Thursday, October 30, 2014

HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1934)

Asia, 1913. Drunken archeologist John Prendergast makes a bit of a scene in a bar—he's been keeping company with a temple girl named Chanda, something that is frowned upon by the natives—and later in a temple, he accidentally kills a sacred monkey; when the high priest admonishes him, Clement takes a bullwhip to him. The priest brings a stuffed gorilla to life and puts the curse of Kali (which he pronounces "Cay-lie") on Prendergast as he and Chanda flee with some stolen treasures. Twenty years later, Prof. Potter and his wife, who were financial backers on Prendergast's expedition, discover that the archeologist is living under an assumed name (Mr. Pren) with Chanda as his housekeeper; they hire a lawyer and gather the other living expedition backers in order to get their share of the loot. They include insurance salesman Jack Armstrong, pretty young nurse Ella Browning (with whom Jack flirts), the rich Mrs. Carfax and her psychic companion Stella. When they arrive at Pren's house—in which there is also a stuffed ape and a mute plumber—they discover that he is a helpless cripple and he blames it on the curse. He insists that the curse will follow anyone who tries to claim any of the money, and tells the group that they must stay at his house for a week to see for themselves how the curse will affect them before they claim their bounty. During a séance, Mrs. Carfax is found strangled ("Dead as Prohibition," says one of the characters). Eventually there is another murder and the appearance of a real ape before the mystery is solved. This Monogram "old dark house" film gets points just for being stuffed with fairly interesting plot points and for moving at a good pace. The atmosphere is creepy, the comic relief is relatively restrained, and the acting, though not distinguished, is serviceable. None of the principals, including romantic leads Ed Lowry as Jack and Verna Hillie as Ella, were known to me, though Western sidekick legend Gabby Hayes has a small role here. I'm not so crazy about the apes, but overall this was a fast and fun flick. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

A diverse bunch of obvious villains—including Cedric Hardwicke with a German lilt to his voice and Peter Lorre made up very much like Mr. Moto—comes into a small stationery story and threatens the owner (Jon Hall) with disfigurement unless he gives up the invisibility serum he inherited from his grandfather, the first Invisible Man. Hall manages to kick some ass and get away; he also says no to the American military folks who ask—much more nicely—for it, until Pearl Harbor, when he not only offers the serum to the Army but insists on being the guinea pig agent who is sent into enemy territory and injected with the serum in order to bring back Nazi military secrets. He parachutes behind lines (in a nice sequence in which he turns invisible as his parachute falls, takes off his clothes, and hides from German soldiers in a barn) and gets in touch with sexy Ilona Massey, Hardwicke's mistress, who is willing to help Hall with his mission. He almost gives the game away when, either drunk or tired or suffering side effects of the serum, he toys around in Massey's living room and is almost caught by J. Edward Bromberg, a Nazi underling who wants to have his own rendezvous with Massey. There are success and reversals, and at one point, Hall is sure that Massey is actually working with the Nazis, but in the end, he manages to stop a planned attack on the United States and, back in England, after the serum wears off, he finds out that Massey is actually a British spy—and she's quite taken with the visible Hall.

None of the Invisible Man sequels are up to the original, but that's par for the course. This one takes a sharp turn away from horror and functions as a spy thriller with a front-and center science-fiction element, and on that level, it works fairly well. Hall, known best for his exotic adventures with Maria Montez, is very good here—robust, humorous, fairly heroic—and I also liked Massey. In fact, the cast overall is fine, especially the reliable Lorre, Hardwicke and Bromberg. None of them feel particularly ethnic, but it's the Nazi uniforms that matter most. The FX are serviceable; occasionally you can see wires or outlines but the relative sexiness of the proceedings here are interesting; the fact that Hall is naked (though invisible) around Massey is highlighted and Massey herself is often changing in or out of nightwear. As wartime propaganda sci-fi B-thrillers go, this is fun. [DVD]

Monday, October 27, 2014

JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (1962)

A crew of astronauts is heading to Uranus on the trail of a strange radioactive signal (years before 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY used a similar plotpoint to send Dave and Frank to Jupiter). As they approach, they are all frozen in place while a blob of light materializes and announces that their minds will be under its control. When the ship lands, the barren surface of the planet suddenly becomes lush and earthlike, though the men discover that behind the trees is an invisible barrier; when young impulsive Carl sticks his arm through it, his arm is flash-frozen—though he does recover eventually. That night, as the men sit around a campfire (!), Commander Eric dreamily relates a childhood memory about life on the family farm, and as he does, the farm landscape appears in the distance, as does a woman of his past acquaintance. By now, if you know your Ray Bradbury, this will seem familiar as it's a plot device right out of his short story "Mars is Heaven," so you'll know right where this is going: the Blob of Light is pulling memories out of the men's minds and reproducing them. Despite more sexy women appearing, the men soon decide to go through the barrier where they find the "real" Uranus: a desolate waste with ammonia quicksnow (like quicksand but white and sparkly--see picture below). Some huge monsters appear, giant versions of animals that the astronauts fear like mice and spiders (shades of the climax of 1984), and Ingrid, one of the sexy apparitions, informs them that a being "of space and time itself" (which later appears as a huge disembodied brain) has them trapped.

Unless I missed something, it's never made clear exactly why the monster is after them, aside from fear of colonization, and if the Blob/Being of Space and Time/Big Brain had just left Uranus like it really was—bleak and uninhabitable—instead of making it look and feel like Earth, the men would probably just done a little rock-gathering and left. This film has its moments—I particularly liked the effect of the barren gray planet turning green and the quicksnow scene—but it also feels a bit slapdash, especially in the writing, with little examination of character or of the consequences of space exploration. It was shot in Denmark with a Danish cast except for Hollywood B-leading man John Agar who plays the second in command. Peter Monch seemed promising as Carl, but this is his only film credit. The mysterious women all look like Nordic models—and they were, most notably Greta Thyssen who was Miss Denmark of 1951 and went on to rack up over 20 acting credits. Special effects are about average for the time. The closing theme is worth hanging around for—as the ship sails off into space, we hear a crooner sing, "Our love will take wing/And go on and on…" though the only love going on in the film was between earthmen and alien-created avatars of women (unless two of the astronauts had a thing on the down-low). [Netflix streaming]

Saturday, October 25, 2014

THE EYES OF CHARLES SAND (1972)

Hunky (for the 1970s) playboy Charles Sand (Peter Haskell, pictured) has a nightmare involving a roomful of lit candles and a coffin; when he opens the coffin, his uncle rises up with open full-white eyes and points menacingly at him. He is awakened by a phone call from his Aunt Alexandria (Joan Bennett) telling him that his uncle has died. Charles finds out the next day that he has inherited a family gift/curse: he has The Sight, meaning he'll see visions and premonitions, and should be prepared to use this power to help people. At his uncle's funeral, he has a vision of a mummified woman in front of the Parkhurst mausoleum, and soon he's involved in a Parkhurst family situation: young Emily Parkhurst has had visions of her brother's dead body and is practically hysterical about it, but her older sister Katherine insists she's wrong, that the brother is alive and out of town, and Katherine wants to institutionalize Emily. Charles has a couple of visions that make him think Emily might be right; do Katherine and her husband have something to hide?

This was a pilot for a show that didn't get picked up. The set-up here is interesting, but I can think of one big reason it didn't get past the pilot stage: after the first 20 minutes, the supernatural elements are downplayed to the point of vanishing, and this becomes a standard, fairly nondescript mystery. Haskell, a familiar TV face in the 70s, is fairly colorless here but adequate, and the actress playing Emily (Sharon Farrell) is terrible; Bennett is OK, as is Adam West as a family friend. Luckily, Barbara Rush is very good as Katherine—you'll figure out rather quickly that she's not what she seems, and when she lets loose in the last 15 minutes, she makes up for some of the blandness of the previous hour. Bradford Dillman doesn't have much to do as her husband. The 70s was a classic time for TV-movies, and I've been enjoying the access that Warner Archive Instant has given to many of these films, but of course, they're not all equal. This one has a nice opening section but ends up a bit of a disappointing mess. [Warner Archive streaming]

Friday, October 24, 2014

DR. CRIPPEN (1963)

This thrill-free thriller purports to tell the story behind the notorious 1910 court case in which a man was found guilty of killing his wife and disposing of her body in pieces. The film begins with Crippen (Donald Pleasence), an American doctor living in London, on trial and flashes back to fill in the story. Mild-mannered Crippen is married to a brassy live wire named Belle (Coral Browne). A former showgirl, Belle takes in boarders with whom she regularly has affairs; we first see her brazenly flirting with one handsome young boarder who plays piano while she sings. The problem seems to be that Crippen has a low libido and Belle has a high one—she claims she takes lovers only because Crippen isn't sleeping with her. But Crippen begins a romantic relationship with his secretary Ethel (Samantha Eggar) and when Belle finds out, she makes a scene, saying he's making a fool of her. (The psychosexual relationship between the two is potentially interesting, but partly due to the era, it's not gone into in much detail here.) She makes him promise to have sex with her; to get out of it, he slips her a tranquilizer in her tea but accidentally puts too much in and she dies. We don't see any of the grisly aftermath, but soon, when people start asking after Belle, Crippen says she's gone to America to visit a sick relative (shades of Raymond Burr's alibi in REAR WINDOW). Eventually her mutilated corpse is found, and Crippen takes off to America with Ethel in tow, dressed as a young man, but they are found out while on ship and both put on trial. This is a dry and stagy presentation of the story with little action and no gore (despite the promises of some of the movie's posters). Pleasence is OK as the quiet, enigmatic man with the "codfish eyes," as one character notes, but he seems to be largely on automatic here. Eggar is better as the sweet innocent girl who is implicated in his crimes, but best is Browne, who gives a lively performance as the wife. If you're a fan of Browne (pictured with Pleasence), this is worth seeing. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949)

In the 1480s, the Italian sailor and trader Christopher Columbus (Fredric March) is trekking through Europe with his son trying to get backing for a trip to prove that you can go around the (round) world and get to India by heading west. He leaves his son at a monastery for safe keeping and one of the monks gives him a letter of introduction to the Spanish court. King Ferdinand isn't impressed, but Queen Isabella (Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife) thinks there is some promise in the plan to claim new spice markets and lands for Spain. However court noble Francisco de Bobadilla, concerned for his own interests, tries his best to scotch Columbus's plans, so years pass with no progress. Bobadilla gets his lovely young cousin Beatriz to romance Columbus to get him to stay in Spain, but the Queen sees through the plan and has Beatriz banished. Eventually, the Queen uses her own jewels to bankroll Columbus's trip. There's a brief swashbuckling mutiny but soon land is sighted, natives are met, customs are exchanged, and the land is claimed for Spain. By the end of his life, he has become an obscure figure, embittered by court intrigues, though he predicts that he will eventually be remembered long after the King and Queen have been forgotten. This is a bland, by-the-numbers telling of Columbus' discovery of the New World. A bigger budget—with better costumes and sets—and a livelier lead actor might have made this more interesting. March is OK but uninspiring, never coming off as compelling or larger-than-life as his character really should, making the movie feel like the story of a low-level bureaucrat or a whining dreamer. Francis L. Sullivan as the scheming Bobadilla almost upstages March, and it feels like Eldridge is doing a grade-B imitation of Bette Davis in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. This is OK to skip. [Netflix streaming]

Monday, October 20, 2014

HAUNTED GOLD (1932)

This early John Wayne film is not only a fine example of the B-western but also of the mystery/horror western, a small but interesting subgenre. One night, a bunch of guys are sitting around in a ghost town saloon waiting for Ed to come back from an abandoned mine which is rumored to have a treasure in gold hidden somewhere. What comes back instead is his horse, riderless, with a note warning others to stay away, signed by The Phantom. One of the men, Joe Ryan, has a half-claim on the land, and arriving that night is the man with the other half-claim, John Mason (Wayne), with his African-American buddy Clarence (Blue Washington). Another person involved is Janet Carter, daughter of one of the co-owners; her father, a former owner of the mine, is in jail, supposedly framed by the Ryans, but she has been summoned mysteriously and is staying with Benedict, once the mine foreman. Also in the house is Benedict's deaf assistant, a creepy housekeeper, and some spooky figure whose eyes we frequently see peering into rooms from behind clocks and paintings. Ryan plots to get Mason's claim away from him, Mason plots to catch Ryan and his men in criminal activity, and someone seems to be trying to keep everyone away from the mine.

The word "horror" is misleading—this is more like an "old dark house" thriller in a western setting—but it does contain a handful of nicely atmospheric moments as it also gets in some hats-and-horses action. The young Wayne makes a nice light-on-his-feet hero, a little different from the slower and more stolid characters he became known for later. Much critical commentary has been made about Washington and his stereotyped comic relief role—at one point, a villain refers to his "watermelon accent"—but despite being eighth billed (far behind Wayne's famous horse Duke), Washington (pictured with Wayne) has almost as much screen time as Wayne, and most of his shenanigans are actually amusing rather than cringe-inducing. It helps that he has a deep, gruff voice, unlike the lazy, high-pitched voices that many black actors were forced to use in their subservient roles. He's also effective in getting Wayne out of some tight spots. Duke the horse gets to pull a couple of good stunts, kicking a man off a cliff and saving Wayne from a long drop into a canyon. Some of the lengthy final action scene is presented speeded-up and I'm not sure why. Interesting tidbit: the prop that became the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 movie can be seen on the heroine's organ. [TCM]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959)

One night in 1890s Paris, we see a man attacked on a foggy street, another victim of Anton Diffring, a sculptor (who creates busts of lovely young women) and a doctor; it turns out that he's over 100 years old, despite looking much younger, thanks to a gland transplant he gets every few years to stay young. Desperately in need of the operation now, he can get by for a while on a bubbling green fluid that he concocts, apparently made from bodily fluids obtained from people he kills, but he's at the point where he will start deteriorating for good unless he gets the procedure done. The older doctor who had always helped him is disabled and can no longer operate, so when Diffring crosses paths with ex-lady friend Hazel Court (pictured with Diffring), he tries to talk her friend, surgeon Christopher Lee, into doing the operation himself, eventually holding Court hostage to force him to help. This Hammer horror movie is based on a play, The Man in Half Moon Street, which was first made into a movie in 1945. The plot is predictable and the horror element here is at low boil as the film seems to retain the staginess of the play. Lee sleepwalks through his relatively unimportant part, but luckily Diffring is fine in the title role. The scenes involving the green youth-giving potion are effectively filmed, saturated in green; there are some moderately interesting philosophical discussions about eternal life; and a suitably horrific ending awaits, but it's a bit of a slog getting there. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE MAD GHOUL (1943)

George Zucco is a chemistry professor teaching a class about his theory that the Mayans had developed a poisonous gas which caused a "life in death/death in life" state in the people who were used as human sacrifices. After class, he asks student David Bruce to help him with his experiments involving that gas. It turns out that he has used the gas to zombify a monkey, and now plans to use herbs and a heart transplant to bring the monkey back, hoping to use the procedure on humans. When Bruce questions the morality of his activities, Zucco replies, "I'm a scientist—there is no good or evil, only true or false." A complicating factor is concert singer Evelyn Ankers; Bruce is in love with her, and though she likes him, she feels she has outgrown his attentions and is setting her sights on her sophisticated, exotic pianist (Turhan Bey). The slightly unhinged Zucco thinks that Ankers is dumping Bruce for him, so to make sure Bruce is no competition, he tricks Bruce into breathing in the zombie gas, then gets him to start digging up graves to gather up fresh hearts for his sinister work. A reporter (Robert Armstrong) figures things out and poses as a corpse to catch the ghouls, but things backfire a bit.

As other critics have pointed out, this B-film, though produced by a major studio (Universal), has the feel of a high-end poverty-row flick from Monogram or PRC, and that's mostly a compliment. The production values are skimpy but not slipshod, and the acting and writing are at least a notch above average. Zucco (pictured above in his creepy protective mask, with Bruce), as he often was in his B-roles, is the best thing in the movie, taking the proceedings as seriously as they should be, not camping around or chewing scenery and not sleepwalking through his part as the mad doctor. The rest of the cast is fine, even Bruce who many critics don't care for. Milburn Stone (Doc on "Gunsmoke") plays a cop. What I liked best about the plot is that, against expectations, there really is no sturdy hero here to save the day; Bruce becomes a zombie, Bey doesn’t get to do much except play the piano, and Zucco is the instrument of his own demise. A little-known solid B-horror flick. [DVD]

Monday, October 13, 2014

DEAR MURDERER (1947)

Eric Portman returns to England from a lengthy business trip to America, looking forward to reuniting with his wife (Greta Gynt) who has not been as faithful a letter-writer as he hoped. When he gets home, it appears as if she may not have been faithful in other ways; she's not there, and he finds love letters addressed to her from another man, the same man (Dennis Price) that he has seen pictures of her with in tabloid papers, out painting the town red. Portman goes to Price's apartment and begins an elaborate plot which ends with Portman killing Price and making it look like suicide. Of course, as these things will, his plot goes off the rails when his wife and yet another lover show up at Price's apartment before Portman can get away. There are more twists and complications that shout not be spoiled here. I don't think this is really noir, as some claim: Portman is never really sympathetic enough for us to think he's a basically good guy caught in a bad circumstances. He's very good in the role, but he's a bad guy. At one point, when Price realizes that Portman plans to kill him, Price lets him know that Gynt has had other affairs and notes wryly, "You can’t kill all of them"; we see Portman think about that and realize that he might well try. So it's not film noir but it is a somewhat Hitchcockian thriller with a good cast, especially Portman and Gynt, and a plot that is easy to follow but not so easy to predict. Jack Warner is a Scotland Yard inspector, and Hazel Court, who would achieve a level of fame starring in some of Roger Corman's 60s horror films, has a small role. (Pictured is Portman seconds away from strangling Price.) [Netflix streaming]