Saturday, 5 January 2013

Bad Movies, Science Fiction, and Supernatural Horror

I've been under the weather lately, and one thing I do when I'm not feeling well is watch undemanding (i.e. rather stupid) old films. Thus it came to pass that I saw Roger Corman's Wasp Woman for the first time, and saw the creaky AIP effort War-Gods of the Deep for the second time since it was on telly in about 1980. Both films are couched firmly in the Gothic tradition, though they take totally different approaches. 

Wasp Woman (1959) is a ridiculous 'cautionary tale' about a woman, Janice Starlin, who runs her own cosmetics firm. Needless to say (this being Fifties America) she is portrayed as single-minded and rather sexless because, dude, it's not feminine to give orders and stuff. Anyway, our anti-heroine's firm is in trouble because she is the face of the product, and she is getting old. Losing her looks. And (being a woman) she is desperate to regain her lost youth. Enter Dr Zinthrop, a scientist who, if not quite mad, is certainly a bit of an outlier. This boffin thinks that royal jelly from queen wasps can provide a powerful youth serum. Cue injections, unexpected side-effects, and what's that buzzing sound? 

Anyone who's read Roald Dahl's story 'Royal Jelly', or who's seen the Tales of the Unexpected episode based on it, knows the score here. Superficially this is a science fiction horror story - we have an actual scientist, a laboratory with the usual test tubes, and a fair amount of chit-chat that sounds technical. But the format is pure Gothic horror. The scientist works alone - a tortured, misunderstood genius, nothing like the genuine researchers of Fifties corporate America (or indeed today's splendidly appointed Laboratoire Garnier). The Wasp Woman herself is a Gothic villainess, demonstrating the noble and vile parts of our natures - but instead of a Jekyll/Hyde personality she's a woman/wasp figure, and I can't help this undermines the artistic impact somewhat.

But my central point is this: the science is pure folderol and is not essential to the plot. Replace the stuff about wasp serum with a magic spell from an ancient grimoire and the film would be much the same. The reason that scientific doubletalk is needed is simply that an audience looking at 'up to date' people in a well-lit, corporate environment find scientific wonders easier to believe. Science and the supernatural can simply be exchanged if you want to transform a person into a monster - Wasp Woman requires biochemistry, but Wolf Man is stuck with an ancient curse, albeit one entirely fabricated for the movies.

Then there's War-Gods of the Deep (aka City Under the Sea), a fairly bad 1965 film with some unexpected delights. Here we find the Gothic in full flight from common sense, retreating in all directions from rational plotting and characterisation. It's very tedious in places, not least the underwater 'action' sequences that make you realise how exciting underwater filming was in the days of Jacques Cousteau. Not so much now. But this film was directed by no less a talent that Jacques Tourneur, stars Vincent Price as a major baddie, and features an excellent cameo by John le Measurier of Dad's Army fame. 

The central premise of the film is taken from Poe's poem 'The City Under the Sea', which is well worth reading. The idea is that the lost city of Lyonesse lies off the Cornish coast and, every now and again, folk on the mainland can hear the bells of the city a-ringin', so they can. It rapidly transpires that Lyonesse is linked by tunnels to an old cliff-top house that's recently just been acquired by a bad American actress with an impressive bust, to which domicile she's invited a square jawed hero (Tab Hunter) and a bit of English comic relief (David Tomlinson, later to star in Bedknobs and Broomsticks). Oh, and a chicken called Herbert. Did I mention that the year is 1903? Well, it is.

Anyway, it turns out that Vincent Price - the Captain - took his band of smugglers into the tunnels and found Lyonesse a century earlier while evading revenue men. Why didn't they simply emerge when the fuzz left? One of many good questions that remains unanswered. Instead the smugglers - a familiar band of central casting cutthroats in baggy shirts - discovered that remaining in Lyonesse stopped them from ageing. The Captain's explanation is that the sea shields them from 'actinic' solar rays, which is woefully absurd, but does allow a final, Lost Horizon-style death scene for Price as he sees the light of day for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars.. 

Let's try a bit of exposition, now. The ancient denizens of Lyonesse left an elaborate pumping system that keeps the water out of what's left of the city. Then, rather carelessly, they evolved into Gill-Men, which resemble the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but without the charm. Price's Captain has somehow become lord of the Gill-Men (why didn't they just kill him and his crew?) and sends them to grab Jill, the American heiress, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Captain's long-dead missus. Meanwhile a volcano (off the coast of Cornwall) threatens to erupt and wipe out the city and its frankly daft inhabitants. It all gets very confusing and yet at the same time is far too slow. Tourneur, to his credit, tries to make a stupid script work and pulls off some interesting shots, but it's mostly sub-Hammer tosh.

Again, this is a supposedly science fiction film that is really all about Gothic imagery and ideas. People in Edwardian costumes are kidnapped by monsters acting at the behest of a Georgian smuggler/squire who lords it over an undersea realm on the edge of an active British volcano (I still can't get over that bit). Price - who was a handsome leading man in his youth - gives us the amoral, Byronic villain. The Captain is elegant (who does his laundry?), cruelly witty, and very erudite. Like the best Romantics, he is not just an monstrous ego in a frilly shirt, but is also keen to absorb as much of modern science as he can. It's not his fault that he is unable, in Edwardian Cornwall, to find a volume entitled How To Stop Volcanoes Going Off. 

There is precious little logic to anything that happens in the film, but the imagery (on a bigger budget) might have been so wonderful that it needn't have mattered. Tourneur seems, at least intermittently, to be going for a kind of dream logic. That, I think, is the essence of Gothic Romanticism, even when it falls flat. As with Wasp Woman, the science fiction paraphernalia of War-Gods is not essential, and indeed the central premise - strange beings emerging from the sea to kidnap fair maidens - would have been far better rendered as pure fantasy. But, again, people are better prepared to accept fantastic ideas with a veneer of science, or pseudo-science. 

I don't have any profound conclusions to draw. I've just been watching old films. But I wonder how many of today's squillion dollar blockbusters stand up any better than these almost-forgotten potboilers of the pre-CGI age? I can't recall the last time I saw a science fiction film that struck me as scientifically credible. Yet I see convincing supernatural horror films on a regular basis.