Monday, November 3, 2008

The Giant of Marathon (1959) review


Steve Reeves (Phillipides), Mylene Demongeot (Andromeda), Sergio Fantoni (Theocrates), Daniela Rocca (Karis), Alberto Lupo ( Miltiades), Daniele Varga (Darius), Ivo Garrani (Creusis), Sergio Ciani/Alan Steel (Euros), Mario Adorf (wrestler), Giovanni Cianfriglia (gladiator)

Directed by Jaques Tourneur & Mario Bava (uncredited); Cinematography by Mario Bava

During a time of war between the Athenians and the Spartans, the Olympic champion and newly crowned commander of the sacred guard, Phillipides is approached to lead the fight against the invading Persians. Theocrates envisions that if he and Creusis (both members of the Athenian Council) can control the sacred guard, they can rule over Athens. After a chance meeting with Andromeda, the daughter of Creusis, Phillipides instantly falls in love with her. However, she is promised to the ambitious and villainous Theocrates.

In an effort to secure dominance of Athens, Theocrates along with the exiled Athenian Hippias, plots to align with the Persian King Darius for the surrender of the Athenians. Realizing his scheme, Phillipides refuses to join the traitors and retires from the sacred guard choosing to become a farmer. When the invasion becomes imminent, Phillipides returns to Athens. To save his people and the woman he loves, Phillipides procures an alliance with their long time enemies, the Spartans to drive out the Persian hordes.

An Italian-French co-production directed by Tourneur and distributed by MGM. Although Tourneur gets sole credit, Bava finished the film when Tourneur became ill. Despite that, the film is a high mark of the sword & sandal genre. One of the biggest peplum productions, the film is notable for some sprawling battle sequences, intricate set design (with numerous composite shots courtesy of Bava's photographic effects) and a good script peppered with some engaging cliffhanger moments.

Steve Reeves lights up the screen as the Olympic champion Phillipides whose deeds (according the opening credits) layed the groundwork for the Olympic games to come. Reeves, looking more lithe than his previous outings, plays his character as a stubborn but love sick individual. He ignores the wiles of a busty seductress whose purpose is to lure him into helping the conniving Theocrates. This love story subplot never proves detrimental to the film but instead enhances it especially during the final 30 minutes which looks to be where the bulk of the budget went.

Andromeda (played by the gorgeous Mylene Demongeot) is kidnapped by Theocrates after neary killing her father. He uses her to bring Phillipides. After securing the help of the Spartans, hope for the survival of Athens seems assured until the Spartans don't show up. Instead, the 100 sacred Athenian guard take on the Persian horde alone. They come with an ingenious plan of placing metal spiked tipped poles into the water held in place by huge rocks. when the Persian ships cross, the stakes pierce the hulls of their ships. But the Persians are not without their own weapons--the flagship has a giant spiked pincher that opens to crush the Athenian vessels in its jaws.

It's here where there is some rather shocking scenes of violence. The Athenians jump into the water and the Persians fire arrows and spears at them while submerged. Blades pierce into stomachs, eyes and necks followed by the ejection of blood. The remaining Athenians make their way to shore while the Persian army close in on them. When defeat appears imminent, the Spartans finally show and turn the tide of the battle resulting in the retreat of the Persians.

The striking beauty of French actress Mylene Demongeot is one of the most lovely female stars to appear in these films and also does not appear to be wearing anything under her skimpy attire. Daniela Rocca provides some added femininity with her voluptuous figure but Demongeot has the most appeal. THE GIANT OF MARATHON (1959) has everything that makes (good) sword & sandal movies great matinée entertainment-- larger than life heroes, feats of strength, beautiful women, insidious villains (sometimes monsters), ornate sets and big action set pieces.

Actor Fantoni is supremely villainous as the traitor Theocrates who pretends to want the greater good for Athens but in reality only wants sole power over the city and will sacrifice anyone to get it. The scene where he repeatedly slaps Karis for her failure and refusal in seducing Phillipides followed by his decree to kill her should she not follow his command is a strong scene and his demise at the end is expertly handled and imaginatively staged as opposed to the usual dispatch of the villains in these movies.

Here, Phillipides duels with Theocrates atop the Persian ships mast which also binds Andromeda. Credit to the filmmakers for some damn fine action sequences. However, this film features some painful shots of violence towards horses. ROMULUS & REMUS (1961) had an immense amount of horse falls, but here these bits appear increasingly dangerous.

Future fusto star Sergio Ciani has a small role as the Spartan leader Euros whom had a fight with Phillipides in the past; it's only spoken of and not shown. Early in the picture, Phillipides watches two men beat the hell out of one another, a fight set up for his supposed enjoyment by Karis. Phillipides sees these two men as savages and not wrestlers. The winner tries to stop Phillipides from leaving resulting in the wrestler being bested. The man playing the wrestler looks very much like Mario Adorf although he is not credited but then nor is Ciani. Reeve's stunt double Cianfriglia is seen briefly as a gladiator.

A classy effort from the director of NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1964) and the loose Poe adapted WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP (1965) starring Vincent Price. Ably finished by Italian master of the fantastic Mario Bava (who would get his first major horror film off the ground due to his assist here) and he also contributes some very nice photographic effects to heighten the allure of this films production. A quality peplum all around and must see entertainment for fans of Reeves and the genre in general.

This review is representative of the Retromedia Double Feature DVD. It is paired with WAR OF THE TROJANS, the sequel to THE TROJAN HORSE, also starring Steve Reeves.

Goliath & the Sins of Babylon (1963) review


Mark Forest (Goliath/Maciste), Guiliano Gemma (Xandros), Mimmo Palmara (Alceas), Susan Paget (Rezzia), Erno Crisa (Morakeb), Piero Lulli (Pergasos), Livio Lorenzon (Evandro), Arnaldo Fabrizio (Ninetto), Paul Muller (King Calphus) Nello Pazzafini

Directed by Michele Lupo; Music by Les Baxter (US version)

After the city of Nephir is conquered by the might of Babylon, a heavy tribute must be paid once a year in order to maintain the truce; thirty of their most beautiful virgins must be handed over to the Babylonian guard for delivery to the evil King Calphus where they are to be sacrificed for the amusement of the Babylonians. However, Princess Rezzia, the daughter of the dead King of Nephir cannot assume the throne of her land unless she first takes a husband. A group of conspirators, anxious for action, plot to overthrow King Calphus and rescue the virgins. They meet up with Goliath and convince him to help in their cause to free Nephir from the clutches of Babylon and bring an end to the cruel sacrificial tributes forever.

Lupo directs one of the best peplums ever armed with an obviously bigger budget than usual. An ambitious, lavish production with several major set pieces including an impressive ship battle at sea as the rebels ambush the heavily armed Babylonian vessel, the sacred Tryhrim, at least that's what the characters proclaim it as. Many critics who enjoy badmouthing these movies with such remarks as 'low budget' and 'shoddy' would do well to pay attention to this sequence as it rivals anything seen in any US swashbuckler. But then, that's the attitude generally given to any film that isn't 'Made In The USA'.

Another extraordinary scene is the finale in which the people of Nephir unite with the rebels to burn down Babylon. Some nice miniature work found in this sequence. Another major highlight is the fast paced chariot race. Forest appears to do the scene himself although it's possible a stuntman may have taken his place somewhere but clearly it's him in a number of shots which adds more realism to an already exciting scene. Another nice bit is a brief scene right after the revolt resulting in Pergasos's death where the Babylonians release the lions and leopards into the dungeons to slaughter the resistance.

Mark Forest as Goliath (Maciste in the Italian original) was one of the most popular of the fusto actors to come from America to star in the films. Oddly enough, only three actors (that I'm aware of) outside of America got starring roles in these movies; two Italians and one Hungarian. Forest starred in at least a dozen of these films including GOLIATH & THE DRAGON (1960), HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1963), HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (1964), KINDAR THE INVULNERABLE (1964) and THE LION OF THEBES (1964) among them.

Forest retired from acting to pursue a musical career in opera as well as being a fitness trainer. One of the least stiff looking peplum performers in action scenes even with his massive frame, Forest was also a bit more emotive than many of his contemporaries.

In order to fulfill their plan to eliminate King Calphus and Morakeb, the rebels must pretend to give themselves over to the Babylonians. One man must give up his life to make the scheme believeable. Goliath steps forward and is fingered as the man behind the revolt. Morakeb orders that Goliath is to be put to death and that his friends, the ones who have handed him over as part of their plan, must carry out the execution.

This striking, suspenseful scene has Goliath bolted to a table below a metallic roof with about a dozen holes above. Inside the holes are massive spears attached to ropes. Some of the spears are designed to miss, some to hit the victim and at least one to kill. The purpose is to instill fear of death before the execution is carried out. It's probably the best scene in the whole movie and Lupo handles it masterfully.

About the only thing negative I can say about the film is that Goliath, or more accurately, Maciste, doesn't get to perform much in the way of superhuman feats. A minor quibble but you expect those kinds of things in the movies featuring the mythological characters such as this. Either way, it's also not Forest's movie soley. He shares equal screen time with his co-stars, Gemma, Palmara and even the midget actor, Fabrizio who is the comic relief in the film.

In fact, the film has a good amount of humor; not so much that it takes away from the film, but much of it is pretty funny. I don't quite understand all the flack given to films that feature midget actors. I couldn't tell you the last time I saw a little person in a film but Fabrizio is hilarious, and if you dig midget humor, you'll get a lot of it here. Midgets were also employed in the awful VULCAN, GOD OF FIRE (1961), the TEN GLADIATORS trilogy and SAMSON'S MIGHTY CHALLENGE (1964), a film that also featured other Italian fusto faves Hercules, Maciste and Ursus.

Considering the initial plot of the virgins being sacrificed, you might think there's an abundance of beautiful women on display. Not so as Susan Paget is the sole female of attention who loves Xandros (Gemma). She races in the chariot challenge with the winner getting her hand in marriage, but a ruthless scheme keeps Xandros from taking part in the race. Paget (who most often was billed as Jose Greci) is lovely, but she's no Chelo Alonso or Rosalba Neri, the latter of which frequently appeared in these movies.

Guiliano Gemma needs no intro to Euro film fans as he made his name predominantly in westerns especially the classics A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) and THE RETURN OF RINGO (1965). Gemma worked with Lupo again on the Spaghetti westerns ARIZONA COLT (1966) and CALIFORNIA (1977). His other peplum credits include TWO GLADIATORS (1964) and HERCULES VS. THE SONS OF THE SUN (1964) also starring Mark Forest. Here, Gemma is as athletic and spry as he is in his westerns. Gemma was one of a few actors who successfully made the transition to all manner of Italian cinema appearing in numerous action, crime, drama and horror films in addition to his peplums and westerns.

Mimmo Palmara was a regular peplum/fusto star and appeared in at least 20 torch and toga movies throughout his career appearing alongside most of the other main muscleman stars mostly as a supporting player. Palmara did get to headline HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER (1964) which also featured Alan Steel as Goliath in the original Italian print.

Livio Lorenzon was an ace as the lead heavy in the Reeves vehicle, GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS (1959) as well as a fair number of other peplums, but here he gets to play a hero as he did in the Richard Harrison gladiator film, GLADIATORS SEVEN (1962).

Also on hand are two actors who will be most indentified with Spaghetti Western fans, Nello Pazzafini and Piero Lulli. Nello plays one of the heroic gladiators. He lives, but he gets no lines of dialog. Lulli, as usual, plays one of several villains; Lulli has the role of Pergasos here. However, in ROMULUS & REMUS (1961) and THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES (1964), Lulli got to play a heroic role for a change. Both of these actors would portray villains throughout their careers in Italian westerns after the sword & sandal movies died out.

GOLIATH & THE SINS OF BABYLON (1963) is another fine peplum adventure that benefits from a large budget and some spectacular set pieces as well as assured direction from the underrated Michele Lupo. Any fan of the genre or even the spaghetti westerns would do well to check this one out. There is much to recommend here.

This review is representative of the Retromedia double feature DVD. It is paired with COLOSSUS & THE AMAZON QUEEN.

Day of the Animals (1977) review


Christopher George (Steve Buckner), Leslie Nielsen (Paul Jensen), Lynda Day George (Terry Marsh), Michael Ansara (Daniel Santee), Richard Jaeckel (Professor Taylor), Jon Cedar (Frank Young), Paul Mantee (Roy Moore), Walter Barnes (Ranger Tucker), Andrew Stevens (Bob Denning), Ruth Roman (Shirley Goodwyn)

Directed by William Girdler

The increased depletion of the Ozone Layer causes animals living above altitudes of 5,000 feet to become extremely violent turning on, and ultimately attacking and killing humans. A group of vacationers hiking in the mountains fight for their lives to survive the ordeal, the horror of which has reached the town below and isn't necessarily restricted to animals.

Girdler returns to the killer animal genre with his superior follow up to GRIZZLY (1976). I never thought much about this movie when I saw it years back but upon seeing it again this time back to back with Girdler's GRIZZLY (1976), it's the better film. Girdler shows a more assured hand in the character and suspense department. He manages to pull off some truly fine sequences of horror with the stand out being the attack on the survivors by a pack of wild dogs during the finale. A more difficult film to tackle just for the sheer number of animals wrangled including a group of vultures, rats, wolves, snakes, dogs and an encore by an attacking grizzly.

There are a couple of mistakes in the movie. On two occasions you can see the camera--once in a crane shot, the camera is visible in the windshield of a car, and the other, the cameraman is visible in the window of a door at 16:48 in. Another mistake is revealed at the conclusion. As the pack of wild dogs chases after the last few survivors, two crewmen are seen atop the hill in plain view as the dogs pass by.

Christopher George is again the hero this time essaying the role of Mountain guide, Steve Buckner. George's co-star from GRIZZLY (1976), Richard Jaekel also returns in a smaller role and has little to do this time out. Andrew Prine, who also starred alongside George and Jaekel in the previous film, was offered the role of Frank Young, but turned it down. The role eventually went to Jon Cedar.

Christopher George gets strong support by the fine actor of television and screen, Michael Ansara who also played the good guy medicine man in Girdler's final film, the astonishing THE MANITOU (1978). Michael Ansara was born in Syria and after migrating to the United States, he later became a theater actor sharing the stage with personalities such as Charles Bronson and Carolyn Jones. Ansara was an intimidating and stoic presence on screen in his numerous television and theatrical movies. One of his best was his role as the Klingon leader, Kang in the 'Day of the Dove' episode of the original STAR TREK. He played an Indian twice with director William Girdler in DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977) and the following years THE MANITOU.

The stunningly beautiful Lynda Day George is on hand as her off screen husbands love interest, Anchorwoman, Terry Marsh. Much like Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland, the George's (having met in 1963) often starred together in their films. She also featured alongside her husband in the Made For TV horror flick, CRUISE INTO TERROR (1978). The same year of DAY OF THE ANIMALS release, Lynda also starred in IT HAPPENED AT LAKEWOOD MANOR (aka ANTS 1977).

In 1981, Lynda worked with George on the Italian-Spanish co-production, PIECES (aka 1,000 CRIES HAS THE NIGHT). She didn't enjoy her time on this film and also wanted no part of Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980). She also starred in her husband's last production, the dreary MORTUARY (1983). Among her TV credits, Lynda also played a villainous Nazi that takes on the guise of a second Wonder Woman in the series of the same name starring Lynda Carter. While filming DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977), Lynda had nothing but good memories working with the late director, William Girdler, although the finale was rather uncomfortable for her; she was terrified during the dog attack sequence.

What could arguably be the most memorable part in the entire picture would be the scene stealing performance by Leslie Nielsen. He plays the obnoxious and bigoted businessman, Paul Jensen. Once the animals attack, Jensen causes a rift in the group resulting in the hikers taking sides. A group goes with George's character and the other splits with Jensen (Nielsen). They soon grow to regret it when Jensen reverts to savagery killing the younger man played by Andrew Stevens and raping his girlfriend just before taking on a grizzly bear in a death struggle during a massive lightning storm!

Nielsen is great here and unlike any of his other performances including his villainous turn in CREEPSHOW (1982). His usual purposely deadpan delivery is absent here substituting malice for laughs. Truly a jaw dropping, stand out performance, Nielsen would forever be etched in comedic infamy for his role as Frank Drebin on the short lived POLICE SQUAD tv show and the NAKED GUN movies. Despite his over the top portrayal, Nielsen was said to be a constant joker on set. However, the actress that is raped by his character said Nielsen got a little carried away during this sequence.

Andrew Stevens (Left)

Producer, Director and actor, Andrew Stevens has had an incredibly successful career in Hollywood. He's starred in a number of horror and exploitation classics such as the possession-revenge horror MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH (1976), THE FURY (1978) from Brian De Palma and TEN TO MIDNIGHT (1983) starring Charles Bronson. He also co-starred in THE SEDUCTION (1982) alongside Morgan Fairchild. This Erotic Thriller began a long running string of similar movies later in Stevens career many of which Stevens performed duties both in front of, and behind the camera. Stevens also worked extensively with Roger Corman and his Concorde-New Horizons company.

Walter Barnes (right)

Former football player and actor Walter Barnes has had an amazing career in film having starred in a number of European pictures most notably some entries in the West German 'Winnetou' series. Barnes also had co-starring roles in THE GREATEST ROBBERY IN THE WEST (1967) and THE MOMENT TO KILL (1968) both starring George Hilton. Barnes also found work in films from Clint Eastwood such as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) and as Tank Murdock in EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978).

Susan Backlinie, the first victim in JAWS (1975) is also the first victim here, as well as being the animal wrangler. For the scene in which the vultures attack her character sending her tumbling off of a cliff, the birds were tied all over her body to give the impression she was being clawed to death. According to Backlinie, a Grizzly bear was used for the film in addition to a North American Cinnamon Bear. The film was shot in the Mountains of Northern California.

The ending is very well done by director Girdler and agreeably vague as the white suited decontamination squads enter the town to begin the clean up operation. They find all the animals dead but are unsure as to why, or if this type of deadly incident will happen again leaving the viewer with some unanswered, but frightening notions. The whole storyline is told in such a way that it is entirely believable that such a terrifying occurrence could indeed happen and on a much grander scale.

Another interesting touch implemented by Girdler is that anybody can die at any time. Many people you think will live in fact die at the hands of the rampaging animals. Judging by the way the movie ends, the groups decision to split up and either head back down the mountain or make for the ranger station proved to be an equally dangerous endeavor.

When the film was released in 1977, it didn't fare as well as GRIZZLY (1976) and died quietly at the box office only surviving for years as a regular on television broadcasts. A shame as it's a better made and acted movie than the more popular grizzly movie. There's two versions on the Shriek Show/Media Blasters DVD--a theatrical print bearing the title SOMETHING IS OUT THERE that's in bad shape but is represented in 2:35 widescreen. The TV version under the DAY OF THE ANIMALS moniker is in much better shape but in 1:85:1. The only difference I noticed between the two is some minor damaged film that cuts off some pieces of dialog and a long stretch between the opening credit crawl and the start of the film on the theatrical version.

DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977) is a taut, sometimes suspenseful nature-gone-amuck picture for nostalgic horror fans who are sick of the onslaught of bad CGI killer animal movies crowding the weekend lineup of the Sci-Fi Channel. DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977) is a well made little horror picture from a director who was taken from tinseltown far to early.

This review is representative of the Media Blasters/Shriek Show Special Edition DVD.

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