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Posts Tagged ‘John Richardson’

One Million Years BC (1966) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

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Stars – Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick
Director – Don Chaffey

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Anytime one of Ray Harryhuasen’s film makes it to Blu-Ray it is a cause for celebration.  Touting Ray’s animated dinosaurs and Raquel Welch in a leather bikini the film went on the become the highest grossing picture ever made by Hammer Films. This is a caveman and dinosaur picture with natural dialogue. The tribes speak a minimum of words so what carries the day is the wonderful visuals. There are many long takes of the incredible looking landscapes. Rocky vistas stretch over the desolate hardscrabble grounds. The effects crew use these colorful sulphur bombs to give the impression of volcanic dust wafting in the air. The film opens slowly. We see violent explosions of flame and molten lava under the credits. There is an elongated sequence of a sunrise.

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The film begins with a little narration and then focuses on a tribe of black bearded men and their cowering women. They fight over food. Life is tough. The strongest man rules and takes what he wants. He has a fight with one of his sons and with a few whacks of a stout staff he sends him on his way. John Richardson looks quite good here. Both Martine Beswick and Raquel Welch remark in their interviews that they were stopped in their tracks when they first saw him. Raquel says that next to her he was the real pretty one. Richardson as Tumac makes his way through the barren lands. He eventually finds the ocean. The sight blows him away. Then he sees a group of blonde women fishing and frolicking in the water. This is all too much. Suddenly he is attacked by a giant tortoise. The creature looks great. In this new transfer we can make out all kinds of detail in the skin textures etched into the body by Harryhausen. Anytime one of his models is on screen the picture is fantastic. There is a pretty lengthy battle. I’ve heard Harryhausen say that whenever he has one of his creature enter people usually go after it with a bunch of sticks and poke at it. They sure do here as well.

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Tumac is smitten with Luana the name of Raquel’s character. While all the other women have these scraggly looking one piece costumes she’s got a well crafted leather bikini. She also sports the most fantastic make up with eye shadow and eye liner never out of place. The blonde tribe is more evolved. They seem to cook better. They make better spears with sharpened rocks tied onto the ends of their staffs. While all the black haired tribe seems to do is yell and fight the blondes seem to have more fun. Tumac discovers laughter. When we have had just about enough of this another of Ray’s dinosaurs makes a welcome entrance. The scene with the Allosaurus is a terrific set piece. He’s not that much taller than the cavemen he attacks. The way Haryhausen manages the interaction is a joy to behold. The actors have to shoot the scenes pretending while looking at empty space without anything there. Ray will make a model of one of the people and switch from the real person to a model in peril with his dinosaur. It’s a great effect. The best example of this is when a huge flying pteranodon grabs Ms. Welch and carries her off into the air. That scene features a fight between two flying monsters in mid air. Watching this bit recalls the harpies flying around in Jason and the Argonauts. While comparing the social evolution of the two tribes has its merits it’s the Dino action we are in this for. At times the length between those scenes stretches out a bit too long. I will say though that while watching this new Blu Ray I found those interim portions much easier to take.

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This is a remake of a classic Hal Roach film One Million BC (1940) that stared Victor Mature and Carole Landis. Carole sported a bathing suit like outfit that while fetching enough was not the sensation that Raquel’s became. Posters were popular in the mid sixties. Comic book heroes, comedians, action stars and all kinds of counter culture types were available in these large 27 x 41 sized prints that you could tack to your wall. They were very affordable, too. The photograph taken of Raquel during the filming became a huge sensation. It was everywhere and without a doubt made her the star that she became. It had to have helped put a few more dollars in the Hammer coffers, too. The other woman in the film that had a bikini was Martine Beswick. She did a great fight scene between two Gypsy girls in the James Bond film, From Russia With Love. She gets another fight scene in this one, too. The encounter with Raquel is well choreographed. You can clearly see that the two of them are actually doing all the moves themselves. Martine does mention in her interview that her bikini was not near as well tailored as Raquel’s. This was something she made sure to negotiate for in her next Hammer film.

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It is a real treat to have this Harryhausen film in such good shape. Kino has included both the International cut and the shorter by 9 minute US version. Among the trims were some shots from the Harryhausen effects scenes. Tim Lucas in his commentary finds this completely without cause. This is why everyone came to see this film. Why would you take even a frame away from any of the work he contributed? Tim’s commentary is full of stories and generous details about the film. He has a nice relaxed delivery and apparently is drawing information from a huge trunkful of information about the film. He credits his sources at several times which is a very nice touch. The interviews with Raquel Welch and Martine Beswick are very candid and lot of fun. The best though is hearing Ray Harryhuasen himself talk about his work on the project as he shows off a few of the actual models that he used in One Million Years BC. So yes, the ridiculous dialogue of the cavemen can be over the top and there may be a bit too much of them altogether. However the dinosaurs are the main attraction and they are served up wonderfully here. Highly recommended.

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Video – 1.85:1
The cover boasts a brand new 4K restoration and once you fire up this disc it backs it up.  Both the US and International cut appear to be in terrific shape. Each version gets their own disc. Colors are strong. Black levels are nice and deep without any distortion or noise. Sure you can tell when matte work is in the background or optical effects are being used but this overall picture is outstanding. The landscapes and vistas in the exteriors all look magnificent. There is quite a bit of time between the dinosaur encounters with only the locations and bikini clad merits of Ms. Welch and Beswick on hand to fill the time so be glad the picture looks so good.

Audio – DTS HD 2.0
Not that you really want to hear it but all of that monosyllabic dialogue is easy enough to follow. The music is brash and supports the film well.

Extras – Commentary by film historian Tim Lucas | In the Valley of the Dinosaurs: Interview with Star Raquel Welch | An Interview with SFX Legend Ray Harryhausen | Interview with Actress Martine Beswick | Animated Montage of Posters and Images | Trailers.  On the inside cover there is a reproduction of a controversial publicity picture.  That’s a nice cheeky touch by Kino.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent (Classic for Ray Harryhausen fans)

Black Sunday: Blu Ray Review

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Black Sunday (1960)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Mario Bava

Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici

When Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) is condemned to death for witchcraft, she places a curse on her descendants; two centuries later, the curse comes to fruition and is visited upon her look-alike descendant, the virginal Princess Katja (Steele, again)…

Mario Bava entered the Italian film industry in the late 1930s, and over the next twenty years he developed a reputation as a tremendous cinematographer and special effects artist.  He was also quietly responsible for salvaging many runaway productions after their temperamental “official” directors walked off the set.  As a reward for rescuing so many films, he was given the opportunity to graduate to directing in 1960.  Bava, a lifelong devotee of Russian lierature, drew upon a story that he used to read to his children, The Viy, written by Nikolaj Gogol, as his source of inspiration.  As the eternally humble and self deprecating filmmaker would later recall, he and his cowriters – including the film’s editor, Mario Serandrei – made a point of retaining very little of Gogol’s nightmarish tale; what they created, however, has taken on a life that is arguably more iconic and beloved than the source material.

The end result, La maschera del demonio (literally The Mask of the Demon), became a success through much of Europe – and even in America, where it was acquired by American International Pictures, shorn of several minutes of exposition and then-graphic violence, rescored by in-house composer Les Baxter, and rechristened as Black Sunday.  The film is thus best known under this title, even if many younger Bava fans first encountered the film in its original, uncut form as The Mask of Satan – the title having been ammended slightly by the Italian distributors for this English-language export edition.  Ironically, one of the few places it failed to make a dent was in Bava’s own country – Italians were dubious of home grown horror items, even though they lapped up the offerings from England’s Hammer Studios, and thus it would be that Bava would remain largely unknown and unappreciated by critics and audiences in his own country.

The story offers up a fairly conventional fairy tale-cum-ghost story, with a familiy curse coming into play.  British actress Barbara Steele was cast by Bava due to her unusual, vaguely exotic looks, which he rightly reckoned could be tweeked to present as either virtuous or menacing.  Steele came to the film after an unproductive stint in Hollywood and the UK, and while she would later claim to have gone to Italy for the sole purpose of working with the great Federico Fellini (a dream which would come true, when the auteur, who knew and respected Bava’s work, cast her in a pivotal supporting role in his greatest film, 8 1/2, 1963), she would find herself in the admittedly unlikely position of becoming a horror icon.  It was a label Steele wore with resentment for many years, though she has since reconciled herself to it and is now more open to discussing her work in the genre.  Steele’s presence is key to the film’s impact – her haunting eyes and unusual, ethereal beauty dominate the proceedings, making Princess Asa one of the genre’s greatest villains.  She fares less well as the virtuous Katja, being relatively inexperienced at the time – and with Bava focusing his energies on the look of the picture, he was not able to afford her the type of insight into the character that she really needed.  In short, while Black Sunday remains the most beloved title by both director and star, it’s arguable that they both would go on to do more refined work, with the benefit of greater experience at their disposal.

Bava’s mastery of the medium is evident from the opening sequence – a prologue dramatizing the execution of Asa.  Bava lays on the atmosphere with a trowel, evoking an ambience that can be seen as a mixture of Fritz Lang and Hans Christian Anderson.  So much is so right with the early sections of the film that it’s easy to overlook how badly it stumbles in the second half.  After the resurrection of Asa’s lover/minion, the vampire Javutich (a brilliant, frightening Arturo Dominici), and the claiming of Asa’s first victims, the story becomes matter of fact and routine.  There’s far too much rushing too and fro, and the love story between Katja and handsome young Dr. Gorobec (a wooden John Richardson) develops too briskly to be credible.  Bava works in a few frissons in the final reels – notably the death by eye “staking” of one of Asa’s victims – but nothing in the second half comes close to replicating the sheer sure-footedness of the first half.

To assist in his official maiden voyage as a director, Bava selected some key craftsmen and artisans that he had worked with earlier in his career.  The most notable among these was set designer Giorgio Giovannini (who had worked on Hercules Unchained, 1959, a stylish pepla photographed and co-directed, without credit, by Bava).  Giovannini and Bava was absolutely in sympatico here, creating a unified “look” for the picture that extends even into the rare bits of location filming.  Giovannini’s wonderfully baroque set designs, coupled with Bava’s silky black and white lighting, helps to make Black Sunday one of the handomest and most atmospheric Gothic horror films ever made.  As was the norm with the director, Bava’s approach was one of exacting, hand crafted expertise – he even devised most of the matte paintings and special effects himself, though he also enlisted his beloved father, Eugenio, to handle some of the chores.

Ultimately, Black Sunday is not Bava’s finest film – even if it his most popular.  Narrative hiccups and an uncertain second half make it a flawed gem at best – but even so, it remains a cornerstone of the Italian horror film, and one of the most influential exercises in style and mood imaginable.

Video:

UK-based Arrow Video have a spotty track record when it comes to Italian horror films.  Their handsome looking edition of Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1984) suffered from some audio glitches, while their release of Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) is almost unbearable to look at.  Their first crack at Bava, with his 1971 dark comedy/slasher prototype A Bay of Blood, suffered from muted colors.  And infamously, they botched the opening of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981), resulting in a massive recall program.  When they announced that they had more Bava in the pipeline, the news was met with cautious optimism at the best.  Afterall, in the US, Alfredo Leone, who owns most of Bava’s libraray of titles, struck a deal with Kino/Redemption – and it so happened that their first Bava releases included Black Sunday and Lisa and the Devil, the two titles Arrow announced for their slate of Bava releases.  Unfortunately, Kino/Redemption fell short of issuing definitive editions of either title, with Black Sunday coming under a lot of fire for offering an unduly murky transfer of one of the maestro’s most beloved works.  And thus it came to be that Arrow came out swinging, offering a lavish package that includes two – count ‘em: two – edits of the film, three alternate soundtrack options, and more extras than you can shake a stick at.  All the pretty packaging and trimmings aside, however, the question remains: did Arrow outdo Kino/Redemption in the all-important transfer of the film itself?  The answer is a firm “yes.”  The longer “export” edit, titled The Mask of Satan, looks to have been culled from the same master as the US edition – but Arrow have sensibly not over amped the black factor, allowing the richly detailed image to come off a lot better than before.  The source elements are in very good condition, incidentally, and this transfer offers a better, seemingly more accurate representation of Bava’s original intentions.  The cut/rescored AIP edit, Black Sunday, is also included – and it has to be said, this version (which has never been issued on DVD or BD before) actually looks a bit cleaner than the longer edit.  Which edit viewers will find preferable is a matter of opinion, of course, but it’s wonderful to have both – presented in 1.66/16×9/1080p, no less! – conveniently located in one handy edition.  The two disc set includes a SD DVD edition, as well.

Audio:

The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday has never fared well on video before in terms of audio.  The former edit was dubbed in Rome, while the latter was redone by AIP in Hollywood.  Neither track manages to do the performances any favors, with some of the supporting players coming off as positive ludicrous thanks to bad vocal performances (just check out Mask of Satan when Boris, the servant, comes on scene, sounding much like Kermit the Frog!).  Some have championed the vocal performances in the AIP edition as being superior, but to this particular reviewer it just sounds like a cacophany of bad Russian accents.  Both English tracks are in good enough shape, but the real caveat is in the inclusion of the far superior Italian soundtrack – with the added bonus of proper English subtitles, for the first time in the history of this film’s home video legacy.  The Italian track is a little on the tinny side, truth be told, but it seems to make the performances come alive – everything that seems so stilted in English just sounds so much more dramatic and convincing in Italian, trite as that may sound.  English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included for both English tracks, as well.

Extras:

Extras include pretty much everything of note present in the previous, major home video editions of the film – meaning we have Tim Lucas’ rather dry but informative audio commentary, as well as an on camera interview with Barbara Steele, in which she speaks fluent Italian.  The latter was included in a previous Italian DVD edition, and is now fitted out with English subtitles.  Several trailers and TV spots are also included, as is a scene cut from every English language edition of the film but present in the original Italian edit – it is presented in SD as an extra, and it’s easy to see why the scene was omitted when it was dubbed into English, as it is superflous and was awkwardly placed in the Italian edit of the picture.  The new bonus materials include a fine booklet with writing on the film by journalists Matt Bailey and Alan Jones, along with a new interview with Barbara Steele (in which she slams Tim Burton’s new film of Dark Shadows, 2012), an on camera intro by Jones, a Bava trailer reel (including previews for pretty much every film “officially” directed by Mario Bava), and a SD presentation of I Vampiri (1956).  This dated but interesting horror item is notable as the first Italian horror film of the sound era, and it was photographed by Bava, who would also complete the film when director Riccardo Freda abandoned the project. The film includes some foreshadowing of the soon-to-be popular giallo subgenre, which Bava would help to usher to international screens via The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and Blood and Black Lace (1964).  It’s a flawed but compelling film, and it’s wonderful to have it included here, in 2.35/16×9, even if the transfer is a little too contrasty on the whole.

Overall:

Bava’s classic debut finally gets the release it deserves thanks to Arrow Films.

Film: ***1/2 out of *****

Video: **** out of *****

Audio: ***1/2 out of *****

Extras: ***** out of *****