Film #109: The Creeping Terror (1964)

film 109 the creeping terror

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment rating: 5/5

“He slowly asked Bradford what was in store for humanity. Bradford was pessimistic, but implied that maybe all was not lost. After all, he told him, the vastness of the universe was incredible.”

Sometimes I worry that giving a film a low rating will deter people from watching it. Of course, sometimes the low rating should be taken on face value, and he movie should be avoided at all costs. Other times, however, the low rating doesn’t even remotely reflect the sheer enjoyment that can be experienced watching a film that is technically terrible. This is, I suppose, my way of saying that some films are “so bad they’re good,” although I’m loathe to use that phrase because it’s so problematic. More appropriate is to describe such films as “so bad they’re pleasurable” and, as pleasurable experiences go, The Creeping Terror is way up there.

Actor-director-editor-producer Vic Savage’s film is, on the surface at least, a fairly standard 1960s teen-oriented sci-fi picture: a rocket lands, an alien emerges, and chaos ensues. Narratively it’s no more or less interesting than so many of the other low-budget drive-in movies of the times, but aesthetically it’s quite fascinating, and rumours and myths have followed the movie around for years. It gained notoriety when it was included in the Medved’s hugely influential Golden Turkey Awards, nominated for the “most ridiculous monster in screen history” award (eventually losing out to Ro-Man of Robot Monster fame), then featured in their follow-up Son of Golden Turkey Awards, where it won the “most laughable concept for an outer space invader” award. The aliens, which are most frequently described as “carpet monsters”, are a sight to behold – gigantic slug-type creatures with tentacle-covered “faces” and huge mouths for people to helpfully climb into. The Medveds claim that at one point you can see the shoes of one of the students beneath this giant, moth-eaten rug-creature, but I’ve looked pretty carefully and all I’ve ever spotted is a pair of big fluffy monster feet (and the Medveds were not particularly known for their accuracy, preferring to repeat stories that emphasise the wacky regardless of the truth).

One of the stories the Medveds relate regarding The Creeping Terror concerns its strange use of a voice-over narrator and the obviously dubbed dialogue. There are a significant number of films of the time that were shot MOS (without sound) as a cost-cutting measure, with dialogue dubbed in afterwards (Manos: The Hands of Fate does this, though poorly; Beast of Yucca Flats is also clearly shot without a soundtrack; there are plenty of other examples) and, on the surface at least, it seems that The Creeping Terror is no different. Legend has it, however, that the film’s strange (lack of) sound is a mistake, the result of Savage accidentally dropping the sound reel into Lake Tahoe. It’s a great story, one that emphasises incompetence and stupidity, highlighting the conditions by which these older bad movies were made, and it would be great if it was true. However, just a few years later, the Medveds don’t mention this, reporting instead that the style was intentional rather than accidental. Regardless, the myth is still repeated – it’s far more interesting than the mundane truth, after all. While I don’t want to claim that the initial tale is accurate, there is evidence in the film to support such a claim, namely that the film appears to be shot precisely as though it had sound. Characters have long conversations with each other, filmed in classic shot-reverse-shot technique, prioritising the speaker, yet what we hear is the voice-over narrator relating the conversation in distinctly literary tones. As an example: “the sergeant reported seeing an amazingly large creature in the aft section of this strange craft. He further reported that it was secured by a kind of metal harness, but that the creature could still move around somewhat, and for that reason they had not gotten too close to it. There was no trace of either Ben or Jeff. The colonel ordered continuous guard duty around the spaceship, and decided to set up a temporary military headquarters at the sheriff’s office in town.”

It would be quite fascinating to get a lip-reader to watch The Creeping Terror, to see what the characters are actually saying during these scenes – they’re clearly speaking to each other, but we’re rarely privy to their conversations. There are occasional moments of dubbing, and at times it’s clear that what they are saying doesn’t correspond correctly with either the added voice-over or the dubbed dialogue: at one point, a woman (soon to be eaten by a Terror) clearly mouths “there there” to a baby, although we hear her say “poor baby”; later on the voice-over narrator claims that the sergeant tells scientist Bradford to “go to hell,” but this is immediately followed by the sergeant saying “get out of my way!”

So why is the film so enjoyable? Partly it’s because of the visible and aesthetic badness, further emphasised by the voice-over, which speaks in such serious tones, and infuses the film with a bizarre contrast between what is being shown, and what we are being told. There’s plenty more badness on show, of course – the acting is non-descript (and further limited by the voice-over’s insistence of speaking on behalf of the characters, making their appearance on screen frequently redundant), for example. Mostly, however, it’s the Terrors themselves. These creatures are brilliant – physically absurd, technically inept, ludicrously conceived. The people who get devoured (and there are plenty – it’s a pretty impressive death count) have to advance towards the creatures, rather than the other way around, and then either get “swallowed up” by inserting themselves into the conveniently positioned mouth-hole, or the Terror appears to just flop down on top of them. It’s delightfully bonkers, incredibly kitsch when viewed today and, at a short 75 minutes, never gets boring. It might be currently sitting on IMDb as the 30th worst rated film of all time, but for sheer entertainment, surely it would be among the top.

Bonus: You can watch the whole film on Youtube here!

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Film #97: The Giant Claw (1957)

film 97 the giant claw

Rating: 2.5/5

“Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a Battleship has just flown over and past him.”

Finally released on DVD as part of a Sam Katzman Collection, The Giant Claw is notorious for its monster, described as a “bird as big as a battleship” in the film, and an “extraterrestrial turkey” by everyone watching it. As a result of this alien invader, the film has made it (rather appropriately) into the Son of Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds’ sequel to their infamous Golden Turkey Awards – unfortunately it doesn’t win the the award it’s been nominated for, the Most Laughable Concept for an Outer Space Invader, with that dubious honour going to the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror instead.

Despite containing some of the classic “bad movie” elements, The Giant Claw is more kitsch than terrible. The voice-over narration that introduces the story is typically emphatic and serious in tone, discussing – as so many of them do – scientific progress and the implications such progress has. Once the world was big, the narrator tells us, but now “the farthest corner of the Earth is as close as a pushbutton.” Fully engaged in scientific development, we are then introduced to our hero, an engineer, Mitch McAfee (Jeff Morrow) who is conducting special radar tests when he encounters a UFO (in the truest sense of the word) that, inexplicably, doesn’t appear on the radar. Needless to say, no one believes him, but as more pilots begin reporting unidentified objects before disappearing off the face of the earth, eventually the officials are forced to take notice.

There is a bit of a paradox at play in The Giant Claw. The UFO itself remains out of view for quite a long time – when it appears, it’s shown in blurry swooshes as it rushes across the screen, too fast to see. This effectively keeps the viewer guessing – like so many movie monsters, the anticipation is often more scary or impressive than the final reveal (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you). The film’s fairly low budget too, so this is an economical and pragmatic decision to make. However, the problem arises when the alien is finally revealed. By not showing it immediately, the anticipation grows and, inevitably, the creature not only fails to live up to expectations (if you’re looking for something genuinely imposing, that is) but shatters those expectations in an instant. After several attacks on buildings, planes, and farmsteads, this UFO, with the strength, speed and appearance of a “battleship” turns out to be a giant turkey-creature – a shoddily-made puppet with the most wonderfully comic Villain expression. Even now, I don’t know who’s got a better static evil expression, this or It from It Conquered the World: both have pantomime eyebrows and manic, unblinking eyes; they’re both a joy to look at, but neither are even remotely scary.

The story itself is fairly generic – along with Mitch, his mathematician girlfriend Sally (Mara Corday) and some other men in uniform attempt to stop the bird, which transpires to have travelled across galaxies somehow to lay its eggs on Earth. The creature is actually quite sympathetic, despite its ridiculous features, primarily because the humans are unpleasantly trigger happy. They take great pleasure in destroying the poor bird’s eggs, and there are no attempts to communicate with it (I know that sounds silly, given its appearance, but perhaps it’s an incredibly intelligent animal – they usually try communicating with the human-shaped aliens). Meanwhile, the bird, in its rage, destroys lots of places with the power of recycled footage taken from far better 50s sci-fi movies (The War of the Worlds, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers) and ends up ripping off King Kong as it tries to turn the Empire State Building into its new home.

The film is, apart from the monster, no better or worse than any of the other movies of the time – and, in truth, many of the beasts in these “creature features” were daft. To be fair, The Giant Claw‘s concept is rather barmy, but it’s a fun movie as a result. There’s a real pleasure to be gained from witnessing that bird, with its comically angry face, swooping down to swallow up some hapless people. Morrow, who had battled far more impressive opponents in other movies (This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us) reported that none of the cast knew what they were reacting to during filming – they were just told to look terrified, and were assured that the alien would be an indomitable foe. Unfortunately, the production ran out of money and the result, immortalised forever more on screen, is one of the most entertaining monsters around.

Film #63: Zontar: The Thing From Venus (1966)

film 63 zontar the thing from venus

Rating: 2/5

“Although his name is untranslatable to any Earth language, it would sound something like Zontar.”

An often word-for-word remake of Roger Corman’s low-budget classic It Conquered the World, Zontar is the result of some particularly restrictive budget constraints. At a cost of approximately $22 000, Larry Buchanan was charged with remaking Corman’s film in colour, and this is the result. Buchanan’s known as one of the worst directors of all time; Zontar, however, isn’t a complete disaster. The film definitely benefits from being a remake – the plot remains interesting and engaging, although it undoubtedly lost some of its cultural relevance in the years that passed between the two versions. Whereas It Conquered the World is a classic 1950s narrative, capitalising on the fears of communism, Zontar lacks a similar association. There is, however, an unexpected cynicism that emerges in Buchanan’s movie; his direction seems quite detached thanks to some particularly terrible acting and a frequently perfunctory editing style.

Anthony Houston replaces Lee Van Cleef as Keith, Zontar’s associate on Earth, while regular Buchanan collaborator John Agar takes on the protagonist’s role, Curt. Agar, who was once married to Shirley Temple, is the closest the film has to a “star” – he had made a name for himself in minor roles in mainstream Hollywood films, appearing alongside John Wayne several times. He is, however, better known for his cult movies, notably Revenge of the Creature and those by Buchanan, and he’s generally decried as one of a number of particularly wooden performers – the Medved’s nominated him for the Lifetime Achievement Award of Worst Actor of All Time in their Golden Turkey Awards; he eventually lost to Richard Burton. Yet while the Medveds claim Agar’s style is that “he refuses to act,” in Zontar he is required to do very little more than play the straight man. As such he is perfectly adequate, and far better than some of the other cast members – Houston is dislikeable in a slimy kind of way, while Pat Delaney is truly dreadful as Keith’s wife Martha. Poor Martha, who is strong and fearless in Corman’s version, is whiny, neurotic, and supremely irritating here – everything she says is actually true, but Delaney’s combination of wooden and overwrought results in her appearing to simply be a nag. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to not sympathise with Keith when he’s subjected to yet another impassioned speech of hers, and it’s a relief when Zontar finally takes her out.

There’s very little here that surpasses Corman’s film. The colour is a pleasant, if garish and obviously low-budget addition, although it makes the “night” scenes rather unrealistic. The comic relief included in Corman’s movie is brought over to Buchanan’s as well – the two dunderhead soldiers may have a familiar quaintness to them in It Conquered the World, but here they’re just dreadfully, embarrassingly unfunny. Everything here is tinged with cheapness and ineptitude – exposition is related via static, long takes in which one person listens to another deliver a lengthy speech, and there is little to engage the viewer. The acting definitely doesn’t, and the sets are basic and uninteresting, while the camera moves only when it really needs to. The result is a poorly paced, frequently dull movie; a testament to Buchanan’s lack of talent. He has, however, added a few extra scenes, predominantly those at the government installation that had previously lost control of the satellite that allowed Zontar to travel to Earth. Apart from that, it is a generally faithful remake, with two notable differences.

The first is Zontar itself. While Beluah the space carrot was never named in It Conquered the World, here, we find out its name. The final reveal, in the Venus-esque caves as before, shows Zontar to look nothing like a space carrot whatsoever, and more’s the pity. Beluah was naff, cheap and not even his permanently grumpy expression could make him appear scary, but it was at least memorable – Beluah is what distinguishes Corman’s movie as a cult classic rather than a standard addition to the world of 1950s sci-fi. In contrast, Zontar is a slimy, indistinct creature – we never properly get a moment to look at it, but it is evidently a person in a suit, and it has wings and a rather plaintive expression. In a way, it’s far more believable that Buchanan’s vision birthed the “insectapods” that attacked the important members of the town – Beluah had little in common with its own pod creatures – but it’s a weak substitute for the delightful kitsch appeal of Beluah and, although I’ve seen Zontar before, I couldn’t remember for one second what it looked like.

The second difference is Agar’s final voice-over, a long speech heard over a montage of dead bodies – the scientists, the wives, the policeman, the General (who doubly died, having been both shot and electrocuted). In fact, the death rate is far higher here – or at least, more explicit, and it would appear there is little hope despite Zontar being defeated. Offering the audience a slight glimmer of hope at the end of what has been a particularly bleak (if reasonably entertaining) film, Curt becomes uncharacteristically philosophical – this being the man who calmly shot his own wife earlier – and tells us that “Man is the greatest creature in the universe.” Wait, what? Yes, it turns out all this destruction and death has made him realise that us humans are totally awesome. Except, of course, there is a price. Poor Keith, he says, “learned that a measure of perfection can only be slowly attained, from within ourselves. He sought a different path, and found death… fire… disillusionment… loss. War, misery and strife have always been with us, and we shall always strive to overcome them. But the answer is to be found from within, not from without. It must come from learning; it must come from the very heart…” It’s a strange final message; bleak and hopeful; arrogant and humble; profound and inane at the same time – like the film itself, a bit of a garbled, confused mess, but perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere. You’ve probably got Roger Corman to thank for that though.

Film #60: Robot Monster (1953)

film 60 robot monster

Rating: 2/5

“I cannot – yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!”

The final film of the day’s badfilm bonanza is the wonderfully kitsch Robot Monster, first acknowledged by the Medveds in their book, Fifty Worst Films of All Time, way back in 1978. It was also one of the primary reasons for its director, Phil Tucker, being nominated as Worst Director of All Time by the Medveds two years later (Tucker was defeated by Ed Wood). Since then, this movie has remained a firm favourite of badfilm aficionados, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the worst films of the 50s. Continuing the trends of the day, it also features a precocious child in a prominent role, but there’s no renditions of Row Row Row Your Boat here, sadly. That would have been too strange!

After an afternoon of particularly bad movies, Robot Monster actually emerges as a fairly successful film – in contrast to the terrible 90’s sheen of Troll 2 and the washed out incompetence of Manos: The Hands of Fate, this is actually rather accomplished. It’s shot reasonably well, the acting is not particularly stilted, and it benefits from a general kitsch appeal of old 50s sci-fi movies. Yet I make it sound better than it is, because a film about a robot monster called Ro-Man from planet Ro-Man who’s clearly a man in a gorilla suit with a space helmet on his head is never going to be very good. It is harmless, however, and quite endearing, despite being completely illogical and stupid.

Robot Monster has a tiny cast, and was reportedly shot in only four days. George Moffett is young Johnny, an adventurous kid with an active imagination who runs into some archaeologists during a day out in what appears to be a gravelly canyon. Then, for no apparent reason, there’s a sharp cut to some recycled footage depicting some (real) reptiles fighting and some (model) dinosaurs roaming around. When we next see Johnny, he’s living in a derelict building with his mother, older and younger sisters, and his father – the archaeologist shown previously. The world has been decimated by Ro-Man, we learn, who is now living in a cave down the road with a bedroom dresser (sorry, I mean a communication screen) and a bubble machine. The latter gets its own mention in the credits – its official title is the Automatic Billion Bubble Machine by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products, Inc.

It’s difficult to not be significantly dislodged by this sudden shift in narrative, but the story established in the opening sequence is easy to forget, namely because it isn’t referenced or acknowledged until the final scene. The recycled footage, which bookends the film along with its shock twist (followed by another shock twist, just to layer some more incoherence onto the already confused screenplay), is audacious and very obvious – it’s also really forced into the story by the Great Guidance, Ro-Man’s superior who dictates actions from the safety of a space craft somewhere. Both the aliens are played by George Barrows, a character actor renowned for playing gorillas – in fact, Ro-Man’s appearance was directly influenced by the fact that Barrows had his own gorilla costume. He should be commended for his role here; traipsing around the desolate desert landscape in a heavy outfit like this couldn’t have been easy.

While the hu-man cast are all quite generic – nice but forgettable – there is something endearing about Ro-Man. His conversations with the Great Guidance reveal him to be a rather pitiful, browbeaten character, who becomes increasingly conflicted because of his developing feelings towards Johnny’s older sister Alice. Despite his annihilation of all but six of the human race, and even after his brutal killing of one of those remaining, it is difficult to ever think of him as anything more than a pathetic, confused, and tragic figure. It is also Ro-Man who gets the most memorable lines (except, perhaps, the archaeologist’s assistant’s quick-fire retort to Alice: “I’m bossy? You’re so bossy you oughta be milked before you come home at night”) – Ro-Man and the Great Guidance discuss their mass genocide in theatrical, overblown language that is entirely incomprehensible, made all the more ludicrous by the physicality of the characters.

Certainly, there are elements of general badness throughout Robot Monster, but it would appear that the main reason for this film’s notoriety is Ro-Man. The recycled footage and negatively-exposed shots – not to mention the narrative incoherence – undoubtedly help, but it is the sheer preposterousness of this character that gives this little sci-fi/apocalypse picture its charm. It’s a harmless film, completely enjoyable and consistently entertaining and, in many ways, no better or worse than any number of equally low-budget 50s movies; a rather quaint addition to the elastic category of badfilm.

Film #52: It Came From Outer Space (1953)

film 52 it came from outer space

Rating: 4/5

“If we’ve been seeing things, it’s because we did see them.”

There were some wonderfully thought-provoking and intriguing science fiction films in the 1950s – it was a great time for the genre, and It Came From Outer Space is one of the classics. Directed by Jack Arnold (The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), based on a story by Ray Bradbury, it’s one of the quintessential sci-fi films of the decade, perfectly encapsulating many of the themes running throughout the genre at the time.

It’s widely acknowledged that, particularly in the 1950s, science fiction and horror were particularly successful in capturing the zeitgeist of the times; it was a decade of great uncertainty about the future. Scientific technology was advancing, and the potential consequences of nuclear experimentation were dire, and the world was in the midst of great political uncertainty, with the Cold War in full swing. It’s little surprise then that the science fiction and horror films of the 1950s were filled with atomic monsters, alien invasions, and pod people. It Came From Outer Space deals with some of the underlying social fears in the United States with a great deal of intelligence under the guise of entertainment, combining a plea for tolerance and understanding with some well-placed gimmicks and impressive, albeit reasonably low-budget effects.

Richard Carlson (The Creature From the Black Lagoon) is John Putnam, an author and amateur astronomer who is one of the first people in a small town in Arizona to witness what appears to be a meteor falling to Earth. With his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush), the next morning he goes to investigate, and is the only person to see what really landed before falling rocks buries the object. Naturally, the townspeople dismiss his claims about the meteor’s real identity, but John remains steadfast, and his beliefs are compounded when his friends and neighbours start acting strangely.

Thematically, It Came From Outer Space echoes some of the sentiments of earlier sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and pre-empts the pod-people concept made famous by 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens here are not trying to cause harm, having accidentally crashed on Earth – they do not pose a threat, and are merely trying to get off the planet without incident. Instead, it is humanity that offers the most danger, to both the aliens and themselves. The human instinct to fear the unknown, and fight it, is the most hazardous thing in the film; this is emphasised by the mob mentality of the townspeople when confronted with the possibility of invasion. While John and Ellen are initially fearful, they quickly realise that tolerance is key to everyone’s survival, and they become the aliens’ only allies in a town more concerned with a witch hunt. It’s a slow-burning narrative, with some impressively realised sequences and an intelligent, forward-thinking message, particularly pertinent for the time.

Arnold does not forget that this is a genre picture first and foremost, and he uses his budget well. Originally shown in 3D, the moments designed for this extra dimension are still obvious, but not intrusive, while the aliens – shown only briefly – are great designs, otherworldly and horrible, yet not quite as gruesome as they appear to think themselves to be. Most famously, however, It Came From Outer Space boasts an unusual first person (or should that be, first alien) perspective, allowing the viewer an odd chance to witness our world in an entirely new light. This also adds a valuable sense of empathy with, and relationship to, the aliens, with Arnold literally putting the viewer in the aliens’ position. It’s a great touch, and makes the big reveal all the more anticipated and relevant.

I’ll always have a soft spot for these kinds of science fiction movies – the ones that conceal smart ideas behind seemingly trashy, drive-in aesthetics. The acting is solid, though some of the dialogue is clunky (the constantly repeated claim that the “meteor” landing is the “biggest thing to ever happen” is over-emphasised, for example). Some of the effects are dated, but they add to the kitsch appeal of the film. Yet it is a smart movie, with a valuable and particularly pertinent message – one that remains just as relevant today as it did sixty years ago.

Film #34: District 9 (2009)

film 34 district 9

Rating: 4/5

“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

In 2006, then-unknown South African director Neill Blomkamp made a short film, Alive in Joburg. He was then signed to direct an ill-fated Halo adaptation and, when this project collapsed, Peter Jackson offered Blomkamp $30 000 000 to direct whatever he wanted. District 9, based on the aforementioned short, is the result.

By today’s standards, thirty million is a relatively small budget, particularly considering the grand scale and special effects required for Blomkamp’s science-fiction tale. District 9 feels like a small film, oddly enough; more reminiscent in tone to the likes of recent sci-fi output like Moon and Monsters than, for example, Avatar. Yet this is more because of its social commentary and political subtext than muted action or weak design – visually, the effects are such that, despite the physical impossibility of the alien refugees being people in creature suits, it is still a surprise to learn they were not, while a recurring image of the alien vessel floating, stationary above the city is understated and truly beautiful, and there is little indication as to its “meagre” cost.

Shot in documentary style (at the beginning at least), we are told that, some twenty years ago an alien ship came to a halt above Johannesburg. Contact eventually revealed its inhabitants to be malnourished and disorganised – hardly capable of providing the celestial enlightenment the human race was expecting. Due to public pressure, the aliens, dismissively referred to as “prawns” due to both their appearance and their percieved inferiority, were relocated in a camp/slum outside the city where the aliens were consigned, without rights, indefinitely.

Having been informed of the situation’s history, District 9 introduces its protagonist – Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a newly assigned head of MNU, a private security firm tasked with the relocation of 1.8million prawns to a new location, away from the increasingly disgruntled human population of Johannesburg. Wikus is a dislikeable simpleton, a dim-witted pencil pusher – he tries to impress too much, he’s incompetent and, much like the bullish men he works with, is not only blatant in his belief as to his superiority over the prawns, but goes about his duty with sadistic glee: an early scene shows his and his colleagues’ delight in destroying an alien’s reproductive apparatus, complete with unhatched offspring. Yet his ignorance, and arrogance, leads him to accidentally ingest a fluid that contaminates him, leading him to begin mutating into one of the prawns. Consequently, he begins to understand the true intentions of both MNU and the government, who are more interested in the aliens’ weaponry than in humanitarian relief.

Like the best science-fiction films, District 9‘s events are rooted in real social events; its story is based on Blomkamp’s experience of apartheid, xenophobia and subjugation in South Africa. It offers a damning indictment of humanity, from the deep-seated racism on the streets to the callous cruelty and desire for power and profit among politicians and multi-national corporations. It is no doubt deliberate that, when war does break out, it is between different human factions, not between humans and aliens. The former’s greed is such that, despite seeing the prawns as a nuisance, they do not enable them with any rights or control that might allow them to return home. Instead, the humans exploit the aliens, plying them with cat food in exchange for a daunting collection of weapons; there is no suggestion that any kind of mutually beneficial agreement or understanding was even attempted when the aliens first arrived. Yet, while Blomkamp’s message is never far from view, it never overwhelms the narrative and is delivered cleverly; it never feels forced or overly preachy – unlike the heavy-handed simplicity of, for example, Avatar‘s environmental warning, here the social commentary is perfectly rooted within the plot and emerges from it organically.

If there is a flaw in District 9, it is Blomkamp’s uneven style. The documentary filmmaking so prominent in the film’s early scenes – newsreel footage, interviews direct to camera spoken by a number of academics and sociologists – is abandoned quickly. This is necessary due to the narrative’s demands, but does damage the film’s overall coherence, particularly when we are suddenly reminded of the retrospective documentary style through jarring voice-overs ruminating on the events occurring on screen. Yet it is also a testament to Blomkamp’s screenplay that this is not more distracting; while it is an issue, it does little to detract from the film’s overall success.

As Wikus, Copley is superb. The initially pathetic, slimy bureaucrat transforms before our eyes – not just physically, but emotionally, and it is entirely believable throughout. He quickly becomes an unlikely hero, and it is difficult not to empathise with him. As the main human character, his performance comes to the fore, but it is important to not downplay the prawns themselves, namely Christopher, with whom Wikus forms an alliance. Although entirely a CGI creation, the special effects here serve the character, rather than the other way around and, while District 9‘s effects may lack the polished sheen of bigger budget productions, it is far easier to accept Christopher and his son as “real” than many other computer animated beings (I cannot help but return to Avatar, with its bland, two-dimensional stereotypes).

No doubt benefiting from Jackson’s involvement, District 9 became not only a sleeper hit with unanimous critical acclaim, but went head to head against James Cameron’s record-breaking sci-fi smash Avatar at the Oscars, with both nominated for Best Picture. Neither won (that accolade went to The Hurt Locker) but, if one had, it would surely have been Blomkamp’s film that deserved it more. It is brutal and unflinching in both its point and its delivery – the war sequences and effects of alien weaponry, not to mention Wikus’ mutation, are grotesque and uncompromising. It is a fine example of contemporary science-fiction, a film that recognises simply providing spectacle is not enough for more discerning audiences; unlike some recent, empty big-budget productions, District 9 matches its effects with thought-provoking insight and is far more memorable, interesting, and entertaining as a result.

Film #3: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

film 3 quatermass and the pit

Rating: 3.5/5

“You realise what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?”

Also released as Five Million Years to Earth, Quatermass and the Pit is the third in a series of Hammer films, originating from a BBC television series. It received favourable reviews on its release in 1967, and today is considered to be one of the UK’s finest sci-fi movies. Michael Weldon, in his review in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, describes it as “the best of the series and one of the better science-fiction movies ever made.”

Scottish actor Andrew Keir is excellent as Professor Bernard Quatermass, a rocket scientist and head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, an organisation that has just been reclaimed by the military, much to the professor’s disgust. It is, however, because of this new situation that Quatermass first learns of the strange objects discovered in Hobbs Lane underground station, London, where renovations are taking place.

After first discovering oddly shaped skulls, which palaeontologist Dr Roney deduces are one of the missing evolutionary links dating back some five million years, a metal – but non-magnetic – object is located beneath the mud and clay. Initially assuming it is an unexploded German bomb left over from WWII, the professor’s new associate Colonel Breen and, by default, Quatermass are brought in to investigate. It becomes clear, however, that the object is not a bomb, but some kind of vessel, containing gigantic insect-like creatures, and exuding an unsettling and harmful influence on both objects and people around it.

Nigel Kneale wrote both the television series and the film adaptation of this story, and several plot points are inevitably altered for this later version. Praised for writing intelligent sci-fi, his scripts are filled with clever concepts, but in this film at least, the plot is convoluted, moving at great speed and relying on everyone’s assumptions being utterly correct without other possible alternatives.

Some of the special effects are undeniably hokey – not just when viewed today, but surely for audiences of the time, who had already been subjected to grand and impressive Martian invasions (The War of the Worlds, 1953) and giant insect attacks (Them!, 1954) a decade earlier. As intelligent sci-fi films go, this is a late addition to a trend that was phenomenally successful in the 1950s, influenced by earlier authors such as HG Wells, and by more contemporary writers like Richard Matheson and John Wyndham. By the late 1960s, aliens had invaded Earth for almost every reason possible; they had arrived in peace and with designs for domination, had been fearsome and harmless, had brought about destruction and provided a glimmer of hope to the world. Kneale’s decision here, however, is a curious concept, in which the aliens had landed millions of years previously, had already influenced the evolution of humanity, and now were only posing a threat because of the residual power of their spaceship – unusually for a sci-fi movie, these aliens died a long time ago, and remain so.

Being a Hammer production, it is inevitable that some supernatural events feature, but the script cleverly twists local superstition into a pseudo-scientific phenomenon. The kinetic and psychic power emanating from the vessel results in the film culminating in horror – violent, unsettling scenes in which buildings collapse, roads are ripped apart, vast demonic apparitions loom over London, and crowds of hapless reporters are transformed into an army of single-minded killers. Although his name is in the title, Quatermass actually has little to do with stopping this wave of destruction, though he does provide an explanation for the events.

A quintessentially British film, this oozes Englishness from every pore. Everyone is delightfully polite, even sworn enemies, while a stiff upper lip is adopted by everyone, unless they have succumbed to manic hysteria and delusions. Even Dr Roney’s associate, who appears to be employed simply because he has a similarly shaped cranium to prehistoric man, seems perfectly fine with the idea that he is a modern-day example of an unevolved human. Viewed today, it’s wonderfully retro, but it still packs a punch both in its visual flair and its intelligent, if somewhat garbled, ideas.