Atlantis, Doctor Mabuse and H.G. Wells: movies

UNDERSEA KINGDOM (1936) is one of the worst serials I’ve ever seen, despite being produced by Republic, the master of the genre (creator of Tiger Woman, for instance). It’s clearly modeled on the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials: Unga Khan, evil tyrant of Atlantis, plots to destroy the surface world, so instead of Flash, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov we have Lt. “Crash” Corrigan (Ray Corrigan), Professor Norton (who like Zarkov is forced to work for the villain) and reporter Diana. Unfortunately the acting is terrible (even Gene Autry in Phantom Empire did better); Corrigan, a physical fitness coach in Hollywood at the time clearly has no idea how to act (though they do show off his physique as much as possible), and the guy playing Unga Khan is equally stiff. Worse, the cliffhangers are terrible. In one, a tank smashes into the wall; in the next episode, the impact doesn’t happen. Crash’s plane is blasted by a missile, he’s buried under a toppling temple and caught in a rocket exhaust but in the following episode he just gets up unharmed. That’s Grade-Z stuff. “We’re trapped in a metal tower that is being brought to the surface of the ocean by a madman!”

THE LIVING CORPSES OF DOCTOR MABUSE (1970) is a British film (from Amicus, the British horror studio that isn’t Hammer) titled SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN when it was released in the UK, but Mabuse-ified to juice the German box office. The film switches between seemingly unrelated plotlines such as a jogger who keeps losing his limbs, a serial killer haunting the London disco scene, kindly doctor Vincent Price (spoiler: he’s not kindly!) and sinister goings on at a secret police HQ somewhere in Eastern Europe (East Germany in the source novel by Peter Saxon). Does it all fit together? Yes, and not in a happy way. Despite the poster, Cushing doesn’t appear with Price or Lee, and the latter two only have one scene together. That said, this is fun, like a lot of Amicus. Oh, Price’s character is the one turned into Mabuse for the German market. “In this instance, this license has been taken to an excessive and gruesome extreme.”

While I rewatched THINGS TO COME (1936) just a year ago, I picked up Criterion’s edition during Barnes & Noble’s DVD sale. This definitive version adds three minutes to the DVD I had (the original ran 130 minutes before the editors began cutting), telling the story of how World War II runs into the 1960s and reduces the world to barbarism, only to have an enlightened cadre of scientists and technicians rebuild it. A century later, it’s time to head out into space, but for some small minds the thought of such adventures reduces them to terror. What got me to pick this one up was that David Kalat (author of the definitive book on Dr. Mabuse) provides the commentary, detailing how H.G. Wells actively involved himself in this project, with a clear understanding it would be filmed his way (which it was, but Michael Korda reshaped it in the editing room). The film’s fixation on ideas over character or plot reflects that Wells really did fear what another world war would do, and this movie was his Western Union on how to prevent it. Wells also wanted the film to be the anti-Metropolis (too simplistic a view of the future!) but never captured or understood the power and drama of Fritz Lang’s film. Raymond Massey plays the voice of reason in three eras (“Our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile!”) while Ralph Richardson plays a warlord who doesn’t realize he’s already a dinosaur. Flawed, but I freely admit I’m a fan. “God, what is the use of trying to save this mad world?”

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