Sunday, 13 April 2014

Island at the Top of the World, The (1974)

6.0 out of 10
In his 2000 book The English Passengers, novelist Matthew Kneale takes a sometimes funny, but at the same time thoroughly biting, look at British colonial history. It is set against the backdrop of colonization and genocide in Tasmania. The cast of characters, in essence, are a litany of excuses for imperial adventurism. So, among the group, we get the theologian on a well meaning search for what he believes to be The Garden of Eden and a Social Darwinist seeking to confirm his racialist theories. It is an excellent, and complex, read that weaves numerous strands and characters together within the narrative. But, the thing that binds them together is travel and the desire to travel to this new world. After all, ideas that reinforce the need to explore continents run through the history of British literature, particularly during the age of empire. The peoples of other lands are constantly painted as exotic and fascinating - either to be studied and wondered over as if they were animals in a zoo, or as dark unknown dangers for the brave, thrill-seeking, explorer. Sometimes peoples of other lands beyond the sea are painted as children who will need saving. Thus the English titans of industry straddled the world while armed with both bullet and bible. British colonialists were not, of course, the only kids on the imperialist bloc, and just as English literature would be abound with incredible tales of fantastic places and peoples, so France would have Jules Verne. While the world has moved beyond these rationales for interventionism, or sometimes reconfigured these as moral crusades of the liberal interventionist type, these tales are still out there. Except, of course, these days they can be re-imagined as quaint adventure stories with incredible monsters, fantastical steam-punk machines and as tales of the journey to the places not yet charted upon any map. Filmed and released in the seventies The Island at the Top of the World is very much in this cinematic and literary tradition. It features an airship journey to a strange, uncharted, temperate polar land with its lost tribe of Vikings. The Island at the Top of the World is based on the novel called The Lost Ones by Donald G. Payne. Here he writes under the name Ian Cameron. He is probably best known for writing Walkabout as this would become a wonderful film starring Jenny Jenny Agutter. The Island at the Top of the World was produced by Disney and directed by Robert Stevenson who would also helm such delightful, family friendly, fare as The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mary Poppins. Like the aforementioned titles, The Island at the Top of the World is also family friendly, even if it happens, by dint of its subject matter, to reinforce the mindset required in preparation for dealing with a world that had long departed. In other words, it appears as if it is a curio and little more than a quaint anachronism. First appearances, however, can be deceptive! So, in this instance, foreigners are either superstitious and fascinating, in the case of the lost Viking tribe, or else they are simpleton Man Friday type servants as in the case of the only speaking Eskimo character in the film. His funny-foreigner antics providing Manuel from Fawlty Towers style nonsense to tease belly laughs from those who actually believe that the rest of the globe is, in fact, populated by billions of half-wits beyond the shores of dear Blighty. He is called Oomiak and is played by Japanese actor Mako, presumably on the basis of the belief that all foreigners look alike. For, it seems that, in the eyes of Disney, a Japanese man makes as good an Eskimo as any if the actors who tend to get typecast as Native Americans and Mexicans are all busy that particular week. Oh, and there is a comedy Frenchman too! Good job there an Englishman to keep order! He comes in the form of a stiff upper lipped Donald Sinden who would once, famously, play opposite Welsh lovely-boy Windsor Davies in the stuffy sitcom Never the Twain. His dialogue is very much of the "now look here my good man!" variety. He provides basis for the story in that it is his son that has to be rescued. To do this he needs the help of some practical, down to earth commonsense. Cue the American! He is played by David Hartman and here is supposed to be there to save the day. This of course is more likely the the core theme. Even though, on first inspection the film appears to be a reinforcing the European colonialist mindset, it is, in fact, deliberately showing this to be stuffy and old fashioned. It is the rugged, cable knit wearing, American archeologist who has to lead, while Sinden delivers his best "Good god, man!" type interjections. For what it is, the film is okay. Sure it is a little sub-Jules Verne and not a patch on the best films based on his literary tradition but it isn't bad. It would also, in time, be eclipsed by the likes of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen just over a decade or so later. But, as a novelty piece and as a slice of typical Disney conservative whimsy it is all fun enough. Sure, some of the effects are a little ropey. Especially when you consider this as the age of the approaching blockbuster. Some of the miniatures seem a little underwhelming when placed alongside Star Wars, for example. After all, that sci-fi classic was released only a few years later. So, even these effects are a little quaint for the time. There are some nice matte paintings used, though even these are nowhere near the most effective ever. The gel lighting effects are good though and are used in some volcano scenes to light up the sets and smoke among lava footage and fireworks. These give an almost Bavaesque feel to it all. In truth, though, the special effects overload in the second half of the feature and the film begins to acquire a whole layer of psychedelic nuttiness about it. But it is all very, very, pleasant to look at, as is the location work and the stock animal footage used to set the polar scene. It is not just the sets though that fulfill a purely decorative role. After all, the film also co-stars Playboy Playmate Agneta Eckemyr. She is a mini-skirted love interest used to perk up the dads in the audience as their kids are being brainwashed by all the trippy, colourful, volcano images, into growing up with the inexplicable need to go on pith helmeted adventures in order to subjugate half the world and turn the map pink. Her role is not one that goes much beyond the eye-candy one that she has obviously been designated here among all the Boys-Own style adventuring. She speaks perfect English, unlike the rest of her people who make extended, subtitle-free, speeches in what is supposed to be an ancient Norse dialect but is, in truth, a mixture of Swedish and Norwegian. Here again, it seems, that Disney are not too bothered, either way, what language is used. As long as it sounds a little odd to the English speaking ear then it'll do!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

5.5 out of 10
One million years ago there were no humans as we would understand them. There were no dinosaurs either. Indeed, the last dinosaurs were wiped out in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that was a mere sixty million years, or so, earlier. While there is some debate within the scientific community as to the cause of the demise of dinosaurs there seems to be something of a consensus that cave men did not, in fact, fight dinosaurs. But hey, guess what? Director Don Chaffey doesn't care what you think. If dinosaurs can fight cowboys in Valley of the Gwangi or talk, be pink and called Barney then, by the almighty flying spaghetti monster and his blessed noodly appendage, they can sure as hell fight quiffed cavemen and their bouffant sporting mates. To achieve this miracle of intelligent design Chaffrey enlists the help of the mighty stop-motion special effects genius Ray Harryhausen! Don Chaffey had already collaborated with Harryhausen, after all, on the brilliant Jason and the Argonauts  a few years prior. As he did with Harryhausen regular Wilkie Cooper. Indeed, with this dream team in place, plus the involvement of Michael Carreras, who would later pen the impossibly brilliant and funky Lost Continent, this film should be like gold dust to genre film fans. Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite hang together. It just misses the mark a little. The blame for this would have to fall, squarely, on the shoulders of whoever it was that decided to lend authenticity to this inauthentic world by presenting a script written entirely in caveman-speak. With this single, simple schoolboy error, all drama, tension and pathos meld into ninety minutes of actors and actresses, who should know better, leaping up and down bashing rocks and sticks while making monkey noises. This is the prehistoric world as imagined by Hammer Studios and as with the likes of The Lost Continent is a welcome diversion from their budget end, home counties Gothics and assorted horror cheapies. Albeit a diversion that is somewhat flawed. The lunar-like Hammer-budget-busting locations, which mostly appear to be around Lanzarote, are a great a setting for this dinosaur world and these black volcanic desert locales, the 35 mm Technicolor stock and occasional Leonne-esque shots give the film an almost prehistoric dark-spaghetti-western-like feel. This is further emphasised by a scoring, provided by Italian sword and sandal regular Mario Nascimbene, that veers between peplum style historic interludes and Morricone western score type flourishes. The soundtrack even features dreamlike Edda Dell'Orso style harmonies within the mix. All this, though, does not, unfortunately, a great movie make! There is a love story in there, somewhere. It involves the lead character Loana played by Rachel Welch but unfortunately her love interest, Tumak, played to alpha cavemale perfection by John Richardson of Italian exploitation cinema fame, speaks a completely different prehistoric dialogue altogether! So the relationship, among all the squawking and goings on, is expressed through the babbling of each other's name. In effect this is a little like the romantic relationship between Justine and Alucarda who seemingly spend half a movie calling out for one another in the Mexican nunsploitation classic among a riot of spontaneous nun combustion, except here with an allosaurus, some pterodactyls and the like replacing the nuns. Oh, and volcanic eruptions replacing the combustion. Imagine this sort of nonsense placed in amongst the script of the 1980 Eric Sykes penned TV comedy Rhubard Rhubarb and the results are One Million Years B.C. Give or take. Nevermind though, there is still the action! The action itself is pretty good and aside from some blown-up lizard and turtle footage, which is cheating a bit, the whole stop motion monster thing is, as would be expected with the names involved, absolutely brilliant. These old monster movies seem to possess a certain authenticity that, until recently, CGI rendering struggled to replicate. Sure some of the monster and human interaction is a little ropey but watching these old-skool monsters stomp about still remains, to this day, incredibly fascinating. Apart from this the whole thing does get a little wearisome though and it could all have possibly benefited from some subtitles to guide the poor viewer along somewhat. Indeed, when push comes to shove, the main saving grace apart from the dinosaurs is the presence of Rachel Welch. Her tits, in every one of her scenes, attempt to break free and bounce out of her rabbit skinned stone-age fur-kini. This is unlikely to be an accidental stylistic flourish by the wardrobe department, as her revealing outfit contrasts with the more modest loin-cloths of the other lower billed tribeswomen. Welch, here, provides cheap thrills for sexually repressed male cinema-goers who would have, by the time of her eventual appearance on screen, no doubt already got seriously lost within all the grunting, hairy sand-wrestling, shrieking, bashing stuff and ooking that constitute the backstory.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Trial of Joan of Arc, The (1962)

8.0 out of 10
In 1948 Victor Fleming, the man behind The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind, directed his take on the story of Joan of Arc. Unsurprisingly, this was a sumptuous affair, with rich matte painting backgrounds and a scale that aspired to the epic. In this instance The Maid of Orleans was played by Ingrid Bergman who added a touch of glamour to proceedings. Heavily cut from an original two and a quarter hours, much of the emphasis was placed upon the idea of the spectacle, while such trivial concerns such as the trial itself were skirted over as if they were a mere footnote to some glamourous, kick-ass, girl-in-armour action. So, in so many respects, Robert Bresson's 1962 take on the story is, very much, the antithesis of Fleming's less challenging and somewhat Hollywoodised telling of the story. Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, or The Trial of Joan of Arc to give it its English language title, places emphasis solely on the trial itself and, just like Otakar Vávra's Witchhammer, builds the dialogue around court transcripts and historic record. It is also, just like Witchhammer, both stark and minimalist. Bresson takes this further by using non-actors to make sure the material is not overshadowed by the big ticket performances. The two films are shot in glorious black and white a this, strangely, lends the whole thing a whole layer of additional authenticity. The only concession to the contemporary audience in this instance was the stylistic choice of Joan's modern hairstyle. This itself is excused by a preamble that informs us that there are no images of Joan of Arc from the time. Joan, here played by Florence Delay in her signature role, turns in a delightfully understated performance and eschews the star-turn of Ingrid Bergman. While this may have the effect of lending gravitas to the role it also has the effect of elevating the trial material itself. The film is short, running at just about an hour, and puts aside any action or other distractions. Delay simply stands, seemingly devoid of emotion, and delivers her material before those who seek to judge her. Neither side-tracked by sobbing, shouting or any other method-acting hysterics we are left to engage with the material itself. This allows us to scrutinise, more closely, the words of Joan and her interrogator. This is a good call as the writing is completely absorbing. Indeed, there is plenty offered here, even for those with little understanding of the historic circumstances themselves. Where Bresson does draw us away from the trial itself it is to fill in a little back-story and also, early on, to emphasise that the result of the trial is a fait accompli and the procedure little more than a sham. At this court Joan is faced with loaded questions and bats them off, competently, with model answers. She even, successfully, responds to attempts to entrap her with suggestions of witchcraft or heresy. Joan, sticks to her guns. She is questioned about the voices of saints that she claims guide her. Were she not concerned that these may be malevolent spirits? Did she commune with fairies at a well during her childhood? Did she know what mandrake was and what it was used for? Even her virginity is called into question and, besides this, why did she dress as a boy? Did she not know that this, itself, is a sin? Calmly, to each of the charges, Joan re-asserts her faith in god. It is to god that she answers first and foremost, and the court second. But, this is not a trial with a view to ascertaining truth. It is clear that truth and her trial are not easy bedfellows. It is all merely a procedure to validate pre-determined guilt. Joan knows this and calls out this sham when she observes that the trial record is only adding those points that show her in a bad light, while all else remains unwritten. As such this is a kangaroo court. It is McCarthyism as historical metaphor. It is the nightmare of the crushing of the soul under the wheels of bureaucracy. Poor Joan does not stand a chance. In what is possibly the most poignant scene of the film, Joan stands, without betraying emotion, at the stake. The pyre is lit and, through the smoke, a crucifix is held aloft. The irony, of course, being that Joan is the only one present that represents anything remotely like the values that those who rally around the symbol claim to represent. In the hands of others, here, it is no more than signa militaria for a legion of hypocrites.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Zardoz (1974)

7.5 out of 10
What would be the price of immortality? How would it feel to live forever? After all, even were life to be perfect then wouldn't an eternity of perfect meals still be equal to an eternity of washing up that stretches off into infinity? Indeed, in Zardoz, this is how it is for the wealthy and brilliant minds who inhabit the vortex. They may have developed the perfect existence in which everything is debated and democratically decided in their communistic utopia but, to be frank, they are all a little bit pissed off. Cut off from humanity, and settled within the glass bubble that is the vortex, they no longer experience the the raw emotion of humanity. It is a world without suffering, but also one without love. It is world without pity, a world without pain yet it is one devoid of sensation, happiness or joy. As a result, these guardians of the cultural treasures have had enough. They secretly crave one who will switch off the life support and snuff out their miserable being. However, there is someone in this for whom the status quo is not an option. He is Arthur Frayn. He is a conjurer and illusionist. Arthur, in the guise of a god who resides within a flying stone head (I shit you not!), realises the role of conflict in advancement and he brings guns to the people beyond the vortex who, through time, have moved from a state of barbarism to almost stone age primitivism. Arthur is the man behind the curtain. He is the Wizard of Oz eluded to in the title. While Arthur, who is played by Hellraiser bit-parter and occasional television performer Niall Buggy, pulls the strings in the background, he is, at the same time, leaving a breadcrumb trail that will deliver Zed, a Webley revolver wielding warrior dressed only in thigh boots, bullet belt and scarlet underpants, to the vortex. For the enlightened he represents their ruination. Zed is played by a post-Diamonds Are Forever Sean Connery. The story is introduced through the narration of Arthur, who longs to die, but even though it is all supposedly seen through his eyes the action pretty much places Zed at its centre. As a result, the presence of Arthur, the puppet-master, is largely implied as is evidenced by the introduction. In this he is little more than a bit player in his own story. Zardoz is directed by John Boorman, fresh on the heels of his excellent backwoods shocker Deliverance and, interestingly, he had, at one point, intended to cast Burt Reynolds in the lead role. He was unavailable. So it has been left to Sean Connery to become what has long been, in effect, the poster boy for ill advised career moves into bad movies everywhere. However, this is all a little bit unfair as, despite the film coming to the attention of the Razzie Movie Guide, it isn't a bad film at all. In fact it is a rather good film and one that benefits from some delightful cinematography, sharp writing and striking Irish location work. Sure the film is a little trippy, but that is a charge that could be laid at a lot of films from this period. Trippiness in itself does not a bad movie make! It is a little heavy of the psychobabble and cod philosophy but when the Nietzsche and Hegel is stripped away then what remains is straightforward enough. Although, just like Alphaville, this is sci-fi gone lo-fi, so there are no exploding planets here. The story, just like other colourful dystopian visions such as that of The Handmaids Tale or Logan's Run, is one of a downbeat take on an imagined future. However, as is common with the genre it is making, at the same time, a comment on the world today. So here there are musings on the desire for immortality, the elevating of the vain quest for eternal youth and beauty and the futility of attempting to preserve culture eternally. Maybe however, there is an upbeat message to be taken from all this . Could it be that rather than the quest for immortality, if we accept that death, like life, is part of a cycle of renewal and that we are briefly of this world then rather than fight the inevitable we may learn to live life and live it to the full. This seems to be the lesson learned by co-star Charlotte Rampling. It is only when she breaks the shackle of immortality that she learn to truly experience. She is then able to love and to grow old. John Alderton is also in this.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Sharknado (2013)

6.0 out of 10
There are, without a doubt, plenty of Discovery Channel fans who have dreamt of the day when someone gets the notion to take the exhilaration of Storm Chasers and place it in the context of the murky depths of the red-in-tooth-and-fin Shark Week. Well, such people, listen up and dream no more! The Asylum, those kings and queens of the Mockbuster, have done just that and the result is Sharknado. Indeed, as this portmanteau type nomenclature suggests this is, of course, a film that combines meteorological matters with all the fun of larger than average fish. It also does all this with one computer generated eye cast firmly upon matters of an ecological bent. Furthermore, just like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, Sharknado is a film with a particular panda—hugging love of ol' mother earth. So, in this environmentally friendly spirit, the film opens with an excerpt dealing with the illicit trade in shark fins before the fish fight back with a little help from a global warming magnified hurricane which causes the water spouts that send sharks skyward and deposits them in LA where they stalk storm drains, flooded streets and houses and also attack from the skies as they are hurled from the storm. It may come as a little bit of a surprise to learn that the result of this Anthony C. Ferrante directed effort is nothing short of being cheesy great fun. But it will only really work for those who are able to put aside the numerous limitations of the movie. So, for the art-house and drama film fans there will be a need to forget about the fact that the story is a little generic. It is no different to so many zombie films these days where a group are brought together in the adversity of the siege situation. All display heroism, some discover hitherto untapped strengths, while others find love. So, think of Sharknado as the Shaun of the Dead of the urban, weather propelled killer fish genre. However, given that action cinema has gone stratospheric in recent decades it may be that Sharknado suffers from the fact that despite its scale of ambition it is still no very big movie. There is no Arnie, Sly or Bruce Willis in this and the special effects are not nearly as seamless as those in other more expensive exploding planet type fare. It does have Ian Ziering though! Oh, and Tara Reid. However, despite these limitations there will be an audience for Sharknado. This will, more than likely, come from fans of monster movies, fans of psychotronic cinema or those who just like to purchase a bargain from the very special bin that every store has near the door for the purpose of storing said bargains. It is just mindless fun after all. Anyone who has a soft spot for Bruno Mattei jungle action films will be at home with the pacing, while anyone who digs Devilfish , aka Monster Shark will find this right up their street. The film soundtrack includes the pretty good Sharknado theme song that is straight from the Ramones Playbook with its repetition of “Shark Shark Shark Shark, Sharknado!”. Genius! The tune is similar to Twist Barbie by Shonen Knife. Aside from sharks, many of which fly on the air currents in this, there is a bit of girls with guns action for the Andy Sidaris brigade and even a little chainsaw action for the fans of raw grindhouse stuff. Despite this, it is a certainly quite polished and as such it may appeal to genre fans in the same way that Sucker Punch might. That is to say that this is a film that ticks many of the right boxes but aesthetically is a little more polished than the B movie fare of yore. The pacing is unrelenting and, from the moment the first skybourne fish hits the deck the mindless action for action's sake continues to resolution at the finale. So for those who love films where every other line seems to consist of somebody shouting “Go! Go! Go!” this'll get you right where you live. Indeed, in some respects, Sharknado is the Citizen Kane of this kind of thing. It is The Asylum's Magnum opus. It is the shark movie that others will aspire too. Hell! Even Jaws didn't fly and everyone goes on about how good that one is! Indeed, just like the aforementioned Jaws this Sharknado is so good that there is a sequel on its way. Even better still, the film is so cool it doesn't even need a clever tagline and does not go with “Shatnado” as some wags may suggest, but is instead promoted with a brilliant, and somewhat inspired, strapline of “Enough Said!”. Indeed.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Avalanche Sharks (2013)

4.5 out of 10
There is something lurking in the snow and lakes on Mammoth Mountain, California. Snow sharks! And these snow sharks swim, just like sea sharks, except they swim in snow. It is Spring break and it is time for the bikini contest on Mammoth Mountain and the mayor will not allow anything at all to come in the way of what is the most important weekend in the calendar of the Twin Pines Ski Resort. This may all sound familiar. After all, it is the plot of jaws with the added twist of the sharks residing on land, in snow. These sharks, possibly extraterrestrial, were originally summoned into being a century earlier when a shaman sought vengeance after the native population upon this sacred hill were massacred by gold rush prospectors. Having being disturbed from their ancient slumber they are back, and they are incredibly hungry. With such a premise it should be pretty obvious that the film is not especially serious in tone. It is, in essence, a spoof of the whole, already tongue in cheek, Sharknado type film. Indeed, were Sharknado a blockbuster, it could be argued that Avalanche Sharks was its mockbuster given that there is such similarities between the artwork used in the marketing of the two features. Avalanche Sharks, a Canadian production, is directed by Scott Wheeler. Boston born Scott has few directorial credits to his name and is probably far better known for his special effects work. Indeed, among his credits are a number of monster death-match type features such as Boa vs. Python and Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus along with Mega Piranha, Poseidon Rex and so on. Here, with Avalanche Sharks, in addition to directing Scott, understandably, supervises the special effects. It is worth noting that he also provides the effects for the Sand Sharks from 2011. This is especially noteworthy here as the whole concept of sand sharks are referenced in the movie Avalanche Sharks suggesting that this is a sort of semi-sequel. The film is short, and this really works to its favour. It clearly has no pretensions about rising above B feature status and while consciously working with an appropriate aesthetic it also aims to be concise and to-the-point in its storytelling in the spirit of the classic cinema creature themed support features. However with some extreme sports footage, snappy dialogue courtesy of former documentary scribe Keith Shaw, sharp scoring and the film timed so there is plenty of action throughout, including a not inconsiderable bloody body-count, the film running time flies by. Indeed, given that the film is heavy on the pop culture dialogue, this is film with a certain youth appeal with a neat little Star Wars reference that was thrown in for good measure being a specially on the button. There is also a reference in the film to Ghostbusters, but this little aside is not nearly as effective. What is interesting is the final credits of the feature. For those who pay attention to the lyrics, the film has a Welsh language theme song. The title track to Avalanche Sharks is Ymlaen, which translates as "forward" in English. It is performed by Cardiff dance act Clinigol. Despite reviews, and ratings, that are quick to dismiss the movie, it is not bad at all. It is great fun and, for those who are prepared to not take this Syfy type bollocks too seriously, a delightful time-waster. Anyhow, in execution it is a film that does not, in any way, take itself especially that seriously in the first place. Given that pretty much everyone on-board to seems to be having a ball it is worth getting in this zone as this whole spirit is infectious. Think of it, in a way, as something akin to a Jaws-esque approximation to the 1982 Greydon Clark helmed slasher spoof Wacko with an obviously digitized shark taking the place of The Pumpkin Killer. So be prepared for ribald humour, lots of wisecracks and plenty of scenes featuring some cute-as-hell, buxom girls in bikinis. Sure, no one is really going to win any Oscars for Avalanche Sharks, but that really doesn't matter a jot. After all, it's about the fun, nothing more.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

5.5 out of 10
First impressions on viewing The Murders in the Rue Morgue, will no doubt, concern set design and the delightful artistry of the feature. With sets consisting of a foggy, studio based, rendition of nineteenth century gas-lit Paris streets the film is certainly an atmospheric one. Furthermore, it also provides one the key clues to where the film is coming from both stylistically and thematically. With an eye for a particular askew geometry and a particular emphasis on shadow it is very clear that this is a film that seeks to move into the territory of German expressionist cinema. This is a point that gets further underscored when skylines reveal the crooked roofs, spires, windows and chimney stacks of the world of Caligari. This success, it must be said, can be laid at the door of Herman Rosse. Rosse, student of The Royal College of Art and an architect by trade, was responsible for what is clearly the product of an immersion in European silent cinema. For, through its sets, Murders in the Rue Morgue lives and breathes expressionism. This is despite the fact that Rosse was not credited with any film work until his arrival with his wife, a landscape architect named Sophia Helena Luyt, in the United States. Nevertheless, he would hit the ground running and would win an Oscar for the art direction in his cinematic début The King of Jazz, 1930. However, the similarities with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari do not begin and end with the art department. For, despite being nominally based upon an Edgar Allen Poe classic, Robert Florey's adaptation strays into the realms of the Robert Wiene's familiar material. Here, however, while the sideshow theme is common to both features a trained gorilla under the control of a manipulative scientist replaces the familiar somnambulism theme. Murder in the Rue Morgue was initially crafted as a further attempt to continue with the success of both Dracula and Frankenstein, two earlier Universal horror films upon which Herman Rosse would work. The film would, just like the aforementioned Frankenstein, play upon popular fears of the direction of travel of science. In a period where Darwinism would be increasingly associated with later discredited notions such as eugenics, here the scientific method of experimentation comes down to attempts by Bela Lugosi's humorously named Dr. Mirakle to inject the blood of a great ape into the bodies of women. In this, as with Frankenstein, the whole mad-scientist ran amok is central to the whole feature. It is all, in inception as well as realisation, pretty sinister stuff. It also has slight Jack the Ripper undertones. There is no doubt that the film was an influential one and while it is indeed possible that later imagining of The Murder of the Rue Morgue return to Poe's source material the film, that features an ape carrying a woman up the side of a building, certainly finds its echo in giant creature feature King Kong. Beyond this Jess Franco would direct a similar crucifixion in his Succubus while Paul Naschy's Hunchback of the Morgue would feature a similar grubby villain's laboratory. Dario Argento, another director with a body of work that, like Murders in the Rue Morgue, places a strong emphasis on hyper-stylisation, would also feature an intelligent ape doing the bidding of his scientist master in his Phenomena. The film, which in effect is a sort of a detective story, eschews the whodunnit approach by signposting, early on, the nature of the deaths of a number of women. While the film could have potentially have been a mystery to rival the most convoluted of giallo, the rejecting of this approach can only be considered a missed opportunity. Even the delightful locked room theme that has been used successfully on countless occasions including, most memorably, in the eerie Sherlock Holmes thriller The Spider Woman, is here wasted as the whole brilliant killer monkey angle is revealed far too early. This is not the only criticism that can be laid at the door of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Because, as much as direction, set design and cinematography are the stars pretty much every actor, and actress, seems intent on being hammy. Painfully so. The whole idea of using a chimpanzee in close-ups interspersed with longer shots of what appears to be a man in a chubby gorilla suit also, spectacularly, fails to convince. Deficiencies aside, and despite being very much a product of its time, Murders in the Rue Morgue represents an incredibly atmospheric way to spend an hour or so and the film, not least because of its brevity, certainly does not outstay its welcome. It is worth a look.