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Atlantis (1990)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson

Heck and a half! The Italians provided Michael J. Murphy with the example that convincing costumes, sets and effects weren't essential to a film sale. So busy had Murphy been in the 1980s that, come the end of the decade, perhaps he'd been too occupied to notice that the peplum and spaghetti adventure had dried up. Nobody was interested in distribution of films in these genres any more. It wasn't to stop Michael. Atlantis was made in 1990 at the end of an era, the block decade of the video release during which he had been making films that saw actual distribution, and it was the year that was to see drop away of a number of his stock players. They are all here though.

One of the fascinations in a familiarity with Murphy's work and few will have experienced this yet and hopefully many are to do so, is recognising his company of thespians from film to film and how they are given roles in each contrary to the last taken, the actors given not only very different roles but awarded varying levels of importance when it comes to billings. The good girl in one film is the evil bitch in the next. The lead in the springtime shoot is the supporting or peripheral character for the cameral roll the following autumn. The minor character that also quadrupled under a succession of masks and full-face helmets is rewarded with a prominent part in a later production. Once Murphy's films are out there, available and seen, it is an aspect that will muster in some a fondness for them. Steve Longhurst has compared Murphy to Roger Corman. The Murlin Films (Murphy's production company) of the 1980s were the equivalent of Corman's 1950s' features, and just as the fans excited about Dick Miller, Jonathon Haze and just as Ed Wood's stock playing company were worshipped two or three decades down the line, we, in England, have been, to date, deprived of a similar fan high, for these actors and for Murphy. Patrick Olliver, Neil Goulbourn, Steve Longhurst, Judith Holding, Debbi Stevens, June Bunday, Phil Lyndon, Rob Bartlett et al are among the friends of Michael J. Murphy taking their turn at top end billing.

Patrick Olliver is the actor most readily granted the star role and in all of his Murphy films, Olliver took an opening titles credit. He was a committed player to Murphy. For Atlantis he even shaved his noggin for the role of the high priest Sartor, right hand to the Master of Atlantis (Phil Lyndon). As the narrator we expect him to survive the great sinking when it inevitably comes. The ruling partner is second-billed Judith Holding in the lesbian-bitch ubermensch role of Queen Anteya "a vain and depraved woman." Together they are bringing ecological catastrophe to the surface of the planet, Atlantis already apparently below ground to some extent, not as far to sink. When referring to the surface dwellers Sartar is heard to declare, "On the surface?" and the master to respond with one of the smarter gags in the film, "With the scum!"

The captives from the surface are turned into gladiators, whores and food. When his son and daughter are abducted, Crion (Neil Goulbourn) wants to bring an end to the tyranny, for which he must turn to the legend of the Crystal Child (Debbi Stevens), reputedly the only one with the power to dislodge the evil corrupters and polluters. Crion's daughter Arian (the fabulous, hazel-eyed June Bunday, finally given a lead lovely role) is the conduit for a series of adventures below ground until her escape, her character becoming the most travelled, therefore illusorily central player, though in truth, her screen time is probably marginally less than others. Once escaped she is reunited with her father and their troupe track down the Crystal Child, which initially amounts to little as they are all captured and taken back below ground immediately.

The Crystal child plays her part though, the Master impregnating Anteya with a new version of himself, oven time one hour. He also slays the Crystal Child; she is his daughter after all and has the skeletal chest to prove it. She is decapitated (loving dad) and her head sunk into a rock pool of acid (fuck Father's Day), a prop left over from Avalon. A volcano destroys Atlantis, most of the good people escaping in underwater escape vessels, which look as fishlike as lead weights, and Sartar is transported forward in time to 1990.

In his oeuvre what makes Atlantis unusual is that so many of the regular troupe are present and given key roles and that the screen time is uniquely balanced so that star billing warrants little more screen time than most of the others. It is 53 minutes into this 80-minute cut before the first of the key characters die. It allows more time to familiarise with the many, to make the deaths felt. Steve Longhurst is the butcher, with a stop-motion animation mechanical meat separation machine, who also has a sideline in supplying the local whorehouse madam (Kate Kneafsey, hello again) with young maidens. He sleazily offers something "for the banquet... sweetmeats, a succulent adolescent rump."
Sartor, played by Patrick Olliver, with Lyndon's Master of Atlantis director Murphy on the set of Atlantis
Not only is the Crystal Child the daughter of the master she has inherited some of his power and mutation. "When I entered your mother her fertility split." There were two born of that union, the Crystal Child has a brother, and he is a powerless Minotaur in the tunnels, tearing out the tongues of victims and eating them raw. It is a busy film, packed with story and fight sequences. It is again way beyond the budget and the sets are unconvincing, the effects terrible (but not as awful as in Avalon). This is a fun shindig, a big goodbye party, so it may have been presumed, to the movies he could get away with at the time. From now on he needed to improve on the quality, which could not be afforded and so it was funded production in the thriller line for the time being. When he returned to an age of prehistory it would be with Tristan and he would handle it more delicately and lovingly.

Also unusual for a Murphy film is the ending in which the high priest is transported to the present day. No actor other than Patrick Olliver is seen for this sequence and strikingly it is a montage of the real and the astounding, a drunk on the street, the litter on the pavement, a McDonalds bin, punks, what looks like London, none of the recognisable stock images, instead are suspected shot by Murphy. The reality in those images is as stark and disturbing as was surely intended (though I am a mite perturbed to see blacks in montage only to realise that there are no black actors in the Murphy stock company). The transported Sartor is wide-eyed with wonder at the potential for this miserable Tory age he has found himself forwarded to. Will Murphy ever make a social documentary? How remarkable, immediate and important a recorder could he have been?

This had originally been titled Atlantis - The Director's Cut, Murphy removing what he now determines an unnecessary ten minutes, detrimental and slowing to the film. At a guess other changes engaged in this version are the slow-motion destruction that would have originally run too quickly at real-time speed. Early in the film June Bunday sets into a run that is also slow motion, suggesting that Murphy is experimenting with the new digital editing equipment, testing it on his film where it might be least harmful... and if you are going to put someone into slow motion and on the screen longer then let it be June (Michael corrects me on this: "June was shot in slo-mo in camera in 1980," whereas the destruction sequences had been slowed down originally also, and have been slowed down further with the new technology available).

This cut is intended for release. Murphy stumbled upon the Thai DVD release of his Death Run through DVDrome and had been highly amused by the slagging off it took from the label's owner on eBay... But rather than take at his knockers and challenge the release Murphy has begun to strike deals with American owner Tom Clouse who is operating the company out of Bangkok, and they plan to release more Murlin films over the next 12 months. Murphy has shot a making-of documentary to go with the DVD that includes outtakes, fluffed lines and swear words, and Michael talking to camera, and having the voice and presence to prove that he could be a terrific spokesperson for his own films and for independent filmmaking in this country. Over the last year we have lost several American independent filmmakers, Russ Meyer, Donald G. Jackson, Larry Buchanan and Ed Kelleher, great and good, some terrific voices for the sector. Michael is their British successor at the same time that he was very much their unknown contemporary cousin. The picture quality of the first preview DVD was poor, in colour, but mostly green. The subsequent DVD has greatly improved picture quality. It is hardly his magnum opus and perhaps not the recommended best first encounter with Murphy's films, other than for the introduction to an ensemble of faces who will frequent half of Murlin entertainment you will hopefully come to also know in time.
Atlantis

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Master of Atlantis played by Phil Lyndon

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