Monday, April 6, 2020

HOUSE OF THE GORGON Wins The Rondo Award For Best Independent Film!




If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know about HOUSE OF THE GORGON--writer-producer-director-star Joshua Kennedy's tribute to the English Gothic, starring four notables of that genre: Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, Martine Beswicke, and Christopher Neame. The movie was filmed in southeast Texas during March of 2018, and it was released on DVD last year.

I had a very small role in the production, both on-screen and off. But there were several talented individuals who had a far bigger hand in it than I did. And the genius behind it all was Josh Kennedy, who overcame many obstacles and setbacks to get what he wanted accomplished.

I'm proud to say that HOUSE OF THE GORGON has won the 2019 Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award for Best Independent Film. Josh's past films have been nominated for Rondos a number of times, but his tribute to the Hammer films he has loved all his life finally enabled him to claim the coveted prize.

The Rondo Awards are produced in conjunction with the Classic Horror Film Board website. They have been awarded since 2002. The aim of the Rondo Award is to honor the best in classic horror research, creativity, and film preservation. There's nothing corporate about these awards--the voting is done by fans all over the world.

I'm pleased to say that I know many artists and writers who have won Rondos--I won't list them all because I know I'm going to leave someone out. The Rondo Award is a huge honor among fans of classic horror & science fiction cinema.

I personally know how much this award means to Josh, and I hope it gets him the respect and attention he deserves. I'm proud to have had a quite small part in the whole thing, but I have more pride for Josh and what he was able to accomplish.

Being involved in HOUSE OF THE GORGON has literally changed my life. I've gotten to know many wonderful people, and be involved in many wonderful events due to it.

The state of the world today is very unsettled. But there is one thing I can guarantee you--the main core behind HOUSE OF THE GORGON will be reunited again for a future production. Josh has a tantalizing idea in mind--I can't reveal the details, but trust me, it's a winner. One thing I've learned from my association with Josh is that if he wants to do something...one way or another, it's going to get done.

Congratulations to all the people involved with HOUSE OF THE GORGON!



Veronica Carlson, yours truly, and Joshua Kennedy during the making of HOUSE OF THE GORGON

Sunday, April 5, 2020

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY On Blu-ray From Shout Factory










In June of 2017, I wrote a blog post on the 1973 film FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY, which was made by Universal Studios for American television. That post was inspired by Sam Irvin's encyclopedic article on the movie for issue #38 of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is a hard film to categorize, since there is nothing really like it. It was originally shown in two parts on TV, and its uncut running time is around three hours. It's a sprawling, ambitious production, filled with major guest stars and impressive technical details. Despite its title, the script deviates greatly from Mary Shelley's famed novel, and presents several new ideas and situations (some which work out better than others).

I viewed FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY for the first time on a bare-bones DVD that had no extras. The DVD also made the film look somewhat pallid. I felt that the title definitely needed a home video upgrade.

Now Shout Factory has come along and given FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY a proper presentation. According to the disc cover, Shout Factory used a new 2K scan of the original film elements, and the picture quality is fantastic, which a rich color scheme that shows off the excellent production design and Arthur Ibbetson's cinematography. The audio, which is in DTS-HD mono, is bold and clear.

This Blu-ray would be a winner on the improved visuals and sound alone, but Shout Factory have also included new extras, involving Sam Irvin and Constantine Nasr. There's interviews with cast members Jane Seymour and Leonard Whiting, who look back fondly on the project. (The duo also reiterate that producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. was the main creative force on the film, not director Jack Smight.) Sam Irvin also sits down for an extensive talk with Don Bachardy, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Isherwood.

Sam Irvin also contributes a full-length audio commentary (Sam really, really loves this film). It is extensive and thorough, and Sam keeps up his energy--and the listener's attention--for the entire three hour running time.

The disc cover features new artwork from the renowned Mark Maddox (the reverse is a reproduction of the mediocre DVD cover).

I wouldn't consider FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY one of the best adaptations of Shelley's tale....but I would call it one of the most unique and interesting. It has some striking sequences, but I feel that at times it bites off more than it can chew. Nevertheless, it does have a fervent following, and those that do appreciate the movie's take on the horror legend, and even those who just want to know what the fuss is about, will enjoy this Blu-ray.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY







Earlier this week TCM showed CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY, a 1970 family-oriented fantasy-adventure made in England. I had never seen the film before.

Even though this movie was released in 1970, it feels like something that should have come out at least ten years before. The success of Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in the mid-1950s started up a near mini-genre made up of cinematic adaptations of stories from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. This combination of Victorian quaintness and science-fiction adventure had run its course by 1970. CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY is something of a throwback considering it was made in the era of EASY RIDER.

This film is not a straight adaptation of any particular Jules Verne story--it is "inspired" by his writings. During the American Civil War, a ship bound for England is heavily damaged by a storm. The passengers rush to the lifeboats, and a small group of them are rescued by men under the command of the imperious Captain Nemo (Robert Ryan). The group is taken aboard Nemo's fantastic submarine, the Nautilus, and transported to a incredible city built 10,000 leagues under the sea. Here Nemo and his followers have created what appears to be an idyllic paradise. Nemo tells the people he has rescued that they must never leave his underwater city--he fears that once back on the surface they will tell the world about his secret society. One of the new captives is an American Senator named Fraser (Chuck Connors), who was on his way to England by orders of the U.S. government. Fraser is determined to escape, but instead of antagonizing Nemo, he gains his trust and friendship. The Senator does get a chance to get away by appropriating the newly built Nautilus II.

CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY has a lot in common with many large-scale family adventure films of the 60s and early 70s--it has impressive technical details and scope, but comes up short in plot and characterization. The production design is visually intriguing, if a bit ostentatious, and the movie takes every opportunity to show it off. Much of the story concerns the rescued characters being shown almost every facet of Nemo's underwater city--so much so that the movie feels like a travelogue. The settings do catch the viewer's eye, but they seem to exist to provide eye candy than to be part of an actual working society. (Speaking of working, the citizens of the underwater city don't seem to do much of it.)

There isn't a lot of conflict in the movie either. The relationship between Nemo and Fraser is far more cordial than that between James Mason's Nemo and Kirk Douglas in the famed Disney adaptation. One of the rescued characters is a sniveling coward who can't stand enclosed places, and he almost succeeds in destroying the place, but he's stopped in the nick of time. There's a couple of English louts who are obsessed with the idea that in Nemo's city, gold is so common it's unimportant. This duo is supposed to be the comic relief, except they're not very funny. The underwater city does have one major threat--a kaiju-like monster who resembles a giant manta ray. The creature is not very well realized, and it winds up getting defeated rather easily.

Robert Ryan was one of the most exemplary all-time movie actors, and he certainly had the strong screen presence for the role of Captain Nemo. Personally I think Ryan just wasn't exotic enough to be the captain. He's good in the role, and he takes the whole project dead seriously, but his Nemo isn't the brooding loner portrayed by James Mason and Herbert Lom. This might be due to the fact that Ryan's Nemo has basically created his own world, and doesn't need to worry about the "real" one. One would expect two manly actors like Ryan and Chuck Connors to set off some sparks, but their characters get along quite well most of the time. Ryan does get a few chances to show Nemo's anger at the state of mankind, but for the most part the captain is quite content here.

If CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY had being made during the height of cinematic Victorian science-fiction fantasy, it might have had a much more notable supporting cast. The main player of interest here is Luciana Paluzzi, who played the bad Bond girl in THUNDERBALL. She gets to have a sort-of romance with Chuck Connors, but due to the family nature of the story, it's very tame.

This film was directed by James Hill, who made one of the most renowned family adventures, BORN FREE. The main writers on the film were the husband and wife team of Pip & Jane Baker, who wrote the Terence Fisher/Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing sci-fi outing NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT. The Bakers also wrote a number of DOCTOR WHO episodes, which this story closely resembles.

If CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY had been made about ten years earlier, and involved someone like George Pal or Bernard Herrmann, it might have more of a reputation. One reason I had never seen it before is that I honestly can't remember it being shown on TV. It apparently wasn't that much of a success when originally released. The main problem with the film is that it meanders about, and doesn't have all that much energy to it. The practical effects--the various models and miniatures--are above average, and the movie doesn't look cheap....but it lacks excitement, and the characters (other than Nemo) are not all that memorable. Certain aspects of this film reminded me of a couple of Japanese fantasy films from Toho Studios: ATRAGON and LATITUDE ZERO. But those two movies are much better, in my opinion. I realize that CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY was geared to younger viewers--but I bet even the kids of 1970 probably found it boring.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

PUSHOVER




A couple nights ago, courtesy of the MOVIES! TV channel, I watched a 1954 film noir called PUSHOVER. The movie starred two of my favorite actresses of all time--Kim Novak and Dorothy Malone. PUSHOVER was in fact Novak's very first credited film role (she gets a "And Introducing" main title credit).

The movie, set in contemporary Los Angeles, opens with a very well-staged, dialogue-free bank robbery. A bank guard is killed, and $200,000 has been stolen. The police begin to shadow the girlfriend of the robbery gang's leader, a gorgeous blonde named Lona (Kim Novak). Detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) goes out of his way to make her acquaintance, and is assigned to the group of men putting Lona under surveillance. Sheridan and Lona are attracted to one another, and the young woman convinces the older cop to kill her boyfriend so they can make off with the stolen loot. Sheridan hatches a plan to do so...but, as is usual in the shadowy world of film noir, things don't go as planned, and Sheridan's troubles get worse and worse.

PUSHOVER has plenty of the expected noir elements--atmospheric black & white photography, rain-slicked streets, and terse dialogue. Fred MacMurray spends most of the story wearing a trench coat and a fedora, and he constantly has a cigarette dangling from his lips. You get the feeling he is asking for it as soon as he starts making the moves on Lona. Obviously MacMurray's role in DOUBLE INDEMNITY comes to mind when watching PUSHOVER. MacMurray's Sheridan is a cynical, dissatisfied cop who has worked too many years for very little pay. He's easy prey for Lona's charms...yet one would think that a middle-aged cop who has seen everything would be a bit more careful about the situation. The problem is, like most noir anti-heroes, Sheridan is not particularly clever--he thinks he's one step ahead of everybody, but he's actually just getting himself in deeper and deeper. MacMurray is best known now for his Disney movies and his role on the family TV show MY THREE SONS, but he was excellent at playing misanthropic jerks.




Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak 



Considering this was her first major film role, Kim Novak comes off well for the most part. She gets several smoldering close-ups, and she's outfitted with a stylish wardrobe. There are times, though, when one senses that the actress is uncomfortable trying to be a seductive temptress. Early on in the movie she tries to put a husky accent on her voice--thankfully she doesn't do this for the entire running time. Novak's Lona seems more like a nervous young girl than a hard-bitten dame (probably due to the fact that this was Novak's first real film part).

PUSHOVER has a subplot involving Sheridan's stakeout partner (Phil Carey) and his interest in Lona's next-door apartment neighbor, an attractive nurse (Dorothy Malone). One could say that Carey and Malone are the "nice couple" counterpart to Sheridan and Lona. Malone's role becomes more important during the climax. Malone is dark-haired here--later in her career she would go blonde and play a number of roles very much like Lona. It's interesting to imagine an alternate version of PUSHOVER with Malone as Lona and Novak as the friendly nurse.

PUSHOVER was made by Columbia and directed by Richard Quine, who uses a stick-to-the-facts semi-documentary style. At one point Lona goes off in her car, and Sheridan tails her...and I automatically thought of a sequence in VERTIGO where James Stewart also follows Kim Novak around in a car. I was reminded of Hitchcock again in the scenes where the cops spy on Novak (and Carey watches Malone) in her apartment from across the courtyard--they bear a certain resemblance to scenes in REAR WINDOW.

I wouldn't call PUSHOVER a brilliant example of film noir--it's fairly easy to figure out what is going to happen in it. It does happen to be a proficiently made film with an engaging cast.




Saturday, March 21, 2020

SON OF A SAILOR





This month Turner Classic Movies is showcasing classic film comedian Joe E. Brown. One of his films the channel showed was SON OF A SAILOR, a 1933 title made by Warner Bros. The major reason I watched it was for the fact that Thelma Todd is in it...but honestly, I could have just skipped it.

Joe E. Brown was quite prolific in the 1930s, although looking at him from a 21st Century perspective it's hard to figure out why. He usually played a goofy, naive rube, and his films almost always took advantage of his athletic talent. He had co-starred with Thelma Todd in the bizarre 1931 movie BROADMINDED, which I wrote a blog post on a few years back. (I went into Brown's screen persona in that post a bit more as well.)

BROADMINDED is a truly weird Pre-Code, but it's far more entertaining than SON OF A SAILOR. As one expects from the title, Brown plays an ordinary member of the U.S. Navy named Handsome Callahan (I assume the "Handsome" moniker was meant to be sarcastic). Callahan has a habit of telling tall tales, and this constantly gets him into trouble. While on shore leave Callahan gets involved with an retired admiral's granddaughter, and a couple of spies who are after a device that can fly planes by remote control. Callahan bumbles his way through it all, and winds up getting promoted for his troubles.

Even at his best, Joe E. Brown is something of an acquired taste. In SON OF A SAILOR, he plays an annoying guy who is a braggart to boot....and here he just isn't funny (at least to me). The most interesting part of the story is the beginning, which was filmed on an actual ship, the USS Saratoga. Military buffs will appreciate seeing vintage naval activities, and the ship's layout allows director Lloyd Bacon to use a few off-beat camera setups. Once Brown gets off-ship, the movie slows to a crawl (it seems longer than its 74 minute running time). Brown's constant attempts to get dates with women onshore (by using variations of the same hackneyed story) come off as creepy instead of amusing.

Brown winds up running into the retired admiral's daughter (actually, she literally runs into him, with a car), and he gets invited to the admiral's fancy house party. It's there that Thelma Todd finally makes her first onscreen appearance, halfway into the film. She plays a character called "The Baroness", and she and the man who is her escort are planning to still the plans for the remote control flying device. Thelma sports dark hair for this role--apparently to make her look more exotic (even though she doesn't act or sound all that exotic). The only thing Thelma gets to do is spend a short sequence trying to distract Brown by coming onto him. It's the type of vamp role Thelma did several times in her short career, and the movie doesn't take proper advantage of her talents, despite the fact that she gets prominent billing in the credits and on the advertisements for the movie that I have seen.




Joe E. Brown and Thelma Todd in SON OF A SAILOR


Movie buffs (and John Ford fans) will notice Ward Bond and Jack Pennick in small roles, and the ubiquitous Samuel S. Hinds plays the retired admiral.

Even for a military comedy, SON OF A SAILOR is mediocre. Joe E. Brown does get to participate in a comedic boxing match, but the result is nowhere near as entertaining as similar sequences featuring other movie comics such as Buster Keaton, Abbott & Costello, and The Three Stooges. Thelma Todd fans will be disappointed by her small role here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

PAROLE INC.




Today's YouTube public domain theater entry is a cheap 1948 noir entitled PAROLE INC. One of the companies behind the movie was Eagle-Lion, formerly known as Producers Releasing Corporation.

The only notable thing about PAROLE INC. is that it stars Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers, two veterans of the Universal monster movie series. (Bey and Ankers had in fact already played a romantic couple in Universal's THE MAD GHOUL.) The duo are cast against type here--Bey is a shady lawyer with the unique name of Barney Rodescu, and Ankers is his girlfriend Jojo, who happens to run a diner that is the front for illegal activities.

The movie begins with a man swathed in bandages, laying in a hospital bed while dictating into a recorder. The man is a federal agent named Richard Hendricks (Michael O'Shea), and he is detailing a series of recent events. Hendricks was sent to an unnamed state to investigate misuse of the parole board. Disguising as a wanted man, Hendricks finds out that lawyer Barney Rodescu has paid off members of the parole board to get convicts off that he can use for his own purposes. Hendricks stops Rodescu's schemes, but not without cost (after all, the guy is laid up in the hospital).

PAROLE INC. was directed by Alfred Zeisler, who helmed the 1946 FEAR (which I covered a few posts ago). FEAR had a few unusual elements to it, but PAROLE INC. is directed in a very perfunctory manner. Hendricks' dictation turns into a full-length narration, and while this provides plenty of plot info, Michael O'Shea's somewhat generic recitation of it doesn't help matters. O'Shea was in one of the most famous public domain movies, LADY OF BURLESQUE. In that one he spent most of the time annoying Barbara Stanwyck, and in PAROLE INC. he still seems to have a smart-aleck type of manner.




Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers in PAROLE INC.


Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers might have been happy to get out of the Universal thriller rut, but I doubt that they were too thrilled about being in PAROLE INC. Bey doesn't get all that much screen time, but he does make a different kind of B movie crime boss--erudite, classy, and sinister. Evelyn Ankers gets more screen time as Jojo, and she gets to do things such as act drunk, and flirt with Hendricks to try and get information out of him. It's not the usual type of role for Ankers, but she still winds up acting very ladylike (when she realizes that Hendricks is going to get it, she looks like she's about to let out one of her old Universal screams).

The only other notable actor in PAROLE INC. is Poverty Row veteran Lyle Talbot, who plays the local police commissioner (a few years earlier, he probably would have played the role of Hendricks).

The reason I watched PAROLE INC. was because Evelyn Ankers and Turhan Bey were in it. In all honesty this movie doesn't give them all that much more of a showcase than the Universal programmers they each appeared in. But it is nice to see Evelyn get to stretch her talents, even though she's probably the most proper bad girl in B movie history.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE




In the late 1980s, a purchased a book called MORE CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM. It was written by esteemed film historian William K. Everson. This volume was a follow-up to Everson's CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM, one of the very first movie books I ever bought.

In MORE CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM, there is a chapter entitled "Horror As a Bonus--Horror in the Non-Horror Film". In that chapter Everson examined a number of films from the early to mid-20th Century that were not considered straight horror features, but nevertheless had elements of the genre. One of the films the author mentioned was a 1932 RKO production entitled SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE. Sometime in the early 1990s, I saw this movie on the AMC TV channel (back when AMC actually showed classic movies).

My long-ago AMC viewing was the only time I had seen SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE, until TCM showed it this weekend. It's a wild pre-code potboiler which has enough plot for two movies, despite the fact that it runs a little less than an hour.

In contemporary Paris, a mysterious Russian named Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) is scheming to take control of the Romanov fortune. He intends to pass off a poor flower girl (Gwili Andre) as Anastasia, the young daughter of the Czar who supposedly survived the massacre of her family. Moloff's plot is stopped by cunning and determined French police investigator (Frank Morgan).

The basic plot description is simple, but the way the actual movie plays out is decidedly not. SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE throws out a number of confusing strands that eventually come together. There's various violent deaths, intricate police procedure, and the evil Moloff's activities, which include taxidermy, scientific experimentation, and a personal hobby of turning some of his victims into statues and displaying them in his home.

Some of the sets used in RKO's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME show up in SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE, as do some of the costumes. Gregory Ratoff's Moloff could easily be a cousin of Count Zaroff. He could also be related to Bela Lugosi. Ratoff gets a few Bela-like closeups, and his Moloff also happens to be a master of hypnotism. Ratoff even recites his lines in a very slow and deliberate manner, much like Lugosi would at times. If Lugosi had played Moloff, SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE would be far more renowned among film geeks today.




Gwili Andre in SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE



The willowy Gwili Andre makes a very fetching damsel in distress, although it's hard to believe in her as a poor flower girl. Future Wizard of Oz Frank Morgan is surprisingly serious and determined as police official St. Cyr. Morgan does do some of his patented eccentric old man act when his character is undercover and in disguise. Morgan's St. Cyr would have been a great candidate for a detective film series of his own.

SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE moves along at a rapid pace, and it has many clever ideas...but this is an example of a movie that isn't long enough. The climax in particular seems very rushed, and it doesn't have the effect that it should. One wants to know more about Moloff and his bizarre actions (his manor house in Paris feels like an old castle, and it comes with secret rooms and a underground laboratory). There's some definite Pre-Code kinkiness in the subplot of Moloff turning women into statues (at one point it appears one of his victims is naked). Moloff even intends to do the same thing to Gwili Andre at the end.

SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE was directed by Edward Sutherland, who is better known for his comedy films, including several with W. C. Fields. (He also had a short marriage with Louise Brooks.) Sutherland indulges in a number of atmospheric camera set-ups, and he would soon get a chance to helm an even wilder Pre-Code horror, the notorious MURDERS IN THE ZOO with Lionel Atwill.

If you get a chance, check out SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE. It's an unusual Pre-Code thriller which tries to do too much in about an hour, but that's better than not doing enough.