November 27th, 1998

(no subject)

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) 1:15
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

starring Robert Clarke, Darlene Tompkins, Arianne Arden, Vladimir Sokoloff

Welll... this one wasn't exactly bad, exactly, but I'd probably choke on the word if I tried to call it 'good'.

Okay, maybe it was bad. But entertainingly so at least. An hour and a quarter of undisguised cheese pleasure. The only part that really doesn't... well, let my synposize first:

Air force pilot flies really, really fast and ends up 64 years in the future, after a plague has decimated the world, turning most of its population into either a) sterile deaf-mutes or b) howling bald lunatic mutants. Airman falls in love with one of the deaf-mutes. Deaf-mute dies. He flies home to his own time in hopes of preventing the plague, with uncertain chances of success.

Okay, so for the most part nearly the whole movie is interiors. Really dopey ones. The one part where I thought the movie might be creepy instead of campy was right after he lands at the dilapidated air force base in the future.

There's no one around. Totally empty.

From then until he's captured and brought into the citadel he wanders the woods looking for signs of human life (finding instead a cornball matte painting of a futuristic city looking pretty nice and shiny considering it's supposed to be all underground! in hastily tunneled caves) it's pretty spooky; although I reckon that that's always the case in these 'Am I the last man on earth?' scenarios with wide-open spaces and absolutely no people whatsoever. That's it. That's the only part of the movie that doesn't inspire a reeling camp giddiness.

Allegedly shot at the 1960 Texas State Fair, there is no shortage of unpleasant, pyramidal and triangular-motif rooms in which the action unfolds.

The acting is bad in general and positively appalling in some parts. Most notably the Air Force commander from the past and the head of the citadel's police force; man they stink on ice. Maybe they put up funding for the movie. Then again...this is and Edgar G. Ulmer picture...they probably showed up punctually and that was their sole qualification, but I suppose that's enough to play a supporting role in Beyond the Time Barrier.

Anyhow... taking into consideration the many unpleasant facts about this movie (bad acting, hideous dialogue, ridiculous sets and costumes, semi-comprehensible script) there is a good thing about it, beyond just the campy chuckles, in that Ulmer, no doubt not knowing what else he can possibly do with all this stuff, has some fun with it at least. Like, for example, the female citizens of the citadel: all in mini-skirts and high heels, and I'm pretty certain that Ulmer instructed them all to give it a bit of a wiggle when they walk, because they're definitely shaking their post-apocalyptic asses, big time.

And the... 'mutants'... My lord. They look like guys in torn hospital gowns wearing badly applied bald caps because, well, that's exactly what they are. They're hysterical. They seem like a Kids in the Hall parody of themselves. There's one scene where the head of citadel security takes the airman to the 'mutant dungeon' to show him where he'll wind up if he doesn't cooperate, and as teh airman looks down the stairs, it cuts to a piece of stock footage from some Universal horror picture or other that is so clearly not this movie that you're watching right now, that it just cracks you up. In the stock footage, it looks to be about 50 or so people (when there's supposed to be hundreds of thousands) and when the mutants rush the stairs (in a not-stock-footage shot) there are about only three of them. And this is the mutant nation in revolt, that we're supposed to be scared will overrun the citadel and destroy civilization forever. Oh boy.

Nevertheless, the scene where they do overrun the citadel is pretty effective, considering there aren't a tenth as many people in the frame as you feel there ought to be (the huge sets look pretty empty), you still get a feeling of stark chaos, spare as it is, it's there. With the mutants (the 8 or 9 guys they were able to scrape together who were willing to wear awful bald-caps and shriek) running through the place, attacking soldiers and civilians, the cameras tracking madly. Then there is the shot, Ulmer having fun again, of one mutant tackling one of the mini-skirt cuties and biting her on the ass--I died laughing.

But the worst and most unforgiveable (and least Ulmer's fault) are the special effects of the time-traveling space ship of the air force guy... bad-looking models on strings and all that. A sequence worthy of Ed Wood Jr. himself. Just as bad, or worse, than the special effects of the villain from Girls in Chains, which was an obvious, and oversized for the scale, puppet falling off a model building. This was easily as bad and cheap looking, but it went on for so much longer... That was some hokey-ass space plane. And some silly goddamn bald-caps. But an entertaining movie, at least. Definitely way over on the campy side of entertainment though.

(no subject)

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) 0:58
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

starring Douglas Kennedy, Marguerite Chapman, James Griffith, Ivan Triesault

Wow. This is pretty good. He made this in the same year as Beyond the Time Barrier? Jesus Christ. Talk about extremes. A hard-boiled sci-fi story that's really more hard-boiled than sci-fi, and amazingly reminiscent of Kiss Me Deadly in ways. I'd seen in a few movies guides that several reviewers liked Beyond the Time Barrier and thought this was a disappointing piece of crap. Just goes to show that people either have horrible taste or they're not really seeing these movies when their reviews go into the guides.

Disappointment my ass. This ties with Her Sister's Secret as the best Ulmer movie that I'm seeing for the first time this month. Not a masterpiece; Detour it ain't; but besides that I think it rates with his best and stands way above his worst.

A safecracker gets busted out of the joint by the moll of a mad entrepreneur and is forced to work for him. The bad guy, the entrepreneur, James Griffith, is holding a meek German scientist's daughter captive to force the scientist to use his invisible-man formula on Kennedy so he can steal radioactive stuff from government installations for him. Well, things start to go wrong and Griffith and Kennedy die in an atomic explosion.

Kennedy plays a tough guy well, naturally. He's not a nice guy and he's not really a mean guy either. But you wouldn't want to fuck with him. His prison break over the beginning credits is cool. Gun tower's guns blazing. Searchlights making circles of light in the darkness. It was a promising start.

As they move on to the house where most of the action takes place it becomes evident how well-shot the movie is, especially in comparison to some of the genre turkeys like Beyond the Time Barrier and Girls in Chains. And the people can actually act, thank God. The Mad Entrepreneur is good, so is his intermittently faithful moll; the scientist is a little overdone, but the other character, the Madman's hired muscle, or hired gun rather, is just fine, although I think he's a somewhat extraneous character in the script. The presence of everyone else in the movie makes sense satisfactorily enough, except for him, which is explained in a line or two from the moll telling him some guff about his son being really dead and not alive somewhere as Mr. Madman has told him. I would've preferred no explanation at all to that dopey nonsensical one. It's so obviously trying to sew up something that no one really paid any attention to in the writing of the script.

The special effects are held to a merciful minimum (again, not like the doomed Beyond the Time Barrier) but the ones that are there are decent and not laughably hokey. Sure it looks a little silly, actors trying to pantomime receiving a thrashing from an invisible man, but not nearly as much as you'd expect. It beats all kinds of hell out of Chevy Chase's invisible man CGI gimmicks.

The film itself is permeated with a spirit of true menace and you feel violence may happen at any time, any time at all. And not because of passions running high; there are few histrionics, most conflicts are purely physical. Everybody's got money on their mind. Mr. Mad Entrepreneur wants to use the poor German scientist's technique to develop an invisible army. Probably not to rule the world, but to sell to the highest bidder. Kennedy wants to use the secrets of invisibility to become the most feared heist man in the country. Marguerite Chapman wants...well, she wants to be with whichever man can give her a bigger payday. What does Ivan Triesault want? Hard to say. Impossible, rather. Never stated more than vaguely why he's in it. He looks just right though. Tight-lipped and squinty with a rifle perpetually in his hand. He doesn't say much and that's good because he's the worst actor of the bunch excepting possibly the doctor whom, now that I think about it, may have been played by Ivan Triesault instead of the hired muscle. Whatever.

Consistency. That's another thing about this one. Like I said of Her Sister's Secret, this is a real movie. Sure, genre dopiness like Girls in Chains actually consists of moving images frozen in 24 fps on strips of celluloid film stock, but there's nothing really there. As much skill and talent as he (Ulmer) has been blessed with, sometimes he simply cannot overcome the black-hole gravity of all the awful actors, swiss-cheese scripts and cheap-ass producers. Cheerfully, not so here. This movie moves, progresses forward forcefully and is paced marvellously. I'm not certain how the pace of the movie would feel if it was longer than an hour, if Ulmer had shot 30 more minutes of similarly paced material. Would it hold up?

The doctor seems to be the only person in the picture with a conscience or vestige of ethics hanging about his head. The reason we're given why the doc, even more than the average parent, really doesn't want to lose his daughter (being held prisoner by Mr. Madman to blackmail the doc) is that, during the war, in a concentration camp, the doc was forced to experiment upon his own wife with lethal doses of radiation; so he doesn't want to fuck up with the other woman in his life, his only other family member. It's probably the only instance of guilt in the whole movie. Although the doc later goes on to expose Kennedy to a fatal (1 month to live, tops) dose of the radioactive material 'X-13' that Kennedy himself obtained for Mr. Madman.

Once again Ulmer has a comparatively fluid moving camera for a lot of the scenes (particularly the ones in the living room between Kennedy and Griffith, then Kennedy and Chapman) that seems to be more craftsmanlike and functional than expressionistic. Not that that's a negative criticism by any means. It's positive, very positive. His moves are one of the things that give this movie its drive and set it apart from nearly every other B sci-fi quickie; and this has to do with all Ulmer's flicks (well, most) that they are not pedestrian labors with static cameras and a total reliance on cutting.

As far as similarities to Kiss Me Deadly go, well there's the morally ambiguous / amoral anti-hero whose hard demeanor reminds me very much of Mike Hammer; the violence, fistfights and such, reminds me of the same in Kiss Me Deadly. Hard to explain that... it's not the barbaric vitality of Fuller's physical violence, not at all; but Aldrich's violence, Mike Hammer's... it's brutal without being messy. That's it. That's how it ought to be phrased. This movie shares Kiss Me Deadly's no-muss no-fuss savagery.

And the ending... Jesus Christ. And I thought Aldrich ended his movie apocalyptically! Forget it. That just had one burning house. Here, while the two male leads (Kennedy and megalomaniac Griffith) are struggling in mortal combat in the lab, they trigger an explosion that annihilates not only themselves, and not only the house, but the entire county as well. Annihilates. As a government agent observes the crater through binoculars, he says, 'There isn't even enough left down there to make ashes with.' Now that's an apocalyptic ending.

I wonder. Kiss Me Deadly came out five years earlier. I'm sure Ulmer must have seen it.

The doc, who's miraculously escaped the atomic vaporization, later on is confronted by government spooks telling him how much the CIA and his country could benefit from his invisibility formula. The doc points out how bad things would be if his secret fell into the wrong hands. The doc wants to let the secret die with Kennedy and Griffith. In the last shot, a CU of his face, he plaintively asks the audience: 'What would you do?' The end. Roll credits.

I don't know how I feel about that. It's wonderful, in a deliriously campy way but... would it have been a stronger finish, ending on the shot (a stock shot, not effects) of a mushroom cloud engulfing the city? I was a little ticked that the doc had somehow escaped destruction. Everyone should have died, there should've been nothing left.

Mushroom cloud. Kennedy and Griffith die. Marguerite Chapman dies. The doc and his little daughter die. The end. Roll credits.

That works so much better for me.

[I also just found out (2006) that this movie was used for an episode of MST3K, which makes me kind of sad. They're only supposed to use movies that are irredeemable! And this is far from that.]