Tuesday, December 30, 2008

MY YEAR IN CLASSIC MOVIES:

Below is my list of the 10 classic movies I saw for the first time this year which were either among the best or most interesting (not necessarily the same):

BLONDE ICE (1948)--Delirious nonsensical Poverty Row film noir with no stars but a ton of action involving bad people acting badly. Almost as good as DETOUR (which I reviewed this year, but had seen before).

THE BLUE LIGHT (1932)--Not the best of the German Mountain movies, but one that stays in the mind due to its imagery.

CRAIG'S WIFE (1936) and HARRIET CRAIG (1950)--Two versions of the same story, with enough differences in the plot points and performaces to make them both worth watching; Rosalind Russell ('36) and Joan Crawford ('50) are both excellent.

CULT OF THE COBRA (1956)--B-thriller about a woman who can turn into a cobra hunting down some GIs who desecrated a cult ceremony. Bland and ultimately disappointing, but different enough to make it worth a viewing, especially in its first 15 minutes.

THE DRAGON PAINTER (1919)--A wonderful way to discover the early career of Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa in a fairy-tale-ish parable about love and art.

THE GHOST TRAIN (1941)--British B-comedy/thriller about train passangers stranded at a haunted station which isn't all that funny but has atmosphere to burn.

THE GUV'NOR (1935)--Another charming George Arliss comedy. The man is due for a critical revival.

HUMORESQUE (1946)--One of those movies I'd avoided, a romantic melodrama of the kind I have to be in the right mood for, but I enjoyed it immensely, with Joan Crawford giving what may be her best performance just before tipping into camp in the 50's, and John Garfield almost as good as her violin-playing lover.

I WAS AN ADVENTURESS (1940)--Not a great movie, but a fun novelty, with Erich von Stroheim in a rare comic role as a con man (with his partners Peter Lorre and Vera Zorina) out to fleece the idle rich. Essentially a B-movie version of Lubitsch's classic TROUBLE IN PARADISE.

MAN HUNT (1941)--Walter Pidgeon muffs his chance to kill Hitler and goes on the run from nasty Nazi George Sanders. Not at all realistic, but a solid example of a pre-WWII Hollywood spy thriller.

I also kinda liked the Lana Turner 60's paranoid drug flick THE BIG CUBE and some of the other movies that Warner Home Video put out in their "Camp Classics" series of boxed sets. I liked discovering 2 50's actors who should have had bigger careers, Don Murray (THE BACHELOR PARTY, HATFUL OF RAIN) and Anthony Franciosa (STORY ON PAGE ONE and w/Murray in HATFUL). I discovered the difference between Deanna Durbin (OK) and Sonja Henie (not so much). I was very happy to finally be able to see TOBACCO ROAD, which led me to read the original book, and finally I loved an early James Mason thriller THE UPTURNED GLASS, which just missed making the top 10.
FOOLISH WIVES (1922)

Three Russian con artists pose as aristocrats, rent a villa near Monte Carlo, and use counterfeit money to gamble. The two women, Olga and Vera, pretend to be countesses and Sergius (Erich von Stroheim) poses as their cousin, the Count Karamzin. He is on the prowl for a rich woman to fleece and finds one in Helen, the young and restless wife of the staid and older (and newly arrived) American ambassador to Monaco. Karamzin is free to show her the sights, take her on boating trips, and help her out in the casinos. He even contrives to get her stuck with him overnight during a storm when they take refuge in an old woman's house in the marshes, but a monk who has also come in out of the rain winds up in the same room with them, putting the kibosh on that plan. As he ups the seduction attempts, he also carries on a lackluster affair with his plain-looking maid, whom he has promised to marry, and has designs on Marietta, the mentally handicapped daughter of his counterfeiter. Eventually Karamzin gets Helen alone in his villa and tells her he needs 90,000 francs to settle a debt of honor; she offers him the money, but the maid, overhearing them, sets the house on fire before throwing herself into the sea. When the count leaps to safety before Helen, he is disgraced and runs off in the night to sneak inside Marietta's window, apparently with rape on his mind. But the next morning, the counterfeiter drags Karamzin's dead body out of his house and stuffs it down the sewer. In the end, Helen appears to learn a "Wizard of Oz" lesson, to be happy with her stuffy old husband and not to seek exotic thrills outside of her own back yard.

This is one of the many movies Erich von Stroheim directed which were drastically edited down by studio bosses from several hours (over 6 in this case) to a more commercial running time. Most of the original cut is lost, but Kino's restoration, which comes in at around 2-1/2 hours, still manages to feel both too long (many individual scenes could be edited down a bit) and incomplete (we don't know what happens in the counterfeiter's house at the end, and the character of Vera seems totally unnecessary). Stills from his silents show Stroheim looking quite wicked and decadent, but here, his character is essentially a weak and desperate man trying to project both a charming and bullying persona, as needed. He actually comes off more like a naughty boy than a sinister lothario. Some of the acting is in the exaggerated silent style of the era, though Stroheim and Maude George as Olga are less mannered than the rest. This was the first movie which cost over a million dollars to make, mostly due to its sets, with Monte Carlo reconstructed faithfully, and many scenes are striking, such as the midnight storm and a water carnival. In an amusing self-referential joke, throughout the film, Helen is seen reading a book called "Foolish Wives" by Erich von Stroheim. [DVD]

Saturday, December 27, 2008

THE CHEATERS (1945)

This odd little film plays out like a Christmas spin on MY MAN GODFREY. The family of rich businessman Eugene Pallette (at left) is in financial trouble, partly due to the spendthrift ways of his wife (Billie Burke). They're hoping Pallette's even richer sick uncle will die soon and leave them his money. Well, he does die, but instead he leaves his five million dollars to a woman he doesn't even know: a former child actress named Watson whom he saw back in 1915 play the part of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin. If she can't be found "in a reasonable amount of time," the money will go to Pallette, so he bribes the attorney into allowing only one week for the search. Meanwhile, to impress the visiting fiancé of one of the daughters, the family decides to take a charity case into their home over Christmas week: a homeless man (Joseph Schildkraut) who was once a well-known actor. He overhears their scheme and offers to use his theatre connections to find Watson so that the family can keep her out of the way during the search. They find her (Ona Munson) and take her into their home, pretending that they've discovered she's a long-lost cousin. When news of the search hits the papers, the family retreats to an isolated mountain lodge to wait out the holiday week, but eventually the truth comes out. Will the family do the right thing?

The best thing about this film is its physical production; it's a A-looking movie produced by B-studio Republic Pictures and the elaborate sets give it a big-studio gloss. The actors are also bigger names than Republic typically had at its beck and call, though most of them were aging actors who had seen better days (Schildkraut would have a comeback a decade later as Otto Frank in stage and screen versions of The Diary of Anne Frank). The problem is the writing; the screenplay could have used another draft or two, especially in character development. One daughter (Ann Gillis) is built up as a kind of sly, whimsical type in contrast to the engaged daughter (Ruth Terry) who is more cold-blooded, but nothing is done with that potentially interesting tension. Old pros Pallette (who was the father in GODFREY) and Burke are fine, though their choice to underplay their underwritten parts takes some of the fun out of the proceedings. Schildkraut is good, but his character remains a cipher, not in a mysterious angel/ghost way, but in a way that suggests the writers didn't know what to do with him. There is solid support from Raymond Walborn, Norma Varden, and eternal butler Robert Grieg who unfortunately vanishes halfway through the film. There is some nice holiday atmosphere throughout, from the opening snowfall to Schildkraut's brief reenactment of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the climax. TCM host Robert Osborne introduced this as "the best Christmas movie you've never heard of," and as I am familiar with almost every Christmas-themed Hollywood feature film ever made, he may be right, and I am grateful for the chance to have seen it, but it's not a gem I'll want to revisit often. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (1955)

Back in the mid-60’s, I remember this made-for-TV opera being run every year at Christmas, usually on a Sunday afternoon, but despite my love of all things Christmas, I never got around to watching it. Since then, I’ve learned that the opera was first aired live in 1951 and re-staged, in live performance and in reruns, through the 60's. Recently a kinescope of the 1955 live telecast was issued on DVD. The plot is simple and seemingly classic, though as far as I know, it originated with the opera's writer, Gian Carlo Menotti. On the night of the Nativity, a poor lame boy named Amahl gets in trouble with his mother; he's an idle dreamer who makes up wild stories all the time, so his mother doesn't believe him when he says that wonderful things are happening in the night skies. But of course, there really is a magical star shining in the sky, and later that night, the Three Kings stop by looking for shelter on their way to visit the Christ child. Nearby shepherds provide food and entertainment, but the mother resents the fact that the Kings are taking gold as a gift for some newborn infant, while her poor crippled son has nothing. After she's caught trying to steal some gold, Melchior offers it to her outright, but when she learns more about what Christ has come for, she instead wishes she had a gift to send. When Amahl offers to send his crutch, since the child may need it someday, he is miraculously cured and heads off with the Kings to see the newborn child. I am not an opera fan, and though this work was popular in its day, I would have had trouble following the action if it weren't for the subtitles available on the DVD. Some of the songs are close to show tunes, especially a cute bit in which Amahl keeps trying to tell his disbelieving mom that three kings are at the front door, but the operatic tones keep getting in the way of clear comprehension. I have a similarly hard time judging performance here, since the acting is not, and is not meant to be, naturalistic, but the 12-year-old boy playing Amahl, Bill McIver, is excellent, and Rosemary Kuhlmann is fine as the mother. There have been a few picture book adaptations of this over the years, but I think the material is ripe for adaptation as a non-musical film or play. [DVD]

Monday, December 22, 2008

THE CHRISTMAS CHOIR (2008)

My viewing pick for this year's Christmas TV-movie is the Hallmark Channel's The Christmas Choir. It claims to be based on a true story, but the cliches and coincidences run so thick, I imagine this is more fiction than fact. Jason Gedrick (pictured) is a workaholic accountant who, though not quite a Scrooge, has let his work life affect his personal life: his girlfriend has just broken up with him and his secretary is getting fed up with all the extra hours. One night, while nursing his broken heart at a downtown bar, he is befriended by a homeless guy (Tyrone Benskin); when the two head off to a nearby shelter together, they bond over their love of music. Gedrick, goaded by the earthy nun who runs the shelter (Rhea Perlman), finds a new meaning to his life: he organizes a "Christmas Choir" of homeless men to sing in the subways, so they can collect a little money to make their holidays a little better. Of course, all the predicted obstacles (uh-oh, no permit; uh-oh, what to do about that pesky alcoholic singer) and some more outrageous than predictable (would you believe a major fire at the shelter, right on Christmas Eve?) occur, but the performances make it work--I even got a little teary at one point. What I wasn't as crazy about was the "While You Were Sleeping" romance between Gedrick and subway token taker Marianne Farley. The handsome Gedrick is very good but Farley lacks any oomph. You're always in good hands with Perlman, a total pro. This is one I might consider watching again.

Friday, December 19, 2008

THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1937)

This is the third movie version of this story, originally a play and filmed once as a silent in 1919 and once in the early sound days, in 1929, by Tod Browning (DRACULA). I reviewed the '29 version several years ago, but the primitiveness of the filming and the awkward direction distracted me from enjoying the narrative. This film, though obviously a B-enterprise, is a bit more enjoyable as it doesn't have the slack pacing and technical problems that marred the '29 version. In British-run Calcutta, an Englishman named Leith has been murdered and no one who knew the man is talking, so his friend (Henry Daniell) gets Scotland Yard involved. The visiting inspector (Lewis Stone) plots with Daniell to hold a seance, with the batty Madame LaGrange (Dame May Whitty) attempting to contact the dead man's spirit, in the hope that the killer will snap and confess. Among the participants, many of whom had grudges against Leith, are a Hindu professor (Lal Chand Mehra), the son of the local governor (Thomas Beck), his girlfriend (Madge Evans), a doctor (Charles Trowbridge), and a snotty young woman (Heather Thatcher) who may have had a special relationship with Leith. At the seance (shot in total blackness), Daniell is knifed to death, though no one can find the murder weapon. The participants are questioned, secrets are revealed, and a second seance is held, which leads to the killer's exposure. Old pros Whitty and Stone are fine, and the plot holds the attention. I especially liked getting some insight into Whitty's own self-consciousness about her mystical abilities--she seems to sincerely believe that she has some, but she also admits to resorting to theatrical trickery now and then. The scene in which she calls out desperately, alone in the room, for help from Laughing Eyes, her spirit contact, is nicely played. Also with Elissa Landi and Ralph Forbes. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE UPTURNED GLASS (1947)

James Mason has been giving a series of university lectures about the psychology of crime; this time, he uses a case study to show how a perfectly sane and rational person could commit murder. As he tells the story, we see it in flashback, and the rational man is Mason himself, a brain surgeon who successfully operates on a young girl to restore her sight and falls in love with the girl's mother (Rosamund John). Though they are both married, they have a brief, furtive affair before deciding they must break it off. A short time later, John winds up dead in what is judged to be an accidental fall from a window at her home. However, Mason picks up on small clues which indicate that John's sister-in-law, Pamela Kellino, may have had something to do with the death, so he gets close to her so that he can engineer a similar death for her. When Mason does finally force Kellino out the window, the narrative takes a breathtaking turn (I would say an M. Night Shyamalan trick, but it's pulled off much more fairly and logically than most of his are). I don't want to reveal it here but suffice to say that there is another tense and well-played half-hour to the movie. The young Mason occasionally looks like Gregory Peck, and the movie itself feels kin to other early psychological thrillers like Hitchcock's Spellbound. There are plotholes galore, but they are easily overlooked, and the ending manages to be both satisfying and, the more you dwell on it, rich in ambiguity. A little gem, available in a good print on a DVD from MPI called Classic British Thrillers. [DVD]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NORTHWEST RANGERS (1942)

Warners wasn’t the only studio to do B-level remakes of earlier A-level films. This MGM second feature is a variation on the oft-told story of boyhood pals who take different life paths and wind up on opposite sides of the law. It's an official remake of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, though lots of other movies have used that inspiration unofficially. Instead of a gangster-ridden big city, the buddies grow up in the Yukon, where they are orphaned after an Indian attack. Mountie sergeant Jack Holt takes them both in; Jim grows up wanting to follow in Holt's footsteps, but Blackie, when still a snot-nosed kid, tries his hand at John Carradine's saloon and gambling club. He loses big but catches the fever and takes off for parts unknown. Years later, Jim (William Lundigan) is a clean-cut Mountie still living with his dad when gambling dandy Blackie (James Craig, pictured above) comes back to town. At the local club, Craig (with the help of his friend Keenan Wynn) catches Carradine cheating, gets the best of him, and wins ownership of the club, which of course makes Carradine an enemy for life. Patricia Dane, a singer at the saloon, cozies up to Craig, but soon finds herself attracted to Lundigan. The old friends still get along, but problems arise when Craig brawls with deadbeat Grant Withers; Withers is accidentally killed, Lundigan's investigation comes to naught, and Carradine blackmails Craig, getting the saloon back. Then he threatens to get Lundigan in trouble for covering up evidence which implicated Craig. As in the original movie, Craig sacrifices himself for Lundigan's honor. If you read this blog regularly, you know Lundigan and Craig are two of my favorite B-movie leads, so I found this to be a fun way to spend an hour, even if the storyline is predictable. Dana is too bland as the leading lady (and luckily winds up with little to do), but it was fun to see 11-year-old Darryl Hickman as the young Blackie. Hugh Beaumont (TV's Ward Cleaver) has a small role. [TCM]

Friday, December 12, 2008

WICKED, WICKED (1973)

(100% Weird alert!!!) At a large seaside hotel, there's been a rash of lovely blond women skipping out on their bills. But when house dick David Bailey starts investigating, he finds out that these women are actually missing, and foul play by some hotel employee is suspected. A stab is made at presenting a handful of suspects, including Edd Byrnes as a beach bum who works part-time as a waiter, but we learn very quickly that the psycho killer is young handyman Randolph Roberts, who was abused by both his blond mother and a later blond mother-figure. By chance, Bailey's ex-wife, Tiffany Bolling, shows up as a lounge singer doing a gig at the hotel, and when she puts on a blond wig, she attracts the attention of Roberts. In the finale, we find out that Roberts, an amateur embalmer, has been cutting up his victims and sewing their parts back together, and of course he plans to do the same with Bolling, until Bailey and the cops arrive in the nick of time.

This is basically a retread of PSYCHO that plays out like a TV-movie, with one big gimmick: it was filmed in "Duo-Vision," which means the entire film is in split-screen. This doesn't come off as badly as one might think. Sometimes, we get the point of view of the killer on one side and the would-be victim on the other. Sometimes we get a person relating a flashback on one side while what really happened is played out on the other. (Its best use, however, comes as a visual joke during a sex scene.) The problem with the gimmick is that it isn't needed; the style doesn't seem organic to the tale, as though Duo-Vision was randomly applied to the script for the heck of it. However, the real problem with the film is the acting, which is mostly weak. Bailey overacts; Bolling, a Playboy model, underacts and is terrible (though she did eke out a career as a B-movie star); Scott Brady, as a cop, is totally forgettable. Arthur O'Connell is OK as the handyman's boss, and Madeline Sherwood (Sally Field's Mother Superior on The Flying Nun) does a decent job as an eccentric older lady in danger of being kicked out the hotel until Roberts comes to her aid. Roberts comes off the best, doing a less neurotic variation on Norman Bates. Poor Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip's Kookie) is around just long enough to be a red herring before he gets in an accident and spends the rest of the movie in a coma. Overall, this movie was better than most of the reviews out there indicate—and it's certainly better than the bomb rating that Leonard Maltin gives it—but don't lose sleep if you never catch it. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

UNNATURAL (aka ALRAUNE) (1952)

This odd little gothic melodrama, with science-fiction overtones out of Frankenstein, is based on a German novel from 1911 about a woman conceived through artificial insemination, a method which was apparently considered scandalous back then, and perhaps still had the taint of "unholiness" about it in the 50's when this film, the fifth version on record, was made. It helps to know a little fascinating background first: "Alraune" is the German word for "mandrake," a root, shaped like a human being, which was believed to grow beneath a gallows, seeded from the semen of hanged men. In this story, disgraced professor Erich von Stroheim has "created" a daughter through artificial insemination, from an executed criminal and a prostitute, an act thought of by his former colleagues as a "crime against nature." As a young woman, Alraune (Hildegarde Knef) is lovely but amoral, and has been kicked out of a convent school for possessing pornography and being a bad influence on the other girls. Stroheim's nephew (Karl Boehm, of PEEPING TOM), a decadent, gambling student, first sees her looking like a nymph lolling by a pond and falls for her, as do his buddies. One by one, she drives most of them to bad ends (one wastes away, one dies in a duel, etc.). Stroheim decides he wants her all to himself (never mind that she was raised to believe he was her father), but when she thinks she can find true happiness running off with Boehm, her "creator" shoots her dead.

The plot is sheer pulp thriller, though the way the film is shot, there aren't all that many thrills. This is a talky movie, and the bad English dubbing doesn't help (no German language option was available on the DVD), nor does the somewhat damaged print. The film's strengths are in its visuals; the whole thing has a dreamy Gothic aura, the sets are evocative, and the camerawork has an occasional off-kilter look that makes it seem more modern than the 50's. At least two important plot points are disappointingly conveyed in writing rather than action. Knef is fine, though too old for the part; she is supposed to still need a governess but looks at least 30. In the very last shot, Knef's dead body appears to morph into a mandrake root, though I assume that is creative poetic license rather than true narrative closure. The whole idea that she was "created" wouldn't really carry much water today, so this doesn't work as science fiction, but as a kind of Gothic Hawthorne or Le Fanu tale, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

BILLY LIAR (1963)

Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a young 20-something guy, a clerk at an undertaker's firm, living with his parents in a working-class town in England. He does a number of strange things to escape his drab life; primarily, he lives a fantasy life as a ruler of a kingdom called Ambrosia, but he also steals calendars from his work place for no apparent reason, is engaged to at least two women, occasionally walks around town as though he's blind or crippled, and has convinced himself that he's in line for a big show biz job in London writing for a famous comedian. He does have some talent (we find out that he and a friend have written a "Twist" song which gets performed at a local dance hall), but he has no practical ambition. He's pals with a true free-spirit named Liz (Julie Christie), and at the climax of the film, we think she's finally talked him into leaving with her for London, but the lure of comfort, bland and unsatisfying as it is, may be too much for him.

This film came near the end of the "Angry Young Man" cycle of British films, and though it shares with those films a bleak view of everyday life, there is little anger here, except the anger of Billy's father toward his son for not making a useful life of his own. Courtenay goes a long way toward making the character of Billy likable, and overall the movie's mood is not a downbeat one, but neither is it very comic. I guess realistic is more like it, and that may be why it doesn't quite work for me. It keeps feeling like it's going to take a turn one way or the other, but never really does, so Billy winds up at the end almost exactly where he was at the beginning. The fantasy scenes are fun (and sometimes surprisingly elaborate for what looks like a relatively low-budget film), and today a viewer might make the assumption that Billy was a high-functioning autistic. Christie is quite good in her breakthrough role, and Mona Washbourne and Ethel Griffies are fine as Billy's mother and grandmother. A fantasy scene of Billy machine-gunning people put me in mind of the later IF..., a more interesting movie about young people and fantasies. The print on the Criterion DVD is in great shape. [DVD]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

THE HOWARDS OF VIRGINIA (1940)

In the same year that Cary Grant did such a great job in the romantic comedy THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, he made one of his rare career missteps in this period drama set during the Revolutionary War era. It follows the arc of the birth of America through the story of two families, the Howards, working class tobacco farmers, and the Peytons, upper class landowners. Cary Grant is Matt Howard, the hard working son, who just happens to be friends with young Thomas Jefferson (yes, improbably *the* Thomas Jefferson, played even more improbably by baby-faced Richard Carlson), who gussies Grant up and gets him a job as a surveyor for the aristocratic snob Fleetwood Peyton (Cedric Hardwicke). When Hardwicke finds out about that Grant is just "white trash," he wants to get rid of him, but Grant has fallen for Hardwicke's sister, Martha Scott, and she for him; they get married and go back to Grant's roughneck home village where Scott slowly begins the process of assimilation. Over the next several years, they have children and become such a respectable family that Grant wins election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. However, between his lawmaking duties and his growing involvement in the fight for independence, which irritates Scott's Royalist family, Grant's relationship with his wife and sons becomes strained. We see (ever so briefly) the Boston Tea Party, and there are scenes with Lafayette and George Washington, and finally a family reconciliation. Grant supposedly thought this was his weakest film role; though he does seem a bit uncomfortable in the beginning, I think the real problem is the screenplay. Based on a long novel, this wanted to be a Gone With the Wind for the American Revolution, and, though it tries to cram lots of stuff into its two hours, most situations and characters aren't developed enough for us to care about them. Carlson as Jefferson comes off worse than Grant does; the cast also includes Tom Drake, Ann Revere, and Paul Kelly. It's not a terrible film, but it might make a good sleeping aid for an insomniac. [TCM]

Sunday, November 30, 2008

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (1933)

During the Depression, Jud Hammond (Walter Huston) is elected President and immediately begins breaking his campaign promises. He tells reporters that problems such as unemployment and crime are purely of local concern and not worth his attention. He's a figurehead for his do-nothing party, politics as usual, until he suffers a serious concussion in a car accident (caused by his own reckless driving). His doctors don't hold out much hope for him, but he suddenly recovers (after a heavenly breeze rustles the curtain in his room) and is a changed man. When a protesting "army" of the unemployed arrives in Washington, he greets them with open arms and announces the creation of a "Construction Army" to put them back to work and to stimulate the economy. He asks Congress to dissolve itself and give him full power to rebuild the government; when they balk at this, he threatens to invoke martial law. As a dictator, he ends Prohibition (to put racketeers out of business), bans mortgage foreclosures, and, to go directly after criminals, he cuts the "red tape of legal procedures" to get "back to first principles" by creating a Federal Army which is able to go after notorious gangster Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon) without due process, putting him and his men before a firing squad. Soon he goes after Europe, threatening war unless they begin paying back their debts. Somehow, this leads to a global disarmament agreement, and once that's signed, there's another heavenly rustle and Hammond collapses and dies.

This political fantasy (thus fitting in with my Thanksgiving fantasy theme, though it's certainly not an epic adventure) is a wild wish-fulfillment fever dream. It was filmed just as FDR came into office; clearly Hammond is meant to be the kind of president who would save the country from the mess that Herbert Hoover could not; the Construction Army is a forerunner of the WPA, one of Roosevelt's biggest "New Deal" plans for propping up the economy. William Randolph Hearst, an FDR backer, produced the film and according to Jonathan Alter's book The Defining Moment, about FDR's first hundred days in office, Roosevelt himself made some script suggestions. Of course, the problem is that even if the trains are back to running on time, so to speak, Hammond has become a fascist. If, as a fantasy from the Depression years, this seems almost quaint, think of George W. Bush having President Hammond as a role model. The movie, however, is not quaint and does still pack some power (in Hammond's scary speeches, the gunning-down of the gangsters, and the bizarre show of military power near the end), albeit not the inspiring kind that Hearst assumed it would have. Franchot Tone plays Hammond's secretary who grows to admire the president, and Karen Morley (pictured above with Huston) is Hammond's mistress, whom he installs as his "confidential secretary," though later he gives her up, and almost literally gives her away to Tone, who is in love with her. Though occasionally a bit creaky as filmmaking, this is a fascinating document of its time and is well worth seeing, especially if you know something about 1933. The title comes from some speculation between Tone and Morley that the Angel Gabriel, whom Tone calls "the angel of Revelations," has guided the President. [TCM]

Saturday, November 29, 2008

HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1964)

In the year 1227, our hero Hercules helps an Asian woman and her kids, and she repays the favor by presenting us with a lot of narrative exposition that she sees in a handful of water from a stream. It seems that Genghis Kahn has just died and his three nasty sons are out to subvert the peace that their old man had established; they pillage the land of Juleda (or Tuleda or Tudeda, the sound was murky at best) and hold the princess Bianca as a slave, hoping she'll lead them to her dead father's hidden treasure. Hercules soon meets up with the rightful heir to the Juleda throne (a little blond boy named Alexander), protects him from the bad guys, and enters a tournament to whip the Kahn boys' asses so he can free Bianca. He wins, Bianca is freed, but Hercules has to take her place in the slave quarters, which he does willingly until the Kahns, with some help from a treacherous Juledean named Adolphus, re-imprison Bianca. Then Herc goes all medieval and saves the day, with a little help from a small rebel band.

Most of the popular sword-and-sandal movies of the early 60's were made in Italy and featured a muscle-man hero named Maciste, who made his debut in Italian cinema during the days of silent movies. However, when these films were released in the United States, the hero's name was usually changed to something more familiar to Hollywood audiences, like Samson or Goliath, but most often, Hercules (supposedly the name Maciste was derived from a Greek city which had a temple to Hercules). The "historical" background never really mattered, since Hercules had clearly become timeless. These movies are still sort of fun to watch, sometimes in a campy, MST3K bad-movie way, though this one is short on camp value. It compensates with an interesting Mongolian background and plenty of sweaty beefcake. The hero is Mark Forest (pictured), a little more handsome and less hyper-muscular than most Herculeses; only 31 when he made this movie, he retired from the screen a year later and became an opera teacher. The hunkiest sons are played by hairy-chested, Ohio-born Ken Clark and shaved-headed Italian Renato Rossini, who later took the name Howard Ross, despite staying in Italian films for the rest of his career. Jose Greci, a red-haired Ann-Margaret-wannabe is fine as Bianca, and the even more attractive Maria Gracia Spina has a largely silent supporting role as a Mongolian bad girl who becomes a self-sacrificing good girl in the end.

There are a few problems with critiquing these movies: 1) the English dubbing is always terrible, and in this case, even the English-speaking actors are apparently speaking Italian and are then dubbed into English; 2) the prints are poor (probably public-domain films of which no one has taken proper care over the years): washed out, chopped up, and worst of all, not presented in their appropriate widescreen ratio. This one, on DVD from low-rent Alpha Video, is especially bad on that last count; instead of pan-and-scan, the widescreen image in crammed into a TV square by a process that could be called chop-and-scan, in which, instead of the image being panned along to catch the action, it is chopped and moved, leading to lots of startling cuts within shots. It's a shame because this one seems to have had a little more attention to detail (both narrative and scenic) than most of its ilk. Makes a fun Saturday afternoon flick for fans of the genre. [DVD]

Thursday, November 27, 2008

SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977)

The Ray Harryhausen fantasy extravaganza is a genre unto itself with its predictable conventions: exotic settings in the time and lands of myth, handsome heroes, lovely damsels in distress, lots of travel by ship, big stop-motion monsters, colorful sets and costumes, and wooden acting. For its time, the stop-motion animation in the films is well done, though kids raised on Lucas and CGI probably won't respond very well to it. I liked JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS when I was young, but even then the effects seemed a little off. This film, which I'm reviewing as my annual Thanksgiving weekend fantasy memorial, is one of Harryhausen's last films. Though it's way too long, it's also one of his better productions in terms of looks and effects. I have to say that the main reason I watched this is that it stars Patrick Wayne, son of John, and I had just recently found out that Wayne played Marathon John, an incredibly handsome cowboy (pictured below), in a series of TV ads for the Marathon candy bar back in the mid-70's which I have never forgotten--Wayne, dressed in dazzling white, was always being challenged by bad guy Quick Carl, all in black. Wayne does look every inch the manly hero here, but his acting is just a notch above amateurish. On the other hand, most of the rest of the cast, including future star Jane Seymour, is just as bad as Wayne. But it just wouldn't be a Harryhausen film if it had good acting!

Sinbad (Wayne) arrives in a port city to visit his friend Princess Farah (Jane Seymour), only to find the town shut down under quarantine. When he investigates, he discovers that Farah's brother Kassim, who was about to be crowned Caliph, was magically turned into a baboon by the wicked witch Zenobia (Margaret Whiting). If he's not turned back by the seventh moon, he will lose his shot at Caliphood and Zenobia will be able to install her wicked son Rafi (Kurt Christian). Sinbad and Farah and the baboon (who still has some human traits, like the ability to play chess) get some help from the magician Melanthius (Patrick Troughton) and his daughter (Taryn Power) and all set off to the Arctic land of Hyperborea where a magical shrine may be able to transform Kassim back. There are a number of Harryhausen stop-motion creations, including a trio of demon skeletons (who fight Wayne and his men in a scene stolen straight from ARGONAUTS), a giant wasp, a horned troglodyte, a walrus beast, and a saber-toothed tiger which has been taken over by the spirit of Zenobia--her evil gleaming eye giving the movie its meaningless title. The human-acting baboon is perhaps the best effect, partly because it's fairly subtle and doesn't call attention to itself. Each adventure has some appeal, but the linking sequences are snooze-inducing. Whiting overacts (my partner said that her role model must have been Witchiepoo from "H.R. Pfunstuf"), maybe to counter everyone else's underacting. Taryn Power, daughter of 40's matinee idol Tyrone, looks remarkably like a Los Angeles hippie girl plunked down in Ancient Greece, but she is stunning looking and acts as well as Wayne or Seymour. Actor Sam Wanamaker directed with a choppy awkward style. I'm not sorry I saw this, but I wish Wayne had made a Marathon John movie instead. [TCM]

Monday, November 24, 2008

THE GUV'NOR (1935)
aka MISTER HOBO

Here's another classic-era film for our current economic times. Set in England during the Depression, the film begins with Barsec the banker (Frank Cellier) assuring a woman that her money is safe in his bank; moments later, we see him tell his friend Dubois that the bank will fail in a matter of weeks. However, based on a secret report, he knows that an old ironworks belonging to the Granville family, thought to be tapped out, still has rich, hidden veins of ore for mining. The Granvilles owe the bank a great deal of money, and his plan is to get them to sell the property on the cheap to Dubois (and Barsec as a secret investor). The family can keep their house, Barsec can let the bank fail, and he and Dubois will make boatloads of money. But Barsec needs a patsy, someone he can install as a figurehead president so he can get his plan going and leave his "sinking ship." Enter a pair of hobos who just happen to bum a meal at the Granville residence, where the young lady of the house is very nice to them. Later that day, they are arrested for vagrancy. One of the bums (George Arliss) says his name is Rothschild, which is the family name of one of the richest banking families in the world. The police are very amused and, though he's not actually related to the family, he is given 2,000 pounds from a family charity and sent on his way. You can see where this is going: Barsec crosses paths with Rothschild, thinks he's the real thing (if a bit eccentric), and gets him to take over the bank presidency. But Rothschild is no fool and when he figures out Barsec's plot, he tries to spoil it.

This is a charming little film, though frankly, I'll watch anything with George Arliss. His movies tend to fall into two camps: the big "important" biographical pictures and the light comedies in which he's a meddling grandfather figure who helps facilitate a romance between two young people. In this comedy, there is a romance, between Miss Granville (Viola Keats) and the banker's son (Patric Knowles, looking young and strikingly handsome in one of his earliest roles), but it's backburner stuff and Arliss never really gets involved. Gene Gerrard (at right with Arliss) does a nice job as a hobo buddy of Arliss' who helps him out with the shenanigans. The film is well-paced until the last 15 minutes or so when the plot slows down and becomes unnecessarily convoluted as it heads for the inevitable happy ending. A viewer at IMDb notes a similarity between this and TRADING PLACES, though to me, it feels more like a Capraesque take on BEING THERE, with everyone reacting to Arliss as though he's practically royalty, despite his appearance, which remains rather scruffy throughout (though Gerrard takes to his new life and cleans up nicely). There may a bit of in-jokiness about Arliss' character being named Rothschild, as just the year before, he played a real Rothschild in THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD. There's a very funny moment involving Arliss being offered a drink called a "white lady," which he assumes is something other than a drink. Despite a somewhat weak ending, a satisfying film. [TCM]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

AMERICAN MADNESS (1932)

In this Frank Capra Depression-era film, which is a kind of forerunner to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, there are four main plotlines to follow: 1) bank president Walter Huston, a folksy, likeable fellow who gives loans rather freely based on what he perceives as people's "character," is being pressured by his board of directors to approve a merger with another bank, despite the fact the Huston's bank is still in good shape; 2) Huston's wife (Kay Johnson) is faithful but upset at how much time he is spending taking care of bank business; 3) Pat O'Brien, a reformed burglar (this is a rather vague plot point), is the chief teller and has the full confidence of Huston, and is also dating Huston's secretary (Constance Cummings); 4) head cashier Gavin Gordon has run up some rather big gambling debts and is approached by a gangster to help arrange an after-hours robbery. How all the storylines converge: in order to establish an alibi, Gordon sweet-talks Johnson, left alone on her wedding anniversary, into a night on the town, ending up in his apartment. O'Brien thinks they're having an affair and goes to Gordon's that night to try and break it up. The gangsters pull off the robbery, with a watchman shot dead, and O'Brien falls under suspicion but won't tell the cops where he was for fear of upsetting Huston. Wild rumors about the robbery and the potential failure of the bank cause hundreds of depositors to stream in that afternoon to take their money out, which would, of course, lead to a real bank failure. Can Huston save the bank, his marriage, and O'Brien's reputation?

If you've seen It's a Wonderful Life (and who hasn't?), you'll know Huston's (and Capra's) faith in the essential goodness of people saves him in the end. There is no angelic intervention here, though there is a brief moment when it looks like Huston is considering suicide. There are two strikingly-shot sequences involving the telephone rumor-mongering and the hordes of customers swarming inside the bank, desperate for their money. There is maybe one plot line too many; though I like O'Brien and Cummings quite a bit here, their romance feels tacked-on, perhaps at the expense of developing the character of Huston's wife. The film is well-paced and has a couple of nice throwaway scenes at the beginning and end involving the staff of tellers and their relationship with O'Brien. Edwin Maxwell does a nice job as Huston's nemesis, the kind of role which Edward Arnold and Lionel Barrymore would hone to perfection in later Capra films, and Sterling Holloway, the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh, makes his sound film debut here as a teller. The DVD print is excellent. In honor of our country's current economic crisis, which I don't think can be solved by the "little" investors out there (though I'd like to see angels give it a shot), I'll review another bank crisis movie tomorrow. [DVD]

Friday, November 21, 2008

THE PHANTOM BROADCAST (1933)

Arnold Gray is a popular radio crooner who sends corsages to his female fans and sets up one-night stands with them all, on different nights of the week, of course. His manager and pianist (Ralph Forbes), a hunchback, stays behind the scenes and is considered a nice guy by everyone who knows him, though Gray treats him like dirt. A mobster wants Forbes to sign over Gray's contract to him, and Forbes refuses, leading to a little dust-up. Meanwhile, Gail Patrick, a singer looking for a break, comes to Forbes' attention; he tells her she has promise, but she must give up her boyfriend to concentrate on her career. Suddenly, halfway through the picture, we learn a surprising fact: Gray's singing is actually done by Forbes, hidden away at the piano, while Gray moves his lips to Forbes' voice. Forbes, who has a bit of a crush on Patrick, suspects that she has been done dirt by the singer, so he heads off to Gray's apartment with a gun, but finds the crooner already shot dead. Assuming that Patrick did it, Forbes covers up for her and tells the police he did it, but she didn't do it after all, and a tragic ending is in store for the sweet-natured hunchback singer.

This very low-budget thriller from Monogram Pictures has several things going for it: an unusual set-up, three solid performances from Forbes, Patrick, and Gray, and a shocking pre-Code ending which lets Murdock's killer get off scot-free. The lip-sync plot element is interesting and allows for a good climax, but otherwise it doesn't feel crucial to the story. Though Patrick is definitely the leading lady, Vivienne Osborne, who starred in silent films, gets top female billing; her role is important but she has less screen time than Patrick. Gabby Hayes, best known as a crusty old sidekick in countless Westerns, is credited as a police officer, but I didn't recognize him. The Alpha DVD print has heavy damage to both picture and sound, but is watchable. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A HATFUL OF RAIN (1957)

Don Murray is a Korean War vet who has become a heroin addict, apparently as a result of a drug dependency which followed a hospital stay after the war. He has a decent job and lives in a housing project in Brooklyn with his pregnant wife, Eva Marie Saint. She doesn't know about his addiction, but suspects that his odd behavior, such as spending occasional nights away from home, is due to his having an affair. Murray's brother, Anthony Franciosa, a bar bouncer, lives with them and has recently confessed to Saint that he's in love with her--and she's clearly on the edge of feeling the same way about him. As if things around the apartment weren't tense enough, the boys' father (Lloyd Nolan) arrives from Florida to collect some money that Franciosa had saved up for him to use to buy his own nightclub. Franciosa doesn't have the money; he lets Nolan think he squandered it away, as he's already considered the black sheep of the family by his dad, but he actually gave it to Murray to pay off some drug debts. Now Murray is in debt again, and the pushers aren't in a waiting mood.

This is based on a play and it shows, in good ways (clear narrative arc, well defined characters) and bad (overwrought dialogue, some stagy performances). At the time, it was considered a fairly honest look at an unpleasant topic, but now it comes off as hopelessly dated, like an after-school special for adults. Still, taken as a stagy period piece, much of it remains compelling. For one thing, it stars two of the most attractive male actors of the late 50's. Murray is too clean-cut and mild to be effective as a Jekyll/Hyde-type addict; overall he's not bad but his withdrawal scenes seem rather artificial nowadays. Franciosa, who was nominated for an Oscar, is much better in a more complex role: he's the brother who was never good enough for his father, but who now has become complicit with Murray in hiding Murray's problems from not just the father but from Murray's wife. Nolan is good at playing an abrasive character; Saint usually gets the best notices from critics of the film, but I find her to be, like Murray, too mild; perhaps she was underacting as a way of compensating for the stagy atmosphere. Viewers who aren't aware that there was a time when "rehab" wasn't an everyday catchphrase may find the ending to be a bit baffling, with Murray carted out of state to recover. Henry Silva makes for a so-so villain, but William Hickey is more interesting as a pusher sidekick. [FMC]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948)

Reporter Lucile Bremer goes to novice private eye Richard Carlson and asks him to help her break the case of a corrupt judge who has gone missing. She thinks he's hiding out in a private sanitarium so they pose as a married couple and she convinces a doctor to commit him. Once at the asylum, Carlson discovers that patients are being abused by sadistic guard Douglas Fowley. He makes friends with an orderly (Ralf Harolde) and a firebug patient, and soon finds out that Bremer's suspicions are correct, but by then, the head doc and the judge have found out Carlson is on to them, and they plan to have him meet a brutal fate at the hands of a violently insane ex-boxer (Tor Johnson) who is kept in solitary confinement. Bremer catches on to their plan, but can she stop it before the damage is done? This is part of a film noir box set from Kino, and though it is a well-made B-thriller, it doesn't have a noir feel to me, except that many key scenes take place at night. Bremer, who I found wanting as Judy Garland's older sister in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, is actually quite good here; ironically, this was her last film role before she retired from acting at the age of 31. Carlson makes a fine B-movie hero, and Fowley is appropriately slimy. Johnson has a wordless role here as he did in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Overall, a solid and well paced film, disappointing only if you're really expecting a film noir. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

THE OSCAR (1966)

A notoriously bad junk movie, directly in the Harold Robbins/Jacqueline Susann line of trash, but not a bit of fun to sit through. Actor Stephen Boyd is sitting in the audience at the Academy Awards, certain he's going to win the Oscar. We learn how Boyd came to this moment through a flashback narrated by his former best friend and manager, Tony Bennett. Years earlier, the two toured the country in a sleazy nightclub act with stripper Jill St. John. An ornery Southern sheriff frames them on trumped-up prostitution charges. They wind up in New York City where Boyd meets the fashion designer Elke Sommer at a Greenwich Village party. He splits with St. John, not realizing she's pregnant, and gets a job working with Sommer. When he criticizes an actor at a play rehearsal, talent scout Eleanor Parker gets him hooked up with an agent, Milton Berle, and soon Boyd is going places as an actor. He marries Sommer in a quickie Tijuana wedding, but cheats on her with women procured by Bennett. Boyd's career is going well, though he's also making enemies right and left, including studio boss Joseph Cotton, and is shocked when he runs into a former star (Peter Lawford) who is now working as a maitre d'. Soon Boyd's career starts sputtering, and just as he's about to accept the lowly offer of a TV series, he gets word that he's up for an Oscar. In hopes of ensuring a victory, he gets private eye Ernest Borgnine to dig up his past morals charges and splash them in the headlines, the plan being that voters will assume that another nominee dug up the dirt, thus giving Boyd the sympathy vote. By Oscar night, Boyd has alienated everyone around him, including Bennett and Berle; will his scheme to win the gold statue work?

The plot is smack in the middle of Valley of the Dolls territory and could have been trashy fun, but there are three major problems: 1) it takes itself far too seriously, ruining any possibility of camp entertainment; 2) the script (co-authored by Harlan Ellison) is filled with bad dialogue; 3) the acting is dreadful, beginning with Boyd who is alternately wooden and over-the-top, and who uses a bizarre accent, and Bennett, a damn fine singer who comes off as a amateurish actor. Surprisingly, Berle is quite good underplaying the agent, as is Edie Adams as Borgnine's blowzy wife. The only fun is watching for the cameos which include Broderick Crawford, Ed Begley Sr., Walter Brennan, and, appearing as themselves, Hedda Hopper, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra. This may sound like fun, but it was a chore to sit through. Connoisseurs of bad acting may relish Boyd and Bennett's cringe-worthy performances, but all others should stay away. [TCM]

Sunday, November 09, 2008

YOU CAN'T HAVE EVERYTHING (1937)

A Fox musical with the bland Alice Faye, the young Don Ameche (before he became charming) and the Ritz Brothers, who were never young or charming: should be a recipe for tedium or horror, but surprisingly, it all works pretty well in this mild but entertaining backstage story. Faye is a starving playwright (and great-granddaughter of Edgar Allan Poe) who meets a drunken playboy (Ameche) in a restaurant. She tells him about the play she's trying to sell, "North Winds," set in the Arctic, about "the vital problems that confront women in the Frozen North." Ameche is actually a successful playwright himself, but he doesn't tell her that; instead, he gets his producer (Charles Winninger) to option the (bad) play and send her a check so she won't give up and go back to her hometown. He begins squiring her about town, and when he finds out she's actually a much better singer than a writer, he has Winninger try to convince her to star in his new musical. Soon the charade is up, but Faye has fallen in love with Ameche so she agrees to do the show. Until, that is, a old pal of Ameche's (Louise Hovick, aka Gypsy Rose Lee) shows up claiming that she and Ameche were married that drunken night at the beginning of the movie. Faye, disgusted, gores back home; Ameche and Winninger rework her play into a big musical, using it bait to get her back. Of course, she hears about the play and, mad as hell, goes to Broadway to stop the show, but when she sees the ecstatic audience reaction, and when Winninger has her take to the stage for an author's bow, she gives in to success. And, of course, it turns out that Ameche was actually too drunk to sign the wedding license that night, so he's not really married to Hovick. Ah, a happy ending! Who'da thunk it?

Faye has more personality here than in some her other efforts, and the Ritz Brothers, playing themselves as featured performers in Ameche's play, are actually bearable, even pretty funny, much less irritating than usual (as in ONE IN A MILLION or STRAIGHT PLACE AND SHOW). They do a number in long johns called "Underwear, How We Love You!" and they want to send a love-letter telegram to Hovick signed the New York Giants. A dance trio called Tip, Tap, and Toe do an impressive tap number, Tony Martin is in good voice as the leading man in the musical, and the title number isn't bad. I was fully prepared to give this one ten minutes than shut it off, but I wound up enjoying it. [FMC]

Monday, November 03, 2008

TOBACCO ROAD (1941)

Jeeter Lester (Charley Grapewin) and his impoverished family live on a plot of land in rural Georgia which, long ago when they were active tenant farmers, was promised in perpetuity to them. But Dana Andrews, the son of the late landowner, arrives with the news that he has lost the land to the bank and in order to stay on the land for another year, Grapewin has a week to come up with $100 rent money. Whether because the land is barren or because the family is slothful and decadent, they are barely able to eke out a meal, let alone a living. The film follows the family's misadventures during the week. The teenage son (William Tracy) marries a 40-something revivalist (Marjorie Rambeau) who is constantly singing hymns and exhorting others to join in--and they usually do; the main action of the last half of the film occurs when she buys a car with insurance money left her by her late husband, and Grapewin tries to get hold of the car himself to sell it for his rent. Son-in-law Ward Bond comes by once in a while, complaining that his 13-year-old wife Pearl objects to being tied up, and soon Grapewin is offering his sexy 23-year-old daughter (Gene Tierney) to Bond as a replacement--though Bond thinks she's too old for a wife. Grapewin's wife (Elizabeth Patterson) is sad that none of her other "seventeen or eighteen" children ever write or visit. There's also a grandmother lurking around somewhere whom we rarely see. In the end, just as Grapewin and Patterson head off for the poor farm, Andrews ponies up 50 bucks for a half-year's rent so they can stay, but it's made clear that nothing's really changed and that six months later, the family will be in the same straits, and, oh yeah, Grandma just might be lying dead in the woods.

This is based on a notorious novel and long-running play, both of which were considered controversial in their time for the portrayal of such an unsavory lifestyle. The movie was altered considerably to conform to the Production Code and it winds up played as a comedy; it could even be seen as a forerunner to the rural "Beverly Hillbillies"-type shows that were popular in the 60's. The young Tierney, almost unrecognizable under a thick layer of dirt, is sexy as all get-out, but she has almost nothing to do except to pull a mock seduction on Bond in order to get his bag of turnips (and that's not a metaphor). Though the characters are almost uniformly unlikeable, the acting is really quite good. Grapewin (OZ's Uncle Henry) and Patterson (Mrs. Trumball on "I Love Lucy") do particularly well in rare lead performances. There is an almost palpably unpleasant atmosphere set up at times, but whenever it threatens to become too dark, it's undercut by humor. Bond's child bride is mentioned but never seen, and Tracy looks and acts older than a teenager, so his relationship with Rambeau is just odd rather then potentially repellent. The movie looks great, especially the first few minutes which take place at a ramshackle old mansion belonging to Rambeau and her brother (Slim Summerville). This film has been difficult to run across until recently when Fox issued it on DVD as part of a set of John Ford films. Recommended. [DVD]

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Universal MUMMY movies (1932-1944)

What the comedians say about the Mummy is true: he is the classic monster who would seem least likely to actually harm you since he moves so darned slowly, shuffling and limping along with trails of raggedy wrappings which could trip him at any moment. Still, the image of the lumbering, undead, wrapped-up figure is enough to bring a chill, and I can imagine being stopped dead in your tracks if confronted thusly. Anyway, suspension of disbelief is such a major part of being a horror movie fan, what's one more detail to take with a grain of salt? The first movie in the series, THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff, has very little footage of Karloff in his mummy outfit; just the spooky opening sequence in Egypt in which a mummy from a plundered grave comes back to life. We don't even see the mummy move, but we do see a young archeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) go mad from witnessing the mummy get out of its sarcophagus and, in Fletcher's gibbering words, take "a little walk." Months later, the formerly mummified Im-Ho-Tep winds up in England as Ardeth Bey (Karloff in excellent old-age make-up), and the film becomes a gothic romance as he tries to seduce a young lady (Zita Johann) who is the reincarnation of his long-lost love from ages ago. Two cast members from the 1931 DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, essentially repeat their roles from the earlier film as men engaging in "wild work" to save a woman from an undead creature. The film is rather slow-moving but the atmosphere helps a great deal. It has almost nothing in common with the 1999 Brendan Fraser remake except the vague general theme of transmigration of souls over centuries.

In the early 40's, Universal made a series of four B-movie sequels and these films are where the stereotype of the slow shambling Mummy monster come from. 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND sets up the template for the rest, with an Egyptian high priest (George Zucco) put in charge of keeping watch over Kharis, a mummy who can be brought back to life with a potion of tanna leaves when he's needed to stop outsiders from defiling a tomb. The movie is enjoyable, though it relies a little too much on the comic touches of its heroes, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford, who very nearly become Abbott and Costello; Cecil Kellaway as a befuddled magician is more fun. Western star Tom Tyler is Kharis, always fully wrapped up, so he doesn't exactly get to stretch his acting abilities. In 1942 came THE MUMMY'S TOMB, a direct sequel set several years later; it has the same basic plot, this time playing out in America, where the high priest (Turhan Bey) has brought the mummy (Lon Chaney Jr.) to life to punish the tomb raiders.

1944's THE MUMMY'S GHOST sticks with the same outline, but re-introduces the concept of the reincarnated lovers from the first film. It has a rather startling ending involving the damsel in distress, who apparently really is the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, and would have been a nice endpiece to the series, but one more followed the same year, THE MUMMY'S CURSE, set apart from the rest by its setting, the Louisiana Bayou; its heroine is Virginia Christine, known several years later as the kindly Mrs. Olson in a series of ads for Folger's Coffee. Technically, all four films follow one long storyline, but the plotholes are way too big in terms of time passed (60 years between HAND and CURSE) and locale (how did Kharis get from Egypt to New England to Louisiana?). Despite the slight changes in each one, they are difficult to tell apart unless you watch them all together in one sitting--which I do not recommend. But taken separately, a few days or weeks apart, the series remains highly watchable. The DVD "Legacy" collection from Universal is a very nice package, though lacking in any extras above and beyond the commentary and featuette on the first Mummy film--both of which are well worth your time. [DVD]

Thursday, October 30, 2008

DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)

Though made five years after the Bela Lugosi DRACULA, this sequel begins in the immediate aftermath of the 1931 film, as Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has a bit of explaining to do to Scotland Yard when he admits to killing Count Dracula by staking him through the heart. His friend at the yard, Sir Basil, allows Van Helsing to get psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to defend him, but when Dracula’s body vanishes from the morgue, there is no corpus delecti. We know that the Countess Zeleska (Gloria Holden), a vampire herself, has stolen the body and burned it, hoping to break vampirism's hold on her, but it doesn't work. When Zeleska meets Garth at a party, she asks for his help in breaking the "influence" from beyond the grave, something he thinks can be done through will power, but of course, it's not that easy and, with the help of her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), Zaleska continues hunting down victims and putting the bite on them. The film climaxes in Transylvania with a kind of love "rectangle" after Zaleska kidnaps Garth's secretary (Marguerite Churchill), hoping to get Garth to sacrifice himself and spend eternity with her, although the jealous Sandor may have something to say about that.

This sequel can't compare to the original; it is more smoothly made and has better acting, but it tends to bog down in talky scenes and has nothing like the wonderfully creepy opening sequence of the 1931 version to compensate for the overall blandness of the movie. Holden has the right look for an icy vampire countess but is rather one-note in performance, and she can't hold a candle to Lugosi. Kruger is fine, but Churchill has to shoulder the burden of some silly comic relief. The best scene is Holden's seduction of the lovely but homeless Lili (Nan Grey); because of this brief scene, the film is often written about for its homoerotic aspect, and it remains a striking moment. After the first 15 minutes, Van Sloan has little to do. Familiar supporting faces include Hedda Hopper, Halliwell Hobbes, and the ever-effeminate Claud Alister. A must-see for fans of classic horror, but not really essential for those just delving into the genre. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

CULT OF THE COBRA (1956)

In post WWII Asia (that's as specific as the title credit gets), a group of GIs, including Marshall Thompson and Richard Long, looking for some cheap thrills gain entrance to a secret religious ritual of the Lamians, a sect in which some members can supposedly change into snakes. During a rather sexy dance routine involving a slinky, barely dressed woman slithering in and out of a snake basket, one of the drunken soldiers (James Dobson) tries to take a picture and the crowd chases them out, but not before Dobson winds up with a snake bite. He's on the mend in the hospital, but mysteriously winds up dead from another bite the next day. Months later, back in New York City, the men begin dying one by one, of snake bites. Could this have something to do with the mysterious, exotic Faith Domergue, a woman who has moved in across from roomies Thompson and Long?

I'd never heard of this film at all until it came out as part of a Universal sci-fi DVD collection. It's not so much sci-fi as an attempt at a "Cat People"-kind of horror movie. It starts out well with the nicely atmospheric "Asian" sequence, but when it moves to New York, it becomes just another B-movie thriller with sparse sets and uninspired acting. There are some interesting plot and character details presented but not much is done with them: for example, Long and Thompson are both vying for the affections of Kathleen Hughes, and eventually it's Thompson who gets dumped, but the whole affair winds up playing no part in the proceedings. The soldiers are all sturdy and handsome (especially William Reynolds as Pete) with Thompson doing the best acting. Domergue is fairly wooden, but that befits her character. Unlike in CAT PEOPLE, there is no ambiguity about whether or not the supernatural is involved—we see her change into a cobra at least once (done cleverly in shadow), and that takes some of the suspense out of the film. I did enjoy this on its own B-movie level, though the DVD set itself (Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Volume 2) is disappointing. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

THE BLACK SLEEP (1956)

A decent horror film which I found interesting to view as a prelude to the Hammer and American International shockers which would follow just a couple of years later. If it were in color, I would swear that it was, in fact, a lost Roger Corman film from the early 60's, which perhaps means that it was ahead of its time. In 1872, a doctor (Herbert Rudley) is about to be executed for murder, though we understand he was framed. His mentor, Basil Rathbone, visits him in his cell and gives him a drug which puts him in a deathlike state (the Black Sleep of the title); Rathbone then takes his body and revives him so he can assist with some unorthodox experiments on human brains. At Rathbone's mansion, Rudley meets Mongo (Lon Chaney Jr.), a violent hulking brute who can only be controlled by the housekeeper; Rudley soon discovers that Chaney was once a respected doctor who assisted Rathbone until he became one of the doctor's experiments and wound up the senseless brute he is now. Sure enough, the cellar is full of poor souls who have been turned into slobbering monsters due to Rathbone's handiwork; the doc is messing around in the brains of others in order to find a way to save his wife, who has fallen into a coma due to a brain tumor. Rathbone believes that anything is justified in the interest of science, and Rudley is with him to a point until he finds out that Rathbone is the one who framed him, and that the man he supposedly killed (Tor Johnson) is still alive in chained up in the cellar. When Rathbone decides to put Chaney's daughter under the knife, Rudley decides to fight back, leading to a climactic revolt of the "freaks," which, though it suffers from being done on such a low budget, is still worth sticking around for. The film has the look and feel of a Hammer period piece or a Corman Poe film, though the sets here are not as elaborate. One brief sequence of brain surgery is fairly graphic for the era. Rathbone is in fine form. Poor, tired-looking Bela Lugosi, in the last film he completed before his death, plays a mute butler. John Carradine has a small but juicy role as one of the damaged freaks, a bearded religious fanatic who thinks he's at the Crusades. Akim Tamiroff has his own subplot as a gypsy tattoo artist who supplies Rathbone with subjects using the Black Sleep drug. The make-up for the deformed freaks is quite good. At times, between the sparse sets and the sketchy script, the movie feels only half-finished, but it's not nearly as bad as its reputation would indicate. Just don't expect much out of Lugosi or Chaney. [TCM]

Sunday, October 26, 2008

THE LEECH WOMAN (1960)

Philip Terry is an endocrinologist who has been experimenting with ways to keep his female patients looking young. His wife, Coleen Gray, who is several years older than he, has taken to moping and drinking because he is unhappy with her looks, so they're on the verge of divorce when a elderly patient of Terry's (Estelle Hemsley), who claims to be 140 years old, gives him a substance from her native African tribe which can bring back youth. Unfortunately, there is a second secret ingredient which she won't reveal, so Terry and Gray get a guide (John Van Dreelan) to take them into darkest Africa to find the tribe. It turns out that the substance, a powder from a rare orchid, has to be mixed with a secretion from a man's pineal gland, and that involves killing the man. Gray kills Terry (and eventually Van Dreelan), turns young, and gets back to the U.S., posing as her own young niece, where she gets the hots for her young lawyer (Grant Williams). Two problems: the continual need to kill men to stay young, and Williams' pissed-off fiancée (Gloria Talbott) who soon comes after Gray with a gun.

This is a pretty bad movie and I didn't realize until halfway through that I'd seen it mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 some years ago. The story has potential, especially since an overt theme of the film, that aging men are treated with respect but aging women are ignored (clearly articulated by Hemsley) is still relevant today. Gray and Talbott give decent performances, Terry does OK as the hissable villain, and Williams is his usual wooden but handsome self. There is too much obvious stock footage in the African sequences and the climax is almost totally botched. But for me the biggest problem is that Gray never, ever looks older than Terry, who looks rather seedy and every bit of his fifty years. Gray, not quite 40, looks like a rather dowdy 40 with what passes for old-age make-up on. When she's taken the serum, she looks great--it seems to mostly take away her dark eye circles and give her hair some kicky freshness--but because she never really looked that bad to begin with, it's hard to buy into the movie's central premise. The DVD print is pristine, but it's an plain and ugly-looking movie. [DVD]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

KRONOS (1957)

Chintzy little SF thriller with little to make it rise above the average late-50's alien story aside from the title, er…, character, a gigantic metallic block creature, a cross between a robot and an ultra-modern office building. In an opening that feels like a scene from the later Close Encounters, a man driving a truck on a desert road one night is attacked by a Tinker Bell-like light flare which possesses him to head over to the nearest astrophysics lab. The flare leaps out of him and into scientist John Emery, who then communicates with more blinking flares outside his window. An object that scientists believe is an asteroid plummets into the sea just off the Mexican coast, at which point Emery passes out. Colleague Jeff Morrow and his totsy assistant Barbara Lawrence head off to Mexico where they kiss on the beach, then see the boxy metallic monolithic Kronos rise up out of the water. Guided by whatever extraterrestrial intelligence has possessed Emery, Kronos starts walking around (on cartoon-animated legs) sucking up energy to take back to its dying home planet. Bombing it just gives it more power, but when it heads to Los Angeles, Morrow comes up with a plan to destroy it by overloading it with energy. Kronos is a fairly nifty creation; Morrow and Lawrence actually land on it, enter it, and investigate a bit, and it seems more like a space ship than a sentient creature, but it's still an impressive "character," and it certainly makes more of an impact than any of the human cast. Morrow is stolid and drab, and Lawrence is kind of a zero; there's a room-sized computer named SUSIE, which has about as much charisma as those two. Emery looks constantly constipated, and the only other cast member to register is George O'Hanlon (later the voice of George Jetson) as a comic relief sidekick. Sadly, the DVD has no extras but it is letterboxed--I can't imagine this would be worth seeing at all in a pan & scan version. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (1955)
THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (1960)

It's superbad B-minus-movie day here at the Moviepalace with two deadly dull sf films whose titles promise much more that the filmmakers could deliver. I'm reviewing BEAST because it was one of the first "monster" movies I remember seeing in a theater (probably at a Saturday kiddie matinée in the mid-60's). Like a lot of other poverty row sf films of the era, it's about a powerful creature from outer space which begins its takeover of planet Earth with a tiny handful of people who live out in the middle of nowhere, in this case, a desert. It's also a dysfunctional family movie masquerading as a horror film. Paul Birch's ranch is failing, and his wife, Lorna Thayer, is none to happy about that, or about using money they need to send their daughter (Dona Cole) off to college. I imagine she thinks that if life with a middle-aged dumpy loser in the middle of the desert is good enough for her, it's good enough for Lorna. But Lorna wants more, including deputy Dick Sargent (yes, the second Darrin from "Bewitched," who wasn't bad looking in his mid-20s). To complete the picture, there's a mute brain-damaged farm hand (Leonard Tarver) who, my partner reminded me, comes off like a less sinister Jud Fry (Rod Steiger's brutish character in OKLAHOMA!). In the middle of all this household tension, the outer space Beast arrives, shooting over their house one afternoon, landing in a small cave, and starting its planetary takeover by possessing animals, such as birds, chickens, dogs, and cows, and making them attack the humans (the sight of a rampaging cow is quite laughable, and even the dog attack is ineptly handled, though the bird scene is moderately effective, except that the same shot is repeated 6 or 7 times). Then it aims for the weak-minded Tarver, but Birch soon figures out what's up, and also figures out that when they band together, they can fight off the influence of the Beast. Yes, the moral of the story, almost literally, is, in the words of the Beatles, all you need is love. If you look at it as a precursor to later "animals gone wild" movies such as THE BIRDS or FROGS, you might get some enjoyment out of this film. The acting is pretty bad and I assumed that most of the players aside from Sargent were non-pros, but Birch and Thayer both had decent careers (Birch has over 100 roles listed on IMDb). The music is terrible, sounding like randomly chosen snatches from educational or industrial films. It’s not really much fun, even as a bad movie, even though one of the producers was Roger Corman. [TCM]

AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN is the work of renowned on-the-cheap auteur Edgar G. Ulmer (DETOUR, BLUEBEARD and many other sub-B movies). This was one of his last films, and he seems to have completely lost whatever creative spark he had by this time. Crook Douglas Kennedy breaks out of jail with the help of girlfriend Marguerite Chapman, and she takes him to the desert home/laboratory of crazy Army Major James Griffith who is forcing old guy scientist Ivan Triesault to work on a method of making living beings invisible. They want Kennedy to be their guinea pig and, once invisible, to go off and steal some radioactive material which is needed to keep the machine functioning. Of course, the stupid major never stops to think that a transparent man could get the upper hand fairly quickly and that's what happens. After he gets the stuff, Kennedy robs a bank but discovers that he can't control when he turns visible again, which causes problems. The actors don't act particularly well, but they do a nice job of pretending to get beaten up by the Transparent Man. The fx are so-so, but bare minimum. The unexpected nuclear blast climax is almost worth sticking around for, but you'll probably be sound asleep by that time. [TCM]

Sunday, October 19, 2008

COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970)

A decent modern (as in, not set in the creaky past) vampire movie, and maybe an important transitional one from the old-fashioned one-dimensional Bela Lugosi type to the more romantic Frank Langella/Brad Pitt version. In current-day (70's) Los Angeles, the Bulgarian Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) holds a séance with Donna and her friends so she can contact the spirit of her dead mother, who had recently been hanging out with Yorga. Donna becomes hysterical and while calming her, Yorga secretly puts her under his supernatural powers. Donna's pals Erica and Paul wind up with their van stuck overnight in the mud on Yorga's property; after a long make-out session, Yorga attacks, putting the bite on Erica who soon begins eating live cats. Yep, Yorga is a vampire and Donna and Erica are on their way to similar fates unless their boyfriends, with the help of a Van Helsing-ish doctor, can help. As in the Stoker and Lugosi Dracula narratives, the men go about their "wild work"; one woman (Erica) becomes a full-fledged vampire and can only be saved by the stake and the cross, while the other (Donna), being drained more slowly, might be saved before her full transformation. This B-film doesn't look very good, but the plot and some of the actors make the proceedings tolerable. Quarry is fine as the mysterious count, alternately vicious and seductive; Michael Murphy, a Robert Altman regular, is good as Paul, and familiar TV face Roger Perry is OK as the doctor. The women seemed to have been hired more for their looks; there is a much-repeated rumor that this film was originally intended to be a soft-core porn movie and the filmmakers changed focus along the way, but I've also heard that's just a Hollywood urban legend, though there is a seemingly truncated scene involving some woman-on-woman action between a couple of Yorga's vampire "brides" which is sometimes cited as evidence of the porn story. 40's and 50's character actor George Macready (the bad guy in GILDA) provides some opening narration. [TCM]

Friday, October 17, 2008

I, MONSTER (1971)

In London at the turn of the century, a psychologist (Christopher Lee), an early follower of that Freud fellow, believes that good and evil can be separated in humans and he's come up with a serum to do just that. When he gives it to his gentle cat, it goes wild and he has to kill it. He gives it to a young female patient to help her shed her inhibitions and she indeed does that, as well as shed her clothes. Soon he decides to restrict experimentation to himself; at first, the serum gives him a silly grin and makes his smash a beaker (and he thinks about slicing off a mouse's head). Later he grows big teeth and strolls around town committing petty crimes. At first, he always returns to normal, but soon his bestial self begins to take control; after he kills a whore, he vows not to continue the injections, but his transformations happen anyway, and his looks get uglier and more primitive. His friend (Peter Cushing) soon figures what's happening, leading to the predictable climax. Not quite "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," produced not quite by Hammer but by their chief rival in British horror, Amicus. Actually, as most critics point out, this version, which gives the main characters the names of Marlowe and Blake rather than Jekyll and Hyde, is more faithful to the Stevenson story than most other film adaptations. The Freud connection is interesting, and Lee is OK, but otherwise the film is unremarkable, looking quite B-ish in execution and visually unexciting. Search out the excellent 1931 version with Fredric March which has not been equaled (and since it's on a disc with the lesser 1941 Spencer Tracy film, you might as well watch that one, too.) [DVD]

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE SNOW DEVILS (1965)

Nicely cheesy Italian sci-fi film, complete with garish colors, chintzy special effects, and dubbed dialogue. It plays out like an episode of a TV series, with little context set up for our characters and their situations. When a military station in the Himalayas is destroyed and the staff killed, and there are rumors of snow monsters in the area, Commander Rod (Jack Stuart) and his buddy Frank (Rene Baldwin) are sent to investigate. It turns out that there *are* snow devils in the area; dog-faced, Prince Valiant-haired, Superman cape-wearing aliens want to melt the polar ice caps in an attempt to take over the planet. Rod and Frank wind up setting our for the moons of Jupiter to do battle, though the cut-rate effects take some of the edge off of the action. This is apparently part of a series of "Gamma 1" movies that the director, Anthony Dawson—real name, Antonio Margheriti—made in the 60's. I think Gamma 1 is a satellite, or maybe it's the name of the global organization for which Commander Rod works. In any case, this movie does work up some cheap MST3K-type fun, with a few fabulous shiny outfits for the men and women, a big Ken doll hairdo for our hero, and fisticuffs and ray guns galore. Despite the plastic-looking hair, the actor playing Rod, whose real name is Giacomo Ross-Stuart, is handsome and hardy. The hero's love interest is Amber Collins (what a perfect soap opera name!). The opening sequence at the Himalayan weather station is quite well done, though nothing after lives up to it, especially the abrupt and silly ending. [TCM]

Monday, October 13, 2008

THE GHOST TRAIN (1941)

In England during WWII on a violently stormy night, a group of train travelers get stranded at a railway station in the middle of nowhere. The stationmaster (Herbert Lomas) insists that they can't stay, but as their connecting train won't be by until morning, they have no other choice. Just before he leaves, Lomas tells them a local legend about a mysterious train that supposedly rolls through on an otherwise unused set of tracks in the middle of the night, a "ghost" of a train which crashed off a bridge years ago. The travelers include an annoying vaudeville performer (Arthur Askey), a star athlete and his attractive female companion (who turns out to be his cousin), a doctor who likes a nip now and then, a stuffy older lady with a parrot, and an anxious couple who are to be married the next day. During the height of the storm, Lomas staggers back in the station and drops dead, the lights go out, and a highly-strung woman (Linden Travers) and her brother arrive with more stories about the imminent arrival of the train. The body of the stationmaster vanishes, and soon there's no doubt that something is about to come roaring through on the ghost train tracks.

This is based on a play which was adapted to film in 1931 (and which seems to be lost). It's essentially a British version of the American films of the era which featured comedians like Bob Hope or Abbott & Costello in spooky surroundings. In almost all such cases (Hope's THE GHOST BREAKERS, Kay Kyser's YOU'LL FIND OUT), the comedy overwhelms the spookiness, and the same thing happens here. These are good movies but I do wish that the comedy/horror balance had gone the other way on occasion. The star of this film, Arthur Askey, was a well known comic with his straight-man partner Richard Murdoch (here playing a train passenger who woos the athlete's cousin, Carole Lynne). Askey is rather annoying, but as his character is supposed to be, it's difficult to judge his performance. He and Murdoch don't show much chemistry, but they are serviceable. The relatively light mood shifts effectively to a much creepier tone with the arrival of the unbalanced woman and the last 20 minutes or so move along nicely to the predictable non-supernatural explanation of events. Among the cast, Kathleen Harrison is a standout as the tee-totaling older lady who takes some brandy from the doctor, strictly as medicine, and winds up drunk. I also like the low-key performance of Stuart Latham as the nervous groom-to-be. Askey's high point is an amusing novelty tune, "The Seaside Band," which he never gets to complete. Some of the early antics in the train compartments look like they might have influenced the Beatles' similar antics in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT many years later. Like YOU'LL FIND OUT, this could be a good Halloween viewing choice. [TCM]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

PHASE IV (1974)

This was part of a 70's resurfacing of the "animals-as-monsters" genre which first hit in the mid 50's. The first time around, it was largely triggered by fears of the atomic bomb; in the 70's, it was more explicitly about nature striking back due to pollution and growing ecosystem damage. This film is unusual in several respects: 1) the animals here, ants, do not grow to giant size but remain tiny, though possessed of some alien intelligence; 2) the cause of the change in the ants does not seem to be due to any ecological threat or a reaction to the ornery wickedness of mankind--in fact, the change is never really explained except for some unusual cosmic occurrence which is never clearly identified--a comet? sunspots?; 3) the only substantial special effect technique used here is a kind of micro-cinematography which is effective at rendering the tiny ants as genuine menaces. It's essentially a three-actor show: Nigel Davenport is a scientist who has set up a metallic dome in the desert to study the mysterious behavior of the ants, who seem to be able to communicate with either over large areas and in sophisticated fashion, and are attacking their natural predators in increasingly effective ways; Michael Murphy is his younger assistant; Lynne Frederick is a teenage girl caught by circumstance at their outpost when Davenport sprays the area with a foamy yellow poison (excellent visuals are used in this sequence). The ants are driven underground but retaliate by building, in one night's time, large pillars of sand with shiny, reflective tops aimed at the dome to catch the sunshine and cause the heat inside to rise. There is a computer and electric power in the dome, but the ants manage to get inside and cause havoc with the air conditioning and eventually, the computer. It's a little slow getting to the climax, and it's not a very exciting one, but it is satisfying.

The film seems to have been a low-budget affair (a bite that Davenport gets on his hand could have used a better makeup job to be more ghastly), the plot details are sloppy to say the least, the writing is bland, and, though the men are fine, Frederick isn't very good, though admittedly she is saddled with the worst dialogue in the film. The director, Saul Bass, is best known as a designer of titles and credits (PSYCHO, VERTIGO, WEST SIDE STORY, GOODFELLAS), and he gets away with glossing over important plot points by making the movie always interesting to look at. Frankly, the ants (photographed by Ken Middleham), though their intentions are enigmatic throughout, feel more important as characters than the people. The best scenes in the movie involve no humans: in one, a ball of poison is rolled and carried to the queen by a succession of drones who all die along the way. In another, the ants use a praying mantis in their plan to short-circuit the dome's power. The creepiest shot is one of rows and rows of dead ants, placed that way carefully by other ants. There are sly references to 2001, with opening shots of cosmic bodies in and out of alignment, and the glowing red eye of a computer is glimpsed occasionally. This is no tense nail-biter, and the climax could have used a bit more oomph, but it is a memorable quirky little artifact of its era. [DVD]

Friday, October 10, 2008

JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1966)

I believe I first saw this movie when I was 13 or 14, when weekend movies were occasionally shown at my junior high. I was a monster movie fan, so I was serious about wanting to see it, but everyone else was there just to be away from their families for an afternoon, so mostly I remember lots of chatting and paper airplanes and running out of the auditorium to get snacks. The film has a "bad movie" rep, but I think that is mostly due to its outrageous title; it was definitely done on the cheap and its look and acting are about on a TV-movie level, but if you know what you’re getting into, it's sort of fun. Dr. Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx--fabulous name!) and her brother Rudolph (busy character actor Steven Geray) have left Vienna to continue their grandfather's experiments in an abandoned monastery in the American old West (lots of lightning storms, you know). Juanita (Estelita Rodriguez), a local who has worked for the family in the past, is understandably upset that these experiments have been claiming the lives of many of the nearby village's young men (including her own brother) and she's ready to leave the area for good. From what I could figure out, Maria is killing the boys, then trying to reanimate them by means of artificial brains from her grandfather’s original inventory and a gaudily colored helmet. Obviously, it's not working (and unknown to her, Rudolph is subverting her plans when he surreptitiously puts the victims out of their misery when it's clear the day-glo device isn’t working), but Maria has one more brain, though she's run out of local boys. Lucky for her, the outlaw Jesse James (John Lupton) and his beefy sidekick Hank (Cal Bolder) show up on the run, with Hank seriously wounded from a recent shootout. Juanita takes pity on them and takes them over to the Frankenstein place for doctoring. Juanita is sweet on Hank, and Maria gets a bit of a thing for Jesse, but that doesn't stop her from deciding that Hank is the perfect specimen for her final experiment. In fact, the pretty bicycle helmet does its job and Hank (complete with stitched-up shaved head) becomes Igor, a servant completely under Maria's power. Throw in a lawman (Jim Davis, probably not the creator of Garfield) on the trail of the bandits and you've got the makings for a good ol' western/monster movie climax. Onyx is appropriately dastardly, Bolder is hunky enough, and Lupton, though bland, bears a resemblance to William H. Macy, and when things bog down, it's fun to imagine what Macy might have done with the role. Maybe the Coen Brothers will remake this some day? [TCM]

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954)

Vincent Price is a maker of magician's illusions who works for overbearing boss Donald Randolph. When he tries to break out and become a stage magician himself using a new buzz saw trick he invented, Randolph stops the show with a legal injunction claiming that anything Price makes is Randolph's property, and Randolph wants to give the trick to established magician John Emery. If that isn't enough to royally piss off Price, his ex-wife (Eva Gabor) ran off with Randolph some time ago. Price goes bonkers and buzzes off Randolph's head, then uses his gift for mimicry and makeup to disguise himself as Randolph. Price gets rid of Randolph's body by tossing it on a college bonfire, but Gabor shows up looking for Randolph; when she realizes he's really Price, he kills her and runs away, leaving the police to assume that Randolph is now a killer hiding from justice. Price soon comes up with another grand illusion, a glass crematorium, and when Emery comes around to take it from him, Price kills again. Eventually, Price is hunted down, thanks in part to the new science of fingerprints.

This movie, originally shown in 3-D, was made a year after Price's first big 3-D hit, HOUSE OF WAX. Both films share a producer (Bryan Foy) and a screenwriter (Crane Wilbur), though they were done at different studios by different directors, this one from Columbia and John Brahm. Though this plays out much like WAX (including some gratuitous 3-D gimmick shots), it also has elements from Brahm's earlier classics THE LODGER (the landlady) and HANGOVER SQUARE (the bonfire). Price is good and his disguises look fine, though his mimicked voices are too clearly dubbed in. A vague romance plot is thrown in courtesy Price's assistant (Mary Murphy) and her boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal in his first film role); it neither adds nor subtracts anything from the film. Lyle Talbot has a cameo as a man selling programs which he thrusts at the camera in a 3-D moment. Though not made in color, and lacking the spectacular set pieces of HOUSE OF WAX, this is still good October viewing. [TCM]