Thursday, August 25, 2016


I finally went and saw SUICIDE SQUAD. Is this the true breakout DC movie everyone has been waiting for? It's making a lot of money at the box office, true, but I think that is more due to the fact that there isn't much else out right now. It's an okay film, not as bad as some people say and not as good as some people say. But before you read my opinions, please realize that this movie isn't made for boring 40-something white guys like me.

SUICIDE SQUAD is a PG-13 movie that tries to have a R-rated attitude. The "heroes" of the film are all comic book villains who are thieves and killers, and they all have an excess of extreme attitude. How much attitude? There were times when I felt that I was watching a movie produced by the editors of MAXIM magazine. SUICIDE SQUAD writer-director David Ayer would probably take that as a compliment.

One big problem with all the assorted bad-assery is that the main villain, the Enchantress, winds up being rather dull in comparison. She also reminded me very much of Apocalypse in the latest X-MEN film. Frankly, all these comic book/geek movie villains are starting to resemble one another--as my good friend Joshua Kennedy pointed out to me, how many times have we seen a super-villain surrounded by streaming tendrils of powerful energy? We see it in SUICIDE SQUAD too.

I have to say, though, that the Enchantress is really just an excuse to get all the anti-heroes together. We get an entire roster of minor DC comic characters--Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, Katana, etc. They all get a (thankfully) brief backstory, and they all get a chance to shine. The one character that has attracted the most attention is of course Harley Quinn, portrayed by Margot Robbie. I'm not joking when I say that Harley Quinn is one of the most important fictional characters of the last 25 years. Harley was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the iconic BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES as basically just a member of the Joker's gang, but she wound up being a major part of the DC Comics universe, due in large part to Arleen Sorkin's wonderful vocal performance. If you've been to any comics/entertainment convention in the last ten years, you know how much impact Harley Quinn has had on geek culture.

The news that the ultra-hot Margot Robbie was going to play Harley in SUICIDE SQUAD certainly caused a lot of fanboys to drop their laptops. Robbie as Harley is about what you would expect, especially if you've seen a number of SUICIDE SQUAD trailers (just about all her best moments are shown in those). We get a glimpse of Harley's "origin", and a small window into her relationship with the Joker. We even get a quick look at Harley's "classic" costume, and she does get to say "Mr. J" and "Puddin". The Harley Quinn/Joker pairing is a fascinating one, and probably deserving of its own film. In SUICIDE SQUAD--at least from my perspective--Harley chooses to be with the Joker, thus sidestepping the movie from confronting the more disturbing elements of the Harley/Joker coupling.

And Jared Leto as the Joker? Well, yeah, he's over the top--how can you play the Joker and not be over the top? This Joker, with his tattoos, silver-capped teeth, and clubbing lifestyle, seems to be the gangbanger version of the Clown Prince of Crime, a version I'm not all that impressed with. The fact is that Leto's Joker isn't in the movie all that much.

The real stars of SUICIDE SQUAD are not Harley Quinn and the Joker--they are Deadshot and Amanda Waller. I'd never thought I'd say this, but Will Smith gives the most impressive performance in the film. The Fresh Prince brings back his 1990s action-movie swagger, but at the same time he's still able to bring a realistic, human dimension to someone that is a hired killer. Viola Davis makes Amanda Waller more of a bad-ass than all the members of the Squad put together. As the National Security official who creates the Squad, Davis' Waller makes Donald Rumsfeld look like a low-key pacifist. For those who think the character of Waller is nothing more than a rip-off of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury. please remember that Amanda Waller has held a huge role in the DC Comics universe for a long time (Angela Bassett even played Waller in the lamented GREEN LANTERN movie). I assume that Davis is going to appear in other DC movies in the future.

The reason that I'm spending so much time on the characters of SUICIDE SQUAD is that they are more important that the actual movie. As a film SUICIDE SQUAD is rather derivative. It has a lot in common with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY--the classic rock music on the soundtrack, the goofy humor, and the many bizarre characters. It also shares a lot of elements with the AVENGERS and X-MEN movies, and it has the "those who are protecting us from harm are worse than those who are supposedly harming us" sub-plot. It even has the obligatory "all the main characters determinedly walking in unison" shot, except this time it is not in slow motion. As I've said, it's an okay film--but it's really a set-up for a DC Cinematic Universe than a standout picture.

Monday, August 22, 2016

2016 Wizard World Chicago

Last Sunday I attended the 2016 Wizard World Chicago convention, along with my friend Paul G. Lyzun, who is the director of the esteemed documentary WITHOUT CHARITY. Our main purpose was to get Carrie Fisher's autograph, and.....well, that didn't happen.

When Paul and I went to buy autograph tickets for Carrie, we discovered that they were sold out, and apparently had been for a month--despite the fact that the Wizard World website seemed to suggest that you would be able to get her autograph. I've been to Wizard World before, and to C2E2, which is a very similar con--and I've never personally experienced someone's autograph being sold out before the event even started. Needless to say, Paul and I were not too happy about the situation--but we decided to get Bruce Campbell's autograph instead. (By the way, Paul and I walked by Carrie's autograph table a couple of times during the day--but whenever we did she wasn't there. So I didn't even get to see Carrie Fisher.)

There's a reason why Bruce Campbell is a geek culture legend. When you met him in person you find that he is totally, absolutely, 100% Bruce. He didn't just sign his name--he made sure that every person who came through his line got a personal talk with him. While Paul and I were in his line Lou Ferrigno stopped by to say hi to Bruce--and Bruce turned it into a comic skit by acting like he was in pain when the TV Hulk shook his hand. If you ever get the opportunity to meet Bruce Campbell, by all means do so--you will not be disappointed.

One of the highlights of Wizard World is the "Artist Alley"--where comic book creators and all sorts of creative individuals have their own tables to present and sell their wares. I purchased a print of Salvador Larroca's magnificent work for Marvel's DARTH VADER comic book, and he signed it for me. What shocked me was that no one was at Larroca's table--since he is the main artist on one of Marvel's most popular titles, I expected that a bunch of folks would be crowded around him.

A print of Salvador Larroca's magnificent work for Marvel/Star Wars 

Paul got some stunning original movie poster art from a gentleman named Matt Peppler. Walking around "Artist Alley" made me realize that it is the so-called independent or "outisde" artists who capture the true spirit of the horror/science fiction/fantasy works that we love so much, instead of the giant conglomerates who produce them for film & television.

I tried not to spend too much money--of course me saying that is like a college football player saying "I'm gonna try to stay out of trouble this weekend" (wake up the echoes, Notre Dame fans). One thing I did get was a t-shirt featuring the cult 1960s TV show THE PRISONER--how many of those do you see around??

I also picked up a Svengoolie business card at the MeTV booth, along with some other classic TV business cards.

Don't leave home without it. 

The thing about this card is--if you really were a Secret Service agent, why would you carry around a card announcing that? Wouldn't you like....try to remain secret?

There were plenty of cosplayers at Wizard World, as usual. It seemed to me that this year there wasn't as many superhero costumes as in years past. There were plenty of SUICIDE SQUAD Harley Quinns, along with the obligatory "classic" Harleys. There were also a couple Dr. Harleen Quinzels, who I though were way more attractive (is that because I'm not a fan of women wearing too much makeup?). The best cosplays are the ones that are the most obscure.

Is Wizard World worth going to? I would say that if you are a major participant in 21st Century geek culture, you should go to it at least once if you have the chance. Get ready to spend some money, and get ready to do a lot of walking. And get ready to deal with some huge crowds.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Judy Geeson

On August 6, I attended the Flashback Weekend Horror Convention held at the Crown Plaza O'Hare Hotel (the same place that G Fest was held at a couple weeks earlier). Flashback Weekend is more of a "modern" horror movie convention--most of the autograph guests had appeared in thrillers from the last twenty years or so. The one guest I really wanted to meet was British actress Judy Geeson. She was there mainly because of her roles in the Rob Zombie films 31 and THE LORDS OF SALEM, but what was important to me was that she had co-starred with both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Most Americans will probably remember Judy for her role in TO SIR, WITH LOVE, but she's had a very distinguished and eclectic acting career, working with all time legends such as Joan Crawford and John Wayne, and starring in various TV series in both England and the U.S. (she was a semi-regular in MAD ABOUT YOU). As I was standing at her autograph table, waiting for a chance to talk to her, she walked right up to me, pointed at my trusty Peter Cushing shirt, and said, "I LOVED THAT MAN!!" (Obviously my choice of attire was the right one.)

She went on to tell me plenty of stories about Peter Cushing, assuring me the man really was a special person. I know there are some in the monster fan community who roll their eyes at all the "Peter Cushing was such a great man" stories, but Judy definitely had deep and real feelings for him. Every Cushing co-star I have met--Veronica Carlson, Caroline Munro, Yvonne Monlaur, Valerie Leon, etc...has expressed how much respect and admiration they had for him.

I had to ask Judy about Joan Crawford and John Wayne. Judy co-starred with Crawford in the wild and wooly circus horror film BERSERK, and she told me Crawford was a serious professional, totally dedicated to the task at hand. Judy said that she felt Crawford was having some difficulty not being a young glamour girl anymore, but she did not experience any problems with her personally.

As for the Duke, Judy co-starred with him in the "Tough American cop goes to England" movie BRANNIGAN. Judy got along famously with Wayne--she said he had no star ego whatsoever, and on set he never acted as if he was better that anyone else. She said that she and Wayne kept in touch with each other for a few years.

Judy Geeson and I at Flashback Weekend

Judy also co-starred with Christopher Lee in an obscure movie called DIAGNOSIS: MURDER (it's so obscure, even I've never seen it). She said that before filming she had heard stories about Lee being pompous and boring, but she found him to be interesting, and a far warmer person than he is usually given credit for. She also gave me an example of how Lee would practice his golf swing while on the set!

There were plenty of other things about her career that I could have asked her about, but I didn't want to be a pest (if you go to one of these conventions, you certainly don't want to annoy the guests). I could tell, though, that Judy was more than happy to discuss the movie legends that she worked with, and I think she got as big of a kick out of it as I do interacting with her.

I know that there are some who frown on the whole celebrity autograph circuit industry. At the bigger cons it can feel like going through an assembly line--you'll be lucky at some autograph sessions to make eye contact with the artist, let alone have a conversation with them. The great thing about "mid-level" conventions such as Monster Bash, G Fest, and Flashback Weekend is that you will get more of a chance to talk with a certain artist. I don't just get autographs from anybody who has appeared in a movie--there has to be a certain reason for me to get a person's autograph, such as being in a particular film or co-starring with a certain performer. I've never going to get to meet Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee, or Hollywood legends like Joan Crawford and John Wayne--but in talking to someone like Judy Geeson, I can get a feeling of what those stars were really like. It's one thing to read books and articles about movie history, but it's even better to meet and talk with someone like Judy Geeson who has had such a varied screen career...and find out she's a real sweetheart too.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The British Invaders Blogathon: CONE OF SILENCE (AKA TROUBLE IN THE SKY)

Whenever I participate in a blogathon I try, as much as possible, to write about a film or a subject that is not well-known. My pick for the Third Annual British Invaders Blogathon is certainly not a famous film--but it has a well-known cast, especially to those who are film buffs. It is such an accomplished cast that I felt I just had to write a post on it.

I think it is rather simplistic to say that British actors are better than American ones, but there is something impressive about a large gathering of English performers working in tandem with one another. British films of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to have the same actors pop up over and over again, so much so that you have to wonder if all these folks just traveled around on the same bus and went to one film location after another. CONE OF SILENCE (released in the U.S. as TROUBLE IN THE SKY) is a 1960 mystery-drama revolving around the problems of a new airline jet. The film doesn't have a large budget--we don't even see much actual airplane footage, except for the same shots of an airplane model used over and over--and I wouldn't even say it was a great film. But for a picture that might be called a decent little movie, it features an array of acting talent that would top most big-budget spectaculars made at the same time.

The reputable cast includes my favorite actor of all time, Peter Cushing. He made this during his first great horror period at Hammer Films, and apparently he brought along many of his Hammer co-stars along with him. Andre Morell, who had just played Dr. Watson alongside Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in Hammer's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, also appears, along with former and future Hammer stars Gordon Jackson (YESTERDAY'S ENEMY), Charles Tingwell (DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Noel Willman (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, THE REPTILE), Delphi Lawrence (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH), Charles Lloyd Pack (THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and Marne Maitland (THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY).

Having all these familiar character actors in one film is one thing...but there's still some more interesting names that need to be mentioned. Michael Craig gets the leading role as airline pilot Captain Dallas, and he'll be remembered by classic movie fans for his role in Ray Harryhausen's epic adventure MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Bernard Lee, who will forever be known as the first and best "M" in the James Bond film series, plays the maligned Captain Gort. And, last but not least, Hollywood legend George Sanders plays a small but important role as a barrister.

That's an amazing cast, considering that the film they are acting in is all but forgotten today. But there were plenty of British films made during the same period that had a comparable ensemble--proof of the overwhelming amount of extraordinary performers working in the English film and TV industry at the time.

CONE OF SILENCE was directed by Charles Frend, and it was based on a novel of the same name by David Beaty. "Cone of silence" is a pilot term--in the movie it has a double meaning, referring to the silence surrounding the problems with a new airline jet called the Phoenix. The film begins with a court of inquiry on the actions of British airliner Captain Gort (Bernard Lee), who was unable to get a Phoenix to properly take off on a recent flight. The jet skidded off the runway and Gort's co-pilot was killed. Gort is being question by Sir Arnold Hobbes (George Sanders), and due to Sanders' usual droll sarcastic manner, Hobbes all but convinces the court (and those watching the film) that Gort was in the wrong.

Gort is found guilty of pilot error. During the inquiry Gort's daughter Charlotte (Elizabeth Seal) meets Captain Dallas (Michael Craig). The two are attracted to one another, and Charlotte tells Dallas she's convinced that her father did nothing wrong. Dallas later oversees a test flight with Gort, and Gort passes--which enables him to fly the Phoenix again. Despite passing the test, an air of suspicion hangs over Gort--not helped by one of his flights running into a patch of large hail, which breaks a cockpit window. Gort brings the plane in safely, but even a veteran stewardess (Delphi Lawrence) starts to become uneasy flying with him. During another flight, with the overly officious Captain Judd (Peter Cushing) observing in the cockpit, Gort is accused of bringing in a plane too low on a small runway. Airline official Captain Manningham (Andre Morell) decides to ground Gort, but before this happens Gort fills in for a sick pilot--and he fatally crashes another plane while once again failing to take off.

Despite everyone else's assumptions, Captain Dallas is convinced that Gort was not at fault. Dallas suspects that there may be something wrong with the Phoenix itself--and his investigation takes him to the plane's designer (Noel Willman).

At 90 minutes CONE OF SILENCE does have some slow spots--particularly the romantic scenes between Charlotte and Captain Dallas--but the overall mystery behind Captain Gort's troubles will keep the audience's attention. Bernard Lee plays Gort in his typical gruff manner, but at the same time shows that he is a man under tremendous pressure to prove himself. Gort is well aware that many consider him a risk--doubly so because he is a middle-aged man. The viewer can't help but feel sympathetic toward Lee as Gort. Michael Craig is a good leading man, showing determination in getting to the bottom of what's been happening to the flights of the Phoenix. (Sorry--I just had to use that line.) Even though Peter Cushing is second-billed, his role is rather small compared to the rest of the cast. Seeing Cushing in 20th Century contemporary clothes always takes some getting used to. His Judd isn't really a "bad guy" as he is a coldly efficient airline employee. (Having said that, I don't think I'd want to work with him!) The rest of the outstanding cast gives the film a crisp, realistic demeanor. British actors of this period seemed to have a "Let's get on with it in the best way possible" attitude--there's no overly dramatic histrionics here, and there's certainly no "Method" acting going on. There's just good, solid, consistent performances that match the tone and manner of the story.

CONE OF SILENCE is available on All-Region DVD from VCI Entertainment (the disc cover lists the film as TROUBLE IN THE SKY). Unfortunately the DVD is not in widescreen. CONE OF SILENCE can also be screened on YouTube. British film aficionados will definitely want to view it just for the cast alone...and it really is a decent little film.

(By the way....I know somebody out there is going to use a GET SMART joke in reference to this post. All I can say missed it by that much.)

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Blue Underground continues to mine the nuggets of bizarre cinema with their Blu-ray release of CIRCUS OF FEAR and FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS. Both films were produced and written by the notorious exploitation showman Harry Alan Towers, and they both feature cult actors Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski.

If you are a fan of Christopher Lee, and have seen a large number of his movies, chances are you've seen examples of Harry Alan Towers' handiwork. It was Towers who cast Lee as Dr. Fu Manchu in a series of movies based on Sax Rohmer's character in the 1960s. Towers made plenty other wild potboilers during the same period, and most of these films have a lot in common--far-flung foreign locations, beautiful European women, supposedly large-scale and dangerous criminal organizations, and past-their-prime Hollywood stars. Towers' films sound like they'd be a fantastic thrill ride, but for the most part they wind up falling way short of their goal. As a producer Towers had something of a shady reputation (which I won't get into here), but he was still able to churn out movies over and over again, and his casting choices enabled these pictures to have a shelf life far longer than most "reputable" movies made over the same period (this Blu-ray is proof of that).

CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966) is actually one of the best Harry Alan Towers productions, due in most part to the fact that John Moxey was the director. Moxey was a far better filmmaker than the usual Towers director choices such as Jeremy Summers and Jess Franco, and he keeps the slight story interesting with a tight, efficient pace. CIRCUS OF FEAR is usually grouped into the "horror circus" category along with CIRCUS OF HORRORS and BERSERK, but it's more of a crime thriller than all-out terror flick.

The movie opens with a very impressive armored car robbery on Tower Bridge in London. The loot winds up getting hidden at the headquarters of Barberini's Circus, and nearly all of the outfit's performers are involved in some way. Lee plays the hooded lion-tamer Gregor--he spends most of the movie under the mask, which certainly will disappoint many of his fans. The usual pulchritude inherent in any Towers production is mainly reduced here to stunning 1960s bombshell Margaret Lee, who looks very fine in circus tights. Klaus Kinski doesn't have much to do as one of the robbery gang members--but because it's Klaus Kinski, you can't help but closely watch him in anticipation that he might go off the rails at any moment. Towers was able to get fine British character actors like Leo Genn and Cecil Parker to appear in this, and German "Krimi" veteran Eddi Arent provides the so-called "comic" relief. Towers wrote the script under his usual pseudonym Peter Welbeck.

Blue Underground had released CIRCUS OF FEAR on DVD as part of their "The Christopher Lee Collection" box set (as you've probably guessed, I own that). The Blu-ray is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks fantastic--I doubt that this movie looked this good when it was first released. CIRCUS OF FEAR was originally released in the U.S. as PSYCHO-CIRCUS in a cut-down, black & white version. This Blu-ray features the full-cut color version. Carried over from the original DVD release is a audio commentary by John Moxey and trailers and poster & still galleries.

CIRCUS OF FEAR isn't very gory or violent, but it is a decent crime caper story with enough geek elements to it to make it interesting. It gives Christopher Lee a different sort of just doesn't make full proper use of him.

As for Lee's role in FIVE GOLDEN's really more of a cameo. Lee is one of the "Golden Dragons", who are the leading crime lords of a supposedly vast outlaw organization. The other three Golden Dragons shown to the audience (the fifth one is kept secret till the very end) are classic Hollywood tough guys Dan Duryea, Brian Donlevy, and George Raft. Seeing all four of these men in the same scene is a film buff's dream--unfortunately they only all appear for a couple minutes near the end, and they are given basically nothing to do. (Even when they are busted by the authorities, all they do is react glumly like a bunch of kids being told it's past their bedtimes.)

The real star of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is aging Hollywood light comedic leading man Robert Cummings. Cummings' performance here is one of the strangest I've ever seen. He spends almost the whole movie with a goofy grin on his face (even when he's facing danger), and his dialogue is so off-the-wall and confusing that I can only come to the conclusion that the actor was making it up as he went along. Cummings may have felt that the story was a James Bond spoof, but there's nothing else in the film to back that up, except the cartoon-like music during a lame fight scene between Cummings and some of the Golden Dragon's goons. During the movie we are constantly informed about how seriously deadly the Golden Dragons are--yet how can we take that information seriously when they can't even bump off a guy as purposely wacky as Cummings' character? Harry Alan Towers loved using large-scale criminal organizations like the Golden Dragons throughout all his movies--but whether they're run by Fu Manchu, Sumuru, or whoever, these evil groups never to seem to accomplish much of anything.

FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS was filmed in Hong Kong, and we get to see plenty of the city during this film--so much that it starts to feel like a travelogue. Most of the story has one character following or chasing one another--at a total running time of 104 minutes these scenes get tiresome very quickly. The big highlight of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS are the three leading ladies--the three marvelous M's--Maria Rohm, Margaret Lee, and Maria Perschy. All three are drop-dead gorgeous and they give the movie what little verve it has. Maria Rohm was actually Mrs. Harry Alan Towers (lucky guy)--I mention this because she appeared in most of the Towers output, and there always seemed to be a scene of her being tied up or under some type of torture in these movies (here she's tied up and threatened by Klaus Kinski). You can read into that what you will.

The esteemed character actor in FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is Rupert Davies, who plays a Shakespeare-quoting police inspector. As mentioned, Klaus Kinski is in it too--his part is about the same as his role in CIRCUS OF FEAR, that of a low-level thug. Kinski still gives it his all, and winds up being more memorable than the movie gives him a chance to be. (By the way, my friend Troy Howarth has a new book coming out called REAL DEPRAVITIES: THE FILMS OF KLAUS KINSKI.)

FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is getting its American home video debut on this Blu-ray. It is presented un-cut and in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Like CIRCUS OF FEAR, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS looks amazing for a 1967 low-budget exploitation flick. The extra for this film is an extensive still & poster gallery. Both films are presented on the same Blu-ray disc.

Are the films on this double-feature great classics? No...I'd call them "Psychotronic classics"--the type of films more intriguing to film geeks than a general audience. Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski don't get all that much of a showcase here, but hardcore buffs of both actors might consider this Blu-ray a decent buy. Blue Underground has done an excellent job with both these titles, and they deserve respect for that.

(By the's some interesting trivia. During the filming of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS, Christopher Lee made the acquaintance of Brian Donlevy's wife, Lillian. She was the ex-wife of Bela Lugosi!)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Joan Crawford Blogathon--TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP

When it comes to the definition of "movie star", almost no one fulfills that better than Joan Crawford. Her decades-long movie career, her poor background, her various real-life romances, the numerous stories & legends about her personal behavior--it's almost as if her entire life was written by a Hollywood screenwriter. She even had a infamous movie made about her. The persona of "Joan Crawford" is so large that it often overwhelms the individual movies she was in.

For the purposes of this blog, I picked a film in which the Joan Crawford persona had no effect. The 1926 silent comedy TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP was one of Joan's first major roles, even though she really is not much more than a attractive goal to be obtained by the film's star, Harry Langdon.

If you are not a major old movie buff, chances are you've never heard of Harry Langdon. At one point in the mid-1920s Langdon was considered the equal of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Langdon's bizarre child-like persona fell out of favor quickly, especially when he broke away from a certain young writer-director named Frank Capra.

Capra was one of the main writers on TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP, and he may have also helped out Harry Edwards on the direction. The story is about Harry entering a cross-country walking race in order to win enough money to save his elderly father's shoe store. The irony in this is that the race is sponsored by one of the big companies causing Harry's father to go broke. The Burton Shoes company has had a major success by using an ad campaign featuring Mr. Burton's beautiful daughter Betty (Joan Crawford). The ad campaign has caused Harry to fall hopelessly in love with Betty.

Harry Langdon pining over Joan Crawford's image in TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP

Believe it or not, Betty not only feels sorry for the elf-like, immature Harry--she even roots for him to win, and starts to fall for him! Of course, the "Joan Crawford" persona had yet to have been established. If this movie had been made a few years later, there's no way Joan would have treated Harry with respect, yet alone affection. She more than likely would have caused Harry to flee in sheer terror.

The idea that Harry Langdon's typical movie character could have had relations with any mature woman seems far-fetched, but one must take into account that just about every male silent movie comedian had pretty, "normal" leading ladies--and winning the hand of those ladies was an important plot point in their films. (I assume that the meaning behind this was that if goofy movie clowns could get the girl in the end, there was hope for all the ordinary guys in the audience.) In TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP Joan fulfills the role of dream girl very well. She's very fetching in her stylish (yet understated) wardrobe, and she exudes a softness and kindness that would rarely be seen over the rest of her long screen career. (I've always thought that Crawford was far more attractive in the late 1920s-early 30s than when she became a huge star.) No matter how silly a Harry Langdon--Joan Crawford love pairing may sound, it works in the film due to Crawford's performance.

As for the film itself, it's very good--not one of the best silent comedies--but still watchable today. An individual's enjoyment of TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP will be directly tied to how that individual responds to Harry Langdon. Frank Capra biographer Joseph McBride described Langdon's screen persona as looking like a depraved baby, and he's not far off the mark. The pasty-faced Harry is made to seem even smaller by wearing clothes that are too big for him, and his ability to get out of the many slapstick situations he finds himself in has more to do with pure luck than any effort on his part. Langdon on-screen is basically a bashful, naive, clumsy nine-year old--when one realizes that Langdon was in his forties when he made this film, the character seems even more weird. It's doubtful that Harry could manage to walk across the street, let alone walk across the United States. Yet in TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP Harry is able to save Joan from a cyclone, win the race, and win Joan's heart. If you have any sort of sentimentality in you, and you've been exposed to silent comedy, you'll probably like TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP--but if you're not used to silent slapstick, and you've never seen Harry Langdon before, you may find Harry's strange man-child act to be exasperating.

If you are a huge Joan Crawford fan, and you haven't seen TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP, I suggest you check it out if you get a chance. (I believe the film is available on YouTube, and it only runs about an hour.) You'll see a Joan Crawford very different from the "Joan Crawford" of Hollywood legend. You'll also be reminded of how naturally beautiful she was--even in a very generic role, she has a screen presence which makes the viewer notice everything she does (even though she doesn't get to do much). Joan Crawford was one of the greatest movie legends of all time. She had that indefinable "It"-even as a very young, and very little known, ingenue back in 1926.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

CARNIVAL OF SOULS On Criterion Blu-ray

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) is one of the great cult movies of all time, and now it's getting the super-deluxe treatment with a new Criterion Blu-ray.

Criterion released CARNIVAL OF SOULS on DVD several years ago, but this upgraded version is a worthy purchase. When I started collecting movies during the VHS boom in the late 1980s, public domain copies of this title could be found all over the place. I'm sure most classic horror film buffs have CARNIVAL OF SOULS represented somehow in their home video libraries. The video quality of this Criterion Blu-ray simply blows away any other version of the movie that I've seen--and it makes you appreciate even more the direction of Herk Harvey and the cinematography of Maurice Prather.

Saying that CARNIVAL OF SOULS was Herk Harvey's "only" feature film is something of a misnomer--Harvey had worked for years at a company called Centron, making industrial and educational films. While driving through Utah on his way home to Kansas, Harvey happened to see the deserted Saltair amusement resort. The sight of the desolate and dilapidated park inspired Harvey to ask his Centron co-worker, John Clifford, to write a horror tale around it. The result was one of the eeriest and creepiest movies ever made--an atmospheric combination of low-budget indie docudrama, silent film black & white expressionism, and mid-20th Century American Gothic.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS revolves around the fate of Mary Henry, an unusual young woman who is the sole survivor of an accident involving a car going off a bridge into a river. Mary leaves her hometown soon after the accident and travels to Utah, where she will start her new job as a church organist. Once Mary gets to Utah, she starts having visions of a pasty-faced ghostly figure (played by director Harvey). She's also strangely drawn to the deserted amusement park outside of town, while trying to fend off the lecherous interests of her neighbor across the hall.

Candace Hilligoss is perfect as the distant Mary. Hilligoss was the only professional actor used in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and while she's pretty, she also has an off-kilter quality about her that makes her a mystery to the audience. A more obvious, more glamorous "scream queen" type would have hurt the tone of the film. Mary doesn't seem to be part of the world going on around her (it's fairly obvious why), and Hilligoss portrays this very convincingly--even though she has the lead role, the viewer never gets a chance to warm up to her.

Some of the best scenes in CARNIVAL OF SOULS have Mary vacantly walking around the Saltair resort. This may be boring to some, but the past-its-prime amusement park is one of the best real-life movie locations ever, and proof that ingenuity and creativity are more important to a fantastic film than big-budgeted special effects. Director Harvey also filmed several scenes in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, and the plain, ordinary look of the town and its citizens gives the movie a sense of "unreal realism".

There's plenty of extras on this Criterion Blu-ray--most of them were featured on the Criterion CARNIVAL OF SOULS DVD. There is some new material, including appreciations of the film from Dana Gould and David Cairns. There's a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the cast and crew, a commentary with Herk Harvey and John Clifford, excerpts from movies made by Centron, and a lengthy selection of outtakes backed by the film's effectively spooky organ music score by Gene Moore.

The cut of CARNIVAL OF SOULS on this Blu-ray runs 78 minutes. Some on the internet are complaining that it is not the "uncut" version of the film that runs 82 minutes. The scenes not included in the Blu-ray cut are featured in a deleted scenes section and I really don't think having the 78 minute cut instead of the 82 minute cut is that big of a deal.

As usual with a Criterion release there is a booklet included, and this one has a fine essay on CARNIVAL OF SOULS by Kier-La Janisse....and it folds out to make a nice poster of the ghoul character that menaces Mary Henry.

I've always been a big fan of CARNIVAL OF SOULS ever since a first saw it years ago. It has no overt violence or gore, yet it remains far more memorable than the many "important" monster movies made at the same time. It's a tribute to low-budget creative film making, and it's the type of movie that should be watched when you are all alone late at night.