Saturday, March 16, 2019

DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE On Blu-ray From Flicker Alley









Flicker Alley presents a wonderful find on home video--a rediscovered and restored 1929 German silent version of the most famous Sherlock Holmes story, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. The Blu-ray release also features a 1914 German film adaptation of the tale.

For me the discovery of a lost Sherlock Holmes film is the equivalent of a lost movie featuring a superhero character. This 1929 film (German title DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE) was the last silent Sherlock Holmes feature. According to the booklet included with the Blu-ray, the movie was restored from a 35mm nitrate print held by the Polish National Film Archive and a 9.5mm Pathe-Baby print. There are a few scenes missing, but they are recreated in the film by stills and title cards. The visual quality isn't spectacular, but the important point is that the film is now available.

The 1929 German HUND was directed by Richard Oswald, and it follows the Conan Doyle novel fairly closely (the story structure actually has a lot in common with the Hammer Films 1959 version). What highlights the 1929 version is how atmospheric it is. In most film adaptations Baskerville Hall is just a large house--here it is almost a main character, a dark, moody place that has an interior design that reminds a film buff of the work done by Universal's Charles D. Hall or Hammer's Bernard Robinson. The moor in this version is quite notable as well--a dank, windblown, expressionistic landscape that gives off the feeling of dread and menace. Oswald (who also is credited as a writer on the film) turns the story into more of a old dark house mystery--the movie feels as if it was made by Paul Leni for Universal.

The creepy particulars of this version are welcome, because the Sherlock Holmes presented here, as played by American actor Carlyle Blackwell, is rather ordinary. (The title card introducing him says that he is "the genial detective".) Blackwell doesn't have the eccentricities of a Jeremy Brett or the intensity of a Basil Rathbone--he reacts to just about everything with a hearty laugh. He does get to wear the deerstalker and smoke a pipe. The most notable actor in this production is Fritz Rasp, who plays the villainous Stapleton. Rasp appeared in a number of great German silent films as various creepy characters, so his casting here gives the game away fairly easy.

As for the actual hound, the movie suffers the way most of the other versions of the tale always do--the "demon dog" doesn't come off as very demonic. Nevertheless, this 1929 silent is very well done, and it will be of interest especially for lovers of silent thrillers.

The 1914 DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE included on this Blu-ray is very much a product of its time. Richard Oswald was just the writer on this one--the movie was directed by Rudolf Meinert, who would go on to be production manager of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and the photography was by Karl Freund, the future legendary cinematographer. The 1914 version is more of a adventure serial instead of a straight Holmes adaptation. The story is filled with secret passages, booby traps, last-second escapes, and the like. The character of Holmes takes second fiddle to that of Stapleton, who here becomes something of a super villain. Friedrich Kuhne, who plays Stapleton, acts in a broadly melodramatic manner, so much so that he becomes almost unintentionally funny. He's constantly raising his eyebrows and giving sideways dirty looks to people, and his dastardly deeds seem rather excessive--at one point he blows up a mailbox just to prevent Sherlock Holmes from receiving a letter! One does need to remember that this a 1914 European film, and allowances must be made for its style. The Holmes here is played by a Danish actor named Alvin Neuss, and he's more of a action hero than a detective. (He is introduced in a moodily lit scene wearing a dressing gown and smoking a pipe--this is the one moment in the film that comes closest to Conan Doyle.) The movie was successful enough in Europe to spawn a long line of sequels.

Flicker Alley adds two short programs as extras: one on the history of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES novel and how Conan Doyle came to write it, and one concerning the restoration of the 1929 HUND. A 25-page essay is included which also discusses the two films and their respective restorations. The disc is playable for A,B, and C regions.

Once again Flicker Alley has put together a magnificent package while also giving the general public the chance to see two features that were almost impossible to view before. I must point out that this Blu-ray is not cheap--the only reason I got it was that I recently purchased a new supply of contact lenses, and as a bonus I qualified for some gift cards (I figured I might as well use them on something I normally wouldn't get.) Sherlock Holmes aficionados will certainly be intrigued by this release. I wouldn't rate these two films as among the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but they probably have the most unique background.


Monday, March 11, 2019

THE MAN WITH TWO FACES









What I love most about Turner Classic Movies is how many obscure films they show. particularly ones from the 1930s. Last week TCM presented a 1934 melodrama called THE MAN WITH TWO FACES. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson, and it was produced by First National/Warners.

Robinson plays Damon Wells, a renowned (and acerbic) stage actor who is trying out a new play starring his equally renowned actress sister Jessica (Mary Astor). Jessica is making something of a comeback--she hasn't acted in three years, since her estranged husband Stanley Vance was supposedly killed. Jessica is still dealing with the after effects of her horrid marriage, but it looks like the play is bound to be a success on Broadway. Unfortunately her husband (Louis Calhern) decides to return, and his appearance causes Jessica to fall into a near-catatonic state. Stanley uses his power over Jessica to try and sell her share of the new play, and the woman's family and friends are at a loss on what to do about the situation. Brother Damon takes it upon himself to use his acting skills in a plot to rid the world of Stanley forever--but the imperious actor may be too smart for his own good.

THE MAN WITH TWO FACES is one of those early Thirties movies that doesn't take up too much of one's time (it's only 73 minutes long) and winds up being quite entertaining. It offers up a choice role for Edward G. Robinson, and one can tell he enjoyed himself immensely. Instead of playing another gangster or tough guy, Robinson got to portray an intelligent, talented artist who uses his brains instead of brawn. Damon Wells is a talented individual, and he knows it. He's prone to bossing people around and being demanding--he treats his current girlfriend (Mae Clarke) like hired help--but he does truly care about his sister, and he goes to great lengths to relieve her plight. It's great to see such a grand actor like Robinson have a showcase like this.

Mary Astor gets stuck with a difficult role as Jessica--she spends most of the movie shambling around like a zombie after her husband returns. At the start of the story, when Jessica is still "normal", she's a lively, vibrant personality, which makes it hard to believe she would be reduced to almost a vegetable just at the sight of her husband. It's never really explained what type of hold Stanley has over Jessica--is it hypnotism? Maybe it's a good idea that the man's hold over his wife is left vague--if the viewer tries to fill in the blanks, one can come up with all sorts of sinister implications. Louis Calhern plays Stanley as a smirking fellow who constantly displays a phony courtesy. He doesn't try to be outwardly evil--at one point, though, he does unexpected slap Jessica in the face, which comes as a bit of a shock. It helps that Calhern is taller than the rest of the main cast.

Ricardo Cortez is also in the movie--he's the play's producer, and he also is sweet on Jessica. It's surprising that Cortez wasn't the dangerous husband, considering how many Pre-Code con men he portrayed. I've mentioned on this blog before that every time I see Mae Clarke in a classic film, I come away more impressed by her. Her performance here backed up that opinion. Mae provides the comic relief as Damon Wells' "actress" girlfriend Daphne, and she just about steals the film. The sarcastic Daphne gets off plenty of quips, and Clarke holds her own very well with Robinson. She also gets to do an impromptu version of "Stormy Weather", and wear a cute maid outfit that we don't see her in enough. I would have loved to have seen Robinson and Clarke play similar characters in other films.

THE MAN WITH TWO FACES has an impressive pedigree--it was based on a play written by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott. Archie Mayo directs in the typical 1930s Warners fast-paced manner. I'm not going to reveal Damon's plan to solve his sister's problem, since this is not a well-known film, but it's easy to figure out while you are watching it. I will say that the movie's screenplay could have easily been turned into a COLUMBO episode. Even if the plot is quite simple to discern once the film gets going, it's worth checking out for Edward G. Robinson and Mae Clarke.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

STAND-IN On Blu-ray From Classic Flix






STAND-IN is a 1937 light comedy satirizing the Hollywood studio system of the period, and it has just been released on home video by Classic Flix. The movie was produced by Walter Wanger and originally released by United Artists.

The New York-based bank of Pettypacker and Sons is planning to sell their shares of Colossal Studios, but the firm's expert numbers cruncher Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) thinks the company has the potential to be a wise investment. Dodd is sent to California to try to improve the studio's financial situation, but the meek mathematician is out of his element dealing with nutty film folk like an intense producer with a drinking problem (Humphrey Bogart), a temperamental "foreign" director (Alan Mowbray), a snooty leading lady who's seen better days (Marla Shelton), and a pain-in-the-neck publicity hack (Jack Carson). Dodd does attract the sympathy (and affections) of studio stand-in and former child star Lester Plum (Joan Blondell), who he hires as his secretary. Except for Lester, everyone else in Hollywood considers the straight-laced Dodd a fool, but he manages to save Colossal from being sold off to a shady financier (C. Henry Gordon).

STAND-IN isn't spectacular, but it is a nice little film, a pleasant diversion for 90 minutes. What makes it work are the performances of Leslie Howard and Joan Blondell. Howard in particular surprised me here. The character of Atterbury Dodd--a staid, mild-mannered man of efficiency--could easily wind up being annoying, but Howard makes Dodd humorously likable, and the actor even exhibits an unexpected talent for physical comedy. Joan Blondell is as appealing as always--her line deliveries make the dialogue far more snappier than it really is. Blondell is so charismatic here that even in a fictional context it's hard to believe that her strangely-named Lester is a stand-in instead of the No. 1 actress for Colossal Studios. The viewer is awarded the treat of seeing Joan perform "On the Good Ship Lollipop".






Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, and Leslie Howard



Humphrey Bogart fans might be disappointed at his supporting role, but this movie did give him a chance to break away from the many bad guy parts he was given around this time. (When one thinks about it, however, there are some similarities between movie producers and gangsters.) Bogart doesn't go the total comic route here--he displays his typical intensity--but he does get to do a few things one wouldn't expect from him, such as carry around a dog and perform a drunk scene while dressed in top hat and tails. The rest of the actors in the film have one-dimensional, generic roles.

Director Tay Garnett stages the story in an efficient manner, and classic film buffs will enjoy the inside Hollywood jokes and looks at a 1930s movie studio back lot. (Of course, during the back lot scenes we see cowboys and showgirls mingling in the background--has there ever been a back lot sequence in any form of entertainment that didn't have cowboys and showgirls wandering around??)  The climax of the story veers a bit into Frank Capra territory, with Dodd trying to get the entire working staff of the studio on his side to help stave off its shutdown. One might say the entire movie has a Capraesque tone to it, with a kind, decent, naive man fighting large odds and being supported by a street-smart woman who winds up falling for him. (The roles of Atterbury Dodd and Lester could have easily been played by James Stewart and Jean Arthur.)

Before the movie starts on this Blu-ray, Classic Flix has inserted a title card discussing how much restoration work went into it. The black & white movie looks very good--I wouldn't say it looks stupendous--and the sound is very sharp and clear. The only extras are a restoration comparison and a few trailers for other Classic Flix product. It's too bad that an audio commentary was not provided by a reputable classic film historian--I would have loved to know more behind-the-scenes information about it.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

QUANTEZ









While scrolling through the list of free movies available on Xfinity OnDemand last night, I stumbled upon a Western I had never heard of--a 1957 film produced by Universal called QUANTEZ, starring Fred MacMurray and one of my favorites, Dorothy Malone.

The movie begins with five figures riding hell bent for leather through an arid landscape. The group is in flight from a posse after committing a bank robbery. The members of the group are Gentry (Fred MacMurray), Heller (John Larch), Teach (John Gavin), Gato (Sydney Chaplin), and Heller's woman Chaney (Dorothy Malone). The fugitives' horses need rest badly, and they decide to stop off at a small village called Quantez before crossing the border. They find Quantez to be deserted--what they don't know is that the inhabitants have been chased away by an Apache chief (Michael Ansara). The group rests for the night, and spends most of the time sniping at one another. Things come to a head the next morning, when the individual battles between the group are settled and the Apaches attack.

Despite the presence of major stars like MacMurray and Malone, QUANTEZ has a very B-movie attitude about it. The film is only 80 minutes long, and the budget couldn't have been all that much, considering there are only a few main characters, and the story takes place in an abandoned small town. (The movie is in color and Cinemascope.) If you are looking for Wild West action, you won't find much in QUANTEZ--even the climatic Indian attack is rather generic. The movie is more of an "adult" Western concerning the interplay between a disparate group of people.

The leader of the group is not Fred MacMurray--it's John Larch as Heller, a violent blowhard who does more talking than thinking. MacMurray's Gentry is a plain-spoken, practical man who makes knowing observations about all the other characters--if Anthony Mann had directed this film, Gentry would have been played by James Stewart. John Gavin's Teach is young and inexperienced, and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's son) as Gato is a sneaky fellow. Gato is a white man raised by Native Americans, and during the group's stay he secretly ventures off into the hills and makes contact with Michael Ansara's Apache chief.

Dorothy Malone plays another of her many "beautiful women who have led a hard life" roles as Chaney. (If you think the name of Chaney is unusual for such a woman--could it have been an in-joke, since that same year Malone played Lon Chaney's first wife in the biopic THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, also for Universal?) Since Chaney is the only woman in the film, you can guess that she causes trouble among all the men in the group. (Despite admitting she's been treated like trash most of her life, and suffering the effects of outrunning a posse on horseback, she still looks pretty darn good.) Heller yells at her and bosses her around--at one point he demands that she sing, reminding me of a similar scene involving Claire Trevor in KEY LARGO.

The movie gives no background information on the characters at the beginning--we learn about them and their situation as the story goes along. Due to this, it's hard to get all that involved in the group's plight. You've no doubt guessed that the main conflict in the tale is between the bombastic Heller and the sensible Gentry. A wandering peddler (James Barton) who ventures into the town during the night happens to reveal a major fact about Gentry's past. This just makes the viewer wonder why Gentry would even go on a bank raid with a fellow like Heller in the first place. Fred MacMurray played a number of tough characters in his acting career, which may surprise people today who only know him from Disney movies and the MY THREE SONS TV show. MacMurray is very good as Gentry, portraying him in a quiet Gary Cooper-type manner.

QUANTEZ has a somewhat downbeat ending. This ending, and the role that Gentry has to play in it, probably was the result of the revelations about the man's past. The movie was directed in a basic manner by one Henry Keller, who I am not familiar with. QUANTEZ reminded me of the many Western TV show episodes I've seen on various retro cable channels. You could easily edit the script of this movie down to an hour, change the character names, and use it for just about every TV Western of the period (for all I know, somebody might have done that, maybe more than once). QUANTEZ is an okay time filler, nothing more.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Fay Wray And Robert Riskin, The Blogathon: Fay Wray In MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM










This is my contribution to Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon. I must point out that the day I am writing this, March 2, happens to be the birthday of Willis O'Brien...and yesterday, March 1, was the birthday of Lionel Atwill--two men who had a major impact on the movie career of Fay Wray.

Fay Wray is mostly remembered now as a "Scream Queen", which is unfair, considering that her true horror film roles were very few, and they were all filmed in a period of a couple years. Her body of acting work is far more extensive than that. Nevertheless, it is her horror films that still get shown on retro movie cable channels and get the most coverage on the internet.

Picking MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) for this blogathon might be too obvious a choice. The movie happens to be a huge favorite of mine--as a matter of fact, it's one of my fifty top favorite movies of all time. There's so many things I love about this film--the bizarre fusion of Gothic horror and Pre-Code big city Warners smart aleck attitude; the shot compositions of director Michael Curtiz; the atmospheric art direction of Anton Grot; and Perc Westmore's gruesome makeup for Lionel Atwill's mentally and physically scarred wax sculptor Ivan Igor, one of the best monster makeups ever.

The movie was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, and on the DVD I have of it, the colors have faded considerably--but I think that adds to the overall weirdness of the tale. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM lasts only about 80 minutes long, but it has enough plot for two pictures (modern day critics of the film feel that there's too much plot, and it's too confusing at times). Like almost all Pre-Code films made at Warner Bros., the story moves so fast, and has so much going on in it that one forgets about any plot holes and just goes along for the ride.

I could go on and on about MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM--but this is a Fay Wray--Robert Riskin blogathon, and I'm specifically covering Fay Wray here. So let's focus on Fay's performance as Charlotte Duncan.

Fay Wray gets second billing in the opening credits, but the real female lead of the film is Glenda Farrell as snoopy and sarcastic newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey. It is Florence's investigations that lead to the revelation that the supposedly wheelchair-bound and decrepit wax museum proprietor Ivan Igor is actually a horribly burned madman who is murdering people and covering their bodies in wax.

Igor's original wax museum in London was burned down in 1921 by his unscrupulous partner as a scheme to collect on the insurance. (Igor wound up terribly disfigured by the fire--he hides his burns with a wax mask.) Now in 1933 Igor has opened a new museum in New York City. Unable to create wax sculptures due to his damaged hands, Igor targets those unfortunate folks who happen to resemble his old wax creations. This leads him to taking an interest in Fay Wray as Charlotte--she happens to be dating one of the sculptors in Igor's employ, a man named Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent). Charlotte also happens to be friend and roommate of Florence--if you think that's too much of a coincidence you'll just have to accept that nearly every character in the story is connected to each other in some way.

The reason for Igor's interest in Charlotte is that she resembles what he considered his masterpiece--a wax statue of Marie Antoinette that was the highlight of his London museum. (In the beginning sequence of the film, set in London of 1921, we can clearly see that the statue of Marie Antoinette is Fay Wray. Many nitpickers have pointed out over the years that Fay doesn't keep totally still during her posing as the statue--but if your attention is focused on that sort of thing you probably shouldn't be watching this type of film in the first place.)

Fay Wray really has more of a supporting role as Charlotte--she doesn't have all that many scenes, and she certainly can't compete with the showy performances of Lionel Atwill and Glenda Farrell. We don't get to know much about Charlotte. Unlike Florence, she doesn't seem to have a job--but at all times she is smartly and fashionably dressed. The relationship between Charlotte and Florence is fascinating. Despite the fact that they are roommates, they are as different from each other as can be. Are they childhood friends, or related to one another? Could their living arrangements be due to the Depression? I would have loved to have seen more films with Wray and Farrell playing these characters. (Glenda Farrell of course would go on to star in her own film series as newshound Torchy Blane, a somewhat toned-down version of Florence.)




Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM


The difference between Charlotte and Florence is shown in a scene where, while dressed in sleepwear (this is a Pre-Code movie, after all) they discuss what relationships they prefer. The respectable and proper Charlotte is proud of her pairing with Ralph, despite the fact that he doesn't make a lot of money. Florence just wants a man "with lots and lots of dough".

Charlotte is meant to be the attractive damsel in distress, the object of Lionel Atwill's warped desires. She doesn't have the spunk or the attitude of Florence. One can say that the part of Charlotte is a boring one--Fay Wray doesn't get to spout snappy comebacks the way Glenda Farrell does. But Wray does make Charlotte likable and believable. When Ivan Igor is first introduced to Charlotte, he immediately sees in her the likeness of his lost statue of Marie Antoinette (helped no doubt by a fade in of Wray as the Antoinette statue over Charlotte's image, apparently to make sure all the viewers get the idea). Igor is smitten with Charlotte's beauty, and he tells her this. Wray shows that the young woman is a bit disconcerted by the strange old man's compliments, but she still responds to him with kindness and respect. In all her Scream Queen roles, Wray displayed an innate decency that made her characters incapable of anticipating what lies in store for them.

Wray really gets to shine in the climax of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. She arrives alone at the museum to surprise Ralph. As she walks furtively among the wax exhibits, one gets the feeling that the figures are "staring" at her. (I love how the New York wax museum appears to be set inside what looks like a art deco department store.) Charlotte eventually encounters Igor, and he manoeuvres her down into a magnificent secret laboratory which features a large boiling cauldron of wax. Igor finally reveals his plans to encase Charlotte in wax as a new Marie Antoinette and make her "immortal". Wray lets out one of her incredible screams (nobody could scream like Fay Wray) and she starts beating on Igor's face. The mad sculptor's wax face cracks, showing the horrible burned countenance beneath. Wray's screams, and her reading of the line "YOU FIEND!!" may be overtly melodramatic, but they perfectly fit the situation at hand. Igor shows Charlotte the dead body of his former partner, causing her to faint. This enables Igor to strap Charlotte down to a table and prepare her to be covered in wax. (After Charlotte is strapped down, she is shown covered in a sheet with bare shoulders exposed--giving one the risque impression that her clothes were removed by Igor.) Ralph and the police break in, and Charlotte is saved in time, while Igor is shot and plunges into the wax cauldron.

The final sequence of the film doesn't even feature Charlotte at all--it shows Florence receiving kudos for her story covering the whole affair, and then getting a marriage proposal from her equally sarcastic editor boss (Frank McHugh). Maybe it's just as well that we don't see Charlotte after her experience. A traumatized woman dealing with the after effects of such an ordeal wouldn't have suited the film's cynical nature.

In all honesty Fay Wray is definitely overshadowed by Glenda Farrell in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM--Farrell by far has the better part. Wray does play a true Scream Queen role, but that's nothing to look down on. The term "Scream Queen" may be considered a derogatory term in the 21st Century, but one must shouldn't judge such a role by the standards of today. Wray's damsels in distress never acted silly--they always had a dignity about them. Even Wray's Ann Darrow in KING KONG, whether down-and-out on the streets of New York or running around half-dressed in the jungles of Skull Island, still had a nobility about her. Wray was an exceptionally beautiful woman--in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM she's the beneficiary of some exquisite close-ups--but her Scream Queen characters never came off as vain or arrogant. Fay Wray certainly knew how to scream--but the reason she fit in so well in the horror films she appeared in was due to a kindly and appealing nature which came through to the audience. One can easily understand why Lionel Atwill and Kong longed for her, and why so many others wanted to rescue her.

Fay Wray was much, much more than a Scream Queen....but when she did have to play one, she did it better than almost anyone else before or since.




Thursday, February 28, 2019

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE On Blu-ray From Shout Factory









Shout Factory gives one of Bela Lugosi's best films of the 1940s the Blu-ray treatment with their release of THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE.

This 1943 movie from Columbia has been categorized by some as nothing more than a copy of the Universal horror style. In many ways, though, it's more notable than much of the typical Universal chillers made during the same period. For one thing, it gives Bela Lugosi a decent role as "depraved Romanian scientist" and vampire Armand Tesla. The budget and sets may have been at a B-movie level, but they were still beyond what Bela had to work with at Poverty Row studios like Monogram. THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also throws in a werewolf in the form of Matt Willis (a poor man's Lon Chaney Jr.), and a mature, intelligent female as a heroic Van Helsing type, played by Frieda Inescort. (I was so impressed by Inescort's performance I wrote a blog post on it for a Anti-Damsel Blogathon a few years ago.)

The film also features an attractive, nightgown-clad object of Armand Tesla's desires in Nina Foch, supporting actors (and Universal veterans) such as Miles Mander, Gilbert Emery, and Billy Bevan, an impressive cemetery set, and plenty of fog-shrouded atmosphere. The climax of THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also gives one a much better idea of what really happens to a vampire when it is exposed to the sun than Universal ever did at the time.

Overall, I consider THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE to be one of the better monster movies of the 1940s. It's not perfect--Matt Willis as Andreas the werewolf has a tendency to be somewhat hammy and dopey all at once--but with a 69-minute running time, it doesn't wear out its welcome, and instead of avoiding World War II like most horror films of the time did, it uses the conflict as an important and effective plot point.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE has been around on DVD from Sony for a while now. Shout Factory's Blu-ray is a bit better looking....but I wouldn't say it's outstanding. It's a tad sharper, but there's still some wear. The sound quality is much more vibrant.

The Blu-ray includes three audio commentaries. Three might sound too much for this type of movie...but I think Shout Factory realizes that since this is a black & white film that only lasts 69 minutes, they needed to have something notable to get attention from prospective buyers. Troy Howarth's talk gives a general overview of the production, and he focuses on Bela Lugosi's acting career during the 1940s. Lugosi expert Gary Don Rhodes delves deeper into the making of the film and Bela's life during his commentary. The third discussion features Lee Gambin, who spends most of the time reading from an essay he wrote concerning various 1940s werewolf films and how they relate to THE HOWLING. At times Gambin talks so fast it's hard to understand what he is saying. A trailer for the film and an extensive stills gallery is also included.

One thing I do have to mention--the picture on the back of the Blu-ray case is actually from RETURN OF THE APE MAN! Not only that, but the plot description below the picture gets a fact wrong by claiming actor Roland Varno helped stake Armand Tesla in the beginning of the film, when it was Gilbert Emery instead. Am I nitpicking here? Maybe, but I would expect a company like Shout Factory to get such things right.

Monday, February 25, 2019

THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES







My latest cheap DVD purchase is a 1955 film called THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES, released by American Releasing Corporation (the company that would soon become American International Pictures).

THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES is one of those low-budget black & white science fiction films that has a title and advertising art (see above) that's way more exciting than anything in the picture. Somewhere in California, a mysterious creature has been killing people in the water near a beach located by the Pacific College of Oceanography. We get to see the creature right away, even before the main titles. As a matter of fact, we get too good of a look at this shabby sea serpent--it reminds one of a mascot for a minor league baseball team. The creature is guarding a deposit of uranium ore that has somehow been activated into a weapon by a Professor King (Michael Whalen), who works at Pacific College. (Apparently the Professor has also caused the creature's mutation.) Scientist Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor) arrives to investigate the matter for the U.S. government. A few other killings ensue before Professor King decides to take matters into his own hands.

The biggest problem THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES has is that not much happens in it, other than characters talking to one another (and those characters are not very interesting). There's a subplot about how an unnamed foreign power is after the uranium deposit (this is a movie made during the Cold War, after all), but it doesn't go anywhere. The subplot does involve a batch of superfluous characters, such as Prof. King's noisy secretary and his even more suspicious-acting assistant, who is working for a slinky female spy. These folks are not developed very well, other than being very obviously shady people.

Kent Taylor is okay as Ted Stevens, but he's no Kenneth Tobey. There's an attempt at establishing a romance between Stevens and Prof. King's daughter (played by Cathy Downs, who portrayed the character referenced in the title of John Ford's classic MY DARLING CLEMENTINE), but it's dull and takes up too much screen time. The role of Professor King really needed to be played by someone like John Carradine.

If the movie does have a "highlight", it is the ending, where the Professor tries to destroy the uranium deposit (which now has the ability to blow up ships that pass over it!) and the creature. The climax is slightly reminiscent of the final sequence in the original GOJIRA (though nowhere near as accomplished from a cinematic viewpoint).

The picture was produced and edited by brothers Jack and Dan Milner; Dan Milner is credited as director. The brothers' style, at least in this production, is flat and generic.

What THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES does the most is make one realize how effective Roger Corman was as a filmmaker. Corman was making similar types of films at the same time, but he always found a way to make his stories memorable--through either casting, plot points, outlandish situations, etc. Looking at the poster for THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES is better than sitting through the whole film.