Sunday, December 8, 2019

MALTA STORY








MALTA STORY is a 1953 British WWII drama, dealing with a campaign during the conflict that many may not be familiar with.

The small island of Malta in the Mediterranean was the subject of unrelenting bombing attacks by the Axis powers, due to its serving as a base for British military forces. The story opens in 1942, with a  Royal Air Force transport plane landing on the island in the middle of a heavy bombing raid. One of the passengers, a photo-reconnaissance pilot named Peter Ross (Alec Guinness), is supposed to go on to Cairo on the same plane, but the craft is destroyed while on the runway. The air commander of the island (Jack Hawkins) decides to use Ross to help Malta's beleaguered forces. The bombing of the island becomes more and more intense, and rumors begin of an upcoming invasion by Axis forces. The island's population gets some relief from a few convoys of supplies that barely make it through, while Ross falls for a beautiful Maltese girl (Muriel Pavlov) who works in a RAF operations room.

MALTA STORY is very much a "stiff upper lip" type of war tale that British filmmakers do so well. It is in black & white, and director Brian Desmond Hurst uses a semi-documentary style. There's plenty of real WWII footage spliced into the action, and the production is helped by location shooting on Malta, along with the use of real Spitfires (despite the fact that they are types made after 1942). The movie makes extensive use of models during the air battle sequences, and while these shots do not look realistic today, one must make allowances that this is a 65-year old film.

The movie's low-key, realistic tone extends to the actors and the storyline. Alec Guinness isn't a hot-shot flyboy--he's a soft-spoken photo-recon pilot (and archaeologist in civilian life) who never engages anyone in combat. If MALTA STORY had been a Hollywood film, Guinness' character would have been complaining about being stranded on the island, or he would have been arguing with his superiors, or he would have developed a rivalry with another pilot. None of that happens here--Guinness accepts his fate and gets on with the job, no matter what the circumstances. The only subplot in the movie that seems contrived is one involving Guinness' girlfriend's brother (but according to my research even this character was based on a historical one).

The script takes great pains to show the resiliency and courage of the Maltese people. It does this in a manner that avoids overly dramatic histrionics (although there are times where it seems the civilians are a bit too adjusted to being under a months-long siege). History buffs will appreciate how the movie relates the actual incidents involving the island in the Mediterranean theater of war in a clear and concise manner. (When Guinness has his first meeting with his new CO, Jack Hawkins goes to a map of the area and explains the situation, allowing the audience to understand as well).

Movie buffs will appreciate the supporting acting talent in MALTA STORY. Flora Robson plays the mother of Guinness' girlfriend, and several renowned character actors have very small roles, including Maurice Denham, Gordon Jackson, Geoffrey Keen, Sam Kydd, and Noel Willman.

MALTA STORY is a very good--and very British--WWII tale that doesn't have big moments that factor into other major war epics. The main character isn't a larger-than-life action hero who accomplishes things on his own--he's a quiet professional who is part of a team. The movie also goes against the grain in that it features an unexpectedly downbeat ending.


Tuesday, December 3, 2019

ASSIGNMENT TERROR On Blu-ray From Scorpion Releasing








ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1969) is a truly wild & wacky slice of Euro Gothic, a movie that is something of a cross between HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. I first saw it on "Son of Svengoolie" back in the 1980s. It's a mad movie monster romp, and now the film has been given an official Blu-ray release courtesy of Ronin Flix and Scorpion Releasing.

This production was known as LOS MONSTRUOS DEL TERROR in Spain, and that country was the birthplace of the film's writer and star, Paul Naschy. Horror film legend Naschy first played his signature role of Waldemar Daninsky, El Hombre Lobo, in the 1968 movie LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO, better known in the U.S. as FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR. ASSIGNMENT TERROR was meant to be a follow up to Naschy's werewolf debut.

Naschy (who wrote the script under his real name, Jacinto Molina) not only brought back the werewolf Daninsky, he also included a vampire, a mummy, and a sort-of Frankenstein Monster. He also decided to bring aliens into the plot as well. A group of beings from the planet Ummo are attempting to take over Earth by using legendary supernatural creatures. The small group of aliens, in human form, are led by Michael Rennie (who doesn't have Gort to help him this time around). As expected, the plan goes awry, due to the aliens being influenced by human emotions and the monsters being uncontrollable.

Naschy's script for ASSIGNMENT TERROR was quite ambitious, and the result is that the movie bites off more than it can chew. The production was beset by several difficulties, with multiple directors, budget problems, etc. Naschy sets up a number of promising ideas, but they are never properly carried out. The grey-faced vampire (who is not Dracula--he's referred to here as "Count Janos") isn't particularly threatening, and the green-faced Farancksalan Monster looks like something somebody whipped up for a comedy skit. This film's mummy is actually rather impressive, and he's blessed with the best makeup job out of all the creatures. Naschy is his usual energetic self as Waldemar the werewolf, and he gets to have a tragic romance with a lovely blonde played by Diana Sorel. Naschy also gets to fight both the mummy and the Farancksalan Monster (his battle with the undead Egyptian is very well done).

ASSIGNMENT TERROR featured an international cast--along with Michael Rennie, there's German-born cult actress Karin Dor, and Americans Patty Shepard and Craig Hill. The film should have turned out much better than it did, but it never seems to come together. It has abrupt changes in tone, and the characters discuss incidents that are not shown (one assumes that parts of the script were not filmed to save money). Despite all of its problems, I can't help but have a certain affection for it. It is goofy as all get out, but it's endearingly goofy. Paul Naschy truly loved classic horror cinema, and his enthusiasm for the genre cannot be questioned, even though circumstances many times went against him when he tried to pay tribute to it onscreen. ASSIGNMENT TERROR is a perfect Saturday afternoon or late night monster flick, and it should be judged in that manner. (Naschy's later horror films would be far more brutal and explicit.)

ASSIGNMENT TERROR is getting its official American widescreen home video debut with this Blu-ray (which is listed as Region A). The movie is uncut, and presented in a 2.40:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. This title has had several unlicensed releases, and there's many versions of it on YouTube, but this glorious transfer tops them all. It's quite colorful, and it also brings out the inherent weaknesses of the monster makeups. The Spanish dialogue track is provided in stereo, with English subtitles, along with the English dub track in mono.

There's many extras here, such as multiple alternate opening title sequences, and different trailers (including some from other Paul Naschy horror films). There's an extensive stills gallery, which showcases the many other titles the movie was known as in various countries. The reverse of the cover sleeve features an examination of the film's production history written by Mirek Lipinski.

The most important extra is an audio commentary by Euro Gothic expert Troy Howarth, who is the author of a book on Paul Naschy and his films. Howarth has a lot of ground to cover here, and he does it very effectively. He details the making of the film, the multinational cast, and he even covers Paul Naschy's overall film career. Howarth appreciates the film for what it is, but he also mentions the film's shortcomings without being too critical or sarcastic.

This is a fabulous release, giving an offbeat cult film the prime treatment it deserves. I ordered this Blu-ray direct from Ronin Flix, and I must mention their great service--I received the disc only a few days after I purchased it from the company's website.


Monday, December 2, 2019

THE MANDALORIAN









I finally got to see the first four episodes of the Disney+ series THE MANDALORIAN over Thanksgiving weekend, courtesy of my brother Robert. (For those of you who are wondering, I have not subscribed to Disney+--if any of you would like to purchase it for me, go right ahead.)

THE MANDALORIAN is set in the Star Wars Universe, a few years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI. The series concerns the adventures of a galactic bounty hunter only known as--you guessed it--the Mandalorian (played by Pedro Pascal). The title character is a mysterious, taciturn fellow, and during the first four episodes the viewer is given almost no backstory about him (or her?), except for a few snippets here and there. The show was created by Jon Favreau, and he is the main writer on the early episodes.

Many have compared THE MANDALORIAN to a Western, and while that is apt, I would go further and compare it to a Spaghetti Western. The Mandalorian operates on dry, sparsely populated backwater planets that reminded me of the locations used in many a Euro Western. The title character, while laconic, is also deadly proficient in all sorts of weaponry. He's also quick witted, and the audience never really knows what he's all about--he's definitely influenced by Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. Reinforcing the Spaghetti Western vibe are the many quirky characters the Mandalorian encounters. The eclectic music score for the show, credited to Ludwig Goransson, is more Morricone than John Williams.

I'm not going to get into any plot details of the individual episodes, because I am sure that there will be those reading this post who have not seen the show yet. (If you've been on the internet at all during the past week or so, chances are you know way too much about it already.) I will say that THE MANDALORIAN has plenty of references to Star Wars lore--some obvious, some quite geeky. Episode Four is basically a retelling of the plot of SEVEN SAMURAI, with a bit of SHANE thrown in.

What I most appreciate about THE MANDALORIAN is that it avoids the rushed, overly-edited attitude of today's sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters. The multi-part format allows the show to take time to tell its story (so far the episodes have run about 35-40 minutes each). The more traditional editing style means the viewer also gets a chance to revel in the many impressive visual compositions each show has. While I was on Google looking up a image for this blog post, I saw a headline from The Hollywood Reporter that asked, "Why Is The Mandalorian So Slow?" My response to that is "Why are certain people so dumb?"

The show (so far) has a very "used universe" look and feel to it. This is a galaxy that has just been through a major war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, and things are still very much in flux. There is some CGI, but the show doesn't wallow in it--you never feel as if you are watching a video game.

I'm an original Star Wars fan--I have been obsessed with it since the very first film came out in 1977. THE MANDALORIAN, in my opinion, is a proper Star Wars entry. I'll even come right out and say it has more of a real Star Wars feel to me that either THE FORCE AWAKENS or THE LAST JEDI. When I first heard about the show I thought the main character was going to be nothing more than a Boba Fett clone, but this bounty hunter is much more than that.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

HYSTERIA








I haven't seen every movie made by Hammer Films. There's still plenty of titles that have eluded me, including most of the company's output before they produced THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I was able to partake in a personal Hammer debut last night, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel showed HYSTERIA, a 1965 film written & produced by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Freddie Francis.

HYSTERIA is part of a mini-series of black & white psychological thrillers, usually written by Sangster and directed by Francis, that were made at Hammer in the early 1960s. Other titles in the group include TASTE OF FEAR, PARANOIAC, MANIAC, and NIGHTMARE. The movies were influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO and Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE.

All the Hammer psychological thrillers share the same basic plot device--and if I revealed this plot device, I'd give away the twists for all the people who haven't seen these movies. (So I won't).

I own several books & magazines on Hammer Films, and I don't think I've read a positive review of HYSTERIA in any of them. It's not a bad film, but there's nothing in it that makes it extraordinary--especially if you've seen the other Hammer psychological thrillers (which are much better).

Robert Webber plays an American who is in London recuperating from a car crash. He is suffering from amnesia (the character is referred to as "Chris Smith"). Upon checking out of the hospital, Smith finds out his bills have been paid, and he's been set up in a luxury suite in a large apartment building. Smith's only clue to his past is a torn photo of a fashionable woman (whenever there's a man suffering from amnesia in a movie or a TV show, there's always a mysterious beautiful woman who holds the key to what is going on). Smith tries to track her down, only to be told that she's dead. But he keeps seeing her, and he keeps hearing strange voices while in his apartment--even though the rest of the building is supposedly empty. Of course, there's plenty of things going on that one doesn't expect (unless you've watched and read a lot of mysteries).

HYSTERIA doesn't have the typical Hammer cast. Robert Webber is more of a character actor than a leading man type. I've seen him in a lot of movies and TV shows from the 60s and 70s, and he almost always played a bad guy. He even has that type of vibe here, especially when he starts to "remember" and these thoughts are dramatized to the viewer--they show that Smith is something of a con man. An actress named Lelia Goldoni (who I am not familiar with) plays the "mystery woman", and the fine British character actor Maurice Denham steals the film as an eccentric private investigator who is hired by Smith. English Gothic fans will notice among the supporting cast Peter Woodthorpe (THE SKULL), Sue Lloyd (CORRUPTION), Jennifer Jayne (DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS), and, the man who played the Frankenstein Monster in the Freddie Francis-directed THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, Kiwi Kingston. (I don't wish to be mean, but he doesn't look so good without makeup either.)

What makes HYSTERIA a lesser Hammer entry is that it has a 60 minute plot that is stretched out to about 90 minutes. There's much footage of Robert Webber wandering around, looking puzzled. The scenes of Smith's "past" might be to make the audience doubt the man's intentions, but they also seem to exist to pad the story. Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox give the film a crisp, efficient look, but they're not able to get much suspense out of the script. The best idea in the movie is Smith living all by himself in a modern high-rise apartment complex. Personally I find that more creepy than having to stay in a lonely old house--but the film never really takes advantage of it (I think the main reason for Smith's living arrangements was to keep the budget down). There's also an attempt at a PSYCHO-like shower scene, but it's very underwhelming.

If you are familiar with this type of material HYSTERIA will hold no surprises for you. The main twist is easy to anticipate (at least it was for me). There's another twist at the end that should cause a viewer to rethink what they have just watched, but it just seems tacked on. A more interesting leading man might have helped (Oliver Reed, maybe?). This is probably the least of all of Hammer's psychological thrillers--it gets nowhere near the emotional level of its title.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY On Blu-ray From Severin







WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY is the American name for a 1961 Italian/Austrian production originally titled LYCANTHROPUS. The Euro horror has been given a special Blu-ray release courtesy of Severin Films.

WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY may be a silly title, but it's a memorable one, and it has enabled the film to have a long shelf life. Actually the movie isn't near as lurid as the title makes one expect (if it had been made about ten years later it certainly would have been far more explicit).

The film feels more like a German krimi thriller than a straight horror tale. Like most krimis, it is in black & white, and it's set in contemporary England (even though none of the cast or the locations look remotely English). The story contains murder mystery, science-fiction, and Gothic elements.

A English reformatory (not dormitory) for young girls is beset by a series of gruesome murders. The killings seem to have been perpetrated by a wolf--or was it a werewolf? There's plenty of suspects, all with secrets to hide--the handsome new teacher (Carl Schell), the suave headmaster (Curt Lowens), and the creepy caretaker (Luciano Pigozzi, aka Alan Collins, the "Italian Peter Lorre").

There's also a bevy of young beauties on display, even though the movie doesn't take full advantage of this. The lead female, played by Barbara Lass, takes it upon herself to find out what is going on, which makes her the prime potential victim.

The film's werewolf sports a rather effective makeup, and the increased visual detail on this Blu-ray allows one to get a greater appreciation of it. Director Paolo Heusch (billed as "Richard Benson") presents plenty of atmospheric nighttime sequences, and the original story comes from Eurocult veteran Ernesto Gastaldi.

On the back of this disc cover it is claimed that this transfer of the movie comes from a 2K scan of elements discovered in a Rome lab vault. It is a very good transfer, in anamorphic 1.66:1 screen ratio, and it's much better than the several public domain and YouTube versions of the movie. Two soundtracks are provided: English and Italian (with English subtitles). For some reason the Italian track has a much bolder sound than the English one. The uncut version of the film is presented on this disc, under the title LYCNATHROPUS, with Italian main credits.

Severin has loaded this release with extras, including the U.S. main titles, which includes a snippet of the novelty song "The Ghoul In School". American and Italian trailers are also here, along with a short interview with writer Ernesto Gastaldi, who discusses his work on the story.

This release comes with a CD that contains 30 minutes of the film's original soundtrack music by composer Armando Trovajoli. The spooky score is the perfect thing to play at your next EuroGothic themed party.

The Blu-ray has an audio commentary which was actually recorded for an earlier Retromedia DVD of the film. It features David del Valle with actor Curt Lowens. Lowens enthusiastically discusses his memories of working on the picture, while del Valle keeps wanting to discuss just about everything else. There's also a booklet which reproduces a vintage gallery of stills captioned with lame jokes, in a FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND-style manner. The booklet contains a track listing for the soundtrack CD.

It's nice that Severin decided to give the deluxe treatment to a title that has been the subject of way too many mediocre presentations. The soundtrack CD in particular is a quality bonus. WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY isn't on the Mario Bava level, but's it's a good late-night monster flick.


Thursday, November 21, 2019

BIG CITY BLUES




It's Pre-Code time again with the 1932 Warner Bros. feature BIG CITY BLUES. The film stars Joan Blondell as a--you guessed it--struggling chorus girl, and it has elements of other Pre-Codes the actress starred in such as UNION DEPOT and CENTRAL PARK.

Bud Reeves (Eric Linden) is a callow young man from Indiana who decides to go to New York City to change his life. Upon arrival in the Big Apple he meets up with his cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett), a fast-talking con man. Gibby proceeds to hit Bud up for various "loans", and he introduces him to a couple of chorus girls (Joan Blondell and Inez Courtney). Bud becomes immediately smitten with Blondell's character, who is named Vida (can you blame him?). Gibby cajoles Bud into holding a party in the young man's hotel room. The gathering is fueled by bootleg hooch, and things start getting out of hand when two of the guests (played by Humphrey Bogart and Lyle Talbot, of all people) begin to fight each other over a young lady. The lady in question winds up getting killed as a result of the brawl, and all the party goers--including Vida--scram from the room, leaving Bud on his own. The confused boy roams the city, trying to figure out what to do. He winds up reunited with Vida, and he's also the fortunate recipient of one of those contrived classic movie climaxes.




A striking (though deceptive) poster for BIG CITY BLUES



Even though Joan Blondell gets first billing in BIG CITY BLUES, Eric Linden as Bud gets the majority of the screen time. Unfortunately the character of Bud is so naive it's hard to have much sympathy for him. He's a perfect candidate for the Looney Toons gag where someone turns into a giant lollipop with a wrapper marked SUCKER. It's seems hard to believe that Vida, one of those sassy dames with a heart of gold, would fall for the poor sap, but it is to Blondell's credit that she makes it work.

Warner Bros. Pre-Codes were always filled with unique supporting players, and BIG CITY BLUES is no exception. Along with the enthusiastic Walter Catlett, there's Inez Courtney, Guy Kibbee, and Ned Sparks. During a nightclub sequence African-American actor Clarence Muse (WHITE ZOMBIE, INVISIBLE GHOST) gets to sing. Despite the fact that the entire plot hinges on the fight between their two characters, Humphrey Bogart (in one of his earliest film roles) and Lyle Talbot do not even get billing in the credits. Bogart has little screen time, but he's already displaying a cynical persona.

BIG CITY BLUES is only about an hour long, and director Mervyn LeRoy (who cranked out dozens of Warner movies) keeps thing hopping. There really isn't much to the movie--boy goes to the big city, gets into trouble, goes back home sadder but supposedly wiser. It's not a great Pre-Code, but it does have that classic Warner Bros. vibe.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

MIDWAY








I have to admit that when I first heard about the 2019 film version of MIDWAY, I had serious doubts. Roland Emmerich as the director? Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz? It turns out that the movie is actually a quite accurate and well done interpretation of the events surrounding one of the greatest naval battles of the 20th Century.

This movie's scope goes far beyond the Battle of Midway, which took place in early June, 1942. The script takes into account Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo, and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese side of events is also dramatized in a fair manner, with emphasis on Admiral Yamamoto.

On the American side a number of real military heroes are ably portrayed by an ensemble cast. If there is a leading character it is fighter pilot Dick Best, played by Ed Skrein. The aforementioned Harrelson winds up being effective as Nimitz, with Dennis Quaid as Admiral Halsey and Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle. The legendary film director John Ford is even characterized (Ford was on Midway Island when the Japanese attacked, and he was wounded while filming what was going on).

The Battle of Midway is not an easy one to recreate on screen, since the outcome of the entire clash was the result of timing. Emmerich, writer Wes Tooke, and editor Adam Wolfe manage to give the audience enough information so they can understand what is going on, while at the same time present it in a exciting manner that is easy to follow. A huge amount of CGI is used in the battle scenes, which in this day and age is to be expected. I think for the most part the CGI here worked, but there were a few times when it did feel like watching a video game.

There are some Hollywood-style moments, but they are very few, and there's nothing that I would say pulls you out of movie's time frame. (By the way, this movie has very little in common with the 1976 MIDWAY.) There is also no mythologizing the characters--they are presented as human beings.

The 2019 MIDWAY is fine WWII film with good intentions. I think it can be appreciated by history buffs and those who are not experts on the conflict.