Saturday, December 10, 2016

Book Review: EURO GOTHIC









Following up on his magnificent volumes ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, Author Johnathan Rigby examines 20th Century European horror cinema with EURO GOTHIC.

In this new book, Rigby deals with four specific European countries--Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Those who might feel that Rigby should have expanded his coverage must be advised that EURO GOTHIC is over 400 pages long, and hundreds of films are given thorough analysis. (If Rigby had tried to deal with every European horror film made since the dawn of cinema, he probably would never had gotten the book done.)

Rigby begins in the silent era, with the German Expressionist classics that laid down the groundwork for so many future productions. The coming of sound (and the coming of fascist dictatorships soon after) curtailed Euro Gothic cinema for a period, and it wasn't till the late 1950s that the genre began to pick up steam, inspired of course by the success of England's Hammer Films.

The 1960s saw Euro Gothic at its full height, and in the 1970s, with violence and particularly sex ramped up, the floodgates opened with an array of bizarre titles and stories. Rigby stops at the early 1980s, when gore & zombies flourished on the continent.

The careers of many leading figures of Euro Gothic are delved into, such as Riccard Freda, Mario Bava, Jess Franco, Antonio Margheriti, Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, Paul Naschy, Lucio Fulci, and of course the iconic Barbara Steele.

The book retains basically the same design of ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, and it is lavishly illustrated with two different color sections.

Rigby as usual does a brilliant job in placing the films within the context of the times in which they were made, and while he discusses their pluses and minuses in an authoritative manner, he still manages to work in servings of dry humor. The author makes many perceptive comments about the various titles, such as his statement that 1963's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH would have been better served with a "regular guy" actor in the lead role such as Martin Balsam or Lee J. Cobb instead of Vincent Price.

The titles used of the films covered are those which they were known in the countries in which they were produced, which might cause some confusion for readers familiar with the English versions. (An Midwestern American guy like myself can barely spell TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO, let alone pronounce it--besides, that movie will always be PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES to me.)

When it came to ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, I had seen--or at least heard of--just about every single one of the movies featured in those books. With EURO GOTHIC, most of the films featured I had very little or no knowledge of. If you think you've seen everything when it comes to horror films, EURO GOTHIC will dissuade you of that notion. A few of the movies covered in the book I even sought out and viewed on the internet, and I intend to find more. I do have to admit that a number of the titles, especially many from the 1970s, hold no appeal for me at all. The author deserves some kind of award for viewing all these productions--he must have had an infinite amount of patience (and a very strong stomach). If you are someone like me, you've read just about every important book on classic horror films that there is. It's nice to find a volume on the subject that increases your knowledge of it, instead of reiterating what you already know.

ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC are two of my favorite movie books of all time, so it's no surprise that am I going to heartily recommend EURO GOTHIC. I assume that this will put an end to Jonathan Rigby's "Gothic" film series....but I hope that he might decide to write a sequel to AMERICAN GOTHIC (that book ended in the late 1950s), or maybe he can examine the American science-fiction film boom of the 1950s. Perhaps he can call that book AMERICAN FUTURE?

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Kirk Douglas Centenary








On this day exactly 100 years ago Issur Danielovitch was born. Under the name Kirk Douglas, he went on to become one of the greatest leading men in cinema history. I couldn't let such a momentous occasion as a 100th birthday go by without writing a blog post.

It's ironic that Kirk Douglas' film debut was as Barbara Stanwyck's weak-willed husband in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). Douglas became a symbol of American male movie masculinity, helped by his most outstanding acting trait, an almost manic intensity. Douglas didn't just play a role--he consumed it. Just watching a typical Douglas performance can wear a person out.

In the decade of the 1950s, Douglas starred in an amazing run of renowned films: ACE IN THE HOLE, DETECTIVE STORY, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, LUST FOR LIFE, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, THE VIKINGS, PATHS OF GLORY, and the vastly underrated LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL. He finished the decade starring in and producing SPARTACUS. How many other movie stars have had a ten year period like that?

What made Douglas' leading man credentials different was that he almost never played what would be considered a "normal" starring role. Today actors like Leonardo DiCaprio are lauded for choosing difficult characters to portray, but Kirk Douglas was doing that over a half-century ago. The men Douglas enacted were not simple one-note heroes--they were often conflicted, troubled men, men who could exasperate as well as inspire. Consider his Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE--what I feel is his all-time best screen performance. Could any other American leading man of that period have been able to star in that film? And what about his role in THE VIKINGS, in which his character gets disfigured early on in the story? How many big stars would spend almost an entire film with their handsome faces covered in a gruesome makeup?

Douglas produced several of the films he starred in, and he even directed a couple as well. It was Douglas who helped bring ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST to Broadway, as well as playing the lead role. The multi-tasking, multi-format celebrity we hear so much about today is walking a trail blazed long ago by Douglas.

There are very few real movie stars alive today, and Kirk Douglas is one of them. The best compliment I can give the man is that he never did anything easy.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

STEVE MCQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS









36 years after his death, Steve McQueen remains an important pop culture icon--he wasn't called "The King of Cool" for nothing. The documentary STEVE MCQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS examines one of the pivotal moments of McQueen's life--the 1970 production of his dream project, LE MANS.

Steve McQueen had spent most of his life involved in some form of motor sports or another, and by the late 1960s, he had accumulated enough clout as a movie star to get his dream of making a "real" movie about auto racing started. As this documentary (directed by Gabriel Clarke & John McKenna) shows, the dream soon turned into a nightmare.

At first McQueen was determined to actually participate in the real 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but insurance concerns stopped that idea cold. Production began without a finished script, and as the filming slogged on and on, and the budget got bigger and bigger, the film's backers wondered if the movie would ever be completed.

McQueen personally chose John Sturges as director--the two men had worked a number of times before. As things began to spiral out of control, Sturges grew impatient with McQueen and quit. The actor finally had to make a major sacrifice just to get the film finished, and the documentary puts forth the idea that the experience soured McQueen on competitive racing altogether.

THE MAN & LE MANS features a fair amount of footage shot for McQueen's film that was never used, and several clips taken on the set during the production. It goes into detail about the many technical advances that were used to film the cars going at their full speeds of over 200 miles per hour. Many people who were part of the crew of LE MANS are interviewed, including some of the professional auto racers who drove on the film.

Steve McQueen's first wife and son are also interviewed. THE MAN & LE MANS pulls no punches when it comes to McQueen's rather complicated personality. The things that made McQueen so exciting on-screen, such as the sense of danger he exuded, his anti-authoritarian, rebellious attitude, and his inability to conform to anyone's standards except his own, were traits that also carried into his personal life--not always to his advantage. McQueen was determined, one way or another, to get his vision of what racing was like on the big screen--and this determination affected his family, his friends, and those who risked their lives driving the cars for the film. Many private audio clips are used of McQueen musing over a number of subjects, and these sound bites reveal the actor to be far more thoughtful than one would expect from his usual public brashness.

This documentary is a must-see for anyone who is interested in Steve McQueen, and for those who get into the "inside baseball" aspects of the movie industry. It is worth a look to racing fans as well, especially for the footage of the vintage cars and the racers interviewed.

The actual movie LE MANS isn't really the bomb some people have suggested--but if you are not a racing or Steve McQueen buff, you'll probably be bored. STEVE MCQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS is definitely not boring--McQueen is just as much a fascinating subject as he was during his heyday as a iconic leading man.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

BIGGLES









Kino Lorber, through their Studio Classics line, has released the 1986 film BIGGLES on Region A Blu-ray. (On the disc case the movie is sub-titled ADVENTURES IN TIME, but the actual movie only has the title BIGGLES.) The most noticeable thing about this picture is that it is the last theatrically released film to feature a performance from the great Peter Cushing.

BIGGLES is based on a character of a World War One-era Royal Air Force pilot which appeared in a number of novels written by English author W. E. Johns. The only other time I have ever heard of Biggles in any other context other than this movie is when Monty Python would mention the character in some of their comedy skits. Being an American, it's not surprising that I wouldn't know much about Biggles, but I have to wonder how many people knew about him even in 1986.

The movie tries to introduce audiences to Biggles by sticking him with a "modern" counterpart. 1980s New York yuppie Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White) finds out that he is a "time twin" of WWI pilot James "Biggles" Bigglesworth (Neil Dickson). The two men continually pop into each other's time streams. While in Biggles' time, Jim is forced to help the war hero stop the Germans from using a sonic super weapon to change the course of history.

Apparently the producers of BIGGLES felt that the character needed some sort of gimmick to get the attention of contemporary viewers--hence the time travel element. This begs the question--if the filmmakers were not comfortable in Biggles carrying a film on his own, why did they use him in the first place? Director John Hough (who worked with Cushing in Hammer's TWINS OF EVIL) does his best with what he has, and the movie has some nice aerial sequences, but BIGGLES has more than a few problems. The synth-pop music score hurts the movie badly, and ruins whatever adventurous mood is trying to be conveyed. The "time twin" concept doesn't make a lot of sense, even after Peter Cushing himself tries to explain it. The script's many lame attempts at humor fall totally flat, and Jim Ferguson is not written very well--he comes off as annoying and someone you're not all that interested in. Neil Dickson is fine as Biggles, but there's nothing in the story that makes Biggles particularly noteworthy--he seems like just another typical "Steady on, chaps" type of British military officer. BIGGLES would have worked far better as a straight period piece.

The main attraction in this Blu-ray is watching Peter Cushing in his final film performance. He plays Colonel Raymond, who was a commanding officer of Biggles. Raymond is the one who informs Jim Ferguson on what is really going on, and because of this whatever emotional weight the movie has is provided by Cushing. Col. Raymond's "lair" is located inside the supports of London's Tower Bridge, and a large portrait of Queen Victoria is quite prominently featured (Hough places Cushing in front of it a number of times). Cushing looks incredibly frail (he was 72 during filming, but he appears even older), but his determination and conviction as an actor is as strong as ever. As he did throughout his entire career, Cushing brings an absolute sincerity to his role, and it's nice that in his cinematic swan song he got to play an Englishman--and a Defender of the Realm to boot. Cushing fans can at least give thanks that the Great Man's final performance wasn't one of those "old Nazi" parts he played a number of times during his older years.

I must point out that the character of Jim Ferguson's supposed comic relief co-worker is played by William Hootkins, who will forever be known as Porkins, one of the Rebels who attacked the Death Star in STAR WARS. At the end of BIGGLES, the X-Large X-Wing Pilot and Grand Moff Tarkin (Cushing) actually are in the same scene!

Kino's Blu-ray of BIGGLES features the usual fine picture & sound quality one expects from the company. The extras are two brand-new interviews with Neil Dickson and Alex Hyde-White. Dickson reveals that not only did he know about Biggles, he had even read some of the books. Dickson has nothing but positive memories about the project--he even gushes about the film's soundtrack! Hyde-White shares that even though he was the son of British character actor Wilfrid Hyde-White, he was raised in America. Both Dickson and Hyde-White share their admiration for Peter Cushing.

BIGGLES is supposed to be a light-hearted action adventure tale, so maybe my nitpicking is not the proper response to it--but I do feel it could have been better than what it was. The movie will be mostly of interest to Peter Cushing fans. His last movie isn't great, but it gave the actor the chance to go out in a decent role.




Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Valerie Gaunt (1932-2016)








Valerie Gaunt, who passed away a few days ago, may not be known to the average film buff, but she holds a high position among fans of Hammer Films. It could even be said that she provided the template for what would come to be known as "Hammer Glamour".

Gaunt only had two theatrical film credits in her short acting career: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. But those two credits were enough to make her a classic horror film icon. She not only starred in two of the most famous English Gothic movies ever made, she played an important part in some of the most famous scenes in English Gothic cinema.

In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Valerie plays Justine, the maid to Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein. Justine isn't merely the hired help--she and the Baron are carrying on an affair. When the Baron's attractive cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court) shows up, Justine is rightfully jealous--the Baron and Elizabeth have an agreement to be married, and Justine isn't too happy about it. Justine tries to blackmail the Baron--not a good choice, considering that Frankenstein has created a being out of corpses, and he's not about to let anyone get in his way. The Baron locks Justine in the laboratory with his creature (Christopher Lee), and even though we don't get to see her eventual fate, we can easily guess. The next scene contains the famous line "Pass the marmalade"--a darkly humorous counterpoint to Justine's travails.

As Justine, Gaunt uses a cute accent--I still haven't figured out if it is Spanish or French--and she shows some fiery passion after the Baron informs her of his upcoming marriage to Elizabeth. During her trip to the Baron's laboratory, she gets to wear a nightgown (of course) and she gets to let loose an impressive scream--technically she was the very first Hammer Gothic Horror Scream Queen. (She also is featured in the trailer for THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN--her name is even flashed on the screen during it.)

In HORROR OF DRACULA (I'm an American, so that's the title I'm gonna use), Valerie is credited as "Vampire Woman". She appears early on in the film, eerily sneaking up on Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen). Once again the actress is nightgown-clad, and if anything she looks even more spectacular than she did in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Vampire Woman at first desperately pleads to Harker to save her from Count Dracula, but within an instant she tries to put the bite on him. This causes Dracula himself (Christopher Lee) to angrily intervene--and the following is probably the scariest moment in Hammer Films history. Later Harker destroys the Vampire Woman in time-honored fashion--which means that Valerie Gaunt was the recipient of the very first Hammer vampire staking. (By the way, Wayne Kinsey's stupendous book THE HAMMER DRACULA SCRAPBOOK shows a picture of Gaunt's contract for her role in HORROR OF DRACULA--her salary was 100 pounds!)

The impression that Gaunt made in her two movie roles far outweighs the total amount of screen time she actually had. As both Justine and the "Vampire Woman", she showed quite a bit of range in a very short amount of time. Justine goes from sexy maid to angry jilted lover quite quickly, and the Vampire Woman first seems a frightened victim before she turns on Harker with a ferocity that is only topped by her master, the King of Vampires. It makes one wonder what Gaunt could have done with a full-fledged leading role.

After completing her role in HORROR OF DRACULA, Gaunt married Gerald Reddington in 1958 and retired from acting. As far as I know, she never gave interviews about Hammer in her later years, and I don't believe she ever attended any autograph shows. It appears that she didn't seem to regret not continuing her acting career. While looking up photos of Gaunt on the internet in preparation for this blog post, I noticed something about many of her posed "cheesecake" photos. Check out a few of them and see what you think:













I don't know about you...but when I look at these photos, it's very easy to discern that Valerie Gaunt has very little enthusiasm for what she has to do. I'm sure almost every actress who had to pose for pictures like these felt silly...but Gaunt can't even offer up one fake smile. Maybe she was encouraged to act "pouty", but I personally think it was more than that. The message she seems to be sending in these shots is one that says, "I really could be doing far more important things right now." Maybe Valerie Gaunt didn't want to spend the rest of her screen career wearing nightgowns and posing next to haystacks.

The fact that Valerie Gaunt stayed out of the limelight made her an enticing mystery among Hammer fans. They all wanted to know what she felt about Cushing, Lee, Terence Fisher, Bray Studios, etc. You could say that Valerie Gaunt left a lot of monster movie fans wanting....but what she did contribute to the horror genre was so overwhelming, it's hard to be disappointed that she didn't have a larger acting career.

At her passing Valerie Gaunt was still married to Gerald Reddington, and the couple had four children. One can easily assume that she lived a happy, contented life--and in the end that is far more important than giving interviews or autographs to crazy fanboys like me.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

HELL OR HIGH WATER










A couple months ago, one of my Twitter followers (yes, I actually have some) asked me if I had seen a film called HELL OR HIGH WATER. I had not even heard of it, but my internet friend stated that it was the best movie he had seen in a long time. A few weeks ago, Glenn Erickson reviewed the film in his excellent DVD Savant web column. Erickson was also impressed by it--he even called it a "Trump Western". Erickson felt that the film accurately reflected the angst felt by lower middle-class white folks, supposedly the type of people who voted for Donald Trump.

I believe that Erickson might be reading too much into the film--HELL OR HIGH WATER is the type of story that would work just as well in the 1970s or 1980s as now. It isn't really a modern Western, or a crime story, as it is a serious American modern adult drama--the type of picture that it is almost totally ignored today.

The main character in HELL OR HIGH WATER is Toby Howard (Chris Pine). To say that Toby is down on his luck is an understatement--his mother has just died, he is separated from his wife and children, he owes money on his farm, he's behind on his child support payments--and he's broke. Toby decides to start robbing banks--specifically branches of the Texas Midland bank, the same institution that he owes money to. Toby is assisted in this endeavor by his ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster)--an unstable bad-ass acting fellow. The brothers' crimes attract the attention of a soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges), who is convinced that there is some sort of purpose to these robberies. Toby hopes to get enough money to pay off his debts before he gets caught, or before his brother screws things up.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is set in a economically depressed section of West Texas, a location the movie shows as filled with abandoned buildings and foreclosed homes. The small towns that the Howard brothers travel through are arid and desolate, contributing to the movie's mood of foreboding. Director David Mackenzie uses a very welcome traditional movie making style, with lots of wide angels and long takes. There is some gunplay, but it is shot in a realistic manner instead of the video-game tactics one sees in so many features of today. Taylor Sheridan's impressive script is sparse and to the point. What's even better about it is that the people in this film look and act like regular folks, instead of Hollywood's usual way of portraying red-staters as either country bumpkins or excessively quirky weirdos.

The movie doesn't try to show the Howard brothers as heroes, or ask the audience to feel sorry for them. Chris Pine really impressed me as Toby--the cocky arrogance the actor shows as the modern Captain Kirk is nowhere to be found here. Pine's Toby is a man who has been beaten down by his circumstances, and a man who takes no pleasure or satisfaction in doing wrong to solve his problems. Ben Foster gets the showier role of Tanner, the type of guy who goes out of his way to show everyone how tough he is. (I know plenty of guys like that in Northern Indiana.) Every time Foster is on the screen, you're waiting for the other shoe to drop, because the actor does a fine job in putting across how out of control his character is.

Jeff Bridges could very well get another Oscar nomination for his role as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. The Ranger is old in age and in attitude--his politically incorrect conversations with his Native American-Mexican partner (Gil Birmingham) are among the film's highlights. Bridges makes you totally believe that Marcus is a real person, and he dominates every scene he is in.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is the type of film that Hollywood used to make all the time--a lower budget realistic drama that doesn't look cheap and is still able to have big-name stars. It also has an ending which one rarely sees anymore--an ending showcasing acting and dialogue instead of explosions. If you are tired of superheroes and billion-dollar franchises, HELL OR HIGH WATER is the perfect medicine. It certainly deserves to get more attention.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

HORROR (AKA THE BLANCHEVILLE MONSTER)









My Euro Gothic tour continues with a 1963 Italian-Spanish production called HORROR. The movie was released in the U.S. as THE BLANCHEVILLE MONSTER. The print I viewed on YouTube had the HORROR title, but with an English dub track.

As you can see on the poster above, HORROR tries to pass itself off as a Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, even though officially it isn't. The movie owes more to the Roger Corman/AIP film adaptations of Poe than anything the author actually wrote. HORROR contains elements similar to such Corman entries as HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and THE PREMATURE BURIAL. The lead actor, Gerard Tichy, bears a certain resemblance to Vincent Price--and he plays a brooding character named Roderick. To top it all off, HORROR has a fog-shrouded dream sequence much like the ones Corman would put into almost all of his Poe productions. The one major thing HORROR does not have in common with the AIP Poes is that series' lush color--but the atmospheric black & white photography is more than sufficient.

The story concerns the young & pretty Emily de Blancheville, who, in the late 19th Century, has returned to her French home after a number of years abroad. Accompanying Emily is her best friend Alice, and Alice's brother John. The trio are dismayed to find that Emily's brother Roderick acts strangely, and that he has replaced all the servants with a group of suspiciously acting newcomers. Soon Emily begins to feel that the spirit of her late father is calling her to an early grave, and Alice and John try to get to the bottom of things.

Director Alberto De Martino piles on the Gothic trappings in spades. The new housekeeper, played by European cult actress Helga Line, comes off as a younger and more attractive version of Judith Anderson's character in Hitchcock's REBECCA. (If you have seen HORROR EXPRESS, Helga Line almost steals that movie as the sultry spy.) The supposed "spirit" of Emily and Roderick's father goes about in a black cloak, and both Emily and Alice spend a considerable amount of time--you guessed it--wandering dark corridors while wearing nightgowns and holding up candles. HORROR has a slow, stately pace to it, and at about 90 minutes, some might say that much of the spooky aspects of the tale might have been curtailed a bit. At least De Martino does take his time enough to stage some striking shots, such as having Emily (in a white nightgown, of course) slowly making her way through the de Blancheville's ruined abbey in a long shot.

HORROR is very much a traditional Gothic thriller, without the wild excesses that one usually finds in a Euro Gothic. Everything in it is familiar, and there's nothing in the movie that is particularly groundbreaking--but it does what it is designed to do. It is the type of movie that is best watched late in night when you are unable to sleep. It would be interesting to see a remastered version of HORROR on Blu-ray, especially one that didn't have the dubbed track--if I could view it that way I'm sure my appreciation of it would grow. HORROR does have some striking sequences, and those who are drawn to this genre will enjoy it.