Monday, May 27, 2013

Trailer Park :: The Key to the Loch :: Larry Buchanan's The Loch Ness Horror (1981)

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"Well, what is a monster? It's not easy to achieve monster status."
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For the last 1400 years there have been tales of a monster lurking in the murky depths of Loch Ness; a large body of water nestled in the highlands of Scotland. And despite numerous eye-witness accounts and photographic evidence, concrete proof of the creature's existence has been maddeningly elusive. Until now...

In the annals of movie history, aside from Arch Oboler, there is a nary a bigger culprit, cinematically and inertly speaking, than Larry Buchanan in the 'tell don't show' form of movie-making. (Loosely translated: We don't even get to watch the paint dry, we get to listen to somebody describe the paint drying for about an hour and half. No. Wait. It's more like listening to someone else describe how another person described paint drying on a wall for six straight hours.) Talk is cheap, and film and F/X cost money, after all, explaining why this filmmaker has provided many a cinematic Waterloo for even the most hardened film buff. 

Still, after a string of made for TV remakes for American International pictures in the late 1960's, Buchanan settled into a demented groove of revisionist B.S. bio-flicks, tin-foil hat conspiracy diatribes, and speculative cinema on everyone from Marylin Monroe, to Howard Hughes, to Lee Harvey Oswald. However, somehow, no matter how inspired, Buchanan would take these incredibly novel and monumentally screwy ideas and drain nearly every ounce of momentum from them, making most a chore to sit through. I mean, how can you take the idea of Nixon enlisting a rogue branch of the CIA to clandestinely kill the three 'Pied Pipers' of rock and roll and make it boring? Buchanan can, and he did, too. Still, if you can manage to kick and scratch your way through 'em, there are a few rewards to be found hither and yon.

Now, amidst all of that conspiratorial tedium and whackadoodle theories is a strange anomaly in Buchanan's oeuvre; a throwback monster movie called The Loch Ness Horror. And as I started to translate my notes into a synopsis, I slowly realized they could explain the movie and Buchanan's tactics all on their own. Read on...

-- We open in 1940, with a German bomber flying over Loch Ness. A kook in a castle hears the plane. And Inflato-Nessie just surfaced. Holy shit. Nessie vs. Nazis?!? This is gonna be, oh, wait. This is a Larry Buchanan flick. Right. Yes. Nessie dives back under the water and we cut to the present. That's it. Thanks a lot, Larry.

-- Ah. I see. There are two kinds of Nessie hunters. The scrupulous. And the unscrupulous. 

-- Hunh. And there's the Nazi bomber, mostly intact, and the pilots, also mostly intact, at the bottom of the Loch. Maybe the monster did eat the plane? Nah, that doesn't make any sense. Maybe the pilot saw the monster, had a heart attack and crashed? That makes perfect sense. Regardless, whatever happened, it happened off screen. Repeat it with me: Thanks a lot, Larry.

-- "The Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle." Really, Larry? Really? 

-- Oh, wow. The highland brogues are a little thick in this. Stress on the gargling RRRRRRs. These aren't just Scotsman. These be Pirate Scotsman.

-- Okay. The score thus far. The good guys are still listening to stories and theories from the Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle, who, according to the film, was responsible for the famous photo of Nessie. The bad guys have gained possession of Nessie's egg. And the MacGuffin -- sorry, the Nazi plane and pilots are still at the bottom of the Loch. 


-- And now the obligatory romantic interlude between the American hero (the son of the writer, director and producer) and the Daughter of the Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle. She hates Yanks. He's a dope. Oh, how will it end? Shut up and kiss 'er already!!! 

"But Professor? How does the Loch Ness Monster 'get it on'?" 
"The coupling cannot be called in the vernacular, 'a quickie.'"

-- Turns out Nessie's a hermaphrodite. Who knew. Also of note, the juxtaposition of conjecturing on Nessie's mating habits onshore with the clumsy courtship of the hero and Kathleen out on the boat is pretty darned hysterical. Got it, Larry. Now move along, please and thank you.

-- Heh. And now we reach the 'Nessie the 13th' portion of our movie as two horny teens row to a secluded castle for a little secret nookie. And not just any secluded castle. But the secluded castle of the Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle! 

-- Meanwhile the hero and the daughter are pulling a "Wake Up, Little Susie" out on the Loch. Only they're not at the drive in. They're in a boat. And they're not watching a movie. They're watching sonar readings and arguing over the etiquette of profanity. They haven't fallen asleep either. So, never mind. Forget I even brought this analogy up.

-- And the Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle, armed with an axe, just interrupted the horny couple mid-grope. And during the melee, gets himself axed to death. Now, I think the old fart and Nessie share some kind of psychic link. But, being a Buchanan flick, we're kinda left holding the bag on these presumptions. Regardless, Nessie is now on the prod and seeking revenge. 

-- Aaaaand she just ate half of the horny couple. New rule of horror: Have sex, get eaten by a lake monster. Check, and check.

-- No. No. Don't send the traumatized surviving half of the horny couple to the hospital. Or even listen to her warning. Just shush shush, tut tut and send the wee lassie home. 

-- Also, in regards to our hero, are you sure you want your radio call sign to be 'Wet Bottom'?

-- Uh oh. Last surviving bad guy still has Nessie's egg AND he's just kidnapped the daughter of the late Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle. 

-- And now, UNIT just showed up. Hoping for Zygons. What the hell? Oh, wait. The Nazi plane.

-- Waitaminute. I thought he was dead?!? Oh, that must have been the OTHER Mad Scot of Killie-Cranky Isle. Then who the hell was that other guy?!? 

-- Updating the score: the British military has put Loch Ness on complete lockdown. The bad guy is currently trying to break through said roadblock with the daughter and the egg tucked away in the back of his van. The hero is still tinkering with the sonar. And I still have no idea who the horny teenage couple killed last night.

-- On a positive note. Lake Tahoe is doing an admirable job of posing as Loch Ness.

-- Fear not, sweet Kathleen. Nessie's in hot pursuit and will save you! The Dukes of Loch Ness! Hit it, Roscoe! 

Ladies and gentlemen, the absolute zenith 
of Larry Buchanan's film career.

-- Okay, ladies. You've been kidnapped, trussed up in the back of a van, and just witnessed the Loch Ness Monster eat your kidnapper and two other people. What would you do next? If your answer is to return home, change into a dress to impress your new beau, and pretend it all never happened then, congrats, you, too, could write a movie about the Loch Ness Monster. Oh, Larry. No, honey. No...

-- And what would a Larry Buchanan flick be without some form of government conspiracy? It's too stupid to repeat the details, but involves the Nazi MacGuffin, an Upper Class Twit of the Year not being at his post back in 1940, and explains the presence of the British military to keep it all under a very wet blanket. 

 -- You maniacs! You blew her up! Damn you. Damn you all to hell! Goodbye, dear, sweet Nessie. *ahem* One big bowl of Plesiosaur soup comin' up.

-- And we close with the hapless hero tearing away from his sonar long enough to help the daughter, after she takes time to change clothes, again, to return the late Nessie's still percolating egg to the bottom of the Loch. The end. Wheeeeeee! 

Circle of life and all of that.

Though light years ahead of the threadbare creatures in his Azalea films, Buchanan's Nessie is still a hoot and a half to behold. Created by Tom Valentine and Peter Chesney, this hydraulic powered prop's plastic origins are easily betrayed -- and one could swear the whole thing was simply a giant inflatable pool toy; and its crossed-eyes and permanent grin, with those perfect teeth, make the creature look slightly teched in the head. Still, the fully animatronic creature runs rather smoothly (better, dare I say, than Bruce the shark ever did), and, to the directors credit, he shot it as effectively as it could be shot considering the limitations. To me, Nessie's loopy appearance only adds another layer of delirium to the proceedings. And believe it or not, this was not the creature's only screen appearance, as it would be recycled some six years later in Joe Dante's Bullshit or Not segment of Amazon Women on the Moon

Was the Loch Ness Monster really Jack the Ripper?

The Loch Ness Horror was also a total family affair for Buchanan, too, with his wife serving as producer, his son in the lead as the hero, another son stationed in the editing booth, and a daughter serving as script-supervisor and an extra. And even though his usual Buchananisms are all present and accounted for, I hereby declare The Loch Ness Horror is easily this certain Schlockmeister's best -- if not the most easily digestible film. And leave it to me to save the best for last. That's right. Now that I have finally seen The Loch Ness Horror, I have officially scratched everything Buchanan has produced, directed and written -- yes, even Mistress of the Apes and Strawberries Need Rain -- off the watch-list. Woo to the ever-lovin' hoo! I am done with this guy. However, it should be said that, even though there are some I will never, ever watch again, others, especially The Loch Ness Horror, will probably find their way back into rotation again at some point. I mean, c'mon, that critter is ADOREABLE! Sadly, aside from a long out of print VHS release, like Nessie, this film is maddeningly elusive. However, a quick search around YouTube will provide all the evidence you need of this film's existence.

The Loch Ness Horror (1981) Clan Buchanan :: Omni-Leasure / EP: Jane Buchanan / P: Larry Buchanan, John F. Rickert / AP: Irvin Berwick / D: Larry Buchanan / W: Larry Buchanan, Lynn Shubert / C: Robert Ebinger / E: Randy Buchanan / M: Richard H. Theiss / S: Sandy Kenyon, Miki McKenzie, Barry Buchanan, Doc Livingston, Stuart Lancaster

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Favorites :: Behind the Scenes :: The Rehersal's The Thing :: A Howard Hawks Dialogue Roundtable from Another World.

Starting with the man standing in the back and going counter-clockwise around the circle, we have director Christian Nyby, actors Douglas Spencer, James Young, Ken Tobey, Dewey Martin, Bill Self, dialogue coach Lorry Sherwood, unit manager Art Siteman, and producer Howard Hawks, holding court, looking for the right cadence during a script read-through for The Thing from Another World (1951).

And as an added bonus, a pin-up of Margaret Sheridan because of reasons. I mean, damn, WOW.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Remembering Ray :: Heroic on a Colossal Scale :: A 22 Vid-Cap Look at Don Chaffey's Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

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"The gods are best served by those 
who need their help the least."
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After the treacherous Palias murders his father and sister to usurp the throne of Thesally, the infant Jason, with some divine intervention from Hera, queen of the gods, slips through the tyrant's bloody fingers. But once he reaches manhood, Jason returns home to claim his proper birthright. However, Palias, who cannot kill Jason lest he kill himself, says Hera, through subterfuge, dupes the rightful heir into questing for the Golden Fleece; a mystical symbol that will help unite the people under his banner to overthrow the false king. This is nothing more than a suicide mission, which is the perfect solution for Palias. For nobody really knows where the Fleece is, except a general notion that is beyond the sea where no Greek has yet to tread. A journey that is destined to be fraught with peril at every turn...

It's a fairly safe bet when people today recollect the legend of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece, what they remember is the plot from Jason and the Argonauts. However, the true tale of Jason, according to the myth, if memory serves from reading the Argonautica way, way back in junior high, found Jason to be kind of an easily distracted dolt while an enchanted and duped Medea did most of the heavy lifting, with her magicks and sorcery, after they hooked-up, courtesy of Hera, who brainwashed her into falling in love with the hapless dope (-- though it might have been Aphrodite; again, it's been awhile since I read my Apollonius...), that won Jason his eventual revenge against the evil Palias. 

After the lukewarm reception at the box-office for Mysterious Island (1961), the tandem of producer Charles H. Schneer and F/X wizard Ray Harryhausen decided to once more return to the myths of old, hoping to bottle the lighting that struck the highly successful The 7th Voyage of Sinbad for their bosses at Columbia. Looking to the legends of the Greeks and Romans, after first considering the tale of Perseus (-- notions tabled and eventually used some twenty years later in Clash of the Titans), the duo settled on the tale of Jason and his epic jaunt; they even tinkered with a notion of somehow getting Sinbad displaced in time to join the Argonauts, but this idea was quickly abandoned. *whew*

While coming up with his F/X set-pieces, one cannot blame Harryhausen for some of the liberties taken with this story and his cherry-picking of a few other mythical creatures to add to the mix for the captain and crew of the Argo to encounter. Gone was the isle of Lemnos, inhabited by a tribe of foul-smelling women, who killed their philandering men after they abandoned them for less aromatic company (-- though this tale was sort of brought to cinematic light in James Wolcott's The Wild Women of Wango); gone were the multi-armed giants, the Gegeines, slain in droves by Hercules when they attacked the ship when it stopped for supplies. However, Harryhausen did combine this notion of giants attacking the ship with Talos, originally encountered after the Fleece was found, who went from a being who could turn himself molten hot to burn his enemies to an iron colossus, both felled by the same means of an all too easily accessible drain-plug in his foot. 

Defending the blaspheming Phineas (played by future Dr. Who, Patrick Troughton,) from the Harpies in return for directions to Colchis is pretty much intact. And those directions included a trip through the Symplegades a/k/a the Crashing Rocks; though Harryhausen's solution to call upon Triton as a stabilizer to make it through the collapsing channel is much more dynamic than the print version and is one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. And though the use of an actor and miniatures for this sequence was atypical for Harryhausen it certainly saved time; and it was also more practical in that water is impossible to animate frame by frame. Anyways, the end results is fantastic. 

Once Colchis is reached, treachery by Acastus (Raymond), the son of Palias (Wilmer), scuttles any negotiations with King Aeetes. In the story, Jason is given three challenges to win the Golden Fleece, and, with Medea's helpful magic, he gets to work. The first, dealing with some stubborn, fire-breathing beasts of burden was abandoned but the other two were co-opted for the climax. However, after already animating one for Sinbad, Harryhausen substituted in a seven-headed Hydra for the Seepless Dragon, which Jason must defeat to claim his prize. And the third challenge, facing the Spartoi, an army of the dead, bred and raised from the teeth of the slain Dragon/Hydra, provided one of the most rousing and insanely awesome climaxes of Harryhausen's career. And as our heroes sail off into the sunset, we should probably be thankful that they skipped the part where Medea covered their escape by murdering and dismembering her brother, leading their father on a grisly chase to recover all the pieces. Wow. And it only gets worse for our couple on the way back to Thessally, folks. Luckily, another tale for another day...

As per usual, once Harryhausen had his scenarios hashed-out and drawn-up, the material was turned over to a scriptwriter to try and stitch them together. Jan Read was given first crack at it, but when this version proved too dense and convoluted it was turned over to Beverly Cross, a noted Greek and Roman mythology expert, for a massive overhaul, and who was responsible for most of what wound up on screen. And along with all the action and adventure, I truly love the subtext on the twilight of the Greek gods, who see their hold on mankind slipping away. Here, the denizens of Olympus are shown lazily lounging around, and screwing with these mortals via an ersatz game of Risk, moving pieces around the board, trying to one up each other, despite (and in spite of) the terrestrial consequences.

However, one gets a sense that even they are tiring of these games. And when Jason is brought before them and refuses Zeus' divine offer of help, relying on the "hearts" of his fellow men instead, and then openly defies him later by helping Phineas, one can sense the shift of power. In the past, this probably would've gotten Jason a lightning bolt enema. Now, an exasperated Zeus says if he punishes all blasphemers, there'd be no one left to offer him sacrifice. Still, even as the film ends, a pragmatic Zeus allows this happy ending but admits he isn't through with Jason yet. And if you know how Jason's tale ultimately ends, which, to put it mildly, through his own folly and philandering, ends pretty #%*@ing horribly, maybe one should consider Zeus' retribution was merely delayed. But! One could also argue that the elder god just sat back and watched as these foolish mortals destroyed themselves. Hea-Vey. Anyhoo...

Two Columbia contract players were given the leads of Jason and Medea; and both Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack were eventually dubbed over when it was decided they both sounded too American when surrounded by all those British character actors -- so all those rumors about their voices being awful are patently false. Armstrong is great, and brings a real and earnest everyman quality to our hero. Kovack's a knock-out, but frankly, Medea shows up way too late in the story to have much of an impact. Removing her mystical powers didn't help, leaving her without much to do except get rescued, turn traitor, and get shot in the back. Up on Olympus, with all that bickering, Niall MacGinnis's Zeus and Honor Blackman's Hera are about two jugs of oinos away from being afraid of Virginia Woolf (-- if you know what I mean). And even though he was just a minor character who left this quest way too early, Nigel Green nearly steals the whole damned movie with his take on Hercules -- a performace so great it even overshadows some of Harryhausen's creations. 

While Harryhausen worked his magic at Shepperton studios in England, the live-action portions were filmed in and around the small Italian seaside village of Pilanuro and the ruined temples of Paestum. In the director's chair, Don Chaffey kept things chugging along nicely between F/X shots. Behind the camera, this also marked the fourth time Wilkie Cooper served as cinematographer for Schneer on these fantasy epics, working in lock-step with Harryhausen to get the shots he needed. Also, Bernard Hermann's score is a rousing success, though sharp ears will hear the cannibalized strains of North by Northwest, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Vertigo. And when shooting was completed, the Argo was sold to 20th Century Fox to be used in Cleopatra to help offset some of the production costs, which topped $3 million, easily the most expensive Schneer-Harryhausen co-production to date. And somewhat ironically, Columbia submitted Jason and the Argonauts to the Academy for consideration in the special-effects category but it didn't even make the cut while the award that year went to the bloated and over-cooked Cleopatra. Feh. 

From concept to release date, it took almost two years to complete Jason and the Argonauts. (The skeleton fight itself, which lasts less than five minutes took over four months to animate.) Alas, once again, the film did not do great guns at the box-office and critical reaction of the day was universally harsh, merciless, and downright brutal in most circles. History, however, proved this initial hiccup was an anomaly as the film is now (rightfully) championed as one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. The Valley of Gwangi is still my favorite Ray Harryhausen movie, but Jason and the Argonauts is definitely the best. It was Ray's favorite, too.

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"It is Harryhausen -- not the actors, not the 
director -- who is the star of the pictures with 
which he is involved. He is the attraction."
Danny Peary xxxx
Cult Movies xxxx
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Jason and the Argonauts was my personal introduction to the Dynamic Dynamation of Ray Harryhausen; a matinee screening during its re-release back in the 1970's. I vividly recall the younger me watching, transfixed, as the Children of the Hydra first broke out of the ground and assembled and, after scraping my jaw off the floor, I haven't been the same since. And though my dream of being a stop-motion monster animator this encounter inspired never came to pass, I have been living vicariously through Harryhausen’s films, and the films he inspired, ever since and enjoying the hell out of every minute of them. And for that I would like to say, Thanks.

Okay, folks, this post is just part of a trio of reviews put together by a motley triumvirate of Blogs to honor the the life and times of animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen.
Micro-Brewed Reviews: Jason and the Argonauts.
Please check 'em out, won't you? Thank you.
Other Points of Interest:

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Charles H. Schneer / AP: Ray Harryhausen / D: Don Chaffey / W: Jan Read, Beverley Cross, Apollonios Rhodios (poem) / C: Wilkie Cooper / E: Maurice Rootes / M: Bernard Herrmann / S: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Green, Niall MacGinnis, Honor Blackman
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