Friday, February 27, 2015


I recently found on YouTube a "restored" version of the silent mystery thriller SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, produced in 1929 by First National and directed by Benjamin Christensen. This YouTube video was produced by Eric Stedman of The Serial Squadron company, and it features a new score by Kevin McLeod.

The Danish Benjamin Christensen is best known for making the ultra-cult silent film HAXAN, a bizarre docu-drama about the history of witchcraft. If you are a silent film aficionado and you haven't yet seen HAXAN, you really ought to--it is one of the weirdest and wildest silent films of all time. After HAXAN Christensen found his way to Hollywood, were he directed the great Lon Chaney in the melodrama MOCKERY, a story about a peasant caught up in the Russian Revolution. Christensen went to First National to make a trio of horror-mysteries. The first film, THE HAUNTED HOUSE, and the third film, THE HOUSE OF HORROR, are considered lost.

The second film, SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, survives, but not in the best condition. The print shown in the YouTube video is so soft visually that at times you can barely see the actors' faces. The real restoration here is new English title cards and a new music score.

The movie starts out by introducing us to James Kirkham (Creighton Hale), who has recently inherited his father's wealth. Jim wants to go off to Africa in search of adventure, an idea scorned by his Uncle Joe and his girlfriend Eve (Thelma Todd). At a party Jim and Eve are suddenly whisked away to a spooky mansion, where they encounter all sorts of mysterious goings-on. Among the strange characters that the couple encounter are a dwarf, a hideous crone, a crazed man on crutches, a flapper version of Morticia Addams, and a gorilla.

Jim and Eve learn that all the crazy incidents are orchestrated by a man known only as "Satan". Jim eventually learns what's really behind it all--and if you are familiar with American silent movie thrillers of the 1920s, you can probably guess how things turn out. I'm not going to reveal the climax, but I will say that the end does not justify the means to it.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN features just about every typical silent thriller trick in the book. There's sliding panels, characters being watched in secret, forbidding servants, a gorilla running around loose, etc. What makes this movie different is that tries to up the ante with some rather grotesque behavior. The story intimates that the various denizens of the mysterious house engage in floggings, devil-worship, and other forms of debauchery. We don't actually see anything of the sort taking place (and if you see the movie's ending, you'll know why), but the fact that such naughtiness is even suggested makes it unique among American silent thrillers. (While doing some research on this film I came across a review posted on IMDB website which compared SEVEN FOOTPRINTS to Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT--a comparison which isn't really that far off the mark.)

Creighton Hale, who plays Jim, also had the male lead role in the 1927 version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Hale gives almost exactly the same performance in this movie as he did in the earlier one--he even wears the same type of glasses. Hale spends most of his time looking scared (there's even a shot of his knees knocking), but he does show a bit of backbone at the end. The gorgeous Thelma Todd, best known for her roles with just about every classic Hollywood movie comedian, plays Eve in the usual damsel-in-distress manner. Todd was also in Christensen's THE HAUNTED HOUSE and THE HOUSE OF HORROR, which makes her a sort of early-day scream queen. When you think about it, running about and reacting broadly to events around her gave Thelma some good practice in dealing with the likes of Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers.

It's too bad that this print of SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN shown on YouTube is not that impressive. Benjamin Christensen and cinematographer Sol Polito go heavy on the shadows and the atmosphere, and if the film were better looking, a viewer might better appreciate the filmmakers' work. The new music score by Kevin McLeod is serviceable, and the soundtrack has been augmented by effects such as gunshots and screams--I personally feel that the sound effects were unnecessary.

I believe that any classic horror film fan should take the opportunity to see SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN at least once. The movie has a lot of appetizing elements to it--but the ending does not make proper use of those elements. (It has to be pointed out that the ending was par for the course for just about every American mystery thriller made at the time.) Thelma Todd fans should watch it since it is (so far) the only surviving evidence of her short tenure as a scream queen.

Thelma Todd with some of the characters from SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Worst Movies I've Seen In A Theater

I have to say that when it comes to bad experiences at the movies, I haven't had too many of them. I've turned plenty of movies off while watching them on television, but I've never actually walked out of a theater before a movie has finished playing. I think that says more about my cheapness than my taste in film--if you pay a ticket to see something, you might as well see it all the way through.

I'm somewhat choosy when it comes to viewing a movie in a theater. I won't go see just anything, and I'm not particularly moved by massive hype or whatever happens to be trendy at the moment. I do read reviews, and take them into account--but if for some reason I want to see a certain film, I'll go see it, no matter how much the critics may trash it. (A perfect example of this is JOHN CARTER, a movie I really do like.) On the other hand, if a certain film holds no interest for me, I'll probably not see it, no matter how many awards it wins or how much money it makes.

I try to be open-minded about all films as much as possible, but there are some categories I do make a point to stay away from, such as "torture porn" movies and Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell comedies. Maybe that's why I've never walked out on a theatrical film....yet.

The following list is not going to be very a matter of fact, I could only come up with four entries. I must point out that there is a huge difference between a film that is disappointing and a film that is terrible. I've seen dozens of disappointing films--the STAR WARS prequels, the HOBBIT trilogy, LAST ACTION HERO, etc....but I wouldn't call those films terrible. The films on this list, at least from my point of view, reach a special level of cinematic failure. If I am a bit hazy on some of the details on these productions, it is because I have truthfully have not seen them completely since I encountered them on the big screen.

The list is in no particular order--they're all pretty bad.

No, this isn't that super hero movie. This is the 1998 movie adaptation of the 1960s cult classic British TV show. On paper, this must have been a sure-fire high concept idea. The original television show featured espionage, science-fiction, action-adventure, dry wit, and perfect roles for a handsome leading man and a gorgeous leading lady. The problem is that the TV version had a quirky sensibility that was hard to recapture (or even explain to someone who had never seen the series). The TV "Avengers" existed in its own little self-contained world....and expanding that world on the big screen made it seem weird instead of entertaining. There's a fine line from being camp to being misunderstood, and this movie shot way past that line. Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman dress like John Steed and Mrs. Peel, but that's about's like they are playing The Avengers at a costume party. Sean Connery plays a take-off on a James Bond villain--an interesting idea, but Connery appears totally out of place here. And what can you say about a movie that casts Eddie Izzard--a guy with a reputation for running his mouth--and doesn't give him any dialogue?

I took my brother Robert to see this movie because he is a big Bruce Willis fan. At least I think he was before he had to see this film. As far as I can remember, Willis plays a crook who gets caught up in an international conspiracy involving Leonardo De Vinci's secret treasure....or something like that. Just like THE AVENGERS, this is a movie that tries to be campy and exciting at the same time....and it fails miserably. I do recall that at the climax, Bruce and Danny Aiello were blowing away people with automatic weapons, while singing torch songs.

Uma Thurman makes this list again! (And if I had seen MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND in the theater, she might have made this list a third time.) I love Uma, but eye candy can only go so far. I've already discussed this movie on an earlier post where I ranked all the Batman theatrical films. It's still horrible. There are so many things wrong with this picture--the wasting of a great villain in Bane, stiffer-than-a-board line readings from Alicia Silverstone, and fight scenes that wouldn't be out of place for a 1950s TV show--so many things, that someone needs to write an entire book analyzing it. Anyone could write a book saying why CITIZEN KANE is great--the real challenge would be to take on this disaster.

I have to admit that I saw this film because of the hype. I believe that in the same week this movie got cover stories on both Newsweek and Time--and this was when that really meant something. Everybody at the time (1999) was calling it "The scariest film of all time" I decided to go see what all the fuss was about. After the movie was (mercifully) over, I stood up and exclaimed, "That's it???" I wasn't scared, I was just annoyed.
But I do have to say this. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has had a huge impact on popular culture. Not as a film, or even a scary film.....just think about it this way. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is basically a reality show. The hand-held camera, pain-in-the-neck "real" people who constantly argue with one another, a "real" situation that is exaggerated to the utmost degree....this is what television has become in the 21st Century. And that's more than likely why I watch very little 21st Century television.

Now that you've read my whining and moaning, what about you? What are the worst films you have seen in a theater? Have you ever walked out of a film showing in a theater? Leave a comment, or visit The Hitless Wonder Facebook page to share your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Disney, Star Wars, and Marvel

Last December I wrote a review about the Star Wars Novel TARKIN. In it I mentioned how the Disney Corporation--the new owners of Lucasfilm--have decided that any new non-movie Star Wars material would be considered as "official" Star Wars history. In other words, all the Star Wars stuff that will be created under the auspices of Disney "counts", and all the old "Expanded Universe" product will be pushed aside.

Some Star Wars fans are a bit piqued about doesn't really bother me, I never paid all that much attention to the Expanded Universe to begin with. What Disney is doing is consolidating the Star Wars fictional empire--they have a lot of movies planned, so it makes sense to bring some order to all the various books, video games, and media devoted to the Star Wars Universe.

One of the big new Star Wars/Disney offerings is a comic book agreement with Marvel. Original Star Wars fans will remember that it was Marvel that published the official comic book movie adaptation of the first STAR WARS in 1977. That adaptation was hugely influential--I know that as a little kid I actually read the Marvel Star Wars movie comic before I had a chance to see the film. Marvel continued making Star Wars comics for a few years after, then the rights were later taken over by Dark Horse comics. Dark House put out some okay material, but they seemed more interested in stories that had very little to do with the core Star Wars original trilogy characters.

A Marvel/Disney/Star Wars combination is huge. Those are three of the biggest names in the entertainment industry right now. Currently there is a regular Star Wars comic, which takes place right after the events of the 1977 film, and a special Darth Vader title (a comic on Princess Leia is scheduled to debut in March). The Star Wars and Darth Vader titles share the same storyline, and I assume the Leia issues will also. It appears that Disney and Marvel want to make sure that this new Star Wars comic line has a consistent tone and look to it. It's rather telling that the series is focusing on the original trilogy characters having adventures during the original trilogy time period. That's what most Star Wars fans want to see (well, at least it's what I want to see).

As an original Star Wars fan I can wholeheartedly assure you that the new Marvel comics have the right feel to them. Hopefully this feeling will continue throughout future issues. The folks at Marvel must have went out of their way to do Star Wars properly--they had to have known that any type of disappointment from hard-core fans would be displayed all over the internet. So far, from what I can tell, the new Marvel Star Wars has been received enthusiastically.

Another new Star Wars product is the computer-animated TV series STAR WARS: REBELS. The show debuted last fall and it plays on the Disney XD channel. At first glance the series is reminiscent of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS, but REBELS is set four years before the events of the 1977 feature film. The first batch of episodes has featured such original trilogy characters as C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Lando Calrissian, and Grand Moff Tarkin. STAR WARS: REBELS also has what I believe is the right feel to it. Having the series set nearer to the events of the original trilogy certainly helps.

It appears to me that Disney is going back to the original trilogy as much as they can....maybe in an effort to prove that they know how to make authentic Star Wars material. The original trilogy of Star Wars movies have now become modern mythology. So far Disney is playing to the strengths of the Star Wars franchise. Will that translate into good feelings for all the upcoming Star Wars feature films? It remains to be seen how those projects will accepted, but with STAR WARS: REBELS and the new Marvel comics, Disney is off to a good start. They can really win the fans over by releasing the REAL original trilogy on Blu-ray.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The 1931 Spanish Version Of DRACULA

While reading Gary D. Rhodes' book TOD BROWNING'S DRACULA, I took the opportunity to revisit both versions of the film that Universal produced in 1931. One of the main themes of Rhodes' book is that the Spanish version of DRACULA is not the "lost" classic that many critics have made it out to be.

The reason that a special Spanish version of DRACULA was produced at all is that in the early 1930s sound dubbing had not been perfected, and Universal did not want to lose any box-office from foreign audiences. With a silent film, all a studio had to do was change the title cards to make a picture understandable for a certain overseas market. With a sound film, things were a bit trickier. The result was that, for a very short time, a few films of the early 1930s had "alternate" versions--some of them with totally different actors, and totally different technicians behind the camera.

The 1931 Spanish version of DRACULA has become the most famous of these alternate films, due to the fame of the American DRACULA and the fact that Universal has made the Spanish version widely available on home video since the 1990s. Just about anyone who writes about the Spanish DRACULA asserts that it is superior to the American one--so much so that it is now naturally assumed that it is superior, even by those who have never seen the Spanish version.

I own both 1931 versions of DRACULA on home video, and I've seen them multiple times. I can definitely state that, in my opinion, the Spanish version is NOT superior to the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi DRACULA.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Browning/Lugosi DRACULA is that it is slow and creaky--even though it is only 75 minutes long. The Spanish DRACULA, directed by George Melford, clocks in at 103 minutes, and it basically has the same exact story. If you think the Browning/Lugosi film moves like a snail, try watching the Spanish version sometime. More isn't necessarily better, especially here. The script for DRACULA was talky enough as it is, and the Spanish version has more talk. I am not fluent in Spanish, and maybe if I was, I would appreciate the dialogue in the Spanish version better--but I doubt even that would have improved the film for me.

The added talk might have been better served if the American DRACULA actors had been able to deliver it. The Spanish DRACULA cast can't hold a candle (pun intended) to the American performers. Let's face it, how could any actor outshine Bela Lugosi in his signature role? Carlos Villarias (billed as Villar in the film) portrays Count Dracula. He's obviously no Lugosi (who could be?), but to be fair how many Spanish-speaking actors at that time had ever had experience in playing a vampire before? Lugosi's critics have called his DRACULA performance out for being hammy--but Lugosi is far more subtle in the role than people give him credit for. Villarias is more like a typical bad guy than Lugosi's strange unearthly creature. Even though I can't speak Spanish I could tell that Villarias used a far more "normal" speech pattern than Lugosi did (all of Bela's classic lines fall flat in this edition). Villarias also spends a lot of time much so that he looks as if he is physically sick.

Pablo Alvarez Rubio plays the mad Renfield. The American Renfield was of course played by Dwight Frye, and his performance has become legendary, like that of Lugosi. Once again I have to point out that, like Bela, the supposed-hammy Frye's Renfield is more assured than people realize. Watching Rubio makes one understand just how magnificent Frye was in the role of a madman. Rubio spends most of his time throwing back his head and laughing crazily--a somewhat ordinary way of showing a extraordinary character. Rubio has far more screen time in the Spanish DRACULA then just about anyone else, so his act gets tiresome as the movie goes along.

Eduardo Arozamena plays Van Helsing, and he just can't compete with Edward Van Sloan's take on the character--especially Van Sloan's unique line readings. Arozamena does seem to be wearing the exact same style of glasses as Van Sloan does in the American DRACULA.

If there is one performer in the Spanish version that stands out, it is Lupita Tovar in the role played by Helen Chandler in the American version. Tovar is far more emotional and passionate (Chandler has always seemed to me to be a bit bloodless even before she gets bitten by Lugosi). It would have been interesting to see Tovar paired up with Bela's Dracula.

Those who champion the Spanish DRACULA focus on that film's visual quality more than the cast. Many say that George Melford did a better job of direction than Tod Browning, and some go even as far to say that George Robinson, who was the cinematographer of the Spanish version, did a better job than the legendary Karl Freund. The Spanish DRACULA might have a few standout camera moves, but it isn't an exceptionally photographed film. The Spanish version used the same sets as the American (the Spanish production team filmed at night while the American team was off), and it also used a number of shots from the American version--which sets up some blatant continuity errors. The Spanish version had a shorter shooting schedule than the American, and it shows in some rather clumsily staged scenes, such as one where Villarias as Dracula is delivering dialogue while he is hidden by a large candelabra. The confrontations between Dracula and Van Helsing are superior in the Browning/Lugosi version. There's some fine touches in the Spanish version, such as during Dracula's journey to England by boat, where Renfield is framed looking out a porthole laughing maniacally while the Count begins his attack on the ship's crew. All in all, however, I don't feel that there is anything in the Spanish version that is appreciably better than the American.

I think the real reason so many critics and film historians have looked favorably on the Spanish DRACULA is that it was not as familiar as the American DRACULA. Most monster movie fans have seen the Browning/Lugosi DRACULA dozens of times, so they might easily consider the Spanish DRACULA as fresh and different on a first viewing of it. I believe both 1931 versions of DRACULA suffer from a script that tries to be a mixture of Bram Stoker's novel and the Broadway play. In my opinion the story of Dracula, at least the story of Stoker's novel, has never properly been adapted to the screen. (The Francis Ford Coppola BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA was assuredly not Bram Stoker's Dracula.) The Spanish version should be best looked at as an example of what certain actors can bring--or not bring--to a certain role.

If you are a classic horror film fan and have not seen the Spanish 1931 DRACULA, you should check it out just for historical reasons alone. How many times are you going to be able to see an alternate version of a famous film, made at the same time, with the same sets, but with a different cast?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


If there is one thing that old monster movie fans like to do, it is argue about old monster movies--especially on the internet. Just go to the Classic Horror Movie Board and check out some of the conversations. There are certain subjects that really get old monster geeks going--two of the most notorious are Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi. Browning (as a director) and Lugosi (as an actor) are two of the biggest icons of fantastic cinema, yet that doesn't stop them from getting blasted on social media daily.

Most of the controversy surrounding Browning and Lugosi centers around the 1931 Universal production DRACULA, the first American sound horror film. While some look upon the film as a classic, many others see it as a missed opportunity. Film historian Gary D. Rhodes lays out a spirited defense of the movie in his new book TOD BROWNING'S DRACULA.

In TOD BROWNING'S DRACULA, Rhodes doesn't just delve into the film's production history--he also reviews the up-and-down cultural standing the vampire thriller has had over the years. Rhodes' intention is to convince the reader that the movie has been unfairly maligned, and that it should be remembered as a outstanding example of the classic horror genre. He also wishes to make the case that director Tod Browning has not been given the proper credit for the overall effect that DRACULA has--hence the book's title: TOD BROWNING'S DRACULA.

Rhodes begins by showing the extent of vampire folklore in the United States leading up to the early 20th Century. He then covers all aspects of the making of DRACULA, and reveals some new information along the way (such as how Tod Browning, and Universal Pictures, had interest in adapting Bram Stoker's novel years before they actually did).

Rhodes also examines the film's post-production, publicity, debut and general release. He then details how DRACULA made several "reappearances" over the years, through re-releases, television, and home video. In the last part of the book Rhodes takes on those who have harshly judged the 1931 DRACULA, and the author compares Browning's work with that of Universal's Spanish version of DRACULA, filmed on the same sets as the Browning version.

Rhodes certainly has an emotional attachment to the 1931 DRACULA. He has written several books and magazine articles on Bela Lugosi (I have to point out here that this book is NOT about Lugosi), and his knowledge and analysis of DRACULA is exhaustive. I've seen DRACULA dozens of times, and Rhodes pointed out numerous things about the production that I never noticed. Even if you don't necessarily agree with Rhodes' opinion on DRACULA, he will assuredly have you thinking about the film in a different way.

That being said, one wonders how much this book will really change the perception that the 1931 DRACULA currently has. While reading this book, I decided to watch the '31 DRACULA again on DVD. I still think the movie is heavy going--I believe that it is more an important film than a great one. But as Rhodes accurately points out, it is a product of its time. It was the very first sound American horror film, and the first one to have supernatural elements--so to judge it against all the other horror films that came after it does not really do it justice. (I must admit that I have not seen the recent Blu-ray of the 1931 DRACULA, which some have said is almost like watching the movie for the first time.)

Rhodes devotes an entire chapter to the comparison between Tod Browning's DRACULA and the Spanish version (which was directed by George Melford). A number of critics have decreed that the Spanish version is far superior to Browning's. I have the Spanish version on DVD, and I am not a big fan of it (might that be my next blog post? Mmm...could be). Rhodes uses a quantitative film analysis called "Cinemetrics" to try and prove his point that the Spanish version is not faster paced and better photographed than the Browning version. "Cinemetrics" involves calculating the average shot length of a film and the exact number of camera movements used. The technique of "Cinemetrics" is one that I have doubts about (sabermetrics for movies??) but it is an unusual and unique way of judging two similar films against one another.

TOD BROWNING'S DRACULA features dozens of images, many of which this long-time monster movie fan has never seen before. Each chapter of the book features a copious notes section at the end--there's no doubt that Rhodes has done a major amount of research for this project. Old monster movie fanatics may disagree with the author's conclusions, but they will have to admit the importance of the 1931 DRACULA to the genre as a whole. For better or worse, the production truly is Tod Browning's DRACULA--and this book is revelatory examination of it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Dock Ellis (1945-2008) was a baseball player who pitched in the Major Leagues from 1968 to 1979. Ellis was the National League's starting pitcher in the 1971 All-Star Game, and that same year he started the first game of the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also pitched in the 1976 World Series for the New York Yankees.

Ellis also pitched a now-infamous no-hitter in 1970. What makes this achievement infamous is that Ellis later said he was under the influence of LSD at the time. Ellis was one of the most controversial American professional athletes of the 1970s, and the film NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY examines Ellis' life and times.

When I was a kid I read the book DOCK ELLIS IN THE COUNTRY OF BASEBALL, which Ellis wrote in collaboration with poet Donald Hall. The book had all sort of wild stories in it, but after watching NO NO I realized that the book only scratched the surface when it came to the personality of Dock Ellis. The documentary mainly deals with Dock's glory days in the early 70s with the Pirates. As a outspoken black man during this period, Ellis was a lightning rod for controversy. Many of the people interviewed for this film say that Ellis was misunderstood, but while viewing this one has to admit that the man often went out of his way to get himself into trouble.

The major highlights of Ellis' career are covered, including his World Series appearances, the mammoth home run he gave up to Reggie Jackson in the 1971 All-Star game, and of course his no-hitter. Ellis is quoted in this film as saying every game he ever pitched in the Majors was under the influence of some kind of drug. The widespread use of amphetamines in the Majors during the 1970s is discussed (Ellis apparently popped greenies like candy), and some of the revelations may disappoint old-school baseball fans.

During his playing days Ellis was heavily addicted to drugs & alcohol. It certainly affected his performance--during one game in 1974 an angry Ellis decided to knock down every single Cincinnati Reds batter that came to the plate (needless to say, he didn't last very long on the mound that day). This documentary covers Ellis' wild lifestyle in such detail that one wonders how he was even able to pitch effectively in the Majors for a decade. But this is not a celebration of 70s excess--the film makes very clear that Ellis' actions had unfortunate consequences for himself and his friends and loved ones.

After his career in baseball was over, Ellis went into rehab and became a drug counselor. He spent the rest of his life trying to help those who had made some of the same mistakes as he had. After watching this documentary one is content that Ellis was able to turn his life around--but that content is mixed with a sadness on realizing how great Ellis' baseball career might have been.

NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY (directed by Jeffrey Radice) features interviews with dozens of Ellis' family members, friends, and teammates. Any 1970s baseball fan will be familiar with the many ex-players appearing on camera. There's also quite a lot of footage and audio of Dock himself discussing his life and career. The most powerful moment in the film is audio of Dock breaking down and crying while reading a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson.

For baseball fans this film is a treasure trove of vintage footage (Pittsburgh Pirates fans should watch this just for the fact that it is kind of a mini-history of the team during the Seventies). NO NO definitely has a Seventies period vibe, right down to the funky soundtrack. You don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate this film--anyone interested in American social history would enjoy it. Dock Ellis was truly a man of his times.