Animation has endless possibilities
By G. Michael Dobbs
In this week's DVD column, there's a new set of Hammer films and a great animation collection.
Icons of Adventure
If you're a horror film fan than you've undoubtedly heard of Hammer Films, the British company that produced many great terror flicks from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. Their two lead stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, became best known as Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, respectively, although both actors performed many other roles.
And Hammer made many non- horror films and four of them are in this new collection from Sony Home Video. Two are pirate adventures, one is a thriller set in Hong Kong, while the other film deals with the Thugee cult in India.
Hammer was not a big budget outfit and one can only wonder if a writer came up with the titles "Pirates of Blood River" and "The Devil Ship Pirates" first and then worked backwards. The titles are classic B-movie titles promising fights at sea and other action that one expects of a pirate movie.
Well, "Pirates of Blood River" has plenty of pirates, but no boat and no ocean adventures. Lee stars as a pirate captain who is convinced a group of Huguenots who escaped religious persecution in France to set up their own society on a deserted island are guarding a treasure. It's much more of a siege movie than a pirate film.
The direction by John Gilling keeps the plot rolling right along and as a low-budget film it is quite acceptable. Lee is very good as the philosophical pirate and character actor Michael Ripper a mainstay in Hammer films almost steals the show as a member of Lee's crew.
"The Devil Ship Pirates" looks much more of a pirate film as at least there are a few opening scenes at sea. The pirate ship Diablo has been commissioned to be part of the legendary Spanish Armada that was defeated by the British and the captain again, Lee decides to bring his damaged ship in for repairs, tricking a remote British village into thinking that the Spanish won and they must do what he says.
Don Sharp makes the most of his cast and locations and at least has a boat although it can't sail!
"The Terror of the Tongs" is one of the worst Hammer films I've ever sat through largely because of its misuse of Lee as the leader of a murderous Chinese crime syndicate. All Lee does is sit and make announcements and stand and make announcements.
Most of the cast members who portray Chinese characters are British actors with really bad make-up. The political correctness of the film is pretty questionable in today's society. The film could easily be seen as racist.
The plot revolves around a strong and steady English boat captain whose daughter is murdered by the Tong. He's one of these heroes who goes into almost every situation unprepared and ill advised but he prevails.
"The Stranglers of Bombay" is not set in Bombay but in a smaller Indian community where the local British plantation and business owners are trying to figure out why their caravans of goods are going missing as well as dozens of people.
What they don't know is a cult worshipping the Hindu goddess Kali is murdering people as a way to show their devotion. Only one English army officer has discovered the answers, but no one is listening to him.
Based on history, "Stranglers" fascinated me as it has a very similar look and tone to the second Indiana Jones feature. I wondered as I watched this if George Lucas or Steven Spielberg had seen the 1959 film as children.
Three watchable films out of four isn't a bad score and the folks at Sony Home Video have added some bizarre extras that include an Andy Clyde two-reel comedy that has nothing to do with pirates, a color Scrappy cartoon which marginally has pirates and the first chapter of the 1951 serial "The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd," in which Kidd is a pirate and his "great" adventures include murder and pillage.
There are also commentaries from key Hammer personnel including director and writer Jimmy Sangster.
The Animation Show Volume 3
As regular readers might remember, I've loved animation since I was a kid and still do. In my role as an editor and co-owner of two animation magazines and as the author of "Escape! How Animation Broke in the Mainstream in the 1990s" available at all online booksellers I've had the privilege and pleasure of seeing the public warm up to the notion that cartoons just aren't for children.
This new collection of animated shorts put together by Mike Judge the creator of "King of the Hill" and independent animator Don Hertzfeldt underscores the diversity of animation styles and content.
Some shorts, such as "Rabbit," are surreal nightmares. "Collision" is a subtle political commentary. "One D" plays with the concept of a world with one dimension. "Game Over" by Pes is a brilliant homage to 1970s and '80s video games with a pizza and two fried eggs forming Pac Man.
There are also some very funny shorts such as "Versus" in which rival samurai armies compete for a tiny island.
There are two shorts from one of my favorite animators, Bill Plympton, and Hertzfeldt's own "Everything Will Be Okay" is simply amazing.
Anyone interested in animation needs to see this collection.