Tag Archives: sci-fi

Weird Adventures

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 June 2013

Distributor: BFI

The Monster of Highgate Ponds

Director:Alberto Cavalcanti

UK 1961, 59 mins

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Director: Michael Powell

UK 1972, 55 mins

A Hitch in Time

Director: Jan Darnley-Smith

UK 1978, 57 mins

For anyone who spent their childhood in the UK before the 1990s, films produced by the Children’s Film Foundation were a regular feature on kids’ TV; comprising odd, one-off dramas that, when screened amid the hectic modern cartoons of the late 20th century, not to mention gunge-filled game shows and tweenage soaps like Grange Hill, already felt old-fashioned even before the series came to an end in 1985. Perhaps this was due to the not-for-profit basis of the organisation that made them (and government funding via the Eady Levy), or because the company made films specifically for British children (with an assumption of what that audience would enjoy) without pressure from market forces. That said, nostalgia for the range has brought a tear to the eye of many – particularly the generation who grew up in the 1980s and are obsessed with old TV shows and video games – so the 160 films and two dozen serials that the CFF produced have emerged in dribs and drabs over the last few years on DVD.

To rectify this, the BFI have been releasing new themed collections, with three instalments per disc – not particularly generous, considering the 160 available, but better than their former policy of one 45-minute TV show per disc – and Weird Adventures is the third in the range, collecting three sci-fi/fantasy films from the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest, The Monster of Highgate Ponds, has aged the worst of the three. While footage of 1960s London is charming, especially the rarely filmed canals and docks, and the politeness and received pronunciation of the young actors is refreshing, there simply isn’t enough plot to fill the hour-long running time. One scene, for example, where the children encounter circus workers in a pet shop, who state they’re looking for an unusual animal to join their collection, is reasonably entertaining the first time we see it, and forgivable the second, for inattentive young members of the audience who might have nipped to the loo earlier on, but the third iteration of the same scene just seems like lazy, patronising writing.

Direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (Night Mail, 1936 / Went the Day Well?, 1942) is solid, but not quite exciting or lurid enough for a tale about a dinosaur hatching from an egg and taking up residence in the Highgate swimming ponds. Elsewhere, the realisation of the monster via stop-motion animation when young (by Halas and Batchelor, best known for 1954’s Animal Farm), then as a man in a dinosaur suit when full-sized (and pitched halfway between Godzilla, 1955 and Rentaghost, 1976–1984) is pretty good, but the interminable length makes the film a hard slog for modern audiences.

Luckily, the second film in the collection, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, is far more remarkable, not least as the final collaboration by director Michael Powell and writer/producer Emeric Pressburger. A mixture of educational narrative about the sources of power from the National Grid, plus a children’s adventure movie regarding mice lost in the Tower of London, the eponymous description of the lead character’s change in colour creates a heady mix of caper, surrealism and free-form structure that makes the viewer wish Powell and Pressburger had helmed a few more films for the CFF.

Finally, slapstick sci-fi drama A Hitch in Time is probably most memorable for the appearance of former Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton, playing another eccentric time-machine pilot. However, a terrific antagonist played by TV stalwart Jeff Rawle steals every scene he’s in as a malevolent teacher, with a dozen similar ancestors that a pair of time-travelling kids encounter through the ages. While the direction is somewhat workmanlike due to long-standing CFF director Jan Darnley-Smith being behind the camera, the witty, episodic script by T.E.B. Clarke, writer of Ealing Comedy classics Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), keeps the action going at a steady clip. Although Troughton is ironically underused as the mad professor, his machine anticipates a similar device in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) and the historical antics almost seem like a dry run for Time Bandits (1981), which was made only three years after this film.

Like many anthologies, Children’s Film Foundation Volume Three: Weird Adventures is a bit of a mixed bag, but these minor works by great British film directors and writers are certainly worth investigating for cineastes with a curiosity about B-movies aimed at a family audience.

Alex Fitch



Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 July 2010

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Vincenzo Natali

Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor

Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu

Canada 2009

104 mins

While Vincenzo Natali’s four feature films have a few things in common - a single word title, small casts featuring David Hewlett and being situated in the environs of the fantasy/science fiction genre - they couldn’t be more different in terms of (high concept) plot. Cube features six characters with partial amnesia enclosed in a futuristic death trap. Cypher is a Philip K Dick-style spy thriller about shifting identities and corporate espionage. Nothing is a two-hander set in a house surrounded by an encroaching white void. His new film Splice is an update of the Frankenstein story through the lens of modern fears of genetic modification. Compared to Nothing, or even Cube, you’d think Splice would be an easy sell to the financiers. However, while the film has proved to be a reasonable box office and critical success in the US, Natali revealed in his video introduction at Sci-Fi London that getting funding for the movie was arduous until executive producer Guillermo del Toro came on board.

Having seen the film I can imagine why. The story is familiar enough: ambitious scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) decide to disregard their company’s instructions not to go rushing ahead with a gene-splicing project that has already yielded satisfactory results and end up creating a dangerous human-animal hybrid. Variants of the story have turned up in a number of films over the last quarter-century such as The Fly (1986), Species (1995) and Alien Resurrection (1997). Each of these have suggested that a creature with mixed human/non-human DNA will have a skewed sexuality, but as Splice adds elements of bestiality, incest and paedophilia to this, it is easy to see why any financier who initially read the script might have got cold feet. Of course, it is precisely these elements that make The Fly superior to the exploitative ‘T&A’ of a movie like Species and Splice an intriguing and relatively daring film. Perhaps it’s something to do with Canadian sensibilities - too much introspection on long winter nights - but Canadian cinema often presents some of the most fascinating explorations of human sexuality on screen, not only in the films of David Cronenberg, but also in those of Guy Maddin and Robert Lepage, and with Splice, Vincenzo Natali has added another notable genre film to that list.

In the TV mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), writer Christopher Isherwood was one of the first authors to suggest that if a human scientist tried to create augmented life, the creature might turn out to be handsome rather than horrific - visually, if not morally. In Splice, the creature starts off as a cute alien pet, but soon grows into a beautiful young woman (albeit with a prehensile tail and reptilian eyes). This creature, whose androgyny turns out to be important to the plot, becomes an object of desire for both its creators, one of whom is also a genetic parent, and the film explores some of the perverse possibilities of post-human relationships. This section of the film ultimately unbalances the whole project as the shifting attitudes and desires of the creature’s makers are dealt with a little too quickly while the final act is too similar to a dozen other movies.

In spite of its few shortcomings, the film has much to commend it and its ideas are adeptly fleshed out by an excellent cast. Sarah Polley is an idiosyncratic actress with a number of terrific SF/horror performances under her belt - Dawn of the Dead (2004), eXistenZ (1999), Last Night (1998) - and she is equally good here. Adrien Brody preceded Splice with the Dario Argento film Giallo (2009), which continued the director’s downward slide into DVD bargain bins, and while good actors often sleepwalk through genre films, Brody is well used here. His casting against type as an action hero in Predators (2010), not to mention his role in the underrated time travel film The Jacket (2005), shows that science fiction is a genre that suits his brooding demeanour and haunted looks.

While Splice was not the massive hit in the US that ‘geek’ websites predicted, it has the potential to move Natali out of his reputation as a niche director of speculative fiction. While Cube, for example, arrived a little too early to benefit from the success of the similarly themed Saw (2004) and its endless stream of sequels, Splice is intriguing and subversive enough to get the director the larger recognition he deserves. Natali is currently rumoured to be attached to adaptations of a couple of lauded but challenging science fiction classics - William Gibson’s Neuromancer and JG Ballard’s High Rise - and if anyone can tackle thought-provoking SF and do so on a relatively low budget, he’s certainly the man for the job.

Alex Fitch

Mock Up on Mu

Parsons Columns_KalSpelletich

Format: DVD (NSTC Region 0)

Distributor: Other Cinema

Director: Craig Baldwin

Writer: Craig Baldwin

Cast: Stoney Burke, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Damon Packard, Michelle Silva

USA 2008

114 mins

Craig Baldwin has made some of the finest underground feature films of the last 20 years. He draws on the visual detritus of the 20th century, using found footage liberated from B-movies, educational shorts, long-lost adverts and many other sources, and creates an aesthetic of recontextualised images melded to his own narrative ends. From his conspiratorial epic Tribulation 99 (1991) through to Spectres of the Spectrum (1999), Baldwin has engaged with the history and secret histories of the 20th century, tearing through accepted fact and outré conspiracy theories, reality and hyper-reality. His latest feature, Mock Up on Mu, delves deep into Baldwin’s interests in science fiction, rocket science, occult California and the New Age.

Mixing his familiar plunderphonic methods with original footage of his small cast (including underground filmmaker Damon Packard), Mock Up on Mu draws on the biographies of magickian and rocket scientist Jack Parsons, occultist and Beat artist Marjorie Cameron and Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. A sci-fi history mash-up, the film spins biography, pseudo-biography, actuality, conspiracy and speculation with a gleeful disregard for any distinctions. Baldwin detours into plots and subplots that subvert the historical record. But he isn’t just creating a fantasy so much as he is exploring the mythologies that already existed beneath the collective notion of history. Reality is more than reality and fantasy is more than fantasy.

For more details, visit the Other Cinema website. Watch the first chapter.

Like his previous works, Mock Up on Mu is tightly edited, rapid-paced, informative and irreverent, and coming in at nearly two hours there’s enough here to watch and re-watch. The world may ever seem quite the same again.

Jack Sargeant



Format: DVD

Release date: 31 August 2009

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Luigi Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli (uncredited)

Writers: Luigi Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli

Original title: Le orme

Cast: Florinda Bolkan, Klaus Kinski, Peter McEnery, Nicoletta Elmi, Lila Kedovra

Italy 1975

92 mins

Like Alice, the young translator whose strange journey we follow in Footprints (Le orme), you may find yourself hit by waves of tingling déj&#224 vu, recurrent nightmare and flickering, almost remembered memory when watching this long-lost Italian thriller. Have I seen that peacock stained-glass window before? I’m sure I’ve stood on that mysterious hill overlooking that same sea?

If it wasn’t for the fact that this psychedelically haunting giallo from 1975 has never before been released in the UK, and has been unavailable worldwide on DVD until now, it would be easy to cite its influence on later moonlit dips into the interior, like some of the more cerebral moments of Argento, Aronofsky’s The Fountain, US experimental filmmaker Nina Menke’s work and of course many of Lynch’s delights.

Through an impressive performance by Florinda Bolkan (who also starred in ‘nunsploitation’ flick Flavia the Heretic), we are drawn into Alice’s world and her degenerating psychological state. A yellow dress has appeared overnight in her wardrobe, lurid against her row of beige suits. There’s also a ripped up postcard with an image of an opulent hotel on her kitchen floor. Alice’s colleagues have just informed her she’s been missing from work for three days, and the dream of an astronaut abandoned on the moon continues playing out in her mind’s eye. Alice’s seemingly straightforward existence has been torn apart and she must travel to the exotic island of Garma to piece things back together. We are drawn all the more powerfully into her world as she seems credible and intelligent, not prone to hysterical flights of fancy like the flailing token females that plague many gialli. And to this is added the impressive, disturbing cameo by Klaus Kinski as the sinister scientist Dr Blackmann.

Director Luigi Bazzoni’s treatment of Footprints is visionary, being equal parts style and substance, enhanced much by the cinematography of Vittorio Storraro, who of course also contributed his extraordinary talent to the films of Bertolucci and Coppola. It’s certainly a visual treat and while it is true to its era, it retains an elegance even in the final surrealist sequence on the stunning Balkan beach. The dream/memory flashbacks are executed with restraint and subtlety, and as a result have a particularly memorable impact on the subconscious mind. Perhaps a little like Storraro himself, this is a film with a sassy sense of its own style: it’s not just dressed to impress.

Footprints comes with the added appeal of obscurity: you’ll probably be the only one you know who’s seen it. The price to pay for this obscurity is the crude restoration of previously lost scenes, and the sudden (unintentionally) hilarious switches from English to Italian. These can be forgiven but do detract slightly from the overall credibility of the film. All in all, however, for those longing for an existentialist, sci-fi adventure that combines the narrative mystery and sense of isolation of Solaris with the vivid Italian visions of Argento: this is the film you’ve been dreaming of.

Siouxzi Mernagh

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Format: DVD/Blu-ray + exclusive BR Steelbook

Release date: 15 September 2014

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Stephen Chiodo

Writers: Charles Chiodo, Edward Chiodo, Stephen Chiodo

Cast: Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Allen Nelson, John Vernon

USA 1988

86 mins

For a trashy horror/sci-fi/comedy (thanks IMDB), Killer Klowns is inspired. It takes the simple (albeit done to death) idea of clowns being evil, but exploits that premise for all it’s worth. Victims are turned into candyfloss, inflatable balloon animals hunt people down while the Klowns fire popcorn guns where each grain turns into a carnivorous jack-in-the-box. This film is inventive, stylish and a joy to watch, just to see what crazy spin the directors are going to come up with next.

It’s the kind of movie you want to be mates with and it looks like it was just as much of a laugh to make as it is to watch. You can see that the Chiodo brothers put their hearts and souls into every detail, and the actors look like they’re having a great time playing their stock horror movie characters.

I say actors, but to be honest it looks like the brothers roped in a bunch of mates, whose only experience of acting seems to come from watching Saved by the Bell (especially the ice-cream double act, who really had to be the first to die). These performances could have polished a turd in a so-bad-it’s-hilarious kind of way, but here the hamming takes the shine off a genuinely funny script, which includes such deadpan lines as when Police Chief Mooney leans forward and growls, ‘Killer Klowns? From outer space?’ in true Police Squad fashion.

If only Lost would do this type of thing.

Bonus features on this new Arrow release include an audio commentary with the Chiodo Brothers, alongside behind-the-scenes footage and a making of feature, and interviews with stars Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder, composer John Massari and creature fabricator Dwight Roberts.

But all the popcorn guns and hilarious dialogue can’t hide the fact that the film is fundamentally flawed. It’s just not scary. Despite the Spitting Image-style animatronic Klown-heads and their fantastically diverse methods of destruction, they are ultimately soulless, superficial and dare I say it, boring. The wonderful gadgets gloss over the fact that these bad guys have the personality of an envelope. There is no feeling of triumph when the people start to fight back, and the climax feels like just another sexy set-piece rather than anything momentous. Hell, I even got the feeling that if only our heroes would just ignore them they’d probably go away on their own.

Which is a real shame.

It’s still a great romp though. And after a few beers and pizza, it’ll make a fantastic climax to any house party. It’ll give Anchorman a breather at any rate.

High-five for candyfloss.

This review was first published for Optimum’s DVD release of Killer Klowns in 2008.

Oli Smith