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11 Overlooked Horror Films Recommended for Halloween

31 Days of Horror

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When I was a kid, I used to love a scary movie. I remember catching the original The Haunting (1963) one night on Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie when I was home alone. Before it was over, I had every light in the house turned on. When my mother got home she was screaming she’d been able to see the house glowing from two blocks away. The only thing screaming louder than her was the electricity meter.

That was something of an accomplishment, scaring me like that. Oh, it’s not that I was hard to scare (I still don’t like going down into a dark cellar). But, in those days, the movies didn’t have much to scare you with. Back as far as the 50s, you might find your odd dismemberment and impaling, even an occasional decapitation, but, generally, the rule of the day was restraint. Even those rare dismemberments, impalings, and decapitations were – by anatomical standards – surprisingly bloodless. If you were going to scare somebody, all you had available to you were mood and suspense. Storytelling. Style. The Haunting – one of the best and most adult haunted house movies ever – did it with some spooky noises out in the hall and a turning doorknob. Yup, a doorknob. Try to pull that one off, Eli Roth!

True, the early 60s saw the first “splatter” films: gorefests like Blood Feast (1963) from splatter master Herschell Gordon Lewis, but those kind of sensationalistic bloodbaths didn’t make it to my neck of the woods. For the most part, splatter was a rural drive-in phenomenon.

I think most critics agree the turning point was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). The explosive popularity of Romero’s people-eating zombies cracked open the gore door to the commercial mainstream, and by the 70s, blood-drenched moneymakers like The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Halloween (1978) permanently took the goriest gore in from the drive-in cold and made a warm, snug home for it in mainstream moviemaking.

I think a more pivotal turning point was Friday the 13th (1980). Though the early work of Romero and Wes Craven (Last House), Tobe Hooper (Chain Saw), and John Carpenter (Halloween) was often dismissed as just another strain of splatter flick, the more perceptive saw that Romero et al had something more on their mind than just trying to jolt a young audience with a splash of red goo. Some sensed, in their films, a reflection of the violence and moral chaos of a violent and morally chaotic time. Others noted – sometimes belatedly — that Chain Saw and Halloween unsettled audiences more with a skillfully manipulated sense of dread and suspense and the threat of gruesomeness rather than with actual gruesomeness. But Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th?

Friday the 13th taught Hollywood that you didn’t need Romero’s social commentary subtext, or Carpenter’s gift for mood to make money with a horror flick. All you needed was a cast of forgettable young people, some dark woods, a serial killer armed with the contents of the Sears Tool & Garden catalogue…and then some appallingly graphic mayhem to ice the cake. The blood-letting hasn’t stopped since.

It was at that point I feel like the horror film stopped being scary and simply became horrifying. I’m not saying some terrific horror films haven’t been made since then. Just to name a few: Scream (1996), 28 Days Later (2002), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Shaun of the Dead (2004), this last managing the impressive hat trick of being gory, oddly sweet, and hysterically funny all at the same time.

But for every Scream, it seems there’ve been more along the lines of The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Dreamcatcher (2003), House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), Cabin Fever (2002), Saw (2004 + sequels), Hostel (2005 + sequels) ad infinitum ad nauseum – so-called “torture porn” which equates an assault of the grotesque with a good scare. Will they give you the creeps? Give you nightmares? Yeah, sure. So will witnessing a 10-car pile-up with the EMS crews scraping body parts off the pavement.

All of which gets me thinking about those flicks which did give me a serious case of the creepy-crawlies without necessarily having to rely on a tidal wave of Karo syrup.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein.

Camp is about as hard a tightrope for a filmmaker to walk as there is. Lean too far one way and it comes off as forced, lame humor. Too far the other way and it falls into sheer silliness. Phibes manages to walk that walk without a quiver of imbalance. Fuest – who supposedly rewrote much of the Whiton/Goldstein script – delivers up an off-kilter funny-gross horror flick the likes of which you don’t see again until Shaun of the Dead.

Vincent Price is the ingenious inventor Phibes, horribly disfigured in the same automobile accident which cost him his beloved wife. Phibes decides to take vengeance on the surgical team he believes botched the operation by killing them one by one, each through some horrible application of one of the Biblical plagues of Egypt.

Phibes is a unique mix of the near-surreal (Phibes’ palatial underground lair; part Egyptian tomb, part ballroom complete with automaton orchestra), gruesome horror (if you remember the plagues of Egypt, you know what I’m talking about), and some wonderfully outrageous black humor carried off by a rogues gallery of some of the UK’s finest character actors i.e. Terry-Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith and others.

How gruesome and how funny? British cops looking at one of Phibes’ victims impaled on the twisted horn of a brass unicorn head ponder: “How we gonna get him off this? You take his head and I’ll take his feet. Let’s unscrew him.”

Phibes was a big enough hit to generate a 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which pushed the ick and humor both a bit harder and a bit further. Phibes 2.0 has a somewhat less compelling story, but the horrors are horrible enough (how does the idea of a scorpion crawling down your pants grab you?) and the funny is plenty funny. If you like your horrors cut with a grim grin and high style, this is the double bill for you.

Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant.

Sparked by the box office success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the late 60s and 70s became a golden time for adult horror stories; top-drawer productions made with top-ranked talent intended to be as compelling dramatically as they were creepy. Think The Exorcist (1973) and, toward the end of the period, The Shining (1980). One of the best while being probably the least well-remembered is Don’t Look Now.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are a married couple trying to get past the drowning of their little girl with a trip to Venice. They meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be psychic asserting she’s seeing flashes of the couple’s dead daughter in Venice.

Don’t Look Now is a brooding, melancholic story, as much about a marriage breaking under the strain of grief as it is a (maybe) ghost story, and it is that human drama which drives the story. Venice, usually thought of as one of the world’s great romantic cities, in Roeg’s hands becomes a gloomy maze peopled with dark forces and lost souls, and in which – as Sutherland’s character says at one point – “Nothing is what it seems.”

The movie’s final twist provides one of those shocks that is both complete in its surprise, and, on reflection, tragically inevitable.

The Night Stalker 

The Night Stalker (1974)

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Adapted from Jeff Rice’s unpublished novel by Richard Matheson and Max Hodge.

Back in those pre-cable days, made-for-TV horror didn’t have a lot of tools in its toolbox. If you were going to scare people with a TV movie, the standard shock effects – graphic violence, gore, etc. – were off the table. You were left with the basics: telling a good story, and telling it well.
How well did The Night Stalker tell its story? At the time, Stalker was the highest-rated TV movie ever, with a 33.2 rating and a 54 share (it still remains one of the all-time top-rated made-fors). In English, that means over one-third of the sixty-odd million TV households in the U.S. at the time – and over half of the households watching TV that night – tuned into The Night Stalker. You want a comparison? The TV universe has grown by more than one-third since then, but only absolutely huge TV events – like the Super Bowl or the Oscars – pull more viewers.

Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a sleazy, annoying reporter on the story of a serial killer plaguing modern-day Las Vegas who evidently thinks he’s a vampire. The more McGavin follows the story, the less it becomes about a guy who thinks he’s a vampire, and the more about a guy who is a vampire.

The pace is brisk, and to make up for the lack of gore there are some nicely put-together action set pieces. Punching it along is McGavin, playing seedy, sensation-seeking Kolchak to the hilt, and never better than when he’s working against his fuming boss, the great character actor Simon Oakland. Take this bit from the 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler:

Oakland, fed up with McGavin’s having stumbled into another series of bizarre murders, begins mumbling to himself: “‘Go to journalism school,’ my father said. ‘It’s a good, sound, down-to-earth profession.’”

“Do you want to hear this?” McGavin nags.

“What I want to do,” says Oakland, “is raise tulips for a living, but there’s not enough demand.”

The real auteur here is producer Dan Curtis who was sort of the Chris Carter of his day. Curtis had created the cult classic TV series Dark Shadows, then followed it up with a number of made-for-TV horror flicks (see below). But Night Stalker was easily his most popular, spawning a sequel (not quite as good but a lot of fun) and a short-lived series. While the series’ monster-of-the-week routine grew stale rather quickly, it’s often considered the precursor for The X-Files which, in turn, begat Fringe. So, even if you prefer your gruesomeness appropriately grotesque in the 21st Century fashion, you still might want to visit the grandpappy of them all and see this early bud on the TV horror family tree.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

Directed by Charles Jarrott. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel by Ian McLellan.

For TV connoisseurs, J&H – another bit of Curtis manufacture – is an enlightening artifact from a period in network TV sadly dead and gone. The security that came to the then three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) from their monopolizing the attention of 90% of all TV viewing (today, their share is a bit less than half) bought them the latitude to break up their routine scheduling on a regular basis with special events, original movies, miniseries and the like. J&H was originally aired over three consecutive nights in one-hour installments; the only time the broadcast nets preempt regular programming like that anymore is for the World Series.

And, it was worth it. Although shot on video, Jarrott filmed the story cinematically. For those who’ve only seen video used for three-camera sitcoms, you’d be surprised how visually accomplished this effort is, and how lush the physical period production.

In the many adaptations of Stevenson’s classic horror tale, Hyde is usually portrayed as something animalistic – a monster rather than that dark, integrated side of ourselves. But in this shrewd rendering, the physical changes are subtle; it’s the psyche that changes. Jack Palance – an often underrated actor too often cast based on his battered boxer’s looks rather than his ability – carries off the dual role of the meek, well-meaning Dr. Jekyll and the manic, id-on-the-loose Hyde with aplomb. Palance is backed by an extremely strong cast of fine actors: Denholm Elliott, Billie Whitelaw, Leo Genn, and Oskar Homolka.

This is easily one of the best of the myriad adaptations of J&H, and also one of the smartest. This isn’t a horror story for the Saturday matinee crowd or for the late-night Living Dead gorehounds. Curtis’ J&H is a drama-driven tale of a man liberated and damned by – in essence – an addiction. A taste of that drama:

In the climactic face-off between Jekyll/Hyde and Denholm Elliott (his friend), the wily Hyde tries to talk Elliott out of killing him:

“If you kill me, you’ll be killing Henry Jekyll!”

“You don’t understand, do you?” Elliott replies defiantly. “Jekyll deserves to die!”

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)

Produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel by Richard Matheson.

Ok, last Dan Curtis flick, I promise. I would guess having scored so heavily with The Night Stalker, Curtis felt emboldened to take the helm himself and go back to the prototype: the 1897 Bram Stoker novel that started it all.

There’d been a long line of vampire movies before Curtis’ made-for-TV effort, and an equally long line since. To name just a very few: F.W. Murnau’s 1922 expressionistic grotesque, Nosferatu with Max Schreck playing the vampire as a hideous, other-wordly thing; Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance in a movie that has, sadly, rigor mortised with age; Frank Langella tapping into the count’s sex appeal in an adventurous but ultimately limp 1979 version; and then there was Gary Oldman chomping on the scenery as well as arteries in Francis Ford Coppola’s overheated, FX-laden 1992 take.

But I give this one the Blue Ribbon. It’s got all of Curtis’ signatures: a handsome production, an energetic pace, a strong cast (Jack Palance as Dracula chased down by Simon Ward and Nigel Davenport as vampire-killer Van Helsing). At the same time, while it stays relatively close to Stoker’s original, this was also the first Dracula to wed Stoker’s literary creation to the historical Vlad the Impaler, giving the count a sense of lonely immortality.

It’s also, for its time, surprisingly graphic, and even erotic. There’s one scene I’ve never forgotten: Palance baring his midriff, then cutting himself with a fingernail so one of his female victims can lap up his blood and thus be bound to him.

Ew!

The Changeling

The Changeling (1980)

Directed by Peter Medak. Written by Russell Hunter, William Gray and Diana Maddox.

The elements are familiar: a big, old house with a sketchy history, strange noises in the night, a mysterious sealed room, a very nasty decades-old secret, clue-furnishing psychics, a psychologically damaged hero. But Medak – ably supported by cinematographer John Coquiilon and editor Lilla Pedersen, and working with a rather smart script and a strong cast – executes so exceptionally well, that even if Changeling feels a bit been-there/done-that, most other haunted house stories still seem like poor relations.

George C. Scott is a composer who rents a rambling country house as a place both to work and to retreat a bit from the world as he tries to grapple with the recent death of his wife and daughter in an accident. But soon there are strange goings-on in the house; signs of some past, buried tragedy, and it is Scott’s wounded nature which seems to make him susceptible to the message.

While there’s a strong dramatic line – Scott trying to heal his own wounds by healing those of a soul not at rest – The Changeling is all about mood, and as Scott slowly peels back one layer of mystery after another to find the truth of the house, that mood becomes all the more oppressive.

One of the best examples in the film of how Medak recharges the familiar is a scene with a medium. She tries to contact the spirit world through “automatic writing,” asking her questions as she scribbles on one piece of paper after another, with the scribbles taking rough shape as words as the spirits respond through her. The questions are asked in a soft drone, there is no other sound in the room other than that of her pencil on the paper, the shuffle of sheets as her assistant pulls away one full page and feeds another in under her ever-moving pencil. The subtle sounds, the regular pace of the page shifting are all slowly, subtly unnerving, building to a sudden climax as the medium frantically begins scribbling a page-filling “HELP” over and over and over.

I Bury the Living 

I Bury the Living (1958)

Directed by Albert Band. Written by Louis Garfinkle.

Despite its lurid title, this is a neat little gem of a psychological horror story starring Richard Boone as the newly-elected director of a cemetery who comes to think he can cause the deaths of those who own plots in the graveyard.

Boone, in one of his few leading roles, catches just the right tone of a man haunted by what he knows is incredible but seems to be true nonetheless, and Band – normally a director of low-budget throw-away sci-fi and horror – is surprisingly deft here at walking the line between suggesting the supernatural, or an equally grim but mortal explanation. What Robert Wise did with a doorknob in The Haunting, here Band pulls off with a map of the cemetery – almost a face taunting the tortured Boone with an unsaid, “But you know it’s true!”

The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Directed by Robert Wise. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton.

The Body Snatcher was just one of a crop of moody drama-driven horror tales turned out at RKO in the 40s by legendary producer Val Lewton. Lewton’s unit turned out to be a training ground for some of RKO’s future directorial luminaries, like Wise and Jacques Tourneur (who would go on to direct the classic noir, Out of the Past [1947]). Made on small budgets, all of Lewton’s horror relied on atmosphere, style, and literate scripts. Body Snatcher is arguably the best of the bunch.
Loosely based on the 19th century Burke & Hare murders, Boris Karloff is a carriage driver providing corpses for doctor Henry Daniell so that he can perfect his surgical techniques. When circumstance no longer provides enough cadavers for Karloff, he gives misfortune a little help. Daniell tries not to think about where these uncomfortably fresh bodies are coming from until one comes across his table that he recognizes.

In truth, The Body Snatcher is less a horror story than a brooding drama about two men – neither particularly evil – who become corrupted by their mutual needs and weaknesses. That dynamic gradually pushes the men to reversed roles, where the servant becomes the master.

In the movie’s best scene, Daniell begs Karloff to leave him be, and demands to know why he won’t do so. Replies Karloff, “I am a small man, a humble man. Being poor I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr. McFarlane comes to my whistle, that long am I a man. If I have not that, then I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber. You’ll never get rid of me…”

Ritual of Evil

Ritual of Evil (1970)

Directed by Robert Day. Written by Robert Presnell, Jr., and Richard Alan Simmons.

This made-for-TV flick is actually a sequel to Fear No Evil (1969), which, I confess, I have not seen. Both feature Louis Jourdin as a psychiatrist specializing in the occult. In Ritual he’s looking into the death of one of his patients, and the deeper he probes, the more it appears the woman’s death might be connected to a cabal of devil worshipers.

It is not a particularly novel movie, but an adult story told with style delivering its sense of the creeps not through shocks but through an increasingly pervasive feeling that something dark is at work. A fun watch late at night…with the lights on.

Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon (1957)

Curse of the Demon aka Night of the Demon (1957). Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Adapted from M.R. James’ story, “Casting the Runes,” by Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester, and Cy Endfield.

After Tourneur left RKO, he spent the 1950s as a freelance director, but his output was never quite as consistent as it had been when he had been one of RKO’s house directors. Curse of the Demon, however — a return to his horror roots –comes damned close.

Dana Andrews is an American psychologist come to London to expose fraudulent (he thinks) devil-worshipper Niall MacGinnis. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that MacGinnis isn’t the fraud Andrews comes to wish he was.

Typical of Tourneur’s work, the strength of Curse is in his ability to unsettle an audience with mood, inference, suggestion. In fact, the weakest part of the movie is during its climax when the demon MacGinnis has been unleashing on people is finally revealed. It’s such a criminally bad effect it comes close to eclipsing the previous ninety-odd minutes of carefully constructed dread and suspense, of MacGinnis’ hypnotic performance, of a strong, smart script…I said “comes close,” but not quite. This is still worth a watch, even though that ending comes with a caution Dana Andrews utters at one point: “Maybe it’s better not to know.”

Below

Below (2002)

Full disclosure: this is not a great horror film. It’s not even a particularly good horror film. It is, however, two-thirds a terrific war movie. There’s so much to like about Below, that even with its weaknesses in mind, I couldn’t convince myself not to include it.

It’s the North Atlantic, World War II, and three survivors from a torpedoed British hospital ship are brought aboard an American submarine commanded by Bruce Greenwood. One of the survivors, a nurse (Olivia Williams) comes to suspect – rightly, as it turns out – that the senior officers on the sub are concealing a big, dark secret connected to the badly explained death of the boat’s original commander.

Up until the story becomes overtaken by supernatural events, Twohy & Co. render one of the strongest portraits of wartime sub life since Das Boot (1981): the close quarters, the lack of privacy, the particular terror of a depth charge attack portrayed as vividly as I’ve ever seen it. The most frightening parts of Below are the all-too-real combat sequences against which the later spooky goings-on can’t hold a candle.

Twohy is also working with a universally strong ensemble led by Greenwood and including Holt McCallany, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Chinlund, Scott Foley, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Flemyng. Even the smallest of parts ring true.

The underlying mystery is potent enough, and it’s hard not to wonder — a bit ruefully considering how well-executed so much of the movie is – about the movie this could’ve been if those concerned had found a natural way to tell their story about good men damned by trying to cover up one natural but tragic mistake.

– Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is the author of recently published The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them (McFarland) which not only includes more on his adventures with Sam Lupowitz and his other screenwriting experiences, but commentary from industry professionals like Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, best-selling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, and others. You can find his work at the link below. https://www.amazon.com/Bill-Mesce/e/B001HD3YU2%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

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The Living Daylights Has a lot of fun within the Bond formula

James Bond is sent to investigate a KGB policy to kill all enemy spies and uncovers an arms deal that potentially has major global ramifications.

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The Living Daylights film review

James Bond Spotlight

It wasn’t guaranteed that the Daniel Craig films would successfully reboot James Bond, in part because such a restart had already been tried before. After 1985’s A View To a Kill, in which age had begun to show on both Roger Moore as Bond and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, the first real reboot was attempted. Timothy Dalton – who had turned down On Her Majesty’s Secret Service because he felt that at 24 he was too young to replace Sean Connery – was brought on and a script was commissioned to return Bond to his Cold War roots. The result was The Living Daylights, which doesn’t quite work as a reboot but makes for deeply enjoyable viewing.

Too many of the old Bond conventions remained for The Living Daylights to be a true departure; the roles of M and Q were not re-cast and the same notes are hit with both of them. In the same pattern that goes as far back as Goldfinger, an action-packed cold open leads into sexytime for Bond, followed by the elaborate credits sequence. But the overall story, in which a defecting Russian general (the great Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe) plays the British for fools and Bond must track him down through his mistress (Olivia d’Abo), is a welcome departure from Roger Moore’s cartoonish adventures in America.

The antagonistic presence of the Soviet Union gave From Russia With Love its classic urgency and it made The Spy Who Loved Me the best of the Moore films, thus it does wonders for Dalton. Although the “car into ski-car into using a cello case as snowmobile” chase scene is as silly as anything Moore did, the stakes in the Dalton film are more honest. It still does not make sense why the MI-6 would care about a drug dealer in New Orleans (as in Live and Let Die), but helping a beautiful Czech cellist defect from behind the Iron Curtain is exactly what James Bond should be doing, no matter how cartoonish his methods might be. Having reasonable goals for Bond allows audiences to tolerate much more silliness.

The Living Daylights James Bond 007 Review
Images via United Artists

But even most of the “silliness” in this film is deadly serious. The film’s best fight scene is one that could have been a throw-away, between a secondary Russian villain and a supporting British agent who’s never named, yet it carries all of the intensity of the famous fight in From Russia With Love. The big action set-piece takes place in Afghanistan, where Bond allies with the mujahideen not because he thinks theirs is a comically righteous crusade against evil (as would happen a year later in Rambo III) but because it’s the most practical way for the bad guys to get got. This is the perfect setting for Bond: one where the action sequences may occasionally get ridiculous, but the characters at least intend to live in a complicated world.

It’s interesting that, unlike almost every other Bond film before or since, there’s only one “Bond girl” in The Living Daylights. Despite the apparent monogamy, Bond’s attitude toward women did not reboot with the switch to Dalton; d’Abo is essentially a prop and proves especially useless during the Afghanistan sequence. Still, her character is not saddled with an embarrassing name and seems to have her own motivations independent of Bond’s, which is more than can be said for Tanya Roberts, Jane Seymour, or Denise Richards.

In some scenes, Dalton’s frustration with d’Abo seems to border on anger, but that’s not so bad because Dalton found the perfect note for Bond. Bond ought not to hate the audience or the female lead, but neither should he particularly care what they think of him. For Bond, there should be only allies, enemies, and the light glaze of contempt that he spreads over the remainder of the world. Connery had it and Craig has it, but George Lazenby seemed a little too happy just to be there while Moore and Pierce Brosnan had their tongues too firmly in cheek. Dalton found that perfect sweet spot of light contempt, and it’s no wonder that after The Living Daylights’ strong financial performance, Connery had a number of positive things to say about him.

Sadly, Dalton would lose the thread with the very next film, License to Kill, in which his contempt seemed to drench every line of the screenplay as well as a number of talented actors including a young Benicio del Toro. Perhaps it was Dalton’s fault, or perhaps it was simply because the Berlin Wall was falling and new world order was being shaped. Dalton’s Bond was no longer needed, but neither should he be forgotten: in the same way that Connery defined the Cold War of the 1960s for any number of moviegoers, no movie transforms the Cold War of the 1980s into a pop-culture artifact better than The Living Daylights.

– Mark Young

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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Moonraker Completely Misses its Mark

James Bond investigates the mid-air theft of a space shuttle, and discovers a plot to commit global genocide.

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Moonraker review

James Bond Spotlight

Moonraker has the unique distinction of being the most absurd and over-the-top Bond film produced in 50 plus years of the series. Spy films exist in a genre unto themselves, but the Bond films sometimes like to crossover into other popular genres as well. The first clear example of this was 1973’s Live and Let Die, which mimicked the then-popular Blaxploitation genre. When Moonraker was released, however, the Bond series took this genre crossover to its extreme, resulting in a Bond film as much a science fiction saga as it is screwball comedy. Certainly one of the strangest Bond films to date, Moonraker holds a unique admiration among Bond fans and remained the highest-grossing of all the Bond films until the release of Goldeneye in 1995.

Before Moonraker came 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me which concluded with the end credit; “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.” Then came the exuberant popularity (and profits) of Star Wars, also released in 1977. Star Wars’ popularity led to a barrage of memorable rip-offs from Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash to Jimmy Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars. Bond producers also took note, changing their planned release schedule to push Moonraker ahead of For Your Eyes Only in order to capitalize on a then exploding interest in sci-fi epics. The third act of Moonraker is set entirely in space, complete with laser battles, keypads set to the theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired rotating space station. Adding to Moonraker’s space cred was the growing fascination with a then-developed space shuttle that NASA was preparing to launch only a few years later. Producers made the choice to use the SRS Space Shuttle model in the film to play directly into a worldwide fascination in next-generation practical spaceflight.

The ambition is apparent in the visuals, but where Moonraker fails is in its execution of story. Tightly packed with all of the elements of a Bond film, without regard for their cohesion, this often overwrought story too heavily relies on bizarre moments that come across more Mel Brooks than James Bond. Moonraker is structured around the same basic Bond outline the series tends to follow; Bond visiting a number of very exotic locales in search of clues leading to whatever villainous mastermind happens to be plotting world domination. In Moonraker, that super-villain is Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), a space industrialist with plans of creating a new master race. All of the locations Bond’s investigation of Drax leads to are a bit too obvious. In their pursuit of grand set-pieces, producers seemed to overlook subtly for scale. Perhaps the worst moment in the film comes during a boat chase down the canals of Venice. Bond’s motorized gondola transforms into a terribly executed hovercraft that proceeds to drive across St. Mark’s Square in a scene derivative of bad slapstick. Campy scenes like this, as well as scenes with the return of giant henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel) instantly take viewers out of the story. A subplot in which Jaws falls in love with a short, pigtailed beauty, shedding his bad ways for good, plays just plain silly in a film that over-utilizes comedic cause where it should have focused on dramatic effect.

Moonraker James Bond 007 film review
Images: United Artists

Roger Moore isn’t known for being the best of the Bonds, and here he seems to go out of his way to prove why. Where Connery sold Bond as sexy and smooth, Moore’s performance comes across as forced and rigid.  An awkward fighting style and over-obvious one-liners don’t help his case. Moonraker also has the distinction of having perhaps the most overblown (seriously no pun was intended), straight-to-the-point names for a Bond girl in all the films; Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles).

Where Moonraker does succeed is in the exquisitely crafted set pieces by production designer Ken Adams. Adams sets, including a portable lab in a Venetian glass factory, a geometric space command center in hollowed Amazonian ruins and the space station itself, with its winding corridors of glass tubes, are all standout designs that succeed more than the films actors at creating the foreboding moods beneath the surface of the story. The greatest of all Adams designs is a conference room that folds in on itself, disappearing into the floor. Set beneath the thrusters of a space shuttle, the room is indicative of the famous war room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, another set designed by Adams.

At its conclusion, Moonraker is only a mildly amusing entry into the Bond canon. Perhaps Moonraker’s greatest flaw is its reliance on perpetuating the characteristics of the series without setting itself apart. Moonraker is a movie produced to be visually appealing above all else. Maybe it’s because the script was rushed to come out ahead of the already planned For Your Eyes Only. Whatever the case, the double entendres Bond fans have come to love fall flat to shtick in this installment of the franchise. Moonraker completely misses its mark, catering more to a generation captivated by Star Wars than the generation that grew up with Bond since 1962. Money wins again.

-Tony Nunes

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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The Man with the Golden Gun is a Curiosity Amongst Bond Fans

James Bond is targeted by the world’s most expensive assassin, while he attempts to recover sensitive solar cell technology that is being sold to the highest bidder.

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The Man With The Golden Gun James Bond review

James Bond Spotlight

One hallmark of the venerable Bond franchise is its willingness to change with the times. Sometimes the changes feel organic, like the shift to a more brutish Daniel Craig after international terrorism took center stage in the early 2000s. Other times, however, you can smell Bond’s desperation to stay relevant. Such is the case with 1974’s middling entry, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Guy Hamilton’s fourth turn as Bond director (GoldfingerDiamonds Are ForeverLive and Let Die) is a study in uncertainty. As Bond, Roger Moore is still searching for the debonair persona he would find in the upcoming classic, The Spy Who Loved Me. Surrounding Moore’s tentative performance are a collection of unfocused action set pieces, a less-than-formidable duo of Bond girls, and the most repugnant character in the series’ history. Add an ill-conceived leap onto the kung-fu bandwagon and you’ve got a recipe that would have poisoned a lesser franchise.

That’s not to say that The Man with the Golden Gun (TMWTGG) is without merit. First, the story is refreshingly simple. Bond must find and eliminate the world’s most deadly assassin, Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), who intends to blackmail the energy-starved West with a mysterious solar energy device (an iconic MacGuffin called the “Solex agitator”). As the dapper assassin Scaramanga—who collects $1 million for every hit with his little golden gun—Lee oozes a slimy charm that is a welcome addition to the franchise. Perhaps more than any arch villain before him, Scaramanga feels like a regular man who can relate to Bond. He may have grandiose designs on environmental extortion, but he’s mainly just a thug who excels at killing people. Sound familiar?

Scaramanga is introduced by a snappy pre-title sequence, as well. With the help of his diminutive henchman, Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), Scaramanga lures a hapless hitman into his nightmarish funhouse full of traps. Not only is this a clever illustration of Scaramanga’s killing prowess, it foreshadows the film’s ultimate showdown with Bond. It also establishes one of the most interesting villain-henchman dynamics in the history of the franchise. “If you kill him, all this be mine!” Nick Nack implores Bond; his loyalties split between protecting his master and feeding his own ambitions. It’s an extra layer of texture we don’t normally see from Bond henchmen.

The Man with the Golden Gun review
Images: United Artists

The impressive shooting locales are spotted all over the Far East, including Thailand, Hong Kong, and Macau. Hamilton does a great job capturing the humidity and flare, keeping Bond in the streets and local establishments as often as possible. It also yields the film’s most ingenious set-piece; the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor. The derelict ocean liner is cleverly transformed into the Far East headquarters for MI6. Another highlight is Bond’s low-altitude flight through the jagged rock formations in Hạ Long Bay. These geographical flourishes have become a staple of Bond films.

Sadly, that’s where the praise for The Man With The Golden Gun ends.

Even the normally-reliable John Barry, who penned the franchise’s most iconic themes and songs, falls prey to mediocrity. Though the title tune is undeniably catchy, Don Black’s insipid lyrics do little to help Scottish crooner, Lulu, who does her best Shirley Bassey imitation. This is definitely Barry’s weakest effort with the franchise.

It’s also the worst script penned by long-time Bond scribe, Richard Maibaum. Working from an early draft by Tom Mankiewicz and the original novel by Ian Fleming, Maibaum pruned most of the gamesmanship between Bond and Scaramanga. Instead of a battle between equals, Scaramanga feels more like a jealous half-brother with an axe to grind. It’s a missed opportunity for Bond to match wits and marksmanship with a superior adversary.

More glaring is Hamilton’s listless approach to the action sequences, including his continued obsession with excruciating car chases. Bond pursues Scaramanga through the streets of Bangkok before reaching a bifurcated bridge. In the film’s most iconic stunt, Bond executes a perfect corkscrew jump to traverse the broken and twisted bridge (bafflingly accompanied by the sound of a slide whistle). Making the chase even more intolerable is a curtain call from the racist Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). As if Pepper wasn’t loathsome enough in Live and Let Die, he turns up to insult Asian citizens in their own country. Truly, this reprehensible character is emblematic of a time most Americans would rather forget.

Man With the Golden Gun review
Image: United Artists

Despite looking stellar in a bikini, Britt Ekland’s turn as Agent Goodnight is thoroughly forgettable. She’s completely useless as a field agent and barely registers a blip on the charisma radar. Her low point arrives in the final act when she accidentally activates a death ray with her ass. Faring even worse is Maud Adams as Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders. Bullied and subjugated by Scaramanga, Anders comes crawling to Bond, who promptly slaps and manhandles her. Anders looks less like a damsel in distress than a helpless victim of domestic abuse. Surely, Roger Moore must look back on this scene—obviously devised to toughen his image—with embarrassment and regret.

And let us not even discuss Bond’s brief detention at a kung-fu school. That he is rescued by two teenage girls is an unmitigated disgrace masquerading as a punchline.

What makes The Man with the Golden Gun particularly frustrating, especially when compared to similar missteps like A View to A Kill or Die Another Day, is how little fun everyone seems to be having. The humor isn’t zany enough to inject any camp, and the story (particularly Scaramanga’s reduced role) is too thin to be taken seriously. It’s stuck in the middle of what Bond used to be with Connery, and would eventually become with Moore. That it survived this transition is a credit to Moore’s natural charm and producer Cubby Broccoli’s determination. In that way, The Man with the Golden Gun is a curiosity amongst Bond fans; it’s hard to muster either enthusiasm or disdain for it. Perhaps, in the grander scheme, it’s the movie Moore had to make before he truly became James Bond.

J.R. Kinnard

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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