Saturday, December 31, 2005


The best classic movies that I saw for the first time this year, in alphabetical order:

BEN-HUR (1925): The silent version of the Biblical epic, with Ramon Novarro. I'm trying to decide if it's worth getting the overblown Heston version on DVD just to get this as an 'extra.' (Mar.)

BORN TO BE BAD (1934): Loretta Young and Cary Grant in one of the last of the naughty pre-Code melodramas; struggling mother Young (in her best bad-girl performance) tries to seduce rich Grant away from his bride-to-be. (Feb.)

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944): Not really a holiday film, but a good noir with two stars playing against type: Deanna Durbin as a fallen woman and Gene Kelly as the murderous mother-loving thug she married. (Dec.)

DON'T TURN 'EM LOOSE (1936): Perhaps the only anti-parole propaganda film ever made. It's a little B-movie gem with Bruce Cabot doing a fine job as a paroled thug who acts like a golden boy in front of his family (including Lewis Stone as his father). (Nov.)

THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (1936): The best Marlene Dietrich movie that Dietrich never made. It's a lot like her SHANGHAI EXPRESS but with Madeleine Carroll as the good/bad lady and Gary Cooper as the hero. Funny, sexy, exciting. (July)

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1965): Pasolini's bare-bones, documentary-style take on the life of Jesus. Compelling and at times beautiful. (Mar.)

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960): A low budget French/Italian horror film with a plot that is a cross between HOUSE OF WAX and EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Acting and atmosphere make this stand out above the run-of-the-mill horror film of the time. (Oct.)

THE MODEL AND THE MARRIAGE BROKER (1951): The wonderful Thelma Ritter gets to play a lead role here as a marriage broker who comes to question her life's work, and it's a wonderful, underrated film, a comedy with some serious overtones. (Dec.)

THREE ON A MATCH (1932): Archetypal pre-Code movie with sex and crime and scandal; three former schoolmates (Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, and Joan Blondell) meet up a few years later and get involved in each other's lives. It's short, fast-paced, and lots of fun. (Technically, I'd seen this before, but remembered little about it) (Apr.)

THE WIND (1928): Silent film with Lillian Gish as a young woman stuck in a marriage of convenience fighting for survival in a barren, wind-swept part of Texas. Melodramatic, but powerful. (Apr.)

THE WOMAN ON PIER 13 (aka I MARRIED A COMMUNIST--1949): Good cross of noir thriller and anti-Communist propaganda. Stars Robert Ryan and Laraine Day are fine, but the real gem is Janis Carter as the icy blonde bad girl. (May)

I saw some good WWII movies, such as GUADALCANAL DIARY, BATAAN, SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, and THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of Shirley Temple films (BRIGHT EYES and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM) and I had fun seeing the 60's camp thriller DANGER: DIABOLIK. Other highlights included Maurice Chevalier in FOLIES-BERGERE, a fun B-movie with Gloria Stuart called WANTED: JANE TURNER, and Errol Flynn in SANTA FE TRAIL. My disappointments seemed few and far between this year, so I won't dwell on those this time. As far as recent films, it was a dry year for me. I didn't see many, and the few I genuinely liked included MYSTERIOUS SKIN, FANTASTIC FOUR, THE ARISTOCRATS, DOWNFALL, and SERENITY. CAPOTE and GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK had great acting but fell down in other areas. I haven't seen the new KING KONG yet but I have high hopes for it. The DVD release of the 1933 original was yet another wonderful package from Warner Home Video.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


I'm usually a sucker for Christmas-themed films, but this year, my cinema stocking was rather bare. My annual holiday TV-movie, CHRISTMAS IN BOSTON, on ABC Family, was pretty lame. The plot device had potential: a man and woman who have never met but have been pen-pals for years finally arrange to meet, but then chicken out and each has a friend pose as him or her. The friends wind up falling in love, and so do the pen-pals, without knowing each other's real identities until the end. The acting was OK; Patrick J. Admas fit the bill nicely as the requisite blandly handsome leading man, though I can't say much for Marla Sokoloff as his pen-pal. As an average TV-movie romance, this is pretty average; the real problem for me is that the holiday element is completely beside the point. This could have been set on Labor Day or Arbor Day or June 8th, and the film totally wastes any possibility for using holiday cheer, charm, and magic.

The Christmassy TENTH AVENUE ANGEL is a movie I've avoided watching in the past, mostly because the movie guide critics really hate it and give it one star or less. The "civilian" reviewers on IMDb, however, tend to love it and give it all the stars they can, so I broke down and watched it this year. It's not quite as bad as the professional critics say (Halliwell calls it "icky" and Maltin gives it a Bomb rating), but it's not one I'd rush to watch again. Ten-year-old Margaret O'Brien plays the title character, a whimsical Pollyanna-type who lives in the tenements and zips around on her roller skates, brightening the lives of the neighborhood residents. Her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and father (Warner Anderson), though loving parents, are secondary characters next to her aunt (Angela Lansbury) and Lansbury's boyfriend (George Murphy). Murphy has just returned home from prison (O'Brien was told he was traveling the globe) and is trying to put his life back together; his buddy at the taxi company where he used to work (Barry Nelson, with an unbecoming pencil-thin mustache) gives him a job washing cabs and promises him that, after his 6-month parole period is over and he can hold a driver's license again, he'll be back in as a driver. However, Murphy finds it hard to escape his past and decides that he shouldn't marry Lansbury and plans to leave town after parole. Meanwhile, O'Brien becomes disillusioned when she finds out that everything adults say isn't necessarily true and she starts moping around, losing her whimsical charm. At Christmas, Anderson is low on money, Thaxter is pregnant, and Murphy is tempted to join up with his crime buddies for one last heist. When Thaxter collapses, gives premature birth, and seems on the verge of death, O'Brien decides that finding a Christmas miracle will somehow help so she goes hunting for a cow at midnight on Christmas Eve to see if it will kneel like the legends say. Guess what? It does, and somehow all the other situations come to uplifting resolutions in the last 5 minutes of the movie. The folks on IMDb who love this movie are mostly Margaret O'Brien fans, and certainly O'Brien is pretty good here, doing the best she can with some artlessly sappy situations and dialogue. Murphy also does a good job, very believable as a nice guy who's trying hard to stay out of trouble and live up to the expectations of others. Rhys Williams does a decent job as a blind news seller who figures in a major subplot. Still, overall, it does lay the sentiment on a little heavily, and the Miracle of the Cow just comes off as silly. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Yikes! I sat through another Ritz Brothers movie and lived! (see my review of THE GORILLA, 4/30/05). It's not a terrible movie exactly, but the Brothers look like they're having much more fun than the audience. The main reason I watched it was to see Ethel Merman in one of her rare screen appearances, but she doesn't have much to do. The Ritzes work at a side show, giving pony rides to kids. At a horse race, they accidently bet on Playboy, a horse which comes out of nowhere to win. The horse belongs to heiress Phyllis Brooks, but her boyfriend, Richard Arlen, tired of her all-consuming interest in the horse and convinced that the win was a fluke, bets her that if Playboy doesn't win again in three months time, he gets the horse and her. The horse does prove a loser and Arlen sells the horse to the Ritzes with the stipulation that they cannot re-sell it (a lame plot device so that Brooks can't just buy it back). The brothers discover that the horse is better at steeplechase jumping than racing, and Brooks helps them to train the horse and enter it in a big race. Many plot improbabilities later, the Ritzes wind up taking the place of three Russian jockeys who are out to sabotage the race. Arlen gives in and rides Playboy to victory, with the predictable happy ending for all, except perhaps Merman, who plays a brassy babe who loves Arlen but is clearly not quite dainty and feminine enough to compete with Brooks. The Ritzes showiest bit aside from the horse race is a silly wrestling match with the Terrible Turk. One big problem with the Ritz Brothers is that they all look alike and more or less act alike; Harry is usually the Groucho figure, but he only barely stands out from the other two (Al & Jimmy). Arlen and Brooks are a fairly bland couple, though Arlen tries hard. Also featured are George Barbier as Brooks' father, Sidney Blackmer as a gambler, and Lon Chaney Jr. in a tiny part as a chauffer. Merman sings OK, but the songs are undistinguished. [TCM]

Monday, December 26, 2005


This well-regarded but hard-to-find movie is most assuredly not feel-good holiday fare. It's a downbeat film noir which begins on a miserable, stormy Christmas Eve and ends on a less stormy but quite grim Christmas night. Despite the many Christmas trappings during the film's first 20 minutes, it has an appropriately dark look throughout, even in a scene set at a cathedral during Midnight Mass. Even more so than in the average 40's Production Code film, an awful lot of the narrative and characterizations are oblique and reading (or seeing) between the lines is needed for it all to make sense. We begin as new military school graduate Dean Harens, heading off to San Francisco on Christmas furlough to get married, receives a telegram from his intended telling him she's up and married someone else. Harens decides to go on to SF, seemingly to wreck some kind of revenge, but during a ferocious storm, his plane is waylaid to New Orleans where he has to stay the night. A friendly reporter (Richard Whorf) takes the hurt and lonely kid to a night spot which is probably supposed to do double duty as a whorehouse, though of course they could not have made that crystal clear back then. The madam (Gladys George) sets the kid up with Deanna Durbin, a sad-eyed singer, and she asks him to go to Midnight Mass with her. She breaks down crying during "Adeste Fideles" and afterwards, at a late-night diner (and later in his hotel room), she tells him her sad story. In flashback, we see Durbin meet fellow music buff Gene Kelly at a symphony concert. They hit it off and soon he takes her home to meet mother, Gale Sondergaard, a former aristocrat who has hit some bad times. The mother is almost desperately happy that Kelly has shown an interest in Durbin--it seems he's "weak" and irresponsible, and she hopes that between them, they can straighten him out. After they marry, things work for a while, but one night, he kills a bookie and, despite the mother's best attempts, Kelly is caught and sent to jail, which is where he is now. Durbin and Harens part Christmas morning, and Harens decides to leave well enough alone and not confront his former finacee, but just as he is set to leave New Orleans that night, he hears that Kelly has escaped prison. He heads out to the club and is a witness to the final scene with Kelly, waving a gun at Durbin as the police close in.

Durbin is known primarily as a frothy teen star of middling musicals for Universal and many critics say she didn't have the chops for the lead here. I have never seen her in any other film, so I have no preconceptions; I think she seems a bit lightweight for a noir femme fatale, but her casting was certainly not a fatal mistake. In the beginning, she does look appropriately beaten down by life, though she comes off more like a sad waitress than a hooker. Kelly is good playing against type as a smiling, neurotic bad guy, and Sondergaard is even better as a mother from hell. Some critics note the undertones of incest and homosexuality that are present; I certainly caught the weird incestuous tinges in the reciprocated mother-son fixation, but the gay subtext is not as obvious; the only reference I caught was the mentioning of his "weakness" and the mother telling Durbin that, "between us, we will make him strong." The narrative structure is unnecessarily convoluted: the first flashback at the diner shows Kelly coming home to Durbin the night of the murder, and the rest of their story, beginning and end, is told in a second flashback. The shots of the cathedral during Midnight Mass are impressive, and are echoed in the later shots of the concert hall where Kelly and Durbin meet. Harens is OK in what is essentially the role of a passive listener, and Whorf is even better as the reporter who winds up playing a surprisingly large role in the narrative. Based on a Somerset Maugham story, though apparently the details of the characters have been changed greatly for the film. For some reason, this has never been officially released on video which is a shame, especially for noir fans.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


This is my favorite Ingmar Bergman film, and possibly his bleakest. I think it's his most beautiful looking one, with the possible exception of CRIES AND WHISPERS. In this day and age, a brief plot description for this movie might sound like a Bergman parody: on one cold, overcast winter afternoon in a stark Swedish landscape, a minister (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has a crisis of faith when he: 1) is unable to give solace to a suicidal parishioner, and 2) gives the heave-ho to his long-suffering mistress. The movie takes place in an approximation of real time, from the end of his sparsely-attended Sunday morning service to the beginning of an almost completely deserted afternoon service. During the service, the minister notes the "consolation and bliss" that his parishioners should leave with, but no one there looks happy or consoled. Afterward, a farmer (Max von Sydow) comes to Bjornstrand worried that because China has the bomb, the end of the world may be upon us. Instead of offering help, the minister expresses his own doubts about the meaning of life, and a while later, the farmer is found dead from a self-inflicted gun wound. The pastor is also forced to deal with his rather mousy mistress (Ingrid Thulin); their relationship has been dying for some time, and when she writes him a long confrontational letter (which, in a scene with startlingly intimate power, we see read by her directly to the camera), he replies by lashing out at her, agreeing with all of her comments and saying that it's time they broke it off because, basically, she's ugly and he never really liked her much anyway. The film ends as Bjornstrand prepares for an afternoon service to which no one shows up but Thulin. He questions whether or not to go on, and the movie climaxes with a conversation with another suffering individual, the hunchbacked church sexton (Allan Edwall) who talks about physical pain, loneliness, and the suffering of Jesus Christ. The movie ends with the minister beginning the service, but it does not feel like a "happy" ending for anyone. I choose to interpret it in a kind of Samuel Beckett manner: he'll go on, he can't go on, he'll go on. The movie is acted superbly by its entire small cast, which also includes Gunnel Lindblom as Sydow's wife/widow, and the black and white cinematography by Sven Nykvist is never less than stunning, even though the sets are threadbare and the landscape largely empty and forbidding. Maybe not the best Bergman film to start with if you're not already familiar with his work, but certainly one of his great films. [DVD]

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Another movie that doesn't get written up in the reference books, but which is solidly entertaining and worth watching. Adolphe Menjou is a noted opera singer and notorious ladies man, just back from Europe and about to appear in a production of "Don Giovanni." On the ship, he hears a woman sing a snatch of an aria and discovers later that it was Irene Dunne, an aspiring singer. He agrees to tutor her and soon feels she is good enough to open opposite him, which irritates diva (and former lover) Olga Baclanova. He falls in love with Dunne and, ready to renounce his philandering ways, proposes to her; she accepts even though she still has feelings for her ex, Neil Hamilton, Menjou's understudy. On opening night, their first act is an unqualified triumph, but Menjou gets an attack of laryngitis at intermission and she has to go on with Hamilton. We discover later that he is graciously stepping out of the way so she and the understudy can find true love together. It looks like Dunne does her own singing; if not, they've done a very good job with dubbing. She and Menjou are both wonderful; even though he does seem a tad too old for her and would probably wind up making her unhappy, he is still more likeable than the passive Hamilton, so the "happy" ending feels a bit perverse. Cliff Edwards is fun as the opera company's press agent and Roscoe Ates does his usual stuttering shtick as his sidekick. Ernest Torrence is a standout as Menjou's butler, who is given to talking about his boss in the first person plural; he refers to one of Menjou's past lovers as "the red-haired lady who swooned when we kissed her." There is an amusing subplot about a love/hate relationship between an older diva and a male singer whose singing always causes her dog to start barking (she says it's because the dog hates Wagner). Not necessarily a movie to hunt for, but if it shows up again on Turner Classic (perhaps on Irene Dunne's birthday), it's worth catching. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Run-of-the-mill Western which shows handsome B-leading man Wayne Morris starting to go to seed. He plays Cole Younger, one of a number of celebrated outlaws from American history. In real life, Cole and his brothers drifted into lives of crime after Union soldiers burned down his family's home and killed his father; they eventually got a kind of Robin Hood/Bonnie & Clyde reputation before they were captured during a bloody bank robbery in Minnesota. Their real story might have made an interesting movie, but this one is essentially total fiction, another in a long line of Hollywood narratives of the era in which a handsome outlaw tries to go straight, is betrayed by old companions, almost put back in jail, but redeemed at the last minute. Here, Morris and his brothers are waiting out their parole time; if they can stay out of trouble a few more weeks, they will be free for good. Unfortunately, as they ride into Cedar Creek, their reputation precedes them and they are run out of town. The chief instigator of bad feelings against the Youngers is ex-Pinkerton Fred Clark, who helped get them behind bars in the first place and resents their freedom. His wife eventually leaves him because he can't put his obsessions behind him, and Clark winds up going to Kate (Janis Paige), the sister of a former compadre of the brothers who herself now heads up a gang of small-time crooks, and gets her to try and tempt the Youngers into pulling off a robbery. Though Morris has the hots for Paige, he resists returning to his old ways, so Kate's gang goes through with the crime, with the Youngers as kidnapped scapegoats. Our boys still prevail and the pardon goes through, so Clark makes one last attempt to stop them with a lynch gang. Unlike in real life, in which the Youngers all wound up dead or in prison, here they escape in a truncated, almost comic ending. Bruce Bennett and Robert Hutton are fine as two of the brothers, Geraldine Brooks has a rather thankless role as Bennett's wife, and Alan Hale is a sheriff who is fairly sympathetic to the brothers. Morris is OK, but getting old and fleshy before his time (at 35, he looks over 40) and isn't as dashing a figure as the part calls for. [TCM]

Monday, December 12, 2005


I saw this in college in the mid-70's at a revival house and remember being quite disappointed. Seeing its stylistic cousin DANGER: DIABOLIK recently made me want to revisit this 60's pop-art comic book film. Though it's not quite a disaster, it's also not as much fun as DIABOLIK; it's not even as much fun as its posters. The movie is set thousands of years in the future when the cosmos has become a peaceful place; war and violence have somehow been banished (the very idea of conflict seems to exist only in the Museum of Conflict), and, as the Beatles once hoped, all you need is love, at least until some nut goes and ruins it all by inventing the deadly Positronic Ray. Jane Fonda is Barbarella, an intergalactic super-heroine who is called upon by the President of Earth to find the renegade scientist Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) who invented the weapon. Her sketchy, episodic adventures take her first to a planet of odd children who threaten her with mechanical dolls with razor-sharp teeth--they're a little like the scary African fetish doll that goes after Karen Black in the notorious 70's TV-movie "Trilogy of Terror." She has sex with various partners (usually consensually, but rarely with much joy) including the very hairy man who resuces her from the dolls (Ugo Tognazzi) and a nutty inventor (David Hemmings) named Dildano (with a name like that, you just *know* that sex is in the offing). She is flown about by a blind angel (the hunky John Philip Law, star of DIABOLIK) and trapped by an Evil Queen (model Anita Pallenberg, mostly famous at the time as Keith Richards' girlfriend) on a planet which has a core of molten evil, named the Mathmos. She gets tortured on a keyboard-like machine which is supposed to pleasure her to death, but her innocence defies the device. The Mathmos swallows her up, but her innocence causes it to vomit her up, and the angel flies her and the Evil Queen to safety, a somewhat ambigiously happy ending, I guess. The above description may make it sound like trashy, campy SF fun, but it's really kinda draggy. Law is nice to look at, as is Fonda, and the colorful sets and light-show effects may help keep you awake, but otherwise this movie's reputation is quite overblown. [DVD]

Saturday, December 10, 2005


I just finished reading a fairly good book about Vincent Price and his horror movie career ("Vincent Price: The Art of Fear"), and next up on my reading list is the Tab Hunter autobiography, so the arrival of this movie, which co-stars Price and Hunter, from Netflix was fortuitous, though sadly it came too late to include in my October horror-themed blog entries. Technically, this is one of American International's Poe movies, based loosely on, or more accurately, inspired by a poem called "City in the Sea," a lush description of a dead undersea city. The movie is set in a Cornish seaside village; when a girl (Susan Hart) is kidnapped, American engineer Tab Hunter and British artist David Tomlinson go in search of her and wind up sucked down through a small whirlpool into an undersea castle, part of a mostly abandoned city on the sea floor which is currently being lived in by Vincent Price and his band of smugglers. They have been there for over one hundred years, their lives extended through an odd mix of elements in the air (pretty lame reasoning for a plot gimmick which isn't even really necessary to the narrative). Some "gill-men," decayed, Lovecraftian descendents of the city's original occupants, also live there, and one of them was responsible for kidnapping Hart, whom Price believes is a reincarnation of his dead wife. However, a nearby undersea volcano threatens the existence of the city and Price gets Hunter to try and find a way to stave off the inevitable. Naturally, the volcano explodes and our intrepid trio manages to escape at the last minute. The low-budget film looks pretty good--the cityscape, though obviously a miniature or a matte painting, is very cool, the sets are fine, and the color scheme of saturated reds and greens works nicely. Price, playing a Captain Nemo type, isn't at the top of his game, and Hunter, handsome as he is, doesn't give a single line reading that rings true (for that matter, neither does Hart). Most critics don't care for Tomlinson's work here (he's best known as Mr. Banks in MARY POPPINS), but given that it's a comic relief role and nothing else, he throws himself admirably into the part and I think he's actually one of few bright spots in the film, though I did get tired of him carting around his pet chicken. The gill-men are shabby cut-rate versions of the famous Creature from the Black Lagoon and aren't really scary for a second. Nevertheless, the movie does work up some occasionally interesting atmosphere, and the print on the MGM disc is in great shape. The last feature film credit for great genre director Jacques Tourneur. [DVD]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

BOYS' RANCH (1946)

This MGM programmer seems largely inspired by their own earlier BOYS TOWN, and taken as as a B-movie version, it isn't bad, though the prime era for this kind of film was past by 1946 and it feels a little tired, like everyone's just going through the paces. Still, I guess I have a thing for B-lead James Craig who carries the day here as a smalltime baseball player who, knowing he'll never make first string, retires and heads off with his wife, Dorothy Patrick, to make a living on their Texas ranch. After his last game, two of his teenage fans, Skip Homeier and Darryl Hickman, get busted for delinquency and, rather than see them sent off to reform school, Craig takes legal custody of them and attempts to get them jobs on a nearby ranch. When that doesn't work out, and the boys are about to fall in with a local gang of delinquents, he works out a deal with a landowner (Ray Collins) to set up a ranch for wayward boys that he and his wife will run. They agree to operate it for a one-year trial period before Collins will permanently donate the land; things go well for most of the time, though Skip is a constant pain in the ass to both the adults and the other boys, and soon turns into an accomplished thief. Near the end of the trial period, the boys hold a community rodeo to show how successful the enterprise has been, but when a good chunk of prize money is stolen, all signs point to Homeier and the future of the ranch is in doubt. Hickman, who has been doing double duty to cover up for Homeier's slacking, winds up unconscious in the desert during a heavy rainstorm and Homeier, ready to hit the road with his loot, redeems himself by returning to help save his buddy. Craig and Hickman are particularly good, though Homeier doesn't quite cut it, sounding whiny and childish rather than tough and truly threatening. However, the weakest cast member is the top-billed child actor Jackie "Butch" Jenkins who hit it big as a 6-year-old playing Mickey Rooney's little brother in THE HUMAN COMEDY. At 9, his sleepy-eyed, slow-tongued shtick doesn't wear well and, though he improves has the film goes along, he still slows things down and the film would have played better if his part had been trimmed a bit. Craig grows a mustache halfway through the movie, supposedly to look more authoritative to the boys, but I suspect it had more to do with other films he was shooting. According to IMDb, the concept for the story was based on a real place, Cal Farley's Boys Ranch near Amarillo, which still exists. [TCM]

Sunday, December 04, 2005


This is a delightful little gem, directed by the great George Cukor and co-written by Charles Brackett (SUNSET BLVD., BALL OF FIRE), which has gone quite underrated and should be out on DVD along with most of the rest of the films of its star, Thelma Ritter. Here Ritter plays the marriage broker of the title, eking out a living in the Flatiron Building in New York City by attempting, without the help of today's computers, to match up desperate single people by inviting pairs who might hit it off to sedate Sunday afternoon tea parties at her home. The folks who come to Ritter tend to be homely and lonely, and though the matchmaking is seen humorously, the people themselves are treated sympathetically. The lonely singles include the tall, gawky Nancy Kulp (10 years before she became Miss Hathaway on "The Beverly Hillbillies"), Frank Fontaine doing a slow-witted character very much like his drunken Crazy Guggenheim on "The Jackie Gleaon Show," and Zero Mostel. One subplot involves a woman (Helen Ford) who stole Ritter's husband from her years ago. Now that he's died, she's rich but lonely, she comes to Ritter for help, and they strike up an unlikely alliance. The focus of the plot, however, is on the model of the title (Jeanne Crain) who happens upon Ritter by accident; she's getting out of a relationship with a married man and Ritter, out of the goodness of her heart, tries surreptitiously to hook her up with doctor Scott Brady, who has just stood up the bride with whom Ritter fixed him up. Things go well for a while, but when Crain finds out what's been happening, she resents Ritter's meddling and tells her off, which leads Ritter to question her entire enterprise. There is a happy ending which involves Crain herself becoming a matchmaker for Ritter, but much of the film has a subtle tinge of sadness which makes it stand out from the typical romantic comedy of the era. Ritter is excellent, as she always is, and this is one of the few films in which she has the central role rather than a juicy supporting part. Brady and Crain are attractive and fine in their roles; Brady especially is just quirky enough to be interesting. There are choice bits from character actors Jay C. Flippen and Dennie Moore. This is well worth poring over the schedule of Fox Movie Channel to catch. [FMC]

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

PURSUIT (1935)

Tight, fast-paced film which provides a nice showcase for one of my favorite B-leads, Chester Morris. He plays a pilot who is being paid to deliver 6-year-old Scotty Beckett (one of the Little Rascals), a child in the middle of a nasty custody battle, to Mexico to stay with his birth mother. Along with Beckett for the ride is Sally Eilers, who is working for middleman C. Henry Gordon, but they never make it up in the air after the prop plane takes off with the kid in it alone and Morris has to jump in and crash it into a barn to save the kid. The three take off in a car for Tijuana and have a series of mostly comical misadventures, some of which involve getting handcuffed to each other and being followed by snoopy Henry Travers, who is out for some reward money. They dress the boy up as a girl to throw Travers off the track, and a pregnant dog named Perfume provides other diversions. Once they get near the border to meet Gordon and the mother (Dorothy Peterson), Gordon tries to pull a double cross to get the reward money, which is substantially more than he'll get from Peterson, but there's a happy ending in store involving the trio dressing in blackface and driving across the border in an old jalopy in full view of Gordon. Normally, I prefer some decent characterization and backstory, but here the fact that we are given very little background about the characters works well with the short timeframe (the hour-long movie takes place over just 2 days time). Morris and Eilers work up some good B-level chemistry, the kid is fine, and Erville Alderson does a nice comic turn as a befuddled cop. [TCM]

Sunday, November 27, 2005


As Biblical epics go, this one is too serious to be campy fun like Cecil B. DeMille's renowned films, and it's not "epic" enough to be compared to THE ROBE, so it winds up occupying a not terribly interesting middle ground. The narrative begins with King David (Gregory Peck) and the Israelites at war with the Ammonites. After a successful battle, David returns home, leaving his trusted captain Uriah (Kieron Moore) at the front; despite having a number of wives, David lusts for Uriah's wife Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) after he sees her bathing from his balcony. Soon they are in the midst of a heated affair and Bathsheba gets pregnant, which is a problem since her husband has been gone for over a year. Since the penalty for adultery is stoning the woman to death (the man appears to get away scot-free), David devises a plan to get Uriah back for at least one night so that her condition will not be suspicious. However, despite a kind of consciousness-raising talk from David about keeping his wife happy, Uriah instead spends the night sitting up and waiting for his next battleground orders. David then issues secret plans to have Uriah isolated in the forefront of the fighting so he'll be killed, then David can marry his widow. The plan works, but when sandstorms and drought hit Israel (and Bathsheba's baby dies soon after its delivery), holy man Nathan (Raymond Massey) interprets the events as signs of God's displeasure with David's sins, and the people rise up to demand the death of Bathsheba. In the climax, David spends a dark night of the soul communing with God before the Ark of the Covenant, and we see flashbacks to some of his legendary deeds, including the defeat of Goliath. Finally, David leans forward to touch the sacred Ark--an act that we have seen can cause death--and instead of David being struck down, drenching rains bring an end to Israel's suffering, and David and Bathsheba live happily ever after, one assumes. Peck is handsome and, when he appears toward the end in a scruffy beard and sackcloth, he's actually kinda sexy. Hayward is appealing, Massey has an appropriate fire-and-brimstone attitude, and Jayne Meadows, whom I know mostly from her appearances on "What's My Line?" does a surprisingly good job as one of David's conniving wives. George Zucco and Francis X. Bushman have small roles. The production, though not exactly opulent, is satisfactory; the print I saw on Fox Movie Channel was murky and in need of restoration. [FMC]

Friday, November 25, 2005


Just a few days ago, I dissed Bruce Cabot as the leading man in SINNER TAKE ALL. Now I have to note how much I liked him as the lead in this B-crime movie with a unique propaganda twist: it's basically an anti-parole movie. The film opens at a parole hearing for convict Cabot. His sad-looking wife shows up with a baby in tow and helps convince the board to free him, but we find out that the woman is an actress and the baby is rented. Cabot is whisked off to his mistress (Grace Bradley) and continues his life of crime by robbing a dairy company and killing a guard in the process. Then he spends a few weeks visiting his small-town family who think he's an important traveling businessman (Cabot has his henchman Frank Jenks send them postcards from foreign countries to strengthen the illusion). While visiting, he pulls off a jewelry store robbery to get a bracelet for Bradley, and cop James Gleason, who has been after Cabot all along, figures out what's what. He finds Bradley and blackmails her (with incriminating phone calls to another lover) into helping catch him. Cabot winds up behind bars again for possessing a gun while on parole, but pulls off a clever escape, just long enough to gun down Bradley in cold blood, then gets back to jail where eventually he comes up for parole again. The twist this time is that his father, Lewis Stone, is now a member of the parole board. When his son comes before him (under an assumed name), he is shocked. Cabot gets Stone to agree to let him off in exchange for never contacting the family again, but the son returns to town for one last heist, on the eve of his sister's wedding. The finale is appropriately vicious and satisfying. Cabot is convincing both as a brutal thug and as a nice all-American boy. Stone and Gleason are fine as usual. Betty Grable is Cabot's sister, Louise Latimer is his almost homely small-town girlfriend, John Arledge is Grable's fiance, and Nella Walker is Stone's wife. This little B-gem has been ignored by Maltin and Halliwell, but it's worth catching the next time it crops up on Turner Classic. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


An almost completely fictionalized version of the last days of notorious outlaw William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. The real-life Kid was only 21 when he was killed, and Robert Taylor, who plays him here, was 30 at the time, and looked even older, but if you put out of your head any idea that this movie has anything in common with history, you can enjoy it. It's established early on that Taylor's father died from being shot in the back, and Taylor now has a something of a mania about that. We first see the Kid break his Mexican buddy Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail in a small frontier town. The two wind up in the middle of a local brouhaha. Town big shot Gene Lockhart runs not just the saloon and the general store, but also the puppet sherrif (Cy Kendall) and judges, and he is trying to stop British cattleman Ian Hunter from selling his cattle to the Army and undercutting his own prices. First, Lockhart hires Taylor on his side, but during a nighttime cattle stampede, Taylor runs into Brian Donlevy, a childhood friend, who is working for Hunter and soon Taylor is, too. This doesn't sit well with Lockhart and his men, who kill Pedro to prod Taylor into a rash act. Donlevy talks him into acting with caution, but when Hunter, who has just been named marshal, is shot to death (and in the back), Taylor can't be stopped, leading to a predictably sad ending. Most critics think Taylor was too old and too glossy for the part, but if you take this as just a movie about an outlaw anti-hero and forget that it's supposed to be based on fact, I think Taylor is fine, as is Donlevy, and neither of them is usually a favorite of mine. The supporting cast standout is Lockhart, as he so often is. Also present are Henry O'Neill (fine as a reporter who stands with Hunter and Taylor) and Mary Howard (colorless as Hunter's sister, and briefly, Taylor's love interest). Familiar faces in smaller roles include Chill Wills, Ethel Griffes, Lon Chaney Jr., Joe Yule, and Grant Withers. The film was nominated for an Oscar for color cinematography, and it does indeed often look ravishing, with some scenes shot on location in Utah's Monument Valley. Even though the studio scenes can't match that, as a whole the movie looks quite good. [TCM]

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Although the title promises a titillating pre-Code movie, this is really a tame drawing room comedy of manners which is quite fun until it takes a turn toward rather drippy melodrama in its last 15 minutes. A British family of lords and ladies is thrown into disarray when they read in the papers that young son Ralph Forbes plans on marrying musical comedy star Ruth Chatterton. It's already bad enough that a cousin, Basil Rathbone, has been carrying on with a married woman who feels she can't leave her invalid husband, but this latest development threatens to send Lord Willie (Herbert Bunston) and assorted relatives through the roof. The family meets Chatterton and, assuming she's a gold digger who has tricked Forbes into a proposal, decides to test her: they say they will OK the marriage if she retires from the stage and comes to live with them for a few months, hoping that Forbes will tire of her during that time. What they don't know is that Forbes is the one who forced the marriage issue by planting an item in the press; Chatterton herself isn't as gung-ho as the family thinks, and even her own father doesn't want her to leave the stage. Over a few weeks' time, she wins most of the family members over, even Lord Willie, but also finds herself falling for Rathbone. The two plan to run off together, but when Rathbone's mistress's husband dies, plans change for everyone.

This has all the strengths (nice set, good writing) and weaknesses (awkward scene transitions, flubbed lines left in) of the early sound MGM movies. The cast is especially good here, even the usually weak Forbes. Bunston (Dr. Seward in the 1931 DRACULA) does a nice job as a pompous fuddy-duddy who slowly warms to Chatterton's charms, even doing an ass-slapping dance to a jazzy gramophone record. Fredrick Kerr is quite funny as Lord Trench, the most snobbish but also the funniest of the family, especially when he gets drunk on "gully washers." His best line (among many candidates) is when someone suggests that, when Chatterton enters, "we all look horrified," to which he replies, "That won't be hard with my wife in the room." McKenzie Ward is the effete cousin Ernest whose breathing exercises are always bothering someone. Though not a musical, the movie does begin and end with Chatterton in a fancy production number. This film is more evidence that Chatterton has been unfairly forgotten by today's audiences. [TCM]

Saturday, November 19, 2005


An MGM B-mystery without much to recommend it aside from a rare screen appearance by real-life reporter (and "What's My Line" panelist) Dorothy Kilgallen, who has about 2-1/2 lines as a "girl reporter" who lends a hand to our hero at the climax. The plot involves a former reporter (Bruce Cabot) who now works as an assistant to lawyer George Zucco, who himself works for the Lampier family, who own the paper for which Cabot used to work. When the family starts getting death threats, the editor of the paper (Stanley Ridges) re-hires Cabot, leaving him working on the case from two perspectives. Two of the sons are killed, one by poison and one in a car crash (though at least one of them may still be alive but in hiding), and suspicion falls on the daughter (Margaret Lindsay) who seems to have the most to gain financially with the others out of the way. Another suspect is Joseph Calleia, shady owner of the Green Lantern night club, who may be having an affair with the editor's wife. If that's true, then the editor is also a suspect. And the final suspect is Zucco, who is almost always a suspect in any movie he's in. The outcome of the mystery plays out nicely, but the film's effectiveness is undercut by the wooden performance of Cabot. Lindsay, Zucco, and Calleia are fine, and it's interesting to see Charley Grapewin, kindly Uncle Henry in WIZARD OF OZ, playing a rich old man with a nasty disposition. The highlight of the movie is a scene near the end in which we see a shadowy figure hiding on top of an elevator in order to sneak into Grapewin's room and throw the old man off a balcony. Not a bad movie, but one that would have been much better with a more charismatic male lead. [TCM]

Sunday, November 13, 2005


This is often cited as one of the most beautiful looking films of all time, and it definitely is a feast for the eyes. As a drama, it has its moments, though the story of repressed passions is not far removed from typical Hollywood psychological melodrama. Deborah Kerr is a young nun who is made Mother Superior of a new nunnery in the Himalayas, in a small castle high up on a cliff overlooking a village. The property has been donated by an Indian general so that the sisters will run a school and hospital, and we find out early on that the place was once a palace for royal courtesans and that a previous group of priests that had been stationed there didn't last long. The British agent in the area (David Farrar) predicts that Kerr's nuns won't last, either. The building is filled with huge open windows and a chilly wind is constantly blowing through, day and night. Things start off well when the natives show up en masse, the adults at the hospital and the youngsters at school, but Kerr is disappointed to find out that they have been paid to do so by the general. Over time, the nuns become more or less undone by the various distractions of the sensual atmosphere. Flora Robson, in charge of the garden, winds up planting lovely flowers rather than the utilitarian vegetables that were planned. Both Kerr and the younger Kathleen Byron are attracted to Farrar (who frequently dresses in skimpy khaki shorts and a shirt open to his stomach) which leads to tensions between the two. A young native woman (Jean Simmons) who is in danger of getting a reputation as a harlot is brought to the sisters by Farrar, and she begins a romance with the Young General (Sabu), who is taking classes with the children. The natives turn hostile after one nun attends to a sick child who dies soon after. Eventually, Byron goes a little mad from her repressed desires, leading to a climax that, in use of sound, music, and visuals is very much like the climax to Hitchcock's VERTIGO.

As most critics note, the movie looks ravishing from first moment to last, and it's all the more astonishing when you realize that it was all shot on studio sets. It never looks studio-bound, and it achieves its atmospheric effects with more artistry than today's computer-generated tricks. The characters are a little underdeveloped; of the nuns, only Kerr gets any kind of backstory, and what’s there is slight--we learn through a handful of flashbacks that she came to her vocation after being jilted by a man whom she had loved for years. Farrar looks nice without a shirt, but the character suffers from a lack of background or a consistent personality. Byron wins acting honors for her descent into madness, but Kerr is good as well. I especially like her in the beginning, when her Mother Superior tells her she is getting charge of the new nunnery--we can't tell if she's happy or angry or excited or frightened; we get a strong sense of a woman trying very hard to repress her feelings. May Hallatt provides some weird comic relief as the native caretaker, but her acting style is overblown and her dialogue sounds dubbed in by someone else, which is a bit distracting. I've only seen this movie twice, and I suspect it's the kind of film that would richly reward repeated viewings. There are some bad video prints out there, so try to get the Criterion DVD or see it on Turner Classic Movies. [TCM]

Thursday, November 10, 2005


You could say that this movie was 50 years ahead of its time, as it plays out a little like "CSI: Boston," or as my partner put it when he saw me watching this on Turner Classic Movies, "CSI: TCM." It does a nice job of balancing the genres of police procedural and film noir. The opening segment is pure noir: a blonde bad girl comes to no good end. Trampy Jan Sterling is in a jam with her rent money (and, as we find out later, she's also pregnant) and after she calls her married lover to arrange a meeting to get some money, she promises nosy landlady Elsa Lanchester she'll get the money the next day. However, at the Grass Skirt bar, the lover doesn't show, so Sterling picks up drunken Marshall Thompson, a poor slob whose sick wife is in the hospital having just lost her baby. He takes her out to Hyannis where she ditches him, stealing his car to confront her lover (Edmon Ryan) who promptly shoots her dead and dumps her and the car into the water. Some time later, Sterling's skeleton washes up at Cape Cod and police detective Ricardo Montalban has to find out who she is and who killed her. He solicits the help of Harvard forensics professor Bruce Bennett who uncovers clues from the bones of the victim. A web of circumstantial evidence begins to tighten around Thompson, who is arrested on suspicion of murder, but landlady Lanchester puts 2 and 2 together first and tries to blackmail the real killer. All this leads to an exciting chase at a train station with justice prevailing in the end. Montalban is quite good in the lead, and Lanchester steals all her scenes playing against her usual dithering type as a greedy and fairly cold-blooded schemer. Sally Forrest, second billed as Thompson's wife, doesn't have much to do until toward the end. Willard Waterman has an amusing bit as a mortician and old pal of the deceased. The issues of race and class are brought up briefly when the rich blueblood Ryan casts aspersions on the "upstart" Hispanic Montalban; it's a short and subtle but effective scene. I have no idea how the title fits in. Recommended. [TCM]

Monday, November 07, 2005


A strange example of the "exotic" romantic melodrama, quite popular back in the day. When it was released, it was probably seen as a lesson in tolerance, but now its message comes off as somewhat offensive, though it does make for an interesting viewing experience. Richard Barthelmess, an actor without a drop of exotic "otherness" in him, plays Sam Lee, a young Chinese man who can pass for Caucasian. After getting dissed by some college girls when they find out that he is Chinese, he leaves school and goes back home to San Francisco and his father, successful businessman Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren), who counsels him that only tolerance can combat prejudice. Sam goes out on his own, works below deck on an ocean liner, is befriended by author Claude King, and winds up assisting him on a book. Living a relatively high life in France, he meets soap heiress Allana (Constance Bennett) who takes a shine to him, until she finds out he's Chinese, when she whips him across the face with a riding crop in public at the Casino Royale (a scene similar to one in Clara Bow's CALL HER SAVAGE, reviewed 5/24/04). Sam winds up back in San Francisco to take over the family business when his father dies. Allana wants him back but he'll have nothing to do with her, so she drowns her sorrows in a life of dissolution. Eventually Sam finds out that he was actually a Caucasian foundling who was adopted by a Chinese couple. That leads to a theoretically happy ending for the two, though the resolution--as long as he's white, he's alright--will leave a bad taste in modern viewers' mouths. There's a flashback scene which was filmed in Technicolor, but in the Turner Classic print, it looks like it's tinted pink. Frank Albertson plays the potentially interesting character of Ticker, Sam's college buddy, though he vanishes after the first 15 minutes. Mildred Van Dorn, as the father's secretary, gives Sam a Catholic scapula (saying it can't hurt to mix religions) and uses the worst come-and-go Irish accent ever. As far as I can tell, there is precisely one Asian actor with a speaking role (King Ho Chang as Sam's assistant) though the experience must have traumatized him as he never appeared in another movie. The direction is stagy and awkward though some of the sets are cool, especially a huge round door in Sam's house. Neither lead is at his or her best: Barthelmess is way too old to play a college-age boy and Bennett is rather lackluster except for her brief whipping scene. [TCM]

Saturday, November 05, 2005


In my youth (late 60's-early 70's), I was a rabid comic book fan, with hundreds of them stacked around the basement, in order by title and issue number (and they're still there--thanks, Mom!) and I remain fascinated by what is referred to as the Silver Age of comic books. Comic book movies get made regularly now, with huge budgets and big stars, but back in the 60's, they were few and far between, were usually low-budget affairs, and were, in line with the zeitgeist, quite campy and not to be taken seriously. BARBARELLA is probably the best known comics-related film of that era, but this one is much better. It certainly does the best job replicating the comic-book reading experience on screen of any film until the recent X-Men and Spider Man movies. Based on an Italian series, the main character is a super villain known only as Diabolik (John Phillip Law). The episodic narrative, which feels like a string of separate stories from a run of comic book issues, follows Law as he steals from the rich and gives to himself and his sexy partner (Marisa Mell). The opening segment has an armored car company attempting to thwart a possible hijackikng by substituting waste paper for 10 million dollars and sending the real money in a diplomat's Rolls-Royce, but Law manages to waylay the car (using psychedelic fog pumped out of his own Batmobile-type car), snatch it up in the air via magnet, and get the money. We then follow him through a long drive to his underground lair, like the Batcave but much cooler, where he and Mell have sex on a huge circular bed, on top of and covered by the money. This scene is probably the peak of the film in terms of camp appeal. Among the other "episodes": Law dons a skintight cat-burglar suit to scale a tower and steal a priceless necklace; Law and Mell attend a press conference by the Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas in a brief comic-relief role) and let loose Exhilaration Gas (after taking Anti-Exhiliration Gas Pills) which leaves the whole crowd in helpless giggles; Law rescues Mell from gangster Adolfo Celi, then drops him mid-air from a parachute to his death; Law blows up lots of government buildings (in a scene reminiscent of the conclusion of Fight Club, and, of course, of the events of 9/11); Law steals all of the government's gold, melted down into a 20-ton ingot. In the end, Law's arch-enemy, police inspector Michel Piccoli, seems to get the upper hand when a spray of molten gold covers Law, and Piccoli leaves him for dead, but a last literal wink at the audience lets us know that a sequel could be forthcoming (though it never happened). The movie is lots of fun, and the comic-book style (lots of fast cuts and close-ups) adds to that, but the amoral nature of the anti-hero made me a little uncomfortable--Law is out for himself alone, and doesn't mind killing anyone in his way. Aside from that little moral quibble, this is great fun if you're in a 60's fantasy mood. [DVD]

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I've never read the "Anne" books and I don't think I've ever seen a version of "Heidi" all the way through (though I have seen a couple of Shirley Temple films) so I'm not really an expert on the Orphan Melodrama, but this seems like a perfectly charming example of the genre. The actress Anne Shirley plays the orphan Anne Shirley (the actress's name was Dawn O'Dea but she changed it when this movie came out) who is adopted by Marilla (Helen Westley) and her brother Matthew (O.P. Heggie); they wanted a boy to help out around the farm, and when a whimsical little drama queen (she proclaims that her red hair is her "lifelong sorrow") shows up, they're not sure they want to keep her, but she soon wins them over. The rest of the episodic story follows her adventures living on Prince Edward Island. She has an amusing row with a gossipy neighbor (well played by Sara Haden), gets caught in a lie about being friends with a recent graduate, and, over the period of a few years, has a romance with fellow student Gilbert Blythe (Tom Brown). Their rocky relationship begins when she smashes a slate over his head because he makes fun of her hair. When she decides she wants to get his attention at a hayride, he ignores her, but later he comes to her rescue during a rafting mishap (she's floating along pretending to be the Lady of Shallot). They start seeing each other in secret because Marilla won't allow Anne to see Gilbert (many years ago, Matthew was jilted by Gilbert's mother and Marilla assumes that incident is his lifelong sorrow). Eventually, Anne is sent off to college, and just as she's about to graduate, she learns that Matthew is sick. She comes back home and arranges for Gilbert, now an assistant to a renowned heart doctor, to care for Matthew, leading to a happy ending all around. It's a sweet movie without being cloying or sentimental, and part of the credit for that goes to Westley and Heggie who both nicely underplay their roles. Shirley is fun, Brown is hunky in a mid-1930's way, and Haden does her usual spinster turn to a tee. [TCM]

Monday, October 31, 2005

DRACULA (1931)

This is the first horror movie I ever saw, somewhere around the tender age of 7, and it led me to become an avid "monster movie" fan: I stayed up late Friday nights for Chiller Theater, I subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland (back during its glory days in the mid-60's), and I started reading all the sci-fi and horror stories I could get my hands on. Made at the dawn of the sound era, the movie hasn't aged all that well, and I can understand most of the criticisms that are raised against it today by viewers and critics (too slow, too talky, too stiffly acted), but I remain quite fond of it, both as a period piece and as an occasionally genuinely creepy mood piece. The film is not taken directly from Bram Stoker's novel, but from a popular stage adaptation (which I saw performed by a local theater group when I was a pup), and this explains the staginess of most of the movie, in which people stand on a set and talk, and the camera moves slightly to keep people in frame. But the first 15 minutes or so are wildly different from the rest of it, and that part of the movie is what keeps me coming back again and again, every October, or any stormy night when I want to feel the same creepy thrills I did when I was 7.

The plot, the basic outline of which has been used in countless vampire stories over the century, probably doesn't need a detailed summary: lawyer Renfield (Dwight Frye) visits Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Transylvania to wrap up a deal to rent Carfax Abbey in London, but the count is a vampire who bites Renfield and turns him into an unwilling slave. In London, Dracula grows strong with the fresh blood of young women and he becomes friendly with Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina (Helen Chandler). After Dracula begins supping on Lucy's blood, she wastes away and dies, but there are reports that she has returned from the dead, walks at night, and feeds on young children. Mina shows similar symptoms, but her fiance (David Manners) and Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) do research on vampires, conclude that their new neighbor Count Dracula is to blame, and fight him for Mina's body and soul. There is no denying that by the halfway point, the film has become slow and talky, though there is some pleasure to be had seeing Chandler, in her semi-vampiric state, trying to sex up Manners, and watching Lugosi and Van Sloan in their brief battle of wills. In the Transylvania segment, however, a spectacularly spooky atmosphere is set up thanks to several elements: the fabulous sets, not just the cobweb-filled castle but also the roadside inn and the wild landscape of Borgo Pass; the fluid camerawork by Karl Freund (later the director of THE MUMMY); the relatively minimal use of dialogue; and the mannered acting of both Lugosi and Frye. Lugosi, with his almost otherworldly accent and inflections, and his brightly lit, theatrical glare, created a character type which is still the default (for re-creation or re-invention) for anyone playing a vampire. Frye's wild lunatic after-the-bite Renfield is so well remembered that it comes as a bit of a shock to see how ordinary he is before the bite, and I might add that the most horrific moment of the film for many is the shot of Frye, laughing insanely, down in the hold of the death ship which carries Dracula to London. I suspect Tod Browning wasn't really a very good director--though I like this and his later FREAKS, both are good almost in spite of some of his problematic directorial choices. Still, at the moments when it all comes together, the horror genre doesn't get any better. The Universal DVD print looks OK but is not as pristine as one would wish; however, it does have has a fantastic audio commentary by David J. Skal, author of a couple of great books, "V is for Vampire," and "The Horror Show." This is the movie I'll be watching tonight after the trick-or-treaters have left (and then maybe a chaser of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT). [DVD]

Sunday, October 30, 2005


A sub-B-grade horror movie with a B+ cast. In a German village, people are dying in the night, drained of blood, with bite marks on their necks. The Burgermeister and other town officals believe the deaths are the work of either a human vampire or one of the bats that flock (is that the right word for bats?) about the village, in a clip of what I assume is stock footage that we see over and over again. Policeman Melvyn Douglas, however, assumes a deranged human is at work. Could it be village idiot Dwight Frye? Could it be kindly scientist Lionel Atwill? Could it be his lovely assistant (Fay Wray), who is sweet on Douglas? [Spoiler ahead!!] Frye is the obvious choice for a while, given his spooky demeanor and his habit of keeping a live bat in his coat pocket and petting it occasionally, and in fact he does get hunted down by the torch-wielding villagers, but of course it's really Atwill; he has created a blob of living tissue and needs human blood to keep it alive, so he sends his brutish assistant Emil (Robert Frazer) out to gather the blood. A few critics, relying on faulty information, write that the movie is about a scientist trying to invent a blood substitute (it isn't), and that Wray does her usual screaming (as far as I remember, she doesn't scream once, though a few other folks do, including Atwill's meddling aunt, Maude Eburne). The first ten minutes or so of the movie are nicely done, with bats and shadows and scared villagers, but soon the low production budget becomes too obvious, although the actors all go through their paces nicely. Frye is essentially playing a variation on his Renfield from DRACULA (with a bit of Lenny from "Of Mice and Men," which hadn't been written yet) and he is the most colorful cast member. Aside from the shots of the flocking bats, the most memorable shot is one that begins as a close-up on the pulsating sponge-like tissue and pans out to show us Atwill's latest victim strapped to a table to be drained of blood. Overall, not a bad choice for an October evening, even if winds up being more a mystery than a horror film. [TCM]

Saturday, October 29, 2005


I've enjoyed most of the Wheeler & Woolsey comedies I've seen so far; this one is perhaps the least funny but it still has its moments. It plays out very much like an Abbot and Costello movie, and, for all I know, may have been one of the inspirations for the A&C horror spoofs from the 40's and 50's that I grew up on. Despite the title, there isn't much here involving mummies until the last few minutes. One by one, the members of a archeological team which was involved in the excavation of the tomb of King Pharmatine are dying, supposedly because of a curse, so Prof. Browning (Frank M. Thomas) and his associate (Moroni Olsen) decide to return their spoils to the tomb. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey play ditch diggers who take a job with them, and along the way, Wheeler gets sweet on Thomas's daughter (Barbara Pepper, looking a lot like the young Sally Struthers). When they get to the tomb, it turns out (of course) that there's a very earthly villain who is after a secret stash; once in the tomb, he wraps himself up as a mummy in order to scare away the others. That's it for the plot, and it's a shame, because the twist here of an attempt to return tomb spoils is interesting and might have led to a good horror/action film. The two leads do their usual shtick, with maybe a little less energy this time around. Wheeler has a condition that involves him constantly forgetting things, and needing to take a nap in order to remember; Woolsey has the map of the tomb location tattooed on Wheeler's back because he keeps forgetting it. At one point, they don harem girl drag. Black comic Willie Best has a few good gags. Overall, it's a long 70 minutes. [TCM]


Perfectly serviceable comedy-thriller, typical of the strong Warner Brothers B-movie output of the time. Wayne Morris is an engineer in financial trouble who takes an offer of a thousand dollars from rich dowager Helen Westley to pose as the fiance of her granddaughter (Alexis Smith). He thinks it's all a publicity stunt, but it turns out that four of Smith's previous fiances have all met with death or disaster (one, David Bruce, is still alive but relegated to living in an iron lung) and Morris is intended to be bait to draw the killer out in the open. With help from nosy reporter Brenda Marshall, Morris decides to launch his own investigation before he becomes bad-luck fiance #5. The elaborate "old dark house" setting is a plus, as are the leading performers who throw themselves into the hijinks with enthusiasm. Willie Best, as Morris's secretary (passed off as a valet at the mansion), manages to go through the often degrading paces of the scared black sidekick with some of his dignity intact. Alan Hale is good as a cocky butler and Lee Patrick and Charles Halton have some fun with their supporting roles. The villain of the title has a genuinely creepy appearance and generally the scares work better than the laughs, though the short film is no trouble at all to sit through, especially with the hunky Morris, the spunky Marshall, and the lovely Smith to watch. [TCM]

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Despite its title and the presence of Bela Lugosi in a small, almost totally silent role, this is not a horror movie as much as a fairly decent mystery with some spooky atmosphere, though with a running time of only 60 minutes, it isn't developed well enough to be truly satisfying. When Sir Karrell is found dead with bite marks on his neck, the villagers suspect a couple of vampires (Bela Lugosi as Count Mora and Carroll Borland as Luna, his daughter--great character names!). Not everyone believes this, but when Sir Karrell's grave is found to be empty, Prof. Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) goes into Van Helsing mode to save the life of Karrell's daughter (Elizabeth Allan). It turns out (Spoiler!!) that the whole vampire thing (combined with a far-fetched hypnosis trick) is a ruse to smoke out the real killer. I don't really mind that the vampires aren't real--although the movie cheats by objectively showing us some supernatural events which couldn't have possibly have happened (particularly good for its day is a shot of a flying bat transforming into Borland). What I mind are the plot loopholes and lack of characterization. It has its stylish moments, and Borland's look must have inspired Charles Addams when he created Morticia. Also in the cast: Lionel Atwill, Donald Meek, and Jean Hersholt. Tod Browning directed, and the script was based on his silent film (now lost) LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT with Lon Chaney. [TCM]


This is the first of three movies featuring Paula, the Wild Woman, or the Ape Woman, or just Paula--I guess she never got popular enough for a catchy nickname like the other cool Universal monsters of the day. From what I've read, this is the best of the bunch. It's an OK way to pass an hour, but I can see why Paula never caught on. Mad doctor John Carradine, who works at a sanitarium where the weather always seems to be gusty and treacherous, performs experiments on a tame circus gorilla, using female hormones and, eventually, a brain, to turn the gorilla into a mute woman (Acquanetta, in one of the first of her handful of exotic roles in B-movies) whom he names Paula Dupree. She shows an affinity with circus animals and becomes an assistant to lion tamer Milburn Stone (of later "Gunsmoke" fame). Soon, Acquanetta's animal instincts get the better of her when she becomes jealous of Stone's girlfriend (another Universal B-queen, Evelyn Ankers) and begins "devolving" (years before Devo). The makeup on Acquanetta is good, and she does have an interesting presence, but little else about the movie is compelling. Footage of circus great Clyde Beatty handling lions is inserted occasionally, and since Stone does have the look and stature of Beatty, the substitution works well. In fact, this footage is really the highlight of the film. Ray Corrigan, a stuntman who became famous in a B-western series playing a version of himself called Crash Corrigan, is in the ape suit. Martha Vickers (the slutty sister in THE BIG SLEEP) and Fay Helm are two damsels in distress. This rather mild monster melodrama does not inspire me to seek out its sequels, but since I already own the second film, JUNGLE WOMAN, I guess I'll have to catch it some night. [VHS]

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


There's been a lot of critical attention given to this fairly undistinguished grade-Z sci-fi film. It's perhaps a little better made than most of its ilk, and B-movie icon John Agar gives a decent performance in the lead role, but it winds up stuck between a rock and a hard place: not quite bad enough to be consistently campy fun, but not quite good enough to take seriously. After a strange explosion in the desert, nuclear scientist Agar gets abnormally high radioactivity readings near Mystery Mountain, so he and his young assistant (Robert Fuller) head out to see what's up. They find a new cave blasted into the base of the mountain and when they enter, a giant floating transparent brain with eyes kills Fuller and possesses Agar. The brain from Arous has a name, Gor, and its mission is the same old tedious one, to take over Earth. When Agar goes back home without Fuller and begins acting strangely (sometimes he's horny, sometimes he's got splitting headaches that cause him to double up in growling pain), his girlfriend (Joyce Meadows) suspects something's amiss and asks her father to help her find out what's wrong. The two head out to the mountain, find the dead assistant, and discover a second brain, Vol, this one a sort of cosmic-policeman brain (l'll just call them Good Brain and Bad Brain) which takes possession of Agar's dog (!) to keep an eye on him (assuming the dog will be in Agar's presence more than anyone else). Soon Bad Brain Agar calls a meeting of world diplomats to demand acquiescence, showing them his destructive power--he brings down a couple of planes and destroys houses just by looking at them. Good Brain Dog and his helpers eventually figure out a way to destroy the Bad Brain without harming Agar, involving taking an axe to the Bad Brain (at the "fissure of Rolando," an actual name for a spot in the brain--thank you, Google) when it materializes outside of Agar's body. Everything goes as planned, and Agar and Meadows are happy again, except that her dad has been fried by the Bad Brain, and the two start to make out next to Dad's corpse.

The basic filmmaking here is competent (directing, lighting, sets), but the special effects are terrible. The brains are mostly simply see-through double-exposures, and when Bad Brain becomes solid, it's a big helium balloon with ping-pong ball eyes sailing through the air on very visible wires. The plane crashes are also incompetently handled: a miniature model swinging against a black background bursts into flames and dangles from a wire. The destruction of property is courtesy the famous footage of houses that were destroyed in United States atom bomb tests. The one good effect is when Bad Brain Agar goes ballistic and his eyes become dark and shiny (contact lenses, I assume, like Ray Milland wears in the climax of MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES); that, combined with Agar's over-the-top grimacing and cackling, actually works. The movie starts out with very little exposition; I had assumed that Fuller was perhaps Agar's kid brother, or Meadows' kid brother, or someone's boy toy, and, hell, he might be any of those things, but as far as I could tell, he's just an assistant who maybe lives with Agar(?). I do like one of the opening shots, of serious scientist Agar talking to young Fuller, who's stretched out on a sofa reading a science-fiction magazine. A couple other cheap delights: 1) a nice shot of Agar's face distorted through a water cooler; 2) Bad Brain Agar calling earthlings "savages"; 3) when Meadows tells Bad Brain Agar that he might need psychological help from an expert, he shrieks at her, "Don't expert me!" Despite these occasional pleasures, the whole thing would play out much better as an Outer Limits episode. [DVD]

Sunday, October 23, 2005


An interesting take on the Jekyll/Hyde story; since it features Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it was marketed as a horror movie, but it isn't really atmospheric enough to qualify as such (unlike a similar Karloff film, THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND, reviewed 10/9/2004). The science aspect is too weak to allow it to pass as science fiction, so perhaps it's best enjoyed as a fast-moving crime melodrama with elements of the fantastic. The real star of the movie is neither Karloff nor Lugosi, but British actor Stanley Ridges, in a dual role. We first meet him as mild-mannered English professor George Kingsley. In the middle of running an errand, he is caught in crossfire between mobsters and is seriously wounded in the head, and gangster Red Cannon (also played by Ridges) is hit and paralyzed. Surgeon Karloff, a friend of the professor, is riding in the ambulance with the two men and hears the dying gangster mumble something about a big stash of money which only he knows about. In the operating room, Karloff performs a "brain transplantation," apparently replacing the damaged part of the professor's brain with part of the gangster's brain. The result appears to be a dead gangster and a recovering professor, but actually the gangster's personality and memories are still "alive" in the professor, just needing a jog from Karloff. When the professor is in charge, he has messy hair and glasses, but when the gangster comes to the surface, he has slicked back hair and no glasses. It doesn't make much sense, but it does make it easy for us to tell who's who. Eventually, Karloff cannot control the gangster personality, which takes over the body for longer periods of time and begins bumping off the thugs who killed him, leading to chief thug Bela Lugosi. The movie is one long flashback, beginning with Karloff on Death Row for a murder which we don't learn about until the climax. Given the marketing, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't more horrific, but expectations aside, it's a fine little thriller. Ridges is quite convincing displaying two separate personalities as the split-brained man, and Karloff is his usual reliable self. Lugosi's role is fairly small and he isn't really able do much with it. [DVD]

Friday, October 21, 2005


This is considered a horror classic of its era, and many critics see it as the high point of director Edgar G. Ulmer's career. An American couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), honeymooning in Hungary, meet up with Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) who is on his way to visit an old acquaintance, engineer and architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Their relationship has a long and convoluted backstory, but essentially during WWI, Karloff betrayed his country by giving up a major fort to the Russians, causing the massacre of thousands. Karloff now lives in a huge art-deco house built on the grounds of the fort, which Lugosi calls the biggest graveyard in the world. Lugosi spent years in a POW camp and has come back to confront Karloff and find out what happened to his wife and daughter. During a heavy rainstorm, the bus that Lugosi and the couple are on crashes and the three take refuge at Karloff's home. At first, Karloff seems welcoming if a little stand-offish, but it turns out that he's a Satanist who is about to hold a Black Mass at the dark of the moon and he intends to keep Wells prisoner for use as a sacrifice. We also learn that, in Lugosi's enforced absence, Karloff, claiming that Lugosi had been killed in action, married his wife, and when she died, he married Lugosi's daughter (who, the few times we see her, always seems to be in some kind of doped-up haze). He has kept the embalmed body of the first wife suspended in an upright glass coffin, along with the bodies of other women (ex-wives or lovers? Satanic sacrifices? It's never, like many other plot elements, made clear). Lugosi, knowing Karloff's intentions, plays chess with him for the fate of the girl, but Karloff wins. During the Mass, Lugosi disrupts the proceedings, gets Wells and Manners on their way to safety, begins skinning Karloff alive, then blows up the entire house.

You may wonder about the title; it's borrowed from a Poe story, but aside from a briefly-used plot element about a black cat that skulks around the house, triggering Lugosi's dreadful fear of cats, this has nothing to do with Poe, which is fine. The real problem with the plot is that there is too much of it stuffed into a short (66 minutes) running time. Virtually every element, including the cat, the chess game, the Satanism (the Karloff figure was apparently inspired by the then-current headlines about real-life occultist Aleister Crowley), the embalmed women, and the backstory concerning the war, should have been developed more. The set design is fabulous, and much of the film has a great expressionistic look full of deep and angular shadows. The Mass is quite effective, as are the scenes of the weird wife/daughter (Lucille Lund, who also plays the dead first wife). Lugosi, whose acting is often slighted by critics, is very good here, getting a rare chance to play a sympathetic, fleshed-out character, and he's especially good in the early scenes on the train when he first meets Manners and Wells. While the couple nap, he reaches out and strokes Wells' hair, thinking she resembles his long-gone wife; the move could have come off as comic or perverted, but Lugosi makes the moment a moving one. Karloff is fine and Wells and Manners are OK--Manners, as usual, isn't given much to do as the passive beta male, even winding up out of commission during the exciting climax, but he does get a couple of comic relief lines; in the middle of his miserable honeymoon experience, he sighs, "Next time, I go to Niagra Falls!" The best line, and one that is widely quoted, comes from Lugosi in reply to a man who questions some "supernatural baloney" they're talking about: "Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not." Ulmer's directing style is awkward at times, with Karloff's first entrance and Lugosi's attack on the black cat both bungled by choppy editing--which, to be fair, may be the fault of Universal rather than Ulmer. There is also an unfortunate shot of a servant depositing an unconscious Wells on a bed; the camera is low and at the bedside and Ulmer may have thought it was an interesting angle, but it winds up being laughable. Still, despite my qualms about some aspects of the film, its atmosphere can't be faulted, and that is important in horror films. The Universal DVD print, released as part of a single-disc Bela Lugosi collection, is wonderful, not blemish-free, but in much better shape than I've ever seen it. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


The name of producer Val Lewton is associated with a particular kind of horror film, usually psychological rather than supernatural, typified by a fairly subtle, low-key approach, necessitated at the time by the low budgets that RKO gave him. The films he made with various directors, primarily Jacques Tourneur, in the mid-40's are all considered classics and are finally available on DVD in a very nice boxed set from Warners. Though CAT PEOPLE is his most well known film, and definitely has some classic moments, this one, based loosely on "Jane Eyre," is more consistently enjoyable. Canadian nurse Frances Dee takes a job in the West Indies attending to Christine Gordon, the sickly wife of sugar plantation owner Tom Conway. Supposedly the wife came down with a tropical fever which damaged her brain and left her in a zombie-like state, able to walk and follow some simple commands, but with no will power; she lives like a sleepwalker. The natives house servants and workers think that the wife is the victim of a voodoo curse. Dee soon winds up in the thick of family tensions: she harbors a crush on Conway, who still seems to be in love with his wife, and she learns that Conway's dissolute half-brother (James Ellison) had an affair with Gordon. In addition, there is the boys' mother (Edith Barrett), the widow of a missionary who, we find out, serves in secret as a voodoo priestess in order to get the natives to use modern medicine. Neither science nor voodoo seems to be able to help Gordon, and as long as she's around, Conway won't pursue a relationship with Dee. The ambiguous ending appears to endorse the voodoo theory, as the natives use a doll to summon Gordon, who is followed by Ellison, who decides that if he can't have her in life, he will in death.

Much about the narrative is oblique, maybe due to the Production Code, maybe due to the constraints of low-budget filmmaking, but maybe due to the intention of the directors and writers. At any rate, what makes the movie work is the atmosphere, and the fact that most of the important action occurs at night, in deep shadows. The scares are not of the sudden-shock variety, but of moody suggestive spookiness. The most memorable scene is of Dee taking Gordon through the sugar cane fields late at night to a voodoo ritual; the appearance of the towering zombie-like native Carrefour (Darby Jones) is genuinely creepy. Like Lewton's CAT PEOPLE and THE SEVENTH VICTIM, the overall tone of the film, despite what we assume will be a relatively happy ending for Dee and Conway, is grim. Early on, Dee remarks on the beauty of the ocean, and Conway replies that the water gets its luster from "millions of dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence; there's no beauty here, only death and decay." There is a hint that Conway may be a bit of a sadist when he admits that he was deliberately cruel to his wife. As far as the actors, the stiff Conway is the weak link (I just cannot imagine Dee going ga-ga over him so quickly); the rest are fine, with Ellison especially good as the loutish but still sympathetic brother and Theresa Harris doing a nice job as the house maid who slowly lets Dee in on the voodoo secrets. There is a wonderful sequence in which Dee hears a man (Calypso singer Sir Lancelot) singing a song on the streets about the situation between the brothers, which says more about their backstory than she would get from either of the men. [DVD]

Sunday, October 16, 2005


I'm almost always extremely happy to have spiffy, restored DVD copies of old movies, but once in a while, cleaning up a movie just exposes its shortcomings and that's the case with this film, one that was, in my memory, quite scary and atmospheric, but which when cleaned up proves to be a rather lame and colorless attempt at a shocker. I suspect that Universal thought that the mere presence of their vampire hero, Bela Lugosi, would make the movie creepy, and Lugosi does as well as he can given the weak script which is supposedly based on a Poe story but actually uses very little of his work. Lugosi plays a scientist, Dr. Mirakle, who performs with an ape at a Parisian side show, claiming he can speak to and understand the ape. (The ape in question is Erik, the Ape-Man, who looks mostly like Erik the Normal-Looking Ape, but is sometimes played by a man in an ape costume.) His behind-the-scene experiments, intended to prove the theory of evolution, involve mixing ape blood and human blood, specifically the blood of lovely young women. We see him kidnap a streetwalker (Arlene Francis), strap her to an X-shaped cross, and draw blood from her, but once he gets it under the microscope, he finds that it's "dirty blood' and useless to him, and he dumps her dead body, Sweeney Todd-fashion, right from the cross through a trap door into the river. At the side show, the ape takes a liking to Sidney Fox, a "pure" young woman, and Lugosi sends the ape to kidnap her, but when the ape realizes that Lugosi has nefarious purposes in mind, he kills the doctor and races across the rooftops of Paris with the girl until her boyfriend, Leon Ames, comes to the rescue. The plot is just as ridiculous as it sounds; the meager pleasures here are mostly in the atmosphere, conjured up with shadows and some expressionistic, Caligari-like sets. The movie is barely an hour long but it still drags in places, although the torture and murder of the prostitute is harrowing, and the rooftop chase is exciting. Fox and Ames (billed here as Leon Waycoff) are fairly bland; Francis doesn't have much to do (I don't even think she has more than one line of dialogue), but she writhes and screams effectively, and it was great fun to see my favorite "What's My Line" panelist away from the panel. During a non-horror scene, there's a disorienting shot of Fox in a swing, with the camera attached to the swing, as Ames pushes her up in the air. The shots of the real ape don't match up well with the shots of the man in the costume. Directed by Robert Florey, who also did the Marx Brothers first film, THE COCOANUTS, and who went on to do a slew of B-pictures through the 40's and a lot of TV in the 50's; the cinematography is by Karl Freund, who did great work on Lugosi's DRACULA. Overall, I'd have to say that, if you lower your expectations, you might enjoy this, but it's difficult to recommend. [DVD]

Saturday, October 15, 2005


The last time I saw this movie was when it first came out; I was 10 years old, and I saw it at a special kids' matinee where admission was six Pespi bottle caps. Mostly, I remember being dazzled by the special effects and by Raquel Welch, who was quite a special effect herself. I'm sorry to say that, forty years later, the movie hasn't weathered well. The most interesting thing about it to me now is its formalism; most of the film is done in real time, and there is as little context as possible set up for the "voyage" itself, which means almost no character development and little substantive conflict, just the gimmick of miniaturized people jetting through a man's bloodstream. What little plot there is involves an important man from behind the Iron Curtain who has defected to the West. Just after he lands in the States, he is shot and seriously wounded, with an inoperable blood clot in the brain. As it happens, he has information that the military needs concerning a top-secret scientific project which involves miniaturizing people who could be used in wars, as soldiers, spies, etc. The CMDF (Combined Miniature Defense Forces--couldn't they have come up with a catchier acronym?) decides to shrink a team of doctors and officers (and a submarine-type vehicle, the Proteus), inject them into the scientist's bloodstream, and have them operate from the inside. The catch: they only have one hour before they will automatically return to normal size. The effects were probably quite effective in their day, but now the giant corpuscles and antibodies which provide most of the danger look like props created for a local TV kids' show, and the idea that our crew are actually submersed in blood is never pulled off very well. Once the barest bit of background exposition is dispensed with, the rest of the movie is given over to the voyage, and the film ends rather abruptly when our heroes return to normal size. The screenplay doesn't give the actors much to do. Stephen Boyd is the military leader who occasionally butts heads with Donald Pleaseance, the twitchy medical advisor who may or may not also be a Commie traitor out to sabotage the mission. Edmond O'Brien is the military man who stays behind and monitors the situation; his continuing battle with his coffee addiction may have been an inspiration for Robert Stack's various addictions in AIRPLANE. The attack of the gooey antibodies on Welch (in a tight white wetsuit) reminds me of some of the gooeyness of ALIEN. The movie is too serious to be campy fun, but not good enough to ever really get lost in. [FMC].

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


This French/Italian horror film looks and feel like many of the Hammer and American International films of the day, but this one is head and shoulders above almost all of those. It's perhaps a smidge too plot-heavy, but it's interesting and gorgeous to look at. Pierre Brise is Hans, a writer who has come to a small Dutch village to visit eccentric artist Gregorius Wahl (Robert Boehme). Wahl lives in a windmill and operates an odd little chamber of horrors there which has been handed down in his family; it's called a "carousel," but it's actually a little stage on which lifelike sculptures of women in various states of death and dying rotate. Brise is there to write an article on the centennial of the carousel; he works all day in the windmill going through old books and papers, and he spends evenings hanging out with some old friends, especially Liselotte (Dany Carrel), who has had a crush on Hans since she was little. Two other people are in residence at the windmill: Wahl's lovely but pale and sickly daughter Elfy (Scilla Gabel) and a doctor (Wolfgang Preiss) who is there 24 hours to attend to her (and hopes to marry her someday, though she is clearly not enthusiastic about that possibility). Just as Hans and Liselotte realize they are in love, Elfy, defying her father who wants to keep her isolated, makes her move, seducing Hans into sleeping with her one night. The next day, he regrets it, but she blackmails him into returning. When he does, he finds himself witness to her apparent death, but the next day, she's alive again. However, a model friend of Liselotte's has gone missing. It turns out that Elfy has some rare disorder that causes her to take on the appearance of death when she is emotionally overstimulated, and Wahl and the doctor have been kidnapping young women and draining their blood, hoping that it will help cure Elfy. It never works, however, and Wahl and the doctor mummify the women and use them as sculptures in the carousel. Naturally, everything comes crashing down eventually, resulting in a literally fiery climax.

The movie feels like a cross between HOUSE OF WAX (the human "statues") and EYES WITHOUT A FACE (the father trying to cure his sick daughter and causing the death of others), both of which I reviewed earlier this month. The narrative is a bit on the complex side and there are a number of fairly minor plotholes but it's easy to follow and frankly, too much story isn't necessarily a bad thing in the horror genre. Acting is rarely a strong point in these films, but everyone here does a good enough job; particularly good are Gabel as the spooky half-dead girl and Preiss as the creepy doctor who lusts after her. Even though the budget couldn't have been much bigger than that of the average Hammer film, the movie looks great. The windmill, both inside and outside, is effectively atmospheric. Much thought has been put into the color scheme, with deep reds and blues, and the sets are wonderful, with lots of weird statures and disembodied limbs creating a disturbing atmosphere from the first moments of the film to the last (though a miniature of the mill which is used at the climax is phony looking). The DVD, from a small company called Mondo Macabro, is a treat, with a good clean print, three audio tracks (American dub, UK dub, and original French), alternate scenes and one deleted scene which, though not crucial, does explain why there is suddenly a crowd of onlookers at the windmill carousel one day--it's only open to visitors on Sundays. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni, who was mostly known for sword and sandal films and spaghetti westerns. Highly recommended. [DVD]

Sunday, October 09, 2005

ONIBABA (1964)

A Japanese cult film which I'm not sure really qualifies as horror, but nevertheless works up a nice creepy mood, and at least one plot thread is right out of a Twilight Zone episode. In medieval Japan, during a raging civil war, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in a huge field of towering grass reeds, surviving mostly by killing passing soldiers, dumping their bodies into a huge pit, and selling their recovered weapons and belongings. When a deserting soldier (Kei Sato) returns and camps nearby, he tells Otowa that her son is dead. She refuses to believe him, but Yoshimura slowly finds herself attracted to Sato (even though he's a brutish pig) and the two begin a furtive relationship with her sneaking over to his place at night and returning before Otowa awakens. However, Otowa catches on pretty fast and becomes desperately afraid that Yoshimura will eventually stay with Sato and leave her to an uncertain fate--she doesn't think she could kill soldiers on her own. After the mother has a run-in with another deserter wearing a freaky demon mask (claiming he's hiding a particularly handsome face), she lures the man into a chase in which he falls down the hole to his death. She goes down the hole and takes the mask off, finding a scarred face beneath. This might have served as an omen, but instead the mother plans to scare the girl out of her nocturnal visits by posing as a night demon, wearing the mask. The plot works for a few nights (the scenes of the demon rising up over the reeds are very effective), but soon lust wins out over fear, and Yoshimura makes it past the demon. Later that night, the girl returns home to find that the mask is stuck on her mother-on-law's face, leading to a Twilight Zone climax. The movie is in glorious high-contrast black and white, and an extremely odd atmosphere is built up though the use of the ever-present high grass and battering winds which seem to blow constantly. A feel of sweaty lust and equally sweaty desperation saturates the film: the women are frequently on the edge of starvation; the soldier and the girl are sexually frustrated; the mother also has sexual feelings but mostly fears being left alone; the girl fears the wrath of the mother and the presence of the demon. Interestingly, the killing of the soldiers doesn't become a central moral issue here--clearly it's not something the women enjoy, but are doing out of desperation. Traditional horror elements are scarce: there is no gore here (though bare breasts are shown surprisingly often) and there is no supernatural element except for the patently false demon, though the final moments of the film are open to a reading of supernatural intervention. Most of the night scenes are shot well, with a pitch black background and brightly lit foregrounds. Recommended for its chilling October mood. [DVD]

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Some critics refer to this movie as the beginning of Vincent Price's career in horror films, and I guess that's true, although he did do a handful of pictures before this (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, SHOCK) that might be described as quasi-horror, and he didn't do another one until THE FLY in 1958. For me, this movie is interesting for two other reasons: 1) it was originally presented in 3-D and it's fun to watch for all the gimmicky shots sprinkled throughout the movie, and 2) it looks and feels like a direct predecessor to the Hammer horror films of the 50's and 60's, with its attention to period detail, its use of occasionally gaudy color, its insertion of a standard lackluster romance, and most importantly, its moments of Gothic horror. Price plays an artist whose wax sculptures, which he displays in a museum, are considered extraordinarily beautiful and lifelike. The museum is barely breaking even (partly because Price refuses to pander to common tastes and make sensationalistic tableaux) and his business partner (Roy Roberts) wants to get out to invest in something more lucrative. An admiring art critic (Paul Cavanagh) is willing to buy Roberts out, but not soon enough for Roberts, so he burns down the museum, intending to collect the insurance money. Price tries to stop him, but is instead caught in the conflagration and assumed dead. Actually, he survives but with horribly scarred hands and face. Soon, Roberts is found dead, an apparent suicide hanging in an elevator shaft, but we know that Price has tracked him down, killed him, and taken the insurance money for himself. Months later, Price resurfaces (wearing a lifelike wax mask over his hideous face) with a new museum, backed by the art critic, and new statues, made by assistants supervised by Price. This museum, unlike the earlier one, is a chamber of horrors and proves to be a smashing success; also unlike in the earlier museum, some of these statues are actually dead bodies covered in wax. Roberts' hanging body is the first of these, and the second is Carolyn Jones, Roberts' mistress, presented as Joan of Arc. Jones's roommate (Phyllis Kirk) notices the resemblance and mentions her suspicions to her boyfriend, sculptor Paul Picerni, who does some work for Price. The police, still baffled by the death of Roberts (and the disappearance of his body), soon come sniffing around, and when Price decides he wants Kirk to become his waxen Marie Antoinette, we get an exciting climax involving chases, a guillotine, and a huge bubbling vat of wax set to be poured all over a naked and screaming Kirk.

Price is good here, not quite as scenery-chewing as he would be in later movies. We have sympathy for him for quite a while, seeing him as a dark avenging angel, until he threatens Kirk, and frankly, even after, as Kirk and the rest of the good guys (including Frank Lovejoy as a police lieutenant) are a colorless lot. The make-up for Price's damaged face is quite effective. His hulking, sinister assistants are well played by Nedrick Young and a young Charles Bronson (as the deaf-mute Igor). It's startling to see Carolyn Jones, who I know so well as the dark-haired, stately Morticia Adams, as a bleach blonde with a goofy voice. Kirk and Picerni are bland, bland, bland, with Picerni out of commission during most of the climax (though to be fair, it's because he is almost beheaded by Igor). The 3-D gimmicks include a line of Can-Can girls and a fist thrown right at the viewer, but best of all, the movie stops dead in its tracks for a minute while a man shilling on the street for the museum bounces paddleballs at us. I wish that Warners could have included the 3-D version of the film on the current DVD (if SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL can be presented in 3-D on DVD, why not this?), but it's nice to have this film in good shape, and even better, the 1933 movie that inspired this, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSUEM, an early color feature, is included on the flip side. [DVD]

Sunday, October 02, 2005


It's October, my horror/fantasy month, and I'll start out with this French classic which may be the first art house horror film--heck, one of the only art house horror films (CARNIVAL OF SOULS, PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, Herzog's NOSFERATU, and maybe THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT are the only other ones I could come up). It's actually more like a fairy tale than a horror story in its atmosphere, but truly horrific things do happen (as in some fairy tales, I guess). Pierre Brasseur is a doctor who lives with overwhelming guilt over having been the cause of a car accident which caused the disfigurement of his lovely daughter (Edith Scob). He reported her as dead, and a funeral has even been held, but actually she is being held a more or less voluntary prisoner in his mansion, wearing an expressionless white mask and living in limbo until her father can provide her with a new face. His method is to kidnap young lovely girls and literally peel off their faces in order to graft them onto his daughter. (The body that is buried in place of his daughter is that of one of the unlucky young women who died after having her face removed.) Unfortunately, the grafts don't take--we witness one attempt that seems to work, but soon the skin is rejected and begins disintegrating. Also in the house are a bunch of penned-up dogs who are apparently being experimented upon, and Brasseur's lover, Alida Valli, who helps him in his experiements. The police eventually suspect something nasty is afoot, and they bait the doctor with a young woman, but the plan goes awry, Still, events lead to the doctor's downfall and an ambiguous fate for his daughter. The sight of Scob practically gliding through the house in her mask and robes is eerily beautiful, as is the last shot of the movie as Scob glides outdoors with the snarling dogs that she has let loose on her father, with a single white dove flying along with her. There isn't much here for an audience expecting lots of gore, though there is a famous, very brief scene of the doctor lifting a woman's face off of her head that apparently disturbed viewers back in the day. There are many murky and chopped-up public domain tapes of this, but try to see the beautifully restored Criterion disc. Original French title: Les Yeux Sans Visage; alternate American release title: Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [DVD]