Wednesday, December 29, 2010

LOOT (1970)

Every so often, I see a movie to which description cannot do justice. Sometimes it's a great movie (like 2001: A Space Odyssey), sometimes it's a terrible movie (like Santa Claus vs. the Martians), and sometimes, it's just fuckin' weird. Loot is that third kind of movie. Actually, it's not quite one-of-a kind; it reminds me in its energy and dark humor of THE WRONG BOX, a manic British farce of the Swingin' Sixties era. That movie had a strong cast and some witty dialogue well delivered. This movie falls down on all those counts, even though it's based on a play by the well-regarded Joe Orton. Still, because it's not on home video and showings of it are rare, this is one to catch for lovers of, shall we say, eccentric cinema. I took notes as I watched, but as I look back over them, nothing seems coherent. Still, I'll soldier on:

Hywell Bennett and Roy Holder (above) are friends who often seem to be just on the verge of being lovers, grabbing and hugging and calling each other "Baby." Bennett works for an undertaker. He and his buddy have a 3-way in a hearse with a meter maid. Holder's mother dies and the funeral parlor where her body is housed is next door to a bank. The boys decide to rob the bank (stark naked, for some reason or other) take mom's body out of the coffin, put the loot in, and make a getaway. Of course, it's not that easy. Richard Attenborough shows up as a odd detective in a Hitler mustache, and Lee Remick is the dead mother's sexy nurse. For much of its running time, the movie is a frantic door-slamming farce which takes place in the odd little village hotel that Holder's father (Milo O'Shea) runs, involving hiding and finding the bags of money and the mother's corpse But the more frantic a farce, the more it risks coming off as desperate, and that's exactly what happens here. The director throws everything but the kitchen sink at us and about a third of it is amusing, but the rest just seems strange. The art direction is rather fabulous--every set is garish, largely in tones of purple, yellow and blue, and that's one of the few elements here that works. There are some quotable lines, most likely derived directly from Orton. Holder: "Bury her naked! My mom! It's a Freudian nightmare!!" Attenborough, thinking Holder wants to open the coffin for some hanky panky: "Conjugal rights should stop at the last heartbeat!" Attenborough again: "We only arrest the innocent as a last resort." I liked seeing Bennett who was memorable in THE FAMILY WAY, and O'Shea and Remick are both fine, especially Remick who is tarted up quite nicely, looking like a living sex doll. Attenborough seems uncomfortable, as they all should. You've been warned. [TCM]

Monday, December 27, 2010

YELLOWSTONE (1936)

Young, attractive Judith Barrett arrives for a stay at Yellowstone National Park, and is immediatly hit on by horny, not-so-attractive ranger Henry Hunter. She's there to meet up with her father (Ralph Morgan) whom she thinks has been gallivanting around the globe for 18 years, but we soon find out that he's been in prison all that time for his part in a huge bank robbery, and he's come to the park to claim the loot which he buried there all those years ago. Naturally, it's not going to be that simple: at least two other suspicious fellows (Monroe Owsley and Rollo Lloyd) are tailing Morgan, wanting a share of the money, and a private detective (Alan Hale) is also present on behalf of the bank's insurance company--or so he says. About halfway through the movie, Morgan is killed, his corpse shooting up through a long-dormant geyser. Though he has a bullet in his back, it's determined that he froze to death. As Hale and the cops investigate, Hunter falls under suspicion and, with the help of his slow-minded sidekick (Andy Devine), he has to work to clear himself, if only to stay in Barrett's good graces.

This is a B-movie from a major studio (Universal) but it feels more like a lower-budget Monogram picture: it’s only an hour long, the acting is mediocre, the plotting is not very tight, and background music is used inappropriately. Hunter and Barrett, the romantic leads, are singularly unappealing with zero chemistry, and Devine is damned irritating. That leaves Hale and the slimy Owsley as the most charismatic actors in the movie, and that’s just weird. (I like Alan Hale, but more as background color.) Some of the film's backgrounds were certainly shot at Yellowstone, but most if not all of the actors' scenes look like studio shots. There's potential in the plot, but the uniqueness of the park setting isn't exploited especially well. If Warner Brothers had done this, it would have moved more quickly and had snappier dialogue, and maybe would have had Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan as the main couple, and that would have definitely been worth an hour of my time. There is a song, a lonely cowboy tune called "Joggin' Along," co-written by Frank Loesser, that takes up three minutes, but the other sixty minutes are slow going. [DVD]

Saturday, December 25, 2010

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (1947)

A homeless man (Victor Moore) and his dog sneak into a Fifth Avenue mansion, as they do every November, to spend a warm winter in the empty, boarded-up home of millionaire developer Charles Ruggles, empty because he winters in Virginia. This year, however, Moore winds up with an entire posse; first, he befriends jobless war veteran Don DeFore, who has just been evicted from his apartment because the building's being torn down so Ruggles can build another skyscraper. Next, Ruggles' rebellious daughter (Gale Storm) runs away from boarding school and comes to the mansion to get some clothes and make her own way in the world. When Moore and DeFore catch her and think she's a homeless girl, she plays along, stays in the house with them, and falls for DeFore. Next come two army buddies of DeFore, with wives (and a kid) in tow, who are having difficulty finding housing. Just as this group is getting cozy, Ruggles comes to town to look for his daughter. She talks him into staying at the house and posing as another homeless man so he can check out DeFoe to make sure that he's an OK guy. Somehow, Ruggles' estranged wife (Ann Harding) ends up there, too. The catalyst for the climax is an abandoned Army base that Ruggles is trying to buy for development; DeFore and his friends (who actually have some money, just no place to live) are also bidding for the land for their own development ideas. Who'll get the land? Who'll get the girl? And what will happen when the police finally discover that the mansion isn't empty?

It's getting harder for me to discover new classic Christmas movies. This is one I'd never seen, or even heard of, though the Christmas setting is not particularly emphasized (it's included in a holiday movies boxed set from Warner Home Video). Frank Capra considered filming this script, but he opted for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE instead. Capra would have made Moore more angelic, Ruggles more evil (it's never really established that he's a bad person at all, except that he's rich and divorced), and DeFore and Storm more loveable, and I imagine he would have strengthened the Christmas element. Still, it's a cute little comedy with good performances by Ruggles, Moore and Harding. DeFore (pictured above) tries hard to seem a little quirky (his entire first scene is played out in his underwear, handcuffed to a bed--it's not what you think it is) and Storm is the essence of spunky, but the romantic element winds up seeming beside the point. Alan Hale Jr., Gilligan Island's Skipper, is fun as one of the soldiers. I have a bit of a problem with the romanticization of poverty, something that probably attracted Capra in the beginning--Moore is by default the most noble person in the movie, mostly because he's poor, and also the only character who doesn't really change or wind up with any kind of "reward." Still, the first half-hour, as the characters and situations get spelled out, is fun, and Ruggles is always a joy to watch. [TCM]

Friday, December 24, 2010

THE CHRISTMAS COAL MINE MIRACLE (1977)

It’s Christmas 1951 in the coal mining town of Caufield (named for the rich Scrooge-like owner of the mine). On Christmas Eve morning, a methane explosion occurs in one of the mines. No one is hurt, but an expert says the mine needs to be shut down for 48 hours to be properly rockdusted; Caufield won’t do it, insisting the mine is safe. The men don't want to go back in that night, but Mitchell Ryan (pictured), a respected miner, gets the men to work, though he also decides it’s time to get somed union men in to organize the workers. Sure enough, that night, there's another explosion and a cave-in, trapping Ryan and his men. Will a Christmas miracle save them? (Hint: check the title)

Surprisingly for a Chrismas TV-movie, the holiday aspect is secondary to the rather mild social commentary story of the miners and their families. Ryan is a good man who is caught in the changing times, both as a worker and as a father. Kurt Russell is the boyfriend of Ryan's older daughter (Karen Lamm); he's a pro-union intellectual who wants to get out of the mines and get an education. Lamm wants him to get her pregnant and take her to the big city, but he wants to wait til they’re married and he can provide for her. There’s also a crippled little brother (who, for a Christmas movie, is surprisingly underused) and a neighbor couple--she's pregnant and he's a budding alcoholic. The story is narrated by 13-year-old Melissa Sue Gilbert, the middle child, and she (the actress and the character) is the biggest problem with the movie. We're supposed to find her feisty and admirable, but she just seems abrasive and a little bratty; at one point, feeling like she’s been cheated at the company store, she throws a rock through the store window and it feels like a dumb, unmotivated plot point with no real payoff. Ryan and Russell are both fine, as is Barbara Babcock as the mother. Lamm, who later married Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, retired from acting, and died at 49, overdoes the whiny frustration. Also in the cast are Andrew Prine (as the drunkard) and John Carradine (as Gilbert's grandpa). Though it winds up being filled with clichéd characters and situations, as a holiday movie, it's a little different from the current crop of dumb romances and doltish fantasies. (This was first broadcast as Christmas Miracle in Caufield, USA, but it was released on tape and is being shown on cable under its current title) [FMC]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

MRS. MIRACLE (2009)

I'm about to give up on my annual made-for-TV Christmas movie. They are virtually all romances, which would be fine if all I wanted was a blandly handsome male lead, but I'd really like more than that. This year's film is barely a Christmas movie--it's a matchmaker/Mary Poppins story set against the Christmas holidays. James Van Der Beek is a widower with two incredibly rambunctious kids; the fact he seems oblivious to their behavior is the first plothole; the fact that everyone else sees how rowdy they are but excuses them because their dad is a handsome good guy still in mourning for his dead wife is the second. We see Dad go through a series of housekeepers who quickly lose their cool and quit until, like magic, up pops Doris Roberts, a senior Mary Poppins (her name is Mrs. Merkle but the kids call her Mrs. Miracle) who says she comes from an agency, but isn't really. By the time Dad realizes this, she has becomes firmly established as a good influence on the kids. She also works her magic on Van Der Beek, getting him together with a pretty travel agent (Erin Karpluk) who has her own emotional baggage--her sister ran away with her fiancé many years ago and forgiveness is still not in the cards. Or can Doris Roberts work wonders with her as well?

Well, of course she can. The predictability is part of the charm of these stories, but even so, this one has a paucity of twists and turns with any degree of surprise. Cable TV movies tend to feature actors who are either on their way up or their way down. Van Der Beek is best known for the TV show Dawson's Creek, which I've never seen; in fact, I don't think I'd seen him in anything until now, even though his face is familiar; I suspect he's on his way down, or at least in a holding pattern. Karpluk is a Canadian actress who starred in her own show in Canada, but is still on the way up as far as Hollywood goes. She does a nice job; he sleepwalks through his part, though the two do show some chemistry together. Roberts, who is probably cursing Bette White for coming back and getting all the parts that Roberts wants, also feels a little low energy here, and the is-she-or-isn't-she-magical? part of Mrs. Miracle (the movie is based on novel by Nora Roberts) is too a little sappy for her--she gets an occasional wry line, but mostly is too soft for a good Poppins figure. The wrap-up to the "sisters feuding" storyline is satisfying, but little else is here. [Hallmark Channel]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

FOREIGN AGENT (1942)

A Hollywood studio electrician is found hung in his apartment. Suicide seems the obvious cause, but actually he was killed by some Nazi and Japanese spies who were after the blueprints for an anti-aircraft searchlight filter he was working on for the government. Hiding behind a front group, the North American Peace Organization, the spies spread isolationist propaganda and continue hunting for the filter plans, certain that the electrician's daughter (Gale Storm), a nightclub singer, has them. Meanwhile, her boyfriend (John Shelton) gets a job spying on the spies for a radio commentator, and her roommate and her boyfriend get held up by the spies who think the filter is in her car. And those are just some of the plotlines that get worked into this short, fast-paced B-thriller. There's wiretapping and reverse tapping, fisticuffs, and a song called "Taps for the Japs" before all is said and done. For a low-budget Monogram production, the plethora of plot strands and characters are easy to follow, and even the McGuffin, the light filter, is explained clearly, not that it really needs to be. Aside from Storm, who went on to become a big TV star in the 50's, I didn't recognize many other players here, but Patsy Moran and Lyle Latell are fun as a sidekick couple. An enjoyable wartime spy film that, for the most part, wears its propaganda lightly. [TCM]

Monday, December 13, 2010

WHERE LOVE HAS GONE (1964)

Mike Connors is an architect who, after several tough years, is slowly carving out a successful career; Susan Hayward (at right) is his ex-wife, a noted sculptor but also a spoiled heiress; Bette Davis is Hayward's conniving mother. While in the middle of an important meeting, Connors is called away to help tend to his teenage daughter (Joey Heatherton) who has been charged with killing Hayward's current lover. The act is considered to be justifiable homicide--apparently the lover was engaged in a violent fight with Hayward--but Heatherton is still sent to a home for juvenile delinquents. As Connors tries to reconnect with his daughter, whom he'd seen very little of over the past several years, we get the story of Connors and Hayward in flashbacks: they meet and squabble over the worth of her sculptures, fall in love impulsively, and Davis tries to "buy" Connors into the family. He marries Hayward but refuses Davis's offer of a vice-presidency at the family bank, so Davis manages to stymie all of his attempts at standing alone as an architect. Soon Connors is working for Davis, is miserably unhappy, and starts drinking; meanwhile, Hayward starts in on a series of one-night stands with young gigolos. They divorce and Hayward gets custody of the daughter. Back in the present, Connors finds out that the 15-year-old Heatherton is not a virgin, and had been writing lusty letters to the man she killed--were mom and daughter both sleeping with the same guy?

This glossy, trashy soap opera was based on a Harold Robbins novel, and the murder on which the story centers was based on the real-life incident in which Lana Turner's daughter killed her mother's lover. Connors, however, winds up being the focus of this narrative, even though it's Hayward and Davis who get to chew the scenery and wind up being the only reason to watch this. Connors is serviceable, but a little drab compared to the leading ladies. Heatherton is flat-out terrible, striking a shrill one-note petulance in every scene she's in. DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy in Star Trek) is equally bad as Hayward's agent--he seems to be playing the part as both gay and boring. There is some good campy fun to be had in some of the dialogue: Connors to Hayward: "You're not a woman, you're a disease!"; Hayward to Connors: "You're wallowing in self-pity, booze and recrimination!"; Hayward as her drunken husband tries to initiate sex: "You're not the first today--I'm just getting warmed up!" The ending would be bleak if we really cared about any of these characters. Nice sets and color design. [DVD]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

BEHIND THE MASK (1932)

Jack Holt has a prison breakout planned; fellow prisoner Boris Karloff (pictured with Holt), who is set to be released soon, hooks him up with a dope ring on the outside. Holt gets out and we discover he's actually a federal agent tracking down the crooks. There's a doctor (Claude King) involved, though the Feds have been in contact with him hoping he'll turn informer. King has a daughter (Constance Cummings), whom Holt soon falls for, and a creepy maid who is keeping tabs on him, reporting back to some mysterious boss via a clunky answering machine which records messages on a wax cylinder. There’s also a bearded, heavily-accented doctor (Edward Van Sloan) who recognizes Holt as an agent; he and Karloff plot to get rid of him by sending him on a dope run in a small plane and making sure he doesn't come back alive, but of course Holt is always one up on the bad guys. Turns out Van Sloan is hiding dope in the coffins of people he's killed on the operating table, and there’s a nice creepy scene near the end in which Van Sloan, about to operate on Holt without anesthetic, quotes Nietzsche: "Unendurable pain merges with ecstasy!"

This is basically a fast-moving second feature-thriller with no pretensions to be anything else. I'm not sure what the title refers to; one of the characters actually is someone pretending to be someone else, though there isn't really a mask involved. Holt is OK; he's been growing on me the more I've seen of him; I don’t think he had a large acting range, but he's more than acceptable as a stolid B-movie hero. The romance between Holt and Cummings is perfunctory and goes nowhere. Much of the acting consists of ominous looks and pauses. Edwards, the creepy mannish maid (played, ironically, by Bertha Mann) is unintentionally comic in her over-the-top melodramatics. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

THE MOON IS BLUE (1953)

This stagy romantic comedy in an important landmark in Hollywood history: it was the first mainstream film since 1934 released without a Production Code seal. The problem wasn't just language (words like "mistress" and "virgin") but, I suspect, the very light-heartedness with which the movie treats sex. Architect William Holden, who has just broken up with Dawn Addams, meets young screwball Maggie McNamara at the Empire State Building, and the two spend the rest of the day and evening playing romantic games, mostly at Holden's apartment. She is much more forthright about sexual matters than Holden (or a typical 1950s film audience) is used to, asking if he has a mistress and letting him know right off the bat that she's a virgin. Addams, the ex-, lives a floor above Holden with her father, David Niven, who falls for McNamara and tries to buy her love with a cash loan so she can pay her rent. The three do some witty sparring, with Addams eventually entering the picture, but for all the flirting and innuendo, no virtue is lost, though Holden does get a sock in the jaw from McNamara's father. The next day, Holden proposes to her back at the Empire State Building and she says yes.

Though the situations and dialogue are no longer scandalous, one can still get frissons of delight from some of the mildly naughty exchanges. Early on, in order to "save time," McNamara asks Holden if he has a mistress; he says no, apparently making the claim that he and Addams didn't have sex, but later when he says Addams was "pretty all over," McNamara says, "Then she was your mistress!" No, he insists, claiming "it's sort of high school to have a mistress unless you crave one" (mimicking an earlier line of hers about drinking alcohol). When McNamara asks if it's OK to take off her shoes, Holden says, "Take off anything you like." At one point, Niven announces that he likes "steaks, liquor, and sex--in that order." When Holden worries that McNamara is preoccupied with sex, she replies, "Isn't it better for a girl to be preoccupied with sex than occupied?" Eventually, McNamara is accused of being a "professional virgin," using her virtue as a selling point. And so on. McNamara comes off like a virginal Holly Golightly, though it's unclear how much of her flirty manner is deliberate and how much is accidental. I think we are meant to take her at face value, meaning she's a bit ditzy but intends to be a good girl. Once the action settles in Holden's apartment, we rarely leave there (except for a few scenes at Niven's place) and there is a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings eventually. Holden and Niven are fun, but there is a bit of an off-putting distance to McNamara's performance. Largely the film does hold up after all these years, though it's best appreciated as a period piece. [TCM]

Friday, December 03, 2010

CHASING RAINBOWS (1930)

The romantic trials and tribulations of a traveling musical-comedy troupe over one year's time as they tour in something called "Good-Bye, Broadway." The leading man, Charles King, has a comic-partner act with Bessie Love, who is secretly in love with him and has to suffer through his various romances with leading ladies which always end badly, with King melodramatically threatening suicide each time, to no avail. After his current lover leaves with a rich man, King falls for the replacement star (Nita Martan), who is using him to get a foothold in the theatre world and planning to leave him eventually with her secret lover (Eddie Phillips). Love finds out her plans and tries to warn King, but he marries Martan anyway, leading to unhappiness, another suicide announcement, and a happy ending when he realizes that Love is the gal for him.

At one time, this was a musical, but 15 minutes of production numbers, shot in color, are lost, leaving a couple of songs and the tail end of a big number, "Happy Days Are Here Again," at the beginning of the film. So you wind up with a musical mostly without music, always a somewhat sad affair. King and Love are totally unexceptionable; Love's acting style makes her seem casual and spontaneous but that clashes with the rest of the cast's more traditional style, so it usually feels like Love is in a different movie from everyone else. She and King have little chemistry; the more interesting couple is Martan and Phillips (pictured), though they only have a couple of scenes together. Marie Dressler does her usual bigger-than-life thing, with Polly Moran as her long-suffering assistant. Jack Benny does a more than respectable job as the stage manager, with George K. Arthur as his long-suffering (and effeminate) assistant. The jokes come fast and furious, but few really hit the mark. Interesting for film buffs, but otherwise it can be skipped. [TCM]

Sunday, November 28, 2010

ON BORROWED TIME (1939)

Prologue: Cedric Hardwicke, a mild-mannered gentleman, hitches a ride with a couple; when the car goes careening off a cliff, only the bodies of the couple are found by police.

Act 1: The elderly Lionel Barrymore and his wife Beulah Bondi live in a small town and have custody of their grandson (Bobs Watson), whose parents were killed in the car crash. The boy loves Barrymore and dislikes his meddlesome maiden aunt whom Barrymore calls a "pismire" (basically, a piss ant). However, Bondi suggests to the aunt that she might be given custody of Watson if anything happens to them. After Barrymore does a good deed, the boy tells him if he makes a wish after doing a good deed, it will come true. The old man wishes that anyone who climbs his beloved apple tree to steal apples would be stuck there until he lets them down. Oddly, the wish seems to come true.

Act 2: Hardwicke appears in Bondi's bedroom; calling himself Mr. Brink, he is Death personified, and he gently takes Bondi with him to her reward, with "Beautiful Dreamer" playing in the background. A little later, when Hardwicke comes to take Barrymore, he tricks Death into climbing the tree, so Death gets stuck up the tree and Barrymore is safe and happy until he realizes that no one on earth is dying. When Watson is tricked into climbing the tree by Death, he falls and is seriously injured, with the doctor saying he doesn’t know why Watson isn’t dead. Barrymore knows, and soon must make a fateful decision.

This is one of those gentle Hollywood fantasies about death, Heaven, and the afterlife that are popular in waves (there was a cluster of them during and right after WWII). Based on a play, the production is stagy and the storyline rather sappy, but the ending is a little surprising in that [SPOILER] both the old man and the boy die, though to cushion the blow, we last see them heading off to heaven to meet Bondi. Barrymore is an actor I appreciated more when I’d only seen him in a handful of roles; the more I see of him, the tireder I get of his homespun scene-stealing antics. Bondi, who was only 50, does a nice job as the sweet-natured matriarch; Watson cries well, but seems to have been tutored in over-the-top sentimental acting by Barrymore. Eily Malyon, who specialized in playing cranky spinsters, is good as the aunt, and other familiar faces include Una Merkel, Henry Travers, and Grant Mitchell. [TCM]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976)

A spaceship has a rough landing on the planet Tem 4; the astronauts are responding to radioed calls for help. A girl dressed like an old West Indian maiden greets them and takes them to meet Ronk, apparently the leader of the Temians, who meets his visitors while sprawled out on a divan. He insists that the distress call must have been a mistake and invites the crew to a "wild midnight party" (pictured) which plays out like BARBARELLA crossed with a soft-core outtake from CALIGULA. Most of the crew, including the leader, Akala, have fun at the party, but what they don't know is that they were all brainwashed by light beams which played on their foreheads. The next day, Akala's lover Suko, who stayed behind in the ship, becomes suspicious when each of them robotically describes the party as "cheerful and fun." He takes a small probe ship out and discovers hundreds of the native people of the planet, the Turi, who have been enslaved by Ronk's people and are stuck working in intolerable conditions, mining a valuable ore which is sent back to Ronk's home planet. It was indeed they who sent the SOS; can Suko get the crew of the Cynro to help liberate the Turi?

This is another East German DEFA production like THE SILENT STAR, though this one is a little less serious and quite a bit weirder in style. The sets are mostly cheap and artificial in a chintzy Thunderbirds style, though still a notch above many Hollywood B-sci-fi films of the era. The wild party is disco/psychedelic (discodelic?), with writhing dancers, flashing lights, and folks dressed in red leather. Guards are decked out in black leather with 70's mustaches and sideburns. The real leader of the Temians isn't Ronk, but a weird dorky guy (known only as The Chief) who looks more like a low-level office bureaucrat than a dictator; we first see him with thinning blue hair and dressed in an sparkly blue jumpsuit (he changes his hair color frequently) playing a strange musical instrument and making scantily-clad women dance to his tempo. He feels an affinity with Akala, and she tries to use this to her advantage to help the Turi. There are even flashes of nudity here and there. It's a weird movie which I can only recommend to lovers of, well, the weird. [DVD]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

THE SILENT STAR (1960)

In Siberia, an extraterrestrial artifact is found to be a recorded message from Venus; when radio signals are sent to the planet, there is no response. Although the translation is incomplete, an international crew (an American physicist, an Indian mathematician, a Chinese translator, a female Japanese doctor, an African technician, etc.) is sent to Venus in a spaceship called the Cosmokrator to find out what's going on. Along the way, the message is discovered to convey plans to attack Earth. However, when the team lands, they find no life except some artificial metallic spiders. It turns out that the Venusians were so warlike, they destroyed each other before they could invade Earth. But the earthlings trigger an automated chain reaction involving a large machine (which reminded me a bit the uncontrollable Doomsday Machine in DR. STRANGELOVE) and a seemingly sentient black sludge which are still guarding the planet, so our crew have a rough time getting back home.

This was produced in the middle of the Cold War by the East German studio DEFA, but its propaganda isn't about Communism as much as about getting along--there is an explicit message at the end about not only the need for international cooperation but also for making progress in space exploration. While the plot has holes and the effects are pretty bad (in weightless conditions, spaceship seat belts dangle in the air on clearly visible wires), the sets and art direction are colorful and imaginative. Weird psychedelic fogs, forests of glass, and the aforementioned robot spiders and icky gunk that tries to eat people are all fairly cool in concept and look. The crew is the most multicultural one ever (even before the term "multicultural" was in wide usage). There are explicit parallels between the Venusian apocalypse and Hiroshima: the Japanese doctor (Yoko Tani) was born just after the bombing, a fact that is brought up occasionally, and the only thing left of the Venusians are burned-in shadows on the wall. There's not a lot of character development among the token cast members. The only ones to stand out much are the widowed doctor (her husband died in an accident on the moon) and the American (Guenther Simon) with whom a romance flares up. She tries to discourage his feelings, telling him, "There's no room for extra baggage on a journey like this," but that doesn't stop him from getting all moony (pun intended) over her anyway. There is also a proto-R2D2 robot named Omega; it speaks, but has no personality. Some of the crew escape, some sacrifice and wind up dead or stranded on the planet. This was released in the States in a cut, dubbed version called FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, which I haven't seen but which was bad enough to get aired on MST3K, but this version is serious (very little humor, intended or otherwise) and is worthy viewing for sci-fi buffs. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951)

Thanksgiving week is when I review science fiction and fantasy movies, reliving my memories of when our local TV stations would program many of these films, for the kids who were off school for a few days (while their parents started Christmas shopping!). This film is probably one of the earliest SF disaster films, produced by George Pal (WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE) and a big hit in its day. Generally, the special effects have aged well, but the predictable human drama has not. Scientists in South Africa give pilot Richard Derr an important packet of information to deliver to scientist Larry Keating; a reporter tries to bribe him to give up his "black box" secret but he doesn’t. The bad news is that in a few months a sun and planet from another solar system are about to collide with the Earth, causing the total destruction of mankind. The "good" news, I guess, is that Keating is planning a Noah's Ark-type flight to the approaching planet to relocate a lucky few humans. World governments don't believe it will work, but millionaire John Hoyt agrees to finance the building of the spaceship. A tired love triangle between Derr, Keating’s daughter (Barbara Rush), and her doctor boyfriend takes up some screen time, while virtually no time at all is given to the inevitable problems that would crop up when billions of people realize they are doomed and that a bunch of white American scientists and workers will be saved. The effects showing some of the destruction on the planet are good, and the ship itself looks fine, but where they land looks like Planet Disney. A high level of tolerance and/or nostalgia for these 50's SF epics is helpful in getting through this. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NIAGARA (1953)

Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe are an unhappily married couple who are spending a miserable vacation at a cabin overlooking Niagara Falls. Casey Adams (who works in shredded wheat) and his wife Jean Peters are also sharing a cabin on their belated honeymoon. During a party, Monroe plays a record of a love song which causes Cotten to go a little berserk—it’s apparently not their song and he suspects she may be seeing someone else. Soon Peters sees Monroe sneaking a kiss with handsome young Richard Allan; it turns out that Monroe and Allan have hatched a plan: he’ll kill Cotten and skedaddle to Chicago; she’ll report Cotten missing, identify his body when it’s found, and then leave town to meet her lover. However, when Monroe goes to the morgue, she becomes hysterical when the dead body is that of Allan instead. The cops misinterpret her reaction and assume she’s identified Cotten, but soon Peters sees Cotten show up at the cabin looking for Monroe. Peters winds up mixed up almost over her head in the fatal affair.

I saw this movie the day after returning from my own Niagara Falls vacation, so it was great fun to see the real Falls provide the background for the film—and also to notice how much the area around the Falls has changed (I can’t imagine that the falls-side cabins still exist). The film itself is a rather bland thriller, not bad but lacking a bit in terms of characterization and writing; Monroe, Cotten, and Allan are given no backstory so it’s difficult to care about any of them—we know more about the relatively minor character of Casey Adams than about any of the love triangle members. Still, the movie has its pleasures: a murder in a bell tower is almost Hitchcockian, there is nice use of color (and, of course, the falls), and Monroe gives a truly good performance, to my mind the best one she ever gave. She was not yet weighed down by the sex bomb reputation and actually gives a performance rather than relying on breathiness and a heaving bosom. Peters, who is actually the main character, is fine. Cotten seems a little at sea, perhaps because he has no real character to play, just a type with little background or motivation. It’s too bright and colorful to feel like a noir, but uses some of the genre’s conventions. I’d give this a “sure, why not?” [DVD]

Friday, November 19, 2010

THE SIN SHIP (1931)

Louis Wolheim is a rough-and-tough, pug-ugly schooner captain who reluctantly agrees to take a soft-spoken minister (Ian Keith) and his lovely wife (Mary Astor, at left) down the California coast when they miss their ship. A drunken Wolheim locks Astor in her cabin and tries to take advantage of her, but she calls him an animal and he leaves, disgusted with himself. When Keith returns to the cabin, we discover that he is really a crook named Smiley and she's a shady lady known as Frisco Kitty, and they're on the run from the law for a heist he pulled in Seattle. When they stop at a port city, Wolheim is a changed man and apologizes profusely to Astor, who comes to feel some affection for the gruff, lonely man. When the captain gets ready to leave, Keith sabotages the engine in order to keep him there until the heat dies down, but the crew thinks that Wolheim is staying on purpose because he's sweet on Astor. Soon Wolheim finds out the truth about the two and ends up defending Astor against a drunken Keith (in a scene involving one of the worst thrown punches ever in a movie). The cops finally catch up with Keith and, in one of the stranger melodrama endings, the ugly guy actually gets the girl. This is mainly of interest for the presence of Mary Astor in one of her early talkies. She's good, though Keith is actually more impressive as he moves back and forth between being a goody-goody man of the cloth and a thuggish criminal. Wolheim, who also directed, is OK but basically seems like a second-string Wallace Beery; he had a long career in the silents, but died of cancer at 55 just months after making this film. Comic actor Hugh Herbert is fine as the first mate; he's still basically comic relief but he's more subtle here than in most of his later roles. Much of the film is slow and stagy, despite the fact that several scenes were shot on exterior locations. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THE BLUE LAMP (1950)

This is an average documentary-style police procedural film of the era, shot on location and with occasional omniscient narration, different only because it's British, and slightly lighter in tone than Hollywood films such as THE NAKED CITY. The movie opens with the narrator telling us about the postwar increase in crime among young people, who are more unpredictable and violent than the run-of-the-mill underworld figures of yore. We see the day-to-day operations of the London Metropolitan Police through the eyes of a rookie (Jimmy Hanley) who is paired up with an older heart-of-gold cop (Jack Warner)—he even rents a room from Warner and his wife. Most of their days seem taken up with patrolling and dealing with domestic squabbles, until we begin to follow the misadventures of two young thugs (Dirk Bogarde and Patric Doonan, pictured, with Bogarde on the right) who, emboldened by a successful jewelry store break-in, pull off an armed cinema robbery during which Bogarde shoots Warner. The older cop lingers for a time then dies, and Hanley steels himself to avenge his partner’s death. Meanwhile, Bogarde's tumultuous involvement with the delinquent teenage girl (Peggy Evans) who helped him plan the heist leads to his downfall, climaxed by a lengthy car chase and a tense finale at a dog-racing track.

This was a big box office hit in England and was Bogarde's breakout film—he indeed exhibits the looks, charm (a rather oily charm in this case), and charisma required of a star in what is theoretically a supporting role, though his character becomes the center of the narrative, detracting a bit from the sentimental old cop/young cop storyline. Doonan is fine as the somewhat dimmer partner, and poor Evans has to undergo the abuse of several slappings, even having a piece of luggage thrown at her. Though Warner's character, George Dixon, dies, he was brought back in 1955 for British TV series that ran into the mid-70's. The use of London locations is quite effective. [TCM]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

OLD SAN FRANCISCO (1927)

Let’s see if I can get this plot-heavy silent melodrama down to a clear short summary. In 1906, the once esteemed Vasquez family is down on their luck. Warner Oland, the shady figure known as the Czar of the Tenderloin, wants the Vasquez land and will go to unscrupulous lengths to get it. Though Oland’s office is in Chinatown, he is known as a persecutor of the Chinese, but he has a well-kept secret: he’s half-Chinese himself and keeps his dwarf brother caged up in a secret room underneath his offices. Oland charges a dastardly lawyer with getting the Vasquez land, but the lawyer’s Irish nephew (Charles Emmett Mack) falls for the Vazquez granddaughter (Dolores Costello). Various deceptions and betrayals occur, including Oland’s attempted seduction of Costello; at the climax, Costello is about to be sold into white slavery, and her prayers seem to bring about the famous San Francisco earthquake which saves her from a fate worse than death.

Despite being quite non-PC, this is an enjoyably over-the-top blood and thunder drama, the kind they don’t make anymore (for a number of reasons). Because I know Oland as Charlie Chan, the revelation of his background wasn’t all that surprising to me, but he makes a nicely slimy villain, though he does at one point pray to Buddha for his sins against his own people. He is portrayed as a kind of Dracula figure, recoiling from the sound of the “accursed Christian bells” from the nearby church, for, as the title card tells us, “in the awful light of an outraged wrathful Christian god, the heathen soul of the Mongol stood revealed.” Costello is rather bland, though Mack is likeable as her Irish hero; his best line, to Costello during their rather tentative courtship, “I’m not bold, I’m Irish!” Anna May Wong has a small role as an accomplice of Oland’s, known only as a “Flower of the Orient.” The earthquake scenes are effective, and are tinted red, orange, and purple. The dwarf is played by Angelo Rossito, whose career continued into the 80’s (the bad guy Master in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME). Fun for those in the right mood. [TCM]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

AIR HOSTESS (1933)

It's the one about the nice-guy pilot who is sweet but passive and nondescript, the hot-dogger pilot who is exciting but irresponsible, and the girl caught between them. This variation begins in the skies over France in WWI; when pilot James Murray's buddy Bob is shot down, Murray guns down his killer. Years later, Murray is a grandstanding pilot who is in the midst of developing a plane with retractable wings which would enable a pilot to use less fuel and fly non-stop from Seattle to Tokyo. The nice-guy pilot, Arthur Pierson, works for TWA and, along with the entire flight and ground crew, keeps an eye on Bob's grown-up daughter (Evalyn Knapp), who works as an air hostess; in an early scene, the guys gang up on a handsome new pilot (pictured) who asks her out on a date and scare him away. To her credit, Knapp is getting tired of their paternal interest, and when Murray flirts with her, she runs off on an overnight trip with him. Of course, this being the movies, the next day, the two announce their engagement. Once they're married, she quits her job, but Murray, who has taken to drink, struggles to make ends meet as he keeps working on his plane. She gets her hostess job back and he finds a financial backer in the person of rich socialite Thelma Todd. Murray sleeps with Todd, and Knapp takes platonic comfort from Pierson, but when a train Knapp is on winds up in danger, the two pilots team up to save her.

This B-picture from Columbia is nothing special, though the air combat footage at the beginning and the planes/train incident at the end are both thrilling. The acting is a problem. Murray, promising star of the silent classic THE CROWD, looks like a less well-groomed Dick Powell; he's fine in the role, but his career, derailed by his drinking, would only last three more years before his untimely death at the age of 35. Knapp tries to be Joan Blondell but she's shrill and exasperating. Pierson has no charisma and practically evaporates onscreen. Todd, another doomed actress, is good as the sexy siren, and Jane Darwell and J.M. Kerrigan are fine as Knapp’s guardians. [TCM]

Saturday, November 06, 2010

SPY TRAIN (1943)

Writer Richard Travis, author of a bestselling expose called "Darkest Germany," is at Union Station (with his comic-relief sidekick Chick Chandler), waiting for a train and looking for Catharine Craig, for reasons unknown to us. When Craig arrives (with her comic-relief maid, Thelma White), Travis contrives a meeting under a false name, though she quickly figures out who he is from the photo on his book (which seems to be everywhere). It turns out that her father is a newspaper publisher who has quit publishing Travis' Nazi exposes, and Travis hopes to get to him through her to find out why. Meanwhile, a husband and wife team of Nazi spies are also on the train; their mission is to get a sheaf of secrets out of a suitcase which is in the possession of Craig's maid. However, we know that, through an error, the suitcase on the train actually contains a time bomb set to go off 10:22 (so of course, for our benefit, characters are frequently announcing the time). The suitcase winds up in and out of compartments, as does the dead body of a mustached spy of unknown origin who is killed early on. Who will get blown up? Who will fall in love? Where will the dead mustached guy wind up?

I was able to find almost no information about this Monogram Poverty Row wartime thriller, which was in itself reason enough for me to consider watching it when it showed up on Turner Classic, and the word "train" in the title was added inducement. But when I saw the name of Richard Travis (pictured) show up top-billed in the credits, I almost deleted the movie from my DVR right away. Travis is, to put it delicately, a bad actor. He's not quite as bad in his B-roles, but I've never forgiven him for almost sinking THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in his romantic lead role as Bette Davis's boyfriend; luckily Davis, Monty Woolley, and everyone else in the film is strong enough to make up for his amateurish performance. Here, he doesn't really hurt the film, aside from being totally lacking in charisma and being unable to provide any thrills or heroics. Craig is a non-entity as well, though sidekicks Chandler and White acquit themselves nicely. One bit actor, a heavy-set guy in glasses (I think his name is Herbert Hayes) is wildly hammy as the chief German spy back at headquarters, but at least puts some energy into his role. As is often the case with Monogram films, there are plotholes galore: though this movie came out in 1943, the plot only makes sense if we assume it's set before the U.S. entered the war; I didn't catch the any reason for why the time bomb was in the second suitcase, which was supposed to be left at Union Station. Nevertheless, for all my fault-finding, I more or less enjoyed this cheap spy thriller quickie. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

LADIES OF THE JURY (1932)

Edna May Oliver is one of my favorite supporting players of all time. Her range may be limited, but when she’s in her element, usually as a droll, horse-faced, opinionated spinster, a good time is practically guaranteed. Here, she’s a scatterbrained rich lady who is called for jury duty in the case of a former chorus girl accused of murdering her rich husband. Like a comic version of the later 12 ANGRY MEN, most of the action takes place in the jury room after the lawyers have argued their cases. Among the other jurors are a stutterer, an Irish matron, a doofus, a gum-snapping totsy, a stagy actor, a mannish lesbian, and a real estate agent. Oliver is the only one who thinks the girl is innocent, and slowly, by making friends and sowing seeds of dissent, she gets the jurors, one by one, on her side, even fixing up two of the jurors as a romantic pair. As it appears that they will reach a deadlock, Oliver arranges for the jury to visit the murder scene to reenact the shooting, and while there, they discover what really happened, and Oliver is proven right. This is generally fun because of Oliver at her pushy, obnoxious best; other cast members include Jill Esmond (Lawrence Olivier’s wife at the time), Roscoe Ates (the stutterer), Ken Murray and Cora Witherspoon. I've reviewed several Edna May Oliver films over the years, but here's a link to my review of her Hildegarde Withers films, in which she played a Miss Marple-ish schoolteacher. [TCM]

Sunday, October 31, 2010

R.I.P Gloria Stuart

Most people know Gloria Stuart, who died recently at the age of 100, as the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic. But I, along with many other film buffs, also knew her as a lovely star of the second rank in the 1930s. In fact, she made 42 movies in that decade alone, mostly undistinguished B-dramas or romantic comedies. She made a handful more in the 40s, and was also instrumental in the founding of the Screen Actors Guild before retiring from acting, returning to the screen in a handful of films in the 1980s, then making a big splash (pun intended) in Titanic. Her early films are difficult to see these days because they were mostly made for Universal or Fox, two studios which have not been very good at marketing their archives (unlike MGM and Warner Bros. which have used cable and home video to their advantage). Fox Movie Channel has shown ISLAND IN THE SKY recently, and TCM has WANTED: JANE TURNER and SWEEPINGS in their holdings. My last post for October seemed a good time to salute this fine actress; she could hardly be called a "scream queen," but she did appear in two classic horror films while at Universal: THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN, both directed by James Whale. I've reviewed the first one some time ago; it's an odd film, more black comedy than horror. To paraphrase my review, the story involves five travelers who are stranded by bad weather in an old, dark house inhabited by an eccentric family, the Femms: a crazy brother, his mostly deaf sister, a mute butler (Boris Karloff), and a deranged relative hidden away in an upstairs room. Stuart is one of the travelers along with Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton, and she does well as a damsel in distress. But aside from a couple of horror-movie scare moments, it's more a character-driven dark comedy, and I've never been as charmed by it as its fans.

THE INVISIBLE MAN is an undisputed classic and part of the Universal pantheon of "monsters" (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman) who still thrill modern movie viewers. To quote Rocky Horror, "Claude Rains was the Invisible Man," the least monster-like of the classic creatures. He plays a man who has developed an invisibility potion and has taken so much of it himself that he becomes mentally unbalanced, plotting to take over the world (with an invisible army, one assumes). He doesn’t get very far, though he does manage to irritate and scare a small English village, eludes a police dragnet, and even causes the death of a handful of people before he is caught. James Whale's sense of humor comes through in a number of places, including a scene of the Invisible Man, in just pants, skipping down a street singing, "Here we go gathering nuts in May..." Though we never see Rains' face until the very end, his unmistakable voice is commanding. The special effects are good for the time. Unfortunately, with so much focus on Rains, the other actors get short shrift--Stuart plays his girlfriend and was actually top-billed in the contemporary posters for the movie, and though she's OK, she doesn't have much to do. Una O'Connor outshines her with a very funny scene of hysterical shrieking, and Henry Travers plays a friend of the couple. If I were planning a salute to Stuart, I'd watch the beginning and ending parts of Titanic, and a few of her B-films, but you'll get a decent dose of her in this film. Rest in peace, Gloria.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

Just after WWII, Dr. Rossiter, a plastic surgeon, changes his name to Schuler and goes on the run from England to France after Evelyn, a woman he operates on, winds up with a permanently disfigured face and the police are called in. He and his assistants (Angela, with whom Schuler seems to be on-again/off-again romantically involved, and her intense brother Martin) come upon a rundown roadside circus. The owner's daughter was badly scarred in a bombing, and when Schuler operates successfully on her, the grateful father lets Schuler into the circus business. However, when a bear mauls the owner, Suchler lets him die and takes over the circus. Ten years later, the circus is a success, largely because Schuler operates on female criminals and prostitutes, changing their appearance and giving them jobs with the circus. There's just one catch: when any of the women try to leave, they wind up dead, usually due to what appears to be an unfortunate accident in the ring. This leads to a reputation as a jinxed circus, but also to widespread popularity. In the latest incident, busty blond Magda wants to leave, and is killed when a knife-throwing act goes horribly wrong (planned by Schuler and Martin). The police investigate but cannot stop another death of another busty blond, this time during an acrobatic exhibition. Finally, Evelyn, Rossiter's botch-job from ten years ago, shows up at the circus and the game is almost over.

The plot is promising, but there is almost too much of it, the result being that some characters and plot points of interest (the original circus owner, played by Donald Pleasance, and the odd relationship between Martin and Angela) are ignored for the sake of exposition. Still, the big top deaths are all staged effectively and tensely, though none quite tops the first one, with the knife thrower--it's rather bloody for 1960 (though that year also produced the bloody Psycho and Peeping Tom). The German actor Anton Diffring is good in the lead role, and Kenneth Griffith makes a fine Martin, even though he isn't given enough to do. As for the string of busty circus performers, Yvonne Romain makes the, er, biggest impression as Melina, the one Diffring intends to marry. Interesting as a relic of its time, when horror films, especially those made overseas, were beginning to stretch the envelope of how much gore was acceptable onscreen. [TCM]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

HOMICIDAL (1961)

This psychological thriller was William Castle's B-movie answer to Hitchcock's PSYCHO. A sexy blonde who calls herself Miriam Webster (cleverest bit in the movie) arrives at a motel and gives handsome bellboy Jim $2000 to marry her at midnight, promising to get an annulment soon after. Instead, she violently stabs and kills Mr. Adrims, the justice of the peace (in a scene with several visual references to the shower stabbing in Psycho). She escapes and goes back home to a small seaside town, where we find out her real name is Emily and she's a caretaker for Helga, an old mute invalid--we also see Emily tell Helga spitefully that Adrims died screaming. We're also introduced to the real Miriam, a pleasant young woman who runs a flower shop, and Miriam's stepbrother Warren, who married Emily in Denmark (clue # 1 to the proceedings) and brought her back to care for Helga--Helga had been a caretaker for Warren and Miriam when they were children. It's clear there's something wrong with Emily, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there is also something quite strange about Warren, though at first it's hard to tell if it's the character who is strange or the actor, who seems to give a bizarrely stilted performance (and that's actually clue #2). Finally, there's Karl, Miriam's handsome boyfriend and an old friend of the family. We know that Warren has daddy issues--Dad tried unsuccessfully to toughen him up--but to say much more would give away the surprises of the last 15 minutes. It's difficult to discuss the film without spoilers, though most viewers will certainly figure out fairly early on at least one of the plot twists. The film's low budget hurts it a bit, and the acting by a couple of the leads is dicey, but there is still a kind of perverted charm to the film. It's not as dark or atmospheric as Psycho but if you use the Hitchcock film as a starting-off point, you'll probably enjoy this. The cast includes two chunks of male eye candy: Glenn Corbett (pictured) as Karl, and Richard Rust in the small role of the tricked bridegroom. The life and times of Joan Marshall (who, under the name Jean Arless, plays Emily) was apparently an inspiration for the script of Warren Beatty's sex farce Shampoo. Though no classic, this is worth at least one viewing. Available in the William Castle DVD set from Sony. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1962)

Peter Wyngarde is a young professor, about to get a promotion, who tells his class that belief in the supernatural is "a morbid desire to escape reality." Little does he know that his wife (Janet Blair) has been practicing witchcraft behind his back and she thinks his success in the academic world is due to her magic. When Wyngarde finds out what's been going on, he burns all of her charms and potions, even though his wife claims that her magic was protecting him from other dark forces. Indeed, Wyngarde's life starts on a downhill slide: he has a car accident, a student who has a crush on him accuses him of sexual harassment, and her boyfriend pulls a gun on him. Behind all this are the petty politics and jealousies of academic life. An audiotape of one of his lectures seems to have some unholy gibberish in the background; Blair believes it's been cursed by another witch, and sure enough when the tape is played one night over a loudspeaker system at the university, all hell breaks loose.

This film is fairly solidly in the tradition of the Val Lewton horror films of the 40s in which the spookiness is conjured up more through atmosphere and what the viewer doesn't see rather than a lot of special effects or make-up. There are a handful of effects scenes, most of which are OK, except for the stone eagle which may or may not come to life at the end (the original British title of the film is NIGHT OF THE EAGLE). Still, this is a very effective fright film, and one of the few mainstream movies to take witchcraft seriously--these people aren't the New Age Wiccans of today, but they don't ride brooms and cackle, either. The film, in black and white, looks and feels a lot like the more well-known CURSE OF THE DEMON, which is also about a skeptic who winds up believing in the supernatural. This movie's best known scene is probably at the climax; as Wyngarde cowers against the blackboard in his classroom where he had previously written "I do not believe," his shoulder erases the word "not." The title of the movie is a bit confusing. There are witches, and a fire at the climax, though the Fritz Leiber book this was based on was called Conjure Wife (a better title than either BURN or EAGLE). But there is also an A. Merritt 30's pulp novel called Burn, Witch, Burn which has nothing to do with this film. [VHS]

Monday, October 25, 2010

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954)

A meteor falls near Invernesshire in the Scottish moors and causes a minor ruckus, enough for a reporter (Hugh McDermott) and a scientist to head out there to investigate. They stay at an isolated inn which, because it's not tourist season, is relatively empty. In addition to the owners (an older married couple), a handyman, and the barmaid, the only other folks around are a busty model (Hazel Court) and an escaped convict (Peter Reynolds) who is the boyfriend of the barmaid (Adrienne Corri) and who is posing as a hiker so he can stay at the inn. Some slight melodramatic tensions arise until one more visitor appears: the leather/vinyl clad Nyah (Patricia Laffan), the title character, whose spaceship has crashed nearby. She needs a few hours for the ship to repair itself, so she throws an invisible force field up around the inn and casually mentions the fact that Mars needs men--the emancipation of Martian women led to a literal war of the sexes; the men lost and are dying out, and the women need virile earthmen to reproduce. When her ship is fixed, Nyah plans on carrying out an invasion plan, along with her large boxy robot (who looks a bit like a less intimidating Gort from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL). Can any of the hapless stranded earthlings stop the miniskirted Martian? This British B-film is fun as long as you are fully aware of what you're getting into; the opening credits note that it's based on a play, and indeed, most of the talky "action" is set inside one or two rooms in the inn, not to mention that the visual style of the film is like a filmed TV play. It's a little like KEY LARGO or THE PETRIFIED FOREST except with a Martian Devil Girl instead of Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart as the baddie. Laffan, who is deadpan serious, is fine as the alien; Court and Corri look good; sadly, none of the men are especially handsome or hunky, and I was wondering if Laffan was reconsidering her mission after this sampling of babymakers. [DVD]

Sunday, October 24, 2010

CURSE OF THE VAMPIRES (1966)

Another Philippine horror film from Gerardo de Leon; it's not very well made and it's atrociously dubbed, but like THE BLOOD DRINKERS, it's worth seeing. The Escadero family is a mess: brother Eduardo and sister Lenore think their mother is dead, but actually she's a vampire, locked up in the basement and tended to with whips and chains by sickly Dad; Lenore is in love with neighbor boy Daniel, but Dad won't let her get married; Eduardo plans to marry Christina but is pissed that Dad's will calls for the family mansion to be burned to the ground in the event of his death. Eduardo discovers his mom's secret, and when he encounters her during one of her bloodthirsty rages, he tears off his crucifix and lets her tear into his neck, turning him into a vampire. He then promptly bites (and, for good measure, rapes) Christina, then marries her. Dad eventually has to face the fact that he's fighting a losing battle, and stakes and burns Mom, leading to his demise at the hands of his son, who then arranges for the death of Daniel in a rigged carriage crash, leaving him free to go after his sister (!). The finale involves Eduardo, his wife, and his servants, vampires all, attacking Lenore, with the forces of good--some priests, statues of Jesus and Mary, and the ghost of Daniel (!)--gathering outside the house to save her or burn down the house, or both.

The plot is every bit as wild as I hope my summary makes it seem. The almost Greek-tragedy family saga is too ambitious for such a low-budget production, so there are lots of plotholes: Why did Dad let Mom live so long as a vampire in the first place? Does he actually get off on whipping her? Why does Eduardo give in to his mom so quickly? Why don't Lenore and Daniel just leave the neighborhood? (They do try to, after a ferocious, good old-fashioned fistfight between Daniel and Eduardo, but it's too little, too late.) How does Daniel manage to return as an avenging ghost? Figuring out motivation is problematic here, but I guess it also is with most of the Greek tragedies. Taking into account the terrible dubbing, the acting is pretty good--Mom (Mary Walter) is quite scarily effective in her single-minded desire for blood, and whenever the hunger takes her over, she's shot in a blood-red spotlight. Eddie Garcia as Eduardo and Romeo Vasquez as Daniel are also very good, though the young women tend not to have much to do aside from looking pretty and being put in danger every ten minutes or so. I thought at the end that this is the kind of play that Eugene O'Neill might have written if he had grown up in a family of the undead, and that's meant as a compliment. Not a great movie, but an interesting and unusual one. Aka CREATURES OF EVIL; the disc available from Netflix carries the title BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRES. [DVD]

Friday, October 22, 2010

THE GHOST WALKS (1934)

Fairly nifty low-budget "old dark house" thriller, almost completely forgotten today but worth seeing. One rainy night, old Mr. Wood, a Broadway producer, his prissy secretary Homer, and promising playwright Prescott Ames wind up stranded at the Kent mansion when the road becomes impassable. Ames knows the family and as it happens, an interesting batch of people have collected at the house (including Ames's girlfriend Gloria and her former boyfriend, Terry, who remains jealous of Ames) for a seance held by the loony psychic Beatrice. She conjures up the ghost of a man who was killed in the house two years ago, maybe by Terry, maybe by Ames. [Spoiler!!] 20 minutes into the movie, we suddenly catch on, as Mr. Wood does, to what's really happening: the houseful of people are actors, putting on Ames's new play for the producer's benefit. However, just as the ruse is exposed, Beatrice is found dead and all bets are off. Is a ghost really present? Is one of the guests an escaped asylum inmate? And to where have Terry and Gloria disappeared? After the initial surprise is revealed, the remaining plot twists are not especially surprising, but it's fun to watch it all play out. It's a Poverty Row film so there are no big names, but the acting is adequate, with John Miljan a standout as Ames, and Johnny Arthur fun for a while doing his some screamingly effeminate shtick before he gets tiresome. The public domain print on the Alpha DVD is in poor shape but watchable. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

PSYCHOMANIA (1973)

The onscreen cable guide described this movie thusly: "British bikers bury their leader (George Sanders) then join him back from the dead." Knowing this was Sanders' last film, shot not long before he killed himself at the age of 65, I was deathly afraid of scenes featuring an elderly Sanders trying desperately to stay on a roaring motorcycle. Luckily, the guide had that detail wrong. Actually, the young Nicky Henson plays the leader of the gang, called The Living Dead, who spend their time riding motorcycles around their small village committing mayhem and circling in and out of a mini-Stonehenge site called "Seven Witches" for seven stone slabs that are supposed to be the bodies of witches who broke their pacts with the devil. His widowed mother (Beryl Reid) belongs to a devil worship cult (as does her butler, played by Sanders); Henson, who is obsessed with the idea of "crossing over" into the world of the dead, finds out that his mom has made some kind of pact with the devil and he discovers he can return from the dead if he just believes hard enough that he can. He kills himself, is buried by his gang astride his beloved motorcycle, and sure enough comes back to life, roaring out of the ground on his bike. Once dead, you can't die a second time, so the gang members all commit suicide and return to life, subjecting the town to a reign of terror (mostly theft and vandalism, with some murders thrown in when needed). When Reid finds out what he's doing with his second life, she is determined to break her Satanic deal in order to put an end to his nasty ways.

I'd avoided seeing this movie in the past because it has a bad reputation, and, believe me, this is no one's idea of a good movie, but it's got its enjoyable bits. The story has potential, but the details about devil-worshipping are never worked out very well; Reid's cult has something to do with frogs, and a frog plays an important role in the climax, but the frog connection is never explained. It's also not clear why the gang members, who technically never signed deals with the devil, are able to come back from the dead. When they're not in their leather drag, they look about as threatening as flower-power hippies, and in fact, one guy sits around strumming a guitar and playing a faux-Donovan song at Henson's funeral. Henson is properly youthful and cocky, but the acting here is not strong; Reid and Sanders don't give it their all, and the rest of the young cast is barely adequate. I also found it problematic that the resurrected folks don't look any different than when they were alive; certainly some zombification should be apparent. The motorcycle stunts are pulled off nicely, and the parade of suicides is suitably ghoulish. The overall tone is pitched a bit toward the camp side, intentionally, I think, and it's best viewed with that in mind. (Yes, the picture above is a totally gratuitous shot of one of the half-naked dead cyclists on a slab, about to come back to life.) [TCM]

Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (1939)

When her father dies, Sylvia returns from New York to her family's Jamaican banana plantation to take over the business, which irritates her half-sister Isabelle who lives in Jamaica and wanted it. Isabelle goes underground and plots to use voodoo, or more precisely "obeah," to get rid of her (hence the reason this film is mentioned in horror film guides). However, it turns out that Isabelle doesn’t really practice obeah; she's just going to fake it, giving Sylvia an herbal drink to put her in a trance and hoping that scares her away. There’s a subplot involving Philip, who is stealing from the plantation, and John, a man in whom both Sylvia and Isabelle are interested; the two men indulge in one of the most awkward fistfights in movie history. Comic relief is provided by a character named Percy Jackson (no relation to the most recent Hollywood character to try to become the next Harry Potter) who thinks that his soul has been transplanted into a pig. This low-budget production with an all-black cast is slow-moving and lacks any real atmosphere; the obeah rites presented are diverting, but knowing from the get-go that Isabelle is faking everything drains any tension from the film, and there are rather unlikely happy endings for most everyone. Emmett Wallace as John and Hamtree Harrington as Percy are watchable, and this movie is of some interest to film buffs for the appearance of cult actress Nina Mae McKinney (pictured) as Isabelle--she is best known for starring in the first all-black musical, Hallelujah--but this would be a disappointing film for someone expecting a scary voodoo flick. [DVD]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1958)

This film, part of a cycle of teen-oriented horror flicks that began in the late 50s, has no such title character, but Dr. Frankenstein's grandson, who goes by the name Oliver Frank, is present to cause trouble in American suburbia. Frank works as an assistant for old doctor Carter who is developing a drug that would allow cells and tissue to live forever. Frank lives in Carter's house as does the old man's pretty high school-age niece Trudy. But behind the doc's back, Frank is working with the family's creepy handyman, Elsu, to, what else, make a monster. He's got the body parts all sewed together, now he just needs a brain. That problem is solved when Frank gets all hot and bothered over Suzie, Trudy's busty blonde friend. She goes out on a date with him, but when she resists his smooth moves, he runs her over and puts her brain in the monster's head. So even the monster isn't really the title character: it's a male monster with a slash of lipstick on its mouth. The one interesting concept in the movie comes from the assumption that, with a female brain, the beast will be more passive and conducive to take orders. But no, it's still a brute of a monster that does what it wants to do, causes destruction, and warns people once again not to tamper in God's domain.

This is catnip for bad movie buffs. Sets are cheap, acting ranges from amateurish to competent, and the script has holes galore. The weirdest thing is that, for the first half-hour, we're led to believe that the monster of the movie is Trudy, who falls asleep and turns into a kind of ape woman, or her face does anyway (see pic above--the opening minutes of the movie in which Suzie runs into the monstrous Trudy on a street at night is the best part of the film). Apparently, this is the result of drugs given to her by Frank, but this plotline goes nowhere. The cute John Ashley (at right; think B-movie Frankie Avalon, who was himself a B-beach movie Rock Hudson) is OK as Trudy's boyfriend; Sally Todd as Suzie is sexy and fairly vivacious; Sandra Knight (better known for her role in Roger Corman's classic cheapie THE TERROR) is adequate but colorless, as is Donald Murphy as Frank. Worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) are Harold Lloyd Jr. as Suzie's randy boyfriend, who shouts his lines as though he's reading them from cue cards, and Felix Locher as the old doctor--to be fair, he has little to do except worry about his niece and be suspicious of Frank. Like I said, fun for fans of bad movie; all others, beware. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

THE NORLISS TAPES (1974)

Surprisingly good made-for-TV movie which was a pilot for a series that never got off the ground, which is a shame. Roy Thinnes is an author (the Norliss of the title) who's been working on a book based on his adventures in debunking the supernatural. When he falls way behind schedule, he sets up a lunch with his publisher to explain, but he fails to make the lunch date. All anyone can find of him is a bunch of cassette tapes in which he relates the cases he's been working on. Case #1 involves a widow (Angie Dickinson) who believes she was menaced by her dead husband (Nick Dimitri), returned from the grave as an invulnerable blue-skinned zombie. A string of gruesome murders follow in which the victims' bodies are drained of all blood. Thinnes soon pieces together this story: Dimitri, an artist, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease; he got hold of an ancient Egyptian ring which, when buried with him, would allow him to return to life. The catch: he has to make a sculpture (out of clay made up partly of human blood) of the demon Sargoth that, once completed, would bring the demon into our world. Can Thinnes stop the zombie artist from finishing his work? The plot is grand, right out of an old pulp horror magazine, and reminiscent of 1933's THE GHOUL in which Boris Karloff is buried with a similar ring (the finale, involving the bloody statue, demonic rites, and a flaming magic circle, reminds me of the climax of the Hammer film THE DEVIL RIDES OUT). Thinnes is very good especially in the early scenes in which he looks truly world-weary and afraid of the knowledge he's learned on his cases--the movie wraps the first case up and we hear Thinnes' voice on tape introducing case #2, though as far as I know, that never got filmed. TV stalwarts Claude Akins, Don Porter, and Robert Mandan (Chester Tate on the 70's comedy Soap) appear, as does Vonetta McGee, star of some blaxploitation films, and Hurd Hatfield, who played Dorian Gray in the 1945 film. Visually, it's a step above most TV movies of the era, making effective use of some San Francisco locations and lots of rainy weather. The 70s was a golden era for horror, even on TV, and this is a solid example of that lost era. [FMC]

Monday, October 11, 2010

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)

In 1645, England is in the midst of civil war, with Cromwell's men fighting the Royalists. Ian Ogilvy, a handsome soldier on Cromwell's side, saves an officer and is given leave to see his fiancée (Hilary Dwyer). Her uncle, a priest, fears the political chaos that is overtaking even the country villages and encourages them to get married as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the feared "Witchfinder General" (Vincent Price) shows up in the village; together with his assistant (Robert Russell), they go about the country using accusations of witchcraft and threats of torture in order to extort money and sexual favors. They accuse the priest and, though Dwyer sleeps with Price, her uncle is still hung, and Russell rapes her before the two leave the village. When Ogilvy hears the news, he vows revenge. This is really more a period melodrama than a horror film, though it has its share of blood and screaming. It's also much more serious and downbeat than the average 60s horror film. The last scene contains an act of horrific violence that is all the more effective for not being explicit, and a final moment which shows that bloodthirsty revenge is rarely satisfying. Price gives one of his finest performances, without an ounce of camp or exaggeration, as the hateful title character, and Ogilvy and Dwyer are much better than usually required for the romantic leads in horror films of the era. The director, Michael Reeves, was considered a wunderkind of low-budget cinema, but sadly only made three films before he died of a drug overdose, this being the last. It was released in America as THE CONQUEROR WORM in an attempt to tie it to Price's string of Poe films. Available in a number of edits, you should catch the MGM Midnite Movies DVD release to see the director's cut. [DVD]

Saturday, October 09, 2010

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960)

Very interesting adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story. Dr. Jekyll is an anti-social scientist (at left, with an unkempt beard and bushy eyebrows, looking more like the traditional Mr. Hyde in movies than like a respectable doctor) who is dabbling in experiments to go "beyond good and evil," to free "the creature within," to separate the higher "man as he could be" from the lower "man as he would be"--superego vs. id, perhaps. In his strange quest, he has alienated his peers, who have kicked him out of academia, and his wife Kitty, who is having an affair with playboy gambler Paul Allen. After showing his only friend, an older professor named Ernst, an experiment in which he injects a monkey with a serum that turns it into a raging little beast, he decides to inject himself. The result is that he transforms into a handsome, clean-shaven, confident guy, calling himself Mr. Hyde (see below). In this persona, he goes out on the town and sees Kitty with Paul, neither of whom recognize him, at a nightclub. Hyde exhibits a violent streak, almost killing a bouncer, and becomes friends with Kitty and Paul. Soon he begins an affair with an exotic snake dancer named Maria, tries to seduce Kitty, then enlists Paul as his guide through the decadent underground London, culminating in a visit to an opium den. Eventually, he finds he cannot control the transformations and, deciding he wants to remain Hyde, he murders Paul and Maria, drives Kitty to suicide, and tries to frame Jekyll for the crimes--while burning an innocent man to death to have his corpse taken for that of Jekyll’s so Hyde can remain free. Things don’t quite work out, however.

This is the lushest and most elaborately filmed Hammer horror film I’ve seen, filled with rich colors and detailed period costumes and sets, and the look alone is reason for watching. The plot prefigures Jerry Lewis’s comic take on the story in The Nutty Professor (in which a geeky scientist turns into an oily but good looking nightclub singer) and adds elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as Paul tutors Hyde in the ways of debauchery. Canadian actor Paul Massie is problematic in the lead role. As Jekyll, he is burdened with artificial make-up and uses a theatrically deep voice; as Hyde, he’s quite good looking, but always has an artificially manic look in his eyes, like a character in REEFER MADNESS. He does a decent job given these constraints, but he’s always "acting." Christopher Lee gives a surprisingly desultory performance as Paul, though Dawn Addams is fine as Kitty. For a Production Code-era movie, there is quite a bit of sensuality, with some near-nudity here and there, and a startling moment when the exotic dancer puts the head of a live snake in her mouth--startling both because it's a real snake and because it looks remarkably like a sex act. Available in the Hammer Icons of Horror collection [DVD]

Thursday, October 07, 2010

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)

American International, the company that brought us a series of B-horror films in the 60's which were supposedly based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (but only barely), tried the same strategy with this B-sci-fi film, claiming this giant ant movie was based on a story by H.G. Wells, though actually only the title and the basic idea of smart ants were taken from Wells--in the story, the ants are bigger than normal, but not giant. First, we get a little lecture about ants, and how they "cannot defy the obligatory command" of the pheromones which they use to communicate. Then we see ants swarming over dumped radioactive waste along a beach. Finally the story proper starts, or shall I say, the first of what feels like two different stories. Story #1: Joan Collins brings a motley group of people out to a new island resort community called Dreamland Shores, trying to sell them property. We get to know the people a bit, including a retired couple, a quiet single girl (Pamela Shoop), a married sleazeball (Robert Pine) who practically assaults the quiet girl, and a nice-guy loner (John David Carson) with whom Shoop eventually gets chummy. The gigantic ants (a combination of magnified footage of real ants and big plastic ant heads) begin killing off the folks one by one and also destroy the boat so that the skipper (Robert Lansing) can't take them off the island. However, a handful of them find a canoe and escape to the mainland where story #2 kicks in: The locals appear at first to be helpful, but it soon turns out that they are all minions of the ants, who spray the people with their pheromones to get them to do their duty, which is to work in sugar mines to feed the ants. Will the survivors of Dreamland Shores be able to free themselves from the ants and the townies?

For a "bad movie night," this will do nicely. The acting is TV-movie level, and though Collins is a standout, she's not as over-the-top as you might expect given her later "Dynasty" fame. Carson is easy on the eyes, though he's lacking in heroic qualities. Edward Power (as Collins' kept stud) and Albert Salmi (as the town's sheriff) are more than adequate. The ant effects work well enough if you let them--the best single shot is of a parade of ants heading down the pier to crush the boat. The two plot halves don't feel like an organic fit. The Gilligan's Island-ish story of the first half is slow going with too much character development given that most of these folks don't make it to the last half. The Ant Overlords story is more interesting but is rushed through, so an appropriate tone of paranoid creepiness only lasts for about two minutes before we realize what's happening. Then, of course, there's the ecological disaster aspect, which seems to have been tossed in at the last minute. Not a disc to buy, but if you rent it from Netflix, you won't feel too guilty the next morning. And have I said, "John David Carson (pictured): yummy"? [DVD]

Monday, October 04, 2010

THE MAGICIAN (1926)

This silent film, once considered lost, is an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel which was loosely based on rumors about the real-life occultist Aleister Crowley. Margaret, who sculpts gigantic, rather grotesque busts, is injured when one collapses on her. Dr. Burdon saves her life on the operating table, and the two begin dating. At the same time, alchemist and hypnotist Oliver Haddo (the Crowley figure) has found an ancient formula for creating life and all he needs now is "the heart blood of a maiden," and he fixates on Margaret as the source for his missing ingredient. In a stunning sequence, he shows her a vision of hell that might have sprung from an acid trip; soon, she is under his power and he forces her to marry him, though he refuses to sleep with her. Burdon comes after her and spirits her away to a sanitarium to recover from his evil influence, but of course, it's not that easy and soon Haddo has abducted her and taken her to his tower on a hillside where, on a stormy night, he intends to bring his unholy experiment to fruition. The climax must have been an influence on James Whale when he was crafting the lab scenes in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN--not to mention the Disney animators who worked on the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in FANTASIA. The film moves along at a good pace and the romantic leads (Alice Terry and Ivan Petrovich) are fine; Paul Wegener, best known as the title character in the 1920 GOLEM, is a little disappointing; his main acting style consists of opening his puffy eyes very wide to express evil thoughts. The Hell scene, tinted and featuring an almost naked male dancer as a seducing Pan figure, doesn't have much to do with the plot, but is remarkable for its sensuality and suggestion of depravity. [TCM]