Friday, February 20, 2009

CYCLOPS (2008) d. Declan O’Brien

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Roger Corman has had a long and illustrious career, bringing to the movie-loving public a wide variety of film fare, from silly but marvelous Sci-Fi stupidi-thons like IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, lavish and lurid Poe adaptations like THE RAVEN, surprisingly sophisticated spoofs like A BUCKET OF BLOOD and mayhem-minded action assaults like DEATHRACE 2000. He has been a director, a producer, an actor and a showman of unparalleled productivity and achievement, displaying to the world a sense of entrepreneurial artistry that may never be equaled. While the amount of influence the 82 year-old modern-day PT Barnum wielded on the New Horizons TV movie CYCLOPS would be interesting to discover, one thing is certain, whoever pulled the strings certainly knew how to make an all-Corman flick. That doesn’t mean that CYCLOPS is any good, but it has a feel to it and a way of being entertaining that smacks of The Master, and for that I am willing to forgive CYCLOPS several of its faults, only some mind you.

CYCLOPS is a story of Ancient Rome during the days of Tiberius. A ravening beast is loose in the wilds around The City and its penchant for eating helpless citizens forces the Emperor to send soldiers to deal with it. The beast is captured and returned to Rome in chains, where it is slated to take its place as the central attraction in The Arena devouring unfortunate slaves and bashing hapless gladiators. Despite several Cyclopean attempts at escape where the monster wreaks havoc and runs amok, its menace cows much of Rome’s unrest, but a slave revolt occurs, threatening the safety of the Empire. The slaves find a leader in the disgraced military hero of Marcus, the man who captured the Cyclops and who now has forged an alliance with the creature. Their combined might and crafty intellect bring down the mighty Tiberius and set free the citizens of Rome and its Empire.

CYCLOPS is almost classic Corman with one surprising exception. It is a film that borrows heavily from a more successful predecessor, Russell Crowe’s GLADIATOR and then spices up the old story of jealousies, intrigues, duplicity and power-plays with goofy Cyclops-spawned bloody violence and a variety of fight scenes sprinkled somewhat liberally throughout the narrative to keep the natives happy. If you go into CYCLOPS expecting a movie that is 100% rampaging, smashing and thrashing, then you don’t know the Corman formula and will be disappointed. This is more a tale of the cruelty of Roman rule and a melodrama about plebeians and patricians caught up in the trials and tribulations of its impending Downfall as it is a Big Beastie motion picture. The Cyclops is used as a tool to spread stamping ruin and gory goodness throughout the on-screen extras and even a few minor characters whenever the “story” trends too far in the direction of being a historical drama. To add even more “bread and circuses” there are more than enough battle sequences of the military and gladiatorial nature to please those looking for spear and swordplay. If you’ve ever seen BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (1961), the idea is the same. Tell a tale that will catch people’s attention due to its use of character interplay, conflict and romance, then intersperse the threat of something “out of this world” creating disaster and you’ve got a good sense of how the drill goes from there. Unlike BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE where the “creature” isn’t seen much until the very end, CYCLOPS treats us to the visual “splendor” of a CG atrocity that is pretty bad looking, but not any worse than the monster in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. Corman was known far and wide for effects that were usually pretty dismal in his “B” pictures and usually induced more smirks than scares. Other than the ridiculous looking Cyclops, that is where this film is different from “typical” past efforts.

On a visual level, there is a lot to like about this picture. The exterior sets of sylvan woodlands do give a legitimate feel of Long Ago and when mixed with the CG models of Rome and smaller scale exterior building sets, there is a startlingly engaging feel to CYCLOPS. The interiors were also either nicely opulent rooms of the Rich & Powerful or dingy dungeons filled with dung and when coupled with the shockingly attractive and authentic-looking costumes, one scratches their head and asks “this is a Roger Corman film”, but then one must remember efforts like PIT AND THE PENDULUM and recall that many of his “bigger budget” films really did look great and were not all like THE WASP WOMAN. Being that this was a TV movie, the amount of blood and violence was rather surprising but what was in short supply, actually totally absent, was nudity. A few exceedingly scantily clad slave girls jiggling their enticing wares or lovely female villagers running naked across the market square chased by randy centurions might have helped to relieve some of the dramatic stretches where the story was a bit too earnest, for much like The Games of Rome, most people entering into an Entertainment Contract with CYCLOPS would hope for spectacle, and some skin would have been a nice addition. At least we are treated to Frida Farrell (Barbara) in gladiator gear at the very end which displays her comely figure a little better than her pretty but boring peasant gowns.

On an acting level, CYCLOPS is exactly what one might expect from a Corman film. There is a fair number of older, more experienced actors in various roles in this movie, and they are able to deliver their somewhat overblown lines like “There’s a Cyclops out there” with a degree of panache. Most of the younger folk are less experienced and as a result tend to resort to overacting and are not always able to portray their characters as being people of 2000 years ago, but there was no performing effrontery and the cast was able to do their jobs competently. CYCLOPS is fortunate enough to bask in the company of Eric Roberts, who plays the role of The Emperor Tiberius. While not the shudder-inducing presence of an actor like Peter Stormare, Mr. Roberts has a haughty indolence and a debauched, but laconic insouciance that is perfect for the part, leaving most of us just waiting for the inevitable payoff. Kevin Stapleton plays the ethical and caring Marcus with some unintentional humor, for his “friendship” scenes with the Cyclops are almost side-splitting in their silliness. Add to this mix of actors with limited skill, a musical score that feels like classic canned orchestral “Wonder Bread”, and the old “cheese factor” is alive and well and serving CYCLOPS fruitfully.

Unlike the vast majority of Anchor Bay DVDs I’ve dealt with, CYCLOPS is a bare-bones disc with no extras to be had. While I am never in favor of such a thing, especially during an economy where every dollar spent needs to feel like it was $1.50 spent well, in this situation the lack of extras seems to hurt even more. Roger Corman is generally not too camera shy and his ruminations on his involvement in this film, even if he stretches the truth would be a lot of fun. Then there is Eric Roberts and his thoughts on being the dissolute and dispassionate Tiberius. While he didn’t sleepwalk his way through the role, ala Basil Rathbone in HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, Mr. Roberts’s thoughts on being accosted by a CG Cyclops would also be humorous. Bonus Features are always a good idea on any DVD, even if it is of the TV variety. While such extras are a bit more rare on TV Movies, it is not like you never see them, and my suggestion is find something to spice up discs like this, even if it is a gallery of lovely Roman slave girls doing “the funky chicken”. Remember, “bread and circuses” keep the angry masses quiescent.

CYCLOPS was neither directed nor written by Roger Corman, but either Declan O’Brien and Frances Doel had a profound respect for The Man, or Mr. Corman controlled them with his legendary telekinetic powers, for this feels a lot like something he would have done during his Glory Years. CYCLOPS is not a good film, but it is entertaining after a fashion and was able to keep my attention better than a lot of “bad” films that are so common today. If you go in expecting a masterpiece or raucous exploitation fare, you will be disappointed. Go into CYCLOPS with the understanding that this is classic “sleight of hand” and that what the magician is doing is keeping you spellbound with one trick while you wait for the other. I use to like such displays at fairs, and if you did too, CYCLOPS is for you.

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