Wednesday, October 30, 2013
For this Halloween post I've decided to do something a little different. Instead of listing the greatest monsters, what about a list of those that battle the monsters? To qualify, a performer has to have fought monsters in more than one feature film. Surprisingly, there's not very many actors who have done that. I realize that this list is skewed more toward classic cinema, but if I concentrated on modern films, I'd wind up listing people like Brendan Fraser.
I'm not ranking my choices....but I think we can all agree who belongs on top.
THE greatest monster fighter of all time....certainly the greatest vampire hunter of all time, hands down. He also fought the Mummy, the Daleks, the Blood Beast Terror, a race of Abominable Snowmen, the Hound of the Baskervilles, and a couple of werewolves. Faced off against extra-terrestrial enemies in NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT and HORROR EXPRESS. Dealt with subterranean creatures in AT THE EARTH'S CORE. And don't forget, whenever he played Baron Frankenstein, he usually wound up fighting the very monsters he created.
The greatest American monster fighter of all time. Battled the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the giant spider of TARANTULA. Faced off against the Mole People and the Brain from Planet Arous. Dealt with the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Invaders. Encountered a "giant" in ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE and an alien intelligence in JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET.
Will always be remembered for his iconic role in the original THE THING. Also came up against a giant octopus in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and a dinosaur in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Tobey was the ultimate example of a monster-fighting military man. Whenever I see him in a movie or a TV show, and he's not wearing a uniform, he looks strange.
EDWARD VAN SLOAN
The original Dr. Van Helsing. He faced off against Karloff in THE MUMMY and FRANKENSTEIN. The silver screen's classic archetype of a monster fighter.
BUD ABBOTT & LOU COSTELLO
Yes, Abbott and Costello. They battled Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy. They dealt with a giant in JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. And they get extra credit for opposing Lionel Atwill in PARDON MY SARONG, Lon Chaney Jr. in HERE COME THE CO-EDS, and Boris Karloff in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF.
Masked Mexican luchador El Santo fought all sorts of supernatural creatures including vampires, mummies, werewolves, zombies, etc., during his second career as a movie star.
No explanation necessary.
Honorable Mention: Akira Takarada, Kerwin Mathews, Rod Taylor, Charlton Heston, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, the Bowery Boys, Nick Adams.
Guys you do NOT want helping you fight a monster: Norman Kerry, David Manners.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
NECESSARY EVIL: SUPER-VILLAINS OF DC COMICS is a new documentary from Warner Home Video focusing on the bad guys of the DC Comics Universe. Why is this being discussed on a movie blog? Well, like it or not, comic book characters are now one of the most popular subjects on which to base a major feature film on.
NECESSARY EVIL plays up to the comics-movie connection in a number of ways. The most obvious one is the choice of narrator--it's none other than one of the greatest living screen legends, the redoubtable Sir Christopher Lee. Whether Mr. Lee has ever opened up a single issue of any DC comic is subject to debate, but he does a very fine job here (then again Lee could read from the phone book and make it interesting).
Among the talking heads featured in the documentary are comic book legends Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Neal Adams; actors Clancy Brown, Kevin Conroy, and Michael Shannon; and film directors Guillermo Del Toro, Zach Snyder, and Richard Donner. There are, however, very, very few clips from feature films based on DC product--it's almost as if the company is admitting that their universe has not been represented well in the world of movies.
Most of the clips are actually from the numerous DC/Warners animated series made in the last decade. There's also a lot of stunning artwork displayed. The most famous villains, such as the Joker and Lex Luthor, are discussed extensively but the documentary takes care in not focusing on just a few certain characters (heck, Batman's Rogues Gallery is worthy of a whole feature alone).
NECESSARY EVIL clocks in at a whopping 99 minutes. It would have been very easy for DC and Warners to just slap something together and put it out to serve as a giant commercial, but that's not the case here. There's been some time and effort put into this. Many aspects of comic-book villainy are discussed, without the documentary becoming too pretentious. Even though there are some bits of comic-book mythology included here that some might consider a bit too obscure, NECESSARY EVIL is still accessible to the non-geek audience.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again--the people who are responsible for this documentary, and the people working on the DC/Warners animated product--those are the people that should be making feature films about the DC Universe.
NOTE: I purchased the DVD version of NECESSARY EVIL, which has no extras.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
I'm sure most of you have seen commercials for a new film called LAST VEGAS, which seems to be an old man's version of THE HANGOVER. LAST VEGAS stars none other than Robert De Niro, an actor extending his streak of appearing in films not worthy of his talent.
I've also recently watched a trailer for a movie about two boxers who fought each other years and years ago, and are now attempting a rematch. One of the boxers is played by Sylvester Stallone--but the guy is not Rocky--and the other is played by.....Robert De Niro. I can't even remember what the name of this movie is....and it's probably just as well.
When I was younger, Robert De Niro only made a couple movies a year, and whenever he did appear on screen, it signified that the production involved was high quality. Before I started to write this blog I went to IMDB and checked some of the titles De Niro has starred in during the last 5 to 10 years. Most of them I don't even have any memory of--do you remember that buddy cop movie De Niro made with Eddie Murphy? No, I don't either.
At one time Robert De Niro was one of the most compelling actors in the world of cinema. He was gifted with the ability to make even the most pathetic characters interesting and watchable. A case in point is the role of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. Even though it is a brilliant film, TAXI DRIVER is sordid and unpleasant--you feel like taking a shower after you see it. But De Niro is mesmerizing--you keep watching just to see what he's going to do. Same thing with RAGING BULL....De Niro's Jake LaMotta is the type of person you don't want to see walking down the same street you are on, but you are still drawn into his world.
Classic De Niro. As Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER
Now De Niro has become a parody of himself, just like William Shatner and Alec Baldwin. He's been reduced to appearing in lame comedies, trading on his "angry guy" persona. I can't honestly think which was the last great movie De Niro did....was it RONIN?
I'm sure one major reason for the turn in De Niro's career is his age (he's now 70 years old!). Maybe it's the fact that the average movie just isn't that good anymore, and it is hard for him to find decent parts. Or maybe he's just decided to take it easy. If a bunch of producers kept offering me acting jobs where all I had to do was make fun of my screen image, and the pay was good, I'd probably do the same thing.
But to me it just seems a big waste. De Niro was a major, major force in the 70s and 80s. There's now an entire generation of film goers who don't even realize that. There's still time left for De Niro to have a chance to create more memorable performances. At least he hasn't wound up in a comic book movie....at least, not yet.
NOTE: I am fully aware that if Mr. De Niro ever reads this, he will come to my house and beat me with a baseball bat.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.
When I decided to take part in this Hammer Halloween Blogathon, the first thing I had to decide was....which film to write about? I've got just about every Hammer movie on DVD or Blu-ray, and I've seen them all dozens of times. I came to the conclusion that it would be better to blog about one of the less obvious choices--but one that represents Hammer very well.
THE REPTILE (1966) does not star Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. It was not directed by Terence Fisher, and the music score was not written by James Bernard. On the surface it would appear that there's nothing noteworthy about this Hammer production. But it stands out as a nice little chiller, and proof that Hammer's house style could work without some of the expected elements.
The movie begins with a pre-credits sequence. A man wanders a darkened manor house, where he is attacked by something springing from the dark. The man dies horribly, with his face darkened and foam on his lips. A mysterious stranger dumps the body in a cemetery.
We soon find out that the man is Charles Spalding, and his death is just one of a series that has befallen the village (which is located in Cornwall). Charles' brother Harry (Ray Barrett) has inherited the cottage that Charles was staying in. Harry and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) intend to live at the cottage. Harry also intends to get to the bottom of his brother's death. He is met with suspicion by the local villagers, and only the friendly pub owner Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) is willing to help him. Valerie meets neighbor Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman) and his daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce), who live in the manor house that Charles was attacked in. Harry and Valerie have dinner with the Franklyns, and notice their strange behavior. Harry and Tom do some grave digging, and find out that Charles and the village tramp Mad Peter died of snake bite. Harry then receives a note from Anna asking for help, but Harry winds up being attacked just like his brother.
Harry barely survives--but while he is convalescing, his wife also finds a note asking for help. Valerie goes to the manor house, and finds out from a frantic Dr. Franklyn that it is Anna who is responsible for the weird deaths. Years ago, Franklyn, a theologian, was studying various cults in Eastern Asia. He incurred the wrath of a snake cult, and the members turned Anna into a part woman-part snake creature. Franklyn now wants to destroy Anna to end the horror.....
THE REPTILE was made back to back with THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, as a way for Hammer to save money. PLAGUE has always gotten more attention than THE REPTILE--it has a more expansive storyline, and a little bit bigger cast. But THE REPTILE is a fine film in it's own right. The unique aspect of the story is the fact that the "normal" married couple carry the film.
Typically in a Hammer film the "regular" characters--the characters who are not monsters, scientists, or law officers--are either dull, dimwitted, or useless. Here Harry and Valerie Spalding are an appealing and believable couple, the type an audience can follow. Ray Barrett is one of the best of the Hammer leading men (admittedly, he doesn't have much competition). As Hammer would move into the 1970s, their male actors would get younger and younger, but not better. We are told that Harry Spalding is a member of the Grenadier Guards, and Barrett definitely gives the impression that he is nobody's fool.
Jennifer Daniel had already appeared in Hammer's KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. In that film she plays almost the same exact role as she did in THE REPTILE--the sensible and loving wife. Even though she was regally beautiful, the blond Daniel never seems to get the same type of fan love that other Hammer Glamour girls get. Daniel is the domesticated Hammer hottie--she's the one you could imagine actually being married to.
Jennifer Daniel posing on the Bray Studios lot.
Another performer who also appeared in KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is Noel Willman, who plays the cold and forbidding Dr. Franklyn. Throughout the movie one suspects that Franklyn is the cause of everything, and in a way he is--but he's also a victim as well. Franklyn's situation has made him the dour person that he is, and Willman gives the part a lot more depth than one would expect. Franklyn is constantly shadowed by his "manservant" (Marne Maitland), This servant is in reality a member of the snake cult that is responsible for transforming Anna, and he acts as a sort of sinister protector for the poor girl. Marne Maitland also has a number of Hammer credits, usually as a foreign menace. Maitland makes a huge impact in THE REPTILE.
The title "character" of the film is played by Jacqueline Pearce. She had just been in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, and her character in that film has a few things in common with Anna Franklyn. Both characters are "turned" into monsters by someone else's doing, and both of them have a fragile, tragic quality about them, even in their non-creature moments. Pearce's unconventional good looks give Anna an exotic aspect, and in her early scenes she gives Anna a vulnerability that makes Harry and Valerie feel protective toward her. During Harry and Valerie's dinner with the Franklyns, Anna is told by her father to play some music on her sitar--and Anna, encouraged (or controlled?) by the sinister manservant, seems to be sending an accusatory message to Franklyn instead of performing a tune. Franklyn, in a rage, grabs the sitar and smashes it--a strange scene to be sure, but a strong one, and well directed by John Gilling.
Anna is also a victim--her dual personality reminds one of Lon Chaney Jr. in THE WOLF MAN. There's also a similarity with another Hammer film which also has a unique female monster--THE GORGON, with Barbara Shelley as an otherwise beautiful woman who happens to turn into a horrible creature. THE GORGON also features a cold and forbidding man (Peter Cushing) who loves and "watches over" the lady/monster. THE REPTILE director John Gilling worked on the script of THE GORGON.
The other major role in the story is filled by the actor who played in more Hammer films than any other--Michael Ripper. It's fitting that Ripper is playing a pub owner--when he does turn up in a Hammer horror, he's almost always found behind a bar or in front of one. What makes Ripper's Tom Bailey special is he is not a caricature or simply comic relief. The audience senses right off that Tom is a good man, the type of person you can rely on. THE REPTILE is a great showcase for Michael Ripper, and it reminds viewers how important Ripper was to the history of Hammer.
At the climax of THE REPTILE, a fire (started in a fight between Franklyn and the servant) is consuming the Franklyn house as the Doctor is telling Valerie the truth about Anna. Franklyn locks Valerie in a room and intends to leave, but Anna, now in her snake-like state, bites and kills him. Anna then tries to attack Valerie, but Harry and Tom arrive just in time to save her. Anna is killed when cold air rushes through some broken windows (I have to say, considering how big the fire is, it's hard to believe the room would have gotten that cold). Harry, Valerie, and Tom watch as the Franklyn house goes up in flames (a common ending in 1960s horror films).
John Gilling directed a number of interesting films for Hammer (including THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES). Gilling keeps things going at a fast clip (of course, there really isn't much of a plot to slow things down). Various books and articles on Hammer Films have mentioned that Gilling was not an easy man to get along with, but all the actors here do an excellent job. There's no campiness or comic elements in THE REPTILE--like most of the Hammer movies of this period, the story is presented as straight-forward as possible, one of the main reasons why these pictures still hold up today. The late 19th Century Cornish setting is just another version of "Hammerland", that fantasy place where all the men where Victorian clothes, all the women are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and all the non-important characters can be found at pub.
THE REPTILE was filmed of course at the famed Bray Studios. The exterior of the Franklyn house was actually Oakley Court, not that far away from Bray. Oakley Court was featured in so many fantastic films of the period that it became the Buckingham Palace of British Horror. The fine music score for the film was by Don Banks, and at times it has an Eastern flavor to it.
The one factor of THE REPTILE that some have found disconcerting is the makeup of the creature. For the most part Gilling keeps it in the shadows, but in the last part of the film it is in full view. I personally think that the makeup works, but I do have to say that the longer and longer you look at it the less effective it becomes. It certainly is bizarre enough to work at a quick glance. The makeup was created by Roy Ashton, who did a number of monsters for Hammer.
What I appreciate most about THE REPTILE is that it's without doubt a Hammer film, but it's different enough to be worthy of attention. The Hammer style had a lot more flexibility than most people think. Despite the gruesome facial makeups of the snake bite victims, THE REPTILE is not really a gory film. This picture is tame compared to what Hammer would be putting out in the 1970s. Although it doesn't have the reputation of most Hammers, THE REPTILE deserves to be remembered....and discovered by those who have not seen it.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Following up on the Movies 4 You Sci Fi Collections released this summer, MGM and Timeless Media have now come out with a Movies 4 You "Timeless Horror" set. I don't know if I'd call any of the films here timeless....some might call them "time consuming". Just like the Sci Fi sets, I got this from Amazon for $5.
The titles included are:
THE FACE OF MARBLE (1946)
This picture was produced by Poverty Row studio Monogram, and directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine, famous for his many, many low-budget credits. This tale is about another one of those Doctors who want to restore life to the dead, played by John Carradine. It's a typical crazy 1940s Monogram thriller, with a phantom dog, a voodoo-worshiping housemaid, and a stereotypical "scaredy-cat" butler (played by Willie Best). What makes this one unique is that Carradine's Doctor is not mad, or the bad guy....he's the most sympathetic person in the cast!
I BURY THE LIVING (1958)
This is without doubt the best film in this set. It's not really a horror film....it's more of a eerie suspense tale, somewhat reminiscent of "The Twilight Zone". Richard Boone plays a distinguished businessman who is elected to the ceremonial position of director for a local cemetery. At the cemetery office Boone is shown a giant map of the grounds. Each plot on the map has a pin--black for those that have "residents", and white for those that are reserved but not filled. Boone accidentally switches a set of pins.....and those on the waiting list start dying. Soon Boone is convinced that he somehow has the power to send people to their deaths.
This is a creepily effective film, with an engaging storyline. Most of the "action" involves Richard Boone trying not to go insane over the circumstances he is in. Boone was a very underrated actor, who always gave his roles an unusual and unique quality. He's perfect for this part....a more typical leading man wouldn't have made the situation work. Director Albert Band employs numerous off-beat camera set-ups, and he makes great use out of the giant cemetery map--it's almost like a lead character. It's worth buying this set just to see this film.
THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959)
This chiller deals with an ancient curse placed upon a family by a group of South American Indians. It feels very much like a 1940s Universal film, and one of the reasons is that it features acclaimed character actor Henry Daniell. It's a bit more gruesome than usual, what with decapitations and shrunken heads. This is certainly no classic, but the Amazonian curse theme makes it different enough to be of interest.
THE SNAKE WOMAN (1960)
I could find almost no information whatsoever on this film--it's not even listed in Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Another one of those experimenting late 19th Century English Doctors has been injecting snake venom into his pregnant wife to cure her insanity. The baby is born cold-blooded and without eyelids, and the local villagers burn the Doctor's house down (something that usually happens at the end of one of these stories). Twenty years later, villagers start turning up dead from snakebite. This movie is set up like a mystery, but it's pretty hard for the story to be mysterious when the title gives the game away. This is a talky, plodding feature, with no style or verve. Director Sidney J. Furie had just made the lackluster DOCTOR BLOOD'S COFFIN, but that film is a masterpiece compared to THE SNAKE WOMAN. Hammer Films would do much better years later with the somewhat similar THE REPTILE.
Just like the other Movies 4 You sets, all four features are on one disc. The video quality is okay, and the only extras are still galleries for each title.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
The latest addition to my library is THE MAKING OF RETURN OF THE JEDI, published by Del Rey and written by J. W. Rinzler. It's release is timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the film. This follows the pattern of the other books in the series, also written by Rinzler (the one on STAR WARS came out in 2007 and the one on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came out in 2010).
As a lifetime Star Wars geek, I love these books. They are the ultimate guide on the production history of probably the most famous set of films ever made. Like the other volumes, this one is a thorough examination of the movie from start to finish, all the way from George Lucas' earliest script outlines to last-minute changes before the picture's premiere.
Even the most knowledgeable Star Wars fan will learn things from this book. Some of the revelations for ROTJ include George Lucas originally choosing David Lynch to be the film director (I don't think Lucas and Lynch would have worked well together); Lucas wanting to include two Death Stars in the story; and the fact that Ian McDiarmid was NOT the first choice to play the Emperor (the original actor, an older man, became ill and was not able to perform the role).
This is a Lucasfilm product, and Rinzler works for the company, which means that he was able to get access to a massive amount of material. Rinzler did dozens of new interviews with various members of the cast & crew, and also worked in archival interviews as well (to show what people were saying when they were actually working on the film). A lot of people are not big fans of ROTJ, but this book reveals the astounding amount of work and planning that went into the project. The staff at Industrial Light & Magic were hard-pressed to complete the FX work for ROTJ on time (remember, this was before major use of CGI).
Even though this is a Lucasfilm book, Rinzler does not shy away from any controversy or discussion of disagreements among the crew. One of the book's major sub-plots is how the cast & crew dealt with eventual director Richard Marquand. Some of the actors didn't get along with him, and some of the crew felt that Marquand just didn't "get" the Star Wars universe. (In fact George Lucas wound up spending as much time on the set as he did when he directed the first film in the series.)
What really sets this book apart is the exhaustive amount of photos and illustrations in it. You get to see everything from pre-production sketches, storyboards, Ralph McQuarrie concept art, behind-the-scenes stills, and pictures of the ILM effects technicians at work. (And don't worry...there's plenty of shots of Carrie Fisher in the slave girl outfit.) The sheer scope of what went into the making of this film makes you appreciate the final product just a bit more.
This is an expensive book (I got it for $50 on Amazon, just like the one on EMPIRE). You are not going to find this on sale at WalMart or Target. Some may balk at the price, but these books are made for the serious Star Wars fan. Besides, I've known people who have spent a lot more money on Star Wars toys and action figures. With a book like this you don't just put it on a shelf and display it--it is something you can go to again and again. I know the phrase "the perfect holiday gift" gets used way too many times, but in this case it fits.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
The 1968 horror film CORRUPTION has just come out on Blu-ray from Grindhouse Releasing. This really does fit the true definition of a "horror film"--it's a violent, sleazy thriller, and probably the most controversial movie in Peter Cushing's career.
Cushing plays Sir John Rowan, a renowned surgeon who feels guilty over causing the accident that disfigured the face of his model fiancee Lynn (Sue Lloyd). Sir John's researches lead him to use a pituitary gland from a cadaver and laser surgery to restore Sue's face. The success doesn't last long, though, and Sir John decides that a fresh pituitary gland must be used....which drives him to murder to obtain it.
The plot of CORRUPTION is a staple of cinematic horror--brilliant doctor committing horrible crimes to restore the beauty (or health) of the person he loves. The difference this time is that the film is set in contemporary 1960's England. We've seen Peter Cushing messing around with knives and dead bodies plenty of times--but usually he's in a Gothic never-land, somewhat removed from real violence and consequences. There's nothing artistic, or "cool", about the killings here--they are presented as unpleasantly as possible, and Sir John looks genuinely distressed at having to carry them out (as I'm sure Cushing the actor was).
Because of the film's nasty nature, a number of Peter Cushing fans (like myself) do not have an appreciation for this title. Seeing Cushing perpetrating horrific murders of young women in a "real" setting makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I do have to say, though, that it's not like Cushing the actor didn't ever do horrible things before--and why is it "acceptable" to violently hurt and kill women in a period background?
My problem with CORRUPTION isn't so much the violence, it's the fact that the movie is not very good. Everything in this story is portrayed in an over-the-top style, from the cinematography (which includes a lot of fish-eye lens work), to the acting (all the performers, except for Cushing and Kate O'Mara, ham it up as much as possible), and the terrible jazz-lounge music score. The 1960's setting may have been unique at the time, but it dates the film very badly (unlike Cushing's Hammer Gothics, which remain timeless). The script gets sillier and sillier as it goes along, with such highlights as an unexpected visitor popping in just as Cushing has placed a human head on a kitchen table, and a hippie "gang" whose members seem to have an average age of about 32. Director Robert Hartford-Davis, Producer/Cinematographer Peter Newbrook, and screenwriters Donald and Derek Ford all had backgrounds in British exploitation pictures, and CORRUPTION was obviously designed to attract that type of audience (although having the advertising say "THIS IS NOT A WOMAN'S PICTURE" more than likely chased away 50% of any potential viewers).
The movie really goes off the rails during the climax, which involves a out-of-control laser. I was debating on whether to discuss the ending of CORRUPTION on this blog post. I've decided not to reveal it, because I think CORRUPTION is not as well known as other British horror films. I will say that if you take the ending at face value, it may explain why the film is so loony. But you could also see the ending as nothing more than a cop-out.
There's one other issue I have with CORRUPTION. It's the fact that I think Peter Cushing doesn't fit in this film. He's not bad in it, and it is one of his most striking performances. CORRUPTION shows Cushing in all sorts of ways that you've never seen him before. Unlike his usual steely screen persona, Cushing's Sir John is a man not in control, a man who does not think things through. During the murder scenes Cushing is covered in sweat, and his hair is all over the place. (Note: If you are watching a Peter Cushing movie, and his hair is messed up, things are really, REALLY bad.) Cushing, as always, does his best--but I just don't believe that his Sir John would go as far as he does. This is more the fault of the script than Cushing.
This isn't really a Peter Cushing type of movie--it's more like a Michael Gough movie. When Michael Gough starred in one of his many horror films, he brought a manic hammy-ness that would have fit CORRUPTION's overheated tone perfectly. I could certainly imagine Michael Gough playing Sir John--the part would have fit him like a glove.
As for the Blu-ray/DVD combo-pack, Grindhouse has done a fantastic job. You get two versions of the movie--the American-British version, and the international version, which features nudity and more gore. It's in the international version where you get to see Peter Cushing holding a knife and wrestling with a topless prostitute on the floor--then proceeding to stab her to death and cut off her head (one of the most mind-boggling and stupefying things I have ever seen).
This Blu-ray/DVD is jam-packed with extras. There's a selection of alternate scenes, and interviews with CORRUPTION actors Billy Murray, Jan Waters, and Wendy Varnals. There's a short audio interview with Peter Cushing, and trailers, TV & radio spots for the movie, and just about every still taken during the production of CORRUPTION. The informative liner notes are written by Allan Bryce, and the notes fold out to form a poster of the more explicit disc-case cover art--although I don't think anyone would want to hang up that type of poster.
The real treat among the extras is the audio commentary by British horror film expert Jonathan Rigby and Peter Cushing biographer David Miller. Both men give the relevant facts and details about the film's production, but they also look at the film from the viewpoint of being Peter Cushing fans. Rigby actually calls CORRUPTION a "unsung classic"--I have major respect for Rigby's opinions when it comes to British horror, but I just can't agree with him this time. The audio commentary is more entertaining than the movie!
The video quality of CORRUPTION is outstanding. The sound is fine, except that the music and effects are a bit louder than the dialogue.
Is CORRUPTION worth buying? If you are a major Peter Cushing fan, yes. If you are a fan of British horror films of this period, CORRUPTION is of some interest. But the movie itself is not very good...it has a sick, sleazy quality to it, and it certainly isn't for young kids. Grindhouse has done an excellent job with this Blu-ray/DVD package, but the appeal of the actual movie is, I think, somewhat limited.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
"The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset" is a re-issue of a DVD set that had come out a few years ago. When this collection was first released, the list price was over $100. I got this latest version of the set for $35 from Amazon.
"The Avengers" (I'm sure you all know by now that I'm not talking about a comic book) was the witty and stylish British TV action/adventure series from the 1960s. This set contains all 51 episodes featuring Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. "The Avengers" was produced before Rigg came aboard and still continued after she left, but most agree the Emma Peel era was the show's apex.
John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel remain to this day two of the greatest characters in television history. Even though the episodes in the set were filmed in the mid-60s, they hold up rather well. "The Avengers" wasn't set in a realistic England anyway--the show has a timeless quality to it due to the fantastical nature of the stories. The bizarre plots and the eccentric villains are just as inventive as anything shown on TV in the present day.
What makes this set notable for a film buff is the incredible amount of acting talent involved in these episodes. If you are a fan of Hammer Films, literally every show in this set includes a performer with a connection to the British studio. Here's a partial list:
Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Paul Massie, Michael Gough, Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Robert Urquhart, Clifford Evans, Charles Lloyd Pack, Thorley Walters, Jacqueline Pearce, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Marne Maitland, Francis Matthews, and many others.
There's also appearances by several other actors who are well-known for various reasons, including Bert Kwouk, Gordon Jackson, Roy Kinnear, Julian Glover, Patrick Allen, Eunice Gayson, Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock, Jon Pertwee, Nigel Green, Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland, Freddie Jones, and Cecil Parker.
"The Avengers" had a style and a look of it's own--one reason being that many of the directors who helmed the episodes had feature film experience. Among the directors credited in this set whose names will be familiar to movie buffs are Roy Ward Baker, Charles Crichton, James Hill, Peter Graham Scott, and Robert Day.
This set is a whopping 16 discs. If you do buy this set, watch out when you open it--the disc trays flop open rather easily, and the discs could fall out. Unfortunately the discs are stacked two to a tray--a common practice these days. The packaging could have been way better but then the set probably wouldn't have gone down in price. The discs appear to be the exact same ones on the earlier sets--which means they have not been remastered in any way.
"The Avengers: The Emma Peel Megaset" is definitely a good buy if you can get it for the price that I did. It's one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and almost no actress looked as good as Diana Rigg did in 1966.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
NOTE: I did not watch this movie in 3-D.
When I first saw a trailer for GRAVITY, I was struck by how the credits had a font similar to the one used for 2001's credits. Obviously that was intentional. I thought at the time that attempting to put a new outer space movie in the same league as Stanley Kubrick's classic was not a good idea. Having now seen GRAVITY, I can't say that it's as great as 2001, but it is a very impressive piece of film making, and without doubt the best film I've seen this year--heck, maybe the best film I've seen in a couple years.
Co-written, produced, and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, GRAVITY is about a disaster that befalls the crew of a space shuttle mission. Sandra Bullock plays a scientist who is more doctor than astronaut, and George Clooney is the experienced old space hand. They're the only two people we see during the entire film, and their battle to survive takes up the film's running time.
By now it's very hard for me to be impressed by a movie's special effects. So many films now are nothing but super CGI pseudo-spectaculars, and they all have a "been there, done that" mentality. What makes GRAVITY different is that there is a sense of realism and vastness to the visuals. It's not just stuff flying at you--although there is a lot of that in this picture. The cinematography, art direction, and production design combine with the effects work to give the film an elegant magnificence. You really feel that you are in outer space. In GRAVITY outer space isn't just a background to the plot, it sort of becomes a major character on it's own.
The visuals here are simply astounding--a feast for the eyes. There are many times where Cuaron wisely lets the viewer just watch and take in what's being shown--a rare thing in this era of ADD-style movie editing. That's something else that I appreciated about GRAVITY--there's a quietness to many of the film's scenes. Cuaron doesn't just hit you upside the head every five minutes. Make no mistake, this is a suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat story, but unlike most modern directors Cuaron isn't shaking the camera as many times as possible, or making a cut every 0.02 seconds. Some of the best moments in the film are when there is no physical action, or very little sound.
And here's another really great (and surprising) thing about GRAVITY....it's only 90 minutes long! Can you remember the last time you've gone to your local googleplex and seen a major mainstream release that didn't have a running time of two and a half hours? Was it 1985?
I'm sure that some might think a 90 minute movie with only two actors and a slight storyline would be boring, but I assure you it isn't. Sandra Bullock is lurched into one life-threatening crisis after another, and the viewer is with her all the way, without any of the typical "distractions" of 21st Century cinema. There's no comic relief, there's no boyfriend on earth waiting on the outcome, and there's no Hollywood-style regular people sitting at a bar watching the emergency unfold on TV. There's not even a coda at the end of the film. When the credits started rolling the audience I was with just kind of sat there, as if they were expecting more...and as if they didn't really believe the film was over. I guess the general film goer is now conditioned to anticipate 15 false climaxes.
I'm amazed that Alfonso Cuaron was able to make this film the way he did. (I have a feeling that if an American director tried it, he or she would be sent on a long trip to Rewrite City.) GRAVITY is a true movie going experience--you have to see this on a big screen. It's a technological stunner, but thanks to fine work by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it has a moving element of humanity as well. Definitely the best film of 2013.
Monday, October 7, 2013
One of the most highly anticipated home video releases of 2013 is THE BIG PARADE, the 1925 MGM silent classic directed by King Vidor.
THE BIG PARADE was the first cinematic epic with a World War I storyline. The film's overwhelming success set the stage for other major productions with a Great War background, such as WHAT PRICE GLORY?, WINGS, and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. There are some who consider THE BIG PARADE to be the greatest silent film ever made.
The story is very simple--a rich man's son (John Gilbert) is enticed to enlist in the army by all the hoopla surrounding America's 1917 entry into the worldwide conflict. Gilbert becomes friends with two blue-collar recruits (Karl Dane and Tom O'Brien). While stationed in France Gilbert falls in love with a young French girl (Renee Adoree). Gilbert and his buddies seem to be having a good time in the French countryside--until their unit is sent to the front lines, and the reality of war is thrust upon them.
Before purchasing this Blu-ray I had never seen THE BIG PARADE. Upon my first viewing I have to admit I was taken aback by the first half of the film. Most of this part is taken up with a number of light comedic vignettes concerning Gilbert, his buddies, and his French girlfriend. I'm sure a modern viewer seeing this for the first time will wonder (like me) when the war is actually going to show up. The first part of the film is not bad, it's just unusual when compared to most historical war epics.
I think what King Vidor was trying to do was set up the audience--once Gilbert's outfit gets sent to battle, the action never lets up till almost the very end of the movie. The second half has a totally different feel & tone from the first half--kind of if two separate movies were added together.
I've never really been much of a John Gilbert fan. In most of the movies I've seen him in, he comes off to me as cocky and arrogant. And his "ladykiller smile" just creeps me out (but hey, women of the 1920s adored the guy, so what do I know). But he's a lot easier to take in THE BIG PARADE--I personally believe it is his best screen performance (maybe because he doesn't have a mustache here). It would have been very easy for the script to portray Gilbert's character as a spoiled rich kid (I thought for sure that's where the story was going), but instead Gilbert is made out to be a symbol of the ordinary soldier. He goes through the various trails and tribulations just like anyone else. I'm sure King Vidor didn't want Gilbert to be too showy one way or the other so the audience would be able to experience the story through the lead character's eyes.
The visual quality of the Blu-ray version of THE BIG PARADE is simply flawless. It's amazing a movie made in 1925 would be able to look this great. I assume that even the regular DVD version of THE BIG PARADE looks impressive. The score for this particular release is from Carl Davis. If you watch silent movies, or own any on home video, you probably know who Davis is. He's done dozens and dozens of scores for silent films. His music for THE BIG PARADE is, in my opinion, his best work. The music lifts the film to another emotional level, and I couldn't imagine watching THE BIG PARADE without it.
The main extra on THE BIG PARADE Blu-ray is a 64-page book, built into the case, featuring an article written by the premier silent film historian, Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow gives out a number of details about the making of THE BIG PARADE, and numerous facts about director King Vidor. There's also a nice reproduction of the movie's program. (NOTE: The DVD version of THE BIG PARADE does NOT include the 64-page booklet.) Included on the disc is an audio commentary by film historian Jeffrey Vance. It's a good one, with the highlights being actual interview excerpts with King Vidor.
Anyone who gets into silent films will want to add this Blu-ray to their collection. THE BIG PARADE is one of the most famous silent movies of all time. I can't say that I think it's the greatest silent movie of all time, or even the greatest World War One movie (I'll still vote for ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT). But it is a truly spectacular piece of film making, and every classic film fan should try to see it.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
On this day in 1908, in the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Jane Alice Peters was born. She later became known as Carole Lombard, one of the most famous and beloved film performers in cinema history.
Carole Lombard is my favorite actress of all time. Explaining why someone or something is your favorite is not an easy process. So many factors come into play, some of them personal, and some which are hard to define. There wasn't one particular exact moment when I became a Carole Lombard fan--it was more over a period of years. Certainly her beauty had a role in my appreciation for her. I'll fully admit that how attracted I am to a certain actress has a lot to do with my overall ranking of that person's talent. I realize that some may find that a bit politically incorrect, but hey, I'm a guy, and that's just the way it is.
Of course there have been literally hundreds of fantastic looking women who've worked in the movies. What made Carole Lombard stand out to me? Well, I've always had a weakness for blondes, but it's much more than that. Carole Lombard, for me, always had a naturalness, a realness, that her contemporaries didn't have. When you watch Carole Lombard in a movie, you feel comfortable with her. Even though she's an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and a movie star, she never seems to act like one. A lot of the famous female stars of cinema's Golden Age--women like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn--simply overwhelm you with their respective personas. Let me put it to you this way--you could imagine going to a baseball game with Carole Lombard, while you could never see yourself doing that with the others ladies I mentioned.
It took awhile for Lombard to develop her screen image. One of her early sound roles is in a film called MAN OF THE WORLD (1931), with William Powell. In this one Lombard plays the "nice girl", and she appears to be using a high-class accent. She's totally unlike the Carole Lombard movie fans know (a big reason may have been she was falling in love with Powell at the time). It's as if she's trying to "act" instead of just being Carole Lombard.
It's assumed that TWENTIETH CENTURY was Carole's breakthrough role--the one in which she first acted like "Carole Lombard". That's not really true. There's a couple of other films made earlier in which her natural attitude showed, such as VIRTUE and NO MAN OF HER OWN. Her persona was already there--it just needed to be developed and nurtured with the right scripts, co-stars, and directors.
It's the screwball comedy genre for which Carole Lombard is best known. Whenever Lombard's career is discussed her roles in films like MY MAN GODFREY and NOTHING SACRED get the most attention. In a way I think that's a disservice to Lombard. She many, many films that were not screwball comedies, and while most of them are not famous or critically acclaimed, they show that there was more to Carole Lombard than just a wacky comedienne. Some Carole Lombard fans don't even mention--or even seem to be aware of--her non-comedic work. I think one of Lombard's best performances was as a compassionate British nurse in the drama VIGIL IN THE NIGHT, directed by George Stevens. Lombard is hampered by having to play a truly decent human being....which means she can't yell or scream, or do most "actorly" things one normally does in a more showy role. Yet despite this she's absolutely believable. Her character doesn't come off as too good to be true or annoyingly perfect, and her slight British accent is very well done. Unfortunately VIGIL IN THE NIGHT is a depressing soap opera type of story, and most Carole Lombard fans do not have much to say about it.
There's another group of Carole Lombard fans that are more obsessed with her relationship and marriage to Clark Gable than her acting career. Most Lombard fan sites are so filled with nothing but pictures of the couple, you'd think that's all Carole did. Vincent Paterno's "Carole and Co." blog (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/) is an excellent site dedicated to the actress. If I ever write a book about the films of Carole Lombard, I'm not going to spend all my time talking about MY MAN GODFREY, or Clark Gable...which means that book won't sell a lot of copies, if any.
Carol Lombard died tragically in a plane crash in January, 1942. Audiences were never able to see how Lombard would have handled growing older, or whether she would have become a character actress, or if she would have had a downside to her career. Everything that I have read about Lombard mentions how smart and hard-working she was, so I think she would have handled the many changes to Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. Would Lombard have worked in television? I'd like to think she'd have probably produced and starred in her own show, if she chose to venture in that medium.
I honestly don't think I've adequately explained why Carole Lombard is my favorite actress, but then how can you convey why you are drawn to a certain person? I do know that Carole Lombard deserves to be remembered for more than just being "The Screwball Girl", or Mrs. Clark Gable. She remains one of the most celebrated icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon is an absolutely magnificent idea. Every film buff in the world has always wanted to "create" their own classic film using on-screen and off-screen talent from the past.
Being the monster movie geek that I am, I decided to bring together Hammer Films, the masters of British Gothic horror, and Japan's Toho Studios, the leading makers of kaiju (giant monster) cinema. For those who might want to nit-pick over the "facts" of my epic, all I can say is that this is an alternate universe, and I'm J. J. Abrams. But I'm not going to blow up Vulcan--I'm going to present to you 1966's GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND.
All over the world, unusual (and unexplained) weather patterns are befuddling scientists. Strange jet streams and currents are causing fish and animals normally found in the Pacific Ocean to wind up all the way in the North Atlantic.
RAF officers Roger Thompson (Peter Cushing) and Stephen "Steve" Moseby (Christopher Lee) are assigned to a joint Anglo/French task force studying the bizarre weather patterns on the southern coast of England. Accompanying the group is spunky reporter Donna Mitchell (Barbara Shelley), much to Roger's dismay--Donna and Roger have had an on-again, off-again relationship for a number of years.
Soon reports begin arriving of numerous ships being sunk off the coasts of Wales and Ireland. Roger and Steve fly a number of missions in the area, but see nothing of interest. Late one foggy night, on the coast of Southern England, a drunken fisherman (Michael Ripper) is startled by the sight of....the mighty Godzilla!!
Roger, Steve, and their devil-may-care RAF pilot buddy, Ken Dodge (Francis Matthews), fly to the sighting to find it's true--Godzilla is in the area. The King of Monsters heads to where the Thames meets the North Sea. Huge barriers are erected there, and the RAF sends up everything it has--but Godzilla breaks through and heads for London. Ken dies during the spectacular battle, and Roger has to break the news to Ken's wife Carol (Suzan Farmer). The Japanese government sends over the leading kaiju specialist, Dr. Suzuki (Akira Takarada). With him is another scientist, his attractive sister Mieko (Kumi Mizuno). Roger and Steve meet with the Suzukis to try and formulate a plan. Steve becomes instantly smitten with Mieko. Meanwhile, Godzilla attacks London with full force. At the British military command center, located in the bunkers used by Churchill during WWII, Dr. Suzuki informs Roger and Steve's commanding officer, Colonel Ellsworth (Andre Morell), that because Godzilla is in unfamiliar surroundings, his actions will be unpredictable. The British military decide to try and drive Godzilla back into the English Channel. Godzilla does go to the Channel, but London is in ruins. A European "Anti-Godzilla Defence Committee" is formed. During it's first meeting there is a debate on whether or not to use the dreaded Oxygen Destroyer in the Channel. The British Prime Minister (Charles Lloyd Pack) is against this, fearing an environmental disaster. The Spanish representative (Marne Maitland) argues that England should realize that Godzilla is a threat to all of Europe, and must be stopped at all cost.
Soon Godzilla reaches the narrowest point of the Channel. Artillery and planes from the coasts of both England and France bombard the creature. Roger and Steve both decide to suit up and take part in the battle, despite the protests of both Donna and Mieko. At the heaviest point of the attack, Godzilla suddenly dives underneath the surface of the Channel. After a 48-hour period without any sign of the beast, it appears that England is safe...but can mankind truly be safe from the vengeance of Godzilla?
Hammer Films Chairman James Carreras was always on the lookout for a great movie idea, and for extra funding from outside companies. In 1965 Hammer executives began discussions with Japan's Toho Studios for a co-production featuring Toho's most famous "star", Godzilla.
The details were hashed out, and it was decided that the Godzilla scenes would be filmed in Japan, and the non-special effects scenes filmed in England. As soon as news broke about a Hammer/Toho team-up, several American studios offered to be involved as well. Universal won the right to join in.
All three studios agreed that Hammer's main stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, had to be part of the production. One would think that Cushing & Lee would have been offended at being in a giant monster film, but the two were ecstatic--they both got to play contemporary, "normal" characters (British military heroes, no less), and they both got to have a screen romance. Knowing how important they were to the movie, Cushing & Lee demanded above the title billing, and a bit more money than their usual Hammer paycheck. Universal, Hammer, and Toho reluctantly agreed.
Filming began in early 1966. The Japanese crew and the British crew worked at the same time. For the British scenes Hammer hired director Don Chaffey, who had dealt with special effects before on movies such as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and ONE MILLION YEARS B. C. Toho's FX master, Eiji Tsuburaya, created spectacular miniature sets of London and the English coastline.
For the most part, filming went smoothly. Hammer and Toho had certain differences on the making of movie--Toho had already begun to make Godzilla to be somewhat of a "good guy", and Hammer wanted the King of Monsters to be as furious as possible. The ambiguous ending--the idea of Toho's main screenwriter, Shinichi Sekizawa--was to keep Godzilla "active" for future Toho kaiju films.
OFFICIAL RELEASE AND PUBLIC RESPONSE
GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND was first released during the 1966 holiday season. A huge ad campaign was mounted by Universal, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were flown over to Japan for a major publicity blitz. Cushing & Lee toured Toho Studios, and posed for several pictures with the actual Godzilla suit used in the film (these photos still appear in monster movie magazines to this very day). GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND got very little critical response, other than the mention of the Hammer/Toho team-up. The movie made a decent amount of money, but it did not become the huge blockbuster that Universal, Hammer, and Toho were expecting. Three studios being involved meant three studios sharing the profits, with the result that all members of the triumvirate felt disappointed with the final financial result. Hammer was also none too happy with the Toho version of GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND (even though Toho had a contractual right to prepare their own Japanese cut of the film). Toho's version was longer, with more scenes featuring Akira Takarada and Kumi Mizuno, and the Godzilla scenes were edited differently. Toho also replaced James Bernard's score with one by Akira Ifukube (the rare Ifukube soundtrack can fetch up to $500 on Ebay). These factors, among others, caused Hammer and Toho to never work together again.
THE LEGACY OF THE FILM
Most kaiju fans have always held GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND in high regard. Godzilla's attack on London and the final battle in the English Channel are considered some of the best FX work Eiji Tsuburaya ever did. Hammer fans have seen the film as an interesting attempt by the company to branch out. Cushing & Lee admirers appreciate that GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND gave the dynamic duo a chance to play "regular" characters.
For many years, due to rights issues, the only available version of GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND was the English/American version. It was released on home video a number of times, but it wasn't until 2011 that the ultimate edition of the film came out on Blu-ray. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND featured for the very first time the English and Japanese versions in a two disc set. Among the extras was a 60 minute documentary covering the making of the film, with appearances by genre film historians Jonathan Rigby, Tim Lucas, and Christopher Gullo. New interviews with Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, Akira Takarada, and Kumi Mizuno were included, along with two audio commentaries--one for the English version by Bruce Hallenbeck, and one for the Japanese version by David Kalat.
CAST AND CREW CREDITS
Poster designed and created by Josh Kennedy
A HAMMER/TOHO Co-Production
PETER CUSHING CHRISTOPHER LEE
"GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND"
Also starring Barbara Shelley Akira Takarada Kumi Mizuno
with Andre Morell Francis Matthews Suzan Farmer
Special Effects by Eiji Tsuburaya
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa and John Elder
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys and Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Don Chaffey and Ishiro Honda
Filmed at Bray Studios, England, and Toho Studios, Japan