The Unknown Terror (1957)

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three star

Common wisdom tends to posit Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as an art film upheaval of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, but I think there’s something undeniably pulpy in the film’s final act that compromises that reading. Marlon Brando’s infamous performance as Colonel Kurtz is an intensely weird vision of madness that elevates the material in a last minute left turn, but the more I mull over the character the more he plays like a true archetype of a mad villain than a modern subversion of that trope. This rings especially true after watching the drive-in horror cheapie The Unknown Terror. The villain of The Unknown Terror is a mad scientist type who has won over the hearts of a remote Mexican community by “conquering the God of Death” with First World medicines, an act of “charity” that has made him something of an unchecked deity among the locals. Much like Kurtz, the wicked Dr. Ramsey loses control of his hubris and lets the newfound power go straight to his head. He also loses his sanity and becomes enraptured with the natural world, dangerously so. The idea that Dr. Ramsey would be modeled after Kurtz isn’t too much out of the ordinary, given the influential nature of Conrad’s novel, but the way his character is played for cheap drive-in thrills in The Unknown Terror points to a pulp aspect of Brando’s odd mode of scenery chewing in Apocalypse Now, an energy he would later repeat in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Even outside of its context under the umbrella of Heart of Darkness adaptations/bastardizations, The Unknown Terror is still an entertaining slice of schlocky sci-fi horror. In a way it plays like the major studio productions in the decades before its time that promised to have something for everyone: music!, adventure!, romance!, scares!. Yet, it still avoids feeling entirely like cookie cutter tedium, since each of these individual elements are executed surprisingly effectively. The musical performances are badass calypso tunes about a mysterious Cave of the Dead that haunts local superstition, featuring menacing lyrics about how Man has to “suffer to be born again.” The adventure is an Indiana Jones-style spelunking effort meant to retrieve a man lost to the Cueva Muertes, a cave believed to be a physical manifestation of Purgatory, where you can hear the screams of the damned. The romance is a love triangle disturbed by a crippling accident in the past & a seething air of jealousy that bubbles to the surface in the rescue mission attempts to recover the missing explorer in the Cueva Muertes. The scares are, of course, what they find in the cave and what has been driving the once reputable Dr. Ramsey to the point of madness. What Ramsey has been hiding from the villagers is that the screams coming from the Cueva Muertes are not at all the screams of the dead, but rather the screams of the very much alive survivors of his cruel science experiments on unsuspecting human subjects.

The same way the evil scientist of The Flesh Eaters cultivates & weaponizes a pre-existing, natural virus, Dr. Ramsey orchestrates the horrors of The Unknown Terror by cultivating & weaponizing a killer fungus. The Cueva Muertes is covered in a very peculiar fungus that spreads through “binary fusion,” latching onto parasitic hosts, namely humans, and transforming them into hideous fungus monsters.  The visual effects of this cave fungus are more or less on par with what you’d expect from this era of filmmaking. The “monsters” are men in Halloween costume getups. The “fungus” covered set looks like a combination of a Buck Rogers alien terrain & a nightclub foam party with a science fair volcano theme. What makes The Unknown Terror at all memorable is the strength of its ideas within its cookie cutter genre film shape, dragging in the specificity of its Of Human Bondage disability shame & the Heart of Darkness vibes of its mad scientist villain to elevate the auto-pilot material, when it didn’t need to try nearly as hard to fulfill its destiny as double bill drive-in fodder. I would never suggest pairing any film with Apocalypse Now, since Coppola’s supposed masterpiece is already an overlong three hour affair, but I do think The Unknown Terror shines some unexpected light on how that film mixes a little genre film cliché into its overreaching art film ambition, especially when it comes to the character of Kurtz. The Unknown Terror is entertaining enough even without that connection to a beloved 1970s classic, but the way it resembles the standard-issue shape of so many of its contemporaries means it wasn’t likely to be remembered otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 3: Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Apocalypse Now (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Apocalypse Now is referenced on page 2. Roger mentions that when “The Ride of the Valkyres”plays during a helicopter attack in the film, he got a rare, tingling sensation of “reality realigning itself,” the same feeling he had when he proposed marriage to Chaz & the day his father announced he was dying of cancer. In the film version of Life Itself, Ebert is shown arguing the merits of Apocalypse Now to a nonplussed Gene Siskel on two separate occasions. He seemed especially aggravated that Siskel enjoyed Full Metal Jacket more than Apocalypse Now.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Years and years from now, when Coppola’s budget and his problems have long been forgotten, ‘Apocalypse’ will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking — of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.” – From his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Other important films such as ‘Platoon,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Casualties of War’ take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned ‘America,’ only ‘the enemy,’ and one director told me, ‘It is all the same–we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .’) But ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.” -From his 1999 review for his “Great Movies” series

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It’s near impossible to tell whether or not I’ve seen Apocalypse Now before. Surely, there are plenty of scenes in the film that are vivid to me out of context, but I might’ve picked those up incidentally by catching them on a Greatest Movies of All Time clip show or playing on television while channel surfing. The reason I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now in its entirety before is that I feel like I’d more clearly remember a viewing experience as weighty as the film’s 3+hour runtime. I hate to be the kind of cinematic philistine who knocks a slow-paced “classic” for testing my patience, but Apocalypse Now is too damn long. There is a wealth of individual scenes in the film that carry a forceful impact in isolation, but when they’re broken up by a slow trudge upriver & Batman-gritty narration about “the horror, the horror” of war, Apocalypse Now reveals itself to be a huge commitment of time & effort that might not deliver everything it promises. As a literary adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I think the film is a fresh, interesting take that reveals new truths about its source material by shifting its setting & narrative detail, but the truth is I found Heart of Darkness to be just as much of a chore as consuming Apocalypse Now in one sitting. This is a great adaptation of a novel I don’t care for & a runtime that spiraled out of control even before its extended “Redux” treatment. There’s no denying that the film is packing several powerful punches, though, and it’s all too easy to see how someone could fall in love with the film as a massive whole.

A lot of Apocalypse Now‘s imagery & one-liners are perhaps a little too over-familiar after years of reverent repetition: the ceiling fan blades fading into helicopter sounds, Martin Sheen’s mud-painted face emerging form the bog, the utterance of “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, etc. However, it’s clear as day with two stretches of the film still play freshest in 2016. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the film’s war-is-Hell grittiness covered thoroughly in other works. the alcohol-fueled PTSD, overbearing narration, and off-hand soldier quips like, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain” all feel like old hat at this point, whether or not they were groundbreaking representation in 1979. What does feel important & unique still is the film’s approach to representing madness among soldiers. Robert Duvall’s colonel might be remembered most for what he likes to smell in the morning, but his emotionally detached obsession with surfing under fire is what stands out most in modern viewings. While dodging bombs & bullets from the Viet Cong, Duvall orders his terrified young men to surf the incoming tide as if they were kicking back beers on a California beach instead of fearing for their lives under fire in Vietnam. It’s a perfect representation of how the war left many men emotionally detached & downright deranged.

Of course, Duvall’s colonel is just a small taste of wartime madness before the main feast: Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. It takes a three hour effort for Martin Sheen’s broken shell of a captain to make it upriver to meet Kurtz & decide whether or not to complete his mission of assassinating the defected madman. A lot of anticipation is built by the time Martin Sheen & Marlon Brando share their infamous face to face in the film’s third act and it’s amazing just how much Brando delivers under that pressure. His intensely weird performance as Kurtz is a tangible, skin-crawling kind of madness that feels inseparable from Brando as an actor, especially in light of the recent documentary Listen to Me Marlon that hits a lot of the same deranged, hypnotic notes. A lot of audiences in 1979 believed that, like Kurtz, Brando “had gone totally insane & that [his] methods were unsound.” However, if his performance were indeed a work of madness, it’s undeniably of the mad genius variety.

As Ebert points out in this review, any movie is lucky to have one or two great scenes & Apocalypse Now has many. The film gets on a particular roll in its final sequence once Kurtz’s mania graces the screen and the imagery & music combine to create a sort of wartime tone poem that just screams “art house darling” in every frame. There was a lot made of the troubled, over-budget production that plagued Apocalypse Now at the time of its release & there was indeed enough snafus during filming to support a feature length documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The prevailing wisdom of the time is that director Francis Ford Coppola, was in the middle of a winning streak that included titles like The Godfather & The Outsiders might’ve bitten off more than he could chew with Apocalypse Now & the resulting film was somewhat of an untethered mess that couldn’t quite match its ambition with a unifying sense of discipline. Discerning critics like Ebert, who heralded the film like a masterpiece, had a completely different take, lauding the film as an impeccably visualized descent into madness, an entirely new & powerful way of representing war’s savage effect on the fragile human mind.

I think the truth probably lies somewhere between these two takes. The third, Kurtz-focused hour of the film really does feel like it taps into a troubled soldier’s plight in a way that few film scan claim to do, with much of the credit for that accomplishment resting firmly on Marlon Brando’s beyond mad shoulders & Coppola’s eye for haunting visuals. However, the film’s sprawling runtime & three separate versions (including the “Redux” & an infamous bootleg of a workprint) point to a director who may have flew a little too close to the sun to fully realize his vision. I respect Apocalypse Now‘s ambition & find its messy approach to Vietnam War cinema to be a lot more satisfying than more cookie-cutter examples of the genre, but I also find the idea of the film being a masterpiece to be a somewhat flimsy argument. It really does have more truly great scenes than most movies could dream to bring to the screen, but the film itself never feels like more than the sum of its parts. Much like Sheen’s protagonist, Apocalypse Now goes on a dangerous, mind-threatening journey upriver to seek great existential truths, only to discover it’s not sure what to do once it reaches its destination.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

-Brandon Ledet