Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Vampires! Mostly, sort of.

October 26, 2010

When I was a boy I watched a great many science fiction and horror movies on TV programs with titles like The Big Show, Creature Feature (with Sir Cecil Creape), and Dr. Shock (“Good night, sleep tight, and should you hear a scream in the night…it will be your own.”)

Sir Cecil. I couldn’t find Dr. Shock.

Ah, youth! I doubt a single one of those films could have been called “good” by any reasonable measure, but for good or ill—mostly ill, I should think—all that schlock is deeply embedded in my soul. When I think of my childhood, at least of the fun parts, I think of bad acting and worse special effects. Happy days indeed!

And now, thanks to streaming Netflix, I can relive those golden days. I have no idea what I was looking for last weekend when Netflix decided that I might like Queen of Blood (usually it has me pegged, correctly, as pretentious). I was a little nervous about watching it, not wanting a fond memory ruined, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was exactly as I remembered it. Which is to say, pretty bad, but in a good way. It was too cheap to have its own special effects, so it stole some from a much more expensive and possibly much sillier Russian movie. I like that.

I'd rather meet one of the green girls from Star Trek In the distant future, the year 1990, the International Space Federation (whose signage has lettering that must have looked very futuristic in 1966) has received radio transmissions from an alien race and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of emissaries from same. When the alien spaceship crashes on Mars, the ISF dispatches a rescue mission, including Manly Astronaut John Saxon; his girlfriend, Sexy-Girl-Next-Door Astronaut Judi Meredith; and Expendable Astronaut Dennis Hopper, looking very young in his pre-Easy Rider days. They find the crashed spaceship—it turns out to be on Phobos, for reasons that probably have to do with the Russian footage the filmmakers cribbed—with a single survivor, an exotically green-skinned alien woman, played by exotically Czech actress Florence Marly.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, she turns out to have a taste for human blood, and to have both hypnotic powers and heat vision, which prove awfully inconvenient for Hopper and the mission commander (who will have to remain anonymous here, as I’ve forgotten his name). Fortunately, our better-looking heroes make it back to earth, where (twist ending! there’s always a twist ending) they discover that the alien has laid eggs throughout the ship. She really was a queen, the egg-laying kind of queen, get it? Beware, humanity!

Like so many Roger Corman-produced cheapies of the era, Queen of Blood makes the most of its small budget and low production values, making up in spunkiness what it lacks in, well, everything else. And it does have a few moments of great creepiness. Marly, who seems to have been a sort of minor Marlene Dietrich, did manage to project some real eeriness, even completely silent and wearing a space helmet over a hairstyle that must have looked silly even in the sixties—another legacy of the Russian donor movie, I think. And the final scene, of enthusiastic scientist Basil Rathbone (yes, really!) beaming as he carries trays of alien eggs off the spaceship, is nicely chilling.

Mark, Bert, Wes, and the gang Flush with the success of QoB, I moved on to Planet of the Vampires, which I remember being very scary indeed. I had high hopes for this one, for reasons beyond my childhood fears. For starters, it was directed by Mario Bava, the Italian horror maestro who brought us such horror classics including Hatchet for the Honeymoon and Black Sunday (which scared the piss out of me when I was six, and which is tragically unavailable on instant play). And according to Leonard Maltin and the internet it has a reputation for stylishness.

Alas, the maestro let me down. PotV is merely so bad it’s bad. The vaunted Euro-style is mostly low light, a lot of wasted space in the spaceships’ control rooms, and a dry-ice fog machine in the “eerie planet” set. The dialog is sub-trite, except for the technobabble, which was all babble and no techno. The spacesuits are among the silliest in all of sci-fi. The astronauts are named “Mark,” “Wes,” and “Burt.” At least the High G special effects—actors (if you can call them that) putting their heads on their desks, basically—were worth a laugh.

And there are no vampires. Instead, there are evil alien spirit beings that force the astronauts to kill each other, and then possess the corpses. Which wouldn’t be bad, actually, if only they were scary. There is one almost-good sequence in which the astronauts find centuries-old wrecked spaceship, the occupants of which apparently fell prey the the evil spirit beings. Was it an inspiration for Alien? I would think so, but it’s a little different to imagine the two being connected. Alien was, you know, really good.

I fear I gave up on PotV. Maybe I’ll go back and watch the end, the bit that really got younger me: (SPOILER ALERT) we find that the last two “survivors” are in fact not survivors at all, and that their alien possessors intend to spread their evil race throughout all civilization. But, the ship’s Meteor Rejecter having been irreparably damaged, they are forced to land instead on a nearby undistinguished planet with a primitive situation, a planet called (wait for it…) Earth!

Enough of these space vampire movies with no vampires! It’s time to get back to real vampires.

Finally, a REAL vampire. I’m pretty sure I never saw The Vampire Lovers, certainly not in all its unedited glory, but I saw a great many others from Hammer Productions. Hammer’s films were earthy, violent and bloody. They took little interest in afterlives or other worlds, except as they might lead to the immediate leaving of this one, preferably gruesomely. As a friend of mine put it, “In a Hammer film, you could die.” Hammer vampires, starting with Christopher Lee’s Dracula, were foul and brutal creatures, not in the least soulful or tormented or sparkly.

The Vampire Lovers dates from the happy time when Hammer, like other production companies, had just discovered nudity. And what better use for nudity than a Victorian lesbian vampire story? The Vampire Lovers is an adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, the lesbian vampire story from which all other lesbian vampire stories derive. I read it long ago, and remember its being disappointingly tame and a bit boring, as I suppose befits something from 1872. You can see for yourself here; I haven’t had the energy to reread it.

The movie is surprisingly (though certainly not strictly) faithful to the story, and really a great improvement, what with the nudity and the explicit lesbianism and the general Hammering it up. Carmilla, aka Mircalla aka Marcilla (aka Millarca in the book) is played by Ingrid Pitt, who made a bit of a career of this sort of thing. I have no idea whether she could really act, but she was so sultry (dressed or not) that it hardly mattered. The plot was not particularly coherent, and a number of things were left unexplained and unresolved (maybe the book was the same way), but again, who cares? Plot coherence really wasn’t a Hammer value. Hammer movies were about fangs and blood and terror. And nudity.

Caprica

January 24, 2010

[Mild spoilers, but probably nothing you don’t already know if you’re bothering to read this…]

Mother of the Cylons

Finally saw the pilot of Caprica today (huzzah for HD TiVo!), and I have to say, it was pretty frakkin’ great. I’m really not sure what I expected, apart from “Battlestar Galactica prequel, with proto-Cylons,” but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what it turns out to be. (Well, OK, it did have proto-Cylons, which I admit brought a nostalgic tear to my eye. Kind of like the half-finished Death Star at the end of Revenge of the Sith.)

Apparently the story was originally nothing to do with BSG, but the good people of SyFy have done a surprisingly good job shoehorning it in to the pre-existing framework—(ur-)Cylons! Gods! Retro-hip clothing! “Frakkin’!”—and more importantly of continuing the BSG tradition of moral ambiguities and inversions.

The techo-babble doesn’t bear too much thinking about, but you didn’t really expect it to, did you? And it all goes down pretty easily thanks to some excellent production design (I suppose I should be pretentious and refer to mise-en-scène here). As in BSG the design is all “earthlike”; no wild Star Trekky aliens and costumes on Caprica. It reminds me a bit of a great line from Babe: Pig In the City: it’s set “a little to the left of the twentieth century.” The Caprica City backgrounds reminded me a little of old matte paintings from movies set in the not-too-distant future Year 2000, except of course in nice sparkly HD; I’ve always been a sucker for matte paintings. The actors were reasonably good, especially Alessandra Torresani, in what I imagine is the most fun role in the series. That’s her in the picture, being Eve, in case you missed the Gnostic relevance of her character’s name.1

I’ve no idea how long it will take Caprica to run out of steam, as I’m sure it will. It took BSG about a season and a half before it started becoming obvious that the writers were starting to flounder. I’ll take a season and a half of this.

1.  See also Genesis 3:20 in the Septuagint.

Sunshine, and sound design

June 30, 2008

I saw Danny Boyle‘s moody and stylish science fiction thriller Sunshine the other night. As with everything from Boyle—from heroin addicts to flatmates trying to murder each other to zombies to saints—it was…intense. The setup—a spaceship, inauspiciously called Icarus II, heading straight toward the sun—is perfect for overwhelming imagery, and Boyle takes full advantage of it. Alas, the plot didn’t really justify the intensity. I had a bit of an “oh, is that all?” reaction to some of the crucial plot devices. I think at the very end it wanted a bit of 2001-style transcendence, but couldn’t really get there. 2001 itself only did that by becoming more or less incomprehensible in its final reel, something Boyle (and screenwriter Alex Garland) weren’t quite willing to do, opting instead for a more standard thriller device (of which I’ll say no more). Oh well. Maybe this is a film best seen stoned, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about the plot at all.

I did appreciate the shout-outs to 2001, Alien, and best of all—wait for it—Dark Star (no beach balls or surfboards, though). Apparently there are also references to Solaris, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen—in the little bit of commentary I saw, Boyle said that no “serious science fiction movie” can escape the shadows of 2001, Alien, and Solaris.

Among the things I liked both most and least about Sunshine was its sound design. The sound was as overwhelming as the visuals were: Boyle hits you hard with both the music and the incidental grungy spaceship noises. The overall impact was, I think, intended to disconcert and annoy—I was reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And that it did, to great effect. I’m all for disconcerting annoyance, but what I didn’t like, in my pedantic nerdliness, was the fact that the exterior shots of the Icarus II were as noisy as the interiors. I can’t help compare that to 2001, where the exterior shots featured only silence, music (the initial exteriors of the Discovery are accompanied by a singularly beautiful piece from Aram Khatchaturian‘s ballet Gayne; it turned me on to Khatchaturian), and, during the ill-fated spacewalks, breathing. I understand that 2001‘s pristine and minimalist sound design would not have worked in Sunshine—I doubt it would work almost anywhere else; minimalism is hard, and I imagine it takes a Kubrick-like genius to pull it off—but it is the superior work of art.

This weekend on NPR I heard an interview with legendary sound guy Ben Burtt, the man who gave us the sounds of the light saber and R2-D2, and now WALL·E. Asked what movies he hadn’t worked on whose sound he admired, he named 2001, for its minimalism. I felt vindicated.