When writing about Maciste’s history in silent movies, I promised that the next Peplum Populist article would hurtle ahead to Maciste’s first appearance in the sword-and-sandal boom of the 1960s, Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei Re). But I have a DVD of Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contro il vampiro) lying here on the shelf, and it’s about time I completed the “dark fantasy” trio of peplum classics after writing about Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and Maciste in Hell/The Witch’s Curse (1962). Although Goliath and the Vampires doesn’t have the same visual imagination, it’s in the 90th percentile as far as sword-and-sandal fun goes.
Goliath and the Vampires features more stock genre situations than those two other films. The fantastic elements don’t dictate the story as much as they’re pasted onto the pre-fabricated framework of what sword-and-sandal films were quickly solidifying into.
John Carpenter has seen plenty of his films underperform when first released, only to turn into cult icons years later. But Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter’s ninth feature film, didn’t just underperform. It was the biggest flop of his career up to that point, pulling in $1.1 million against a budget of $25 million. This ended Carpenter’s phase with the big studios and sent him back to the indie world.
Big Trouble in Little China started on the page as a Western set in 1899. It was rewritten for a modern-day setting by script-doctor (and Buckaroo Banzai director) W. D. Richter before Carpenter arrived. Carpenter sparkled up the screenplay with his love of screwball comedy characters and dialogue and took inspiration from Chinese martial arts fantasy movies like Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain. Out of this stew, Carpenter created what he called “an action adventure comedy Kung-Fu ghost story monster movie.” Something for everybody. Kurt Russell promised audiences in a promotional featurette that they’d definitely get their five-bucks’ worth.
But the final product baffled the executives at 20th Century Fox. The studio dumped the promotional marketing into the sewer, contributing to the movie’s massive box-office crash. But, according to the Law of John Carpenter Cult Movies, Big Trouble in Little China gained a second life on cable and video. By the mid-‘90s, when the Hong Kong martial arts fantasy/comedy genre blew up in North America, this ode to Kung Fu, movie serials, Chuck Jones, and clueless macho heroes had become a classic.
Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is the tough-talking, hoagie-munching truck driver of the Pork Chop Express. He arrives in San Francisco and meets his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) for beer and pai gow. Jack drives Wang to the airport to pick up his friend’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who’s arriving from Beijing. But at the airport, a Chinatown street gang kidnaps Miao Yin to sell to a brothel. When Jack and Wang pull into Chinatown to search for her, they land in the middle of a war between the ancient societies the Chang Sing and Wing Kong — as well as an eruption of strange magic that leaves Jack Burton confused for … well, pretty much the rest of the movie.
In the annals of early silent film, the name Thomas Edison stands out prominently. The American inventor racked up a series of firsts–building the first film studio in the U.S., registering the first copyright for a film in the U.S., making the first sound film in the U.S. (and arguably the world), and many other innovations.
Edison Studios was launched in 1894 and ran until 1918, when an antitrust lawsuit led Edison to sell the company. In that time, the studio’s host of directors made almost 1300 films. The vast majority were shorts, with the earliest efforts being “actualities” such as The Sneeze (1894) and the historically interesting Sioux Ghost Dance (1894). For the first few years of film, simply seeing people moving on screen was enough, but soon audiences wanted stories. Edison Studios churned out dozens of shorts a month, most of them rather forgettable comedies or dramas as well as a few Westerns such as the very first in the genre, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Last week, I talked about the Spanish master of silent film, Segundo de Chomón. This week, I’d like to talk about another early genre filmmaker who has also been all but forgotten.
Walter R. Booth was an English stage magician who teamed up with film pioneer Robert W. Paul, who was making and screening films as early as 1896 at London’s Egyptian Hall, where Booth did his magic act. In 1899, Booth and Paul co-founded Paul’s Animatograph Works, a production house that specialized in trick films using Paul’s technical know-how and Booth’s skill at magic and illusion. These short films wowed audiences with special effects such as animation, split screen, jump cuts, superimposition, multiple exposures, and stop motion animation.
Fantasy, science fiction, and horror themes have been in the movies since almost the beginning. During the first few experimental years, movies consisted of simple scenes such as a man sneezing or a train pulling into the station, but soon that novelty wore off and audiences wanted stories. Since the medium itself seemed almost magical, directors began to experiment with the fantastic in order to tell gripping tales.
Most film buffs know of Georges Méliès and his 1902 Trip to the Moon, generally considered the first science fiction film. Méliès started out as a stage magician so it’s not surprising he added an element of the fantastic in his pioneering movies. Other early filmmakers such as Auguste and Louis Lumière and Thomas Edison tended to film realistic subjects or historical/adventure stories, although Edison did make a version of Frankenstein in 1910.
Lost amid these famous names is a man who did as much for the development of fantastic film as any of them. The Spanish director Segundo de Chomón pioneered many early special effects techniques and worked on some two hundred films. Having spent much of his career in France and Italy, he’s been claimed by no country and thus has fallen through the cracks of history.