Tuesday, January 22, 2019


Kino continues its series of restored Mario Bava film releases on Blu-ray with the 1966 Viking tale KNIVES OF THE AVENGER (original Italian title I COLTELLI DEL VENDICATORE).

As Bava expert Tim Lucas explains in his audio commentary, KNIVES OF THE AVENGER was originally a production directed by Leopoldo Savona. The filming was shut down after a couple weeks after financing ran out. Some time later the producers hired Mario Bava to finish the picture. Most of the final product was directed by Bava, and while it isn't one of his best features, he was still able to bring enough of his low-budget cinematic artistry to make it an interesting story. (Bava is credited on the film as "John Hold", a variation on his "John M. Old" pseudonym.)

Cameron Mitchell (who had already worked with Bava a number of times by this point) plays a Nordic warrior who calls himself Helmut. The mysterious Helmut wanders into the life of a beautiful woman named Karin and her young son Moki. Karin is married to Arald, king of a Viking tribe--but Arald has been missing for the last few years, and a vicious rival named Aghen is determined to claim Karin as his own and gain power. Karin and Moki are in hiding, and Helmut goes out of his way to help them. Helmut's actions are not just out of decency--the man has issues with Aghen as well, and he also has a deeper connection with Karin and Moki than just friendship.

Bava fans would probably compare KNIVES OF THE AVENGER with the director's earlier ERIK THE CONQUEROR, another Viking tale also starring Cameron Mitchell. The two movies are very different, however. When Bava took over direction of KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, he didn't have much time or money to complete it, so the resulting movie makes ERIK THE CONQUEROR look like a grand spectacle. KNIVES OF THE AVENGER is much more low-key and personal, focusing on a few characters. The film is very much like an Italian Viking version of SHANE, with Cameron Mitchell's weary Helmut coming to the aid of a mother and her son. There's also a number of Spaghetti Western elements in the story as well. Mitchell's Helmut definitely has a lone stranger/gunslinger-like vibe to him, except that he throws knives instead of shooting bullets. Helmut's proficiency in knife-throwing is almost superhuman (I can't help but wonder if the man was an ancestor to Tomas Milian's Cuchillo), and he seems to carry an inexhaustible supply of blades on his person at all times.

Despite Helmut's talents, there's not a lot of action scenes in KNIVES OF THE AVENGER. It is the relationships between the main characters that are most important here--especially the revelation that ties Helmut, Karin, Moki, and main villain Aghen together, which I will not reveal for those who have yet to see this film. The one major action sequence is a showdown between Helmut and Aghen in a dark, empty tavern--a sequence which I think ranks among Bava's overall best.

KNIVES OF THE AVENGER was part of the first Mario Bava DVD box set released by Anchor Bay about 10 years ago. This Blu-ray version features a magnificent transfer--it's one of the best looking out of all of the Kino Bava Blu-rays. The disc has an Italian soundtrack with English subtitles, and a English dub which is serviceable but unfortunately does not use Cameron Mitchell's voice. An English main title sequence is included, as well as several trailers for other Mario Bava-directed films.

The most important extra is the audio commentary by Tim Lucas. As to be expected by now, it's an excellent one. Lucas discerns what parts of the film Bava did not direct, while linking the production to the rest of the director's catalog. He discusses the relationship between Cameron Mitchell and Mario Bava, and he gives out all sorts of relevant information (amazingly, even Lucas does not know the name of the woman who impressively played the witch-like figure at the beginning of the film).

KNIVES OF THE AVENGER doesn't have the wild action-packed flair of most 1960s sword-and-sandal offshoots, but any Mario Bava film (even one he didn't totally direct) is worth seeing--especially when it looks as fantastic as it does on this Kino Blu-ray.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


No writer is able to vividly bring to life the various personalities involved in the making of classic Hollywood horror films like Greg Mank--and he does it again in his latest book, "ONE MAN CRAZY!" THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLIN CLIVE.

Mank has written extensively on Clive in his earlier works, including a mini-bio on the actor that was featured in the book HOLLYWOOD'S MADDEST DOCTORS. But those were just appetizers to "ONE MAN CRAZY!", a full-length biography running nearly 400 pages.

Colin Clive is best known now for his portrayal of Henry Frankenstein in the James Whale-directed movies FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But it was his playing of the role of Captain Stanhope in the original stage and film productions of the WWI drama JOURNEY'S END that brought Clive notoriety. Due to Stanhope, Clive was fated for the rest of his short life to play characters who were undergoing major physical or psychological crises. Through his unique and highly dramatic writing style, Mank relates how in real life Clive faced several traumas of his own. 

Mank presents Clive as a highly strung individual on stage and screen and off. At times in his films, Clive could unleash a near manic intensity--frequently on screen the actor looks as if the entire weight of the world is on his shoulders. Ironically Clive had not grown up wanting to be an actor--Mank delves into the man's family history to show that he really wanted to have a military career in the British Army. Clive actually attended the legendary Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, but a riding accident put an end to his dreams of martial glory.

Clive then decided to try acting, and although he eventually became successful at it, the man suffered from stage fright, insecurity, and self-doubt. Clive turned to alcohol to cope, and Mank, in his own inimitable way, charts the actor's highs and lows. Mank doesn't wallow in Clive's troubles, but he doesn't sugarcoat them either.

Mank, as he always does, builds his tale upon a wealth of exhaustive research, personal interviews, and rare photos. One would assume that by now, the mine of information on the classic Universal horror films has been long played out--but the writer is still digging up insightful nuggets. Among the many revelations that movie buffs will be intrigued by in this volume is the fact that one of Clive's many fervent fans during the 1930s happened to be none other than Ayn Rand!

I've been a huge admirer of Greg Mank's work since I borrowed a copy of his IT'S ALIVE from a South Bend Public Library in the mid-1980s, so it's no surprise that I without hesitation recommend this book. Colin Clive had an all too brief acting career, but he still was able to leave a huge mark on popular culture. Greg Mank's biography goes beyond mere old movie gossip--it's a poignant tribute to a fine performer who didn't deserve the sad fate that life had in store for him. Usually Mank's books are published by McFarland, but this one comes from Midnight Marquee Press--which thankfully means it's a bit more affordable.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019


My great friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy, recently asked me if I had ever seen a 1967 film called COUNTERPOINT. The movie stars Charlton Heston, a screen icon that has had a major influence upon Josh. I had never actually heard of the film, let alone seen it. I did happen to come across COUNTERPOINT on YouTube and I viewed it due to Josh's recommendation.

COUNTERPOINT is set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. I'm a huge WWII buff when it comes to real history and films, but COUNTERPOINT had so far eluded me. Seeing the film for the first time, it's not surprising that it is not very well known. It's very different from the many big-budget action packed WWII epics that were produced during the 1960s.

Charlton Heston plays Lionel Evans, a famed conductor who is leading his symphony orchestra on a USO tour at the European front during WWII in 1944. Evans and his musicians are playing for a group of U.S. Army brass in Belgium when the Battle of the Bulge breaks out. Evans' orchestra tries to get away from the area of conflict, but their bus is stopped by German troops. The musicians are taken to a nearby castle, which has become the temporary headquarters of a panzer division brought to a halt by a lack of fuel and led by a General Schiller (Maximilian Schell). Schiller has orders to shoot any prisoners--the German offensive can't afford the time or supplies to care for POWs--but the General knows who Evans is, having seen him perform before the war broke out. Schiller decides to not massacre the orchestra, at least until they perform a concert for him personally. The imperious Evans, a man used to getting his own way, refuses....and a battle of wits and wills begins between the conductor and the General, with the lives of 70 men and women hanging in the balance.

COUNTERPOINT doesn't have the high-powered highlights of such 1960s WWII titles such as THE LONGEST DAY and THE GREAT ESCAPE. The only action scene is a shoot-out during the climax--I wouldn't even classify it as a full battle. Heston's Lionel Evans does grab a gun at the end of the story, but he barely knows how to use it. The major conflict in the story involves Evans and General Schiller, two men with massive egos who are determined not to back down to the other.

Charlton Heston's larger-than-life persona enables him to fit the role of Lionel Evans very well. It is established in the story that Evans is a world-renowned conductor, and the man certainly acts as if he's well aware of this. When the German attack breaks out at the beginning of the film, Evans seems more concerned over his concert being interrupted than anything else. After being captured by the Germans, Evans (while dressed in white tie, tails, and a red-lined black cloak) barks out orders at the bemused soldiers holding him and his troupe. It's easy to ascertain that playing in Evans' orchestra would not be an enjoyable task. At first Evans flat out refuses to play a concert for Schiller, but one senses that it is due to the conductor's pride, not because of any sort of patriotism or hatred of the Nazi regime. After several of his orchestra members plead with Evans about the danger they are all in, the man seems to relent--but he is only biding time by having the orchestra "practice". In most of Heston's film performances, his characters have a huge amount of stubbornness in them--and this definitely comes out in Evans. At the time this film was made, Heston was one of the biggest movie stars in the world--so playing this role was a bit of a departure. Heston's Evans is at times rude, obnoxious, domineering, and brutally honest.

Heston is well-matched in the acting department by Maximilian Schell as General Schiller. Schell gives the General a deceptively charming manner (he's constantly smiling), but at the same time there's an ambiguity to the man. The viewer never knows how brutal Schiller might wind up being. COUNTERPOINT does fit the typical WWII movie template in one way--the lead German officer character has an even more fanatical counterpart. Here it's the ruthless Col. Arndt, who just wants to eliminate the entire orchestra as soon as possible. Arndt is played by WWII (and horror) movie veteran Anton Diffring.

A rather deceptive poster for COUNTERPOINT

The only other members of the orchestra we really get to know are played by Leslie Nielsen as Evans' concert master, and Kathryn Hays, a cellist who was a former flame of Evans, but who is now married to Nielsen's character. Nielsen gets stuck in a very thankless role--he spends most of his time silently watching both Evans and Schiller show interest in his wife (Hays has more scenes with Heston than she does with Nielsen).

COUNTERPOINT was directed by Ralph Nelson, and he does a very efficient job, considering that the movie didn't seem to have a very large budget. (We are constantly told that the orchestra is made up of 70 musicians, but there appears to be only about half that number.) The entire production appears to have been filmed at Universal Studios, and I believe that the legendary "Phantom of the Opera" stage set was used during the interrupted concert at the beginning of the story. Nelson gets a lot of suspense out of a subplot involving two American G.Is who are hiding among the orchestra members--a scene in which one of the soldiers is forced to provide proof of his supposed musical talents winds up being the best scene in the movie. What really keeps the viewer's interest is whether the orchestra will avoid being executed by the Germans, since the characters of Evans and Schiller seem more interested in getting the other to back down rather than the lives of a large group of innocent civilians.

COUNTERPOINT is a bit disarming as a WWII film--there's no slam-bang heroics, and Charlton Heston's character isn't very likable. As you can see in the picture of the movie's poster above, it was sold as a action-adventure extravaganza, despite the fact that it clearly isn't. It is a very well done off-beat war film which is about personalities rather than battles, and Charlton Heston and Maximilian Schell are well worth watching in it.

Sunday, January 6, 2019


During the documentary FILMWORKER, it was mentioned that after his appearance in BARRY LYNDON, Leon Vitali portrayed Victor Frankenstein in a 1977 adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel entitled TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. This bit of information intrigued me--I thought I had seen, or at least heard of, just about every Frankenstein theatrical film ever made. I had never heard of TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, and apparently not too many other people have either--the movie doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia. There is a decent print of it on YouTube, which is where I viewed it.

TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is a Swedish-Irish co-production, directed and co-written by Calvin Floyd. Despite the title it is more of a understated literary period piece rather than a horror film. It is also perhaps the most accurate adaptation of the Shelley tale than any other version that I have seen (and I've seen plenty).

The movie is set in the early 19th Century, and it follows the plot of the novel very closely. Leon Vitali's Victor Frankenstein is very much like the character in the book. He's young, inquisitive, and determined to discover the secrets of life--but he doesn't come off as mad or obsessive. Vitali's Frankenstein isn't the jittery, brooding version of the character played by Colin Clive, or Peter Cushing's cunning Byronic anti-hero. Vitali's Victor is totally unprepared for what to do when he actually does bring a human being of his own creation to life. Instead of gloating over his accomplishment, Vitali runs away in abject fear, leaving his creation on its own--an action which will bring horrible consequences to Victor and his loved ones. Vitali is impressive as a Frankenstein who is somewhat naive about what he is trying to do and unwilling to face up to his responsibilities when he succeeds. (It helps that Vitali comes off very well in period costume, just as he did in BARRY LYNODN.)

Leon Vitali as Victor Frankenstein

The creature in this film is played by Per Oscarsson, and his performance also matches how the figure acts in the book. First of all, he's articulate, having learned how to read and talk by secretly observing a poor country family (one of the many sequences in Shelley's novel that almost never gets used in any of the movie versions). When the creature tries to reveal himself to the family, they react with fear and loathing, setting off his quest to get revenge on Frankenstein for creating him and then casting him aside.

Oscarsson is very good as the Creature, and his makeup is far more subtle than most movie Frankenstein monsters, though it is still effective. (What stands out most about the makeup here is the Creature's deathly black colored lips.) Oscarsson's Creature is sympathetic but still dangerous.

TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN has a very understated and straightforward style to it. Director Floyd uses many outdoor locations to give the story an almost docudrama feel, and he avoids extreme camera movements. This movie is set more in the real world instead of the expressionistic landscape of classic Universal horror, or the Gothic never never land of Hammer. The creation sequence in this film has to be the quietest out of all the movie adaptations--the creature comes to life almost by chance, without any bold thunderstorms or wild electric machinery. There's also very little gore in this version.

Some may not like the matter-of-fact approach of TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, but I found it refreshing. After seeing so many Frankenstein movies that have almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley's original story, it's nice to see one that is so faithful to the source material. I wouldn't call the movie superb--it is a bit too stately at times, and a bit higher budget might have helped. But TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is far more closer to Mary Shelley than other more notable supposed "proper" screen adaptations such as FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY or MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN. Just don't expect an action-packed blood-and-thunder horror tale.

Thursday, January 3, 2019


FILMWORKER is an outstanding documentary on the life of Leon Vitali, and his long-time association with the brilliant film director Stanley Kubrick.

Leon Vitali is best known for playing the pouty stepson of Ryan O'Neal in Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON. At the time Vitali already had an accomplished career as an actor in England, appearing on stage, TV, and films--but nothing in his professional career prepared him for Kubrick's meticulous and demanding work ethic. Vitali was so impressed by his experience on BARRY LYNDON that he wanted to know more about Kubrick's film making methods. What resulted was Vitali stepping away from his acting career to become Kubrick's general factotum. Over the years Vitali did a little of everything, including being a Foley artist, on-set photographer, casting associate...eventually he became the main protector of the Kubrick film legacy.

Stanley Kubrick was of course one of the greatest film directors of all time, and he was also one of the most mysterious and reclusive. FILMWORKER lifts the veil a bit on Kubrick's elusive personality, but in the end the viewer will probably still not know the man all that well. Leon Vitali also winds up being a bit mysterious as well. A talented man in his own right, Vitali sublimated his personal and professional life to Kubrick's whims. He worked long hours, day after day, to satisfy one of the most exacting artists ever--an artist who, it seems, wasn't all that fulsome in his gratitude for what Vitali was doing for him.

Vitali obviously was excited to work side-by-side with such a creative genius--but was it all worth it? I've read a lot about Kubrick, and watched a number of programs about him, and Vitali is barely mentioned--I certainly never knew how much he was involved with Kubrick's latter films. Vitali doesn't seem to have been properly compensated for all his labors either. The mental and physical toll that Vitali went through on behalf of Kubrick is more than evident when watches this documentary.

The film does not just present Vitali's personal recollections of his relationship with Kubrick--many other associates of the director give their thoughts, and actors Danny Lloyd and Lee Ermey attest to how much Vitali helped in their performances for THE SHINING and FULL METAL JACKET.

At the beginning of this documentary, Leon Vitali is compared to a moth that is attracted to a bright light, only to wind up burning itself. There's some validity to that. While Vitali himself seems satisfied with how his life turned out, one cannot help wonder if the price to work alongside such an artist as Kubrick was too high. FILMWORKER is an intriguing examination of what it is like to personally deal with uncompromising genius on a day-to-day basis, and the effect such an experience has on a person.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


SAD HILL UNEARTHED, a magnificent new documentary written & directed by Guillermo de Oliveria, examines how a small group of enthusiastic and determined fans of the movie THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY set out to restore one of the film's most iconic locations.

The majestic climax of Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY takes place at a Civil War-era cemetery, which was built for the film near Santo Domingo de Silos, Burgos, Spain. It was at this location that two of the greatest sequences in cinema history were staged: the "Ecstasy of Gold" run through the grave markers by Eli Wallach and the final three-way standoff between Clint Eastwood, Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef.

After the making of the film, the cemetery, which was built in a remote location, became unkempt and overgrown. In recent years a group of fans has formed the Sad Hill Cultural Association, and they have undertaken the arduous task of restoring the site to how it looked during the making of GBU in 1966.

SAD HILL UNEARTHED charts the restoration progress while giving historical background and detail on the production of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Among those interviewed who actually worked on the film are Clint Eastwood, Ennio Morricone, and editor Eugenio Alabiso. There's footage of a 1966 interview with Sergio Leone himself (believe it or not, he's eating spaghetti while doing it), and some of the men who worked as extras on GBU while serving in the Spanish Army at the time give their memories as well.

A few notable fans of the film also discuss what it means to them personally, such as director Joe Dante, Metallica member James Hetfield, and Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling. Many of the people involved in the restoration give their thoughts, and they are shown as dedicated and hardworking men and women who have been truly inspired by the project.

There's a lot of positive energy emanating from this documentary. SAD HILL UNEARTHED shows how a legendary movie, even one as violent as THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, can bring people from all sorts of backgrounds together to participate in a creative and affirming endeavor. One of the men involved in the restoration of Sad Hill Cemetery refers to it as a sort of archeology, and he's absolutely right. It might seem silly to the uninitiated to put in so much time and work on a long-ago movie location, but THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is a pop-culture milestone, and the Sad Hill Cemetery is probably more recognizable to people around the world than any real Civil War site.

The documentary climaxes with a 50th anniversary showing of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on the restored Sad Hill site. The sense of joy and exhilaration from the audience during this sequence brings to mind something Joe Dante said earlier in this film about how for many people, going to the movies is like going to church. It can be stated that 21st Century society has too much invested in pop culture, and there's plenty of negativity to be found on any movie discussion site on the internet....but SAD HILL UNEARTHED presents the constructive aspects of movie fandom, and defines how important certain movies can be to us.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is my second favorite movie of all time, so obviously I'm inclined to love SAD HILL UNEARTHED. But this is still a worthy documentary even if you are not as big a fan of GBU as I am. It shows how the cinema can inspire and influence people in a positive manner.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays Of 2018

It's the end of the year, and it's time once again for my top five DVD/Blu-rays list. As usual, I spent way too much money on home video--especially movies that I had already owned on other formats. (Three of the films on this list I already had versions of.)

If you are a hardcore movie buff you'll know that the double-dipping problem is getting worse and worse. In the last few months I've re-bought four different Hammer Christopher Lee Dracula movies, mainly because they were making their American Blu-ray debuts. Being a fan of any aspect of Geek Culture is an expensive proposition. But, would I want to be a normal person, whatever that may actually be? No, not really.

As always, each of these picks are from my own personal collection, and no, I still don't have a region free Blu-ray player.

1. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Blu-ray) from Criterion
The most influential American independent film ever made finally gets the ultimate home video edition it deserves. Criterion thankfully pulled out all the stops for this one. I wrote a full review of this in February.

2. NIGHT OF THE DEMON/CURSE OF THE DEMON (Blu-ray) from Indicator
This was my very first purchase of an Indicator product, and it's an amazing release. It comes with a 80-page booklet, a double-sided poster, multiple versions of the film, and reams of extras.

3. THE COMPLETE SARTANA (Blu-ray) from Arrow
Nobody presents Spaghetti Westerns better than Arrow Video. This set presents the five "official" Sartana films, with tons of extras on each disc. I reviewed each of the films individually during the summer.

4. DJANGO (Blu-ray) from Arrow
The day after Amazon sent me an email saying this had shipped, Arrow announced it had to cancel this release due to rights issues. But I got mine! One of the greatest (and most depressing) Spaghetti Westerns of all time is magnificently presented and fully analyzed, and this steelbook edition comes with a bonus disc featuring another Franco Nero Euro Western, TEXAS, ADIOS.

I was seriously thinking about putting the Criterion Blu-ray release of Universal's early talkie musical KING OF JAZZ on this list, but these two compilations get the last spot due to the fact that their release finally means all the Thelma Todd/Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly short subject comedies are available on official home video. It also means that my obsession with attractive blonde actresses such as Thelma Todd wins out again.