Dino De Laurentiis is something of an enigmatic figure in film-making. Generally dismissed as a philistine, insolently nicknamed Dino De Dum-Dum by a British cinema magazine, he has nevertheless been described by director David Cronenberg (who is nobody’s ‘yes-man’) as “A very interesting man, one of the last of the old-style moguls. It’s pretty exhilarating working with him, because he obviously loves to solve problems. There’s a great deal of energy and dynamics going on around him.” On the other hand John Milius, who directed Conan The Barbarian (1982), said “His methods are unsound. Dino is just like bad weather. He’ll pass, but meanwhile you have to contend with it.” Contrary to popular myth, the films he produced are by no means always aesthetic disasters. Indeed, at the beginning of his career Dino De Laurentiis was a name to conjure with among intellectuals, for he produced Federico Fellini‘s early masterpieces La Strada (1954) and Nights Of Cabiria (1956), and would continue to finance ambitiously artistic films, such as Ingmar Bergman‘s The Serpent’s Egg (1977).
The execration of Dino by fans of fantastic cinema began with King Kong (1976), but he had been making fantasy films for a long time before that. An early example is Danger Diabolik (1968), directed by the unevenly brilliant Italian, Mario Bava. This, like Barbarella (1968), was based on a European comic strip. It stars John Phillip Law as a super-criminal who can scale walls with the agility of a monkey. The film is colourful and tongue-in-cheek. Diabolik makes love, for example, in a soft nest of bank notes. His apparent demise, after molten radioactive gold is poured over him, is followed by a close-up of the resulting statue’s eyes, one of which winks.
It may have been the commercial success of Barbarella and Diabolik that set Dino on the wrong path, towards brightly-coloured comic strip action seasoned with parody, and the use of special effects that make remarkably little effort to look like anything realistic. His cardinal crime with both King Kong and Flash Gordon (1980) was not taking the subject matter seriously. In both cases his directors were given a screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Junior who wrote the very funny, very camp Batman television series in the sixties and Doc Savage (1975). Admittedly, no one on Earth writes quite like Semple, but the illusion of reality is central for lovers of fantastic fiction, they do not want to be constantly reminded that they are watching a fiction. Semple’s insistence on parody has the effect of making the stories seem unreal. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what his draft of Dino’s Dune (1984) looked like.
Both films made money, however, and maybe the tastes of fantasy fans are not representative of what the general public wants. In fact, his remake of King Kong remained among the twenty most popular fantasy films ever made until the mid-eighties. Dino approaches film-making very much as manufacturers approach soap powder, as a product to be packaged. In some cases his advertising budget has been as big as the production budget, and this advertising has not always been wholly honest (a concept that Hollywood would later drag into a dark alley and flog to death).
For example, a life-sized mechanical model of King Kong built by Italian effects engineer Carlo Rambaldi – who later worked on the aliens in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – was given tremendous publicity. Electronically controlled, forty feet tall, we were told it was the star of the film. In fact, the model simply did not work, and appears in only one quick scene. The separately built, giant mechanical hand used for close-ups was much more usable. For almost the entire film, Kong was played by young effects maestro Rick Baker in an ape suit, which he described as “A piece of sh*t. There are big seams and gaps, you can see it in the film.” Film-goers were angered by this kind of shoddiness, the big money going on promotion while short-cuts were taken in the over-hasty production, but film-goers may have judged the film too harshly. Jessica Lange in the Fay Wray role takes quite an amusing liberated-woman approach to Kong. She treats him as a very large male chauvinist pig who is not without charm, and the film has several good moments. But compared to the melancholy, resonant power of the original King Kong (1933), this remake looks tacky.
Dino was obviously much struck with the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). His next two American productions were The White Buffalo (1977) and Orca The Killer Whale (1977). Both made the same year, each featured it’s own over-sized monster, one of which actually lived in the ocean. The White Buffalo was an incoherent mess directed by J. Lee Thompson, who once made the competent Guns Of Navarone (1961), but in later years sunk to the depths of Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973). The sad thing is that the story, about old enemies Crazy Horse and Wild Bill Hickock both being haunted by a monstrous, spectral white buffalo, was sufficiently bizarre and interesting to have had a chance of coming-off. It was the buffalo built by Carlo Rambaldi that sank the film. I sometimes wonder how Rambaldi gained his reputation as an effects genius. The buffalo advanced jovially in great arcing jumps, like a very large springbok in slow motion, and in one preposterous scene its wheels are repeatedly visible on-screen.
Orca, too, had sadly flat direction and a rather lame story about the revenge of a whale whose mate and child have been slaughtered by Richard Harris (the one notable scene shows the birth of a baby whale at the moment its mother is being hauled out of the water). It bites Bo Derek’s legs off, burns down a seaport and causes a mystical Eskimo to revise his values rapidly in the direction of suburban conservatism.
Flash Gordon goes wrong in the same way as King Kong, only more so. The rushed effects work shows all too clearly. Van Der Veer studios had less than nine months to put together over six hundred blue-screen composites of live-action and matte paintings. The flying Hawkmen look like, and are, people with cardboard wings on wires. Sam Jones (an unknown and therefore presumably inexpensive actor) plays Flash with all the emotional expressiveness of a cigar-store wooden Indian. Only the set designers and costumers show any flair. The film is a paradise for leather gear fetishists, and looks as if it resulted from a convention of all the kinkiest designers in Europe. As for the story – old style space opera of the zaniest kind, taken quite closely from the original Flash Gordon serials – it is all done so tongue-in-cheek and charmlessly that it holds little interest. It is such an extreme pity that the film was not directed, as originally planned, by maestro Nicolas Roeg.
Dino’s next major fantasy effort was an altogether more distinguished film. Conan The Barbarian (1981), loosely based on a popular series of violent, colourful pulp-magazine stories. Dino seems to have never lost his childlike trust in pulp literature as the best source for popular movies. The original stories were very much sword-and-sorcery, and part of the trouble with the film is that its respected director, John Milius, loves swords but has no interest in sorcery, and in interviews he significantly expressed complete disinterest in the craft of special effects. This may be why Carlo Rambaldi was allowed to get away with a large but totally unconvincing mechanical snake. There is, however, a very effective wolf-witch who lives in a desolate mountain valley, a genuinely eerie sequence, and there are some good mound-spirits. But the familiar Milius obsessions (rites of passage, rituals of physicality, the martial arts and the nature of true manliness) are dominant. The film is curiously remote and stylised in its treatment of violence, almost Japanese, but Milius does not have the visual strength of Kurosawa. It has a kind of brooding, detached quality, though, and Milius must be admired for his refusal to wallow in violence, even though there is room for dismay about his insistence on its mystical elements.
Former dancer Sandahl Bergman makes a splendidly spirited woman sword-fighter and Arnold Schwarzenegger, new to the acting game, is carefully directed so that, although wooden, he does have a dour dignity as the massive-thewed avenger Conan. Unfortunately, individually praiseworthy elements do not necessarily make a praiseworthy whole. Apparently, Dino cut twenty minutes out of the film before release, diminishing the gore, no doubt with an eye on the family audience, and this may well have damaged it.
It does seem, though, as if Dino had learned to take fantasy more seriously, or at least trust his directors more. The Dead Zone (1983) is a distinguished film, and even Amityville II The Possession (1982) has its moments. A prequel to the earlier The Amityville Horror (1979) – not a Dino effort – it’s an attempt to cash in on the original’s undeserved success. In fact, The Possession is more vigorous and has the courage of its b-grade convictions, with a remarkably nasty performance from Jack Magner as the teenage boy who seduces his sister and murders his parents while his face goes green and lumpy. Unabashedly stealing several scenes from The Exorcist (1973) – pleas for help in the form of stigmata, transferring demon to exorcising priest – the film is luridly energetic Grand Guignol.
I’m beginning to run out of room here, so to cut a long story short, since then Dino has delivered us such genre treats as Conan The Destroyer (1984), Silver Bullet (1985), Cat’s Eye (1985), King Kong Lives (1986), Manhunter (1986), Maximum Overdrive (1986), Sometimes They Come Back (1991), Evil Dead III: Army Of Darkness (1992), Breakdown (1997) and more recently Hannibal Rising (2007). By pumping many millions of dollars into the genre, Dino De Laurentiis has been a potent influence on the evolution of fantastic films. Good or bad, he was a film phenomenon to be reckoned with. I’ll leave you with that thought in mind until I return to sterilise you with fear during another terror-filled excursion to the dark side of Hollywood for…Horror News! Toodles!