Atlantis (1991)

What exactly makes someone a cult filmmaker?

Let’s face it, the whole question of what makes a film a cult film is poorly defined — and I really don’t see that it is possible to come up with a really good definition.  After all, I’ve seen the label slapped on a lot of filmmakers and not too many of them deserve the title: after all, they range from a few truly strange directors whose films are so odd as to be unwatchable, to some, like Ed Hunt, who made a few mildly eccentric films without attracting too much attention, to mainstream directors with a unique viewpoint, like Sam Raimi, who, if they were ever cult directors abandoned it to make big tentpole movies, to a few talentless hacks who have been overpromoted.

But Michael J. Murphy certainly seems closer than most.  He started making films at age fourteen and over the next fifty years would make over thirty films.  All of them, of course, on tiny budgets.  Several of his films are now lost, particularly his earliest films which seem to have had extremely limited releases, but a huge chunk of them have just been released in an enormous box set.

And if you churned out dozens of cheap films over your career and only a few people know who you are, but someone puts out a big box set after you are gone, that is probably a good sign that you are a cult filmmaker.

Murphy seems to have made mostly horror and thriller films, but he did stray into Science Fiction in at least two of his films: the post-apocalyptic thriller, Death Run, from 1987, and this entertaining little Peplum film from a few years later.

This was not his first attempt at a film about Atlantis: he’d actually made Atlantis the City of Sin back in 1967, although only fragments of that film still survive.

The basic setup is rather familiar: on the lost continent of Atlantis, the Master rules over the great underground City, with all its pleasures and super Atlantean Crystal science, while those outside live simpler lives.

A brother and sister from the outside tribe get kidnapped, the brother is forced to fight in the arena, while his sister is sent to the crystal mines.  The tribe has suffered enormously at the hands of the people from the City and is in danger of dying out, so their father decides to go after them.

However, the Master of Atlantis has found the one crystal he needs for his sinister plans, and puts his high priest to work finding a mysterious girl who ran away from the city years before.

And he also has plans for the wicked Queen of Atlantis…

I’ll confess I’ve always had a weakness for this sort of Atlantean Super Science (see, for example, my reviews of The Giant of MetropolisWarlords of Atlantis [Warlords of the Deep]The Raiders of Atlantis, or Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire), even if we all know that the science is usually, well, “highly debatable” might be the kindest word (as Dr. Dinosaur would say, “CRYSTALS!”).

But part of what I love about this film is that, while it is obvious that the budget was quite small, its presentation of Atlantis is surprisingly lush.  Not only do we have plenty of wild costumes (yes, heavy on togas, which could probably be rented at almost any costume supplier or made with a minimum of skill) but the settings themselves are quite impressive, with a bit of model work adding giant statues, stray bits of architecture and even submarines (which, I’ll admit, look terrible).  The effects themselves?  Well, the models are very obvious and not terribly well done.  But they still come across reasonably well, particularly if you remember just how minimal the budget here must have been.  After seeing Death Run, I didn’t expect anything as impressive as Atlantis proved to be.  I would have expected Murphy to take the same approach he had on that film, seeking out a few more or less acceptable locations and sticking to them.

I’ll confess, though, that my favorite piece of modelwork is the big machine which converts the dead into food, a silly and eccentric looking collection of stop motion parts which has a bit of a Jan Svankmajer sort of vibe to it.  Its parts are so strangely shaped and off-kilter that it never really gives the impression of a real machine, but it has a weird charm all its own.

As does the model of the maze one hapless character gets thrown into.

And keep an eye out for a climactic scene borrowed without shame from a British sci fi gross out horror film from the Eighties.  It isn’t quite as well done, but is played in a far more absurd sort of way.

Which is hard to imagine when you’re copying something that was already ridiculous.

However, I will concede that the fake lava is the worst I’ve ever seen.  Ever.

The Master is supposedly immortal and looks like he’s supposed to be some sort of alien.  There’s a general okay-ness to his makeup, and you can see the raw edge on the prosthetics at times, but I’ve seen worse.

For example, on the mutants, whose prosthetic makeup doesn’t even pretend to blend into their faces.

And I got a chuckle out of the rebels being told to break all the crystals when they attacked the city.  All the crystals?  Where?  There isn’t a crystal in sight, we never see anyone breaking any of them, and yet the evil high priest, Sartor, complains that they’re destroying the city by breaking all the crystals.

Oh, well, I guess the guy who was supposed to bring all the crystals forget and left them at home.

Patrick Olliver, who plays Sartor, brings a very devious and evil presence to the film.  He was the villainous Messiah in Death Run and seems to have been in most of Michael J. Murphy’s films, generally playing the villain.  Ironically, in Murphy’s last film, The Return of Alan Strange, he turns this into a nicely meta joke: Olliver plays an aging actor who once portrayed a legendary, time travelling detective on a hit television show, and the clips they show of his TV exploits are all borrowed from his many roles in Murphy’s films.

Plotwise, Atlantis is all moderately familiar if you’ve ever seen the Italian equivalent, with plenty of gladiator battles, mutants, and some goofy Atlantean super “scientific” devices.  I’ll confess that it caught me off guard when some of the most sympathetic characters got killed off, but then, that happened in Death Run, as well.

I can appreciate that sort of cinematic ruthlessness.

The problem with this sort of Z-grade filmmaking is that it requires an audience willing to accept a film’s limitations and see past them.  Although, to be fair, while Atlantis may not look as good as George Pal’s film, it doesn’t really look that much worse than the Italian films of the same era.  The film quality isn’t as good — he shot a lot of these films on 16 mm and even 8 mm, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a strange little adventure film.

I’m not sure whether Murphy ever made anything better than this, but I’m beginning to understand why someone went to all the effort to collect his films.

After all, they must be some of the best Do-It-Yourself films ever made…

Buy the complete set of Michael J. Murphy’s films from Amazon (paid link):



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