The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Transylvania, January 1918 (1995, Dick Maas)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The bulk of the story takes place in January 1918 in Venice and Transylvania. There are also bookends featuring an older Indiana Jones (George Hall) back home in America; it’s Halloween in the early 1990s.

Faithful to the novel? The connection to Dracula lies in the fact that this TV episode – which obviously was a spin-off from the 1980s movie series – features a vampire version of Vlad the Impaler who is Bram Stoker’s character in all but name. Indiana Jones (Sean Patrick Flanery) travels to Venice during the First World War. He’s operating under the alias Henri Defense and working for US intelligence. Four months previously, a POW camp in Austria was attacked by a Romanian general called Mattias Targo and the Allied prisoners are now missing. So Indy and his superior officer Colonel Walters (Keith Szarabajka) are sent to find out what’s happened. There are lengthy shots of them travelling into rural Transylvania and then they have an edgy encounter in an unfriendly bar. Hooking up with some local agents – Dr Franz Heinzer (Sam Kelly), Nicholas (Paul Kynman) and Maria (Simone Bendix) – they track down the prisoners, then head to a nearby castle… which is spooky and on a hilltop. Lightning strikes as they see it. After Indy and the others break in, they find bodies impaled on spikes – and deduce that Targo is copying Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century warlord known as Vlad the Impaler who killed over 100,000 people. There’s other weird shit going on too, including balls of lightning that float about. Maria is then possessed, blood flows down the walls, and Walters is electrocuted to death. Eventually, Indy finds General Targo (Bob Peck), who turns out to be a vampire with a Bela Lugosi accent. He’s been capturing soldiers for his army of undead warriors. Indy and Maria try to escape, but Targo gives chase. The pair eventually stake him.

Best performance: Sam Kelly as Dr Heinzer, who is later revealed to be a double agent for the Austrians called Adolf Schmidt.

Best bit: Clearly a lot of money was spent on this series – the sets and locations are very impressive.

Review: This episode was meant to be the final instalment of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicle’s second season in 1993. However, the series was axed by ABC and Transylvania, January 1918 was one of four episodes not shown. There was a screening on German TV in 1995, then it got a wider public release in 1996 when the series was reedited into movie-length specials for a VHS release. Transylvania, January 1918 was combined with an episode called Istanbul, September 1918 (originally broadcast 17 July 1993) and the result was branded as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Masks of Evil. Sadly, Indy’s adventure in Transylvania doesn’t exactly sing. There’s cheesy dialogue, a few dodgy performances, and clichés all over the place. Characters have penis-measuring contests for no reason; Indy is a passive character who’s just along for the ride; and the horror is either implied or tame. A dud.

Five paper aeroplanes out of 10

My top 10 Spielberg movies

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Today is the 70th birthday of one of my favourite film directors, Steven Spielberg. His movies have been in my life for as long as I can remember – ET was the first film I ever saw at the cinema – so to celebrate here’s my rundown of his 10 best. Click the links for full reviews…

10. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – a vibrant, dynamic, fun and likeable caper movie.

9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – a terrifically enjoyable adventure movie.

8. Schindler’s List (1993) – a tough watch, but a necessary one.

7. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) – a glorious, glorious triumph.

6. Jurassic Park (1993) – a sensationally entertaining blockbuster of a B-movie.

5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – probably Spielberg’s strangest film; certainly his most underrated.

4. Jaws (1975) – there’s plenty of humanity, as well as terror and excitement; a masterpiece.

3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – a riot from start to finish.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – an astonishing achievement, a timeless gem.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film.

 

My 30 favourite films

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So, a few years ago – in order to complete an Empire magazine readers’ poll – I set about compiling my top 10 films. Narrowing them down that far was too tough, and I ended up with a shortlist of 30. Since that time, I’ve made one change: GoodFellas was reluctantly dropped for the most recent movie on the list.

I’ve added links to any films I’ve blogged about elsewhere on this site, whilst clips indicate my favourite five…

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

D.O.A. (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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Indiana Jones goes up against Soviet agent Dr Irina Spalko in a bid to locate a mysterious and powerful crystal skull…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: Harrison Ford – as soon as he pulls on the fedora, turns towards camera and grumbles, “Russians,” he’s back as Indy. In an instant, 15 years or so of coasting in rom-coms and average action thrillers is forgotten.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The spooky, unnerving sequence at the Peruvian graveyard.

Review: I’ve never understood the negativity – vitriol, in some cases – aimed at this film. Is it as good as the three Indiana Joneses made in the 1980s? No. But it’s still inventive, playful, witty and exciting in the classic Spielberg style. It is tonally different from the last three, though. Gone are the 1930s, the Nazis, a feel of film noir and Allan Quatermain-style Boys’ Own Adventure stuff. We’re now dealing with the 1950s: Reds-under-the-beds, B-movie horror, Rebel Without a Cause teenagers, nuclear paranoia and rock’n’roll. The film has great incidental music, clever action scenes and – especially once Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood – winning humour. On the downside, Shia LaBeouf is a bit tiresome, it’s difficult to get away from how naff crystal skulls are (there’s an especially funny Peep Show episode that ridicules them), a few good jokes get unnecessary punchlines for the hard-of-understanding, and the second half of the movie is overly CGI-happy. Flawed, yes, but still good, honest entertainment.

Eight lead-lined fridges out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

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Indiana Jones is hired by a businessman to track down the Holy Grail, a quest that brings him face-to-face with his father…

Seen before? Yes, loads of times. I first saw it at the cinema, aged 10: it was one of the highlights of my childhood. I can vividly remember the huge woofer of a laugh everyone gave to Sean Connery’s sarcastic “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!”

Best performance: Connery is just fantastic. His comic timing, especially in tandem with Harrison Ford, is a thing of joy. I’ve read that when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came to cast Indiana Jones’s dad, they felt the only person suitable would be James Bond. They got it spot on. (Apparently, Connery ad-libbed the “She talks in her sleep” gag.)

Best scene/moment/sequence: There’s plenty of wonderful comic moments, great stunts, snappy dialogue and grisly touches. One highlight is an unrivalled run of gag-filled action in the desert: Dr Jones Snr is inside a tank, being held captive by Nazis, while Dr Jones Jnr is fighting them on top, around and hanging off the side of it. Both halves of the scene (inside and out) are inventive and exciting, and each wittily affects the other in haphazard ways.

Review: Another *corker*. There’s a deliberate return to many of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s successful elements – a lecture scene with gooey-eyed students looking up adoringly at Indy; Marcus Brody, who gets a lot to do; Sallah; Biblical mythology; the Nazis; a climax in a desert wilderness… But this is no pale copy or lazy retread. Firstly, a terrific 15-minute prologue gives us a perfectly cast River Phoenix as a young Indiana Jones (his fear of snakes, his scar, his hat, his skill with a rope – all explained). Then, of course, there’s Sean Connery, who’s constantly entertaining. The script is peppy, the action is fast-moving, the music is delightful, Ford is clearly having a ball, and the whole film is a riot from start to finish.

Ten Holy Grails out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

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On the run from Shanghai mobsters, archaeologist Indiana Jones, young pal Short Round and nightclub singer Willie Scott end up in India, where a new maharaja has kidnapped the local children…

Seen before? Loads.

Best performance: Harrison Ford again.

Best scene/moment/sequence: After much consideration, I’m plumping for what was always my favourite bit as a kid – the sensational roller-coaster-style mine-cart sequence. The model work and back-projection may have dated perhaps, but it’s still thrilling stuff. And it’s helped tremendously by an absence of incidental music – as great as John Williams’s score is, it’s been continuous for a long time when we get to the mine chase, so when it drops out it raises the tension brilliantly. Other moments I considered for this category: the opening musical number in the club (with its surreal Busby Berkeley interlude); the madcap, full-of-gags fight that follows, with both Indy and Willie desperately trying to find things in the melee; Willie’s “No one’s flying the plane!”; Short Round’s “You call him Dr Jones, doll!”; Indy, Willie and Short Round jumping out of the plane in a dingy; Willie getting hysterical with fear in the jungle as Indy and Short Round nonchalantly play cards; the macabre dinner scene (“Snake surprise!”), which again has Willie freaking out hilariously while Indy takes it in his stride; the creepy-crawly-infested catacombs; the sacrifice scene (terrifying when I was a child, still scary now); Indy being turned by the bad guys, then winking to Short Round to let him know it’s an act; Indy, Willie and Short Round freeing the slaves; and of course the famous rope-bridge stunt.

Review: Another terrifically enjoyable adventure movie. The action scenes – and there are a lot of them – are constantly inventive and always character-specific. The interplay between the three leads is simply fantastic. And yet… As wonderful as it is, there’s something that means Temple of Doom is just a little bit less extraordinary than Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not sure why this is. Is it the lack of a charismatic villain? Is it the weak, wet, irritatingly old-fashioned Willie Scott (who, to give her her due, is often very funny)? The fact there are no Nazis? No Marcus and Sallah? The way we stumble into the story rather than having a specific quest? Spielberg himself has said he thinks it was too dark – which might be true in part, but is balanced by lots and lots of comedy. I’m talking blemishes, though. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this again. By any standard, it’s one of the highlights of the genre.

Nine chilled monkey brains out of 10.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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When the Nazis get close to discovering the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, archaeologist/teacher/adventurer Indiana Jones sets out to beat them to it…

Seen before? Yes, lots. It was one of the key movies of my childhood.

Best performance: I’m going to have to split this award again. I’ve had a man crush on Harrison Ford since I was about five years old; he is masculinity personified, as far as I’m concerned. Droll, sarcastic, laconic, charming, charismatic, strong, equally assured with action and comedy: he’s the greatest movie star of all time. Meanwhile, Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, the kind of fantastic female character – feisty, sassy, smart and tough – that used to be common in genre cinema but seem to have all but vanished. (Seriously, where are the modern equivalents of Princess Leia, Lois Lane, Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley and the like?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The chase sequence in Cairo, with goons trying to kidnap Marion, is a riot. It’s playfully shot and scored, and is very, very entertaining. The famous highlight is the moment where a weary and pissed-off Indy comes face-to-face with a menacing swordsman… and just shoots him dead rather than have to fight him.

Review: Outside of maybe Star Wars, it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film. From its spooky, enigmatic opening to its Biblical ending – via globetrotting locations, action scenes galore, plenty of macabre touches and tons of sharply written dialogue – this is escapist storytelling as good as it gets. The cast are all super – Ford, Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys Davies, Denholm Elliot, Ronald Lacey, all understanding the swashbuckling tone perfectly. The music is out of this world. And the direction is breathtaking. Even though I know Raiders so well, each time I see it I’m bowled over by how inventive, interesting and witty many of the shots are and how pacey the film is. The whole thing has peerless panache.

Ten melting faces out of 10.