Tuesday, December 31, 2013

DESERT NIGHTS (1929)

In his last silent movie before his short, ill-fated sound career, John Gilbert plays the manager of the Crown Diamond Mine in Africa. He and his assistant are happy to hear that a British Lord (Ernest Torrence) and his daughter (Mary Nolan) are visiting. As they note that they haven't seen a white woman in three years, they fear she will be a cross-eyed old maid, but she's young, blond, and sexy—and flirts like crazy with Gilbert. And, as it turns out, she's not really a Lady—she and Torrence and their small entourage are jewel thieves. They steal a tray full of diamonds and when Gilbert gets a telegram saying that the real Lord and Lady have been delayed, the fakes take him hostage and make their escape into the brutal Kalahari Desert. Under the blistering sun, the native servants desert them, and the entourage dies from drinking from a poisoned waterhole, which Torrence himself poisoned in case they were followed. What follows is a grimy, sweaty cat-and-mouse game with Gilbert trying to sow seeds of distrust between Torrence and Nolan as we wonder if they will survive the extreme heat of the desert and the thirst that builds up as they fail to find drinkable water.

The movie is on the weak side in terms of plot and action, but it's well acted by the main trio, especially Gilbert who was still quite healthy and sexy. I'd never heard of Mary Nolan; she was a former Ziegfeld Follies girl who endured a handful of scandals in her day and died young after suffering nervous breakdowns and getting hooked on heroin. She's very good here, making her fate even more of a shame. The movie originally ran almost 80 minutes, but the surviving print is just around an hour, with the biggest problem being near the climax as missing footage makes a sudden reversal of fortunes hard to understand. The California desert where the movie was shot looks nothing at all like an African desert, but the actors are made up well to look like they're suffering. The jaunty background score, which was recorded at the time of the film, often doesn't fit the action on screen. My favorite line: late in the film as Nolan gets a little hysterical and resorts to offering herself to Gilbert in exchange for some water, he rebuffs her, saying "The paint’s all peeled off—there's nothing tempting about you now." The finale involves a nice plot surprise, which is ruined a bit by the missing footage. [TCM]

Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE PETERVILLE DIAMOND (1943)

Anne Crawford is upset with her husband (Donald Stewart) who is always too busy with his business to pay attention to her, even on their Latin American trip; she says accusingly, "You're so metaphorical—in everything!" Her buttinski friend (Renee Houston) hatches a plan to have Stewart's snoopy secretary overhear Crawford placing what seems to be a phone call to a lover, making Stewart jealous enough so he'll buy her the fabulously expensive Peterville Diamond. But when they go to the jewelry shop, they wind up victims of a jewel thief (Oliver Wakefield) who flirts with Crawford, then uses a knockout gas on the employees and steals not only the diamond but the state jewels. The next day, a titillated Crawford deliberately gives the police conflicting information about the thief, and eventually he shows up at a major state dinner that Stewart is giving; he's a baron who is going in on a partnership with Stewart and the president, and Stewart is wary of giving him up to the police. Soon, there are some slapstick shenanigans involving three identical briefcases, one of which has the jewels, and a wild car chase across the border before all is settled. This cute British crime caper comedy is essentially a remake of the 30s Hollywood film JEWEL ROBBERY—both are based on the same play. This version is fine, with a cast of actors who were almost completely unknown to me, but though Crawford and Wakefield are fun, they can't hold a candle to the duo of Kay Francis and William Powell; who could? Still this version is worth seeing. Particularly good are William Hartnell as Wakefield's assistant and Charles Heslop as Dillfallow, Stewart's prissy secretary. [TCM]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

THE DAWN EXPRESS (1943)

aka NAZI SPY RING

This Poverty Row film begins with a man leaving the imaginatively-named bar The Tavern and making contact with a supposedly blind beggar just outside the doors (see picture at left); the beggar then watches a man named Reynolds being shanghaied by two burly Germans. Later the same thugs drag Mr. Oliver out of his apartment in his pajamas to question him about his work at a chemical company with Reynolds on Formula 311, an additive that can increase the output of gasoline. When Oliver tells them that the formula is being worked on by a number of people, none of whom have the entire formula, they thank him, send him out the door, then have him killed by a sniper. The Nazi officer Gemmler and his thugs are determined to get hold of the stuff for use back home, and they next target two other chemists: the headstrong playboy gambler Tom Fielding and the handsome level-headed Bob Norton—who is dating Fielding's sister Nancy (who is also a secretary at the chemical company). Enough plot for you? Wait: Bob gets tangled up with sexy blonde Linda who is working for the Nazis. And it turns out that there is a secret ingredient in the formula that, if added improperly, is explosive. And the chemist who started work on the formula, Smith, was actually named Schmidt and is working with the Nazis.

There’s a lot going on in this hour-long spy thriller so it moves fairly quickly, but the ultra-low budget works against the filmmakers' ambitions. The sets are cheap, the script is a bit ramshackle, the acting is all over the place, and most painfully, there is no background music to help develop mood and tension until the last five minutes. A couple of scenes stand out, including a brutal knifing by the "blind" beggar, a mildly amusing sequence of spy watching spy watching spy, and the climax with the Nazis and a chemist on board a small plane (the Dawn Express of the title). Michael Whalen is less than convincing as Bob, the stalwart good guy, but William Bakewell takes up some of the slack in the slightly more rounded character of Tom, who wants to be a good guy but may not have the fortitude to resist sexy female spies. Hans von Twardowski is only fair as the chief Nazi—in a role that calls for ripe overacting, he's rather boring. Some familiar B-film actors in the film include Constance Worth, Jack Mulhall and Anne Nagel. I came away from this quickie thriller with a distinct feeling of "meh." [YouTube]

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

THE GATHERING (1977) / THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS (2012)

I don't have much evidence for this observation, but here goes: an offshoot of the Scrooge trope in Christmas stories (a misanthropic Christmas hater reforms after being shown, in a supernatural fashion, the error of his ways) is the tale of the flawed family man, or exile or outcast, who finds out he's dying and wants to spend his last Christmas mending his ruptured relationships. It may be that this plotline is used more often in stories without the Christmas twist, but at any rate, it feels like a time-honored plot device. It's perhaps most famously used in the TV-movie THE GATHERING, made near the end of the Golden Age of TV-movies. Ed Asner is a successful 50-something businessman who is told a few days before Christmas that he only has a couple of months left to live. He takes the news stoically and reaches out to the wife (Maureen Stapleton) that he left years ago but never divorced. He asks her to initiate a holiday gathering of his four scattered children, most of whom he has alienated, so he can see them all one more time, but he asks her not to tell the kids that he's dying. We see scenes of each of the children debating with their spouses whether or not to go. Two feel particularly damaged by Asner: Lawrence Pressman felt pressured by Asner to follow in his footsteps in the family business—he declined, going off on his own, being belittled by his father when his business faltered; Gregory Harrison, after arguing with his father about the Vietnam war, dodged the draft by heading off to Canada under an assumed name and has barely been heard from since. Asner most wants to make up with Harrison, as he has decided that Harrison was right in doing what he did, but on Christmas Eve, only Harrison doesn't show up.

This is generally a low-key affair which is fairly subtle in pushing emotional buttons. Only one of the kids guesses what's up with Asner so there is no weepy cathartic blowout at the end, though of course, he does manage to reconcile with everyone, even Harrison. The best scene is a happy one, tinged with sadness: after a long midnight talk with during which Pressman realizes that Asner is dying, they open an oddly-shaped present from Asner’s doctor that turns out to be a box of fireworks—together, they set them off in the front yard, laughing and waking up the neighbors (and some dogs). Asner gets to stretch a bit away from his Lou Grant persona; he's still gruff but he's placid and his changes with regard to his children feel real. Stapleton is equally good as the matriarch, though the focus shifts away from her in the last third of the film. The women (including Veronica Hamel) are generally ignored, with Pressman and son-in-law Bruce Davison getting the bulk of the attention. They’re OK, though I wish more had been done with Gregory Harrison’s character—he winds up with only two short scenes. I did get teary at the end, but I felt the movie earned those tears.

Edward Burns made and starred in a virtual, if unofficial, remake of this with THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS, not a film for TV but a small indie which practically went straight to video. Burns is considered an Irish working-class Woody Allen, but as this is the first film of his I've seen I only know him by reputation. Actually, in look and feel, this seemed more like a John Waters movie—except about clean mainstream people. The plot is almost exactly the same as that of THE GATHERING, but the father (Ed Lauter in one of his last roles) is a relatively minor character; this is told from the viewpoints of his children, primarily Burns himself as the oldest son who was forced to become the man of the house when Lauter left years ago. Aside from the youngest child who is fresh out of rehab, most of the kids' problems aren't so much with Dad as with the current state of their own lives. Burns spends most of the movie trying to get his still-bitter mom (Anita Gillette, pictured above left, in the middle on the couch) to agree to see him one more time—she has gone on record as saying that she will never let Lauter in her house again. As in THE GATHERING, the reunion happens though not all the family tensions are neatly wrapped up. Unfortunately, I found most of the characters to be uninteresting. Gillette’s change of heart, which is at the center of the plot, happens disappointingly and anti-climactically offscreen, though she is very good in the role. I also liked Connie Britton in the small part of the caretaker who gets romantically involved with Burns. Ultimately, I think THE GATHERING actually works better. [DVD]

Monday, December 23, 2013

MERRY IN-LAWS (2012)

The plot of this made-for-TV Christmas movie is fairly formulaic, and the acting is routine, but the style is a little off-kilter, which winds up being both good and bad. Peter (Lucas Bryant) is a handsome young man, and, somewhat improbably, an elementary school teacher; his live-in girlfriend and single mom Alex (Kassia Warshawski), more rational and practical, is an astronomer who is working closely with Andrew, a former boyfriend, on gamma ray research partially funded by her father Steven. A few days before Christmas, Peter arranges a lovely space-themed proposal which catches her off-guard, but she says yes. When her (grimly realistic) parents find out, they try to talk her out of it—Dad doesn't approve of Peter and still has hopes that she will get back together with Andrew. But the real deal-breaker might be his parents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus (George Wendt and Shelley Long), whose front is that they run a toymaking business in Alaska. Peter has kept this little secret from Alex, but when both sets of parents arrive to spend a few days—the Clauses, of course, arriving in a sleigh they keep hidden in the garage—uptight skeptical Steven clashes with whimsical Mr. C, Steven being the kind of father who told Alex there was no Santa at the tender age of 5. Tensions between Peter and Alex boil up and soon it looks like the engagement is off, until the Clauses work their magic on everyone.

As has become the norm for made-for-cable TV holiday movies, this was shot in Canada with mostly relatively unknown Canadian actors, though Bryant and Warshawski (pictured at left) are both fine, as is Greg Lawson as Alex's cranky dad and Matty Finochio as Andrew. The pairing of Wendt and Long (Norm and Diane from Cheers, pictured above right) seems like it would work well, and mostly it does, but they wind up being a little too low-key—perhaps to rein in the sometimes theatrical Long—and they don't have much to do in the second half. There is plenty of Christmas atmosphere, but the overall feel of the movie is drabbish-indie rather than colorful cable. I'm not really complaining as it's nice to run into something a little out of the ordinary, but it does feel a bit tamped down emotionally and visually. Bryant is nice looking, though he always looks about a week and a half overdue for a haircut which gives him a slightly seedy feel, like he might actually be a serial killer in disguise. Some shenanigans in the last half involving a pretty elf (Jessica Tsang) who gets mistaken for Peter's mistress feel forced, but overall I have to say that I enjoyed this more than I thought I would from the description. It's on DVD but Lifetime will be showing it on Christmas Eve. [DVD]

Friday, December 20, 2013

STOP THE WORLD—I WANT TO GET OFF (1966)

I became something of a theatre geek at a young age, in the mid-60s when I was 9; living in Central Ohio, I didn't get much of a chance to see Broadway plays but I read a lot about them, mostly in the annual Best Plays series which included information about every Broadway and off-Broadway show of the season. I loved the title of this show, which was a hit in England and New York with Anthony Newley (co-author of the play and its songs), and I was intrigued by the description and photographs which led me to assume it was an almost avant-garde experiment in new theatre. This movie is essentially a filming of the stage production, including reaction shots of an audience, and I'm afraid what might have seemed new and different back then suffers now, not just due to the 40+ years which have elapsed, but also to a fairly uninspiring translation of this highly theatrical piece to the screen, and to the absence of Newley.

The show is essentially a series of blackout sketches and songs about the life of an allegorical "everyman" figure in mime make-up named Littlechap (Tony Tanner) who is also the leader of an acting troupe (mostly women wearing circus costumes). We see them rehearse for a bit, then put on this play about Littlechap's life. He is born, educated, gets a job, gets the boss's daughter (Millicent Martin) pregnant, marries her, and keeps advancing at work even as he drifts into a vaguely unsatisfying family life. Every so often, he yells, "Stop the world!"; the action freezes and the film goes to black & white while he indulges in a monologue looking right into the camera. He also complains quite a bit about being "lumbered," that is, tricked or trapped, usually by women. Eventually, Littlechap fathers more children, takes mistresses, gets a seat in Parliament, and in old age, looks back and sees how unfulfilling his seemingly successful life has been. Tanner tries too hard and quickly becomes rather grating—most reviews of the movie indicate that he was a poor choice to replace Newley. I like Martin, playing not just his wife but all of his mistresses. A couple of the songs, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and "Gonna Build a Mountain," were standards in the 60s and 70s. I'm not against filmed stage plays—in fact, I often enjoy them—but this one doesn’t work, failing to convey whatever was special about the original show that made it a hit. [TCM]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

DANGEROUS CORNER (1934)

Melvyn Douglas is at Virginia Bruce's apartment one morning; they're expecting author Doris Lloyd for breakfast, as they are signing Lloyd for the publishing house they work for. Lloyd arrives and assumes (as we do) that Douglas and Bruce are lovers—she says, "I adore emotional experiments" and notes that her moral code is "two baths a day and mind your manners." Later that day, bonds are found missing from a safe at the publishing house and that weekend, when business associate Ian Keith is found dead from a gunshot wound, it is assumed that he stole the bonds and killed himself. A year later, at a dinner party with Bruce and Douglas and several of their associates, the radio tube burns out and, with no music to distract everyone, conversation turns to conflicting stories about the last time people saw Keith alive, triggered by the discovery that Bruce has a music box that belonged to Keith. Accusations and confessions follow, lies are exposed, and events are capped by a suicide. Then suddenly, a narrative twist changes everything, showing the truth of a saying that telling the truth is as dangerous as driving around a corner. This compelling melodrama is based on a play by J.B. Priestly and its staginess is largely overcome by a good cast which, in addition to Douglas and Bruce (pictured) includes Conrad Nagel, Erin O'Brien-Moore and Betty Furness. It's all rather "meta" for the era; in addition to the odd twist at the end, one character tells another, "Don't talk like a man in a melodrama." If you don’t mind the fact that most of the last half of the movie takes place on one set, you’ll relish the twists and turns this movie takes on its way to an ending that some will find ingenious and some will find a letdown. I’m in the middle, but I quite enjoyed the movie. [TCM]

Monday, December 16, 2013

MOLE MEN AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1961)

After a narrator explains that in "olden days," strong, heroic men were often honored by being called "sons of Hercules," we meet Maciste, one of these men, exercising his considerable brawn at dawn one day by tugging a whale on to shore. A group of men on horseback are attacked by another group of men on horseback dressed in white capes and furry white masks, and Maciste tries to help. When the sun begins to rise, the furry men scurry away except for one unlucky guy who, caught by the sun, collapses and dies. We eventually discover that the White Furries are actually Mole People who must live underground and who dissolve into skeletons if exposed directly to the sun. Maciste finds a nearby village which has been destroyed by them and he promises to bring back the villages taken captive. Along the way, he finds Bangor, a muscular black guy, tied up and being tortured by some Mole Men. Maciste rescues him—in a highlight of the movie, he spears four of the Mole Men at once with four spears—and Bangor offers to be his slave. Maciste gives him a speech worthy of a 60s liberal about how no one is born to be slave to another, but agrees to take him on as a sidekick to go whoop some Mole Men ass. And they do.

There are more plotlines, of course: 1) the Mole People kidnap above-grounders and make them work as slaves, so Maciste gets involved in their liberation attempts; 2) there's a Wicked Queen who yearns to see the sun and plans to take the captured Maciste as her husband so she can have children who can live above ground. However, 3) the Queen's advisor knows a secret—the Queen is actually an above-grounder, so he wants his son to marry her and have "normal" children; 4) Bangor gets involved with a slave from his village. The best scene in the movie is a torture scene: Bangor and a captured rebel are placed on slabs with Maciste standing between them, his arms up, holding a huge stone slab with swords sticking out of it facing down. More and more weight is added as Maciste struggles to keep the slabs up so he and the two men aren't killed by the swords (not to mention the weight of the stones). The Queen is clearly aroused by Maciste's sweating and straining, but if we know these movies, we know he’ll prevail and she will perish. Mark Forest (pictured) isn't bad as Maciste (referred to in the bad English dub as Macistus); fellow body builder Paul Wynter (Bangor) hasn't much to do except act helpless until inspired into action by Maciste. Most of the exterior scenes are supposed to take place at night, but it never looks dark at all. The Retromedia print of this peplum is not widescreen but pan-and-scan, and the colors are washed out, but I still had fun watching. Oh, yeah, and there’s the theme song, sung like a Kingston Trio folk song: "The mighty sons of Hercules/Were men as men should be!" [DVD]

Friday, December 13, 2013

CURTAIN AT EIGHT (1933)

Stage actor Wylie Thornton, currently appearing in the play Isle of Romance, is quite a ladies' man. Young Anise, an actress in the play, thinks that Wylie will marry her as soon as his divorce from his estranged wife is final. Doris, an heiress, thinks that Wylie will run off with her. And it turns out that Wylie isn't really intending to divorce his wife, Alma—she is traveling with him as his secretary, though no one knows they're married. When the lights go out at a backstage birthday party for Wylie, he blows out the candles on the cake and then is promptly shot to death. The suspects include all of the above and more: Doris's former sweetheart, Carey, and her father the Major, who both opposed Doris's affair, and Lola, Anise's protective sister. There’s even a mischievous backstage chimp who can get in and out of his cage on his own with ease; she loved Wylie and even kisses a picture of him she keeps in her cage, but could she also be the jealous type?

This short (one hour) B-mystery feels very much like an episode of a 50s or 60s detective show. The first half is the set-up of the characters and situations, followed by the murder and the investigation by two cops, one (C. Aubrey Smith, pictured) who is older and sometimes acts like a bumpkin but is wiser than he acts, and one (Sam Hardy) who is younger, brash, and too sure of himself—whenever he gets a new clue, he's sure he's cracked the case and exclaims, "It's in the bag!" Smith and Hardy work well together, and a series featuring these two would have been welcome. Other notable names in the cast include Dorothy Mackaill (Lola), Paul Cavanagh (Wylie), Natalie Moorhead (Alma), and Russell Hopton as a lurking reporter. There are some interesting transitions in which a new scene slides in from the side, and an early Hitler reference (he had just become chancellor that year). The ending feels gimmicky and is a little disappointing, but it's memorable. The Alpha DVD has some jumps and skips but isn't in too bad a shape. [DVD]

Friday, December 06, 2013

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967)

Roger Corman, best known as a producer and director of low-budget sci-fi and horror films, got his chance here to do a big studio film. It did not do well commercially or critically, but viewed today, it holds up better than some A-films of the era. In a documentary-style fashion, it tells the story of the infamous slaughter of several members of the Bugs Moran gang as arranged by Al Capone on Valentine’s Day, 1929. The film has almost continual voice-over narration which put off some critics but which, though sometimes unorthodox (the narrator often speaks over on-screen dialogue), does help the viewer keep the large cast of characters straight. Gangsters Capone (Jason Robards) and Moran (Ralph Meeker) are in the middle of a war over selling their illegal alcohol to Chicago's speakeasies, and we are introduced to the two men, their chief assistants, gang members, and various hit men. Robards almost goes over-the-top as Capone, but it could be argued that such a portrayal is the best way to approach such a mythic villain. Meeker, who has less screen time, is more subtle in his performance. Other standouts include George Segal, Bruce Dern, Joseph Campanella, Harold J. Stone, and the handsome Clint Ritchie (pictured). It's fun to see Jack Nicholson and Corman favorite Dick Miller in cameo roles. The sets and cinematography are good; Roger Ebert criticizes the film for feeling not like the real Chicago but like a 30s movie version of 20s Chicago, but that actually makes sense, for most of us know that period more from the movies than from experience or documentary film. There is a room-destroying fight between Segal and his negligee-clad floozy that is almost slapstick in feel but otherwise there is little humor or lightness here. The violence in the film seems like it was influenced by the controversial Bonnie and Clyde, but this was actually released before that one. Worth seeing. [FMC]

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

CARNIVAL STORY (1954)

Jay C. Flippen has brought his American carnival over to Germany and it's a roaring success. Among other sideshow denizens, there's a bearded lady, a strong (and mute) man named Groppo, and an acrobat (Lyle Bettger) who does a daring high dive into a small pool of water. One night, handsome barker Steve Cochran (at left) gets his wallet heisted by a lovely but starving young woman (Anne Baxter); he catches up with her and instead of calling the police, offers her a job helping him brush up on his German. Soon, Cochran and Baxter are in the middle of a lustful affair, though he continues to play the field. Bettger hires her to become his partner in the high-dive act, and on the night of her debut, asks her to marry him. Cochran is fine with that, assuming that he and Baxter will continue their affair. Baxter, horrified, says she'll kill him if he touches her again. She does marry Bettger, though Cochran keeps pestering her, but one night, a rung on the high-dive ladder breaks off and Bettger falls to his death. It turns out that the diver had saved a lot of money and Baxter gets it, so Cochran tries to wheedle some money out of her—and even though they sleep together, she won't give him the money so he steals it and leaves. Baxter becomes the star of the show and the plotpoints keep piling up: she starts a mild flirtation with George Nader, a Life magazine photographer who is doing a story on the carnival; she is hurt one night attempting to do Bettger's famous somersault dive; she decides to leave the show, but comes back when she finds out that Cochran has returned; finally, Cochran admits to tampering with the ladder to kill Bettger, leading to a wild climax in which Cochran tries to strangle Baxter but has to deal with Groppo the strong man chasing him all over the carnival.

There is plenty of plot here but few likeable characters. Our sympathies are generally with Baxter but she makes her own problems worse with her erratic behavior. Cochran is slimy but sexy, and the two do have some chemistry together. Bettger is a wet noodle and there's never any doubt that he won't be around for long. Nader's character is ill-defined and seems present only to give Baxter a helping hand while she recuperates from her diving injury. The immoral behavior of Baxter and Cochran (pictured at right) gives the movie a modern feel, and the two are the only appealing actors on screen, so your enjoyment of the movie will depend on how you react the two of them. I like Steve Cochran's dark looks and blustery manner, and when he's offscreen for big chunks of the last half, I lost interest. The writing is on the level of lines like, "Until I met you, I didn’t know how rotten I was!" and "Shut up and go to bed!" The movie looks strange, having been filmed in a color process which has degraded over the years (a digital restoration would help). The best scene in the movie, aside from when Cochran and Baxter are kissing or fighting, is when Bettger and Baxter climb the ladder on the night of her debut and he tells her that she'll never forget this moment—the view of the city as night falls is indeed lovely. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

SON OF CLEOPATRA (1964)

Egypt is occupied by the Romans under the strict rule of Petronius (who paints his face and talks about his beauty). He frequently rounds up of groups of Egyptians to sell into slavery, but gangs of rebels led by El Kabir, known as the Phantom of the Desert, are engaging Roman soldiers in small skirmishes. It seems that El Kabir can be in two places at once, and that’s because both he and his brother Uro are presenting themselves as the same figure, their faces covered to hide their true identities. There is some squabbling among the rebel leaders and soon El Kabir finds out that he is not who he thinks he is: he is Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, hidden away after birth to keep him safe.  Soon, the Emperor Octavian sends Furio to investigate Petronius's problems; he is accompanied by Petronius' daughter Livia, who is briefly kidnapped by El Kabir's men after Uro is captured, tortured and killed. When she is released, she begins thinking that maybe El Kabir and his men have legitimate complaints.

This is a sword-and-sandal movie with a difference: instead of being about a mythical hero such as Hercules or Maciste, it is based more solidly in history. There really was a Caesarion, though Julius Caesar never acknowledged him as his son, and he was ordered killed by Octavian. Another difference: the hero (played by Mark Damon) is not a bulked-up muscle man but a hunky little guy with a lithe physique. The entire enterprise is a notch above the average peplum movie of the time with an engrossing narrative—the surface of which I have only scratched above—and some rounded characters. Damon (pictured) makes a fine leading man, and Livio Lorenzon as Petronious is an equally good villain. Scilla Gabel as Livia is distracting only because she looks a bit like Barbara Eden as Jeannie. There are a couple of good action and torture scenes, though at the end, the build-up to a final battle is wasted. Worth seeing for fans of the genre. This is the last of the peplums for now, but I have a few more queued up for the future. [DVD]

Saturday, November 30, 2013

SON OF SAMSON (1960)

In the 11th century B.C. the Persians have conquered the Egyptians; though theoretically still ruled by their pharaoh, Queen Smedes has been installed by the Persians and when she is accused of enslaving the people, she has the pharaoh assassinated and takes over as ruler, and things go from bad to worse for the people. The rightful heir, Kenamon, has been off fighting the Persians; on his way home, Kenamon sees the muscle man Maciste (the "son" of the title, though little is made of that connection) taking a nap on some rocks when a lion attacks. The two save each other and form a bond, and Kenamon asks Maciste to help him save his people from Persian tyranny. Back in the city of Tanis, the evil Queen wants to marry Kenamon but he suspects she had a role in his father's death (and besides, he's already in love with Nofret), so she has the Necklace of Forgetfulness placed on him and he immediately becomes smitten. Meanwhile Maciste comes to town in a fighting mood but Kenamon has forgotten who he is. Maciste runs about saving slaves from death and torture, but can he get Kenamon on his side before the Queen's plans are finalized?

For the peplum genre, the Egyptian setting is a little different, and the fantasy element of the necklace is unusual though not unique; you may recall the Potion of Forgetfullness in GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON. There is a good balance between action and narrative, and some of the battle scenes are fairly graphic for the day: in the climactic battle, one man is axed in the head and dies with a comical look on his face, and another is stabbed in the face with a huge fork-like weapon. Early on is a striking scene showing Egyptians buried in the sand, some head up, some feet up. There is a sequence right out of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in which Maciste saves some slaves from being crushed during the erection of a giant obelisk. (The less said about the lion-wrestling scene, the better; do any of these sword-and-sandal movies have decent animal-wrestling scenes?) Mark Forest is acceptably built as Maciste (pictured above right with Angelo Zanolli as Kenamon), and a famous Cuban belly dancer named Chelo Alonso (at left) is fine as the queen. The print on Retromedia’s DVD is widescreen, always a plus. [DVD]

Friday, November 29, 2013

HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961)

Hercules and his son Hylas (in the myths, Hylas was actually his companion—and some say, lover) have a strange vision of red smoke spreading ruin over Greece. The blind seer Tiresias tells Hercules that an evil power from the west threatens, so Androcles talks a reluctant Hercules into heading off to preempt disaster. Herc's wife, however, wants him to stay home, so Androcles essentially kidnaps the strong man—by drugging his wine—and gets him on his ship where Hylas is hiding, wanting to share his dad's adventure. A resentful Hercules is content to be lackadaisical and let others do the work until a huge storm destroys the ship; Hercules is washed up an island and Androcles is swept away. Hercules has a vision that Androcles is still alive, and as he searches the island he finds a woman who is being slowly absorbed by magic into a mountainside. At the mercy of shape-shifting Proteus, she begs to be killed, but Hercules battles Proteus (who turns into, among other things, a lion, a lizard, and a vulture) and bests him, freeing the woman, the princess Ismene from the island of Atlantis. It turns out that her mother, Queen Antinea, sacrificed her to Proteus, partly because of a prophecy that, if her daughter survives her, Atlantis will be destroyed. On the island, a priest of the god Uranus lives in a mountain and stands guard over a pool of Uranus' blood which has evil powers. Soon, Hercules starts seeing Androcles around the palace, but he's wandering in a stupor, having lost his memory, so Herc stays long enough to help his pal, and gets involved in a plan to overthrow the Queen.

As I'm noticing in these reviews, there's an awful lot of plot in these peplum movies, maybe to distract from the low budgets or wildly variable acting, and I'm not always sure my summary details are accurate. But overall, this is fun, full of action, colorful sets, and male and female pulchritude. There are some nice fantasy touches, such as Proteus' shape-shifting and occasional intercession by the gods (we never see them, but Hercules invokes them). The storm sequence is particularly effective, as is the climactic destruction of Atlantis—though that looks cobbled together from other film footage. Reg Park makes for a beefy and not bad looking hero, but, as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew pointed out when they showed this, he is almost comically passive for chunks of the film. Ettore Manni as Androcles and Fay Spain as the Queen are fine, though both seem a little underused. The widescreen DVD print from Retromedia looks great. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (1960)

This is a real whoop-de-doo, kick-ass, sword-and-sandal movie; my advice is to ignore the plot and the sometimes amateurish special effects and just enjoy the piling-up of action sequences. What I could follow of the narrative: Back in the pagan days, muscular hero Emilius the Mighty, nicknamed Goliath (though in the original Italian version, he's Hercules), is a right-hand man to the gods, particularly the God of Revenge. His latest chore was to bring back the Blood Diamond, stolen by the wicked King Eurito, and replace it in the head of the god's statue. But Goliath has other problems. His young-pup brother Illus is love with Thea, but Goliath disapproves because her father was responsible for the death of their parents. Illus is led to believe (by Tindaro, Eurito's wily henchman) that Goliath is jealous and wants Thea for himself (even though he is married to Dejanira), so he is talked into slipping Goliath a Potion of Forgetfulness, but it's actually poison. As if all this isn't enough for Goliath, he is told by an oracle that his brother will cause the death of Dejanira.

But the plot machinations are secondary to the action sequences, and there are plenty of those. Right off the bat, Goliath battles a fire-breathing three-headed dog, followed later by a rather teddy-bear-like bat-creature, then a teddy-bear-like bear. Later he grapples with an elephant that is about to crush Illus, destroys his own house by pulling down its pillars, and battles with Polymorphus, a centaur/satyr creature who is running off with his wife. Near the end of the film, there is a battle with the dragon of the title, and another destruction scene involving tearing apart a house from underground. The creatures are fabulous in an MST3K bad-movie way, mostly looking like Muppets (the dog) or stuntmen in ratty Halloween costumes (the bear). The first glimpses of the dragon, a stop-motion figure, aren't bad, but when Goliath actually fights it, it’s a huge kiddie-matinee puppet, and becomes the most laughable scene of the movie—and that's saying a lot. Mark Forest is muscular and stoic as Goliath, Sandro Moretti is pleasant enough eye candy in the less-hunky sidekick role of Illus, and Broderick Crawford—yes, Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford—looks completely uneasy as the wicked king. The Alpha Video DVD is letterboxed but not anamorphic, and the colors tend toward sickly greens, but I hear that the Something Weird disc is in better shape. All things considered, a fun entry in the peplum genre. [DVD]

Monday, November 25, 2013

HERCULES (1958)

Most Novembers, I've written here about the kind of fantasy movies that I recall being broadcast on TV during Thanksgiving week when I was young—what with kids being off school and most regular daytime programming pre-empted. This year I thought I'd focus on the Italian muscleman movies, aka sword-and-sandal movies, or peplum movies (meaning "tunic," or toga, as the genre, popular through the 1960s, has been dubbed) which usually feature a muscled, toga-wearing hero in some historical setting. I've seen quite a few of them, but they tend to run together in my memory, so recently I've made an effort to watch (or re-watch) some of them so I can tell them apart. I'll start with the granddaddy of peplum movies. Though there had been a handful of these epics before (most notably the silent Italian film CABIRIA which introduced the standard peplum hero Maciste), this was the first one to become a big box office hit in America when it was dubbed and released here by American International.

It begins with a bucolic scene of a shepherd gently piping to his sheep until suddenly a woman tears through in a runaway chariot. Luckily Hercules (Steve Reeves) is strolling by and saves her by ripping up a tree to put in her horses' path. As it happens, the woman is Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina), daughter of King Pelius of Iolcus, and that's where Herc is heading, having been asked by the king to train their men in the skills of warfare. She tells Hercules that it's rumored that the previous king was assassinated, and Jason (the rightful heir) and his tutor Chironi vanished that night along with the Golden Fleece which is symbolic of legitimate rule, and which also has the name of the king's killer written on it in blood. Herc discovers Jason (Fabrizio Mioni), now grown, and the king gives them three months to go find the Golden Fleece. They survive a storm at sea, spend some time with a tribe of Amazons, and face down a bunch of dark, bestial men and a dragon before they get the Fleece and return to Iolcus where Jason can take his place as king.

This mish-mash of mythological themes and stories contains more than I've noted above, including a fight with the Cretan Bull (a very sorry-looking sequence) and a lion, run-ins with oracles, some help from Ulysses, the tearing-down of pillars, and the presence of many loinclothed young men engaged in acts of physical prowess. Even though Steve Reeves' name became a codeword for "bad musclebound acting," he’s OK here—some who came after were much worse. Koscina (who had a lengthy career in Italian cinema and Hollywood B-movies) and Mioni (who did not; both pictured above) are both fine in the main support roles. Though it's not a big-budget movie, it looks pretty good, perhaps due to Mario Bava's presence as cinematographer, just before he struck out on his career as a director (BLACK SUNDAY, DANGER: DIABOLIK, and one of the best peplum films HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD). And finally, a widescreen version of this movie is available from Retromedia, so if you've only seen this pan-and-scanned, you haven't really seen it. Certainly one of the best of the peplum films. [DVD]

Friday, November 22, 2013

THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (1922)

This silent German film from Ernst Lubitsch may be the oldest film I've reviewed here. It is definitely a relic in terms of acting (either overdone or underdone) but it's been beautifully restored with rich color tinting and is lovely to watch. The title is an exaggeration: the pharaoh, King Amenes (Emil Jannings) only has one love but she causes quite a bit of trouble. Samlak, the king of Ethiopia, arrives wanting to sign a peace pact with the Egyptians and offers his daughter Makeda as a bride. But trouble is in store when Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), an Egyptian architect, rescues Theonis (Dagny Servaes), a Greek slave to Makeda who was being mistreated. The two go necking at an ancient Egyptian version of a moonlit lover's lane, but when they stray onto treasury property, which is strictly forbidden, they are caught and sentenced to death. As Ramphis is about to be crushed beneath a huge stone slab, Theonis agrees to give herself to King Amenes if he will spare Ramphis. The King agrees and frees Ramphis but tells him that Theonis has been executed. Meanwhile, Samlak wants Theonis back as a slave; one thing leads to another and soon the Ethiopians are on the warpath.

There is some fun to be had here in this early example of a historical epic. The sets are spectacular and the battle scenes are impressive. The acting, as I noted, is all over the place. Actually, I prefer the actors like Liedtke who overact occasionally to Jannings who underplays the lead role—pretty much all he does is glower and look askance; his passion for the slave girl barely registers. But the restoration of the film is amazing. No complete print exists so this was pulled together from three different prints, but aside from the fact that a handful of scenes are missing and represented by stills and explanatory titles, it feels all of one piece. This won't convert anyone over to silent film fandom, and it doesn't feel at all like a Lubitsch movie (glossy, whimsical, romantic), but I enjoyed it. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE (1932)

After an opening crawl warning about the evils of using scavenger journalism to sell newspapers, we meet young Bruce Foster (Tom Brown) who runs the paper in the small town of Cornwall with some help from his girl friend Toni (Adrienne Dore). It seems to be common knowledge that wealthy Mrs. Ferguson is having an affair with banker Judd Brooks, and when Mr. Ferguson arrives home early from a business trip, he almost catches the two of them. That night, Ferguson is shot to death and his wife is found bound and gagged. She claims that robbers broke in and gives police a description of them, but some believe that she and her lover may have committed the crime and made look like robbery. The news, reported by Bruce in the local paper, brings a flock of big-city reporters to town. One batch, led by the slightly seedy Bob Parks (Kenneth Thomson), is out to make as many scandalous headlines as possible, and they wind up railroading the DA into charging Mrs. Ferguson despite virtually no physical evidence. The others, led by Martin Collins (Grant Mitchell), are disgusted by Parks' tactics. In the middle is Maizie Dickson (Joan Blondell), Parks' former lover; she hangs out with Parks and the scandal mongers but her heart is with Collins' group. When Maizie realizes that small-town Toni is falling for Parks, she tries to intervene, but can’t stop their affair. But the real question is, can Bruce, the small-town reporter, find out the truth behind the murder which the big-city pros seem disinclined to find?

This is another Warner Bros. movie, like FIVE STAR FINAL from the year before, that takes a critical view of the newspaper business. That earlier film focused on scandal sheets that dig up old dirt just to sell papers. In this one, the "bad" reporters actually influence the way the case is handled by the state, rushing to judgment for the sake of headlines. This is worth seeing for a number of reasons. It moves along at a nice clip, the plot takes a couple of unexpected detours—especially the thread involving Blondell—and the performances are quite good. Brown (pictured with Blondell above) looks like he's 15, but he does a nice job at seeming both charmingly na├»ve and slyly clever. Thomson, an actor with whom I was not familiar, is good as the world-weary, slightly decadent type—we discover that he doesn't even write his own copy anymore. Leon Ames stands out in the small role of Brooks, the lover. [TCM]

Thursday, November 14, 2013

THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968)

This is a doozy, folks, in the so-bad-it's-almost-good category. Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch) is a retired movie director; years ago, he was known for a sting of films that made a star out of Lylah Clare (Kim Novak), but on their wedding day, Lylah died under mysterious circumstances—she either fell or was pushed from a flight of stairs in Zarken's mansion, and was either running from an assailant or was engaging in an extramarital fling with another woman. Now some twenty years later, press agent Bart Langer (Milton Seltzer) has discovered a young would-be starlet named Elsa (also Kim Novak) who bears a striking resemblance to Lylah. Dying of cancer, he approaches Zarken about making a movie about Lylah that would star Elsa. At first skeptical, Zarken soon decides not only to make the movie, but also to mold Elsa to be another Lylah.

That plot has promise, but the film is tonally all over the place. It can’t decide if it's campy satire, straightforward melodrama, or a ghost story, so it winds up being a bit of all three, to its detriment. The movies it most conjures up are VERTIGO (instability of identity, male re-creating lost female) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (eccentric old movie personalities), and had director Robert Aldrich shot for one or the other as a model, the movie might have worked. Whenever it's dealing with the movie business, which is often, the script feels like the fever dream of an oversexed 14-year-old who has no idea how Hollywood works. When it's trying to be a relationship drama, the characters are maddeningly vague, particularly Zarken who comes off sometimes as villainous and sometimes as just misunderstood. Fairly soon after Elsa enters Zarken's house, she begins to occasionally slip into the deep Germanic accent and over-the-top vampishness of Lylah, to the point where it feels like she's being possessed by a spirit. Yet few other people seem to notice this or comment on it—is this something that’s only observed by Zarken, or is this really a possession story?

As a whole, the movie is a mess, but many of the parts are enjoyable. The backstory of Zarken and Lylah is clearly based on Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and watching the way Zarken's relationship with Elsa plays out has its moments. Novak is sexy, Finch gives it his all—though honestly, it would have been more fun if he had gone over the top more often—and Seltzer provides solid, quiet support, though his character is no more realistic than the others. Rossella Falk plays Finch's assistant, who apparently had a thing for Lylah (I'm thinking on the order of Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA, but dialed down very low). Ernest Borgnine is good as a studio boss who hires Zarken to make the film, and a young Michael Murphy is his son who becomes a protector of sorts to Elsa. The movie is stolen by Coral Browne (pictured at right) as a crippled gossip columnist who can make or break Elsa's reputation before even one frame of film is shot. She's only in two scenes and her presence is missed throughout. Also with Gabriele Tinti as a hunky but sleazy Italian gardener and eventual bedmate of Elsa's. I can only recommend this movie if you have a healthy tolerance and/or love of bad movies. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

AND SO THEY WERE MARRIED (1936)

Edith (divorced) and her 12-year-old daughter Brenda have come to spend Christmas at a winter resort; arriving at the same time is Stephen (widowed), soon to be joined by his 12-year-old son Tommy. Stephen and Edith had a nasty encounter earlier in their cars, so when the road is blocked temporarily by snow, they are not happy to discover that they are the only two in the entire lodge. A huge dinner is prepared for them and a large band plays while Mr. Snirley, the recreation director, and Miss Peabody, the hostess, work hard trying to get the two together. In order to get away from Snirley and Peabody, Edith and Stephen go for a walk and soon discover that they like each other's company. Unfortunately, Brenda is prejudiced against men and when the roads clear up and Tommy arrives, the two children plot to keep Edith and Stephen apart.

The first half-hour of this romantic comedy trifle is charming. Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas are both working at about half-speed, but that's really all that’s really required at this B-movie level. Dorothy Stickney (who played Mother on Broadway in the big hit Life With Father) is wonderful as Peabody, and Romaine Callender gives a light campy touch to Snirley. Donald Meek is his usual harassed self as the lodge manager. But when the children (Edith Fellows and Jackie Moran, both giving below-average performances) take center stage, the movie changes tone, becoming slapsticky and mean—there's an awful lot of physical violence, albeit mild, against the little girl that doesn't sit well. By the end, when the action has moved to Manhattan, the movie collapses into unbelievable B-movie screwball antics, and I very nearly turned it off with only ten minutes left. 11-year-old Douglas Scott steals his scenes as a mama's boy named Horace, especially in a scene in which he tries to take credit away from Moran for spitting BBs at the guests: "It was I who winged Miss Peabody on her beezer!" Pictured above, from left, are Callender, Stickney, Astor and Douglas. [YouTube streaming]

Monday, November 11, 2013

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950)

Between the title, the city streets locale, the shadowy visual style, and the femme fatale at the center of the action, one might expect this to be an average film noir, but it's actually more like a medical drama in disguise. Hard-boiled blonde Evelyn Keyes (pictured) arrives at Grand Central Station, nervous, sweaty, and feeling sick, and trailed by two feds who suspect she's smuggling jewels from Cuba. She is, having already dropped them in the mail to her small-time hood husband (Charles Korvin), who is having an affair with her slutty sister (Lola Albright). But she's also unknowingly carrying smallpox. Anyone who's been vaccinated is safe, but if she has close contact with anyone unprotected, they are susceptible to the disease, which can cause death. Keyes goes to a doctor (William Bishop) who diagnoses her as having the flu, but later when smallpox cases start popping up around the city, Bishop remembers Keyes and soon both the law and the city health department are on her trail. The crime plot is right out of film noir, but it takes a back seat to the smallpox story; the unsavory trio of Keyes, Korvin and Albright deserve more screen time, but generally this is a decent thriller that feels a bit like a TV show, including some over-the-top Dragnet-like narration now and then. The cast is serviceable and there are some recognizable character actors such as Dorothy Malone, Connie Gilchrist, Whit Bissell, and Jim Backus. A little something different. [DVD]

Thursday, November 07, 2013

DARK PASSAGE (1947)

Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), convicted of killing his wife, escapes from San Quentin in a barrel and bums a ride from a guy named Baker (Clifton Young), but when the driver hears a radio report about the escape, Parry knocks him out and takes his clothes, and then gets a ride from Irene Jansen, an artist (Lauren Bacall); she knows who he is from the newspaper coverage of his trial but because her father was wrongly convicted of a similar crime, she believes in his innocence and agrees to help him. As it happens, Irene knows Madge (Agnes Moorehead), a woman who testified against Parry, and Irene is dating Bob, Madge's former boyfriend (Bruce Bennett), so Parry winds up getting plastic surgery on his face so he can investigate the murder for himself in the open. Unfortunately, his troubles are just beginning: his buddy George winds up murdered, the cops start trailing him because he seems suspicious, and Baker shows up on his tail. And, of course, there’s troublemaking Madge. This film noir works well despite (or, hell, maybe because of) the many strange plot twists. The great cast is also a plus. Bogart is, of course, the quintessential noir hero, though he doesn't quite seem as natural as he did in THE MALTESE FALCON. The first half is shot subjectively from Parry's point of view, so we never see what the character looks like before he becomes Bogart; it feels like an odd gimmick but probably necessary because of Bogie's distinct face. He and Bacall exhibit good chemistry, and the supporting cast (Bennett, Young, and especially Moorehead) is great. The way the ending plays out is a little surprising given the way it goes a bit against Production Code morality, but also anti-climactic. But there are some very good scenes in the last half that help mitigate the slightly weak ending. [TCM]

Monday, November 04, 2013

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

In wintry 1930s New York, struggling artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) can't sell his paintings. Matthews, an art dealer (Cecil Kellaway), is friendly but rejects his works; however, Matthews' partner Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) agrees to take one piece, and tells him he needs love in his life for his talent to bloom. Later in Central Park, Adams meets a teenage girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) dressed in clothes of a bygone era. He is charmed by her, but disconcerted when she says her parents are entertainers at a theater that Eben knows was torn down many years ago. Over the next few weeks, he sees her in the park frequently; each time, she looks older, and as she tells him stories of her life, it seems as if time is going by more quickly for her than for him. A dramatic painting of a lighthouse spooks her, and it turns that she is indeed from an earlier era. Eben begins a portrait of her which Spinney approves of, but then he discovers that Jennie died young, in a storm off Cape Cod. Can Eben somehow transcend time to save Jennie from her fate?

This romantic fantasy is visually quite beautiful, even if the plot and characters aren't all they might have been. Many of the scenes involving Jennie are shot with what would seem to be a burlap bag filter to look as if they are on canvas. New York in winter looks quite romantic. The climactic storm looks good as well, and the black & white movie switches to color tints in the last reel before changing to full Technicolor for the final shot of the title portrait. Cotten and Jones work well together—though the almost 30-year-old Jones can't really pass as a teenager in the early scenes. Though the visuals and the fantasy plot kept my interest, more fleshing-out of characters, lead and supporting, might have made this a more compelling movie. Barrymore and Kellaway are fine, as is David Wayne as a taxi-driver buddy who helps Cotten get a commission to paint a mural at an Irish pub. Lillian Gish appears briefly as a nun. But the film doesn't have a lived-in feel like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or THE BISHOP’S WIFE do. [TCM]

Friday, November 01, 2013

DAVID AND GOLIATH (1960)

This re-telling of the familiar Bible story begins with the aged prophet Samuel arriving at the court of King Saul and telling Saul's advisor Abner that the Lord has spoken and said it's time for the corrupt and decadent Saul to be replaced by a new king. Saul seems almost resigned to the news, upset since the Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant, but the scheming Abner is on his guard, worrying about losing his own bit of power. Meanwhile in Bethlehem, we meet the shepherd boy David, son of Jesse, who impresses his girlfriend with his slingshot talents (hint, hint) before she's struck by lightning in a storm and dies. Samuel, told by God that the next king of Israel will be a son of Jesse, comes to town to take David off to his destiny. Right off the bat, David stirs up trouble with some rabble-rousing in the streets, and though Abner is against him, Saul takes him under his wing, hoping to pacify him and win him over. David becomes buddies with Saul's son Jonathan and flirts with Saul's daughter Michel; meanwhile, with the Philistines threatening to attack and Saul wanting to get the Ark back, Abner plans to use David as an emissary to Asrod, king of the Philistines, hoping for David's failure and/or death at the hands of the Philistine giant Goliath. Spoiler alert: remember that slingshot!

This Italian film feels like The Ten Commandments done on a low budget with the cast and crew of a Hercules movie. It comes nowhere near the grandeur of a De Mille film, but in its B-movie scrappiness it has its fun moments. The movie's big draw is Orson Welles as Saul (at left), in the beginning of his "shambling fat man" years (as in THE LONG HOT SUMMER and TOUCH OF EVIL), and as usual when he's on screen—even if he's only going through the motions as here—he's always compelling. Unfortunately all the dialogue was post-dubbed so even though he dubs his own voice, a certain immediacy is lost and the performance feels diminished.  Ivo Payer, the actor playing David, is a cute young guy who might have played a strongman sidekick in a Hercules movie (pictured above right), but doesn't have the gravitas for this role. Few of the other actors make an impression except for Massimo Serato as Abner. A burly, hairy Italian circus giant by the name of Kronos plays Goliath—my recollection is that he has no lines, just grunts. They try to use camera trickery to make him look huge but it doesn't really work. I mean, I wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley, but he never looks quite as menacing as he should. The dialogue is full of "thee"s and "thou dost"s which is fun in an old-fashioned way, and the sets and costumes look good. There's a good battle scene near the end. The only print available is a junky looking pan-and-scan one, but I’d watch this one again if a widescreen version was released. [YouTube]

Thursday, October 31, 2013

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

Dr. Neimann is a mad scientist who is imprisoned for tampering in God's domain by continuing the work of master tamperer Dr. Frankenstein. During a storm, his prison cell collapses and Neimann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel escape. They run into Lampini's traveling Chamber of Horrors carnival which advertises the actual skeleton of Count Dracula, stake still stuck in the bones of his chest. After they help Lampini get a wagon out the mud, he takes them in, and in return they kill him; Neimann then poses as Lampini and sets out to get his revenge against those who put him in prison. He pulls the stake out of the skeleton and Dracula is revived—for a while, at least. Dracula agrees to help Neimann get his revenge against the local Burgomaster, but when Dracula goes after the Burgomaster's daughter-in-law, he winds up exposed to sunlight and is re-skeletonized. Soon, Neimann arrives at Frankenstein's old stomping grounds and finds both the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man encased in ice. He revives them and hatches a plan to put switch brains and bodies, but soon enough jealous Daniel, who Niemann had promised to help but is now ignoring, throws a wrench into the plans, as do the villagers who are spooked when they see a light over at the Frankenstein place.

This is almost the granddaddy of what the 60s monster movie magazines called “Monster Rally” flicks. Technically, it came after FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, but it's the first film to have three headlining monsters. It's certainly fast-paced and atmospheric, but there is almost too much plot crammed into its short running time of about 70 minutes; of course, if this was made now, it would have the opposite problem—there would be 70 minutes of plot stretched out to 3 hours of mind-numbing action/tedium. It's also unfortunate that the film basically is in two parts; when Dracula is vanquished, it starts over, so the three monsters don't get to share any screen time. The acting leaves a little to be desired. Boris Karloff switches places here—he's the mad doctor instead of the monster (who is played unmemorably by B-western star Glenn Strange)—and he's good, but John Carradine is a rather stodgy Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. is wooden as Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man. The always welcome George Zucco, despite co-star billing, only has a few minutes of screen time as the carnival owner. Support from Anne Gwynne (Dracula's prey in the first half) and Elena Verdugo (who improbably falls for Chaney in the second half) is mild. The best performance comes from J. Carroll Naish as the hunchback Daniel, lovesick for Verdugo, who sets the climax in motion when he rebels after Karloff breaks his promise to him to put his brain in Talbot's body. Like all the Universal horror films of the classic era, it has its moments. Some of the cast returns for the sequel, HOUSE OF DRACULA, but it's ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN that, despite being a comedy, is probably the best of the "monster mash" movies. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966)

Philippe (David Niven) is called back from his sophisticated city life in London to his family's estate in the French countryside to deal with the failing of their vineyards. His wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) is upset to be left alone and soon packs up her young son and daughter and travels to the estate where she feels threatened by Christian, a mysterious blond man (David Hemmings) who shoots doves dead with his bow and arrow, and his twin sister Odile (Sharon Tate, pictured) who turns a toad into a dove in front of Catherine's daughter. Later she sees the two take a dead dove into a room filled with strange hooded figures. Catherine also has run-ins with Philippe's high-strung aunt (Flora Robson), a smiling but cold priest (Donald Pleasance) and a friendly (or is he?) local doctor. And, of course, those twelve hooded folks. What could be up?

Even if you’ve never seen THE WICKER MAN, you’ll figure out pretty quickly what’s going on: blood sacrifice so the vineyards will be fertile again. The nifty twist here has to do with the origins of the sacrifice ritual: they're not pagans who carry it out, but a heretical Christian cult. The film is atmospheric—its black & white cinematography, its lovely/spooky rural setting, and the presence of Deborah Kerr all put me in mind of THE INNOCENTS—but it's far too slowly paced, so any suspense or tension that builds up eventually dissipates. Kerr is fairly bland; Niven underacts and is surprisingly effective as the movie goes on and his character becomes more downbeat, fatalistic, and possibly sinister; Robson and Pleasance are both fine; Hemmings and Tate seem to be around just as creepy eye candy, having very little dialogue and ultimately little to do with the plot. The climax is particularly dragged out and in the end is not the least bit surprising. [TCM]

Monday, October 28, 2013

THE DEVIL’S OWN (1966)

aka THE WITCHES

Joan Fontaine is a teacher at a mission school in Africa who is driven to a mental breakdown when a voodoo cult, led by a man in a grotesque mask, breaks into her schoolroom. A year later, she is hired to teach school in a small traditional-seeming English village—a pleasant priest (Alec McCowen) who lives with his sister (Kay Walsh) in a lovely old house hires her—but soon eccentricities begin popping up: McCowen isn't really a priest, but he dresses like one; the village church has been abandoned for years; and Fontaine's prettiest student (Ingrid Boulting) has a grandmother who uses "the old ways" in place of modern medicine and whispers mysteriously to her gray cat. Soon Boulting's boyfriend (Martin Stephens), whom Fontaine is mentoring, falls into a coma and a headless voodoo doll is found in a tree. Stephens is whisked away from the village and his father is found drowned in the river. As Fontaine begins suspecting something's not right, she has a vision of the African voodoo man which sends her into a second breakdown. She starts to recover only to find out that there is indeed a Satanic witch cult in the village, Walsh is the leader, and Boulting is about to be sacrificed to be the "new skin" in which Walsh will regain youth and power.

This movie plays out like a mild forerunner to THE WICKER MAN—a placid village hiding pagan secrets—though the outcome here is very different, with a somewhat artificial happy ending in which the witches are defeated. The screenplay, based on a novel by Norah Lofts (written under the pen name Peter Curtis), is a bit muddled here and there. The opening sequence in Africa is rushed through, as is the middle section before Fontaine's second breakdown. Martin Stephens' character seems like he should be important (and the actor—who was the most memorable alien child in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED—is good), but when he vanishes, he's gone for good. Fontaine bought the rights to the novel and got the film made but she seems uncomfortable doing horror. McCowen is wasted, but Walsh (LAST HOLIDAY) tries her best as the head witch—I had stifle a chuckle when she appeared decked out in her pagan regalia (pictured above), though she didn't look quite as silly as the voodoo man at the beginning. The whole thing could have used a darker look and feel; prancing witches in the daylight don't look very threatening. The climactic witches' Sabbath/would-be orgy looks like it was choreographed by someone who admired WEST SIDE STORY. [DVD]

Friday, October 25, 2013

NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957)

The best line in this space vampire B-movie comes at the beginning, when a girl extricates herself from the make-out embraces of her horny boyfriend; his articulate attempt to get her back in the car: "Don't be a drag—you know how you flip me!" It's mostly downhill from there, and it's certainly downhill for the girl who immediately runs into a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses at night (although with the terrible day-for-night cinematography, it always looks like high noon) who kills her with his telekinetic stare—no pupils, just the whites of his eyes—then uses a mechanical pump to empty her blood into a vial. You see, the man (Paul Birch) is actually an alien from the planet Davana (it keeps sounding like he's saying Havana) and he's trying to collect blood to save their dying race. Periodically, Birch opens up a closet door and communes telepathically with someone on the home planet. He even tries to send a Earthling through the closet door (apparently also a teleportation device) but that experiment fails. Birch uses his telepathic powers to get a doctor (William Roerick) to give him a transfusion, then hires the doc's nurse (Beverly Garland) to be a live-in caretaker. He already has a valet (Jonathan Haze) who hasn't got the slightest clue what's going on, yet still makes meals for Birch who never eats a bite. Another alien from Davana (Anne Carroll) arrives, but promptly gets an accidental transfusion of blood tainted with rabies and dies, which triggers the climax in which Birch unleashes a flying monster to kill the doctor, then chases after Garland with her cop boyfriend (Morgan Jones) coming to the rescue.

Most critics are kind to this film, and it does have its moments: the first shot of the flying monster (kind of a spider-bat hybrid) got a bit of a shriek out of me, but unfortunately when you see it in action, it looks like a rather pathetic little toy on a string. The blank eye effect (pictured above) is creepy. The acting is pretty good, with Garland in particular giving it everything she's got. Corman regular Dick Miller (at right, seen to best effect as the star of A BUCKET OF BLOOD) has an amusing scene as a vacuum cleaner salesman who winds up drained and tossed in the incinerator. Haze is moderately attractive in a Neanderthal way, strutting around in a grungy white tank-top and a chauffeur's coat. The last 15 minutes are suspenseful and the last shot is particularly effective, but the low budget hurts the mood of the movie; everything is too bright and suburban to sustain a mood of dread. [DVD]

Thursday, October 24, 2013

THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959)

The first manned expedition to Mars loses radio contact with Earth before it lands. Two months later, the ship is discovered in orbit around the earth. Ground crews guide it in and of the original four astronauts, only two are alive. One of them (Gerald Mohr) is unconscious with a nasty green growth covering his arm. The other (Nora Hayden) is in shock. Soon, she recovers enough to slowly piece together what happened on Mars. The four (the other two were goateed scientist Les Tremayne and soldier/worker Jack Kruschen) get all buddy-buddy on the way to Mars and everything goes like clockwork until they land. Hayden gets hysterical when she thinks she sees a three-eyed monster through a window, but she recovers and the four go out exploring. They find a big octopus-like plant that tries to eat Hayden, a giant rat-spider-crab creature, and an oily lake across which they can see a futuristic-looking city of skyscrapers.  They head out on the lake only to run into a sea monster with one huge rotating eyeball. Racing back to the ship, Kruschen is caught by the amoeba-type beast and consumed whole. The rest get in the ship but the beast envelops it and they can't take off, at least until a disembodied voice broadcasts to the ship, warning them that because Earthlings are technologically adults but emotionally and spiritually children, they must leave and never return. On the way home, Tremayne dies of a heart attack, and Hayden discovers the green growth on Mohr, obtained when he made physical contact with the amoeba. Will earth doctors be able to save Mohr?

This is a very low-budget film with a gimmick: the Mars exteriors were shot in something called Cinemagic, nothing more than a solarized red filter making everything on the planet look shiny red, orange or yellow. It works, to a degree; the painted backdrops and cheap monsters look a little less painted and cheap. It works best on the rat-spider monster, which despite being a marionette, registers as menacing. The first half is slow—there are no crew conflicts except for the sniping between Mohr and Hayden which we know are the first steps toward romance—and Kruschen's comic relief feels strained. The last half works better, though things slow down again after the ship leaves the Martian surface. The acting is weak: Mohr (nicknamed Hairy Chest for obvious reasons by my co-viewer) and Tremayne are OK, but Hayden, though she's attractive, feels like she just dropped in from an amateur theater group. This movie doesn't have the best reputation, but it’s fun for a single viewing. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES (1974)

In a room with black candles, a female Satanist is chanting, conjuring up a demon. Horrified at what she's done, she grabs a gun to kill herself—and then we discover that we're watching the filming of a low-budget horror movie. The film is being shot on location in the creepy old Beal mansion tended by an old caretaker who knows the house's history. In fact, a string of occult-related deaths that happened there over the years has inspired the movie's script. After the various relationships and tensions between cast and crew members have been established, one of the actresses reads aloud from a real copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which, unknown to the crew, brings back to life a dead spirit who seems to be re-enacting the Beal deaths with the actors. The choice of the Tibetan book, an actual religious text which describes the experience of death and the afterlife (and inspired the lyrics of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows") seems odd, especially when books of Black Masses are mentioned as also being in the house. The movie, like the movie-within-the-movie, is low-budget but has a handful of effective scenes and decent performances from pro actors John Ireland (the director), Faith Domergue (the insecure leading lady) and John Carradine (Mr. Price, the creepy caretaker, who most of the crew call Vincent). The other performers are acceptable if not memorable, which is a good description of the movie. A little toying is done with audience expectations, especially effective in a couple of scenes in which we're not sure if we're seeing the film being shot or real events occurring. [TCM]

Monday, October 21, 2013

REPTILICUS (1961)

Men drilling for copper in Denmark run into some bloody bones and tissue (which, as we see but they don't, is slowly pulsing). The huge frozen chunk of flesh is sent to Copenhagen where it is put under close inspection by scientists who assume it is a dinosaur tail. When it is accidentally thawed out during a late-night storm, it begins re-generating, and an American army general arrives as a UN representative. At this point, the movie basically stops as the Danish folks take the (surly, obnoxious) general out for a mini-travelogue of Copenhagen, even including a stop at a nightclub for a (not-bad) song called "Tivoli Nights." During another late-night storm, the regenerated creature comes alive and escapes to terrorize the country, eating cattle and spitting a green acid slime. Will our scientific and military heroes figure out a way to stop the seemingly invulnerable beast?

This is often referred to as the worst monster movie of all time. It is pretty bad, but in a fairly entertaining way—it's a shame the MST3K crew never got around to this one. It's a Danish Godzilla movie, except instead of a man lumbering around in a monster suit stomping on a set of Tokyo, this has a gangly, fragile-looking marionette dancing about on a table-top set of Copenhagen. In the Danish version, the monster flies but the American distributor thought those scenes were laughable (though how they could have been more laughable than the scenes of the marionette dinosaur's head bobbling about is beyond me), so the green slime shots were added optically. We see animated bubbling green blobs shoot out of the monster's snout and then the green is simply wiped across the screen, obscuring the people and things it's shot on. Worse, we never see the results of the slime; they simply cut to another shot. There is one nicely-done sequence of hundreds of Danes running across a drawbridge which suddenly parts, causing a few folks (on foot and on bicycle) to go plummeting into the sea. The less said about the acting, the better, though I should bring up two points: the terrible performance of Carl Ottosen (and whoever dubbed him) as the American general, and the fact that Bent Mejding, the closest thing to a hero in the movie, looks like a less quirky David Bowie. This is pretty bad—when a nightclub song is the highlight of a monster movie, you're in trouble—but I did have fun. [DVD]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955)

As a gangland boss puts $20,000 into a safe in his office, a hulking bald zombie guy smashes in through a window and kills him. Thugs shoot at him, but he is impervious to bullets. Two men are controlling him, speaking through him, and can see everything the zombie can see because of cameras implanted in his retinas. Mad doctor Steigg has created a small army of these creatures by charging recently dead bodies (which explains the recent rash of mysterious morgue thefts) with atomic rays so that Buchanan, a deported gangster, can get revenge against the people who sent him away. The cops don't know what they've got on their hands until Dr. Walker (Richard Denning) discovers that a blood sample from a zombie is an artificial chemical compound with no hemoglobin. More people are found dead, but when Harris, Walker's friendly cop partner, becomes a not only a victim but is also turned into a zombie, it becomes personal.

This is Father Knows Best meets Night of the Living Dead. Denning has a wife and daughter, and we get long, tedious scenes of their banal interactions in their overlit TV-sit-com house. The scene in which Harris (known to the little girl as Uncle Dave) enters the house in a zombie state, with raw stitches across his head, threatens to be, well, threatening, but it's not played particularly well and winds up petering out. This is almost too well-made; at times, it feels like Ed Wood or 40s serial moviemaking with a good-sized budget by competent but unoriginal craftsmen. There's an interesting subplot involving the zombies causing a city-wide panic by blowing stuff up and causing train wrecks, but it's dispensed with in a single quick montage scene. The climax of fisticuffs and explosions is fun. Denning is bland, though Michael Granger is effective as Buchanan. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (1958)

Kindly but eccentric John Hoyt runs a business called Dolls, Inc., carrying a line of very life-like dolls. His secretary Janet yells at some Girl Scouts who get too close to some very special dolls in clear plastic cylinders. The next day, the secretary is gone and Hoyt hires June Kenney in her place—though we notice a new doll looking very much like Janet in one of the cylinders. June soon discovers that the local mailman, who was nearing retirement, has vanished, and she feels a creepy vibe from Hoyt. John Agar, a visiting salesman, hits it off with June and she rather impulsively decides to head back to St. Louis with him. He says he'll let Hoyt know that she's leaving, but the next morning, it's Agar who seems to have taken a powder. Oddly, there's a new doll on the "special" shelf that looks just like Agar. Soon, June finds out Hoyt's secret: he can, using high-pitched vibrations, shrink people, which is what he's done to Janet and the mailman and Agar and a couple others, and now June. His intentions are almost kindly: he wants to keep the people he likes near him, and he tells them that their new lives are idyllic—no taxes, no responsibilities, just hanging with each other and partying. But Agar plants the seeds of mutiny, and with the police nosing around because of all the missing people connected with him, Hoyt has a plan to throw a last party at a marionette theater, then kill them and himself. As many critics note, there is no "attack" as promised in the title, just some escape shenanigans inspired by THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN which came out the year before. Still, this unusual low-budget film is interesting partly for its lack of horror or villainy; though clearly Hoyt has gone off the deep end, he's not out to conquer the world, just his acquaintances. The effects are OK, and there is a fun reference to THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, a previous film from the same director, Bert I. Gordon. The best scene involves Hoyt making one of his puppet people sing a pop song called, "I'm a Living Doll." [DVD]

Monday, October 14, 2013

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (1953)

Scientists at the OSI (Office of Scientific Investigation) are getting some strange readings indicating abnormally strong magnetic fields. At a nearby hardware store, all the clocks are wrong and a lawn mower starts running on its own. Investigators Richard Carlson and King Donovan talk to a cabbie whose taxi has become magnetized after a man with a suitcase was in the car. They track down the man, an older scientist (Leonard Mudie), who accidentally created a new radioactive element in his lab that keeps doubling in size and power, becoming the monster of the title. People near the lab start dying and soon they deduce that if the "monster" keeps growing, it may throw the earth's orbit out of whack. Working with a computer called MANIAC (wordplay on the actually early computer ENIAC) and Canadian scientists, Carlson decides to try overfeeding the element to kill it. But then one of the scientists (Leo Britt) goes a little nuts and tries to sabotage the plan. This 75-minute movie is not exactly exciting, but if you expect a TV episode—and this does feel a lot like an Outer Limits show, except there is no real monster and the Outer Limits hook was that every episode had a monster—you may be satisfied. The acting isn't much to speak off, though Carlson is fine in the lead, and there's a blah subplot involving Carlson's pregnant wife (Jean Byron, who later played the mother of identical twins on The Patty Duke Show). The climax, which uses footage from an older German film, works well. [TCM]

Saturday, October 12, 2013

BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965)

After an on-screen note that this film is based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade (it's not), we see a masked figure called the Crimson Executioner being executed for heresy and sadistic crimes, stuck into an iron maiden as blood drips out of the bottom. The dead body is sealed in the device and kept in the dungeon of the Executioner's castle, so as never to be disturbed. Next we're in the present day as a publisher, some male photographers and some voluptuous female models are scouting locations where they can conduct photo shoots for some horror book covers. They come upon the castle where, at first, they get a frosty reception from the owner, an actor named Travis (Mickey Hargitay), but when it turns out that one of the women, Edith, is a former girlfriend, he relents and allows them to stay overnight. After the women get decked out in their sexy, skimpy attire for the photo shoots, people start dying. Travis is actually a nut-job who thinks that he’s been possessed by the Crimson Executioner and has been tasked with keeping his perfect body pure; women just corrupt the flesh and so must be done away with, preferably after some torture (whips, racks, etc.). For good measure, he tortures and kills the men as well.

Much has been written about this film as a graphic psychosexual exercise in sadism, with homoeroticism as the whipping boy (sorry, pun intended); the half-naked muscled torso of Hargitay, a former Mr. Universe, is on display throughout, mostly clad in just a mask and revealing red tights. The character rants about the purity of his body—reminding me of a hotter version of Sterling Hayden's General Ripper in DR. STRANGELOVE—and lovingly applies oil to his chest a couple of times. But since this is a shoddily-made exploitation movie, it does nothing with the interesting subtext. The torture and the almost undraped women (no full nudity) may have seemed graphic in 1965, but today the movie probably would only be rated PG-13, and the gore effects are weak and unconvincing—the blood left on a bared cleavage after a whipping looks like a smear of watered-down ketchup. Nevertheless, Hargitay acts his heart out, making me wish the rest of the movie was better so his character would seem more truly dangerous. [DVD]

Thursday, October 10, 2013

MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE (1961)

B-movie mix of atomic-bomb, God's-domain sci-fi with gangster melodrama. Eddie (Ron Randell, pictured) is getting a little too much publicity and making things hot for his fellow gangsters, so, led by chief thug Andy Damon (Anthony Caruso), they vote to oust him by framing him for murder. However, on his way to prison, he escapes in the middle of the desert, winding up at ground zero for a nuclear test of Cobalt X. Caught outside of the observation post during the blast, he's battered and bruised but survives and heads back to get revenge against Damon. When Dr. Meeker realizes Eddie has survived, he tells the authorities they need to find him because the radiation will cause his body to mutate. Sure enough, his flesh slowly turns to steel, making him indestructible. His mind begins to go as well, and soon he's getting his revenge even as his mind and body are deteriorating. The cops are desperate to find him, worried that his body is radiating cobalt, putting all around him in danger. There are seeds of good things here that never blossom. Randell is initially very good as Eddie, a sympathetic bad guy, but eventually, he's stuck just acting physically agonized and mentally confused. There are two leading ladies that I occasionally had a hard time telling apart: Debra Paget is Linda, the "bad" bad girl, who used to sleep with Eddie but is now sleeping with Damon; Elaine Stewart is Carla, the "good" bad girl who helps Eddie survive. The steel-mutating plot point is interesting, but due to the low budget, there are no special effects or make-up, just dirt and bullet holes on Randell's torso. The climax involves flamethrowers. [TCM]