Monthly Archives: November 2011

Powered by Honda

I’m currently writing a sci-fi book called Outer Limits: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Science-Fiction Films. It follows the format of earlier ‘Filmgoers’ Guides’, such as Stagecoach to Tombstone and Crime Wave, in that it looks at an entire genre’s history, tracing its development from early days to the present, via select, representative films. Stagecoach to Tombstone looked at the great westerns, from (as the title says) Stagecoach through to Tombstone, while Crime Wave (which was published to accompany a film season also called Crime Wave on Turner Classic Movies) looked at classic crime films from The Public Enemy to Ocean’s Eleven.

Outer Limits traces the history of sci-fi cinema, from Metropolis to Avatar, with diversions to Forbidden Planet, Star Wars, Alien, The Terminator, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Mad Max 2, Independence Day, Blade Runner, The Thing and Back to the Future, plus many, many more.

I also cover Japanese sci-fi cinema, which had led me to track down many ‘Kaiju Eiga’ (monster movies) and other top-line Japanese sci-fi. Japan’s Toho Studios was synonymous for international audiences in the 1950s and 1960s with the works of Akira Kurosawa. His Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, among others, were hailed as masterpieces of world cinema. But there was another side to Toho, as it was this studio that also released Gojira in 1954, which in its redubbed and recut international version, starring Perry Mason actor Raymond Burr, was a hit in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

The title monster, a giant fire-breathing lizard, was the creation of nuclear testing and the physical embodiment of Japan’s attitudes to and fears of nuclear weapons. Other monsters followed, including beaky Rodan, self-explanatory Mothra, hydra-like King Ghidorah, Hedorah (a pile of toxic sludge) and the ever popular flying turtle Gamera – some of which were from Toho and some were launched by rival studios. But it was Godzilla that prevailed. From the early 1960s he transformed from a threat to become Earth’s protector against various giant predators and intergalactic invaders. The best of the original 1950s-70s series was Destroy All Monsters (1968 – Operation Monsterland) which deploys all the Toho monsters in an all-stops-out ‘creature feature’ free-for-all.  Invasion of the Astro Monsters (1965) is also highly entertaining, as is Son of Godzilla (1967), but even the average entries are worth a look. Godzilla has been periodically resurrected over the years – in the 1980s and 1990s – culminating in what many fans believe to be the best of the entire franchise in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (2001 – or GMK for short) by writer-director Shusuke Kaneko, which was from the Toho stable and released internationally by TriStar. This very well produced movie – Toho’s repost to the appalling Roland Emmerich-directed Hollywood attempt at the story in 1997 – ignored all the intervening ‘Godzilla’ films and was a direct sequel to the original Gojira, with Godzilla the villain and Earth protected by the ‘Guardian Monsters’: Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah.

The master director of Japanese sci-fi was Ishirô Honda, who helmed the original Gojira and many of the finest entries during the 1950s-70s heyday. But Godzilla movies weren’t the only Japanese sci-fi releases and thanks to enterprising DVD companies, some real gems have surfaced over the last few years. ‘Icons of Sci-Fi’, issued in 2009, is a Region 1 release also known as the ‘Toho Collection’ which includes three Honda classics: Battle in Outer Space (1960), Mothra (1961) and The H-Man (1959).

Ishiro Honda

Battle in Outer Space is the sequel to Honda’s The Mysterians [which is available in another ‘Toho Pack’ three-film set, with Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People and the aptly-named Varan the Unbelievable]. Battle in Outer Space is an alien invasion space opera with the Natalians attacking Earth with an anti-gravity ray. Mothra is the moth’s film debut and is another allegory on nuclear testing. But the gem of the set is The H-Man which is The Blob, Toho-style, as people dissolve and mutate into gelatinous monsters, and the creeping blob eventually makes its way into Tokyo’s drains for a ‘Turd Man’-inspired finale in the sewer system. Its imaginative melding of film noir gangster movie, murder mystery, night club acts and sci-fi creature feature is a winner and is well worth a look. The sequel is the difficult-to-find The Human Vapour. All three films in the set boast special effects by the great Eiji Tsuburaya and all are presented in their original colour and Tohoscope 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. Even better, this great value set features both the original Japanese releases (with English subtitles) and the international English language versions, distributed by Columbia Pictures. Mothra and The H-Man are both shorter in their international release than the Japanese originals. There are also extras, including audio commentaries on Battle in Outer Space and Mothra from Japanese sci-fi experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection is available in the UK and US, though note the disks are Region 1 (US and Canada) only.

The Toho Pack (with Mysterians, Varan and Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People) is also an excellent set, worth getting for the colourful psychedelic fantasy adventure Matango.

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Roma Therapy 7

In the last instalment of my Top 20 essential Italian movies, we have two mid-1970s classics, from two masters of their field.   

Illustrious Corpses (Francesco Rosi, 1975)

Illustrious Corpses

In the days before Italian politics was synonymous with media ownership and bunga-bunga parties, Italian political cinema was a global force to be reckoned with. At the forefront of the movement was Francesco Rosi, whose films still stand today as visceral depictions of the Italian political process, which was often riddled with corruption and scandal. Rosi’s key films include Salvatore Giuliano (depicting the famed post-war Sicilian bandit), Hands Over the City (corruption in the building trade which leads to the collapse of an apartment block), The Mattei Affair (the suspicious death of a prominent oil magnet), Lucky Luciano (the later years of the famed gangster) and Christ Stopped at Eboli (with Gian Maria Volonté as novelist Carlo Levi). All are fine films, but Rosi’s finest is Illustrious Corpses, his depiction of a killing spree by an assassin with a judge grudge. Lino Ventura played Inspector Rogas, who is on the trail of a murderer that is targeting the judiciary, apparently avenging a miscarriage of justice. A powerful, engrossing film, based on Leonardo Sciascia’s 1971 novel Il contesto (‘Equal Danger’ in its English language version), it was photographed on location in Sicily, Naples and Rome by Pasquale De Santis, and plays like an overtly politicised police procedural, or a whodunit giallo thriller with a political edge.

DVD distributors take note: this excellent film is not currently available on DVD in the UK or US. It was screened many years ago in the UK on BBC2, as part of a Rosi season in ‘The Film Club’. Leonardo Sciascia’s novel is available however, with Day of the Owl, another crime thriller which was made into a film by Damiano Damiani, with Franco Nero and Claudia Cardinale

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Suspiria

The gialli master was back with a vengeance in 1977, as Argento struck out in a bold new direction with the accent on supernatural witchery. Suspiria starred Jessica Harper as Suzy Banyon, an American student who arrives to study at the Freiberg Tanz (Dance) Academy, a ballet school in Germany, which she later discovers is the cover for a coven of witches (including Joan Bennett and Alida Valli) who worship the Black Queen. The first part of Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (followed by Inferno and Mother of Tears), this suspenseful, bloody masterwork is many Argento fan’s favourite. He certainly hasn’t equalled its visceral power since. The film’s shock tactics are greatly abetted by Goblin’s menacing score.

Suspiria has been released on DVD in the UK and US. It is also available on Blu-ray and Goblin’s score is out on CD.

So that’s my top 20. In my opinion, the essential classics of the golden age of Italian cinema are La dolce vita, The Mask of Satan, Hercules Conquers Atlantis, The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, The Leopard, Contempt, The Gospel according to St Matthew, Castle of Blood, Fists in the Pocket, Battle of Algiers, Blowup, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Big Silence, Diabolik, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Conformist, Violent City, The Marseilles Connection, Illustrious Corpses and Suspiria.  

Next week I’ll begin looking at my Top 20 Italian cult movies – the great, the good and the downright odd – in a new thread, RomaDrome.

To read more about Illustrious Corpses, Suspiria and other films by Argento and Rosi, check out my book, Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult

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