Sunday, January 19, 2020

THE HELLBENDERS On Blu-ray From Kino









Kino Lorber has put out another series of Euro Westerns on Region A Blu-ray, including THE HELLBENDERS, released in 1967 and produced by Albert Band and directed by Sergio Corbucci. The film is also known as THE CRUEL ONES and I CRUDELI.

Soon after the end of the Civil War, a Union convoy carrying nearly a million dollars of cash is attacked by Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotten) and his three sons. The embittered colonel plans to use the money in a mad scheme to resurrect the Confederacy. The Colonel and his sons travel west, with the money placed in a coffin. Jonas tells all those they encounter that the coffin contains the body of his son-in-law, killed in battle, and he coerces a saloon girl (Norma Bengell, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES) to pose as the grieving widow. The group has to trick their way through Union patrols, trusting townspeople, Mexican bandits, and Native Americans to try and get to their destination--but their biggest obstacles are each other.

THE HELLBENDERS is probably best known for Ennio Morricone's mournful original music score (which I am listening to on vinyl as I write this). Morricone's music (which is credited to "Leo Nichols" on the movie's main titles) perfectly fits the somber mood of the story. This isn't a rip-roaring, wild action-packed tale. It has a downbeat tone, with the only sympathetic character being Norma Bengell's Claire. Colonel Jonas and his sons are not the type of people you want to take a long trip with. The youngest son, Ben (Julian Mateos) seems to have doubts about his father's unrealistic plan, and he falls for Claire, but in the end his loyalty to his family still takes precedence over everything else.

Joseph Cotten might seem out of a place in a spaghetti western, but he gives a fully committed and deadly serious performance as Colonel Jonas. Despite his frequent references to the Almighty, Jonas is a cold-blooded and unyielding individual who will stop at nothing in his futile quest to re-establish "The Cause". The Colonel has to know that all he's really doing is driving his entire family to destruction--but with the defeat of his beloved Confederacy maybe that's what he actually wants to do in the first place.

Sergio Corbucci and cinematographer Enzo Barboni (who would later direct the original TRINITY films) give THE HELLBENDERS an expansive look, with many fine compositions. (In his audio commentary Alex Cox points out that the film has very few interior scenes.) The movie also features spaghetti western legends Aldo Sambrell and Al Mulock in small but important roles. THE HELLBENDERS is a very well made picture, and it's nowhere near as crazed as many Euro Westerns. But the setup is unusual--the Colonel and his sons would be supporting villains in most other movies, and here they are the main characters. There is a climatic twist that makes the Colonel get exactly what he deserves.

Kino presents THE HELLBENDERS in 1.85:1 widescreen, with a colorful and clear transfer. The only audio option is the English track, where thankfully Joseph Cotten dubbed his own voice.

The only extra, other than a collection of trailers for other Euro Westerns released by Kino, is an audio commentary by director Alex Cox. Cox is an expert on Euro Westerns, and his talk is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Cox gives an effective analysis of Sergio Corbucci's style, and he even suggests that THE HELLBENDERS might even be called a masterpiece.

I wouldn't rate THE HELLBENDERS that highly, but it is a well done and unique Euro Western, and it features one of Ennio Morricone's best scores.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

1917










1917 is a brilliantly crafted and very riveting film. If I had seen it in December, I would have named it my favorite movie of 2019.

Director and co-writer Sam Mendes takes the relatively simple story of two British soldiers tasked to deliver an important message through enemy lines on the Western Front in World War One and makes it into a visual epic. The movie has extraordinary production design and meticulous background detail, which allows the viewer to fully experience the mud, blood, gore and devastation of the Great War.

The main star of 1917 is not any of the actors performing in it--it is the redoubtable cinematographer Roger Deakins, who provides a wealth of stunning images.

Much has been made of how 1917 is meant to look as if it is all one continuous shot. I honestly don't think the film needed to be produced in this way...it still would have been powerful without it. But I believe that Sam Mendes wanted to show how, for the regular soldier in any war, the conflict never really stops. Once you are well into watching the movie you don't even notice the effect (at least, I didn't). The only people that might be distracted by the lack of cuts are those who watch nothing but overly-edited action movies.

For all of 1917's visual splendor, it must be pointed out that the actors playing the two main characters, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, acquit themselves very well. The film also features cameos by Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

There are many who have compared 1917 to Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK. There is some justification in this--both films are about ordinary 20th Century British soldiers who face overwhelming obstacles in France. Some have said that 1917 is like DUNKIRK due to the fact that technical virtuosity outweighs characterization. 1917 and DUNKIRK are not meant to be nuanced character studies, they are films designed to enable audiences to experience incredible historical circumstances. 1917's story could have easily been told without any dialogue at all.

I'm not very much influenced by any modern movie awards, but 1917 deserves any prizes it gets. It absolutely is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.




Friday, January 17, 2020

DEMONS OF THE MIND









One of the latest Shout Factory Hammer Blu-ray releases is DEMONS OF THE MIND, a film produced in 1971. This was one of the few Hammer movies I had not yet seen, until I purchased the Blu-ray. It doesn't have the most sterling reputation, and it is a downbeat, puzzling, and at times disturbing affair. But it also looks much more stylish and expansive compared to most Hammer titles made during the same period.

Those wanting a comprehensive history of the film are encouraged to read issue #31 of Richard Klememsen's magazine LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS, which gives all the information one would want to know about it. The original story came from the film's producer Frank Godwin and screenwriter Christopher Wicking, and it was called BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD. Godwin convinced Hammer it was based on an old Bavarian legend (it wasn't). The original story contained a werewolf subplot, which Hammer asked to be removed.

As usual with any script written by Christopher Wicking, the story is at times hard to follow, with various characters and incidents popping in and out which seemingly have little to do with the main plot. In 1830s Bavaria, a Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his young son and daughter (Shane Briant and Gillian Hills) under lock & key at his vast remote estate. The Baron is being treated and advised by a strange doctor named Falkenberg (Patrick Magee). The Baron is convinced that he and his children are cursed by their hereditary bloodline. Meanwhile, a number of young girls from the nearby village have been murdered. Dr. Falkenberg believes that Zorn's condition results from "demons of the mind"--mental illness. The Doctor is right, but not in the way that he thinks.

It's hard to give an accurate synopsis for DEMONS OF THE MIND, simply because there are so many confusing elements in the picture. The script touches upon sexual aberration, incest, child abuse, mental instability, and the conflict between science and superstition. Needless to say, this is not a fun Saturday afternoon monster flick. Despite the Gothic trappings, it is very adult, with much blood and nudity. I haven't even touched upon Paul Jones (the former lead singer of Manfred Mann), who plays the movie's apparent male hero. (In the best Hammer tradition, the young male romantic lead doesn't accomplish very much.) And I haven't yet mentioned distinguished British actor Michael Hordern, who plays a mad, mumbling assumed priest who wanders in and out of the tale. The movie has a number of byways that might have been interesting on their own, but they never really coalesce into a satisfying whole.

Nevertheless, DEMONS OF THE MIND does have an impressive visual style to it, due to the direction of Peter Sykes and the cinematography of Arthur Grant. Sykes makes great use of actual locations, such as Wykehurst Place, which stood in for the Baron's manor. The forest in good old Black Park near Pinewood was used once again in a Hammer film, but somehow in DEMONS OF THE MIND it seems fresh and subtly different. This film doesn't have the cramped and cut-rate look of SCARS OF DRACULA or HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN.

DEMONS OF THE MIND also does not have the typical Hammer cast. Producer Frank Godwin didn't want to use the usual Hammer actors. He was even thinking of a big mainstream name to play the Baron, such as James Mason or Paul Scofield. Robert Hardy wasn't on their level, and his portrayal of the Baron has come under criticism. Hardy does seem at times to be a bit hammy, and the Baron's actions do seem rather inconsistent, but it has to be said that the character is mentally unstable. (Personally, I think John Carson would have made a great Baron Zorn.) The idiosyncratic Patrick Magee, as expected, steals every scene as Dr. Falkenberg (Magee would have made a great Baron too). The film's best performance is given by Shane Briant in his Hammer debut as the Baron's son, a confused man-child. English Gothic veterans Kenneth J. Warren and Virginia Wetherell have small but important roles, and the aforementioned Michael Hordern gets attention with his showy part, even though it seems his character wandered into the story from another movie.

DEMONS OF THE MIND didn't make much money or get much attention during its original theatrical release. For years it was one of the most obscure Hammer horrors--I never remember it being shown on commercial or even cable TV in my area. The movie's reputation seems to have grown a bit over the years. I wouldn't say I loved the movie after seeing it for the first time....but I was more impressed with it than I thought it would be. It's not a cheesy horror flick, it is a serious, adult Gothic drama that is sometimes hard to follow. A better structured script, and perhaps a more assured lead performance might have made the film one of the better Hammer productions of the early 1970s. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH









During my teenage years I went through an Agatha Christie phase, where I started reading most of her novels. I also started watching the various movie and TV adaptations of her work. I haven't watched all the adaptations--especially the television ones, because there's been so many of them.

The all-time best movie based on the work of Agatha Christie, in my opinion, is still the 1974 MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Albert Finney played Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in that story. DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) and EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982) followed, with Peter Ustinov playing Poirot in both features.

Ustinov also played Poirot in three American TV movies made in the 1980s (unfortunately these stories were also set in the 1980s, and have very little of the Christie touch to them). The actor appeared as the character for the last time in the 1988 theatrical film APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH.

I had never seen APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH. For some reason (I assume rights issues) the movie is not available on American home video. I recently discovered that I had access to it through Xfinity OnDemand. It was a dud at the box office, and it has been stated on a few sources that the production was a total bomb.

The movie is based on the 1938 Christie novel of the same name. I'm sure I read that novel long ago, but I certainly don't remember the exact details of it. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed that the movie's script and the book are almost exactly the same (which is quite rare when it comes to Christie adaptations).

The story revolves around the Boynton family, which is under the thumb of their stepmother, the overbearing Mrs. Boynton (Piper Laurie). After inheriting her late husband's fortune (due to blackmailing the family lawyer into burning a second will), the woman demands that the entire family take a trip to Europe and the Middle East. While in British-held Palestine, the family encounters the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (this should immediately tip anyone off to the fact that someone's going to wind up dead). Mrs. Boynton winds up offending nearly everybody, which leaves plenty of suspects when she is found dead. As expected, Poirot manages to figure it all out.

APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH with made by the Cannon company, who were best known for their 1980s cheesy action flicks. The movie was co-written, produced, and directed by Michael Winner, who had made plenty of violent thrillers of his own, including the original DEATH WISH. The idea of Cannon and Michael Winner making an Agatha Christie movie seems a bit strange, but the mystery author's name has always gotten attention from audiences.

The final result isn't the bomb that some have said it was. It's not an ineptly made film--it uses many picturesque Israeli locations, the costume design is well done, and Winner does try to inject some mild visual flair. The story, however, is a bit too easygoing and basic. There's no sense of dread or menace. There's only two murders in the entire film, and Mrs. Boynton gets offed not until 45 minutes in. The characters are the predictable types one finds in nearly every classic murder mystery--greedy stepmother, arrogant aristocrat, duplicitous lawyer, etc. There's plenty of fine actors here, but the roles are so simple that none of the performers really get a chance to shine. The only edge in the story is provided by Piper Laurie as Mrs. Boynton.

The other major members of the cast are Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Carrie Fisher, Hayley Mills, Jenny Seagrove, and David Soul. An interesting group, but not as star-studded as most big-screen Christie adaptations. (Bacall and Gielgud were both in the '74 MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.) Peter Ustinov appears somewhat tired in his last go-round as Poirot, but he does get to make a few humorous observations. He also has an unerring ability to be in the right place and in the right time to overhear vital conversations (one of the characters in the story even tells him this).

APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH is an okay film, but there's nothing really about it that makes it stand out from all the many other Agatha Christie adaptations. It's a very standard murder mystery, and it's perfect for those who want to relax and wind down for 100 minutes.


Sunday, January 5, 2020

OLD DRACULA






One of the non-political things trending the most on the internet this week has been the new BBC TV adaptation of DRACULA. I haven't seen any of it yet--from what I've heard about it, I'd probably just be whining and moaning over it.

I did happen to view another radical interpretation of Bram Stoker's iconic character this weekend--a 1974 British film which is titled OLD DRACULA in the United States. (The British title is VAMPIRA.) The American title attempted to cash in on the success of Mel Brooks' magnificent YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. OLD DRACULA isn't anywhere near YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as a comedy, or as an overall film.

Count Dracula is played by David Niven, and the late 20th Century hasn't been too kind to him. He has opened up his castle in Transylvania to tourists, and his beloved wife, Countess Vampira, has been in a state of suspended animation for 50 years, due to taking the blood of a "poisoned peasant". A group of four Playboy playmates comes to the castle for a photo shoot, and the Count, with the help of his manservant, takes blood samples from each of the girls, hoping that one will be the proper match to revive Vampira. One of the playmates is African-American, and in the process of revival Vampira herself turns black (and is now played by Teresa Graves). The Count isn't really put off by this, but still decides to try and turn Vampira back to her original state by flying to England and getting more blood from the playmates. Various complications ensue, until Dracula and his wife become compatible in an unexpected way.

OLD DRACULA was written by one-time LAUGH-IN regular Jeremy Lloyd. I have a feeling Lloyd wasn't much of a English Gothic fan, for the while the story has plenty of opportunities to spoof the genre, it avoids this and instead goes for plenty of labored gags. There's a number of lines about "getting a bite" and "having a drink", but nothing that makes you laugh out loud. The script also doesn't seem to know at times if it really is an all-out comedy.

The story also doesn't know how to portray Dracula. David Niven plays the Count as "David Niven"--a charming, upper-class English fellow who reacts to everything with a knowing bemusement. (Niven's Dracula is about as Eastern European as Clint Eastwood.) There's no sense of menace from Niven's Count, even when he is supposed to be menacing. At times it feels as if the movie wants the viewer to sympathize with the Count, such as when he takes a wistful stroll through nighttime London and winds up saving a young woman from a mugging (the woman is played by Carol Cleveland, known for her work with Monty Python). But this Count also winds up lowering one of the main characters into a rat-infested well. We don't know whether to think of this Count as a joke, or mildly amusing, or a sad old man whose time has passed.

The British title of this film, VAMPIRA, is quite apt, since Teresa Graves is the most charismatic person in the film, and gets to play the most interesting character. Her revived Countess is hot-to-trot, and she's quite willing to partake in all that the culture of the 1970s has to offer. She even goes to see a Jim Brown movie! She also gets to call Dracula a "jive turkey", certainly the first (and no doubt the last) time that Stoker's Count has been given this label. The movie would have done much better to focus on her.



Teresa Graves as Vampira


The supporting cast of OLD DRACULA has plenty of geek culture notables, with featured roles for three Hammer-connected actresses--Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA), Jennie Linden (NIGHTMARE), and Veronica Carlson (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE). Hayden is bitten by Dracula--and subsequently dispatched by him--within the first fifteen minutes of the film. Linden plays a non-comedic role as a woman organizing the playmates photo shoot (she's the one who gets lowered in the rat-infested well). Veronica is one of the playmates, but other than looking gorgeous as usual, she gets very little to do, and her lovely voice is even dubbed over. One would think that with two actresses who had starred in other Dracula movies in the cast, some sort of in-joke would have referenced this, but it never happens. (Luan Peters, who appeared in a few Hammer films, also shows up here for literally a few seconds.)

Freddie Jones, another Hammer veteran, also appears--he's sitting next to the Count and his wife while they are in an airplane flying to London. Jones wears a horrible toupee, and he's using an American accent--at first I didn't even recognize him. Bernard Bresslaw also has a small role.

OLD DRACULA doesn't appear to have a low budget--in fact it appears to have more money spent on it than most "real" horror movies made around the same period. It's competently directed by Clive Donner, but instead of being funny or entertaining, it comes off as weird and strange. The climax features a disco party in which shots of people dancing go on...and on...and on. The ending also has David Niven wind up in blackface, of all things....and then the end credits show more of Vampira dancing the night away (which is maybe just as well, since she steals the film).

OLD DRACULA does prove that no matter what people say about any new adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, there's been plenty of bizarre things done to the Count over the years. It's not an unwatchable mess, but it is one of those "What the heck were they thinking when they made it??" movies. The blaxplotation elements surrounding Teresa Graves as Vampira might make a few folks cringe in today's world, but if the script had gone all out in that direction, it might have been more memorable.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

CRUCIBLE OF HORROR








CRUCIBLE OF HORROR is the American title for this 1969 British production. In England it was released as THE CORPSE. The American title makes one expect a blood & thunder Gothic chiller--but it is actually a contemporary psychological suspense tale.

CRUCIBLE OF HORROR centers around the Eastwood family. Walter, the father, (played by Michael Gough) is a very uptight and fastidious businessman who mentally and physically abuses his wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) and teenage daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney). Son Rupert (Simon Gough, the real-life son of Michael) takes after his father. The Eastwood women conspire to kill Walter, and while he is off on a hunting trip, the ladies surprise him at the family cottage and appear to poison him. But Walter seemingly isn't dead--or is it that the Eastwood women are so emotionally scarred that they have no idea what is real and what isn't?

This movie is not filled with gory or violent shocks. It's a story that takes its time, with director Viktors Ritelis building up the relationships in the dysfunctional Eastwood family. Much of the first part of the film consists of some painfully awkward family dinners (these sequences have a darkly humorous edge to them as well). Daughter Jane appears to be rebelling against her father's controlling behavior, while wife Edith appears to have all the life sucked out of her--she moves about like a zombie when she's not hiding away and creating disturbing artwork. The elder Eastwood is totally in charge, a man who expects things to be done exactly the way he wants them (he's the type of person who still wears a suit and tie even while at home after a day's work).

One would expect an actor like Michael Gough to really go to town with a character like Walter Eastwood, but this isn't the wild and wacky Gough we've seen in the Herman Cohen flicks. Gough as Walter is cold, cynical, and incisive, without going off the rails. Walter Eastwood is far more threatening than Gough's usual horror movie characters because he's a person that could actually exist. This is one of Michael Gough's best film performances.

CRUCIBLE OF HORROR might be frustrating to first-time viewers, because there is plenty of ambiguity in the second half of the story. If you like movies that make perfect absolute sense, this one is not for you. I'm not going to reveal how the movie ends, and even if I did, how one sees the ending depends on one's interpretation of it. For me personally, I felt that since most of the story is seen through the eyes of Edith and Jane, one must not take at face value what they think they are experiencing--these are two women who have serious mental issues. But that's just my way of analyzing it.

While doing research on this film I came across a few reviews that suggested that it had a feminist slant to it. One could certainly come to that conclusion, especially from a 21st Century viewpoint. I found it to be an effective example of how much damage one family member can do to others, without the presentation having to go to extremes. We all love Michael Gough's more outlandish film portrayals, but CRUCIBLE OF HORROR shows just how fine of an actor he really was.

*NOTE: Simon Gough and Sharon Gurney married each other in real life.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Top Five Blu-rays Of 2019









Time once again to list my top five Blu-rays of the year (no DVDs this time).

This is the eighth year in a row I have done a list like this, so, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the drill. All the entries in this list had to have been released in the calendar year, and they are all ones I have purchased.

There's no point in going into my annual "I spend way too much money on movies" rant. There were a number of notable releases I did not get, such as the Criterion Godzilla set and the Shout Factory Abbott & Costello set.

Speaking of Shout Factory, I bought so much of their product this year they should just give me the Abbott & Costello set. In my last post I mentioned how many of the company's Hammer releases I bought, and they had a number of enticing Universal products as well. Shout Factory makes this list with a non-Hammer title.

1. WAR AND PEACE from Criterion
A mammoth, four-part, 422 minute Soviet epic based on the Leo Tolstoy novel.  Sergei Bondarchuk's grand combination of the majestic and the intimate was one I had never seen before. I wrote a full post on it in July.

2. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD from Kino
It seems like every year a Mario Bava release winds up on this list. Kino does justice to Bava's phantasmagorical adventure by providing three different versions of the film, all based on a gorgeous looking print. I wrote a post on it in October.

3. L'ARGENT from Flicker Alley
A stupendous 1928 silent production from France, this is a film I literally had no knowledge of. It's a sweeping tale of greed and power, with the added bonus of a wonderfully sultry performance from the mysterious beauty of METROPOLIS, Brigitte Helm. I extensively covered it in September.

4. THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB from Film Movement
I didn't get around to writing a full post on this, but I should have. It's a two-film colorful action adventure story set in a fantastical version of India. The films were made in the late 1950s, and they were directed by Fritz Lang. They are sort of a throwback to the large-scale super productions Lang made in Germany during the silent era. I had never seen these, and both films are entertaining, if a bit on the slow side (they also have no humor whatsoever). Both films look spectacular on this release (star Debra Paget in particular looks unbelievably stunning). Film Movement went all out to provide a proper showcase for this pair of films.

5. THIS ISLAND EARTH from Shout Factory
There are any number of Shout Factory releases I could have put on this list, but I chose this one, simply because this science-fiction classic deserved the special treatment it got on this release. I wrote a full post on it in July.