gore, is at it again with this bloody slasher / Satanism tale. After some black extras flail around to bongo drums and shake some chickens, a couple of blonde children (a boy and a girl) are blindfolded and led up a staircase by a robed man. They enter into a room full of candles and cult members, where a guy in a huge, glittery sheep headdress cuts open their wrists with a sword and mixes their blood together. Fourteen years later, Sun Coast d.j. Fernanda (Gabriela Toscano) has a controversial new hit on her hands; a radio show she's devised where she reads a chapter of a graphic horror story she's writing each afternoon. While many are captivated by the morbid program and are glad she's been able to get people to tune in to the radio again, others aren't so pleased about the content and want her immediately off the air. Fernanda's husband Francis (Antoine Rovis), who's carrying on a secret affair with a woman named Claudia (Emilia Mazer) behind his busy wife's back, and police inspector Paul (Claudio Curi), who calls our heroine "the asshole lady of radio" and refers to the program as "nothing but bullshit!," are just two of her many detractors. Undaunted, Fernando carries on what she's doing, but the fictional events she's writing about will soon be bleeding over into real life...

Fernanda's story involves a woman in a partially decomposed state who's using mind control to make her brother kill beautiful young women so he can revive herself with their blood. During one sequence, the brother chases a girl along the beach, stabs her, hangs her upside down, cuts her throat and lets all the blood drain into a bucket before dismembering the corpse with a cleaver and then feeding the scrap meat to a caged lion he keeps in the basement! He later sneaks into a hotel room, hides razor blades inside a bar of soap so a woman cuts herself up while taking a bubble bath and then charges in and sinks a cleaver into her head. These events aren't only part of Fernanda's story but also are happening in real life. She's plagued by various nightmares and local women keep disappearing; though their bodies are never found, the bloody crime scenes tell their fates. Flashbacks reveal that the killer and his sister murdered their Satanist parents as kids by putting rat poison in their soup. The two also share an icky incestuous bond (I guess that's the "Satanic Attraction" the title refers to).

As more people are killed, police try to get Fernanda to stop her radio program, but her weird, black-clad boss Rafael (Olain Coan) insists the show must go on and gets a permit from the mayor to continue. Lots of other possible suspects pop up, including the shady local chief of tourism and Christian (Andre Loureiro), an antique store owner who keeps a black panther as a pet and was at the scene of one of the crimes. Because her husband is a prick (and is later found dead anyway), Fernanda is driven into the arms of her sailor friend Lionel (Enio Gonçalves), who tries to help her out when she's blamed for one of the killings. Susan (Claudia Alencar), a very pregnant female reporter whose standard business outfit consists of an open jacket, a bikini top and a short skirt, always seems to be around, and a bunch of young female marine biology students and their horny teacher, who are staying at a local hotel, provide plenty of additional victims.

Atração Satânica is not really a good film, but it is a pretty entertaining one. The plot is extremely muddled and confusing. The bad guys aren't given much motivation aside from brief mention of someone needing to "bear the master's son," and very little of the supernatural plot is adequately explained. We're never told why Fernanda is even involved in any of this or how she seems to be able to anticipate what the killer is up to. I'm not sure what part the English dubbing may have played in this. And speaking of that dubbing... Sheesh! It's absolutely some of the worst you'll ever hear. According to one account I read, the director drafted complete amateurs (American students studying in Brazil at the time) to do the English recordings. The fact these people had no clue what they were doing or how to emote results in lots of unintended comedy throughout. If you can look past that, this isn't horribly filmed or really even poorly made. There's rhythm to the pacing and plenty of gory action. Like the director's other foray into the genre, this piles on the blood and boasts a large body count and a wide variety of death scenes. Feet are cut off, a couple get speared together, someone is hit with a pick-axe and, during the best scene, the killer invades the hotel and starts slaughtering people left and right. A girl lying on a hammock is gutted from underneath, another lady is decapitated and others get stabbed with a huge sword or harpooned. Moments like those - and not the poorly-developed plot - are what really propel this along.

Director Mansur was best known as a maker of Brazilian porn; which dominated the countries film industry during the 80s and 90s. Both of his genre films were released unrated by the label Charter and neither has received an official DVD release outside of cheap ones put together by bootleg companies.

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