Friday, October 19, 2018

BRAIN OF BLOOD (1971)

aka THE OOZING SKULL

Reed Hadley is the benevolent ruler of a Middle Eastern country. Dying of cancer, he is worried that his death would cause great turmoil and move the country backwards, but he and his associates (Grant Williams and Zandor Vorkov) have a plan. When Hadley dies, he is wrapped in foil (!) and shipped to the United States where Williams and Vorkov take him to mad scientist Kent Taylor who claims he can transfer Hadley's brain into a suitable body—one that resembles Hadley—so he can continue to run the country. Of course, everything that can go wrong does. First, a mysterious man tries to run them off the road. At Taylor's lab (which looks like a cheap suburban doctor's office) one of his assistants, a hulking deformed man-child named Gor (John Bloom) has gone out to find an appropriate body but messes up and instead Taylor must use Gor himself, who of course, looks nothing like Hadley. Taylor's other assistant, a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto), seems like he's trying to sabotage the operation. Not to mention the sexy young woman kept chained up in the basement.

Director Al Adamson is famous (or imfamous) in the world of grade-Z horror. Before this, the only one of his movies I’d seen is BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE which was cheap looking but not awful. This one is cheap *and* awful, and fairly gory, though the blood which decorates many scenes looks more like red paint. The plot is ludicrous and at times feels improvised; the settings look all wrong; the makeup on Gor is ridiculous, with the actor's hair peeking out from under a silly bald cap. The whole thing has a unwholesome, sleazy feeling, which may be a plus for some viewers. Poor Grant Williams (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, the Hawaiian Eye TV show), in one of his last movies, is clad in silly clothes and seems terribly uncomfortable in his low-budget surroundings. B-movie warhorse Kent Taylor gets by OK, but John Bloom as Gor gives the best performance once he has Hadley's brain in him; unfortunately, he also has a pathetic flashback scene showing how he became disfigured. If you must see this, see it as "riffed" by the Cinematic Titanic folks under the title The Oozing Skull. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

THE FACE OF MARBLE (1946)

Dr. Randolph (John Carradine) is your run-of-the-mill mad scientist, conducting experiments in bringing the dead back to life with the help of his somewhat less mad assistant Dr. Cochran (Michael Shayne)—though interestingly, for this kind of B-horror film, both doctors generally come off as fairly rational folks that you could actually imagine sharing a dinner with. This night, they have the body of a recently drowned sailor and they are able to re-animate him, but after his eyes flicker open, his face freezes and turns glowing white (the "face of marble" of the title, pictured at left) and he dies again. Meanwhile, we are introduced to the slightly odd domestic situation. Randolph's wife Elaine, who has a faithful Great Dane named Brutus, is trying to get Cochran to talk her husband out of his experiments. Cochran is reluctant to, so unbeknownst to Elaine, her servant Maria begins using what is referred to as "voodoo magic" to get Cochran to fall in love with Elaine so he will do her bidding. (It remained unclear to me throughout if Elaine was really in love with Cochran, though we do find out that her marriage to Randolph is something of a sham). One problem with Maria's plan shows up on the doorstep eventually: Cochran's girlfriend from back home, Linda, whom Randolph sends for in an effort to keep Cochran happy. But complications start piling up: Cochran finds Maria's voodoo fetish and destroys it, causing Maria to warn of violent death; Randolph kills Brutus in order to bring him back to life, but the dog returns as a ghost figure, able to walk through walls; the police discover that the body of the drowned dead sailor shows signs having been given an electrical shock and Randolph falls under suspicion; a "blood-crazed" dog begins attacking local livestock. And there is still a lot of movie to go.

This B-production is interesting if only for the way the writers throw everything and the kitchen sink into the plot. Crazy scientists, check; ghosts, check; dead bodies coming back to life, check; killer animal, check; voodoo, check; I even suspect that the "face of marble" guy at the beginning might have become a zombie if he'd stayed alive long enough. The title of the movie is strange, as the pale pallor of the faces of the reanimated is barely a plot element. "Hemomania" would have been just as appropriate—a word used to describe Brutus's blood craze. It's also interesting that the two doctors are much less "mad" in temperament than they would have been in any other horror film of the classic era. The romance element between Cochran and Elaine seems forced, but there is also little chemistry between Cochran and Linda. I had more emotional investment in the dog than in the romantic entanglements. Acting is OK—Carradine is his usual professional self, Shayne makes for a solid second lead, Rosa Rey does some nice skulking in the dark as Maria, and Willie Best is the comic relief black butler who plays a fairly important role in the wrap-up. An obscurity worth at least one viewing. [DVD]

Friday, October 12, 2018

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964)

In an opening sequence, we see people dropping dead like flies, leading to cars wrecking, planes crashing, and people strewn about dead on the street. Jeff Nolan, an American test pilot for North England Aviation, lands in a small English village to find a ghost town. He heads for a local inn along with a handful of other survivors including Ed, a drunkard, and a pregnant woman and her cocky husband. Since all seven of them were isolated from the outside for a time (in the plane, in a hospital room, etc.), they surmise that they escaped a gas attack which killed everyone else, but soon giant robots begin striding through the streets, turning some of the dead into blank-eyed zombies (see picture at right for one of the sexier zombies).  The group struggles to survive, not just against the aliens and zombies, but against each other, thanks to internal discord. This B-film, only an hour long, seems like someone put VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in a blender. It's not as effective as any of those films, but it has its moments. I would bet this was among the earliest of the "slow-walking zombie" movies (four years before LIVING DEAD), and they and the robots are generally effective, though the low budget hurts their look a bit. The acting is adequate with Willard Parker, a B-lead in Westerns and adventure films, stolid in the lead as Jeff (his real-life wife Virginia Field plays Peggy, Ed's mistress). The title overstates the drama—it’s more like "A Village Dies Whimpering"—but it's worth watching for horror and sci-fi buffs. [DVD]

Thursday, October 11, 2018

MAN BEAST (1956)

Trevor Hudson has accompanied his fiancée Connie Hayward on a trek to the Himalayas in search of her brother James who may unwittingly be in need of medical attention. James is on an expedition with Dr. Erickson in an attempt to discover a Yeti (better known then as an Abominable Snowman), a beast that's been seen by others but never captured. They get handsome Steve Cameron to lead them into the mountains where they run across Erickson and his guide Vargas (less handsome than Steve but striking, with albino-like looks). The groups join together, but when they reach camp, the tents have been wrecked and Connie's brother is gone. After some long scenes of rock climbing and short scenes of interpersonal conflict, Connie becomes disillusioned with Trevor and begins to fall for Steve. At one point, we see a Yeti peering over rocks observing the squabbling people, and we (and not the other characters) see Vargas make motions toward the Yeti indicating that he and the monster are friendly. As it turns out, Vargas is half-Yeti himself, and his ultimate plan is to mate Yetis with human women—of course, this means Connie.

This intermittently enjoyable B-film falls down on the action and terror but the characters keep it interesting, especially Vargas who becomes a bad guy you're sorry you have to dislike. Most of the exteriors were shot in what appear to be actual snowy conditions in some California mountains, with stock footage of the Himalayas thrown in here and there. Interiors were shot on cheap sets, and nighttime scenes were filmed in darkened artificial sets, giving these scenes an almost surreal tone. The acting ranges from terrible (Virginia Maynor as Connie acts like she's auditioning for community theater, and whoever let her wear her perky make-up in every scene should have been fired) to OK (Tom Maruzzi as Steve, George Wells Lewis as Erickson) to pretty good (George Skaff as Vargas who is, by default, the most interesting character in the movie). An actor named Rock Madison is listed in the credits, but IMDb says that's a made-up name to make the cast seem bigger. The Yeti costume is not bad, but the Yeti itself is underused. Critics call this the best work of schlockmeister Jerry Warren, best known for the truly awful WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN. It's short (just over an hour) but still feels padded out with scenes of rock climbing and dialogue that goes nowhere. Still, not a painful October experience, especially if you see the cleaned-up widescreen print from VCI. [DVD]

Monday, October 08, 2018

THE UNSEEN (1945)

11 Crescent Lane has been boarded up for years since its owner, the Commodore, died, but people insist they've seen a shadowy figure in the house from time to time, and one foggy night, an old housekeeper sees strange goings-on through the window, and then is attacked and killed a few streets over in Salem Alley. A young boy witnesses most of this from his window in 10 Crescent Lane. The next day, Elizabeth Howard (Gail Russell) arrives at #10 to take over the job of governess to the two Fielding children, Ellen and Barnaby (the boy who saw the murder). Their father David (Joel McCrea) is distracted and stand-offish and irritated that the family has not been able to keep a governess for long. The children, like their father, are distant, and Barnaby in particular still has a strong and perhaps unwholesome attachment for the previous governess Maxine. Ellen lets it slip one day that Barnaby is getting paid "wages" by someone, and after Elizabeth hears footsteps in the house one night, figures out that the boy is unlocking the door for someone to come in to the house. He also takes phone calls from an unknown woman, and soon Elizabeth suspects that Maxine has a sinister hold on the boy, though for what purpose is unclear.

The plot meanders a bit from there, but this remains a half-baked stew of elements from Gaslight and the classic Henry James story Turn of the Screw. (I even thought of The Sound of Music in its depiction of the slowly-building attraction between the governess and the distant father). Paramount undoubtedly wanted to conjure up a connection to its earlier hit The Uninvited (with which it shares a star, Russell, and a director, Lewis Allen), but they have little in common except for a shadowy house with a sinister secret. The film starts slowly and builds to a decent middle section, but it falters in the last third as it slows down again. The performances are bland, especially from the two leads; better are the two child actors, Richard Lyon and Nona Griffith. Herbert Marshall, Phyllis Brooks and Norman Lloyd give OK support. Raymond Chandler co-wrote the undistinguished screenplay. There is some spooky atmosphere present in fits and starts, but overall this is disappointing as Halloween month viewing. I do like the choice of incidental music ("There'll Be Some Changes Made" and "Beautiful Dreamer"). There are also several references to Disney characters, with a doll of Dumbo playing an important part. [YouTube]

Thursday, October 04, 2018

THE MONKEY’S PAW (1948)

At Grimshaw's curio shop, the owner is trying to get an antiques dealer interested in a rare bust owned once by Genghis Kahn, but the dealer wants to buy a preserved monkey's paw. Grimshaw tries to talk him out of it by telling him that it supposedly has the power to grant three wishes for the person holding it, but that tragedy inevitably follows. Still, the dealer wants it, and he soon uses it as barter when he wants a painting owned by the Trelawnes. Mrs. Trelawne doesn't want to sell, but behind her back, Mr. Trelawne, fascinated by the story behind the paw, trades the painting for it. The family has money problems—he is behind in paying some gambling debts and their son Tom has just bought a new motorcycle so he enters a race to win the cash to buy a wedding ring for his fiancée. Trelawne's Irish assistant Kelly relates the story of what happened to the paw's previous owners: Mrs. Lang, upset in her miserable marriage to a drunkard, grabs the paw and wishes for freedom; the paw twists in her hand of its own accord, and shortly thereafter, her husband shoots her dead. She got what she wanted but at a price higher than she would have wanted to pay. It's noted that the lesson of the paw is that man's destiny is ruled by fate and cannot be changed. But the Trelawnes don't take the lesson to heart, and they wish for 200 pounds to cover their debt. That night, Tom takes a spill during the race and is killed, but they get the 200 pound prize in consolation. Mrs. Trelawne, understandably upset, grabs the paw and wishes that Tom would return to them. However, Mr. Trelawne realizes that if Tom returns, he will be a disfigured, decaying corpse. That stormy night, someone is approaching the front door—what can Mr. Trelawne do?

This is a modern adaptation of the classic 1902 short story by W.W. Jacobs, and as the story has been heavily anthologized and adapted, most viewers will be familiar with the plot and outcome, but with a running time of just one hour, this is worth seeing anyway. The tale has been fleshed out with the frame story of the antiques dealer, Kelly's flashback narrative of the unhappy wife, and some background of Tom and his fiancée, though I could have done without the silly comic relief of the Irish fellow. It's decidedly a B-level production, but some creepy atmosphere is provided by the night and storm scenes. None of the actors were on my radar, but the performances are fine (except maybe for the irritating prattle of Michael Martin Harvey as Kelly). [Amazon Prime]

Monday, October 01, 2018

THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1972)

This movie wastes no time with backstory as we jump right in with the kidnapping of adventure diver Matt (John Ashley) who is tied up underwater and pulled into a boat. The chief napper is Steinman who has a bright red-blond crew cut and an unwholesome aura, but it turns out he's working under the orders of Dr. Gordon. When Matt understandably objects to his situation, Gordon's voluptuous daughter Neva (Pat Woodell) retorts that her father is "one of the greatest, most dedicated scientific minds in the world," so Matt apparently should be happy that he's been kidnapped to help out in some unspecified way. On Gordon's private island, Matt soon discovers a lab filled with jars of glowing tissue (and one glowing human head) and it's not long before we realize that Gordon has been experimenting in human-animal mating. Among the creatures kept caged up in an underground chamber are a panther woman, an antelope man, and a man with the wings and face of a bat. Gordon wants Matt, as (supposedly) an exceptional specimen of humankind, to be the source of a new kind of superior species. Steinman, however, seems to be obsessed with Matt and wants him to escape so he can hunt him down. Eventually, Neva falls in love with Matt, and she helps him and the creatures escape, so Steinman gets his wish.

This B-film (sub-B, actually), based on H.G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau (with a little of The Most Dangerous Game thrown in) was one of a series made in the Philippines and co-produced by its star, former teen idol John Ashley, and directed by Eddie Romero.  You can feel the ambition to do something interesting, but the writing and editing and special effects can't live up to the director's intentions. The script could have used another draft, as many details (Matt's background, the how and why of the creatures) are glossed over or omitted altogether. I did like the odd intimation that Steinman (Jan Merlin) is gay; when he yells at Neva for getting "hot in the pants" for Matt, she replies, "I could say the same for you," implying that if Steinman can't have Matt, hunting him down will insure than no one else will, either. The movie is colorful but the direction is weak and there are frequent instances of choppy editing which, because the print I saw was in great shape, I blame on the original editing. The first half is fast-paced, but once the escape happens, the last half of the film bogs down with repetitious scenes of people making their way through the jungle. There is one great shot of a person with a gun, crouched and ready to fire at our hero, but it turns out that the would-be killer is already dead, frozen in position.

The creature makeup is fairly amateurish. Ayesa, the panther woman, is played by Pam Grier (the only one in the cast to go on to star status) and her makeup consists primarily of big teeth and hairy hands. Darmo, the bat man, must be seen to be believed (picture above left); he has what look like plastic trash bags taped to his arms for wings, and when he flies, he's clearly zipping along on wires—though I must admit he has a couple of effective scenes at the climax. Kuzma, the antelope boy, played by Ken Metcalfe (pictured top right), has a half-mask over his face with antelope horns. However, I appreciate Metcalfe's attempt at method acting when he tries to walk like a two-legged antelope. Honestly, even though he has no dialog, he is really the only appealing character in the movie; Ashley, the good guy, comes off a little woodenly, and Merlin, his antagonist, gives a more interesting performance. Woodell is sexy but a terrible actor. Charles Macauley as Dr. Gordon (who is referred to in a newspaper headline as Dr. Grimstead) should be rather manic but is so bland he practically vanishes before your eyes. I guess I had some fun with this one, but it's not one you need to track down unless you're a John Ashley completist. [TCM]

Friday, September 28, 2018

BREAKTHROUGH (1950)

We are with American troops in England in 1944, training for the upcoming D-Day landing at Normandy. Top dog of the company is the seasoned Captain Hale (David Brian); the newbie is former teacher Lt. Mallory (John Agar), fresh out of officer's training at Fort Benning and resented a bit by Hale. Sgt. Pete Bell (Frank Lovejoy) likes Mallory and tries to run interference between the two. Some of the other men in Agar's platoon include Dominick, a brash young man who is fixated on a career in politics; Hanson, the platoon clown who likes to do impressions of Bogart and Edward G. Robinson; Muscles, the strong, slow kid; gawky nerd Nelson whose nickname is "4F"; Uncle Roy, the oldest guy in the group; Jimbo, a country boy with a soft spot for dogs; and Rojek, a working-class guy from the Bronx. We follow the group from England across the Channel to Omaha Beach, through the French hedgerows to their designated mission of taking the town of St. Lo as the men bond and squabble and fight and die, all in predictable Hollywood war-movie ways.

Made almost 50 years before Stephen Spielberg's D-Day movie SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, this will disappoint anyone wanting a graphic and realistic recreation of the Normandy invasion, but it will surely satisfy any fans of classic-era war pictures. As I've noted, it's nothing if not predictable—as soon as one of the soldiers pulled out pictures of his wife and kids and said how lucky he was, I knew the poor bastard wasn't long for this world—but much of the pleasure of watching these movies, or any genre movies, is to see watch the formulaic pieces fall into place, and to see when things go against the grain. Other predictable moments include some brief flirting with a sexy French woman, a tank attack, a troublesome sniper (in a scene which would be echoed in PRIVATE RYAN), and the eventual mutual respect built between Agar and Brian. Some surprising elements [mild spoiler]: none of the three main stars dies—I was sure that the middle-ground Lovejoy was being set up as a sacrifice, but they all survive; the acting is nicely low-key—no one exhibits the intensity of a John Garfield or the laconic star power of a John Wayne, which is all to the good here, letting the focus stay on the ensemble and keeping the stereotypes in check a bit. There is a fair amount of newsreel footage from the actual operation used which is both a plus (it adds realism and helps cover up the B-budget) and a minus (its use is obvious so they're not fooling anyone). The only troublesome plothole I saw was that the outcome of Brian's story (mild spoiler: his command is taken away from him because his superiors worry he's on the verge of going a little nuts) comes out of nowhere. The supporting cast is fine, with the best performances coming from Dick Wesson as Hanson (his impressions really are good) and Edward Norris as Uncle Roy. Some may fault this for a lack of intensity but I enjoyed its somewhat more laconic charms. Pictured are Lovejoy and Agar. [TCM]

Monday, September 24, 2018

MEET THE BOY FRIEND (1937)

Cleancut radio crooner Tony Page, known as "America’s Boyfriend," is dating Vilma Vlare, a Swedish actress (or "Scandhoovian" as one character says) hoping to make it big in the States. Potts, his manager, wants to keep Tony footloose and fancy free so he won't lose his rabid female fan base, so he arranges to get Vilma out of the picture with an acting job in California. In a scene which may have inspired a similar meet-cute moment in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, Tony, running from fans, winds up on a bus next to June Delaney, who is not a fan but who does help him avoid a mobbing. June works for an insurance company, and Potts decides to take out "love insurance" on Tony, paying out if Tony would get married. June, posing as a struggling singer, flirts with Tony to take his mind off of Vilma. At a radio contest, June wins first prize, but Tony gives the prize money to competitors Otis Clapsaddle and the Ozark Beau Brummels, who clearly need the money—and the encouragement—more than she does, and Tony replaces her money from his pocket. She begins to soften toward Tony, but when Vilma returns—she wants to marry Tony to get a green card but is dating someone else—complications ensue, including a fake kidnapping and a radio gimmick involving marrying couples on the air.

In the classic-era B-movie realm, some mysteries, noirs, and comedies occasionally wind up being as good as or better than some of their A-movie counterparts. But I have yet to see a B-musical that can come close to the standards of the big studios. Good musicals require big budgets for sets, costumes, stars, and songwriting. Low-budget movies like this one from Republic just can't compete, and when a musical doesn't work, it's a dreary affair. This one is thoroughly second-rate in every aspect, though movie buffs may find something worthwhile here and there. The leads, Robert Paige (billed as David Carlyle) and Carol Hughes, are bland, but Gwili Andre is a little better as Vilma. A comedy duo known as Oscar & Elmer supply some amusing moments as two yokels hired to kidnap June as a way to get Tony to leave Vilma. Best, however, is Pert Kelton (the Widow Paroo in THE MUSIC MAN) as Potts' wife; she has a Gracie Allen vibe going here and she steals every scene she's in, and even gives the best musical performance in a comical song called "You’re My Rosebud." The Ozark Beau Brummels are a spot of fun, especially when Otis refers to them as a "sympathy orchestra." At just over an hour, it's bearable but not much more. Pictured are Pert Kelton with Andrew Tombes as her husband on the left and Robert Paige on the right. [YouTube]

Thursday, September 20, 2018

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1928)

We are told that this is a tale of two milieus: small-town Main Street and big-city Broadway, a story that "might have been torn out of last night's newspaper" (just like TV's Law & Order!). Two bootleggers who have been hiding out in a small town hotel not far from New York City find out that legal charges against them have been dropped so they plan to head back to Broadway to run a speakeasy. They talk Eddie (Cullen Landis), the hotel barber, and his pal Gene (Eugene Pallette) into coming with them to run a barber shop in Manhattan—Eddie even gets his mother, owner of the hotel, to give him some money to invest in the shop. Sadly, once they get to the city, they discover that the shop is a front for a speakeasy. However, Eddie is happy to catch up with old gal pal Kitty (Helene Costello), a singer at the Night Hawk, a club run by slick gangster Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman). Eddie's in love with Kitty, but Hawk has the hots for her as well, much to the disgruntlement of Hawk's long-suffering mistress Molly (Gladys Brockwell). When a cop is shot dead by one of Hawk's bootleggers, the heat is turned on and Hawk sets Eddie up to take the fall for the illegal booze and the murder.

This much-maligned crime drama is historically important as the first all-talking movie—THE JAZZ SINGER was actually mostly silent, with only a few talkie sequences. But most critics make a point of noting that the film is not that good. However, I found it watchable and interesting, even it never quite becomes compelling. Plotwise, it's an oft-told tale of the innocent rube being taken advantage of by the urban crooks, and as such, it's predictable. The romance is bland, and there isn't much action, but the camera is not completely stationary, a problem which causes some early talkies to be difficult to enjoy for modern viewers. Performances are mostly good. Cullen Landis makes for a solid leading man; he had a lengthy career in silent movies but retired from the screen a couple years later. Wheeler Oakman's name was not familiar to me, but he has over 150 screen credits to his name, mostly as henchmen in B-movies; he is fine here. Of course, Pallette of the deep croaking voice (pictured with Landis), will be very familiar to fans of 30s movies (the wealthy patriarch in MY MAN GODFREY, Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD).

There is some fun dialogue, and some lines, though probably new at the time, would quickly become clichés. When Hawk wants someone killed, he says, very dramatically, "Take him for a ride"; Eddie expresses satisfaction with "Everything’s Jake!"; when Molly's life takes a bad turn, she moans, "I've lived and I've loved and I've lost!” Earlier, when Molly sees Hawk take in interest in the younger Kitty, she calls him "a hound for chickens." Best of all is a musical number in the night club sung by Harry Downing called "At Dawning"—yes, it's about early morning sex: "When I wake up in the early morning/That's when I love her the best." There's also an overwrought death scene that is hard to watch without a chuckle or two. This movie won't be everyone’s cup of tea, but at just under an hour, I found it fun. [DVD]