Sunday, October 31, 2021


In a Polish shtetl, old friends Sender and Nisn realize that they only see each other during the holy days when they gather with others for prayers at Rebbe Ezeriel's. So with both their wives pregnant, they make a vow that, if they have a boy and a girl between them, they will make sure the children marry when they come of age. A mysterious bearded figure known just as the Messenger, who has a habit of appearing out of nowhere and then vanishing, tells them it's a bad idea to make such a vow with the unborn, but they ignore him. Misfortune hits both families: Sander's wife delivers Leah, a healthy girl, but dies in the process; Nisn perishes in a river during a storm as he tries to make his way home for the birth of his son Khanan. Years later, Sander has forgotten the vow and is in the process of looking for a suitable husband for Leah when, by chance, Khanan shows up in town, an itinerant yeshiva scholar who has decided to focus on the mysticism of Kabbalah. Sander takes Khanan in, not knowing he is Nisn's son. The boy falls in love with Leah, and she with him, but Sander wants a man with more stable means for his daughter. In frustration, Khanan turns to Satanic rituals for help; they appear to help delay the marriage, but eventually, Sander and the groom's family come to terms, and Khanan takes one last stab at conjuring Satan, this time in the synagogue, but his magic seems to backfire and Khanan is struck dead. Leah engages in a ritual to invite her mother's spirit to come to her wedding; while doing so, she also invites the spirit of Kahnan who does, in fact, return as a dybbuk, a spirit of the dead which possesses living people. At her wedding, Khanan does enter Leah's body. Sender appeals to Rebbe Ezeriel to exorcise the dybbuk, but the old man is uncertain if he has the energy to triumph against a Satanic force.

This Yiddish film, based on a play which was itself based on Jewish folklore, is not so much a horror movie as a tale of fantasy and the supernatural, especially as the first half of the film is more a thwarted romance melodrama. But the second half, when the occult themes take over, has a number of scenes that would not be out of place in the classic Universal horror movies of the 1930s: the Satanic ritual in the synagogue outdoes the scene of Satan worship in the classic THE BLACK CAT; at the (aborted) wedding, a quote is read out saying that "man's life is like a dance of death," followed by a ritual in which a skull-faced figure dances with Leah; there is a gloomy "holy grave" in the middle of the street with the bodies of a martyred bride and groom, on which Leah throws herself just before the dybbuk takes possession of her. The exorcism and excommunication ritual at the end goes on a bit too long; actually, at two hours, the whole movie could use some trimming--the Blu-ray I watched includes a 100-minute version which was released in some countries which I may watch someday. The film may have been a relatively low-budget affair, but it looks good with sparse, almost expressionistic sets giving an eerie atmosphere to many scenes. The downbeat ending gives the story a Romeo & Juliet feel. Some of the performances feel stagy and overblown (Avrom Morewski as the rabbi), some feel a little underdeveloped (Lili Liliana as Leah), some are just right (Leon Liebgold as Khanan). The print on the Blu-Ray disc, part of a set of 10 Yiddish films primarily from the late 30s called The Jewish Soul, is generally very nicely restored. An enjoyable find, and quite appropriate for late October viewing. [Blu-ray]

Saturday, October 30, 2021

THE RAVEN (1935)

Jean, the daughter of Judge Thatcher, sustains serious injuries in a car accident and her fiancé, Dr. Jerry Halden, says that only famed surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) can save her. They contact him, but he is retired and in the middle of negotiating the sale of a large set of Poe paraphernalia. We discover that Vollin also owns replicas of many torture devices out of Poe's stories, including a full-sized "Pit and the Pendulum" device. But a personal visit from the judge changes his mind--partly because the judge plays to Vollin's own belief in his god-like abilities. The operation is a success and soon after, Jean and Vollin are quite buddy-buddy, despite their difference in age and the presence of her fiancé, who is now Vollin's personal assistant. Jean, a noted dancer, gives a performance which is capped by her own interpretation of Poe's "The Raven,' and Vollin is ecstatic. It does seem as if Jean is on the verge of infatuation with Vollin. The judge talks to Vollin to dissuade him from egging her on, but Vollin rebuffs him. That night, escaped killer Edmond Bateman (Boris Kartloff) arrives at Vollin's house and asks him to use his surgical powers to give him a new face, both because he thinks he is ugly and to be able to escape the police. Vollin agrees to do it, not by plastic surgery but by severing certain facial nerves that will alter his looks. Vollin performs the procedure but deliberately disfigures half of his face (scaly skin and a bulging frozen eye), telling Bateman that he will reverse the operation only when Bateman helps him get revenge against those who have wronged him. When Vollin invites the judge, Jean and Jerry to a house party, he sets in motion a plan to torture and kill them using the pendulum on the judge and a room whose walls will slowly crush Jean and Jerry. 

This film, the second of eight movies that co-starred Lugosi and Karloff, was the one that brought an end to the first flow of Hollywood horror films--a few snuck out in 1936, most notably Dracula's Daughter and The Devil Doll, then only Poverty Row efforts until 1939. Though it was cleared by the Production Code, several state censor boards demanded cuts, and the British censors banned horror films altogether for a time. Seen now, it seems almost quaint, especially compared to the AIP Poe movies of the 60s, and no one actually dies from any of the tortures. It's practically an axiom now that Bela Lugosi is good in everything he does, from classy big-studio movies to the cheapie B-films that became his bread and butter, but I was still surprised how good he is here. Despite Karloff's star billing and grotesque make-up (a good job that deserves the occasional close-up it gets), it's Lugosi's film all the way, both in terms of screen time and impact. I think it's more due to Lugosi's full-blooded enthusiasm for torture than for anything we see enacted on screen that the movie ran into censor troubles. The supporting cast is particularly bland. Irene Ware (Jean) made almost 30 movies in the 1930s before retiring and if she's remembered for anything, it's for this. Her uninspired performance is not helped by the silly interpretive dance she gives. Lester Matthews virtually vanishes into the scenery as the ineffectual Jerry. Samuel S. Hinds is serviceable as the judge, and Inez Courtney and Ian Wolfe give the film a little juice now and then as Mary and Pinky, high-society friends of the Thatchers. Karloff does what he can with a fairly one-dimensional role. Oddly, as the pre-op Bateman, he doesn't really look ugly at all, but almost scruffily handsome, certainly more so than in most of his movies. The scene in which Karloff sees the results of the operation in a roomful of mirrors is a high point. Poe has never really been given his due in movies, considering how many films have been based on (more like, somewhat inspired by) his stories, and this is no exception, but as part of Universal's classic horror film cycle, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

OUANGA (1936)

Adam, an American businessman who owns a sugar plantation in Haiti, is returning there from New York City via ocean liner with his fiancée Eve. One night on deck, they are confronted by Clelie, owner of a neighboring plantation on the island, who followed Adam to New York and back. The problems are twofold. First, Clelie was apparently a casual lover of Adam's and is upset to be thrown over for Eve. Second, Adam is white and Clelie is of mixed race. Clelie tries to bribe Eve's Black maid to help her sneak a voodoo-cursed charm (ouanga) onto Eve's person; she offers the maid a love ouanga to make Adam's Black valet fall in love with her, but the valet claims he has "no truck with women." Back in Haiti, tensions increase as Adam's Black overseer LeStrange tries to stake a claim on Clelie, kissing her and telling her to forget Adam, but she calls him "Black scum" and tries to deny the Black half of her heritage. When the ouanga falls out of Eve's purse and she is told what it is, she faints. Soon, a new plotline develops as we discover that Clelie is a voodoo priestess, and presides over rituals in which recently dead people have their clothes taken away, and then are reanimated to become zombie slaves of whoever has the clothes. Clelie now plans to raise two zombies to snatch Eve away from safety to become the sacrifice in a voodoo ritual. Adam may not be able to thwart Clelie, but the jealous LeStrange has his own plans.

To get the movie's alternate title, THE LOVE WANGA, out of the way, "wanga" is a variant spelling of "ouanga" (the voodoo charm). The Love Wanga was a reissue title, and the title given to the DVD release of this movie, but it seems to invite chuckles and this is not a comedy so I prefer to use the original title. This is a low-budget indie production with all the hallmarks of a Poverty Row movie: weak acting, weak screenplay with plot holes, too many cases of "one take and done." The background music is especially distracting, often being far too jaunty for the proceedings, particularly in a scene where LeStrange threatens to kill Clelie. Nevertheless, there are things here to recommend an October viewing for classic movie fans. It was shot on location in Jamaica (after Haiti proved unfriendly), though honestly, it could have been shot in southern California for all it matters to the look of the film. The scenes of voodoo ritual and the very brief shot of the two zombies rising from the grave are effective. Light-skinned Fredi Washington, (the white-passing daughter of Louise Beavers in the original Imitation of Life), is fine as Clelie, even if the racial politics of the movie are a little strange. LeStrange, the overseer, is played by the white actor Sheldon Leonard (pictured above), and though he doesn't wear blackface, he also doesn't look the part (his only makeup seems to be dark circles around his eyes), especially weird for a character who insults Clelie for not accepting her racial background. Philip Brandon (Adam) and Marie Paxton (Eve) are adequate; Brandon went on to a career as an assistant director. The valet and the maid are around mostly for comic relief, mainly for a scene in which they think they've tackled a zombie. Rough around the edges, for sure, but interesting for fans of the genre and era, or for those interested in the racial politics of the age. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 26, 2021


Eduardo, his wife Cristina, and their friend Alfonso are hiking through some woods when Eduardo takes a wrong turn and almost falls into a ravine. Alfonso saves him, though we eventually learn that Cristina and Alfonso are having an affair and she almost wishes Eduardo hadn't been saved. But now night is falling and the three are lost until a mysterious robed figure appears, walking with a dog named Shadow, and leads them to what looks like an abandoned monastery, though it's actually still inhabited by brothers of the Order of Silence. The Prior, somewhat reluctantly, takes them in, allows them to partake of the monks' sparse meal, and gives them each their own cell for the night. Through the night, many odd things happen: they see the shadow of a monk flagellating himself, the shadow of a bat on a wall but no actual bat, and a basement full of empty, standing coffins. They see the dog Shadow again, though the prior insists that the dog has never set foot (or paw) outside the building. There is also a decrepit cell, its door blocked by a giant wooden crucifix, with a Bible quote above it: "Cursed be he who turns to the flesh and forgets God."  The trio eventually hears the story of Rodrigo, the monk who used to occupy that cell. He entered into a pact with Satan in order to engage in an affair with his best friend's wife, then became a monk to redeem himself--but he was soon found dead in his cell, with the strangulation mark of Satan's hand on his neck. The monks buried him, but periodically his rotting corpse reappears in that cell accompanied by terrible moaning. Alfonso starts to feel guilty, though Cristina mocks him, carving the word "coward" in the wooden dining table. But during the night, an odd moaning starts coming from the blocked-off cell….

This little-known horror film from director Fernando de Fuentes, who became a well known figure in Mexican cinema, was a nifty discovery for me. It was recently restored (beautifully) by the Film Foundation with newly translated subtitles. For the most part, this supernatural morality tale works best as an exercise in mood, reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode. Some real nighttime exterior shooting (as opposed to traditional day-for-night shooting) helps build the creepy mood. The decaying monastery and the cadaverous, mostly bearded and silent monks are nice touches. As the monks serve dinner beneath a reproduction of The Last Supper, they intone the phrase, "Bread of pain, water of anguish." The spooky visual style is nicely sustained, though there is some wobbly camerawork and lighting. In many ways, the look and feel of the movie put me in mind of the American B-classic WHITE ZOMBIE. The musical score is sparse and, at least once, inappropriately jaunty music breaks the mood of a scene. In the end, it feels like an ancient folktale (which it might well be) told to teach our adulterers a lesson; whether that lesson takes is a point left up in the air. Enrique del Campo (Alfonso) and Marta Roel (Cristina) are quite good, with Carlos Villatoro (Eduardo) a little less effective, perhaps because his character is less defined. I saw this on the Criterion Channel, though I assume with a Flicker Alley logo at the beginning that it will be available on DVD eventually. A nice find, recommended for fans of classic-era horror. [Criterion Channel]

Friday, October 22, 2021


Big game hunter Dan (Lance Fuller) brings his new bride Laura (Charlotte Austin) to his mansion before they head off to a honeymoon safari in Africa. He keeps a gorilla named Spanky in the basement that he is planning to donate to a zoo, but Spanky and Laura seem oddly attracted to each other--Spanky touches Laura through the cage bars and she doesn't pull away--and that night (presumably after Dan and Laura have taken care of their conjugal duties and gone to sleep in separate beds), Spanky breaks into their bedroom and fondles Laura, eventually ripping off her Angora fur negligee. Laura puts up little resistance, but Dan shoots the gorilla dead. Laura says she felt as if somehow, she knew Spanky, and when a psychiatrist puts her in a trance, she has visions of a past life as an African gorilla. Oddly, no one seems perturbed by this news, and Dan and Laura head off to Africa, where the movie goes in a whole new Tarzan-ish direction, as Dan and his faithful assistant Taro start bagging animals to export to zoos, and are eventually called on to go after two Indian tigers who have escaped from a cargo ship. Meanwhile, with gorillas all around, Laura starts to feel the pull of her former life and becomes the willing captive of a couple of gorillas. Dan tries to free her, but ultimately she chooses to stay in the gorilla cave while he heads back to civilization.

The fairly cheap sets and use of stock footage obscure to some degree just how kinky this story (written by known Angora fetishist Ed Wood) is. After all, bestiality is at its core: when Spanky escapes his cage, he's clearly horny for Laura, and as for her, one gets the feeling that Laura might not have stopped Spanky if Dan hadn't woken up. The "happy" ending implies that she will be a sex slave to the gorillas--she has reverted to her gorilla state psychologically but physically she's still a human woman. The narrative is a bit of a mess. Just as the regression plot is getting interesting, the film shifts from supernatural fantasy to jungle adventure so the filmmakers can stuff a lot of stock footage in (mostly from an obscure 1940s Sabu film) that has nothing to do with gorillas. Lance Fuller is a little more handsome and polished than the typical 50's B-sci-fi and horror star; Charlotte Austin spends most of the important scenes in a daze, maybe because the director didn’t know what he wanted out of her character. If she looked too scared, we might not buy the regression plotline; if she looked too turned on, the kink element might have shot up a few notches (and that might not have been a bad thing, but it would have been a whole different movie). So she settles for drab acquiescence. Occasionally interesting if never compelling. [Streaming]

Wednesday, October 20, 2021


At the top of my handwritten notes taken while watching this movie is, in big letters, "Crazy-Assed!" This Mexican-made science-fiction-western-musical begins by telling us that man has long dreamed of exploring space, sending our seed (as it were) elsewhere to start afresh. But on Venus, an atomic scourge has killed off all the men, leaving the females to find some seed elsewhere. How about planet Earth? Indeed, a ship with Gamma and Beta, two Venusian women in highly abbreviated costumes (they wouldn't be out of place in CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON) with a clunky robot and some male monster prisoners from other planets, makes an emergency landing in a Mexican desert. The women run into a singing, prancing, tall-tale-telling cowboy named Lauriano who is interested in the two women and they in him. The other male specimens are stashed away frozen in a cave for the duration (complaining ineffectually that they should be let go because they are "free men of the galaxy") while Gamma and Beta try to repair the ship and vie for the cowboy's attentions. Lauriano falls for Gamma, and Beta reveals that she is really a vampire and intends to enslave all humankind. When he hears this, one of the monsters says, "I like you more and more!" Lauriano sings lots of songs, one of the monsters eats a cow but leaves its intact skeleton behind, and a robot flirts with a jukebox.

Yes, this is crazy-assed and it's also a lot of fun. I don't know how I had never heard of this, but it does seem to have an old-fashioned underground cult following (as opposed to a mainstream cult following for something like Rocky Horror or Plan 9 From Outer Space). Comedian and singer Eulalio González (aka Lalo Gonzalez Piporro) who plays Lauriano starred in dozens of films in the 50s and 60s but never broke through in the States, perhaps because few of his movies were ever released here. Given the laid-back feeling of the entire enterprise--you can tell no one is taking things very seriously--he makes an appealing lead. Lorena Velázquez (Beta), Miss Mexico of 1960, and Ana Bertha Lepe (Gamma) both had long careers in Mexican sci-fi films. But this kind of movie is acting-proof; we don’t watch for inspired acting, we watch for the monsters, the cheap sets and costumes, and occasionally outrageous situations, and we get all those here. One of the monsters threateningly boasts, "I will devour your entrails by the light of Utare and its seven moons!" One of the cowboy's songs says love is always best between two because with more, it's a fling--and love with three, why that's French! He uses another love song, "You, I, The Moon, The Sun," to seduce and disarm Beta. The Venusian women use an iPad-type device to control the robot. The climax is a good old-fashioned outdoor fist fight with the monsters. A decent print is available on YouTube. C'mon, you know you want to see it! [YouTube]

Sunday, October 17, 2021


A mysterious caped figure is skulking along the waterfront one night; at the same time, a one-legged seaman named Tobias is walking the same ground looking for Bill Martin, a Princeton grad who is down on his luck after failing in business. Bill's only asset now is Morgan's Island, a former pirate hideout he owns. Tobias has an old map showing where treasure is hidden on the island, but before he finds Bill, he is attacked by the caped stranger (who winds up being called the Phantom) who yanks off Tobias's wooden leg and steals the map out of it. Bill and his faithful sidekick Stuff rescue Tobias who tells his story to Bill and reveals that the Phantom only got away with half of the map--Tobias still has the other half. Next, Bill's wealthy cousin George shows up wanting to buy the island. When Bill escapes someone he assumes is a bill collector, he gets the bright idea of turning the island and its small castle into a tourist attraction and sell day-long "treasure trips." Along with Bill, Tobias, Stuff and George on the maiden voyage: Jasper, a map expert who thinks the map is a forgery; McGoon, a representative from a businessman's association worried that Bill's business is a scam; a young socialite named Wendy who accepts the trip as payment for what Bill owes her for a fender bender and her friend Thurman Coldwater, not quite a boyfriend and not quite a chauffeur and who has so little energy that he can barely sustain a conversation without falling asleep; Rod and Arleen, a vaguely mysterious couple. As the group leaves, a package arrives for Bill; it gets accidentally tossed in the water and explodes, leaving Bill and Stuff worried that someone is out to stop their trip. On the island, Stuff has already set up some fake spooky events, but we see that the Phantom is hiding in the castle. Strange things happen: an arrow which almost hits Tobias is fired by an empty suit of armor; a voice rings through the castle warning the guests to leave; Jasper sleepwalks; and eventually, Rod is killed when he tries to leave the island alone, and it's revealed that he was actually gangster Killer Grady. The stage is set for a long scary night for our characters.

Despite its title, this is not really a horror movie--it's a very traditional "old dark house" thriller with shadows, grasping hands, secret passages, people who are not what they seem, and some comic relief. Actually, the tone of the movie throughout is light, and that's what bothered me about it when I first saw it years ago. This time around, I enjoyed it more, though I still resent the title. An online critic noted that this is really three kinds of movie in one: it begins as if it will be an adventure movie (the search for treasure), becomes a mystery (who is the Phantom?), and strays into a horror mood in the last 10 minutes (out of a very fast-paced 60 minutes). It's a B-movie which played as a second feature to Lon Chaney Jr's MAN MADE MONSTER (also an hour long B-picture but Chaney's film always got top billing). The cast is fine, but missing are any of the Universal stalwarts (Chaney, Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, etc.). Dick Foran, better known as a singing cowboy, is nicely relaxed as the confident hero Bill; Peggy Moran is his equal as Wendy. I'm not always a fan of comic relief characters, but I quite liked Fuzzy Knight as Stuff--he stutters on occasion, but he's not portrayed as dumb. Also fine are Leo Carrillo as Tobias and Walter Catlett as the sometimes bumbling McGoon. The character of Thurman Coldwater (Lewis Thomas) is quite strange: though we get evidence that he is a golddigger, he seems to be completely uninterested in his target, Wendy, and his lack of romance and his passivity made me read him as gay (a 40's vesion of a sissy, though he's not exactly effeminate). Decent B-movie viewing for a spooky October evening.

A note on the Blu-Ray: I watched this as part of a Universal/Shout Factory boxed set and the print was in great shape. However, the commentary was terrible. Usually, I like commentaries on older movies since they are typically done by critics or historians who do their research and plan out their comments very well. But Ted Newsom delivers one of the worst commentaries I've sat through. Besides having a personal interest in the movie, he only seems to know as much about Horror Island as anyone with 10 minutes of access to the internet. He frequently gets bogged down in information not related at all to the movie. For example, instead of telling us much about Fuzzy Knight, he spends way too much time on a dumb story about Fuzzy Knight getting mixed up with an actor named Fuzzy St. John. He loses his way, forgetting what he was talking about. He spends a couple minutes pointing out a goof (the visibility of a crew member) that ends up not showing up on screen--the shot was zoomed in on this print to remove the crew member. My advice is, even if you're the kind who loves commentaries, skip this one. Pictured from left: Knight, Carrillo, Moran and Foran. [Blu-ray]

Friday, October 15, 2021


In a small Greek village, an attractive trio of young people (handsome Ian, blond Beth and hunky bearded Tom) arrive to study some ruins of an ancient temple located on the property of Baron Corofax (Peter Cushing, pictured), the local bigwig who can be both welcoming and stand-offish. The three spend the night with Father Roche (Donald Pleasance, with an on-again, off-again Irish accent) who knows Ian and Beth, and he warns them that other people who have come to study the ruins have vanished. Unconcerned, the three sneak off in the middle of the night to stay by the site. Early the next morning, Ian and Tom find a secret entrance to an elaborate cave which looks to have been the center of ritualistic activity. They are greeted by a giant stone statue of the Minotaur (a half-man, half-bull monster from Greek mythology) which spits flame and makes pronouncements, and are held by hooded figures to be used as sacrifices to the Minotaur. When Beth goes looking for them later, the same thing happens to her. A concerned Father Roche tries to get the local police involved but the chief doesn't care, even when Tom's girlfriend Laurie shows up worried about him, so Roche calls in a New York City detective of his acquaintance to investigate. As we already know from the film's opening scene, the Baron is the head of a satanic cult which worships the Minotaur--the statue is apparently possessed by a demon--and the entire village is in on it. What chance do a priest, a cop, and a young woman have fighting such evil?

As a relic of the 70s craze for demon movies, this is par for the course for a European B-film. Both Pleasance and Cushing seem a little low-key--one online reviewer wonders if they just signed on to get a Greek holiday--but they suffice. Costas Skouras is similarly average as the cop. The best you can say for the young people is that they're attractive, especially Nikos Verlekis as Tom. (In what is a first in my experience, the movie's credit roll--and therefore IMDb's credits as well--misidentifies two actors, claiming that Verlekis is Ian and that Bob Behling is Tom, when a check of actor credits and Google images shows clearly that dark, Grecian Verlekis is Tom and blondish American Behling is Ian).Scarier than the stone Minotaur is the young girl with the empty stare (early teens, I'd say) who serves as the executioner at the rituals. The Greek setting is nice and the final battle with Pleasance's crucifix versus Cushing's red robe is pulled off well. Little known but not bad. It includes a so-so electronic score by Brian Eno (!).This is a PG-rated cut of the movie known in Europe as THE DEVIL'S MEN; it's said to be missing about ten minutes of gore and sex and exposition. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 12, 2021


Brady (Jim Davis) and Morgan (Robert Griffin) are in charge of shooting test animals up into space to see how they react to cosmic rays in anticipation of manned space travel. The flights are only supposed to last for a few minutes, but one rocket which contained a wasp goes off course and off radar, eventually landing somewhere in the wilds of Africa, in an area the natives call Green Hell because it's home to an active volcano. Brady and Morgan head off to Africa on a recovery mission, but in the meantime, some odd things are going on near Green Hell. Dr. Lorentz and his daughter Lorna, who tend to the natives, hear reports of a strange giant creature--and in fact we see what is apparently a giant mutated wasp (which really looks nothing like a wasp--more on that later) attack and kill a native with a massive amount of venom. After a long, long trek, Brady and Morgan arrive at Lorentz's village by which time the doctor has been killed and a giant insect stinger removed from his body. Now there are several of these wasp monsters killing humans and causing animal stampedes. Brady, Morgan, Lorna and a handful of faithful natives approach the volcano where the wasps made their home and try to exterminate them with explosives, but it ultimately takes Mother Nature to wipe them out.

This cheaply made B-movie has a bad reputation, and indeed at 70 minutes, it feels much longer than that. Lots of critics blame the effects, mostly consisting of huge mock-up monsters and some stop-motion animation, but frankly I liked the effects. The creatures don't resemble wasps, but still, they look quite menacing. The real problem is the amount of padding with stock footage from older movies. The trek of Brady and Morgan into Africa takes a tediously long time, and there is more ineffective padding with scenes of a hostile tribe attacking our heroes. The footage itself, from the big budget 1939 Stanley and Livingstone film, is well-done but does nothing for the narrative except get the movie to hit the 70-minute mark. Jim Davis (Jock Ewing on the original Dallas) looks heroic but he acts in a very casual fashion like he's playing a lounge lizard, as if he's Dean Martin off chasing monsters; I found him more amusing than heroic. The only other actor to make a strong impression is Joel Fluellen as Arobi, the 'fully civilized' native assistant. There is a bit of comic relief with a monkey that is mercifully brief. A cheap novelty for Chiller Theater fans. [YouTube]

Thursday, October 07, 2021

ATRAGON (1963)

During a nighttime photo shoot on a beach involving a woman in a bikini, a figure in what looks like a scaly diving suit emerges from the water, spooking the model. The thing backs off after which a car goes careening off a dock into the water. Next morning, the car is recovered but with no bodies. It turns out that the car was involved in a string of kidnappings of engineers and geology experts. Next, Makoto, daughter of a Japanese Navy captain who went missing after the war, and her mentor, a shipping magnate named Kosumi, are kidnapped by a man claiming to be Agent 23 of the Mu Empire, a mythic sunken continent, sort of the Pacific Ocean version of Atlantis. They get away but eventually are sent a reel of film explaining that the Muans are planning on attacking Japan and other surface countries with technology they developed thanks to a lost Japanese submarine which was built by Makoto's father, Jinguji. Though assumed dead, we find out that Jinguji has actually been hiding out in a secret location working on a super-submarine (which can fly) called Atragon that he delusionally believes will help Japan's navy regain its lost glory. Jungui is reluctant to help, but when Mu begins its attacks and Makoto threatens to cut all ties with him, he rethinks his position.

From the title, I had assumed that Atragon was another Toho monster like Godzilla or Mothra, so the fact that it was a submarine was a pleasant surprise. There is a monster, sort of, in the form of a sea dragon that the Mu people worship, but it's a very disappointing marionette thing so don't watch for any real J-monster thrills. The narrative beats are similar to those of average Toho sci-fi film of the era, but what I liked best about it are the sets, at two ends of the budget continuum. The cheap miniatures are no better than the juvenile sets of the 1960s Thunderbirds series and movies, but I've always found those sets charming--as a kid, I imagined that I could build sets just as good in my basement with Legos. The Mu sets, on the other hand, look quite elaborate, like something out of a well-budgeted lost kingdom movie like SHE. Unfortunately, not much happens on these sets. Mu has an old evil priest dude and a young orange-haired empress (see above) who ultimately don't have much to do. The acting is also on a par with other Toho films, ranging from adequate (Jun Tazaki as Jinguji, Yoko Fujiyama as the daughter) to bizarre (Kenji Sahara as a reporter with an Amish beard who turns out, to one's surprise, to be another Mu agent). Generally enjoyable for a sci-fi Chiller Theater night. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, October 04, 2021


Radar tracks a UFO from Alaska to where it lands or crashes near Santa Monica, California. It leaves the radar screen but causes major radio and television interference in the area. A woman, her husband and a family friend are attacked on a beach by a figure wearing some kind of helmet, though no face is visible inside. The husband is killed, and at first the police suspect that wife and the friend have plotted together to kill him, but another such attack is soon reported. Soon, some cops working with agents of the "Communications Commission" link sightings of this helmeted phantom, whom they call the X-Man, with the UFO and the interference problem. Tracking him by the radioactive trail he leaves, they see him near Griffith Observatory. He takes off his suit and, sure enough, he is invisible without it. They take his suit and soon find out that the creature cannot breathe for long without his helmet. In an office in the observatory, the X-Man tries tapping out a message with a pair of scissors to Barbara Randall, an assistant to one of the scientists, and she discovers that his naked form can be seen in ultraviolet light. Ultimately, it seems that the phantom is just an alien who wound up here by accident and poses no threat to our planet, but still our poisonous air gets to him; he falls from up on the giant telescope, dies, and evaporates.

This B-film is part of the early wave of UFO/alien movies, and a relatively rare one in that the alien, despite killing a handful of folks, is not intentionally a threat to earthlings. When we finally see him fully naked in ultraviolet light at the climax, he resembles James Arness in 1951's The Thing from Another World but with smooth skin (and no genitals). At only 72 minutes, it still feels a bit long. The invisibility effects are fairly primitive, and though we feel some sympathy for the phantom by the end, we know nothing about him, not even how he ended up on Earth. There are a few too many actors running around accomplishing very little. The main characters are a cop named Bowers (Harry Landers), Barbara (Noreen Nash), her Germanic boss (Rudolph Anders), a military man at the observatory (James Seay), a pesky reporter (just like in The Thing) and a communications expert who spends the movie driving around in a car. I couldn't tell you if he is present at the climax because all those white men in uniforms and jackets--who all smoke a lot and chew quite a bit of gum--looked alike to me. The one who stood out is Barbara's husband (Steve Clark) because he looks like Clark Kent. One sequence near the end stands out stylistically and two groups of people holding a conversation in a room are photographed from below, for no apparent reason except maybe the cameraman got bored. [YouTube]

Friday, October 01, 2021


Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck) is in a troubled marriage, to say the least. Middle-aged but still attractive and vivacious, she's stuck with a rich, older, blind husband Howard (Hayden Rourke) who seems to resent her health and freedom, and accuses her of having a lover because of some mutterings of hers while dreaming. Howard thinks her lover is Barry (Robert Taylor), the family lawyer, the only person who ever comes to their home. While Irene might be interested, we know that her only lover is, in fact, a figment of her dreams. After a violent argument in which she says that her dream lover is more of a man that her husband will ever be, Irene leaves to spend the night in a hotel. Howard smells smoke and enters his laboratory; there’s a huge explosion and a fire, and the room is destroyed, with Howard's body seemingly consumed in the flames as the police find no trace of him the next morning. The next night, Irene has a nightmare in which the dead Howard is still alive. When Barry tells her she can't sell the house until it is considered safe, she decides to move into a small apartment behind a beauty salon she owns. But her dreams continue to the point where she can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality--even her dream lover (Lloyd Bochner) seems to come alive; handsome but a bit sinister looking, he swoops her off one night for a surreal marriage ceremony in an empty chapel with just a handful of wax figures as witnesses. Is this a story of supernatural haunting? Or is it a well-planned gaslighting? And if so, who is behind it and why?

Marketed as a horror movie (with a truly effective poster of an eyeball in a person's fist and a dream demon attacking a scantily clad woman), this came at the end of a number of successful horror films and thrillers from director William Castle. It was not a hit, partly because those poster art images (which are not in the film) sold it as something it wasn't--it's a psychological thriller. Of course, many great horror films are in fact psychological thrillers (PSYCHO, DIABOLIQUE, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, Castle's own HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, all movies which this one tips its hat to) but the promise of sex and gore in the ads (which included the words "Lust" and "Secret Desires" in big letters) was not fulfilled. Also, the lure of Stanwyck and Taylor, classic-era stars who had been married in the past, wouldn't have necessarily appealed to the young viewers who made other Castle films hits. Still, on its own terms as a mystery thriller, it works pretty well for much of its running time. Rourke's old-age blind man makeup is truly creepy, as is his burned face for the later dream (or are they?) sequences, as pictured above. Bochner is perfectly cast as the good-looking but oddly cold dream lover. The nightmarish wedding scene is wild, and we are kept guessing for a while as to what's really going on. But from the get-go, there are plot problems galore: the lab comes out of nowhere, not seen before the explosion, and the fact that the Trent mansion doesn't have a phone is unbelievable. As things get explained, things also get more complicated; this was written by Robert Bloch but it's not as tightly constructed as we might expect from the man who wrote the novel that PSYCHO was based on. Still, judged against other 60s movies to which this should be more fairly compared (TWO ON A GUILLOTINEMY BLOOD RUNS COLD, MIRAGE), this is enjoyable enough. [Blu-Ray]