Creature Features revisited – Giant Bugs

Creature Features revisited – Giant Bugs

A look back at the golden age of sci-fi, the 1950‘s. Our subject today…

Giant Bugs:

Them! (1954)
The film starts out with a catatonic little girl walking alone through the desert in New Mexico. The State Police pick her up and this leads to a discovery of her parents decimated camper-trailer a few miles away. Further investigation leads to a colony of giant ants. James Whitmore (Bonanza, Gunsmoke) and James Arness (Gunsmoke) play the State police and Edmund Gwenn (yeah, Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th  Street) plays the scientist. He explains the ants gigantism as a fallout from nuclear radiation. The giant ants were filmed nicely for that time – mechanical creatures with giant mandibles that crushed their prey. They also emitted a strange whining noise when they were near which ramped up the tension. The troopers manage to destroy the colony but they discover that two queen ants have escaped and must be re-colonizing somewhere. That somewhere is in the Los Angeles storm-drain canal system, where the Terminators would battle with motorcycle and truck many years later. This is the epitome of 50’s sci-fi films, playing off the concerns and dangers of nuclear testing in the 1950’s mid-west and man’s inability to control what he has accidentally created. The film created a lot of suspense, action, and giant creature terror for its time. One of the best of the era.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)
A volcanic eruption causes the polar ice-packs to shift and releases a giant praying mantis. The ‘prehistoric’ insect has a hunger for humans, killing several men in a military outpost then attacking some unsuspecting Eskimos. From there it takes flight, stops briefly atop the Washington Monument in DC, then finds refuge from the military attacks in the Manhattan Midtown Tunnel. The special-FX in this classic sci-fi giant bug flick are fantastic. The mantis looks mostly realistic (if you don’t look too closely) and the artic scenes are chilling (chilling, get it?). There is some minor destruction at the military outpost and some fine work within the tunnel for the movie’s finale. Despite plot similarities to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, this is one of my top picks in the giant bug film category. There is something intriguing about a real praying mantis itself, and the films giant replica is nicely portrayed. Naturally, we have the love-story sub-plot in the face of this catastrophic event, a common staple in many 50’s sci-fi films.
 The Black Scorpion (1957)
Believe me, the cover of the dvd, poster, blu-ray and vhs box, does the film no justice. I had been looking for this film by memory, not knowing the name and kept dismissing this dvd because of the cover art. But, low and behold, I discover this is Willis O’Brien’s giant scorpion movie! (w/Peter Peterson). A volcano and resulting earthquake in Mexico releases a nest of giant scorpions who proceed to feed on Mexican farmer’s livestock. When the Mexican army, with the help of an entomologist tries to seal the cavern containing the scorpions, the beasts escape and attack the nearby village and a commuter train. Eventually, the big daddy of scorpions is released from the cave and first attacks and eats the smaller scorpions, then sets its hungry claws on Mexico City. There is no need to tell you that the stop-motion, special effects in this film are outstanding. The train attack sequence is a plethora of destructive action. The big scene at the end that really impressed me was when the Giant Black Scorpion fights the military helicopters in Mexico City. It manages to grab one and throw it to the ground in a heap of twisted metal, then stings it several times to make sure the helicopter is dead – a fantastic sequence. Starring, Mara Corday and Richard Denning.

The special features of the dvd feature an interview w/Ray Harryhausen about his friendship with O’Bie and clips from test footage of never made films, The Las Vegas Monster and The Beetlemen, amongst other fine tidbits. A must have for any 50’s sci-fi fans and O’Brien/Harryhausen fans!






The Whisperer in Darkness – (2011) – movie review

whisperer in darkness pic 2

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011) 

This is the sophomore effort by the H.P.Lovecraft Historical Society following their much praised Call of Cthulhu a few years back. Their mission is to create films that adhere more closely to Lovecraft’s original tales while recreating vintage era film styles. Cthulhu is loved for its novelty, for its underdog effort, and for its ingenious ‘no-budget’ filming techniques. It is a silent movie praised by both Lovecraft fans and vintage film enthusiasts. Their second film also calls upon historical styles to tell its The_Whisperer_in_Darkness postertale. It is modeled in the style of early horror films, from the 1930’s – and yes it is a ‘talkie’ – not a silent film.

For those who are not familiar with ‘The Whisperer’ story I will give you the brief. After the Vermont floods of 1927, Professor Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) of the Miskatonic University in Arkham MA, begins to receive letters from Vermont farmer Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch). Professor Wilmarth, a studier of folklore and legends ignores the strange tales until he is approached by George Akeley (Henry’s son) who claims to have evidence of these strange creatures. Wilmarth is given photos and a wax cylinder recording of a ritual ceremony that includes the strange voices of these beasts. Intrigued, Wilmarth communicates with Henry Akeley regularly by mail.  Henry’s letters increase with frequency, relaying his paranoia and fear regarding the mysterious creatures which are closing in and surrounding his farm. He minces no words about their malevolent nature. Then suddenly, Henry sends a letter claiming he had been mistaken about the creature’s evil nature and invites Wilmarth to his farm so he can give a full explanation about his encounters. Once at Henry’s farm, Wilmarth discovers the local townspeople are in allegiance with these creatures and he uncovers their plan to open a portal and bring the elders of this alien race to our world.

If you’re a fan of early horror films (1930’s) and regard this film as being made in that time period, you will be quite pleased. The crisp B&W image and the old-style special-fx are consistent with a film from that era. The film has the feel, look and social mindset of films like, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Dracula. Even the opening credits are congruent to films of that age. The first glimpse of the creatures are lobster-like shadows cast upon a wooden floor – pincers, claws and insectile legs – a familiar technique used in that age. Troy Sterling Nies delivers an epic, classic score, utilizing an orchestra to produce plodding ominous main themes with hard brass and forceful string arrangements. He utilizes creepy oboe pieces for mood and atmosphere. In the special features you see the filmmaker’s commitment to their ideas. Having no choice in putting their complex monster upon the screen but to use CGI, they tell the animator, we want the CGI to look like old-time stop-motion FX. The FX animator must have been scratching his head at this but he successfully mimicked the style for the film.

Although much of the script is faithful to Lovecraft’s story, the writing team added to the plot and extended the ending for a more dramatic conclusion. Many of Lovecraft’s stories conclude with the main character fleeing the horror – having done nothing – leading the reader to believe that the atrocity continues to this day. The ambiguous ending is great for a short story but not for a film ending. I think what Branney and Lemman (writing team/director/producer) added is fantastic. Wilmarth struggles to save a young girl from the clutches of the beasts while trying to stop the townsfolk from opening the portal to their dimension. The young lady, who plays Hannah (Autumn Wendel), is outstanding and adds an extra layer of emotional depth to the film. You can’t help but root for Hannah and Wilmarth to make their brave escape in the end.

As much as I like Call of Cthulhu, this is a much better made film, smoother and more consistent throughout. Even the HPLHS Logo introduction looks better. It’s rare that I look forward to a filmmaking team’s next projects with such enthusiasm. But even as I finish this review I can’t wait for announcements on what Lovecraft story they will conquer next. Is it on par with the action and themes of today’s modern horror films? Probably not. While I found it intriguing, it fails to capture the true feeling of terror associated with modern horror. What I like most about the film is also what holds it back. No one would think Frankenstein (1931) is scary when watching it today, either. However, is it a successful throw-back to earlier films in style and conception? Yes – and that is what I like about it.




Rise of the Planet of the Apes – (2012) – movie review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – (2011)

I was truly disappointed with this movie. What, did the apes take a vow of non-violence? Are the apes supposed to be more humane than the humans? Or was this just the best way to get a G-rating? I was expecting an amazing, violent, destructive, uprising – you know – Civil War type stuff. That is what I wanted, that is not what I got.

Not to be morbid, I know it was a horrible incident – but we’ve seen what a full grown chimpanzee is capable of doing. The unfortunate occurrence in Connecticut a few years back should be a strict warning; we should be afraid of wild animals! Not coaxed into the mindset that we can reason with them or that they will have any compassion for us – not even smart ones.

The first part of this movie was interesting enough. A young scientist, (James Franco), saves a baby chimp from his own genetic engineering research project. Watching Caesar, the chimp go through his steep learning curve, accumulating lessons rapidly and responding to these lessons, then, teaching the other primates – made for some interesting film study. Caesar’s expressions and presence were definitely a marvel of CGI combined with the acting/expressions of Andy Serkis. However, after being treated badly from his captures, you couldn’t wait for Caesar and his new found army to bust out of those cages and wreak havoc upon the populous. When it finally happened it was like a G-rated prison riot. The one person that does get killed was by accident. Then they moved out of the complex and decide, we’ll break cars but not people. They caused a big traffic jam on the Golden Gate Bridge – so what?

Are we supposed to believe that more intelligence yields less violence? If mankind is the case study, then the theory does not hold up. Superior intelligence may eventually tell us that the most important survival aspect is to neutralize a potential enemy swiftly and formidably in order to attain self preservation (and by neutralize, I mean kill). In the original 1960’s – 1970’s franchise, you always felt the threat of violence from the apes. They were physically more powerful, and since they were intelligent, as a human, we had lost our only advantage over them. That is what gave the films a stark impact, what made the films thought-provoking, and what created the anxiety and suspense while watching them. However, after watching this film I would put it in the same class as Free Willy – not necessarily bad but not what I would have liked to have seen.

Movies I want to see in 2012

Just a few movies I am looking forward to seeing:

 I enjoy dark, brooding films. This one is a fictional story based on Edgar Allan Poe:

The Raven


Tim Burton’s stop motion figures come to life in his latest film:


A new sci-fi masterpeice by Ridley Scott? We’ll see.


Having grown up watching all the Harryhausen/Scheer fantasy movies, including Jason & the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, I have a nostalgic desire to see these new fantasy/mythology films:

Wrath of the Titans

Jack the Giant Killer

That’s all for now,

I’ll post some more at a later date.

The Remake Scoreboard / Classic Sci-fi Films

The Remake Scoreboard – Horror movie remakes – the good and bad list. Thumbs up or thumbs down and a few sentences why.

Remakes: Classic Sci-fi films

War of the Worlds (remake – 2005)
(original 1953)

Only Steven Spielberg could remake this 50’s sci-fi classic and do it justice. Great attention to detail was used in making this film and there is not one moment while I watched that I thought, this looks like CGI. The initial rise from the underground of the first tripod craft was amazing, as well as the Hudson River, Ferry Crossing scene. There was so much I liked about this film, from the look of the crafts, which were closer to the descriptions given in H.G. Wells’ original story, to the sound the tripods made, a sort of battle cry, inducing us humans to run for cover. This is my favorite sci-fi movie since 2000. I own it and watch it often!

The Blob (remake – 1988)
(original 1958)

This is a very good remake with likable characters played by Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith. The film also featured some great special FX, thankfully made before the days of CGI, which portray the agile and quick moving amoeba-like creature, swallowing and digesting its human prey. Great story, excellently paced, a remake worth seeing.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (remake – 2008)
(original 1951)

This is a near faithful remake in color. That is not necessarily a good thing, the black and white of the original just made everything seem more menacing. The film starts off well enough with interesting events taking place and some great imagery. About a third of the way through, it becomes a chore to watch as the pacing gets bogged down in a tangle of social issues that seem unnecessary. Do yourself a favor, just stick with the original!

Planet of the Apes (remake – 2001)
(original 1968)

Firstly, there is no touching Charlton Heston’s pinnacle performance as ‘Taylor’ in the original 1968, mind-bomb. The original was laced with a myriad of allegory and thought-provoking social issues. The final scene with the half-submerged, Statue of Liberty is one of the great moments in all film history. The new one had some great looking apes but not much else.

Godzilla (remake – 1999)
(original 1956)

Most fans were not happy with Roland Emmerich’s version of the Iguana-inspired Godzilla. However, there were a couple of things I did like about the film. Godzilla’s first landfall in NYC at the South-Street Seaport and subsequent march through the NYC streets was impressive, mostly because it was filmed from street level, a person’s POV looking upward, rather than from straight-on as most ‘Zilla films are shot. I also liked the Helicopter chase scene as the fast moving Godzilla dodged and darted missiles and gunfire. But the film is also riddled with Hollywood hokey-ness that makes it difficult to watch. The car chase scene was ridiculous and the hundreds of eggs in MSG were too far-fetched to be believable. You would be much better off, sticking to the original.