Saturday, October 31, 2015
One of the most frequently requested titles by film buffs to be released on home video has finally come out from Olive Films. The 1964 horror anthology DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS is now available on Region A Blu-ray and Region One DVD.
(Before I go own, I am well aware that Odeon has released a Region B Blu-ray of this title with loads of extras. As I've mentioned many times on this blog, I do not have a region-free Blu-ray player. A few of my internet friends have wondered why I don't have one...well, I'll tell you the real reason why. I spend way too much money on DVDs and Blu-rays as it is. If I did have a region-free player, I'd be spending even more money on stuff. I'm a working-class guy from Indiana...I'm certainly not rich. When you see me review a DVD or Blu-ray on this blog, it is a movie I have actually bought. No company sends me freebies, or screeners....and I don't expect anybody to do so. If anyone is interested in sending me free product, you are more than welcome to do so--just don't expect me to kiss your behind for you.)
Now that that's out of the way.....
DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS is a legendary title in classic horror film history. It is the very first anthology film made by Amicus, the English-based production company run by Americans Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg. The duo had already made one of the best modern Gothic thrillers ever, 1960's CITY OF THE DEAD (aka HORROR HOTEL) under the name Vanguard Productions. Milton Subotsky (who wrote the script for DR. TERROR) was inspired to use the multi-story format by the 1945 British film DEAD OF NIGHT. I wonder, however, if the success of AIP's 1962 TALES OF TERROR had an influence on Subotsky. The very first tale in DR. TERROR references a character named "Cosmo Valdemar", and one of the tales in TALES OF TERROR is "The Case of M. Valdemar"--I'm sure that was more than a coincidence. I also believe Subotsky noticed the wave of American anthology TV shows of the early 1960s such as THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Like those shows, the stories in DR. TERROR feature a "twist" ending.
The "linking" story in DR. TERROR (that is, the story that links all the other tales together) concerns five strangers in a train compartment (played by Christopher Lee, Roy Castle, a very young Donald Sutherland, Alan Freeman, and Neil McCallum). The five are joined by the mysterious Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing), who proceeds to tell each of the men their futures through the use of the Doctor's deck of tarot cards. The fates of the men are dramatized in five separate tales--"Werewolf", "Creeping Vine", "Voodoo", "Disembodied Hand", and "Vampire". As one can tell by the titles, the tales are rather simple and to the point.
I feel the best of the stories is "Disembodied Hand", which has Christopher Lee as arrogant art critic Franklyn Marsh. Marsh is publicly embarrassed by artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough), and the critic is so angered by this he runs over Landor with his car. Landor has to have his hand amputated as a result, and since he no longer can paint, the man commits suicide. Landor's hand, however, refuses to die....and it comes back to wreak vengeance on Marsh. The segment is very creepy and well-directed, but what makes it work is Christopher Lee's portrayal of the snide, stuck-up Marsh.
The other stories are okay, not great. Five stories may have been one too many (the movie has a 98-minute total running time). It is the linking segment that makes the biggest impression. Peter Cushing takes an obvious "spooky" character in Dr. Schreck (schreck means "terror" in German) and underplays him in a wonderful manner. Instead of the usual scary trappings, Cushing uses subtlety to make Schreck into a quietly sinister figure. Peering out from under Schreck's bushy eyebrows and wide-brimmed hat, Cushing's penetrating stare does more than a hundred pounds of monster makeup. Cushing walks away with the film, despite the fact that he spends most of his time sitting in a train compartment surrounded by five other actors. It is a brilliant example of Cushing's acting talent, and how he could do more with less.
All in all DR. TERROR is a more important film than a great one. The movie started Amicus on its run of several horror and science-fiction films over the next decade. Amicus became a major rival to Hammer Films, and Milton Subotsky would always go out of his way to denigrate Hammer. Subotsky may have been a bit jealous, because Amicus used many on and off-camera talent connected to Hammer. DR. TERROR director Freddie Francis had already made films for Hammer, and of course Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became famous from their association with the company. DR. TERROR has other actors familiar to Hammer fans, such as Peter Madden, Katy Wild, Michael Gough, and Isla Blair. Makeup artist Roy Ashton, who created many of Hammer's best monsters, also worked on DR. TERROR, and he would go on to have a long career with Amicus.
I first saw DR. TERROR on television back in the 1980s. Obviously it wasn't shown in widescreen back then. Watching a pan-and-scan version of DR. TERROR is a waste of time, because Freddie Francis and cinematographer Alan Hume filled the 2.35:1 frame with all sorts of striking compositions. When Francis used the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (as he also did with the 1965 Amicus film THE SKULL), he really used it. DR. TERROR simply has to be seen in widescreen, and that is why it has been so frustrating that the movie did not have a proper American home video release until now. I had a VHS release of DR. TERROR that not only was pan-and-scan, but also had a terrible print of the film, and a cheap looking video box design.
Even when DR. TERROR would show up on TV in recent years, the print still looked bad. This Olive Blu-ray will be a revelation to those who have not seen DR. TERROR in a long time. It is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and it is the best I have ever seen this film look. The transfer is very colorful--just check out Schreck's tarot cards--and it really brings out Freddie Francis' set-ups. (The Paramount logo is even at the start of the film.) The sound is clear and full as well.
This Blu-ray release has no extras. That's a bit disappointing, but I think the important thing here is the release of the movie itself. As I stated at the beginning of this post, DR. TERROR has long been on the "Most Requested Blu-ray releases" lists. It may not be the best Amicus anthology film (for the record, my personal pick is THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), but it is a major part of classic horror film history, and it is one of the most famous of all the Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee team-ups.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
This is my contribution to the Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes (silverscenesblog.blogspot.com)
Out of all the great Hollywood studios, Universal, by far, is my favorite. That should be no surprise to anyone who has read a few of my blog posts. I am a lifelong classic monster movies fan, and nobody did classic monsters better than the Big Globe. One could say that Universal created and defined the classic American Gothic horror film.
But there's more to my love for Universal than just monster movies. Even before I became an "official" movie geek, I was watching Universal product. When I was a little kid, TV stations like WGN Channel 9 in Chicago showed Universal films constantly--especially during weekends. Two series in particular--the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone and the Abbott & Costello comedies--I remember seeing over and over again.
I'm sure most of my Sunday mornings as a youngster involved me checking out a Sherlock Holmes adventure or Bud & Lou getting into another mix-up. I own most of those films--and the Universal monster classics--on home video, and they are as familiar to me as the roads in my neighborhood. Most of Universal's on and off-camera talent in the 1940s worked in all three series, which gave the movies even more of a "old friends" type of feeling.
As I grew up and began to learn about the history and the making of these Universal classics, I started to see them in a new light. A certain performer who I knew from the Universal horrors would suddenly wind up being a foil for Abbott & Costello, while someone who played a straight role alongside Bud & Lou would turn up as a suspect in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Directors, screenwriters, and producers would also bounce between the series.
The result is that when one watches any of the Universal series entries now, one appreciates even more the talent involved in making them. Universal was a full-time working studio and they churned these movies out at an incredible pace--but these pictures still entertain (and gain new fans) in the 21st Century.
HERE COME THE CO-EDS, released in 1945, isn't one of Universal's most famous films--it's not even considered one of Abbott & Costello's most famous films. But it happens to be a favorite of mine, and whenever I take part in a blogathon, I try to choose a subject that may not be well-known.
HERE COME THE CO-EDS has Abbott & Costello going to an all-girls school. If you have any lewd thoughts, put them away--this isn't a 1980s raunchy sex comedy. (The person that gets the most romantic action in this story is Lou Costello!)
Bud Abbott (as Slats) and Lou Costello (as Oliver) play taxi dancers at a ballroom. Slats' sister Molly (played by the lovely Universal starlet Martha O'Driscoll) also works at the ballroom, and Slats tries to get her some publicity by running an ad saying that Molly is only dancing to earn enough money to go to Bixby College. Bixby's free-thinking Dean (Donald Cook) reads the ad and offers Molly a scholarship. Molly accepts, and gets Slats and Oliver hired as campus caretakers.
Of course having Bud & Lou take care of anything is asking for trouble. The head caretaker at Bixby is a big, ornery cuss named Johnson. He is played by none other than Lon Chaney Jr., who at the same time was playing the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the leading roles in Universal's "Inner Sanctum" series. It may seem strange for Lon Jr. to be in such a role--he doesn't even get any special billing--but the erstwhile monster man is perfect as a comic villain. Lon spends the entire movie in a ticked off mood--was he angry that the studio stuck him in this part?--and his byplay with Lou is fantastic. Lon Jr. would more famously co-star with Bud & Lou a few years later in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and I'm sure many viewers of that film don't even realize that Chaney had already dealt with A & C.
Lou Costello, Martha O'Driscoll, and Bud Abbott
Bixby College is in trouble--the stuck-up Chancellor is mad at the Dean's forward-thinking ways, and the school is in danger of being closed. Slats, Oliver, Molly, and the students decide to try and raise money to save Bixby, and a big basketball game is planned with rival Carlton. Slats and Oliver bet big money on Bixby to win, and gamblers hire professional women basketball players to serve as ringers for Carlton. (Can you imagine what the NCAA would think about this?) Oliver winds up serving as a ringer himself, and after he is hit on the head and knocked out by the ball he is convinced that he is the greatest female basketball player of all time.
Many legendary film comedians, such as Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton, had great athletic prowess, and Lou Costello was no exception. Most people assume that since Lou was short and chubby, he really was a klutz....but Lou was a fine athlete as a youngster, and he even worked as a stunt man in Hollywood during the 1920s. In every A & C movie Lou had to perform several pratfalls, and there's more to physical comedy than just plain falling down. Costello was a pratfall artist, and HERE COME THE CO-EDS gives him numerous opportunities to show off this skill. Even before the big basketball game Lou has to go through a wrestling match, and even though doubles were used for most of the scene, Costello still takes a beating. The basketball match really gives Lou a chance to shine. Lou was a semi-pro hoops player in his younger days, and he pulls off many trick shots during the scene.
The basketball court scenes were actually filmed on Universal's famous Phantom Stage (did Lon Jr. appreciate the irony of this?). During the halftime of the game a musical number is staged featuring Peggy Ryan as Patty, the co-ed who happens to be Oliver's love interest. Peggy Ryan is as cute as a button in this film (so cute that the viewer doesn't mind that she is about 20 years younger than Costello), and she and Lou make a entertaining couple. Ryan and Costello even get their own song and dance number, "Let's Play House". Peggy Ryan made a number of musicals at Universal with Donald O'Connor, and during HERE COME THE CO-EDS Lou even mentions that he feels like O'Connor. The other musical numbers in the film are provided by Phil Spitalny's All-Girl Orchestra, featuring Evelyn and her magic violin (seriously, that is how they are billed in the movie). A & C fans always feel that the musical numbers in their films are intrusive, but at least here it makes sense that an all girls college would have an all girl orchestra.
Martha O'Driscoll is very appealing--and very photogenic--as Molly. She's so gorgeous you have to wonder how Bud Abbott could be playing her brother. O'Driscoll would go on in 1945 to co-star again with Lon Chaney Jr. in HOUSE OF DRACULA.
Director Jean Yarbrough had already directed an A & C film--IN SOCIETY--and he would direct them in the future, including some episodes of Bud and Lou's TV show. Yarbrough also directed such Universal thrillers as HOUSE OF HORRORS and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON.
Is there anything particularly special about HERE COME THE CO-EDS? Well, maybe not...but if you watch the movie, you'll have a good time. There is a lot of prime A & C material here--such as Lou swallowing Lon Jr.'s trick dice, resulting in Lon and Bud "shaking" Lou and betting on the outcome. A funny scene is Lou trying to tell some of the students a joke concerning a whale, only to have Bud totally ruin his story. The basketball sequence is a treat, and there's even a wild chase scene after that. Peggy Ryan is a happy bundle of energy, and monster fans will enjoy seeing Martha O'Driscoll and Lon Chaney Jr. in "ordinary" roles. Universal may have cranked out these type of movies like a factory, but the fact is that HERE COME THE CO-EDS is now 70 years old, and it still does what it was designed to do--entertain you and make you laugh. You have to give the Big Globe some credit for that.
(Most of the information in this post comes from Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo's excellent book, ABBOTT & COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD.)
Monday, October 26, 2015
Guillermo del Toro is one of the few interesting film directors regularly working today. His latest effort is CRIMSON PEAK, a dark Gothic romance thriller set during the turn of the 20th Century.
Many have consider CRIMSON PEAK to be del Toro's tribute to Hammer Films, since the surname of the lead character is "Cushing", and lead actor Tom Hiddleston, in his Victorian costumes, very much resembles a young Peter Cushing. I feel, however, that CRIMSON PEAK is very reminiscent of the Italian Gothic chillers of the early 1960s, particularly those directed by Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda. CRIMSON PEAK not only has the sumptuous art direction of those Italian horrors, it also matches them with a storyline featuring false marriages and perverted family secrets.
If you are looking for a hard-core horror tale, CRIMSON PEAK is not it. The movie name drops such authors as Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and the three main characters are all archetypes of classic Gothic romantic fiction--young, innocent, repressed heroine, mysterious English aristocrat, and intimidating older sister.
The imaginative Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who aspires to be a writer, is swept off her feet when the dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes to America to ask Edith's father for help in restoring the Sharpe family's mining operations. Edith's father doesn't trust Sharpe, or his imperious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Mr. Cushing tries to bribe Sharpe into leaving his daughter alone, but the elder man is viciously murdered, and Edith winds up marrying Sharpe and going to England to live in the Sharpe family manor.
That manor is, as you might have guessed, not exactly your normal house. As a matter of fact, it is the real star of CRIMSON PEAK. It is the old haunted house to end all old haunted houses--the production design on it is so striking that it overwhelms those living in the place. The house is so baroque that it almost veers into Tim Burton territory.
And that may be the biggest problem of CRIMSON PEAK. Several times while watching the film I kept looking past the actors to check out some detail in the background. The movie looks fantastic--maybe too fantastic. Del Toro and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen use color in a way very few filmmakers do anymore. Usually what happens with 21st Century movies is that colors are de-saturated, and that is something I've frankly grown tired of. There's a lushness to CRIMSON PEAK that you just don't see from too many pictures now.
As for the supernatural element of the movie, there are a few spectral appearances--but I've never been able to be impressed by CGI ghosts. The real horror in the story is brought on by flesh & blood humans. The phrase "Crimson Peak" doesn't refer to blood--it refers to the Sharpe family manor being built on top of a large deposit of red clay. This causes the house, and the grounds, to "bleed"--a nice touch, if a bit over-obvious.
CRIMSON PEAK has fine, if understated, performances by the three leads. Tom Hiddleston may still look somewhat like Loki here, but don't expect any Loki-type histrionics. This type of movie really needs classic horror film stars to make it work. It could also do with a shorter running time--119 minutes is overlong for this kind of material.
CRIMSON PEAK is a film that appeals more to film geeks than a general audience. The movie did not open very well, and that's not surprising, especially considering that it is not anything like a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or a FINAL DESTINATION style of thriller. I believe that it is worth seeing for its visual quality alone (but make sure you see it on the big screen at the theater). I liked CRIMSON PEAK, but I can't help wondering what the movie would have been like if it was made in 1963, and directed by Mario Bava, and starred Peter Cushing as Sharpe and Barbara Steele as the raven-haired sister. Now...that would have been something.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Participating in The Silent Cinema Blogathon gives me another chance to express my admiration for the artistry of Buster Keaton. I could have picked any one of Buster's silent titles, but SEVEN CHANCES happens to be a personal favorite of mine.
Last year I wrote a blog post on my five favorite movie sequences. The final chase sequence in SEVEN CHANCES made the list. That chase is a breathtaking piece of cinematic work, and it still wows audiences to this day. It is more than just a funny routine--it is a spectacular example of why Buster Keaton was more than a great film comic, he was a great filmmaker, period.
Buster is credited as director on SEVEN CHANCES, but the fact is that on all his silent movies Keaton was the real guiding force. Buster's full-length silent features are notable not just for the intricate gags, but for how visually expansive they are. In his pre-sound work Buster uses real city streets, trains, automobiles, lakes, rivers, large groups of people, and even Mother Nature to give his films a quality even few "serious" movies of the time could match.
In SEVEN CHANCES, Buster plays broker Jimmie, who finds out that he and his partner have been swindled. If they don't raise money soon, they'll be in big trouble. Fortunately Jimmie is left $7 million dollars through an inheritance--but he has to be married by 7 PM to collect the money.
Jimmie tries to propose to his true love, but he bungles it. He then proposes to seven different acquaintances--the "seven chances" of the title--but he finds no luck with them either. Jimmie's partner resorts to placing an ad in the paper, revealing that Jimmie stands to inherit $7 million. This of course does the trick, and now Jimmie has more prospective brides than he can handle.
Buster builds the climax slowly, with shots of brides making their way to the church by any means possible. Jimmie is already at the church, but he has fallen asleep on the front pew, so he is unaware of the growing mob gathering behind him. Soon the church is filled with veiled women in white, and an awakened Jimmie has to run for his life.
Buster shot most of the chase on real Los Angeles city streets. Seeing hundreds of brides chasing Buster down actual locations is an arresting image, and Buster makes the most of it. The bridal mob becomes something of a character in itself, a real-life monster about to devour Keaton. Only by Buster's quick wits--and his quickness of feet--is he able to keep ahead of the ladies.
One thing I always notice when watching this sequence is how athletic Buster is. When he runs it's like looking at an Olympic sprinter. Very few people can look graceful while running, but Buster does it so naturally the viewer is astonished by it. Most comedians would have run in a "funny" manner, but Buster uses his physical prowess to enhance the gags, instead of making his running the gag. Buster's talent at leaping and sliding also come into play during the chase, and they are all the more impressive when one realizes that Buster is doing the stunts, and the stunts are for the most part real. There's some camera trickery involved, but mostly it is Buster running and leaping about with an abandon that would make even Douglas Fairbanks Sr. tired.
The capper to the SEVEN CHANCES chase sequence is Buster running down a hill and dislodging some boulders. The boulders roll down the hill and dislodge even more boulders, and Buster has to out-run and out-dodge dozens and dozens of large rocks. Obviously most of the rocks were fake, but it makes for a dazzling scene visually. Many other movies and TV shows have tried to do variations on the rock slide scenes, but no one can match Buster Keaton's way of doing it.
It has to be pointed out that the rock-slide part of the chase is edited to perfection--it still holds it own with any sequence of an action-adventure movie made today. And mentioning an action-adventure movie allows me to declare that Buster Keaton was one of the greatest action stars in cinema history. I know when one thinks of action stars one naturally has thoughts of shoot-outs and violent confrontations--but think back on all the incredible stunts Buster did. How many modern action stars can hold a candle to Buster's body of work? Also take into account the fact that Buster wasn't doing these stunts in front of a green screen, and he wasn't be augmented by any CGI. Buster moves with a grace and fluidity that puts the actors in today's comic book sagas to shame.
You don't need to look at just SEVEN CHANCES to be overwhelmed by Buster's technique--check out THE GENERAL, THE NAVIGATOR, STEAMBOAT BILL JR., and many others. Sadly, once sound came along, and Buster moved to MGM, the large-scale set-pieces--and the frantic energy that Keaton displayed--were gone.
Luckily, Kino has preserved Buster's best work with a magnificent line of Blu-rays dedicated to his best silent films. They show that Buster was more than a guy who fell down a lot--he was a cinematic genius, and one of the best silent-film directors (and performers) of all time.
I realize that an appreciation for silent cinema is a rare thing these days. Many of my non-movie buff friends (I refer to these folks as "civilians") believe that I am crazy to sit around and watch movies without sound...and that I would actually enjoy doing it. Silent cinema is pure cinema, and at its best it is as beautiful an art form that has ever existed. Buster Keaton would tell you he was just trying to make people laugh, but he played a large part in the art form known as silent cinema. Every time I see one of Buster's silent films, I come away with a feeling of joyous wonder.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post on Kino's Blu-ray release of the ultra-weird Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western CAPTAIN APACHE. Today we look at another Kino Van Cleef Blu-ray release--BAD MAN'S RIVER.
Just like CAPTAIN APACHE, this movie has ties to the cult Euro-horror hit HORROR EXPRESS--namely producer Bernard Gordon and director Eugenio Martin. Unfortunately BAD MAN'S RIVER makes HORROR EXPRESS look like CITIZEN KANE. The "bad man" of the title is Roy King (Lee Van Cleef), who, along with his gang, gets caught up in the Mexican Revolution. The "Gringo involved in war south of the border" plot was already overused by the time this film was made in 1971, and BAD MAN'S RIVER does it no favors.
King winds up having to deal with con artist Alicia (Gina Lollobrigida) and her husband Francisco Montero, who is played by none other than James Mason. Yes, you read that right....James Mason actually appeared in a spaghetti western.
In CAPTAIN APACHE Lee Van Cleef got a chance to sing the title song. Here he doesn't get to do the honors, but the title song for BAD MAN'S RIVER is head-scratching enough on its on. It's a jaunty ditty more suited for a 1960s mediocre American TV sitcom. There are other songs spread throughout the movie as well, and they all comment on what is going on story-wise in a very contrived fashion. One of the tunes is a psychedelic hard rock number.
These musical numbers are just one of the examples of the mixed-up attitude BAD MAN'S RIVER has. For the most part the movie tries to have a lighthearted tone, but when it's time for the shooting to start, tightly edited action scenes take over. Towards the climax the film really goes off the rails with cartoon-like gags and characters acting silly. Van Cleef, fitted out in a toupee and a bowler hat, is presented as a notorious bandit, but he's nowhere near as vicious as he is in most of his Euro-Western roles. (He does get to kill a lot of people here, though.) As in CAPTAIN APACHE, Van Cleef gets to do more than just his usual "Colonel Mortimer" type of role. The actor climbs into bed with Lollobrigida (in CAPTAIN APACHE, Van Cleef hit the sack with Carroll Baker) and he even does a drunk scene. The veteran Western heavy probably enjoyed this change of pace, but his fans would have more than likely prefered to see the typical Lee Van Cleef persona.
As for James Mason, he doesn't show up till about an hour into the story. Exactly why he decided to do this movie is hard to fathom--any actor could have played his character, there's really nothing special about it. The role is supposed to be that of an important Mexican with major connections--but for some reason Mason attempts to do an American Southern accent! (I say "attempts" because he doesn't quite pull it off.) Seeing Mason exchanging dialogue with Lee Van Cleef is unusual, to say the least.
The most important role in BAD MAN'S RIVER belongs to Gina Lollobrigida. It is she who sets the plot in motion, and it is she who manipulates almost all the other characters in the story. For all of their supposed "badness", Roy King and his goofy gang spend most of their time being suckered into one precarious situation after another. It's a rarity for a spaghetti western to have a major female role determine the outcome of the plot, and it is about the only noteworthy element of BAD MAN'S RIVER.
One other cast member I have to mention is Aldo Sambrell. This actor has to hold the record for appearing in more spaghetti westerns than any other performer....name any famous title in this particular genre and chances are he was in it.
Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Phillip Yordan worked on BAD MAN'S RIVER (as he did on CAPTAIN APACHE), and you have to wonder how he felt if he ever did see how this picture turned out. Eugenio Martin handles the action scenes well, but when it comes to the "comedy" it mostly falls flat. For some reason, during the first ten minutes of the film, the director uses an annoying freeze frame technique to transition between scenes--and then he never uses it again for the rest of the running time.
Kino presents BAD MAN'S RIVER in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The visual quality varies from scene to scene, but considering this is such an obscure title, I doubt you are going to find a better version of it anywhere else. I do have to mention that the sound is clear and full. The only extras are a couple of trailers for other Kino Western releases.
BAD MAN'S RIVER, simply put, is a mess. But if you've always wanted to see Lee Van Cleef and James Mason co-starring in a movie directed by the guy who made HORROR EXPRESS, this is the film for you!
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
If you have read even only a few entries on this blog, you'll know that I am a long-time fan of Hammer Films. I belong to a few Hammer groups on Facebook and I try to keep up with anything Hammer-related on the rest of the internet.
One thing I have noticed about Hammer fans on the internet over the past couple years is how...ahem, passionate they have become. When I say "passionate" I mean that just about any major discussion concerning the company on social media lately has wound up resulting in a full-blown cyber argument.
If you want to really get Hammer fans going, mention a Blu-ray release of a Hammer movie...any Blu-ray release. Chances are half of the replies will say the particular Blu-ray in question is a magnificent piece of work, and the other half will say that the makers of the Blu-ray screwed up big time.
For many Hammer lovers the home video releases of the company's product are a source of frustration, especially so for American fans. It took years for several Hammer titles to get even a decent DVD release, and now film buffs are clamoring for those titles in HD. Most of the Hammer Blu-rays are Region B, and many in the U.S. either can't afford or just don't want to get a region-free Blu-ray player. There's a few Hammer Region A Blu-rays out there....a couple years ago Millennium brought out two fine Region A releases with FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN and DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS. This led to hopes that Millennium would follow up with more Hammer product geared for the American market, but so far they have not.
Even if you live in North America and you do own a region-free player, you may still be mystified in trying to figure out what Hammer Blu-rays to get. Ask any five self-styled "experts" on Hammer movies about a certain Blu-ray and you will likely get five different answers. You'll also probably get five different opinions on the visual quality of the disc, and on whether the aspect ration is correct (I've actually seen people threaten one another on the internet over the "proper" aspect ration of a certain Hammer film). What gets me about these experts is that many of them were not even born when most of the Hammer product was released in theaters.
Warner Brothers owns the U.S. home video rights to several of Hammer's most famous and greatest films. For years fans have hoped that Warners would start putting out this Hammer product on Blu-ray. Finally Warners has with the recent release of HORROR CLASSICS VOLUME ONE, a set featuring THE MUMMY, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED.
I have a long time personal relationship with these films. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED I first saw on Svengoolie in the mid 1980s. THE MUMMY and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA I first saw on the American TV network TBS--back in the 1980s TBS would actually show Hammer movies in prime time.
I taped these movies off of TV broadcasts--and of course they were edited, and the prints looked horrible, and they were not in widescreen. I bought all of these films on VHS...and when each of them came out on DVD, I bought them again. The Warner Hammer DVDs hold up rather well--some say that these DVDs still look better than some of their Region B Blu-ray counterparts. The Warner Hammer DVDs are also still widely available, due to the fact that Warners has re-released and re-packaged them almost as many times as Universal has re-released all their classic monster movies. I bet if you go over to your local WalMart or Target you can find a cheap Warner Hammer DVD set.
How do the four films look on this Blu-ray set? In my opinion THE MUMMY looks the most impressive, despite the fact that it is the oldest of the quartet. (I think that has to do more with the cinematography of Jack Asher and the staging of director Terence Fisher more than anything else.) DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE looks brighter than I have ever seen it before, and that might be a plus for some, and a minus for others (the supposed nighttime scenes in this movie don't look very night -like). Both FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA look a bit better than the DVD versions...but not, I feel, especially so. (Once again, I must point out this is my personal feeling on the matter. I don't presume to know how these movies are supposed to look.)
As for the aspect ratios, the framing appears fine to me for the most part...there's some scenes here and there in the entire set that look a bit tight, but overall I don't believe it is a big problem. What I really took most from this set was how much better the movies sounded. The audio quality on all four is fuller and richer than I've ever heard any of them being before. I noticed background noises such as, for example, the rustle of Veronica Carlson's skirts in FMBD. (By the way, my FMBD DVD had a slight static noise on the main soundtrack. That is eliminated on the FMBD Blu-ray.)
As for the extras...well, there are no extras (except a trailer for each particular film). One of the main highlights of the Region B Hammer Blu-rays is the copious amount of extra material for each disc. The Warner Hammer DVDs didn't have any extras either, and one would assume that as an incentive to get fans to double-dip, the Blu-rays would have featured something. I have to consider this a sore spot. Veronica Carlson, who plays the female lead in half the films on the set, regularly graces movie conventions with her presence, and I'm sure she would have been more than happy to take part in an audio commentary, or at least a ten-minute on-camera interview. The four films on this set are some of the most famous Hammer ever made--they should have been put into some sort of historical perspective.
Now, the big question is....is this set worth buying? I got the set for about $40, which averages out to $10 a disc. If you don't own any of these films already, I would say definitely go ahead and buy it. If you know someone who is just discovering Hammer, or you know someone who you want to discover Hammer, this is a perfect starter set. It contains two appearances by Peter Cushing, three appearances by Christopher Lee, two appearances by Veronica Carlson, three appearances by Michael Ripper, and two directorial efforts by Terence Fisher.
If you are a Hammer fanatic, you no doubt own all of these films already, and you more than likely have bought them in multiple formats. Overall, this set is an upgrade. It's a nice set....but, I wouldn't say you have to drop everything and get it. It's not like the Warner Hammer DVDs were of subpar quality. There are some who might just choose to wait and see if they can get it later at a lower price....and that's fine.
On the other hand, if Warners had included some informative commentaries, or some interviews with surviving cast members, then I would have said it was a must buy. These are cult genre films with a specific core fandom, and that fandom expects something more than the usual bare-bones release.
I have to mention that all four of these films are also available separately on Blu-ray. If you want to limit yourself to a single title, I would purchase THE MUMMY before any of the others.
Once again, I'd like to point out that I am not saying you should not buy this set. It is a worthy purchase--I just think it could have been even better. I've seen some bloggers say that if you criticize this set in any way, Warners won't come out with a HORROR CLASSICS VOLUME TWO--in other words, the fans "owe" it to Warners to support this set wholeheartedly. I find that kind of thinking ridiculous--I don't owe any home video company anything, except my honest opinion. Of course I want to see a Volume Two with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. But consider this.....the name of this Blu-ray set is not HAMMER HORROR CLASSICS....it is HORROR CLASSICS. If there is a Volume Two, it may not contain any Hammer films whatsoever.
Monday, October 19, 2015
With the passing of Sir Christopher Lee earlier this year, one expects several tributes to come in honor of the legendary screen icon. Eric McNaughton's WE BELONG DEAD magazine more than capably fills the definition of a tribute in the form of a 100-page special edition fully dedicated to the man and his films.
Edited by McNaughton and designed by Steve Kirkham, WE BELONG DEAD #17 is a full-color spectacular, with numerous movie stills, poster images, and Lee-inspired artwork. The articles within reflect upon the entire length and breadth of Lee's magnificent career. Thankfully not all the movies discussed are the "usual suspects"--we get looks at such titles as NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, and THE TERROR OF THE TONGS. Even the controversial JINNAH is examined with Tony Earnshaw's interview with director Jamil Dehlavi.
Troy Howarth contributes an informative (and much needed) essay on Christopher Lee's Continental (European) horrors, a group of films I feel has not been given enough analysis. Matt Gemmell Robertson shares what it was like for a Lee aficionado to actually meet the Great Man. And Darrell Buxton writes a small summary of Lee's musical output.
The issue features an eclectic and wide-ranging series of articles, and that makes it all the more impressive. Combined with the superb layout of stills and posters, and the fine artwork (check out the photos of the front and back covers in this post), WE BELONG DEAD #17 winds up being a worthy keepsake for any admirer of Christopher Lee. The issue is so well done that I can't help but feel that there should be further WBD special issues in the future (the possibilities are endless).
For ordering information go to www.webelongdead.co.uk
Monday, October 12, 2015
A number of films starring cult Western legend Lee Van Cleef have been released on home video in the last few years--films such as THE BIG GUNDOWN, DAY OF ANGER, and BARQUERO. Now Kino has come out with two more movies featuring the gaunt-faced gunman. According to the outstanding DVD Drive-In website, these titles--CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER--were both produced by the same team behind the great Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee Euro-horror flick HORROR EXPRESS. Let's first look at CAPTAIN APACHE.
CAPTAIN APACHE shows its strange cinema credentials from the very beginning. The title song is sung by none other than Lee Van Cleef!! Well, actually, he talk-sings it...which makes me wonder what Van Cleef could have done as Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY. Anyway, while this "song" is going on, we see a montage of scenes from the movie itself--it's like watching a trailer for the film, during the film.
After this auspicious start we are introduced to Van Cleef as Captain Apache. Van Cleef's character is never really given a proper name in the story, unless I missed it somehow. Most of the other characters here give the Captain the rather politically incorrect sobriquet of "Red Ass"--and they do it to his face, no less. Apparently this is supposed to be some type of running gag, which tells you much about the quality of this film.
Why Captain Apache is an officer in the U.S Cavalry is never explained--the screenwriters must have felt that having a Native American inhabit this role would be interesting, but this isn't the type of movie that would take advantage of such a dichotomy. To make him look more "Indian", Van Cleef is fitted out with a bad toupee and what looks like about a gallon of spray-on tan. The actor is also without his usual mustache.
The Captain is investigating the murder of a prominent Indian Commissioner. The only lead is the Commissioner's last words--"April Morning". Just about everyone who knows something about the phrase winds up getting killed off soon after the Captain encounters them. Eventually the Captain uncovers a conspiracy of national proportions.
Despite the expectations one would have, CAPTAIN APACHE is not a typical Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western. Van Cleef spends more time questioning people here than shooting them--he doesn't rack up nowhere near the body count he usually does in his other films. Not only does Van Cleef get to sing, he also gets to have a kind-of romance with Carroll Baker, who plays a mysterious dance hall madam. At one point Van Cleef even strips down to a loincloth and gets to show that even though he was 46 when this film was made, he was still in fantastic shape. In both CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER Van Cleef plays the opposite of his usual "Colonel Mortimer" roles, and that may be the main reason the actor decided to star in the two films (I certainly hope he didn't pick them for their scripts).
At 94 minutes, CAPTAIN APACHE is a bit too long for its rather thin plot. A lot of the scenes appear to be nothing more than padding--whenever Van Cleef picks up a new lead, it winds up being a dead end. There's one off-the-wall sequence in which the Captain is forced to take a potion concocted by an old native witch, and this causes him to have a "vision" concerning the Indian Commissioner's death. Among the supporting cast are veterans such as Stuart Whitman (who goes out of his way to make sure everyone in the audience knows he's the bad guy), and Percy Herbert, who is a long way here from his roles in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.
During the end credits Van Cleef gets to sing again--and this time it's not talk-singing. The song is "April Morning", referring to the plot of the film. Those interested should go on YouTube and experience Van Cleef's CAPTAIN APACHE set list for themselves--there's no way I can do them justice by attempting to describe them. ("I've gotta daaaaaatttteeee with an April Morning.....")
CAPTAIN APACHE was co-written by longtime Hollywood screenwriter Phillip Yordan and directed by Alexander Singer, who had a long career in American television. Needless to say, Sergio Leone didn't have much to worry about from this film.
Kino's Blu-ray of CAPTAIN APACHE is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. The picture quality is decent at best, but considering the number of public domain copies of this title floating around, it is doubtful there is a better transfer available. There are no extras, except a couple trailers for other Kino releases featuring Lee Van Cleef.
I bought both CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER from Amazon at $11.50 each, which is around what these Blu-rays should be worth. I certainly wouldn't get them at a price over $20. These movies are for hard-core Lee Van Cleef fans, or people like me who spend too much money on weird obscure cinema.
Sunday, October 4, 2015
In my last post I discussed ROOM 237. One of the main points in this feature was that the continuity errors in Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING were not just mistakes--they had some sort of "meaning". I wasn't all that impressed with that argument, but I was surprised to learn about some of the errors in THE SHINING, especially the fact that some of them are rather blatant.
I've never been very good at catching continuity errors and gaffes in movies and TV shows. The main reason is simple--I'm actually trying to pay attention to the story. I realize that in the 21st Century that concept is a bit difficult to grasp. I've always felt that if you are watching a movie and you are constantly picking out mistakes and flubs, the movie must be really bad or really boring, or....you are not watching what you are supposed to be watching.
If you are reading this you probably know someone who is good at the "catching flubs" game. You know what type of person I'm talking about--the person who will start jumping up and down whenever they spot a "mistake". The mistake is usually so minor that 99.5% of all viewers would never notice it, but the flub spotter invariably acts as if he or she has discovered a giant horde of lost Nazi gold.
These flub spotters also like to brag about their findings, as if their special talent makes them more clever than the talent involved in making the film. I've come to find that those who are flub spotters are usually not true film buffs. A film buff is concerned about more important things than if a scratch on an actor's arm moved half an inch between scenes.
If you are someone who appreciates film, you know that watching something with a flub spotter is a painful experience--almost as painful as viewing a movie with someone who has no imagination. ("That looks fake!!" Well, guess what, genius....movies are fake.) Knowing about film flubs, in my opinion, doesn't give you some sort of secret knowledge...it just helps ruin the suspension of disbelief.
I'll give you an example. Last year a woman and I were watching VERTIGO on Blu-ray. During one of the scenes in Scotty's apartment, my lady friend said, "His TV is in a different place than before!" Now, I've seen VERTIGO dozens of times, enough times that I almost know it frame by frame. I never noticed that Scotty's TV moved--and quite frankly, I didn't want to know that it moved. This information did not impress me--it annoyed me, because I know that the next time I watch VERTIGO, I'll be keeping an eye on the TV set. And that does nothing to help my appreciation for the film.
There are hundreds of web sites dedicated to pointing out movie flubs. I've never been on them, because...what's the point? Finding out movie flubs is kind of like finding out how stage magic ticks are done. You may feel smarter for having this knowledge, but it also severely lessens whatever entertainment value you might get.
Just about every time a big blockbuster movie comes out, an article will appear on the internet detailing the "many flubs" in the picture. These articles seem to suggest that because there are mistakes, the big blockbuster movie isn't as great as people think it is. Fact is, if you had enough time on your hands, you could go through any movie and pick out numerous errors. Movies are made by human beings, and human beings makes mistakes. The bigger and more expensive the movie, the more people will be hired to work on it. Some productions have a crew member list running into the thousands. The more people that are involved, the more chances there are of an error. This doesn't mean the movie is bad, or sloppily made. The original STAR WARS had mistakes, THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy has mistakes--does that take away from the greatness of the product?
A person who watches a movie just to pick out mistakes is like a person reading a novel for the sole purpose of finding incorrect sentence structure. I realize that some movie errors are so obvious you can't help but notice them--such as the urban legend of all those supposed sword & sandal epics that have extras wearing wristwatches. But if you come out of a theater and the only thing that is on your mind is a continuity gaffe, you're not seeing the forest for the trees. It takes creativity and imagination to make films--and I believe it takes creativity and imagination to appreciate them as well.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
ROOM 237 is not so much a documentary as it is an examination of the supposed "meaning" of Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of THE SHINING. The result is a fascinating exercise--a film geek's dream, if you will--but there were a couple times I couldn't help but laugh out loud.
About a half-dozen theories are presented on what THE SHINING is really about. Among the theories are one claiming that Stanley Kubrick was commenting on the United States' wars against the Native Americans, another claims that THE SHINING is a metaphor for the Holocaust, and another says that the movie is Kubrick's way of admitting that he was involved in creating fake Moon landing footage for NASA!
The faces of the theorists are never shown on camera, but director Rodney Ascher allows us to hear their voices as they state their cases. You may disagree with the commentators, but those involved are serious in their beliefs, and they do make a number of intriguing points and observations. They also manage to point out a number of things about THE SHINING that I personally never would have noticed on my own.
I do have to say, however, that one reason I wouldn't have noticed some of those "things" about THE SHINING is because I wouldn't have been looking for them. I'm not one of those people who go out of their way to look for hidden motifs or continuity errors. That's because I'm actually trying to watch the movie. A number of continuity gaffes are brought up in ROOM 237, and the commentators insist that these gaffes have to have some sort of meaning, simply because Stanley Kubrick was Stanley Kubrick. A brilliant filmmaker like Kubrick wouldn't have allowed such mistakes to happen now...would he?? No matter how much money, or talent, is involved in making a film, human beings are going to make mistakes.
The constant obsession over continuity errors, or over what may be hanging on a wall in the corner of a set, seems more to me like overreaching than exhaustive analysis. There's an old expression--"If you look for something hard enough, you'll find it." In other words, if you are convinced that a movie has a "special meaning", you will interpret everything you see to fit your assertions. Film geeks are notorious for over-analyzing content to the point of exhaustion--I'm as guilty of this myself as much as anybody. Any film, whether it be THE SHINING or the latest Adam Sandler feature, can be looked at a million different ways by a million different people.
Fact is, you could easily give the ROOM 237 treatment to every movie ever made. If I wanted to, I could come up with all sorts of subtexts for even the most boring of pictures--but that wouldn't mean that what I came up with had any merit.
My personal feeling is that the theories advanced in ROOM 237 are just that--theories. The one that I would automatically dismiss out of hand is the "Kubrick made fake moon footage for NASA" theory. I don't buy that at all for one simple reason--Kubrick was the ultimate iconoclast. There's no way I could imagine him helping the U.S. government lie, even if they offered him a bunch of money to do it.
If you are a Kubrick aficionado, or you love THE SHINING, you should see ROOM 237. There is so much footage from THE SHINING in ROOM 237 that it is kind of like seeing a alternate version of the Kubrick picture. ROOM 237 also uses scenes from just about every other Stanley Kubrick production, along with movies such as John Ford's DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and F. W. Murnau's FAUST. Whether you will look at THE SHINING in a new way after seeing ROOM 237 is totally up to you. Sometimes a missing chair is just a missing chair, and a picture on a wall is just a picture on a wall.
One of the reasons that Stanley Kubrick is considered such a legendary filmmaker is that all of his movies--2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BARRY LYNDON, LOLITA, etc.--can endlessly be debated and discussed. There's no real right or wrong way to define a Kubrick film, including THE SHINING. If ROOM 237 reminds us of anything, it is that Stanley Kubrick left a body of work that will be studied and argued about for years to come.