[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Brian Clemens did some of the funniest, spiffiest episodes of the delightful British TV series The Avengers. In this first feature film, an intermittently serious, Hammer-produced exploration of horror flick conventions, he tracks and pans through the woods, around carefully lit and furnished interiors, like an old pro. Mise-wise, it’s all really more than satisfactory; but whaddaya do when it’s sendup time and you look around and you got no ineffable Lady Peel (Diana Rigg), no stylish John Steed (Patrick MacNee)—just this chesty, übermenschy blond leading man (Horst Janson) and this chesty brunette love interest (Caroline Munro), neither of them exactly lighter-than-air in the comedy department? Well, you win a few and you lose a few, is what you do. You put your Aryan master swordsman on top of a hill and have him attacked by a small mob of angry, lumpen townspeople; have him kill everybody in no time flat, doing lots of fancy foot- and swordwork; have him grin and flash gay Douglas Fairbanks looks at Miss Munro, stationed at the bottom of the hill, laughing maniacally, during the carnage. Throw her a wink. It’s a lead balloon. But then, eclectic British technician that you are, you decide to stage another action scene, in the middle of a horror movie, as an irreverent homage not to the horror genre itself, but to Westerns. And for some reason, it works.
There is little doubt that Ray Harryhausen is the defining creative force behind the stop-motion fantasies and adventures he made with producer Charles Schneer. While he’s never taken credit as director, he developed the stories and scripts and co-produced the films along with designing and executing all of the special effects. And it’s pretty clear when Harryhausen was on the set, at least on his seventies productions The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), as his tight budgets and creative control had him trading down with both leading men and directors.
The 1973 The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, sort of a sequel to his glorious The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), was a return to Harryhausen’s love of myth and grand fantasy with the colorless John Philip Law shedding his shirt and flashing his eyes as Captain Sinbad, the blue-eyed Arab adventurer racing evil sorcerer Koura (Tom Baker) to a magical treasure. Sinbad and his crew battle a centaur, a gryphon, a statue charmed to life by Koura, and most impressively the six-armed goddess Kali, a gold statue that Koura animates to do his bidding. Director Gordon Hessler (a horror veteran of garish Hammer Films knockoffs) seems barely present through most of the film, letting performances slip every which way and staging dramatic scenes so sloppily that you can’t always tell what’s even going on. Until one of Harryhausen’s creations appears, that is, at which time the screen takes on a painterly composition and the performances become more disciplined and focuses.
Tom Baker, who went on to become the most beloved Doctor of the original Doctor Who series, is in Christopher Lee mode as the scheming Koura, a humorless villain who loses a little of his life with every incantation but shows a sliver of affection for every one of his homunculi creations. But for all of Harryhausen’s magic, the film’s greatest special effect is former Doctor Phibes muse and future Bond girl Caroline Munro in harem girl bikinis. And give Harryhausen credit for commissioning a rousing old-school score from the great Miklos Rozsa, which helps give the film a scope that the budget never quite delivers alone. Like all Twilight Time releases, the score is available as an isolated soundtrack, and the disc includes featurettes on three earlier Harryhausen productions (previously available on other DVD and Blu-ray releases).
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) trades out Law for Patrick Wayne, even more wooden as a would-be swashbuckling hero who comes to port to ask the for the hand of Princess Farah (Jane Seymour) and ends up on a quest to save her brother from a curse: his stepmother (Margaret Whiting) has transformed him into a baboon (another Harryhausen creation, of course). The film is a bit sluggish and director Sam Wanamaker, a better actor than director, manages to let Seymour, who was quite assured in Live and Let Die, come off awkward and amateurish. Luckily Patrick Troughton, another Doctor Who of note, plays the ancient world scholar and scientist Melanthius, who navigates the signs on a journey through arctic waters and to a land that time forgot, and he gives the film a solid character at the center (the strength of his presence alone as the curious, wizened old scholar steals the spotlight from Wayne. Taryn Power (daughter of Tyrone Power) come along for the ride as his daughter, another beauty on hand more for window dressing than dramatic purpose.
Harryhausen pits them against a bronze Minotaur, a giant bee, an mammoth Walrus that breaks out of the ice and an ancient sabre-tooth tiger, but he puts his heart into the baboon, a tortured beast hanging tight to the human inside as it slips away under the spell, and a grunting troglodyte, a giant mythic caveman with a horn on his head and an affection for the baboon. Roy Budd provides the score, which is available as an isolated soundtrack.
Both discs looks terrific but the increased detail and color, unfortunately, reveals some sloppy matte work at times. They are colorful films, however, and the disc brings out the best of the fantastic sets and art design and exotic costumes. And, as with all Twilight Time releases, they are available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM and limited to 3000 copies.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
We’d probably have to go back to the Fifties, when Hollywood first joined battle with television by offering lavish spectacles the small screen couldn’t match, to find out why commercial movies have recently become fixated on special effects and technology. The disaster films. along with Jaws and King Kong,helped set us up for StarWars, in which the human actors are upstaged by robots. TheSpyWhoLovedMe, the latest James Bond film, is so overstuffed with mammoth sets and special effects, and so utterly lacking in human balance, that it falls right in with current trends. Like StarWars, which has been called “subliminal propaganda for technology,” the new Bond makes you feel cool and powerful as you drive your car away from the theater; it may not be a space cruiser or a modified Lotus Esprit, but it will do. But do what, and how? James Bond’s present audience may have forgotten that the earlier films in the series, though already tending in this direction, also gave us a fleeting sense of our own power, not just of the power of machines. Boys watched Sean Connery as Bond, and the way he moved and talked and held himself, as if conscious of his own weight and strength, affected us almost subliminally, giving us a sense of what it meant to be a man. Connery has taken that side of the Bond films away with him—the “powerful masculine presence” (as Pauline Kael put it) which helped to humanize those well-oiled entertainment machines.
This shamelessly and fabulously derivative Italian space opera is both the most ridiculous and the most irresistible of all the Star Wars knock-offs of the late seventies and eighties. Caroline Munro spends much of the film in a black latex bikini as the great outlaw starship pilot Stella Star, who is arrested by space speed cops, sentenced to life in a slave planet, masterminds an escape and is pardoned by the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) in exchange for traveling to the Haunted Star to find the Phantom Planet of the rebellious Count Zarth Arn (a chubby Joe Spinell). And that’s just the first few minutes.
The introductory shots echo the opening of Star Wars, with the camera caressing cut-rate space ship miniatures against a galactic backdrop lit up like Christmas tree lights. There’s an android sidekick with a Texas accent (not a Black Hole reference—that came out a year later—merely a lucky coincidence), alien civilizations (“Look! Amazons on horseback!”) and barbarian planets, holographic messages, hyperspace travel and a light saber, not to mention stop-motion robot guards animated with more love than talent and a Death Star substitute with five flaps that look like fingers on a steel glove and fold down into a fist to fire. But the set designs, costumes and psychedelic color are right out of sixties Italian genre cinema. Marjoe Gortner is prissy and unnaturally cheerful as her alien navigator, a mix of Luke Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi and Mr. Spock, and David Hasselhoff makes his entrance in a gold mask that looks borrowed from Zardoz, but Plummer brings dignity and gravitas to his part (even when booming the line “Imperial Battleship, stop the flow of time!”) and John Barry contributes a romantic-tinged score, less epic and adventurous than the John Williams but quite lovely.